Yao Ong

Cohort Year: 2018
Research Interests: Critical Theory, Cultural Studies, Aesthetics, Gender & Sexuality, Long 19th-century to the present


I received my BA with High Honors from Wesleyan University, where I majored in English and the College of Letters (European Literature, Philosophy and History from antiquity to the present). I'm currently interested in autology, autopoiesis and autoeroticism as conceptual sites where analogies between aesthetic judgment and sexual activity break down. 

My dissertation, "Self-Abuse and Sublimation," asks: What does it mean to call something--a work of art or literature, an unscripted encounter or a staged performance, a pattern of behavior or a recognized personality type--"masturbatory"? The "masturbatory" telegraphs, more than self-indulgent and narcissistic, a seamy unseemliness--where the sexual feels out of place within the aesthetic parameters of an object or encounter. Although masturbation has been less stigmatized since the twentieth century and more recently celebrated as an emblematic act of sexual liberation, I argue that nineteenth-century discourse on masturbation has continued to ground the nexus of aesthetic judgment and liberal personhood, especially in cultural efforts to economize individual desire’s conflict with social reality. I look to pamphlets, novels, and landmark texts in modern literary and aesthetic criticism as discursive sites where our vernacular use of the pejorative "masturbatory" has its roots, and where autoeroticism traces out the constitutive contradictions of the supposedly autonomous individual.