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(FEATURE) From McKenzie's Wark Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century

Book Cover for Sensoria, dark background with animal made of constellating dots

In the wake of its release, SPAM are HYPED to be sharing with you an exclusive extract from McKenzie Wark’s Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-first Century (Verso, 2020). Sensoria emerges from a critique of knowledge production as totalising: moving through various facets of aesthetics, ethnography and design, Wark suggests we might move towards a more holistic, and perhaps heuristic, way of perceiving the world, drawing conceptual light from different labours. As Wark puts it, ‘if a good fact is mostly true about something in particular, a good concept is slightly true about a lot of things’. Exploring the work of major thinkers as wide-ranging as Kodwo Eshun, Hito Steyerl, Randy Martin, Jackie Wang, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Achille Mbembe, Benjamin Bratton, Jussi Parikka and many others, Sensoria is a rich, generous and revitalising source which constellates, pressurises and draws energy from a diverse, varied and mediated ‘project of knowing the world’. The book is an exciting and timely introduction to the future: helping us process crises still to come, while drawing up routes for negotiating and moving beyond our current critical moment.

In this extract, taken from a chapter on Aesthetics, Wark takes stock of Sianne Ngai’s germinal text, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012) and places these aesthetic categories in dialogue with ideas around commodity fetishism, labour, power, regulation, conceptual art and information.

> The cute: The word derives from the word acute. The word itself is a cute version of an edgier word. The zany is to be held at a distance; the cute is intimate, domestic. We have powers over cute things, and yet they still seem to make demands of us. The zany is about production; the cute is about consumption. The zany is about the worker; the cute is about the product. The zany is hot and may involve sharp implements; the cute is warm and fuzzy. If the zany is about performing subjects, the cute is about subject–object relations, including transitional objects, like the plushie the child can love or (if the kid is anything like my daughter) just abandon in the strangest places.

Photo of McKenzie Wark
McKenzie Wark, courtesy of Verso.

> Cuteness lacks beauty’s novelty, singularity, and untouchability—and power. The cute can be handled and fondled. It is proximate to kitsch, to easy consumption, to the simulating of affect.[1] The cute commodity often seems to be asking: Are you my mother? The cute thing can be a fetish, masking its own making, but it can also be utopian, a model of a world of use value without exchange value.

> Marx imagines commodity fetishes a bit like child actors, squealing and appealing for their buyers.[2] Cuteness is perhaps a kind of fetish redoubled. It tries to work on the fantasy of the fetish itself. It pines for the utopia of the qualitative, which seeks refuge under capitalism in the fetish. Cuteness is a fantasy of the commodity addressing its protector. One feels like one is carrying out its wishes. Its exaggerated passivity can provoke sadism or care. It can also hint at a pastoral fantasy of use value that could be rescued and kept safe, as in the Toy Story movies. The cute provokes a desire for intimacy to cut out exchange. Its powerlessness can itself be powerfully erotic.

> [Sianne] Ngai: ‘the ultimate index of an object’s cuteness may be its edibility.’[3] It is sweet but edged with disgust. Keston Sutherland points out that the metaphor Marx uses in Capital for abstract labour is Gallerte, which in English might translate as aspic, brawn, or gelatine—all achieved by boiling down animal parts.[4]The transformation of concrete labours into abstract labour renders the labourer into something akin to the notorious pink goo or pink slime that industrial, processed meat now contains. Ngai: ‘If undifferentiated labour in this text gets figured as a quivering, gelatinous food implicitly made up of ground-up human workers, the inverse of or antidote to this image of being dissolved into food might be the image of a face emerging from inside a cookie.’[5]

> One can connect this reversibility of the cute to Walter Benjamin’s observation that the gaze of the cute creature can be considered our own gaze, looking on at the process of com-modification itself, with which we compulsively identify, and in the face of which it is tempting to appear small and vulnerable and plead for special care.[6] The cute renders production as if it were a domestic activity, but one charged with eroticism and violence. Ngai wonders if it’s any accident that Japanese culture exploded with its own version of the cute, the kawaii, in the era of rapid postwar industrialization. Perhaps it was a way of learning to love defeat on a national scale, but one redoubled in the private sphere as learning to love exploitation. The term kawaii sounds fairly close to kowai— the scary. Cute eroticism can be sweet, but biting—fanged phenomena.

> While one thinks most readily of stuffed animals, the cute might also be in play in such refined works as Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.[7] In spite of its proximity to kitsch, the cute can be an avant-garde tactic. Here it is ‘less a fantasy of art’s capacity for revenge on a society that renders it harmless, than a more modest way of imagining art’s ability to transform itself into something slightly less easy to consume.’[8] Ngai here offers a really interesting reading of one of Francis Ponge’s miniature poems, in which an orange is deformed in the act of consumption, in some small mute act of resistance.[9]

> In a lovely twist, Ngai writes: ‘It is as if the authority figure’s ‘Hey, you!’ in Louis Althusser’s scene of interpellation fell short of arriving at the second person pronoun, doubling back on itself to become an act of hailing one’s own incomplete hail.’[10] I would have a slightly more sinister take on this: a world in which every surface becomes a weaponized adorable, not hailing but cooing: ‘Hey … Hey … Hey.’[11]

> There was something adorable about Theodor Adorno. And something cute even about his masterpiece Minima Moralia, his self-helpless book for and from damaged life, with its coy refusal of dialectical resolution. In it are a lot of kitsch items, like the useless gift articles produced by a specialized industry for people who no longer know how to give.[12] This junk is still closely tied to art, as kitsch lurks in art. So perhaps one can reverse the gesture and find the aesthetic in the cute, as a kind of fetish that protects against fetishism.

> The interesting: If the zany is about subjects, and the cute is about subject–object strangeness, then the interesting is about things. Or maybe information about things or even the circulation of forms of information. It is not a performative or commodity aesthetic, but a discursive one. If the zany is hot, and the cute is warm, then the interesting is cool, ironic, detached, even clinical. It’s a small surprise of information, of some variation from a norm. It can have a documentary impulse. It is interested in comparison, in anomalies and systems; it alternates between reason and surprise.

> For Isabelle Stengers, what is interesting in science is a proposition that associates the largest number of actors.[13] The interesting also assembles the social, but what is sociologically interesting also has an aesthetic aspect. It measures the tension between understanding and wonder. Theories are not interesting when obvious, improbable, or unprovable. Ngai:

From the hard sciences to sociology to literary studies, the interesting thus seems to be a way of creating relays between affect-based judgement and concept-based explanation in a manner that binds heterogeneous agencies together and enables movement across disciplinary domains.[14]

The interesting is an aesthetic without content, for the modern ironic self, like the detectives Nick and Nora in Hammett’s The Thin Man.[15]

> It’s an aesthetic category one might connect to the flâneur and the dérive. Ngai links it to the rise in the circulation of printed matter, to which I might, in the spirit of T. J. Clark, add circulation through the modern city.[16] From Baudelaire to Debord, the dérive emerges as an anthropological version of the interesting, a method on the boundary between the regularity of the city and its possibility for anticipatory utopian moods.

> The interesting lacks universality. ‘The interesting is thus a style of serial, comparative individualization.’ And yet the interesting enables movement between aesthetic and nonaesthetic judgment, between pleasure and cognition: ‘the feeling that underpins it seems to lie somewhere between an object-oriented desire and an object-indifferent affect.’ Experience is just what one agrees to notice, when interest flickers from passive to active awareness. It is prior to affect: a generic, minimal judgment. As curiosity, it could be the libido of theory, both a driver and danger to reason. It’s a feeling of not yet knowing, an absence of a concept, ‘a kind of zero-degree aesthetic judgement.’[17]

> The interesting anticipates but is continuous. It is not arresting, not a pause in time, like the sublime or beautiful. It happens in a flowing duration but makes and marks a difference. It can thus only be historical. It might—finally—be a secular aesthetic. The interesting can be irritating, with its repetitive flick between the familiar and the unfamiliar, identity and difference, continuity and break. But its variance from the norm can be small, its affect minimal, its risk manageable. As Raymond Williams notes, risk is the link between aesthetic and economic senses of ‘interest.’[18]

> For Susan Sontag, photography makes everything interesting. Barthes tried to arrest the serial repetition of the photographic studium with his more singular punctum. Here one might want to connect the interesting to Vilem Flüsser’s famous essay on photography as a machine that incorporates everything as an image.[19] In modern literature, the interesting is Beckett, Perec, or Stein’s The Making of Americans, and more recently, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which one could read as a novel about the novel as the temporal repetition that produces the interesting.[20]

> In a surprising move, Ngai links the interesting in the novel, particularly the realist novel and its modern variants, to conceptual art. They are all interested in investigating generic appearances, the serial, the algorithm, the schema, paperwork and official procedures. Conceptual art is a forensic art. Conceptual art shares a paradox in detective fiction identified by Franco Moretti: it must tell ever new stories but must reproduce the same schema.[21]

> The interesting addresses a world of speeded-up information by asking for a slowed-down attention. Sometimes, the information about the art becomes the art, as in On Kawara postcards. If modern art was once a special kind of commodity, then a special kind of service, now it is a special kind of derivative financial instrument.[22] Ngai: ‘Interesting conceptual art was both an instance of and an art about this absorption of modes of circulation into modes of production.’[23] But I think we blew through that moment toward a full subsumption of both into control of the value chain through the information vector.

Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century is out now and available to order through Verso.


[1] Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom: On the Kitsch Experience, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. [2] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 35. Capital, Vol. 1, New York: International Publishers, 1996, 81ff. [3] Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. [4] Keston Sutherland, Stupefaction, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2011. [5] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 100. [6] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Mimetic Faculty’ and ‘Some Remarks on Folk Art’, Selected Writings Vol. 2: 1927-1935, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. [7] Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, San Francisco: City Lights, 2014. [8] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 93. [9] Francis Ponge, ‘Orange’, Laurel Review 49, 1, 2016. [10] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 96. [11] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, London: Verso, 2014. [12] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, London: Verso, 2006. [13] Isabelle Stengers, Power and Invention, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997; see Wark, General Intellects, chapter 20. [14] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 116. [15] Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man, New York: Vintage Books, 1989. [16] T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unviersity Press, 1999. [17] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 122, 129, 132. [18] Raymond Williams, Keywords, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, 172-3. [19] Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Picador, 2001; Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, New York: Hill & Wang, 2010; Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London: Reaktion Books, 2000. [20] Tom McCarthy, Remainder, London: Alma Modern Classics, 2015. [21] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps and Trees, London: Verso, 2007. [22] McKenzie Wark, ‘Digital Provenance and the Artwork as Derivative,’ eflusx journal, no. 77, November 2016. [23] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 158.


Text: McKenzie Wark

Published: 28/8/20


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