Ngai, Sianne

Assigned: Ngai, Sianne. From “Introduction” to Ugly Feelings (2641-50). Also read the editors’ introduction (2638-40).

From Ugly Feelings (2005)

From Introduction

1. On 2641-42 (“This book presents a series…”), Sianne Ngai refers to Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the Scrivener, famous for his puzzling all-purpose refrain, “I prefer not to.” How does this allusion help her describe the predicament of “autonomous” literature and art in a busy, specialized world? How, too, does the Bartleby allusion gesture towards art and literature’s potential significance for reflection on real-life political problems in the age of post-industrial capitalism?

2. On 2642-43 (“Each of the feelings explored…”), Ngai enumerates the “ugly feelings” that form the object of her studies. Which emotions does she mention, and what is distinctive about them when taken together? How, according to Paolo Virno, whom Ngai quotes, are such feelings interwoven into the fabric of late capitalism’s workplace regimes and expectations? Why does that matter—that is, in what sense does Ngai, with her reference to Virno, begin her exploration of what use these eminently non-therapeutic and negative feelings may have for critics trying to understand the social and political environments in which we live today?

3. On 2643-44 (“… Nothing could be further from Fredric Jameson’s…”), Ngai elaborates on the initial point she has drawn from Paolo Virno concerning the potential usefulness of “ugly feelings” (her term). In what way might this spate of negative and ambivalent feelings prove valuable as a “diagnostic” (2643 bottom) tool for theorists who are trying to understand our own times, even if they can’t provide solutions to our problems?

4. On 2644-45 (“While this book makes a similar…”), how is Ngai’s (and others’) concentration on certain ambivalent and negative feelings an expansion beyond the traditional emotions that are supposedly available only in art, beyond the “category of ‘aesthetic emotions’” (2644) that goes all the way back to the philosophy of Aristotle and forward to the Critique of Judgment by Immanuel Kant and on to modern theorists such as Susanne Langer and Ngai herself, among others? What is the implication of her colorful description at the end of the relevant passage that she deals with “rats and possums rather than lions…” (2645)?

5. On 2645-47 (“The equivocality of the Bartlebyan aesthetic…”), Ngai discusses the peculiar nature of the feelings that are the focus of her investigations. In what vital sense are these feelings different from, say, Aristotle’s dyad of “pity and terror” (see the relevant passage in Poetics,Leitch 109-11) the emotions that he says a drama must rouse and drive towards catharsis? How does irony prove to be a useful term in explaining the complexity of Ngai’s favorite emotions? Why, according to Ngai, does the literary canon of so-called great works tend not to embrace texts in which “ugly feelings” predominate?

6. On 2647-49 (“* * * The question of feeling’s objective…”), Ngai alludes to the debate about whether feeling is properly understood as having an objective or subjective basis. Why is this debate important to Ngai’s investigation of “ugly feelings,” and why is the work of the structuralist narratologist Gérard Genette important to her in this regard? Moreover, why did philosophy and literary theory have so much trouble dealing with the realm of feeling or emotion for so long—what difficulties does this realm pose for philosophical and theoretical discourse, especially of the more “materialist” kinds?

7. On 2649-50 (“While strong arguments have…”), Ngai closes our selection by claiming of “ugly feelings” that their very unsuitability for “forceful or unambiguous action” (2650) is in fact what is most valuable about them. What does she appear to mean by this assertion, based on these pages and the rest of the selection you have read? If “ugly feelings” do not help us solve our social and political problems, and they don’t tell us much about literature’s “great works,” what use are they?

8. General question: Sianne Ngai’s work in Ugly Feelings is not geared towards the more glamorous or grandiose claims set forth by literary theory, with its frequent insistence on its own direct relevance to the sociopolitical scene. She does a quieter kind of work, one that may remind us of W. H. Auden’s words about poetry in his elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making….” How do you conceive of the task of criticism and theory? At its best, what do you expect it to accomplish for you and other people interested in art and society?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake