In her ground-breaking 2005 book, Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai takes a stance against positivity by deciding to “dwell on affective gaps and illegibilities, dysphoric feelings, and other sites of emotional negativity in literature, film, and theoretical writing” (1). The ugly feelings and “minor” affects that she investigates—ranging from envy and irritation to anxiety and paranoia—are “deeply equivocal” (3). They are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release” (6). As I reread the introduction to Ngai’s book in 2019, after two unsuccessful years on the academic job market and while in a temporary 3-month research fellow role at a large public university, it is hard not to draw connections between the Melvillian “ambivalent situations of suspended agency” that she describes (1) and the existential sense of suspended agency that I currently feel as a recent Ph.D. living in a country where “universities have been on a starvation funding regime for about 20 years” (as an insightful mentor at my institution recently put it in a Facebook post). In fact, “suspended agency” barely even does these feelings I’m experiencing any justice.
Yet as even Ngai admits, it is part of her “agenda to recuperate several of these negative [and supposedly ambivalent] affects for their critical productivity” (3). Her book, like the art that she explores, “produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release”; but it “does so as a kind of politics” (9). So where Ngai’s book “turns to ugly feelings to expand and transform the category of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” (6), the purpose of this blog is to interrogate various affects experienced, in particular, by postdoctoral and early-career scholars which might be perceived as “negative.” In doing so, it will also seek to “expand and transform” the feelings unique to our encounters with academic work. Over the course of the next few months, I will chart a path through these feelings, exploring how we might recuperate negative affects such as vanity, superiority, distaste, and envy, by turning them into productive, motivational, and politically radical strategies for taking pleasure in what we do.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press, 2005.
Up next, “On Vanity; or How Grunt Work Can Make You Virtuous.”