Friday, February 13, 2015

Reading Cuteness: Another question

What does cuteness do to the feminine subject?  This is not just about consumerism; it is about the agency of looking.  Just as the "male gaze" is implicit in most porn, is the "female gaze" implicit in kitten memes?  


I am *so* applying to this conference:  CFP: Hello Kitty and International Relations.

Join me, fellow scholars?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Reading Cuteness: a governing hypothesis

Reading cuteness is a competency, not a deficit. However, because it has long been considered a
deficit, we lack--as Hilary Bergen observes in this astute piece on Joanna Newsom--"a unique aesthetic vocabulary for these kinds of artistic value judgments." 

Back to work.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cuteness and the Question of Anachronism

Emily Dickinson never used the word "cute," at least not in writing. The word was not common parlance--and when it was used, it implied sharpness or cleverness, rather than adorableness.  So does it even make sense to read her poetry as cute?  And to press the question, an even more extreme case can be found in the poetry of Edward Taylor, Dickinson's seventeenth-century precursor, who is also (to my mind) quite cute. If it's potentially anachronistic to call Dickinson's work cute, it seems almost willfully presumptuous to find cuteness in Taylor, even when he uses duck imagery: "Let Conscience Bibble in it with her Bill." And yet, I would argue that competent readers of Dickinson and Taylor can and should cultivate a strong cuteness response, to ducks and to poetry.  Indeed, perhaps precisely because the concept (with its low-culture kitschy connotations) was unavailable to them, both poets repeatedly express (in their poetry) and tap (in their readers) the cuteness response, using it in ways that are broader and more fluid than our current understanding of cuteness permits. To riff on the argument of Foucault's History of Sexuality: surely before there was cuteness, people could experience cute babies and (to generalize) cute objects and cute words, just as before there was homosexuality people could experience same-sex attraction.  After all, like sexual attraction, the cuteness response is not just a cultural category but a drive.  Moreover, perhaps the distaste that many elite scholars feel for cuteness is itself an historically-specific limitation, related to our experiences with the shameless manipulations of the advertising industry.  In other words, and again to draw on Foucault, maybe because Dickinson and Taylor were not embedded in our own hypercommodified culture--a culture that talks endlessly about cuteness in ways that are both repetitive and disciplinary--they were able to "play" more freely with the cuteness response in their poetry.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cuteness in Theory: Siane Ngai (2)

Ngai's article, "On the Cuteness of the Avant-Garde," appeared in Critical Inquiry 31:4 (Summer 2005) and was later incorporated into her book.  A few thoughts on the article version ...

  • Ngai implicitly addresses my earlier question, to wit, whether she herself believes cuteness to be trivial. The answer is a resounding no.  Cuteness is marginalized, she argues, but its very marginalization indexes its power as an aesthetic category. This sounds like academic doublespeak, but her whole essay is devoted to showing how cuteness works through and from its low status-position.
  • Ngai "black-boxes" the science of cuteness and chooses to focus exclusively on its modern mediation via commodities and artworks.  This makes sense--she's interested in aesthetics, and can't go down other rabbit holes--but it also limits the scope of her claims.  She rightly situates cuteness as as a newer, post-1850 aesthetic category (like luscious or wacky) but fails to stress that (unlike luscious or wacky) cuteness is also an ancient instinct.  However it may be mediated or marginalized, cuteness is imperative to survival.  Cuteness, like sexiness, is (I think) therefore in a special category that makes its aesthetic properties function differently than they would if it were simply a novel sales technique or art gimmick or poetry trope.
  • That said, this article is a tour de force and certainly one of the founding documents of cuteness studies.  Ngai begins by using a frog bath sponge to illustrate how commercial cuteness "depends on a softness that invites physical touching, or, to use a more provocative verb, fondling" (815). She suggests that the formal properties of cute objects--smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy-- generate affective responses that are simultaneously protective and aggressive. 
  • This mixed response (in which squeezing can quickly turn to strangling) is related to the exaggerated power differentials that cuteness inhabits.  The gazing subject always experiences a flush of power when faced with the cute object, but the object itself also retains some power, since cuteness makes demands: notice me, play with me, care for me, touch me.  Ngai notes that, in Gertrude Stein (and elsewhere) the power of cuteness overwhelms language; responses to cuteness are often nonsensical or preverbal: aww.  She concludes that cuteness "might be described as an aesthetic experience that makes language more vulnerable to deformation--but also, transformation" (831).
  • Interestingly, Ngai notes the central role of anthropomorphism to cuteness, and proposes that prosopopoeia might be seen as the "master trope" of cuteness. On p. 832 she quotes Paul de Man: "Prospopoeia [is] the fiction of an apostrophe to a ... voiceless entity, which posits the possibility of the latter's reply and confers upon it the power of speech.  Voice assumes mouth, eye, and finally face[.]"  To impose a face on an inanimate object is often to make that object into a maimed or inadequate version of a human, like the sponge frog.  This is a dominating gesture; we can't symbolically render the cute object as our equal because its cuteness is predicated in part on our power over it.
  • Here's a big leap: towards the end of her essay, Ngai speculates that modern poetry, in particular, bears a relationship to "the cute" because it is small in so many ways: in terms of audience, in terms of cultural impact, and often on the page as well.  Turning to Adorno, she argues that this cuteness is a sign of self-reflexive awareness; that "cuteness" in modern poetry (the ultimate autonomous art, because it is so disconnected from the economy) essentially marks and theorizes its powerlessness.
  • Schnell, schnell! I can't wait to get back to thinking about how this plays out in Emily Dickinson.    One thing Ngai doesn't address, but that I think is important, is the short and fragile shelf-life of cuteness:  something can be cute at first, then quickly become irritating or disgusting.  This makes it non-narrative; in poetry, it generates an affectively loaded brief pause and then disintegrates.  "Nothing cute can stay," as Robert Frost did not put it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How Cute is Emily Dickinson?: Thoughts sparked by Barton Levi St. Armand

Exploring Emily Dickinson's cuteness is one of my ongoing projects.  As we "speak," I am reading the chapter titled "American Grotesque: Dickinson, God, and Folk Forms" from Barton Levi St. Armand's still-unsurpassed 1986 critical study, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture.  A few preliminary thoughts on cuteness in ED:
  • Reviewing the concrete rules of cuteness on a commercial website, one can extrapolate a few features beyond the classic kindenschema (baby face) described by Konrad Lorenz.  Cuteness plays with proportion; it is especially engaged with degrees of smallness; it loves paws (and the word paw); it exhibits vulnerability; and it is often concerned with animals imitating humans or children imitating adults.  All of these qualities interest ED.
  • It's necessary to remind ourselves how verbal and visual cuteness work differently.  Visual cuteness--like porn--bypasses the intellect to trigger archaic instincts.  Verbal cuteness, because it involves language, is more subtle and more flexible.  A poet can use cuteness as a tactic in one or two lines, triggering affective reactions in the reader, without making her entire poem vapidly adorable.  I think Dickinson uses cuteness as a flashpoint tactic, not as a consistent mode.  
  • I should admit that Dickinson would not have used the word "cute" in the contemporary American sense; the word was not common parlance in the 1860s, and when it was used, it meant something akin to "clever" or "piquant."  That said, ED also would not have used the terms "sexy" or even "erotic."  And yet, like eroticism (which has been much discussed by ED scholars), cuteness indexes a complex of affective triggers and responses that can be very powerful. Just as she deploys eroticism quite frequently, so too does she deploy cuteness, including and perhaps especially in her poems that wrestle with religious or spiritual topics.
  • Finally (and this is controversial and deserves its own post, so I can mention it only briefly here) the cuteness response is subjective, so not everyone will react to ED's images in the same way. Both anecdotal experience and scientific studies agree that the cuteness response is stronger in (most) women than in (most) men.  I write as a female reader with a strong cuteness response myself; I also suspect that the reason cuteness (but not sexiness) carries the stigma of triviality or even stupidity stems from its connection to women's subjective experience.
SO, on to St. Armand.  
  • St. Armand begins his chapter with a visual image of  a giant cat face. Perhaps because his work predates that of Lori Merish, he does not explicitly link the grotesque to the cute, but this cat (like Dodgson's Cheshire cat, and like modern proliferating internet cat memes) clearly embodies both. St. Armand remarks:  "Just as carpenter Gothic revels in the fanciful and the piquant, and just as the grotesque encompasses a ludicrous or comic element, so is the full picture of Dickinson's religious consciousness not without its quality of what her sister-in-law, according to Bianchi, identified as 'the impish' and what the poet herself called (in reference to a rare display of her father's humor) 'a little excess of Monkey!' The same qualities of the vernacular, the grotesque, and the comic can be found in a remarkable American primitive painting of about the year 1840." This image, St. Armand suggests, can serve as "an appropriate analog of the unique God-consciousness manifested in Dickinson's poetry" (163).
  • In the face of a Cat-God, Dickinson imagines herself as a mouse.  St. Armand quotes: "Snug in seraphic Cupboards/To nibble all the day,/While unsuspecting Cycles/Wheel solemnly away!" This illustrates one example of how Dickinson deploys cuteness.  The first two lines use numerous verbal cuteness tactics: the cupboard is seraphic (a mix of the grand and the small); the mouse is snug, emphasizing its miniaturism and its need to elicit caretaking; and it nibbles on (human) scraps.  The reader's affective cuteness-response is activated, only to be undermined by unsuspecting Cycles; the mouse's bid to be nursed, played with, or even noticed might succeed with the reader but its cuteness fails to touch the divine.
  • Perhaps then ED's cuteness is especially effective when it evokes a double response:  a sympathetic (perhaps implicitly female) reader wants to attend, to care, to play; while a remote (and of course implicitly male) God fails or refuses to be moved.
  • So, provisionally:  cuteness is a tactic that might succeed with ED's readers but that fails with God--just as we might oooh and awww over a nibbling mouse, but the cat will eat it.  I don't think this easy formulation works with all of ED's cute poems, but it works with some.  More on this later ... it's especially worth complicating because that primitive 1840 cat, while grotesque, has elements of cuteness itself: is is, after all disproportionate and neotenous.