"The fedora is not Monica Lewinsky’s sex-guerrilla beret made sweet with a bow, taking no prisoners with an infantile feminine twist. Nor is it Mary Tyler Moore throwing her beret to the sky—You’re gonna make it after all. We are not sure whether we’re going to make it, in a fedora."
If the double feature last night at the Spectacle taught us anything, it’s that we need more women, more heroic silliness (less subpoena envy), more costumes, more songs. Anyone who cares about occupations should really see Carry Greenham Home—or read Ann Snitow on the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp; and anyone who cares about feminist film should check out, and support, Women Make Movies.
The interesting seems more explicitly comparative than curiosity. The fact that we find things interesting only when they seem to differ from others of their type, points to the fact that we live in a world understood as fundamentally taxonomized. This doesn’t mean that it’s a world devoid of wonder or surprise—only one in which, as Mikhail Epstein notes, the unknown must be immediately related to what is already known. In fact, Epstein provocatively argues that the interesting is a way of explicitly using understanding to check wonder; or mitigating the “alterity of the object” with “reason’s capacity to integrate it”—like a scaled-down version of the two phases of the Kantian sublime. In any case, in its efforts to reconcile the individual with the generic, the interesting might be described as an explicit response to the modern routinization of novelty.
It’s also a response to what we might call the mediatization or informatization of reality—to the fact that “the observation of events throughout society now occurs almost at the same time as the events themselves” (as Niklas Luhmann put it). One sees this reflected in conceptual art’s fascination with its coextensiveness with publicity, and also in its fascination with systems, networks, and media.
Last night Willa & I spent most of dinner at el cholo talking about aesthetic categories and ways to evaluate art. It’s always scary-funny how easily that conversation lapses into a catalog of platitudes—about affect, perception, relativity, experience; but luckily Willa is much smarter than me about these things and so the conversation went elsewhere.
Our talk reminded me of a pet rant that I’d sort of lost fervor for, about the tyranny of the “interesting” as an aesthetic category. Labeling something “interesting” has always seemed to me like a stopgap for a perceived deficiency, either in the work (being not substantial enough to be anything but “interesting”; “interesting” as a free pass for something that doesn’t quite work, or as euphemism for “confusing” or “meaningless”) or in the viewer-observer (a lack of imagination/interpretive ingenuity, of thoroughness, of patience, of conviction). Once, after a frustrating afternoon in class with a hip professor about curating and relational aesthetics—in which the professor attempted to legitimate bad student work by misquoting foucault, talking about the post-human, and articulating what was “interesting” about the installation—Eli and I made a list of everything that was “interesting” in art—”interesting” amounting, at the end of the day, to a descriptive category.
Although “interesting” figures differently in Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic categories (she also uses the word “interesting” so much in describing her own work, which is funny!), it felt amazing to see “the interesting” validated as a category by someone who actually studies aesthetics. I think she’s very right about cuteness. Her best analysis comes out, though, when she talks about “zaniness”:
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.
It also makes so much sense, looking at Ngai’s arguments about the “interesting,” why “interesting” is such a dominant evaluative category right now. The mechanics of the “interesting” are so married to hype, to PR, and to marketing, in that “the interesting” demands justification and is constantly trying to seduce others into its conviction, often for ambiguous (obfuscated commercial?) reasons:
Can you elaborate on what you mean by the interesting’s “discursivity,” and how that connects to or helps bring out something about beauty?
Think of the ubiquity of the weak judgment in everyday conversation, and how it gets used to implicitly invite others to demand, in turn, that the person who has just proclaimed something interesting take the next step ofexplaining why. Also, consider this quotation from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, dominated by dialogue as the “novel of ideas” always tends to be: “If one was fundamentally interested in a thing, when one talked about it one could hardly help drawing others in, infecting them with it, and so creating an interest up to then not present or dreamed of. And that was worth a great deal more than catering to one already existent.” This moment from Mann’s novel, famously based on Adorno’s theoretical writings on music, is striking for several reasons. First, it underscores the performativity of the interesting. Judging something interesting is often a first step in actually making it so. Which is why there is an explicitlypedagogical dimension to the interesting. (Not accidentally, the speaker of the quotation is a piano teacher). Second, it highlights how our experience of something as interesting compels us to immediately talk about it. As if there could be no aesthetic experience of the interesting without the talk.
On January 11, 1944, in the midst of World War II, President Roosevelt spoke forcefully and eloquently about the greater meaning and higher purpose of American security in a post-war America. The principles and ideas conveyed by FDR’s words matter as much now as they did over sixty years ago, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center is proud to reprint a selection of FDR’s vision for the security and economic liberty of the American people in war and peace. (via)
“The Economic Bill of Rights”
Excerpt from President Roosevelt’s January 11, 1944 message to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Union
It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.