Distinguished Harris Lecture
2015-2016 Distinguished Harris Lecture
Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Sianne Ngai specializes in American literature, literary and cultural theory, and feminist studies. Her books are Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012), winner of the MLA James Russell Lowell Prize and the PCA/ACA Ray and Pat Browne award for Best Reference or Best Primary Source Work; and Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005). Sections of both books have been translated into Swedish, Italian, German, and Slovenian.
Her new book in process, Theory of the Gimmick, explores the "gimmick" as encoding a relation to labor (the gimmicky artwork irritates us because it seems to be working too hard to get our attention, but also not working hard enough), and as the inverted image of the modernist "device" celebrated by Victor Shklovsky. While both are essentially artistic techniques that perform the reflexive action of "laying bare" the means by which their effects are produced, in one case this action gives rise to a negative aesthetic judgment while it becomes a bearer of high aesthetic value in the other. Extending the focus in Ngai's second book on the historical significance of the rise of equivocal aesthetic categories (such as the merely 'interesting') and with an eye to the special difficulties posed by the very idea of an aesthetics of production (as opposed to reception), Theory of the Gimmick explores the uneasy mix of attraction and repulsion produced by the gimmick across a range of forms specific to western capitalism. These include fictions by Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, Gertrude Stein, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, and Henry James; twentieth-century poetic stunts; the video installations of contemporary artist Stan Douglas; reality television; and the novel of ideas.
Ngai was a recipient of a 2007-08 Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and in 2014-15 was a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin, Germany. She joined the faculty at the Cornell School for Criticism and Theory in the summer of 2014.
The Distinguished Harris Lecture, free and open to the public, is made possible by the generous support of the Harris Lecture Fund.