The “awww!” response to cuteness isn’t just biological, it’s philosophical

So cute! But why?
So cute! But why?
Image: Reuters/ Ali Jarekji
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Cute kittens and cuddly toys aren’t the highest form of aestheticism, but one Stanford professor, Sianne Ngai, believes “cuteness” is a concept worth studying. And so Ngai, a professor in literary and cultural theory, has developed a philosophical argument about what counts as cute.

Cuteness has been up for academic study before, but in biology departments. More than 70 years ago, ethologist Konrad Lorenz argued that our perception of cuteness has an evolutionary purpose: Adults see babies’ big eyes and round faces as adorable, and so are more motivated to perform their parental duties.

In recent years, Ngai has brought discussions of cuteness to the humanities. On Nov. 3, she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Philosopher’s Zone that, “a lot of contemporary aesthetic philosophy seemed stuck in the 18th century.” Instead of writing about “the beautiful, the sublime,” Ngai has focused her work on the aesthetic experiences that “people use most frequently in their everyday lives.”

Ngai’s theory has been many years in the making. In her paper The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde (paywall), published in Critical Inquiry in 2005, Ngai set out the qualities that make an object cute. She wrote:

“The smaller and less formally articulated or more bloblike the object, the cuter it becomes—in part because smallness and blobbishness suggest greater malleability and thus a greater capacity for being handled.

From here it is only a short step to see how the formal properties associated with cuteness—smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy—call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency. There is thus a sense in which the minor taste concept of cuteness might be said to get at the process by which all taste concepts are formed and thus at the aesthetic relation all of them capture.”

Ngai argues that that passivity of cute objects entice both a tender desire to cuddle and a “consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control.” In a 2011 interview with Cabinet Magazine, Ngai noted that cuteness “is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness.” She added:

“It hinges on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak, which is why cute objects—formally simple or noncomplex, and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening—get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled.”

Daniel Harris has also put forward this idea in his book Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism, when he points to teddy bears manufactured with a crutch and a leg in a cast. An object is made cute when it’s disempowered, argues Harris. Hence the number of cuddly toys with an eye-patch and band-aid or, like Winnie the Pooh, a dopey demeanor.

The rise of cuteness is a symptom of capitalist culture, Ngai told Cabinet Magazine. “Cuteness is…a commodity aesthetic, with close ties to the pleasures of domesticity and easy consumption,” she said. It can also reflect the national psyche to an extent: Japan’s kawaii culture of exaggerated cuteness, she noted in her 2005 paper, developed fast in ”an island nation newly conscious of its diminished military and economic power” after World War II.

And though it may be surprising to associate cuteness with sadism, Ngai points out that the word “cute” is not necessarily a positive judgement. “Unlike the beautiful, which is a judgement, it’s not really clear that calling something cute is praise or criticism,” she told the Philosopher’s Zone.

Cuteness is undeniably more trivial than beauty, and so it’s unlikely to become a mainstream philosophical focus. But Ngai’s work shows that it’s worth considering the judgements and feelings evoked by all those adorable cat videos.