Sianne Ngai, “Ugly Feelings”



Ngai calls her book ” a series of studies in the aesthetics of negative emotions, examining their politically ambiguous work in what T. W. Adorno calls the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity” 1. They follow on gaps and Spinoza’s “‘waverings of the mind’ that can either increase or diminish one’s power to act – and attend to the aesthetics of the ugly feelings that index these suspensions” 2. Interestingly, Ngai notes that Bartleby’s area is cordoned off by a screen (and is thus ‘ob-scene’ in Williams’ sense) 3.

“Art itself… is a relatively autonomous, more or less cordoned-off domain in an increasingly specialized and differentiated society. As Adorno’s analysis of the historical origins of this aesthetic autonomy suggests, the separateness from ’empirical society’ which art gains as a consequence of the bourgeois revolution ironically coincides with its growing awareness of tis inability to significantly change that society – a powerlessness that then becomes the privileged object of the newly autonomous art’s ‘guilty’ self-reflection. Yet one could argue that bourgeois art’s reflexive preoccupation with its own ‘powerlessness and superfluity in the empirical world’ is precisely what makes it capable of theorizing social powerlessness in a manner unrivaled by other forms of cultural praxis” 2.

(It would be interesting to compare this with bell hooks on the academy and also the humor of Woody Allen.) For Ngai, art is the site of study because art : society : : ugly feelings : subject 2. All Ngai’s affects – envy, anxiety, paranoia, irritation, animatedness, stuplimity – are “a mediation between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way… knotted or condensed… signs that not only render visible different registers of problem (formal, ideological, sociohistorical) but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner… allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action… the very effort of thinking the aesthetic and political together – a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society – is a prime occasion for ugly feelings” 3.

Still, these affects are marked by “an ambivalence that will enable them to resist, on the one hand, their reduction to mere expressions of class ressentiment, an on the other, their counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they highlight and condense,” even if Ngai’s interest is to use them in critically productive ways 3. “Capitalism’s classic affects of disaffection [insecurity, fear, anxiety –> flexibility, adaptibility, reconfiguration of self] are neatly reabsorbed by the wage system and reconfigured into professional ideals” 4. Versus Jameson’s argument for the waning of affect in postmodernity, Ngai argues that these affects are “perversely functional… the very lubricants of the economic system which they originally came into being to oppose” 4.

“In the transnational stage of capitalism that defines our contemporary moment, our emotions no longer link up as securely as they once did with the models of social action and transformation theorized by Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others under the signs of relatively unambiguous emotions like anger or fear… the sociopolitical itself has changed… calls upon a new set of feelings – ones less powerful… though perhaps more suited… for models of subjectivity, collectivity, and agency… a certain kind of historical truth” 5.

Ugly feelings can “expand and transform the category of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” – they are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release… [they] tend to interfere with the outpouring of other emotions” 6-7. Overall, Ngai is “calling for a more fluid reading across forms, genres and periods than is the prevailing norm in academic criticism today” 7. “In the tradition of Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, this method of disjunctive alignment is intended to allow the texts to become ‘readable in new ways’ and thus generate fresh examinations of historically tenacious problems” 8.

Ngai contends that there is “a special relationship between ugly feelings and irony, a rhetorical attitude with a decidedly affective dimension, if not a ‘feeling’ per se… an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling… that significantly parallels the doubleness on which irony, as an evaluative stance hinging on a relationship between the said and the unsaid, fundamentally depends. In their tendency to promote what Susan Feagin calls ‘meta-responses’… there is a sense in which ugly feelings can be described as conducive to producing ironic distance in a way that the grander and more prestigious passions, or even the moral emotions associated with sentimental literature, do not” 10. (Interesting to think about this and the death of ‘postmodern’ in favor of the word ‘hipster’ or ‘meta’ or ‘ironic’ as a distancing/fearful self-loathing.)

While Ngai’s texts “are drawn from both “high and mass culture, all are canonically minor… the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions” 11. (Does this ring true? Girls, Seinfeld, vs her anachronistic Beckett examples in stuplimity… Does it serve her argument about relevance?) Ngai is particularly observant of a “subjective/objective problematic” across her ugly feelings:

“Marked by this conversion of a polemical engagement with the objective world into a reflection of a subjective characteristic, the confusion over a feeling’s subjective or objective status that we have seen become internal to paranoia also seems internal to envy… both… contain… models of the problem that defines them. Even an ostensibly degree-zero affect like animatedness has a version of this… high-spiritedness… or a puppet-like state analogous to the assembly-line mechanization of the human body famously dramatized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. In the form of a dialectic of inside/outside, the subjective/objective problematic will likewise haunt Heidegger’s and Hitchcock’s strikingly similar conceptions of ‘anxiety,’ and will motivate the spatial fantasy of ‘thrownness’ that sustains the affect’s intellectual aura and prestige… between psychological interiors and bodily exteriors… similarly integral to the affect of irritation… its very liminality as an affective concept… its unusual proximity to a bodily or epidermal one (soreness…chafing) ” 21-2.

“The feelings in this study tend to be diagnostic rather than strategic, and to be diagnostically concerned with states of inaction in particular… The boundary confusions built into the structure of these feelings, whether in the form of inside/outside, self/world, or psyche/body, reappear in the aesthetic forms and genres they determine” 22.

“Genette’s unapologetically  subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment… in which a quality or value reflecting the negative or positive feeling inspired by an object’s appearance, in what amounts to a fundamentally subjective appraisal, is treated ‘as if’ it were one of the object’s own intrinsic properties. For Genette, who claims to out-Kant Kant by fully acknowledging the relativism Kant’s subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment attempted to sidestep (by asserting the claim for universality in the judgment itself), aesthetic judgment is the illusory objectification” 23.

“Feeling’s marginalization stemmed from its perceived incompatibility with ‘concrete’ social experiences [in the 70s and 80s, and in the 80s and 90s] (as Terada most fully examines) from its perceived incompatibility with poststructuralism’s skeptical interrogation of the category of experience itself” 25. [Raymond Williams may have been the first, in ‘structures of feeling,’ to argue for emotions as social constructs and experiences]

“The affect/emotion split originated in psychoanalysis for the practical purpose of distinguishing third-person from first-person representations of feeling, with ‘affect’ designating feeling described from an observer’s (analyst’s) perspective, and ’emotion’ designating feelings that ‘belong’ to the speaker or analysand’s ‘I.’ Yet Massumi and Grossberg have made claims for a stronger distinction, arguing not just that emotion requires a subject while affect does not, but that the former designates feeling given ‘funciton and meaning’ while the latter remains ‘unformed and unstructured'” 25.

Affective states are not narrativized or organized in response to interpretations of situations, says Grossberg, and Massumi claims that they remain unsequenced, undetermined compared to emotions. For Nussbaum, emotions are tied to action, whereas affects are less intentional – hence Ngai’s use of the term here. She claims you can be confused about why you’re irritated, but not enraged (though this seems debatable, given the history of American violence in fiction…)


Ngai wants to address the issue of tone, since a lack of awareness of it can mean that “purely subjective or personal experience turns artworks into [what Adorno calls] ‘containers for the psychology of the spectator'” 29.

“While there has been a conspicuous absence of attention to tone itself, critics have continued to rely heavily on the notion of a text’s global affect for the construction of substantive arguments about literature and ideology or society as a whole. The ‘euphoria’ Jameson ascribes to a cluster of late 20th-century artworks, for instance, is designed to do nothing less than advance his critique of postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism, in the same way that Walter Benjamin’s isolation of ‘a curious variety of despair’ in the Weimar poetry of Erich Kastner enabled him to diagnose a much broader ‘left-wing melancholy’ that, as Wendy Brown notes, extends just as problematically into our contemporary political discourses” 29.

Yet Ngai finds tone hard to define. She uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man, “a notably ‘talky’ text that offers a useful allegory of the very problem enabling tone to do its aesthetic work… how feeling slips in and out of subjective boundaries in a series of transactions involving the exchange of writing and money for affective goods” 31.


“The affect I call animatedness, for instance, will allow us to take the disturbingly enduring representation of the African-American as at once an excessively ‘lively’ subject and a pliant body unusually susceptible to external control and link this representation to the rhetorical figure of apostrophe (in which the speaker animates or ‘gives life’ to nonhuman objects by addressing them as subjects capable of repsonse, and, further, to connect these to a symptomatic controversy surrounding the televisual aesthetics of dimensional animation, a technique in which clay or foam puppets are similarly brought to ‘life’ as racialized characters by being physically manipulated and ventriloquized” 12.

Animation points to the production behind the stereotype – the energy and work required to animate a particular lively image 94. Rey Chow has argued this in “Postmodern Automatons” – “having one’s body and voice controlled by an invisible other… whose origins are beyond one’s individual grasp” 99. (Think of the horror film  – Creed and The Exorcist). Chow points to “film and television, as technologies of mass production, [that] uniquely disclose the fact that ‘the human body as such is already a working body automatized, in the sense that it becomes in the new age an automaton on which social injustice as well as processes of mechanization ‘take on a life of their own'” 99 (think Chaplin). In Stowe, Ngai contends, a similar manipulation is in place for the black characters in the author’s hands 100. She highlights how the show The PJs focuses humor on how institutional laxity translates into real hardship, exposing racism as a larger-than-sight problem 106.

In Invisible Man, the fascinating (to the narrator) animated doll is paralleled, though Ngai doesn’t mention it, by the narrator’s own experience as an “animated” being at the conference he’s invited to ostensibly as a speaker 116. “Thus as an affective spectacle that Garrison finds ‘thrilling,’ Stowe ‘impassioning,’ and Ellison’s narrator ‘obscene,’ animation calls for new ways of understanding the technologization of the racialized body as well as the uneasy differential between types and stereotypes… between ‘sure bets and bad business'” 125.


Ngai examines how envy functions along the identification/desire/difference spectrum for women – both in films such as Single White Female & All About Eve and in feminist debates and conversations themselves. “Envy is, in a sense, an intentional feeling that paradoxically undermines its own intentionality” 21.


“Though Larsen turns the black-authored literary text into a ‘stinging,’ ‘pricked,’ and ‘lacerated’ surface… Quicksand’s cutaneous affect explicitly questions this ‘visible epistemology of black skin’ by pushing its logic to an extreme… telling contrast… between the epidermal rawness of the feeling and perceiving African-American subject in the novel and the unbroken smoothness of the skin that is objectified in the novel – as if only looked-at black skin can be free of inflammation or soreness” 107 (soreness as irritation). These signify the novel’s “larger effort to distance itself from the sentimental tradition of mulatta fiction and its politics of compulsory sympathy, while also enabling the text to resist the imperative that productions by African-American artists fill in their blanks” 208. The novel also works against the “assumption that, in order to politiclaly or aesthetically matter, feelings must be located below the surface or ‘under the skin’… a longstanding tradition of confining feeling to internal spaces, as well as the moralized opposition between depth and surface used to distinguish feelings viewed as politically efficacious and adequate to their occasions, from those which are not” 208. 


Anxiety “comes to assume its prominent role in structuring the ‘philosophically stylized’ quests for truth, knowledge, and masculine agency fetured in Pierre, Vertigo, & Being and Time precisely as a way of rescuing the intellectual from his potential absorption in sites of asignificance or negativity. Moreover, the fantasy of thrownness [character as projectile] central to each representation of anxiety enables the intellectual to achieve a strategic form of distance without the fixed or constant positions on which our concept of distance ordinarily depends, since the sites from which the intellectual flees are either revealed as nonplaces lacking positive coordinates, or as feminine or discursive sites already subject to projection and displacement – sinking, retreating, or in the throw… anxiety emerges as a form of dispositioning that paradoxically relocates, reorients, or repositions the subject thrown – performing an ‘individualization’ (as Heidegger puts it) that restores and ultimately validates the trajectory of the analyzing subject’s inquiry… a ‘revolutionary uplift’ which anxiety’s projective character makes available to these intellectual subjects and which directs attention away [from sinking worlds and monstrous femininity]… codification as the male knowledge-seeker’s distinctive yet basic state of mind” (246).


“While Kant’s sublime involves a confrontation with the natural and infinite, the unusual synthesis of excitation and fatigue I call ‘stuplimity’ is a response to encounters with vast but bounded artificial systems, resulting in repetitive and often mechanical acts of enumeration, permutation, and combination, and taxonomic classification… comic exhaustion rather than terror” 36.

“Difference as what could be described as difference without a determinate value or ‘difference without a concept’ – which is one of the ways Deleuze defines repetition” 252 [reminds me of Kant’s free/non-purposive beauty] – “the problem of the self’s relationship to a particular kind of linguistic difference that does not yet have a concept assigned to it” 254.

In repetition, language seems beyond the production of the subject (Tod and Homer in Nathanael West). Repetition is also boredom, slowing down, thickness (Beckett, Stein). “When language thickens, it suffers a ‘retardation by weak links,’ slowed down by the absence of causal connectives that would propel the work forward” 256. (Is the logic of paranoia the same as the logic of faceting or even literary criticism? An expanding network of information in which everything must be integrated to a particular end…) For Ngai, this causes temporary paralysis, what Stein calls ” ‘open feeling,’ a condition of utter receptivity in which difference is perceived (and perhaps even ‘felt’) prior to its qualification or conceptualization,” asking how artists “engender” this 261 (seems deeply feminizing, then! not least in its duality, a hallmark of the feminine…)

“Though repetition, permutation, and seriality figure prominently as devices in aesthetic uses of tedium, practitioners have achieved the same effect through a strategy of agglutination – the mass adhesion or coagulation of data particles or signifying unites… the stupendous proliferation of discrete quanta held together by a fairly simple syntax or organizing principle… less mosaic than congealaic… the accumulation of visual ‘data’ induces a similar strain on the observer’s capacities for conceptually synthesizing or metabolizing information” 263.

For Ngai, the sublime is perhaps the originary ugly feeling, “being explicitly contrasted with the feelings of qualities associated with the beautiful… an observer’s response to things in nature of great or infinite magnitude (what Kant calls the mathematically sublime) or of terrifying might (Kant’s dynamical sublime” 265. In Kant, this “failure of the imagination” and “sense of physical inferiority” are resolved by alternating between repulsion and attraction, reason and the imagination, to ultimately find reason triumph over the concept 266. This seats the interaction firmly in the mind of the beholder, rather than the object.

“Boredom’es antithetical relation to both shock and serenity, the two competing affects of the Kantian sublime, actually underscores the oddly discrepant status of affective lack throughout Kant’s writings on sublimity… the apatheia [freeing] that Kant finds ennobling involves a calmness and neutrality that ultimately distinguishes it from the dissatisfied (and often restless)  mood of boredom” 269.

Ngai talks about Stein and others as creating texts “in which the reader’s or observer’s faculties become strained to their limits in the effort to comprehend the work as a whole, but the revelation of this failure is conspicuously less dramatic… does not confirm the self’s sense of superiority over the overwhelming or intimidating object” 270. (Think TV, the hysterical realist novel?) Stuplimity is “a concatenation of boredom and astonishment – a bringing together of what ‘dulls’ and what ‘irritates’ or agitates… reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality, as does Kant’s mathematical sublime, yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition” 271. Ngai links this to slapstick, with its “small subjects” and “big systems” 272. Like many of her examples, it seems bizarrely and unnecessarily anachronistic.

For Ngai, it seems these “agglutinations” work more like suture, causing boredom, than like faceting, confronting difference? “What stuplimity does not seem to involve is the kind of mesmerizing, hypnotic tedium aimed at the achievement of higher states of consciousness… Stuplimity also evades the kind of wholly anti-absorptive, cynical tedium often used to reflect the flattening effects of cultural simulacra… the first type of tedium is auratic or hypnotic, the effect of works in [the latter would be] glossy and euphoric” 278. Instead, stumplimity “relies on anti-auratic, anti-cyclical tedium” 281.

Ngai touches on depth as important to Kant’s sublime (Burke’s too – reminds me of Linda Williams on Avatar…), versus the “superficial and almost abject horizontality” of repetition 281. If in Stein we get “a body’s outline gone flaccid, having lost its original form,” (think Woolf or Kant on outline), we are open and alert and responsive in Stein to repetition with a difference 283. This “resisting being” seems similar, too, to Serpell’s “uncertainty” and Byatt’s “agnosticism.”

Ngai next discusses Jameson and his “relentless spatialization,” his claim for glossy flattening, and the waning of great affects and considerations of time 285. Jameson’s “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory,” Ngai argues, “lacks the slick and unifying glaze of most of Jameson’s other examples… in the slippage from ‘heaps of fragments’ to ‘the fragmentary’ (a slippage in which Jameson shifts his emphasis from a specific form to the kind of aesthetic practice that gives rise to it), what gets eclipsed… is the heap” 287. (If slick is suture, jagged is heap? Actually, no, faceting instead?) “If we follow the logic of Jameson’s passage, ‘coherence’ refer primarily to a preexisting concept or idea of order, dictating in advance how particles might be shaped or molded, rather than the activity by which particles are brought together in the first place” 289. “Stein’s description approaches ‘coherence’ as a process of creating form, rather than a value or ideal imposed on things made… it involves possibility… not just of new kinds, but of as yet unforeseen kinds in the future… becoming as varied in its process as the forms that it generates… new ‘consistencies’ are produced through the ‘mixing’ of others” 290.

Ngai goes on to give a lot of examples that seem not very much like heaps, and acknowledges that Jameson calls Stein and Beckett postmodernists, and she will too. Stein: “Sometimes many years of knowing some one pass before repeating of all being in such a one comes out clearly from them” 293. Does the “time spent to organize” imply a spatial organization of a temporal experience of reading? Is faceting in the mind itself a process of integrating textual surfaces? I’d like to think of stiff panels with flexible interstices forming a moving, crystalline, if empty, structure. “Unsightly heaping offers a strategy of what Stein might call a ‘little resistance’ for the postmodern subject, always already a linguistic being, hence always a small subject enmeshed in large systems… [Deleuze’s] ‘too-perfect attention to detail’ is the main strategy… [with artists who] exaggeratedly submit to structural laws in their work… going limp or falling down, among the bits and scraps of linguistic matter” 297. (Again, think of hysterical realism and postmodernism here.)


“The preference for the narrative stretch over a compression that ‘forces us to take in the entire story almost instantaneously’ [films that make discourse time longer than story time]… reflect the difference between the paranoia that suffuses the postwar film noir and the fear that drives classical tragedy; as a feeling without a clearly defined object, paranoia would logically promote a more ambient aesthetic, one founded on a temporality very different from the ‘suddenness’ central to Aristotle’s aesthetic of fear…. These uneventful moments mirror the general situation of obstructed agency that gives rise to all the ugly feelings I examine, allowing them to function as political allegories… What seems indeterminate here, however, is actually highly determined… what each moment produces is the inherently ambiguous affect of affective disorientation in general – what we might think of as a state of feeling vaguely ‘unsettled’ or ‘confused,’ or, more precisely, a meta-feeling in which one feels confused about what one is feeling… an affective state in its own right” 13.

All these thematizes the loss of the gaze, the transformation of subject into object. (Think about what this has to do with Jameson, space, faceting, fragmented subjectivity, hysterical realism, and seriality!)

“From Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic as a rhythmic, polysemous dimension of language with the potential to disrupt a phallocentric symbolic discourse, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome as an acentered network capable of undermining rigid and hierarchical structures, poststructural models of textuality emphasizing heterogeneity and invested in a politics of form do seem to demonstrate… not only that the developments of theory and poetry in the late 20th century have been complementary” but that poetry is especially suited for these language theories 307-8. Ngai ties this to the feminine being used as a means of describing the decentered, irrational subject of the late, versus the early, 20th century, as well as feminist critiques concerned with why subjecthood would be decentered at the moment women tried to claim it (re: bell hooks) 312. For Rita Felski, feminism endangers its own ends by engendering new dualities (here’s where my desire to have faceting escape duality could be good). The ‘always already’ of theory emphasizes a “linguistically and retroactively determined subject” 314.

“The amorphousness of definition can be viewed as precisely the political point… while the vague or amorphous definition of a ‘total system’ suggests a certain failure on the part of the subject to conceptualize a social whole, one could argue that it is only in such failures… that a conceivable totality manifests itself” 330. (Here interesting with faceting – never a reproduction of the whole, but a unique, productive failure of integration and conception.) “By ‘writing work’ that insistently foregrounds the subject’s inscription within the system she opposes, but also assumes this situation as the beginning point rather than an obstruction to critical intervention, Spahr stages the poet’s encounter with social totality as a negative affect per se… ‘As in theories of capital, realize this situation and see it as the beginning place for all current thinking or escaping'” 331. (This is again, like faceting, also like Oedipa Maas!)


Ngai points out that, like Adorno claims, as contentious as art gets, it is as “harmless” as Bartleby – it is separate 353. “Like animatedness, irritation, envy, anxiety, stuplimity, and paranoia – nonstrategic affects characterized by weak intentionality and characteristic of the situation of scriveners – disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully… [but disgust is] closer to the domain of political theory… in its intense and unambivalent negativity… an outer limit or threshold… preparing us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions” 354.


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