ENGL 698 materials: Grad Thesis
new media installations and grants
Note to Self

Co-edited with Wan-Chuan Kao, Retro-Futurism of Cuteness (punctum)

Proposal, edited volume, Punctum Books (and Scalar addition) (UNDER CONTRACT, 2/2015)

The Retro-Futurism of Cuteness

Appearing October, 2017 Punctum site


Co-edited, Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington and Lee University) and Jen E. Boyle (Coastal Carolina University)


This project began as a panel at the 2014 3rd Biennial Meeting of the Babel Working Group, University of California Santa Barbara. Here is the original call for papers for the panel: 


Cute cues: infancy, youth, helplessness, vulnerability, harmlessness, play, enjoyment, awkwardness, needs, intimacy, homeliness, and simplicity. At other times, cuteness is cheapness, manipulation, delay, repetition, hierarchy, immaturity, frivolity, refusal, tantrum, and dependence. Cuteness is a threshold: “too cute” is a backhanded compliment. Or, cuteness is a beach where forces congregate. A dolphin breaching in the ocean may be cute, but not a beached one. And more than the pop cultural kawaii 

(literally, “acceptable love”), “cute” — the aphetic form of “acute” — also carries the 

sense of “clever, keen-witted, sharp.” The Latin acutus embraces the sharpened, the pointed, the nimble, the discriminating, and the piercing. To be cute is to be in pain. Cuteness is therefore a figure of Roland Barthes’s punctum or Georges Bataille’s point of ecstasy. As we gather at the Pacific Rim, let us, à la Takashi Murakami, recast the premodern in cuteness. The OED cites the first reference to “cute” in the sense of “attractive, pretty, charming” as 1834. Sianne Ngai, in 2005, offered a critical study of the cuteness of the twentieth-century avant-garde. But was there ever a medieval or early modern history or historiography of cuteness? Is it possible to conceive of a Hello Kitty Middle Ages, or a Tickle Me Elmo Renaissance? Has the humanities, or the university, ever been cute? Cuteness is the cheap bastard child of beauty: what’s beautiful may not be cute, but what’s ugly and monstrous may be. This panel will feature curated materials (images, videos, texts, essays, sound bytes, trinkets, texts, objects and artifacts from the premodern and present) as a pre-session, submitted 2 to 3 months in advance of the conference and made available online; and a 40-minute dialogue during the conference, preceded by 5-minute “flash talk” show-and-tells where participants re-introduce their curated pieces. Pre-session curated materials will also be part of a media exhibit space associated with the conference (University Center: Flying A Room). We welcome a diverse range of approaches (including but not limited to): aesthetics, material culture, affect, gender, queerness, childhood, youth, disability, camp, Sado-Cute, and Superflat.


In light of the encouraging responses to the projects presented for The Retro-Futurism of Cuteness, along with the subsequently proposed but linked Babel session, Cute Shakespeare, this edited volume aims to extend the conversation about the potential for “Cute Studies” in the context of pre-modern literature and culture.  Participants at both Babel panels expressed how the connection between a cute aesthetics and medieval and early modern texts opened up unexpected lines of inquiry and unusual critical and creative aporias — one participant remarked at how powerful these evocations around cuteness were, and then further wondered about why and how this particular critical locus managed to be so provocative.  It is a question we want to pursue further in this collection, which will feature a selection of the papers and responses from the conference in expanded form, as well as additional essays and projects that speak to premodern and transhistorical cuteness (a second call for papers for the collection will be circulated).  Since a few of these projects are structured around curated images, video collages and an experimental short film, we anticipate building in a companion interactive multimodal site developed within the web-authoring platform, Scalar (Alliance for Networking Visual Culture) that would be linked to the Punctum volume.


Cute studies is gaining critical attention, particularly in the wake of Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (2007), an inventive exploration of a kind of “minor literature” of marginalized modes of feeling and unconventional aesthetics.  Ngai’s engagement with cuteness focuses primarily on contemporary media and literature and largely within the context of consumer culture.  This proposal seeks to displace a strict focus on commodification and cuteness and to instead ask how cuteness as a minor aesthetics can refocus our perceptions and readings of pre-modern literature and culture.   As Michael O’Rourke highlighted in his creative-theoretical presentation for the Retro-Futurism of Cuteness panel (“Futurity”), cuteness evokes a proximity that is at once potentially invasive and contaminating and yet softening and transfiguring.  If cuteness can get under the skin, so to speak, what kinds of surfaces does it best infiltrate, particularly in the framework of historical forms and events that predate the commodified present and within texts that traditionally have been read as emergences around “big” aesthetics (formal symmetries, “high” affects and resemblances)?


Cute aesthetics is viewed as a function of affect amid contemporary consumer production.  The Journal of East Asian Studies has announced a planned special issue on “Cute Studies,” framing the field in terms of modern aesthetics and a flourishing East Asian cultural phenomenon that has its roots in the consumer boom of the nineteen-seventies <http://eap.einaudi.cornell.edu/content/call-papers-cute-studies-special-issue-east-asian-journal-popular-culture>. While it is difficult to determine whether cuteness can be said to be fully legible before the contemporary moment, it is certain that thinking with cuteness in the context of the early modern or medieval can inflect our approaches to aesthetics more broadly.  Many of the featured projects from both Babel panels provocatively unearthed remnants of a “cult of cute,” positioned historically and critically in between transitions into secularization, capitalist frameworks of commodification, and the enchantment of objects.  Moreover, premodern cuteness points to a spectrum of affects related to racial, ethnic and class dimensions that exceed or trouble our contemporary perceptions of such registers within object-subject and subject-object entanglements.


Scope of the Volume

In addition to the revised essays of conference participants, we anticipate including an additional four to five essays (@ 5000 words an essay), as well as an introductory and coda essay.  We anticipate the total scope of the volume at 55,000 words, with a projected maximum of 40 images for the total volume.  Authors will be expected to clear copyright permissions or submit materials to Critical Commons for inclusion.  


We also anticipate including an e-book addendum to the project that would be created in the semantic publishing platform, Scalar.  Rather than just creating a website extension of the written text, we hope to craft a Scalar component that offers some innovative visualizations of the connections between an early modern “cult of cute” and contemporary articulations and reproductions of “cute.”  [Julia Rheinhard Lupton and C J Gordon, University of California, Irvine have expressed an interest in collaborating on this aspect of the publication; in part, this Scalar project would serve as a digital development demonstration for the new Digital Humanities Working Group at University of California, Irvine]. We feel that bringing these elements together — a creative fusion of text, multimodal production, and pedagogical event space — speaks directly to the innovative niche in publishing that Punctum has made possible.


One further component to the scope of this volume would be one or two respondent essays; ideally, several interlocutors that each represent phases of the material contained in this “book.” First, we hope to include a response from Eileen Joy, who offered the final critical summary to both panels at the BABEL conference. Additionally, we hope to include responses from either (or both) Sianne Ngai (Stanford) and Wayne Koestenbaum (CUNY) to offer some critical contrast to our appropriation of cute studies into a pre-modern frame.


Peer-Review Plan

We envision a two-pronged peer review process:

Open: input on the draft essays is in the open via CommentPress

Traditional: draft essays are sent to members of the Punctum board 


Anticipated Delivery and Work Plan

The editors commit to providing a fully proofed and publish-ready manuscript to Punctum.



May 1st, 2015: Paper proposals from contributors

June 1st, 2015: Notification of paper acceptance

August 31, 2015: Full manuscript of paper; peer reviews begin

January 15, 2016: Anticipated publication of print volume

July 1, 2016: Anticipated publication of Scalar multimedia companion volume