I use this term very often, as anyone who converses with me will know all too well. To say something is interesting is to acknowledge it.
But here we are with a discrepancy of what acknowledgment means.
In her book review of Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Hua Hsu points us toward these words that float effortlessly around in our conversations working harder than others in their popularity. It seems “interesting” is one of these ubiquitous terms (another word I use often). Before I get all into theory, motive, and purpose, I want to point out the subtitle of this article: “Sianne Ngai on the go-to descriptor of the modern age.” We have to stop here and remind everyone that we are NOT in the modern age. We have reached pinnacle postmodernism at the very least—those of us more fluent in theory would have other words.
So there’s that. Obviously I cannot expect a media channel such as Slate to do things completely right. But, Hsu’s book review does provide an adequate place for discussing why it is that we use the word interesting, which is, surely, a common linguistic denominator in our contemporaneous moment.
We are currently inundated with sensationalized headlines, slogans, and performed, idealized conceptions of what we need to know from every facet of our lives. Webpages and billboards are a “natural” part of our everyday experience. In them, we are promised and sold hype of egregious ontological magnitude.
So when Ngai asks this question as her major move in her text: “Is there a broader context for the conversational readymade ‘That’s interesting …’?”, we are left wondering why we drop a term that has to carry a lot of weight down as frequently as we do.
Ngai assures us that this is because we are inundated by the advertising community, and that our capacity for response leaves us to use signal terms that surmise everything into a lump exclamation. And, she may be right.
Well, I can’t speak for everyone. I know why I use the term “interesting.” Here’s her take, firstly:
To deem something “interesting” is to promise to return to it. It’s a judgment that doesn’t really say anything, beyond forestalling that judgment, like a (per Ngai) “sticky note” amid an endless wash of data. At its most thoughtful, calling something “interesting” might be an expression of indeterminacy, a placeholder for a future conversation. But more often than not, it’s just conversational filler, something dropped in when you don’t feel like judging at all.
This is the place where I agree with Ngai and Hsu, and then don’t. I’ve read my Burke; I’ve read my Kant. I’ve read Hutcheson; I’ve read the entire pomo theological movement on the sublime. I was kinda into the thing.
You wanna know why?
Because the sublime is interesting. I never fully agreed with Burke on his take of the sublime. The Enlightenment thinkers—yes, that’s those who first began defining these terms back in, say, the 1700s—were a bit too determinist and binary for me. The sublime is that which terrifies us, and beauty is that which brings calm. These guys separated the theories on each to the genders, just like any good Platonian would do.
But I ain’t no fan of Plato, and Les don’t play binaries. The sublime, for me, is that which arrests my senses and my ability to speak (for once), and leaves me thinking. What I find truly beautiful usually does this the most—just ask the man who gives me the sublime on a daily basis. He hears my “interesting” comments regularly.
For that reason, Ngai and Hsu are correct, I think “interesting” can be used as a sort of place-holder for thought. And maybe some people do use it as filler. This leaves me to question: what is filler?
When I drop down “interesting” in a conversation, it can mean several things. Usually, I disagree with the textual ideologies surrounding me and my communities, so when I say something is “interesting”, I am signaling that it is offensive in some way, and that I don’t have the time to get into a full rhetorical analysis of why. My closest companions are able to understand the implicit reading I’ve done without my explaining. If I am able, I will find a way to relate my reasoning as soon as my time is freed from my more pressing capitalist impositions.
Or, “interesting” can represent something fascinating—something that has won the mass of my attention. When this occurs, I need a place-holder there for myself, so I can take time to think about what I am feeling. Like a most revered living-philosopher, I find my own understanding of self to be interesting at times.
Saying something is interesting isn’t just a binary between “good” and “bad”. To rely upon it on those two ways dismisses the complexity of our sensory interpretation and inception of our environments. Perhaps it is our own social lack of accepting the multifaceted fabric of existence through not having a complex enough language. O, ye modernists.
This is how Hsu ends her review:
Does anyone ever mean it when they say something is “interesting”—or do we all, in art and conversation, merely aspire to be interesting enough? We usually ponder the present condition by considering our consumer choices or modes of self-presentation. But perhaps the line around our imagination starts elsewhere, in those aesthetic experiences that happen on the edge of comprehension. Before we are inventories of symbols and things, we are thinking, feeling people navigating a fluid, ever-changing world—a world where everything is interesting but not much more, where cuteness and zaniness are the only scales available to us when confronted with global vastness.
Well, here is some heavy analysis and questioning. I want to formally commend Hsu for her journey of thought. I do not have answers for her because these are all interesting propositions. I know how I feel about them. What I think works best, here in my own text, is to provide you all with a space for conversation in the hopes that we can make something interesting. Feel free to answer here, or write your own response. Please do, and tag me if so.
Questions for talk: What are you saying—signifying—when you use your most common, everyday words? Are you worried about your image, thus using it ubiquitously as an act of reputation-upkeep? Are you hunting for words, knowing that a simple one will have to do [in place of] for now? Are there other options?
The one thing this book and review do is get us thinking about our word choice. We can ask ourselves how we are using our language, and what it means to leave and lose meaning when we are engaging in conversation. This very act of self reflection feels a little sublime, does it not?