Cabinet Interview with Sianne Ngai

This isn’t something substantive, but rather it is a moment where I tell you video game and comic book people that you have to read this interview that Sianne Ngai did with Cabinet last year. Ngai writes on aesthetics in a really cool way, focusing on the marginal, non-extreme affects and emotions that are generated from aesthetic experiences. Here are some pull quotes that will force you to read the piece:

On video games and zaniness:

The dynamics of this aesthetic of incessant doing are thus perhaps best studied in the arts of live and recorded performance—dance, happenings, walkabouts, reenactments, game shows, video games. Yet zaniness is by no means exclusive to the performing arts. So much of “serious” postwar American literature is zany, for instance, that one reviewer’s description of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White—“a staccato burst of verbal star shells, pinwheel phrases, [and] cherry bombs of … puns and wordplays”—seems applicable to the bulk of the post-1945 canon, from Ashbery to Flarf; Ishmael Reed to Shelley Jackson.

I’ve got a more specific reading of post-Fordist or contemporary zaniness, which is that it is an aesthetic explicitly about the politically ambiguous convergence of cultural and occupational performance, or playing and laboring, under what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the new “connexionist” spirit of capitalism. As perhaps exemplified best by the maniacal frivolity of the characters played by Ball in I Love Lucy, Richard Pryor in The Toy, and Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, the zany more specifically evokes the performance of affective labor—the production of affects and relationships—as it comes to increasingly trouble the very distinction between work and play. This explains why this ludic aesthetic has a noticeably unfun or stressed-out layer to it. Contemporary zaniness is not just an aesthetic about play but about work, and also about precarity, which is why the threat of injury is always hovering about it.

Value judgment and aesthetics (this has particular weight to the “video games: smart?” debates that have been going on):

The act of professing aesthetic pleasure or displeasure, in and of itself, is not interesting to me. What is interesting is the complexity of the ways in which people then defend these judgments (which they feel just as strongly compelled to do). As Simon Frith aptly puts it, “Value judgments only make sense as part of an argument and arguments are always social events.” So in my comment above, I just was thinking in a general way about what John Guillory calls the “constitutive role of conflict for any discourse of value.” That said, the argument of my second book is that the commodity aesthetic of the cute, the performance-oriented aesthetic of the zany, and the informational and discursive aesthetic of the interesting have a unique and even indexical relation to the ways in which the subjects of late capitalism consume, labor, and exchange. Insofar as these socially binding processes are also, inevitably, sites and stakes of social struggle, the aesthetic categories featured in the book reflect these struggles, albeit in a highly indirect and mediated fashion.

Read the bloody thing right now. It is good for you.

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