Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings

Ugly Feelings is a study of negative emotions in the modern era, which Sianne Ngai characterizes as a state of affective equivocation trapped within an inability to exert ones agency, a claim which echoes Benjamin’s statement that fascism gives tools for expression but not for political change. She is interested in “affective gaps and illegibilities”, emotions like envy and anxiety which she says are a mediation between aesthetics and politics. Her definition of emotions is “signs that not only register visible different registers of problem… but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner” (3). The situations of blocked agency and passivity that these negative emotions are a response to are emblematic of modernity, and in fact they are a requirement for many parts of capitalist existence.

One interesting point of connection between the affects she examines is their ability to endure– unlike a feeling like rage, which has to be renewed, something like envy can exist for much longer, even if it is considered a “weaker” emotion. She also continually makes a distinction between the emotions she treats in her book and “classical emotions” like fear, making it clear that these are “amoral and noncathartic” (6). She contrasts these explicitly to melancholia, which she describes as a beatific emotion. While I disagree that melancholy is fundamentally cathartic, I’m interested in how the emotions she discusses in this book, particularly anxiety, function as a part of melancholy in medieval literature. I am also interested in what happens when we consider, for example, premodern situations of alienated labor or prescriptive emotion. Then do we find that an emotion like anxiety not only exists, but has a similar “weak” and agentless affect to its existence under capitalism?

Another interesting point Ngai makes is that traditionally affect and emotion are different because emotion requires a subject, while affect does not (from Massumi). While she admits that she is using affect and emotion interchangeably, she does say that affect is less formed than emotion and less socially fixed. One can be irritated while not knowing why, which is an ambivalent affect (for Ngai) rather than an emotion. By extension, affects that can’t be contained by one subject are useful in terms of their tone, the term Ngai uses to refer to an object’s orientation and disposition towards the world. The tone of a piece of literature might be melancholic or energetic, but it works on the reader without their realizing it, or is seen but not felt (unperceived feeling).

Tone is not however reducible to the reader’s attitude towards a thing. It hovers around the object, and it’s impossible to say whether it belongs to the object, the subject, both or neither. In the case of The Confidence Man, the novel she examines in chapter 1, the tone of the novel “runs on a feeling that no one actually feels” (69). This makes me reconsider the direction of my interest in affect in literature. I am not actually interested in how texts generate affects in their readers specifically, but in how they generate affect generally.