Annotation: Sianne Ngai’s “Introduction” (2005)

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Ngai, Sianne. “Introduction.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. 1-37. Print.

In her “Introduction” Ngai asserts that her book will explore the “negative affects” that emerge from situations of “obstructed agency” (3). She offers Bartleby, whose illegible feelings and disconcertingly passive resistance bewilders critics about his actual degree of agency, as a kind of framing example for the rest of her discussion. Ngai argues that our increasingly globalized world with transnational movements of peoples and capital has contributed to the emergence of a more complex set of feelings that cannot be described as simply “anger” or fear.” Unlike the emotions that have been analyzed by classical philosophers such as Aristotle, Ngai determines to specifically examine the historically marginalized “amoral and noncathartic” feelings and consequently study “a noncathartic aesthetic: art that produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release…and does so as a kind of politics” that is very Bartlebyan (9). She challenges, for example, the critical tendency in film analyses to focus on the most dramatic and emotionally provocative scenes, asserting that those scenes that are more indeterminate, where viewers feel confused about what they are or should be feeling also deserves more urgent scholarly attention. Ngai emphasizes that they should be analyzed for the loss of control they inspire, where either the character or the viewer remains caught in a state of “suspended agency” (1).

She further notes that feelings have been historically marginalized as topic of study because of their supposed subjectivity. Ngai asserts, however, that her project, in conjunction with those of other contemporary affect scholars, is to demonstrate how feelings are socially and institutionally shaped. She also offers some helpful theoretical background on the difference between emotion and affect. Ngai cites Massumi and Grossberg who assert that emotion requires a subject while affect does not and while emotion “designates feeling given ‘function and meaning…the later remains ‘unformed and unstructured’” (25).

In her book, however, Ngai does not attempt to offer formal distinctions between affect and emotion, only recognizing their difference in terms of degree. She writes, for example, “affects are less formed and structured than emotions, but not lacking form or structure altogether” (27). Ngai explains that the “minor affects,” she explores in her book: tone, animatedness, envy, irritation, anxiety, stuplimity, paranoia, and disgust, are “far less intentional or object-oriented, than the passions in the philosophical canon” (20). While she admits that the “weakly intentional feelings” she explores is probably less adequate than more forceful feelings such as anger and fear to advance political movements, they are ideal for “diagnos[ing] situations, and situations marked by blocked or thwarted action in particular” (27).