The New Aesthetics of Deculturation:

Neoliberalism, Fundamentalism, Kitsch

July 2019

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Presentation of Chapter 5:

On this page you find a presentation of Chapter 5 of the book The New Aesthetics of Deculturation: Neoliberalism, Fundamentalism, Kitsch (Bloomsbury 2019).

For a presentation of the whole book click here.

Images of cats and kittens make up some of the most viewed content on the web. The Museum of the Moving Image New York organized an exhibition in 2016 on How Cats Took Over the Internet; and a study of Indiana University found that viewing cat videos "boosts positive emotions and decreases negative feelings."

This research is inspired by Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012). Ngai attributes much importance to the comparisons of the cute and the sublime, as well as to comparisons of the cute and the interesting. I want to develop those comparisons further but also complement them by introducing one more element, which is the excellent.

Ngai investigates three aesthetic concepts, all of which are different from the sublime. Her perspective is not comparative but aims at elucidating those under-investigated aesthetic notions. My approach is different. By excluding the zany and by adding the excellent and the sublime, I create a symmetry:

Cuteness can be contrasted with the sublime.

Small vs. great, familiar vs. unheimlich, female vs. male, love vs. respect. However, there is also a similarity. We can be “taken away” by the cute as well as by the sublime. Therefore, both are opposed to the interesting . According to Ngai, the interesting relies on a “relay between pleasure and cognition” (129). The cute does not appeal to cognitive faculties but merely to sentiments. The sublime relies mainly on sentiments (though there is also some cognitive input).

The interesting

At the end of the eighteenth century, Friedrich Schlegel creates a philosophical aesthetics of the interesting. Schlegel insists on the component of detachment. The “cool interesting” can be opposed to the eros-driven cute, which is “warm” and overwhelming. But it is also opposed to the equally overwhelming sublime that makes us lose control. Losing control is incompatible with cool.

The excellent

Bill Readings explains in his The University in Ruins how in a globalized world, the idea of culture had to be abolished as a referent because the content of learning can no longer refer to culturally specific objects or ideas. In a world determined by international economic prerogatives, one cannot appeal to values anchored in local cultures. As a result, the focus had to shift to economically exploitable technical knowledge. In the end, the only remaining reference became the culturally neutral term “excellence.” Excellence is an absolute value and similar to the “truth” of religious fundamentalists. Being measurable and packaged with the help of quantifying methods, excellence-based knowledge is suitable for immediate “take-away” consumption in globalized environments. An entire apparatus of neoliberal culture has developed quantitative measuring and standardization methods supposed to lead to excellence.

Being measurable and packaged with the help of quantifying methods, excellence-based knowledge is suitable for immediate “take-away” consumption in globalized environments. An entire apparatus of neoliberal culture has developed quantitative measuring and standardization methods supposed to lead to excellence.

A recent article in The Guardian criticized that “universities focus too much on measuring activity [and not on] quality” (8/14/2014). The anonymous author criticized the “meaningless pursuit of quality” in neoliberal environments. In the past, this quality used to be spelled out in terms of culture; it has been replaced with “value-neutral” measuring activities. Technization and exaggerated measuring activities are not limited to education and universities. They also exist in the realms of health, justice, and the police and represent a new politics trying to implement a culture-less world of excellence. (For more explanations of the excellent in modern culture go to this article.)

Cuteness is opposed to excellence

Cuteness is concrete and excellence is abstract. Cuteness  contradicts the rationalist or pseudo-rationalist worldviews of modern culture that are thriving in the cold neoliberal world of enforced excellence. The problem is that here one sort of kitsch is used to amend another sort of kitsch. By taking refuge in cuteness, one does not introduce concrete elements from a certain culture into the decultured world of excellence-driven modernity. Cuteness is just as decultured as excellence. The cute kitten posted on Facebook might represent an attempt to establish a community of like-minded people in a globalized world. However, this “community” will not be a cultural community, but it remains based on an abstract and cultureless perception of cuteness “as such.” By combating cold quantitative excellence with warm qualitative cuteness one does not combat deculturation through an act of acculturation but one stays in the realm of deculturation. Decultured civilization is driven by a "cute-excellence" syndrome.

Sublime: C.D. Friedrich's Monk by the Sea

Cuteness is excellence reversed

Cuteness becomes everything that excellence isn’t. Excellence is strong and cuteness is weak. The seductive cute is the opposite of the absolutely non-seductive excellence. Cuteness is overly concrete and excellence is abstract. Ngai has called cuteness the “erotization of powerlessness.” Conversely, excellence stands for the de-erotization of the powerful. Cuteness is submissive, transgressive and feminine while excellence is egalitarian, politically correct, and ungendered.

Despite the contrasts between the excellent and the cute, excellence remains just as cultureless as cuteness because it partakes in the same process of cultural neutralization that we encounter in neoliberal civilization. That’s why both cuteness and excellence thrive so well in neoliberal environments. 

Albert Bierstadt: Storm in the Mountains, 1870

"Becoming cute" can be a strategy of resistance. In neoliberal societies, self-cutification (through selfies, enforced amateurism, and self-vicitmization) becomes a means of gaining status. Self-victimization is “self-cutification” desperately searching to escape a culture determined by the imperatives of excellence.

The square

I divide the square into four areas: the left side features decultured phenomena, and the right side phenomena that depend on culture. The cute and the excellent are decultured . The sublime might not be an artistic notion in the first place (it is not used by Kant for the analysis of artistic practice) but it remains a cultural notion, be it only because Kant links it to dignity and virtue.

The expressions on the upper half depend on an erotic impulse mainly because they are able of seduction. The cute and the sublime seduce whereas the excellent and the interesting are non-erotic. The hot-cool distinction is vaguely derived from McLuhan's meadia research.


Please click on the square to watch how this research develops:

cute-sublime graph
cute-sublime graph

2. cool hot
2. cool hot

14. purity mixture
14. purity mixture

cute-sublime graph
cute-sublime graph