Review: Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai

Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai (Harvard University Press 2007)

Reviewed by Ingrid Carabulea

The power of literary criticism lies in its ability to shape the way we view texts and engage with the world, often through the use of analytical lenses like psychoanalysis, feminism, etc.  Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai, however, asks that we view texts through an emotional lens, a focus not often emphasized in literary criticism. 

Ngai coins the term “ugly feelings” to speak of “minor” negative emotions (animatedness, envy, irritation, anxiety, stuplimity—a mixture of boredom and shock—paranoia, and disgust), that she employs to discuss moments when characters’ experience a loss of agency; moments in which these “ugly feelings” are often seen and felt.  These ugly feelings may be less intense than more impassioned emotions in art—anger, fear, sympathy, melancholy, and shame—but they are “nastier” in their ability to uphold passivity, ambiguity, and suspended agency often experienced by minority groups, particularly in the fight for class mobility, eradication of racism, and equality of the sexes.

Ngai’s goal is to examine the social and symbolic workings of emotions to expand the way we view texts, and to offer a different look at social divisions by way of race, class, gender, and politics.  I found Ngai’s discussion of tone, animatedness, and envy to be particularly intriguing.

In her discussion of tone, Ngai focuses on birthing a deeper awareness in our process of pinpointing a work’s tone.  Ngai points out that our response to art seems to be centrally found in tone; but, while tone is deeply attached to emotions, it cannot be identified entirely by a reader’s response, nor can it be solely found in the text.  My favorite description of tone she offers is based upon the aesthetic theory of projection: that tone is one’s response to a book, that one then places back on the book—the book inspired certain feelings in you, and you then attach them to the work, but can those feelings describe the work?  The line between objectivity and subjectivity blurs in these moments.

Ngai’s discussion of her first ugly feeling—animatedness—highlights its practice as a film/TV technique and as descriptor, both providing life to an object and invoking the question of agency.

At the end of the 20th century, racial representation rose in television animation, particularly in the show The PJs (1998-2000), which depicts an African American family living in an urban housing project. This show led to an important discussion on the depiction of minority groups in art, particularly between two different forms of representation: simulacral realism and mimetic realism. 

Proponents of simulacral realism say that an improvement in the social status of those represented on the screen can come from just having them present on mainstream TV; while, proponents of mimetic realism say television representation of a group must “faithfully mirror a set of social conditions” for the entire group’s cultural experience.  While this is not the main focus of Ngai’s argument on animatedness, the discussion of representation on the screen is exceptionally poignant and timely. 

Do we represent a group of people as some of them are, showing true experiences that may not be flattering, or do we only highlight the more flattering experiences felt by some members of that group, in hopes of depicting the potential for upward mobility?  In other words, should we use art to show things as they are, or as they should be?  And, if we show things as they are (in hopes of shedding light on these experiences), are we just perpetuating a stereotypical or fraught image?

In other words, should we use art to show things as they are, or as they should be?

Ngai’s discussion of another ugly feeling—envy—touches upon another collective: feminism, and envy’s place in feminism’s slow progress towards intersectionality.  Ngai points out how envy has been labeled a shameful emotion, when really, it’s a response to a perceived inequality.  She references a film, Single White Female, to showcase envy between two women of different classes (same race).  In one of the woman’s response to feeling envy, she attempts to emulate the other women, but in doing so, she only asserts the differences between them even further.

Ngai argues that the film’s lack of racial representation—while touching on the topics of gender and class—speaks to race through its absence.  This lack of racial discussion in a feminist film suggests that envy, which any social difference can illicit, will never be mended by one’s ability to acquire what the envied has—money, status, etc. And it will also never lead to the envied and envier being identical.  According to Ngai, social inequalities can’t be mended by just “giving” what is lacking or unequal. They must be mended at the root, through inclusion, representation, and intersectionality.

I think Ngai—through her rich use of diverse texts, criticism, and theory—wants us to reflect on how and why we think the way we think.  That while ugly feelings may be passive, we should not be.  But, most importantly, her arguments issue an urgent cry for us to be curious, active learners—about representation, about how we engage with art, and about how we invest in social and political movements—so that we can put this knowledge into action.

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