Stanford English Professor Sianne Ngai wins James Russell Lowell Prize

Zany 2The Modern Language Association awarded its 42nd annual James Russell Lowell Prize to SIANNE NGAI, professor of English, for her book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.

The prize recognizes an outstanding book—a literary or linguistic study, a critical edition of an important work, or a critical biography—written by a member of the association.

In awarding Ngai the prize, the MLA recognizes her deft ability to draw from philosophical investigation, intellectual history, literary and artistic analysis, and cultural criticism to create her own theory of aesthetics.

In the book, published by Harvard University Press in 2012, Ngai examined postmodern concepts of zany, cute and interesting because “these are the aesthetic styles and judgments which seemed most pervasive in contemporary United States culture (and not just in mass culture but also in the works of the avant garde), and I became curious as to why.”

Sianne Ngai
Stanford English Professor Sianne Ngai

Ngai, who specializes in literary and cultural theory and feminist studies at Stanford, applies her innovative theory to a wide variety of texts – from HENRY JAMES’s Portrait of a Lady to ED RUSCHA’s photography, to a comedies like “The Cable Guy.”

According to the MLA committee, “Ngai lets us see how the seemingly weak and trivialized categories zany, cute and interesting signal fundamental changes in the status of the work of art in late capitalism.”

Ngai is currently working on a new book called Theory of the Gimmick, in which she examines how the aesthetic aversion we have to gimmicks might tap into larger philosophical and economic issues, including the visibility of production in a capitalist society overall.

Gimmick, Ngai says, is a device or contraption for producing an effect, that “implicitly contains a negative judgment on that effect, which we think of as ‘cheapened’ or somehow lessened in its aesthetic power because the means of its production are too immediately visible.”

The James Russell Lowell Prize will be presented on Jan. 11, 2014, during the MLA’s annual convention in Chicago.

— BY TANU WAKEFIELD, The Humanities at Stanford