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“Indulgence and Refusal: Cuteness, Asceticism, and the Aestheticization of Desire”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Indulgence and Refusal: Cuteness, Asceticism, and the Aestheticization of Desire

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 From around the sixth to eleventh centuries, the tiny island of Skellig Michael, off the west coast of Ireland, harbored tiny beehive huts (six), with tiny gardens where tiny plants were grown to make tiny meals. A tiny community of monks (at most 12), near-silent except for repetitive prayer, sought out holy solitude and suffering, resisting the comforts of their mainland monastery (rare comforts in medieval Ireland). Their self-denial aroused tiny, sharp, simple, and childlike desires: for fullness, touch, even level ground. Brethren from the mainland, in a gesture of maternal care, supplemented their meagre repasts with deliveries of meat and bread. Today what remains is a cute hop, skip, and a jump away from the Irish coast.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Could even the most devout monk have resisted the cuteness of a bedraggled baby bird washed up on the rocky shore of Skellig Michael? Should such a treat be for the soul or for the belly? If it is denied the belly, does its worldly cuteness become dangerous to the soul? While the aesthetic of cuteness was not articulated until the nineteenth century (Ngai, 15), my twenty-first-century understanding of asceticism persists in conjuring up imaginary moments of medieval ascetic cuteness. Would not ascetics denying themselves so much in their pursuit of holiness have been particularly susceptible to the aestheticized? The acute pleasure associated with cuteness would be exactly the kind of human affective response ascetics sought to discipline into nonexistence; in fact, scientists have demonstrated that the regions of the brain stimulated by “sex, a good meal, or psychoactive substances” are the same ones which feel pleasure when the brain processes images (just images!) of baby animals (Angier, in Ngai, 24-5). Thus cuteness impinges directly on the type of pleasures ascetics sought to restrict.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Centuries before the late-nineteenth-century advent of the cute, not to mention its twentieth-century (not always so cute) flowering in consumerism, ascetic medieval Christians resisted temptation in a way that served to inflame desire, to make it more acute, with the ultimate goal of eradicating it. Early twenty-first century scholars resist and refuse the restrictions of traditional scholarship to seriously explore the so-called minor aesthetic category of cuteness, finding it a form that, like asceticism, embraces opposites: it seems to deny that to which it simultaneously calls attention. Like a body grown soft from stillness and prayer, yet hungry with sharp teeth, the cute needs us, needs care. Sometimes lonely and isolated, but not by choice or through discipline, the cute prays to its viewer for salvation. It seeks intimacy, as the ascetic sought profound intimacy with God. Instead of prayer, cuteness produces in its viewer the repetitive volubility of baby talk (Ngai 87, 88), if it does not render its viewer speechless: cuteness feels miraculous and stops a viewer in her tracks, breaking through resistance and discipline, and calls forth reverential nonsense. Cuteness in distress, suffering, is at its most powerfully powerless. Cuteness desires to be desired; it is the culturally sanctioned desirable: as needy, weak, powerless, and adorable, it elicits a desire that is maternal (and it is often the mother who teaches the child about desire and denial), and therefore acceptable, regardless of how commercially engineered the cuteness may be.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 While cuteness is an aesthetic, and asceticism a practice, asceticism is a particular type of aestheticization of life which denies subjective affect, and cuteness an aestheticization of, an objectification of, affect (Ngai, 65). For Ngai, it is the epitome of affective aesthetic objectification (65). Linking the self-denial of asceticism with the indulgent nature of cuteness may seem counter-intuitive, especially because of cuteness’s association with capitalism, which directly contradicts the “ascetic imperative” in Matthew 19:21: Christ tells a young man that he must sell his belongings and give to the poor if he is to attain the treasures of heaven. This anti-capitalistic, anti-consumerist direction was interpreted to mean that similar renunciations were expected of those who became monks (Williams, 377). While cuteness longs for indulgence, and asceticism signifies refusal (an indulgence in refusal), they are both disavowals, in that they acknowledge what they reject, that call attention to the contradictions of desire, and are both forms of the aestheticization of desire 1

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Rather than look for anything literally cute in medieval asceticism, this project finds some asceticism in cuteness, and will flirt with analogy not to force similarities but instead to sift through morsels of overlap and relation. (Exception: in a perhaps startling arena, the visions of holy female ascetics, we find threads of the cute: Margery Kempe had visions in which she “cuddled with Christ in bed and was bold enough to caress his toes” [Bynum, 246]; Margaret of Oingt “kissed and swooned over the wounds” caused by leprosy [Bynum, 249]; and Anna Vorchtlin “said to the infant Jesus… ‘I would eat you up, I love you so much’” [Bynum, 250]. Indeed, as medievalist Carolyn Walker Bynum points out, “communion was consuming,” tiny sips of wine and tiny nibbles of bread, that stood for the extremities of suffering [250]. Furthermore, ascetic devotional pilgrimage could include a cute reward: a souvenir in the form of a tiny tin or lead badge.) Here, as for Wittgenstein, analogy is not an overworked simile; in the Derridean sense, here analogy bridges two very different, and broad, territories, seeking similarities while maintaining distinctions (Bannet, 655).

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Certainly there are elements of cuteness and asceticism that oppose each other. Cuteness is sleepy, while disciplined asceticism rejects sleep. Cuteness creates a familial intimacy, while asceticism requires abandonment of traditional familial connections. Cuteness operates to make the cute object desirable, in an often eroticized way, while asceticism makes the body anti-erotic. Cuteness is modern, while asceticism is anti-modern.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 For literary theorist Geoffrey Galt Harpham, the durability of asceticism lies in its capacity to structure oppositions without collapsing them, to raise issues without settling them (xi). In that spirit I raise the issues of asceticism and cuteness: similarities, parallels, analogies, and oppositions. One of the latter is that asceticism is a practice of resistance (Harpham, xv), even if at times an exaggerated, over-indulged-in resistance. Cuteness, I would argue, is an aesthetic that sanctions a lack of resistance. If it’s cute, it’s more acceptable to be unable to resist it. Cuteness seems to justify giving in, even if it fails to provide complete satisfaction.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Defining Cuteness
Recent scholarly attention to cuteness provides rich and complex ways to characterize it. Literary theorist Sianne Ngai lists qualities including “smallness, compactness, formal simplicity, softness or pliancy” (64). Furthermore, Ngai notes that “cute objects have no edge to speak of, being simple or formally non-complex and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening” (59). Cuteness may also be squishy, silky, smooth, and resilient to being crushed. Literary scholar Lori Merish adds “roundness of form and thickness of limbs; roundness and flatness of face; largeness of eyes; and especially … the largeness of head in proportion to the body—all attributes of the human infant” (187). Merish calls it an aestheticization of powerlessness because of its relationship to the childlike (187). Ngai elaborates on its relation to power, calling it “a ‘soft’ aesthetic emerging from the sphere of mass culture as opposed to high art and explicitly about the appeal of powerlessness as opposed to power” (58). It is not hard for something to be so cute that it is painful, especially when it arouses desire that cannot be satisfied.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Cuteness has visual appeal, but is quite different from beauty. Unlike beauty, cuteness “depends entirely on the subject’s affective response to an imbalance of power between herself and the object” (Ngai, 55). Again unlike beauty, cuteness is not directly associated with the good, and yet it possesses an implied virtue related to its childlike qualities; the childlike, no matter how fierce or destructive, still possesses innocence and a kind of purity (and the ascetic body, a representation of the denial of desire, of mastery over the body, also represents a kind of purity, a purity that may be manifested by bodily corruption. As I attempt to define cuteness and asceticism separately, they seem to insist on playing with each other, and resist my disciplining them.) In its powerlessness, those (mostly) appealing qualities of the cute are often mitigated by barely- to mildly-threatening, slightly-aggressive sharpness, traces of which appear in the etymology of the word, according to the OED: “Acute, clever, keen-witted, sharp, shrewd” (Ngai, 59); in fact, the OED gives as an example of the word from 1900: “a small and compact house, what the Americans would call ‘cute,’” – a cute hermitage? Ngai suggests Murakami’s version of the sharp-fanged DOB as a manifestation of the aggression of cuteness’s demands on its viewer, as well as of what she terms the “internal instability” of cuteness as an aesthetic (55, 88). But cuteness’s aggression also serves to underscore its true helplessness.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 While the powerlessness of cuteness is part of its attraction, it also has a way of imposing demands, of having a will of its own (Ngai, 64), even if its immediate visceral impact is often counteracted by the viewer’s sense of having been manipulated, a suspicion of the cuteness. In this way it seems perhaps to engender its own discipline (Ngai, 25). For example, it may demand that we allow it to submit to us. It desperately awaits our evaluation of and interaction with it. It is a supplicant awaiting our judgment, a judgment that will give it power over us.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In these ways, cuteness, as Merish points out, is a matter of socialization (194). Cuteness complicatedly acknowledges otherness and power imbalances, and at the same time encourages identification and connection (Ngai, 60, referencing Merish, 188). For Merish, cuteness’s relation to the maternal helps to explain its relationship to identification: “Maternal desire becomes the vehicle through which being and having are synthesized” (186-7). Its tendency to anthropomorphize plays into that paradox; it makes the non-human more human, easier to identify with (Ngai, 61).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
Definitions of Asceticism

Like cuteness, for Harpham, “asceticism is always marked by ambivalence, by a compromised binarism” (xii). As Harpham and others have demonstrated, asceticism is cross-cultural (xiii), and may be identified in practices both inside and outside of religion. For these reasons it is impossible to define asceticism conclusively; it resists, denies, and foregoes definition. As Harpham describes it, “in the loose sense it refers to any act of self-denial undertaken as a strategy of empowerment or gratification” (xiii). For Harpham, this definition makes asceticism the foundation of all culture. Asceticism, like cuteness, has a complex relationship to socialization. Valantasis critiques Foucault for what he perceives to be the latter’s too-broad definition of asceticism as “cultural or social formation” (85). Yet asceticism is in some ways always a function of an individual’s navigation of culture.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 For the purposes of this paper, which treats of cuteness in the West, I will work with a definition of asceticism based in Christianity. Religious studies scholar Walter O. Kaelber’s summary from the Encyclopedia of Religion is a useful place to start, and focuses Harpham’s broader definition away from the secular: asceticism is “a voluntary, sustained, and at least partially systematic program of self-discipline and self-denial in which immediate, sensual, or profane gratifications are renounced in order to attain a higher spiritual state or a more thorough absorption in the sacred” (441). Kaelber goes on to say that “Virtually universal are 1) fasting, 2) sexual abstinence, 3) poverty, under which may be included begging, 4) seclusion or isolation, and 5) self-inflicted pain, either physical (through such means as whipping, burning, or lacerating) or mental (e.g., contemplation of a judgment day, of existence in hell, or of the horrors associated with transmigration” (442). Resonating with cuteness, asceticism may demonstrate “rigorous control and denial of self” or “the state of being at the mercy of others” (Bynum, 108).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The above behaviors have been helpfully contextualized by theologian Richard Valantasis in terms of performance; asceticism’s relationship to performance marks its difference from more ordinary religious behaviors like prayer and devoutness (107). Ascetic performances are aestheticized, semioticized performances, while ordinary religious behaviors are far less so. The aestheticized and semioticized act awaits the interpretation of its audience, and ascetic performances always have an audience, whether that audience is the inspired faithful (like those who gathered at the base of St. Symeon Stylites’s column to witness his holy suffering), other ascetics (like those who sought out St. Antony in the desert), or God (Valantasis, 2). The ascetic’s desired outcomes from these behaviors range from a negation of human subjectivity, to “a personal union with the deity,” or attainment of “the true or essential self” (Deal, 426). Asceticism may also be a practice designed to improve the practitioner’s odds of a positive afterlife (Deal, 426).

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Asceticism has particularly complex intersections with identity, as who may be permitted to self-discipline and self-deny, and who has the resources to do so, invariably depend on ideologies and power structures (Bynum, 208). Its practices and performances, while often part of an organized religion, may be understood as acting against the dominant social context in order to form, through performance, a new and alternative subjectivity” (Valantasis, 101). Part of the way it does that is by semiotizing behaviors, creating “an alternative symbolic universe” (Valantasis, 38). In asceticism, aestheticization is this rigorous disciplining of the body: “Even the body—or especially the body—can participate in symbolization, can acquire and bear meaning and value. It can do so through an ascesis that appears to deny the body, or at least to oppose it” (Harpham, xiv). Asceticism is also related to will and intention; it doesn’t happen accidentally (Valantasis, 109). Asceticism may be thought of as a shrinking of the self (Malina, 162-5), a distortion of the self, including the psychological, the social, and the physical self, resulting in a purified self whose every action is embedded in a new semiotic system.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The particular elements of subjectivity that asceticism confronts are desire and temptation. Ascetic performances and practices create what comparative religion scholar Gavin Flood calls “a reversal of our orientation towards desire and the senses” through disciplining of the body and mind, even to the point of changing its instinctual responses, so that “a higher good and greater happiness can be achieved” (ix, 4). In one of asceticism’s many seeming contradictions, great strength of will is required to eradicate will (Flood, ix).

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 While rejecting mainstream social convention, Flood argues that asceticism internalizes tradition, so that tradition ultimately eradicates and replaces individual subjectivity. It is this element of tradition that for Flood distinguishes ascetic acts of will from more ordinary cultural forms of resistance and self-denial like dieting, exercise, or athletic training, whose goals remain earthly and anchored in subjectivity rather than seeking a fundamental shift to the transcendental (Flood, ix), although Harpham and others would disagree and see these acts as related to asceticism.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 This relationship of asceticism to tradition means that the ascetic is basing his or her abstinences and resistances on those of earlier ascetics in the tradition, so that individual subjectivity and history becomes aligned with a long-running narrative of tradition. Flood points out that a training that changes a person’s orientation from the fulfilment of individual desires to a narrative greater than the self (2). Narrative, the telling of the stories of earlier ascetics so that later aspirants may be inspired by their acts is an important part of the traditional nature of asceticism (Valantasis, 8, 40).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Cuteness, Asceticism, Desire, and Capitalism
Central to asceticism is its complex relationship to desire. Obliterating desires helped the ascetic to become closer to God, even as paying attention to them while disciplining them brings attention to them; a desire to get rid of desire is still a desire (Harpham, 45). As James Livingston argues, “the desiring subject is a new form of subjectivity under capital” (44). And for Ngai, desire is embedded in our relationships to cuteness and commodities: as she puts it, “our desire for the cute commodity mirrors the desire it appears to have for us” (67). Connections between asceticism and the foundational context of cuteness, capitalism, may be found in the work of Max Weber, who, considering the roles of desire and resistance in capitalism, labelled capitalism as “worldly asceticism” (Harpham, xiv). For Weber, the way that capitalism required self-denial and discipline made it an adaptation of asceticism; instead of transforming the subjectivity of the ascetic, it created a new economic world (Valantasis, 36).

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Harpham’s interest lies in how capitalism and asceticism both structure desire, and uses these to demonstrate Weber’s theory. Harpham contrasts eremitic (solitary and isolated) asceticism with which is cenobitic (monastic, community-based):

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Eremites renounced the world; cenobites renounced themselves. Accordingly, eremites gained themselves; and cenobites, through the monasteries that exerted their powerful influence until the Reformation, gained the world. This last assertion is the basis for Max Weber’s analysis of “worldly asceticism” [which] describes the transformation through the Reformation of the original “ausserweltlich” asceticism into an “innerweltlich” asceticism whose characteristic mode was capitalism (29).

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Weber’s argument proposes that with the ending of feudalism, asceticism became part of everyday life, not just religious vocation. (For Flood, such a context lacks the cosmological element he sees as critical to the definition of asceticism [2].) Being able to forego immediate gratification in hopes of future profit promised “reward for the abstinence of the capitalist” (Adams, 110). Suffering in the present promised rewards in the future, a system to which Marx referred as “the science of renunciation” (Adams, 110). If consumers were to buy into this self-disciplined deferral of reward, their desire had to be aroused first, by commodities (Adams, 111). Adams describes this as a “cycle of intensified desire met by intensified regulation” (111). As loosening class boundaries made it possible for wealth to be earned and amassed, “the spontaneous enjoyment of life” was lost to sacrifice and hard work, making asceticism integral to capitalism (Harpham, 29). The ascetic capitalist, like the early Christian ascetic, at times even sacrificed family relationships to the pursuit of profit (Harpham, 29) 2 Weber drew connections between asceticism’s “powerful tendency toward uniformity of life” and “the capitalistic interest in the standardization of production” (Harpham, 20). Harpham goes so far as to say that because of asceticism’s emphasis on labor, “Early asceticism is capitalism without money” (30). Harpham argues that the forms of cenobite and eremite have reemerged as capitalist consumer and producer (30).

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Secularized asceticism could instill discipline. But if everyone were disciplined, there would be no one to buy the goods. So, as literary scholar James eli Adams points out, “desire had to be stimulated in order to encourage individuals to participate in the salutary discipline of economic life” (111). As Ngai so powerfully demonstrates, cuteness is just the thing to arouse consumers to desire intimacy with cute commodities (54).

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Continuities between Cuteness and Asceticism
Both cuteness and asceticism have a tendency to excess: cuteness with ever larger eyes, chubbier softness, etc., and asceticism with self-deprivations and various flagellations that inflict suffering without quite causing death (James, 354, cited in Harpham, xiii). Yet their excess is often tied paradoxically, in both cases, to lack. Harris points out that cuteness is cute because it lacks something (4), while asceticism is built on lack, whether of food, sleep, human companionship, etc. Lack serves a purpose, and is another element of both that may be considered aestheticized. With their stylized lack, neither cuteness nor asceticism lack lack, which would mean in the Lacanian sense that they would not be anxious 3 In the case of the deliberate lack of the ascetic, this seems true, but the cute seems to tend toward anxiety despite not lacking lack.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Partially because of its seeming lack, cuteness evokes “tenderness or affection” that may be “mixed with contempt and even a touch of disgust” (Ngai, 60) which is related to its sharpness. As Harris and Ngai point out, cuteness’s sweetness if often paired ambivalently with disgust and revulsion (Harris, 2-4: Ngai, 60). Cuteness and asceticism also overlap in their relation to bodily functions. Harris notes that excretions are eliminated from the cute, while Merish notes more specifically that defecating or vomiting have no place in the cute. In asceticism, an absence of bodily functions, perhaps from deliberate self-starvation, was a sign of saintliness. Asceticism’s relationship to disgust and aversion have to do with canceling out the desirability of the body, and in visible signs of suffering being aestheticizations of piety. The sometimes disgusting mortifications undergone by ascetics are signs of a movement away from subjectivity and toward purity (Adams, 29). An example of the ascetic desirability of disgust, disgust that cancels the desirability of the body, is the description of the horrendous physical suffering of St. Symeon Stylites, whose gangrenous leg was filled with maggots. Yet to his followers, this wound was by no means an indicator of ordinary suffering, but a mark and a sight which took on holy meaning. Symeon’s biographer Antonius describes a man who “picked up one of the worms that had fallen from Symeon’s thigh and saw it as a priceless pearl” (Miller, 147). (I can’t help but imagine some anime version of this wherein a cutefied big-eyed maggot preens at being perceived as pearly, manifesting the type of pride that would be anathema to a good ascetic.) Such atrocious wounds would be out of place in conventional cuteness, but woundedness of a lesser variety can add to cuteness, as Harris comments in relation to British teddy bear “Little Mutt,” who wears an orthopedic boot (Harris, 6). Further exploring the sufferings of the cute or ascetic body, one divergence comes from the fact that the cute object/image/toy is designed as suffering, by a (perhaps sadistic) designer who “maims and hobbles” (Harris, 5). It may also invite rough handling (Ngai, 67). The ascetic, by contrast, is suffering for a creator who did not maim or hobble him or her, in many cases; the maiming/hobbling is self-inflicted in the name of that creator. One exception is the reported sadism of some abbots towards their ascetic monks.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Another component of both cuteness and asceticism where overlap exists, and that at first might seem counterintuitive, is the way that neediness and/or helplessness become attractive (Harris, 4). Harris argues that cuteness aestheticized “unhappiness, helplessness, and deformity” (5) part of the dynamic of powerlessness that makes the cute appealing. Deformity, a mark of saintly ascetic suffering, is also a mark of the neediness of the cute, but only to a certain degree. In asceticism, helplessness is part of the practice of resistance and self-denial, and if resistance and self-denial lead to bodily infirmity that make the ascetic even more helpless, then the ascetic’s piety is a successful embodiment (literally) of ascetic tradition. As Valantasis observes of asceticism, “Even hermits do not live alone: they have a network of people around them, a community that supports and sustains them, as well as a community for whom the ascetic performs his transformation” (116). The hermetic ascetic’s willingness to give up not only comfort and food but self-sufficiency is a willful embrace of neediness.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 An additional element of physical anomaly that overlaps strangely between the cute and the ascetic is more specifically bodily distortion. Harris points out that teddy bears, which when originally marketed looked more or less like anatomically proportionate bears, have over time been altered so that pawless and jointless pudgy limbs stick straight out uselessly, or at best, ready for a hug (5, 10). The deliberate distortion and uselessness of limbs was also a practice of extreme ascetics, who, for example like St. Symeon Stylites, stood with arms straight up. Or, to cite a much cuter example, like St. Kevin of Glendalough, who as a child had his arms outstretched to pray when a bird landed in them and built a nest; the (cute) child future saint stayed in that position throughout Lent, until the last (cute) fledglings had departed. Limited movement and non-functional body parts play a role in both asceticism and cuteness. Yet as Miller warns, to too easily semiotize such performances, as in reading Symeon’s raised hands in relation to Christ’s crucifixion, is to oversimplify the complex relationship of every ascetic to his or her narrative tradition, and to tame the radicality of Symeon’s own interpretation. So while the teddy bear’s simplified useless arms tame the wild beast, Symeon’s useless arms, in Miller’s interpretation, exceed the taming of oversimplified theological interpretation, and should not be interpreted as thus tame but rather as wild and undomesticated (146).

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 While Symeon is not, according to Miller, merely imitating Christ, he, and other ascetics, were participating in a tradition of imitation and repetition of earlier ascetics. As Harris points out, cuteness is also repetitive (12). For Harris, the predictability and repetitiveness of the cute creates rituals that “initiate children into the esoteric rituals of its art” (12). Rituals are also critical to asceticism, and the repeating of those rituals by individuals training themselves through performances, and then their repeated rituals being imitated by chronologically later ascetics.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Cuteness, Asceticism, and Aesthetics
While cuteness has been compared to the pierce of the Barthesian punctum, the wound of the cute is, like the self-inflicted wound of the ascetic, a wound that is part of a generality, a coded system. Part of what makes cute cute is that it is often universal, the international appeal of anime being an example. The punctum, by contrast, is an unsought wound (albeit one to which a viewer may be receptive). The Barthesian punctum is uncoded, whereas the cute is coded, like the ascetic’s wound (Valantasis, 548). The punctum is contingency, the cute determined; the punctum is an accidental encounter, not an act of will. The punctum that viciously wounds one viewer may go completely unnoticed by another; cuteness, in contrast, has a broad appeal that demands notice. Similarly, the ascetic’s wound is not just a wound, but a semiotic one with specific meaning.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 When considering the retrofuturism of cuteness, in terms of aesthetics and asceticism, is it interesting to note that the rise of the capitalist/consumerist aesthetic of cuteness took place during a time that avant-garde art turned resolutely away from (disciplined itself against) the cute. Academic art of the nineteenth century was illusionistic; what comes to mind is Bouguereau, with his Rubenesque (definitely not ascetic) nymphs, or chubby child cherubs wielding sharp little arrows of love. Academic paintings, no matter how serious, could accommodate cute marmosets or sweet birds. If one considers Manet to be the first modernist, it is worth noting that he never painted a cute cat (or any other cute animal). His cats are dirty and greasy (see Olympia, 1863-5) or grooming themselves unattractively. The squishiness and vague outlines of the soft cute, as well as the sharply delineated angles of the cruel cute, are both hard to come by in modernist tendencies to abstraction, in which visible marks take precedence over clarity of representation; abstraction tends to cancel suggestions of softness. An exception, perhaps unsurprisingly, (and one that suggests that categorizing Duchamp in modernism is dubious) is Marcel Duchamp’s Boite en Valise, a suitcase containing tiny reproductions of his iconic readymades and other works; a tiny handmade urinal is indeed cute. Of note is the repetitive nature of the Boite en Valise: Duchamp made a series of sets of miniature reproductions of his famous Dada works; rather than being avant-garde readymades, the tiny replicas were handcrafted, as if for an avant-garde dollhouse. Each valise held a (suggestively not ascetic) sixty-nine reproductions. Indeed, Duchamp, who made a pilgrimage to New York to escape the persecution of his countrymen for not serving in World War I, lived a meager life in a tiny apartment, earning a living by teaching French to children, dining on cheap plates of spaghetti at the same diner for years. That his most famous work, the austere Fountain, a pseudo-commode) commodity (-turned-art referred to bodily excretions and looked like some kind of ritual object suggests that further exploration of Duchamp/Dada/asceticism/cuteness might be fruitful.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 While it is safe to say that the exigencies of asceticism are for the most part not cute, some of asceticism’s emphasis on desire and its resistance, on aestheticizations of human life, on repetition, on imitability, find expression in the cute, and in particular in cuteness’s relationship to desire. Asceticism and cuteness both seem to have the capacity to harbor ambiguities and contradictions of related themes.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Bibliography
Adams, James Eli. Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Angier, Natalie. “The Cute Factor.” The New York Times. January 3, 2006.
Bannet, Eve Tavor. “Analogy as Translation; Wittgenstein, Derrida, and the Law of Language.” Philosophical Thoughts Autumn 1997: 655-672.
Bynum, Carolyn Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Deal, William E. “Towards a Politics of Asceticism: Response to the Three Preceding Papers.” Asceticism. Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 424-442.
Flood, Gavin. The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Harpham, Gregory Galt. The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: the Aesthetics of Consumerism. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Ed. Martin E. Marty. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
Kaelber, Walter O. “Asceticism.” The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.
Lacan, Jacques, Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Cambridge: Polity, 2014.
Livingston, James. Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Malina, Bruce J. “Pain, Power, and Personhood: Ascetic Behavior in the Ancient Mediterranean.” Asceticism. Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 162-177.
Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Shirley Temple and Tom Thumb.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996, 185-203.
Miller, Patricia Cox. “Desert Asceticism and ‘The Body from Nowhere.’” Journal of Early Christian Studies Summer 1994: 137-153.
Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Williams, Michael Stewart. “Review of Contextualizing Cassian: Aristocrats, Asceticism, and Reformation in Fifth-Century Gaul by Richard J Goodrich, Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2007.” Journal of Theological Studies Apr. 2010: 376-378.
Valantasis, Richard. The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2008.
Yarshater, Ehsan. “Asceticism in Zoroastrian Perspective.” Asceticism. Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 596-598.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Notes:

  1. 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0
  2. Asceticism has also been explored to varying degrees by, among others, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva.
  3. However, Harpham argues that the abandonment of spontaneous enjoyment in the pursuit of wealth happened far earlier than Weber claims, as early as the 4th century.
  4. See Jacques Lacan, Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Cambridge: Polity, 2014.
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Source: http://retrofuturismofcuteness.net/indulgence-and-refusal-cuteness-asceticism-and-the-aestheticization-of-desire/