Ngai’s first book, Ugly Feelings (2005, Harvard University Press), is considered a key work of affect theory for its focus on politically ambiguous, non-cathartic negative emotions—envy and irritation as opposed to anger and fear. Her second book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012, Harvard University Press), which won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize, argues for the contemporary centrality of three everyday, vernacular aesthetic categories, treating them with the same philosophical seriousness as others have treated the beautiful and sublime. Ngai’s work is most broadly concerned with the analysis of aesthetic forms and judgments specific to capitalism.
Sections from Ugly Feelings and Our Aesthetic Categories have been translated into Swedish, Italian, German, Slovenian, Portuguese, Japanese, and (forthcoming) Korean. Ngai has held fellowships from the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study), the American Council of Learned Societies, The Huntington Library, and the Stanford Humanities Center. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate (D. Phil, 2015) in Humanities from the University of Copenhagen. She co-edited, with Lauren Berlant, a special issue of Critical Inquiry on Comedy (2017). Ngai has also taught at the Cornell School for Criticism and Theory and Sci-Arch, The Southern California Institute for Architecture.
Ngai’s current book in progress, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form, explores the “gimmick” as a verdictive speech act and form encoding a series of interconnected contradictions concerning labor, time, and value. Extending Ngai’s previous investigation of the rise of equivocal aesthetic judgments (such as the merely “interesting”), Theory of the Gimmick explores the uneasy mix of attraction and repulsion produced by the gimmick across a range of forms specific to capitalist culture.
Ngai has presented material from this project at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ästehtik Kongress in Offenbach, Germany, the Aesthetics Seminar at Aarhus University in Denmark, and the FORART Lecture Series in Oslo, Norway. Recent talks also include the Faber Lecture at Princeton University, the Kuhn Lecture in Comparative Literature at Brown University, the Morrow Visiting Scholar Lecture at Bucknell University, the Kane Lecture at Ohio State University, the Northrop Frye Lecture at the University of Toronto, the Goldstone Lecture at New York University, and the Petrou Critic in Residence Lecture at the University of Maryland.
Work with Students
Ngai has advised or is advising Ph.D. dissertations in American literature, modernism, postmodernism, narrative theory, cultural theory, feminist and queer studies, media aesthetics, film, and environmental humanities. She advises BA projects with a conceptual or formalist component on a wide variety of topics.
- Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, and Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012; paperback edition 2015)
- Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005; paperback edition, 2007
- “Theory of the Gimmick.” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter 2017): 466-505
- “Comedy Has Issues,” with Lauren Berlant. Introduction to Comedy: An Issue, a special issue of Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter 2017): 233-249.
- The Philosopher’s Zone, Radio interview with Sianne Ngai by Joe Gelonesi. Broadcast November 1, 2015 on Australia Broadcasting Radio National.
- “Visceral Abstractions.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21. 1 (January 2015): 33-63.
- “Merely Interesting.” Critical Inquiry 34 (Summer 2008): 777-817.
- “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry 31.4 (Summer 2005): 811-847.
- “‘A Foul Lump Started Making Promises in My Voice’: Race, Affect, and the Animated Subject.” American Literature 74.3 (September 2002): 571-601.
- “Critique’s Persistence: An Interview with Sianne Ngai” in Politics / Letters (online), February 27, 2017
Ngai teaches courses in American literature, feminist and queer literary criticism, narrative poetics, and aesthetic theory. Recent courses at the University of Chicago include ENGL 20650: Junior Seminar: Passions, Emotions, Moods; ENGL 65550L: Henry James; and HUMA16100: Media Aesthetics (Text).