What does a cable channel showing nothing but puppies have in common with the commedia dell'arte tradition? For Sianne Ngai, they're both reflections of modern aesthetic sensibilities.
Traditionally, the branch of philosophy known as aesthetics has been concerned with examining such high-minded questions as What makes art, art? In contemporary culture, however, "Artwork has lost its privileged status when you want to talk about aesthetic experience," says Ngai, a professor in the Stanford English department. Design is everywhere, she explains, marveling at the calculated decisions, meant to elicit a particular emotional response, that went into the bag of trail mix she's holding.
For the past several years, Ngai has been investigating what she calls "minor" aesthetic categories. She has written books and papers with titles such as Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005), "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde" (2005) and "Merely Interesting" (2008). "These categories are lowly, they don't have the same philosophical prestige as beautiful or sublime, but they're pervasive," she says.
In her forthcoming book, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, due in October), Ngai explores three classes that she says are uniquely postmodern and emblematic of the preoccupations of a late capitalist society: cute, interesting and zany. Aside from being ubiquitous, what makes these categories intriguing, she notes, is the contradiction at their core.
Cute is an aesthetic of weakness, and yet it exerts power over us. Interesting, an aesthetic of variation from the norm, walks a fine line with the mundane. And zany, ostensibly an aesthetic of playfulness, contains an unpleasant undercurrent of stress. "All three together point to the ambivalence a lot of us feel about a lot of our aesthetic experiences."
While certainly not the only significant categories, Ngai argues "that this quotidian triad . . . is the one in our cultural repertoire best suited for grasping how the concept of 'aesthetic' has been transformed by the performance-driven, information-saturated and networked, hypercommodified world" that we live in.
IF IT'S NOT BAROQUE...Most of the ingredients in a 17th-century recipe for coarse gingerbread would be familiar to modern cooks—if not the measurements and methods. "Take a quart of honey and set it on the coals to refine it: then take a pennyworth of ginger, as much pepper, as much liquorice; and a quarter pound of aniseeds, and pennyworth of sanders: all these must be beaten and searced, and so put into the honey."
THE WAY THEY ATE THEN
On a research trip to Germany in the summer of 2010, early modern European history student Molly Taylor-Poleskey stumbled on a tasty topic for her doctoral dissertation. Looking at household records of the Nassau family in Wiesbaden, she came across documents listing the weekly food needs of the court. "I was immediately excited by seeing something familiar in the documents (eggs, milk, and bread). But as I read more, I realized the potential of these types of documents for tracing changes in food habits and taste."
That led Taylor-Poleskey, MA '11, to the Prussian State Secret Archives, where for the past 11 months she has been devouring details of the household records of Brandenburg-Prussia's ruling family from the period of reconstruction following the Thirty Years' War. The court household consisted of around 500 people, and providing food for them was the most expensive task of the court administration. Thus, the court kept detailed records for the kitchen (even leftovers were carefully accounted for).
Taylor-Poleskey is hoping to answer questions such as how the corporate body of the court functioned to bring food in from many different sources, even in times of widespread food shortages, why certain foods were chosen and others not, and how the food consumed reflected shifting cultural values. Dishes and ingredients that have fallen out of favor in today's German cuisine are the many pasteten (think of mincemeat pies and terrines) and the copious use of spices.
To complement her work in the archives, Taylor-Poleskey is examining contemporaneous cookbooks—a fast-growing genre in the 17th century. "These books are actually quite fun to read because one gets a sense from them of how complicated the courtly dishes were. Some require days of preparation or are compounds of many recipes."
Taylor-Poleskey admits she often gets hungry in the archives reading food lists, but otherwise, she says, early modern food does not sound particularly appetizing. "Many of the flavors that they were accustomed to are not part of our palate anymore, so even if I tasted them, I would not be able to say much about how a seventeenth-century person would have experienced them."
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Data is from the past two weeks.