Ugly Feelings
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Ugly Feelings

Sianne Ngai

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Ugly Feelings

Sianne Ngai

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Envy, irritation, paranoia—in contrast to powerful and dynamic negative emotions like anger, these non-cathartic states of feeling are associated with situations in which action is blocked or suspended. In her examination of the cultural forms to which these affects give rise, Sianne Ngai suggests that these minor and more politically ambiguous feelings become all the more suited for diagnosing the character of late modernity.Along with her inquiry into the aesthetics of unprestigious negative affects such as irritation, envy, and disgust, Ngai examines a racialized affect called "animatedness, " and a paradoxical synthesis of shock and boredom called "stuplimity." She explores the politically equivocal work of these affective concepts in the cultural contexts where they seem most at stake, from academic feminist debates to the Harlem Renaissance, from late-twentieth-century American poetry to Hollywood film and network television. Through readings of Herman Melville, Nella Larsen, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Hitchcock, Gertrude Stein, Ralph Ellison, John Yau, and Bruce Andrews, among others, Ngai shows how art turns to ugly feelings as a site for interrogating its own suspended agency in the affirmative culture of a market society, where art is tolerated as essentially unthreatening.Ngai mobilizes the aesthetics of ugly feelings to investigate not only ideological and representational dilemmas in literature—with a particular focus on those inflected by gender and race—but also blind spots in contemporary literary and cultural criticism. Her work maps a major intersection of literary studies, media and cultural studies, feminist studies, and aesthetic theory.

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1. tone

How does one go about creating a “fake” feeling? And to what uses might an artfully created feeling be put? Melville’s book The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) provides us with simple answers to both of these questions, in a miniature story passed on by one of the novel’s noisy throng of “operators” and “transfer-agents” to a fellow passenger on the Mississippi steamer Fidèle.1 After nonchalantly mentioning that “the president, who is also transfer-agent, of the Black Rapids Coal Company, happens to be on board here,” the Company representative delivers the pitch to his mark:
A month since, in a panic contrived by artful alarmists, some credulous stock-holders sold out; but, to frustrate the aim of the alarmists, the Company, previously advised of their scheme, so managed it as to get into its own hands those sacrificed shares, resolved that, since a spurious panic must be, the panic-makers should be no gainers by it. The Company, I hear, is now ready, but not anxious, to redispose of those shares, and having obtained them at their depressed value, will now sell them at par, though, prior to the panic, they were held at a handsome figure above. (CM, 26–27)
The confidence-man knows that this story about a fictitious version of a feeling that, according to Hobbes, “happens to none but in a throng, or multitude of people,” is both seductive and believable because of the ordinariness of what it describes: the stock market’s sensitivity not only to economic factors but to affective ones, as well as the way in which a panic “contrived by artful alarmists” can generate repercussions identical to those of a genuine panic, producing a massive sell-off and “depressing” the value of stocks.2 Such “spurious” emotions and their real effects become the primary focus of Melville’s most formally innovative novel, last in a string of commercial and critical failures that began with Moby-Dick (1851) and continued with Pierre (1852). Indeed, the unpopularity of The Confidence-Man, the last novel Melville would publish in his lifetime, played a key role in his turn from the effort to make a living from writing fiction to his employment as a customs house inspector—a job that ironically required his swearing “to prevent and detect frauds in relation to the duties imposed by the Laws of the United States.”3
It thus comes as no surprise that while continuing the savage parody of antebellum sentimentalism and the literary marketplace offered in Pierre’s account of a would-be serious novelist (who is, significantly, accused of being a “swindler” by his publishers for producing a “blasphemous rhapsody, filched from the vile Atheists, Lucian and Voltaire,” under “the pretense of writing a popular novel for us”), The Confidence-Man broadens its area of attack to include any “positive” emotional attitude about virtually anything, ranging from Christian “benevolence” to cosmopolitan “conviviality,” from a distinctively American “confidence” in the speculative antebellum economy (what one character calls “the Wall Street spirit”) to a more general and romantic “faith” in humankind.4 Unfolding in a series of transactions involving the exchange of money and writing for emotional goods, The Confidence-Man could be described as a interrogation of antebellum America’s affective investment in “affective investments.”5 Published soon after Congress passed the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the Western Territories to become slave states, and in the same year as the financial panic known as the “Western Blizzard” (the name alludes to the swiftness with which the telegraph spread news of the embezzlement-related failure of a New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company across the country), The Confidence-Man might be described as an exploration of the new emotional economy produced by the general migration of “trust” from personal relationships to abstract systems—a key theme in the twentieth-century sociology of modernity.6 If “publicness, as the kind of Being that belongs to the Anyone, not only has in general its own way of having a mood, but needs moods and ‘makes’ them for itself,” as Heidegger claims, it seems fitting that Melville’s story about public exchanges facilitated by an anonymous agent becomes primarily preoccupied with how “confidence” and other feelings might be artfully created.7
What is important for our purposes is that every social and symbolic exchange in this story of public travel on the Mississippi, “the artery of trade and commerce . . . as well as the division between slave states and free,” is an explicit demonstration of how feeling slips in and out of subjective boundaries, at times becoming transformed into psychic property, but at other times eluding containment.8 In this it recalls the distinction between affect and emotion elaborated by Lawrence Grossberg and Brian Massumi, insofar as both approach emotion as contained by identity in a way that affect is not.9 In calling attention to the process by which feelings are artfully contrived, and to the way in which these fake feelings may or may not be transposed into personally experienced emotions (like the real panic for investors that the alarmists have designed their illusory version to produce), The Confidence-Man provides a particularly compelling allegory for an investigation into the promiscuously used yet curiously underexamined concept of literary “tone.” For there is a crucial similarity between the affective-aesthetic idea of tone, which is reducible neither to the emotional response a text solicits from its reader nor to representations of feelings within the world of its story, and the slippery zone between fake and real feelings, or free-floating and subjectively anchored feelings, foregrounded throughout The Confidence-Man.
Thus, while the tone I investigate here shares the connotations of “stance” that it has for critics like I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot, I use it to mean something much more holistic and explicitly affective than the narrow concept employed by Richards in Practical Criticism—namely, a speaker’s “attitude to his listener.”10 While the New Critics were the first to attempt a systematic definition and analysis of tone in terms of attitudes or dispositions (a project strikingly neglected in literary structuralism and semiotics), they also notably muted, and in some cases took pains to avoid, the affective dimensions of the problem. This de-emotionalizing tendency is already apparent in the way Richards separates “Tone” from “Feeling” in Practical Criticism’s list of the four kinds of poetic or literary meaning (“Sense, Feeling, Tone, and Intention”), even though the two categories are quite similar. For like “Tone,” “Feeling” is defined as “an attitude . . . some special direction, bias, or accentuation of interest” (PC, 175). The primary difference is that those “attitudes” Richards classifies under “Feeling” apply specifically to “the state of affairs” created by the poem, whereas those classified under “Tone” apply to the relationship between the speaker and the implied listener—as if the latter relation could be neatly separated from the former, which is not often the case.11 The tendency to divorce emotion from tone continues efforts by other formalists to expand and elaborate Richards’ limited definition. These range from William Empson’s concept of “Mood”—which widens Richards’ notion of tone to include anything that relates “any supposed ‘me’” suggested by the poem (and not just its speaker) to any supposed other or others (and not just the “listener” or “audience”)—to Reuben Brower’s likening of a poem’s tone to its “dramatic situation,” which Brower defines not just as “the implied social relationship of the speaker to his auditor” but also as “the manner he adopts in addressing his auditor.”12 Switching from poetics to narratology, we find a similar effort in Gérard Genette’s concept of “voice,” which designates the “situation” of a narrator with respect not only to the audience he is addressing, but to all events narrated and the manner in which these narrated events are presented.13
One cannot help noticing the inelegance, even clunkiness of these attempts to expand “tone” by simply adding extra relationships to the primary one between speaker and audience in Richards’ original definition. This awkward quality might be attributed to a conspicuous avoidance of the dimension of feeling already deeply associated with “tone” and even “attitude” in everyday usage, as in the familiar “I don’t like the [insert unstated but implied emotional quality] tone of your voice” or “That kind of [insert unstated but implied emotional quality] attitude will get you nowhere.” One further suspects that the motivation for this avoidance comes from the perceived threat of a “soft” impressionism which has always haunted feeling’s role in any analytic endeavor, and which theorists of aesthetic and critical judgment have repeatedly attempted to ward off in various ways: from Kant’s appeal to the oxymoronic-sounding concept of “disinterested” pleasure, to its later echoes in Roger Fry’s “disinterested intensity,” to the explicit antipsychologism of William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley’s “Affective Fallacy.”14 Yet the general strangeness of this evasion (particularly glaring in the case of Empson’s deceptively named “Mood”) comes to the fore when one considers how entirely appropriate emotive or affective qualities seem, as compressed assessments of complex “situations,” for indicating the total web of relations sought after in each of these redefinitions. It is this holistic context we find emphasized, for instance, in Heidegger’s theory of moods as “attunements” (Stimmungen) that arise from and shape or modulate the totality of Being-in-the-world, disclosing the “situatedness” (Befindlichkeit) that enables things to matter in determinate ways. As Charles Guignon notes, “From this standpoint our moods are not ‘private’ or ‘personal,’ but rather are essentially public, part of the ‘world’ instead of something in the ‘self.’”15
It should be clear that by “tone” I mean less the dramatic “attitude” adumbrated by the New Critics than a global and hyperrelational concept of feeling that encompasses attitude: a literary text’s affective bearing, orientation, or “set toward” its audience and world. In other words, I mean the formal aspect of a work that has made it possible for critics of all affiliations (Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, historicist) to describe a work or class of works as “paranoid” (Mary Ann Doane on the Hollywood “woman’s film” of the 1940s), “euphoric” (Fredric Jameson on postmodern art and architecture), or “melancholic” (Anne Cheng on Asian-American literature); and, much more importantly, the formal aspect that enables these affective values to become significant with regard to how each critic understands the work as a totality within an equally holistic matrix of social relations. It is in this manner that Walter Benjamin isolates “a curious variety of despair” in the work of Weimar poet Erich Kästner, in order to launch a critique of the political mindset of the German left-wing intelligentsia to which Kästner belonged, and Cheng speaks of a “melancholia” suffusing texts by Asian-American writers that points back to long histories of systematic racism in U.S. culture and national policy.16 To speak of tone is thus to generalize, totalize, and abstract the “world” of the literary object, in a way that seems particularly conducive to the analysis of ideology. There is a sense in which tone resembles the concept of collective mood frequently invoked by historians (“Cold War paranoia” and so forth), but poses the additional difficulty of aesthetic immanence, of being something that seems “attached” to an artwork. As the affective “comportment” of a literary text, the aesthetic notion of tone we will be working with bears less resemblance to any of its New Critical formulations than it does to Susanne Langer’s notion of a “significant form” whose import is “the feeling of the whole work,” or Mikel Dufrenne’s concept of the “affective quality” that constitutes the artwork’s “expressed world,” or even Roman Ingarden’s notion of the “polyphonic harmony” that holds together all of the values and perspectives generated by a literary text’s multiple “stratifications.”17 These attempts to account for the affective dimension of literature implied but ultimately avoided in New Critical definitions of “tone” provide much more salient models than any that are available in literary theory proper for the global concepts of feeling attributed to aesthetic objects by contemporary analysts of literature and ideology.
Langer is as impatient as any New Critic with the critical focus on a literary work’s emotional effects on readers or with the emotions supposedly expressed by its author. Yet the question of feeling in art is nonetheless her primary concern in Feeling and Form (1953), and in fact is the problem her book’s overarching theory of art as “significant form,” a phrase she adopts from Clive Bell, is explicitly designed to solve.18 As she notes, “The relation of art to feeling is evidently something subtler than sheer catharsis or incitement. In fact, the most expert critics tend to discount both these subjective elements, and treat the emotive aspect of a work of art as something integral to it, something as objective as the physical form, color, sound pattern of verbal text itself” (FF, 18). Searching for a precedent for her “more radical handling of feeling as something objective,” Langer turns to Otto Baensch’s “Kunst und Gefühl” (Art and Feeling; 1923), where the matter of what I am here calling tone is laid out as follows:
The mood of a landscape appears to us as objectively given with it as one of its attributes, belonging to it just like any other attribute we perceive it to have. . . . We never think of regarding the landscape as a sentient being whose outward aspect “expresses” the mood that it contains subjectively. The landscape does not express the mood, but has it; the mood surrounds, fills, and permeates it, . . . the mood belongs to our total impression of the landscape and can only be distinguished as one of its components by a process of abstraction. (Quoted in Langer, FF, 19)
For Baensch, the “objective feeling” of a work of art is distinct from its sensory qualities precisely in this holistic character. Whereas sensory qualities “are combined and composed, so as to produce, jointly, the appearance of the object,” the nonsensory quality called “feeling” is said to “surround and permeate this whole structure in fluid omnipresence” (FF, 21, italics added). The work’s “feeling” thus “cannot be brought into an explicit correlation with its component elements,” much as the “euphoria” Jameson attributes to Duane Hanson’s latex sculptures of anxious-looking tourists is difficult to locate in any isolated formal feature.19 At the same time, the feeling is not a free-floating phantom; rather, as Baensch notes, it is “always embedded and inherent in [an object] from which [it] cannot be actually separated, but only distinguished by abstraction: objective feelings are always dependent parts of objects” (quoted in FF, 20). While Langer uses this discussion to introduce her own comprehensive theory of art as a materially created abstraction, she dissolves Baensch’s so-called paradox through what she herself describes as a simple and obvious move: by redescribing what he calls “feeling” as the artwork’s “significant form” or “semblance” of feeling (in Schiller’s sense of Schein). This form is best exemplified in the highly articulate but nondiscursive realm of music, which she examines in Philosophy in a New Key. As Langer notes, “The basic concept is the articulate but nondiscursive form having import without conventional reference, and therefore presenting itself not as a symbol in the ordinary sense, but as a ‘significant form,’ in which the factor of significance is not logically discriminated, but is felt as a quality rather than recognized as a function” (FF, 32).20 But the same problem of a “significance” that is not reducible to signs or signification is important to literature, too, where “affect” seems a fugitive presence attached to or hovering in the vicinity of words. Indeed, Grossberg seems to have literature specifically in mind when he notes, “Affect is perhaps the most difficult plane of human life to define and describe, not merely because it is a-signifying (and contemporary theory is so heavily directed toward signifying practices), but also because there is no critical vocabulary to describe its forms and structures. But this does not mean that affect is some ineffable experience or a purely subjective feeling” (OTP, 80). It is clear, however, that tone often has an impact on these subjective resp...

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Citation styles for Ugly Feelings
APA 6 Citation
Ngai, S. (2009). Ugly Feelings ([edition unavailable]). Harvard University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2009)
Chicago Citation
Ngai, Sianne. (2009) 2009. Ugly Feelings. [Edition unavailable]. Harvard University Press.
Harvard Citation
Ngai, S. (2009) Ugly Feelings. [edition unavailable]. Harvard University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. [edition unavailable]. Harvard University Press, 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.