Thinking About Not Thinking: Can Scholars Do It?

“Her Recursive Apology” Installation – photo courtesy of graphic gallery.

My apologies for the lack of posts lately. Things have been busy at home and school. I was in Chicago to see some shows for my performance theory class and there’s just generally a lot to catch up on. But, that will have to happen in good time.

Right now, I’d like to think about thinking about not thinking. In other words, I’d like to think about postmodernity and, specifically, postmodern objects of analysis. The text we’re currently reading in my performance theory class is Sianne Ngai’s ugly feelings, the chapter on “stuplimity.” Ngai introduces some great examples into her argument and makes an interesting case for this new reactional term she’s offering to contemporary criticism. In her words, “contemporary criticism depends on and repeatedly returns to make use of older aesthetic categories, even in its engagement with radically different forms of cultural production” and “these different forms call for new modes of critical response and thus for new terms designating our ways of responding to them” (271). “Stuplimity” is offered as one such new term.

I think Ngai gets a lot of things right. Her description of our aesthetic response to many postmodern objects seems accurate. Or, at least, it’s how I’ve tended to react to these objects. Reading a Beckett play, yes, astonishes me but also tends to bore me. (Although seeing a Beckett play is always a really interesting experience and there’s never anything actually boring about it. Sadly, they’re so rarely performed that most often we experience them by reading the text.) The postmodern art installations that Ngai references are also similarly affective. I’ve most definitely had initial astonishing reactions, only to be slightly antsy once I get past them. But, I don’t know that I necessarily agree that that’s where our reaction to these postmodern objects ends. Especially for scholars and critics. Isn’t there a missing piece here? What about the part where we start to question larger organizing structures of our lives based on what we’re experiencing? What about the point in experiencing Janet Zweig’s Her Recursive Apology where we start to think about the gender implications of the feminized apology? Ngai herself comments briefly on the larger questions that Zweig’s installation raise – “Pushing the boundary between the emotive and the mechanical, and ironically commenting on the feminization of apologetic speech acts, Her Recursive Apology stages the convergence of gendered subject and machine” (264). But Ngai opens up this discursive space only to brush past it. Her focus is on the emotional, aesthetic response to our interaction with the object. If she did engage with this more rational, critical piece, I wonder if her concept of the stuplime would come dangerously closer to Kant’s sublime, the concept she sets stuplimity up as counter to. If we take into account a critical reaction rather than an aesthetic one, are we “transcending” the emotional experience in a way that allows us to feel “superior” to the object because we have enough critical distance to analyze and critique it?

Image from “The Last Performance,” digital art installation by Judd Morrissey –

I studied a variety of postmodern texts during my time as a Teaching Assistant for an undergraduate Media Aesthetics course. One, in particular, came to mind when I was reading Ngai’s argument. Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter is a piece of e-literature that is coded to change anytime the reader moves his or her cursor over a highlighted word. Not every word on the page changes; it’s not as if the page “flips.” Rather, the words just shift around and one or two new sentences or words might replace some that are currently on the page. There is no beginning, middle, or end. When you click on the link to start reading, the code opens a random page where you are forced to begin. Morrissey’s experiment seems to really encapsulate Ngai’s statement that these new objects and our reactions to them call for “new tactics for reading” (272). How do we read a book that is never the same twice, shifts its meaning as we read, can be read infinitely, takes up space only as computer code rather than any form of printed text, is completely dependent on computer code for its existence as the object that it purports to be? The questions seem endless. Morrissey’s “text” (experiment?) also raises the important question of digitalization that Ngai brushes over. She takes into account objects that allow the viewer/reader to question the relationship between human and system, but I would be interested in seeing her apply her concept of stuplimity and aesthetic reactions to solely digital texts. Does our reaction change when we’re dealing with something digital because we have a different set of expectations in place?


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