Ambiguous Aesthetics and Affect on Instagram

Ambiguous Aesthetics and Affect on Instagram


While sitting in the library, an indisputably ugly place, I observe an old man standing within a narrow aisle, sandwiched by shelves of dusty books. After a period of scrutinization, he pulls out a hunter green hardcover. Something then clicks in my mind. I clock his green sweater, the same hue as the book in his hands, and his tan slacks, the same hue as the bookshelves. “Ah” I think to myself and discreetly snap a photo. 

I’m walking home in the evening. The sky has darkened and the air has acquired a soft, blurry quality from the rain. The orange glow from the streetlamps emanates onto the slick road in iridescent streaks. A marble praying Mary kneels in front of a gothic church, seemingly absorbing the light. I nod to myself in affirmation and pull out my phone.

I make no claims to being a photographer. I take pictures on my iPhone as a way to consume experiences just like anyone else. I share these to an audience on Instagram, who, in turn, contributes their consumed experiences. Together, we, the users, create a network of passive affirmation, contributing support through quantifiable metrics—likes, comments, views. There is also direct messaging, a more substantial mechanism of connection, but that is still mediated through our ‘user profile,’ an amalogration of consciously-curated images. 

We all know this. We bemoan the artificiality of Instagram. That it’s a glorified highlight reel. That in late capitalism, the barrier between our work and personal lives has collapsed; everything is monetizable, including identity, and we would be well-served to self-present as a cohesive brand on the platform. The photoshop, the influencers! And so on.

Despite these widely circulated grievances, we continue to use the app. Because of the dopamine rush of validation, certainly, but also because of the compelling aesthetic outlet it provides. These two reasons inform one another, coalescing to incur an aestheticized process of identity-building. So, the photos we post act as representatives of our selfhood; they reveal desires, both conscious and unconscious, that hold our attention. 

What, then, about my desire is revealed through a blurry, zoomed-in picture of a lit up statue? What am I trying to communicate about myself by posting photos that can hardly be described as beautiful but instead vaguely moody or off-kilter? I don’t have a clear answer to this question—“It’s just my taste,” I may be tempted to say. This qualifier, ‘just,’ is indicative of the way we often conceive of taste. We conjecture that it operates outside of objectivity, an instinctual response that eludes explanation. This inclination to evade justification for our aesthetic preferences is amplified tenfold when they are affixed to our identity, especially when those preferences materialize as ambiguous imagery. It’s a bit embarrassing to delve into our aspirations for self-presentation—Do I like taking and posting blurry pictures because I want to seem…mysterious?

“Aesthetic” instagram posts from my friends and me. Photos by @caroline_reagan,, @lenamarceca, and @paninaa, respectively

For as long as I’ve used Instagram, I’ve observed an inclination amongst my peers to curate feeds that avoid easy assimilation into traditionally idealized aesthetic categories. We eschew the beautiful and glamorous in favor of the idiosyncratic. Perhaps this is in a backlash against the oversaturation of explicitly contrived fashion and celebrity imagery inundated in the media. Perhaps we acknowledge that to capture a ‘picturesque’ sunset on our phones is, in fact, banal and cannot transmit the aura of the sublime visual experience, presenting a poor facsimile instead. Likely, both reasons apply. Beauty is boring; ours is an age of the individual (and if we happen to convey beauty in this pursuit, well, that’s just an added bonus). 

The idiosyncratic aesthetic styles so prevalent on my feed reflect our evolving relationship to taste en masse. Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, and Interesting explores how ambiguous aesthetic categories—that is, those that do not provoke a strong affective response—permeate contemporary culture and are intertwined with non-aesthetic “everyday practices of production, circulation, and consumption.”1 Our usage of such judgments are commonplace within conversation, cast so frequently as to dilute their meanings. What exactly is cute, interesting, or zany? Although it is tempting to believe that offering up these categories is in and of itself a sufficient investigation of our taste, Ngai asserts that it is through decoding these judgments that we access insights of affective value. 

The three categories she examines by no means exhaust the spectrum of relevant ambiguous aesthetics. However, they each speak to an integral component of how the aesthetic informs the non-aesthetic and vice versa. Published in 2012, Our Aesthetic Categories precedes Instagram’s heyday and avoids discussion of social media altogether. Nevertheless, the work proves prescient, and components of Ngai’s analysis lend themselves well to the quandary that is aestheticized self-presentation. 

Underpinning Ngai’s denotation of ‘cute,’ is an implicit subject-object power dynamic. The cute is necessarily diminutive as a category; the subject deems an object cute when they recognize their dominion over it. That is why we typically employ the judgment upon entities that are small and vulnerable. The cute, then, appeals to a maternal instinct of sorts, activating our desire to nurture and protect. While this is seemingly positive, Ngai proposes that an insidious maneuver occurs through this relationship between subject and cute object. Drawing from Adorno’s analysis of kitsch, she concludes that the object undergoes a process of commodification, assimilating within the structures of capitalist consumerism. Accordingly, to experience something as cute is to engage in a transaction of sorts, “[refusing] affective catharsis” and instead “[participating] in the sublimating work of objectifying actual emotion or converting it into affective semblance.”2 Thus, we rechannel our propensity to nurture the vulnerable into our propensity to possess the vulnerable, reconfiguring the role of the subject as that of the consumer. 

On Instagram, a subject-object relationship is apparent—albeit the object in question is not limited to that of the small and vulnerable. The platform prompts a form of consumption that is generally extra-economic (which can, in turn, impact our economic decisions). Content is the commodity (the object) in this case, and it is necessarily performative—even if not created with the explicit intention of shareability, content becomes performative when posted by simply by comprising a part of our online identity. Similarly, we the producers and participants (the subject) consume content in a detached, abstracted manner. The mode in which we maneuver the feed is through scrolling—a low-commitment, fast-paced movement that enables a high volume of consumption, ceasing only momentarily as we tap, transmitting likes. 

A degree of alienation and artificiality occurs on both ends of the subject-object transaction. The subject relinquishes ownership of their object through sharing content, a piece of their constructed self. In turn, the object, in its immateriality and locational context, can only satisfy the subject momentarily. Although the cute, in its process of commodification, serves as a particularly compelling example, it is by no means the only category attenuated by Instagram. The aesthetic content it displays scrapes the surface of a vast spectrum of affects but cannot provide catharsis in any substantial way. Instead, we accept a semblance of the emotions we truly seek to experience. 

Given that interacting with content, our commodified desires, does not truly move us by way of an emotional release, we are increasingly drawn toward the intellectualized aesthetic of the interesting. Ngai distinguishes this category from others by imagining it as a mediating force between feeling and reason: “The interesting thus seems to be a way of creating relays between affect-based judgment and concept-based explanation.”3 These relays are created through the process of justification; critically, we must provide evidence for the interestingness of the thing in question, employing concepts to convince others to arrive at our own aesthetic judgment. 

So, then, the interesting is necessarily beyond understanding: “…interesting is in media res, ‘on its way’ to a ‘there’ whose actual destination is uncertain.”4 The affective response elicited from something interesting is foggy, but the predominant sense of wonder driving the judgment does incur a shift in our mood—namely, we become animated, compelled to speak and critique. 

If we assume that Instagram users have adopted the logic of the algorithm, then their primary goal in creating content should be to capture attention. The algorithm tailors your feed according to your relationships, so those who you interact with the most are filtered to the top. It also favors faces and posts with heavy engagement, i.e. accounts with large followings. 

The interesting, however, is not necessarily that which garners the most attention. While the personalized mechanism of the algorithm is adept at guessing what you may find of interest, it also generates a feedback loop that can be very, well, boring; interesting content may be pushed to the bottom, likely neglected exposure. For instance, an Instagram influencer who pedals fitness tea captures attention for their aspirational lifestyle, but their appeal is straightforward and contingent upon brand consistency. Perhaps I am biased here, but I tend to judge that these accounts don’t intrigue us as much as they comfort us, reaffirming our consumerist values that have been repackaged as strides towards self-improvement. 

No, when I refer to interesting content on Instagram, I mean that which piques curiosity and begets contemplation and/or conversation. There is no single formula for accomplishing this. A user who exhibits the intimate details of their life, approximating intimacy, may intrigue. Another user who withholds all personal information while posting obscure, even nonsensical imagery may prove equally compelling in their mystique. The throughline that I have detected within interesting Instagram accounts is their distinct aesthetic sensibilities, eluding easy categorization. Their immediate affective response is puzzlement: “Interest begins as a feeling of not knowing exactly what we are feeling.”5 Once we identify and accept the feeling behind the interest, the interest will likely begin to dissipate—that is unless an unpredictable change occurs within the voice and/or content of the account. 

If the interesting is more intellectual investigation than aesthetic, then the zany is a reaction against the intellectual, a frenzied fit of sorts. The etymology of ‘zany’ stems from the Commedia dell’arte’s ‘Zanni’ character, a displaced immigrant worker who becomes a servant to the wealthy nobles of Italy. He is a trickster, a variation on the harlequin. The zany category, then, is fundamentally an expression of performance. More acutely, it is theatrical, typified by exaggerated gesticulations and slapstick humor. It is also fundamentally a class conscious aesthetic, representing the position of the worker. Like the zani entertains the elite merchant class of sixteenth through eighteenth century Italy, the zany aesthetic “speaks to a politically ambiguous erosion of the distinction between playing and working.”6 This collapse results from the “precariousness created specifically by the capitalist organization of work.”7

Under late capitalism, ideas about what constitutes labor have significantly expanded, now encompassing the whole of our selfhood. The term ‘emotional labor’ is ubiquitous as of late and for good reason—putting to work “relational skills, ordinary know-how, and other basic human capacities for the production of tangible as well as intangible goods.”8 is, indeed, ubiquitous. Through assimilating emotional labor into the workforce, feelings become mechanized—a means to the end that is profit, “leading to a historically unprecedented difficulty separating ‘affective bonds’ from ‘useful relationships.’”9 Activity too has become cloudy; the workplace is framed as a place where fun can occur (think of the free snacks and pool tables of our friends in Silicon Valley), rendering leisure activity irrelevant. So, the zany aesthetic embodies the charismatic worker whose reality is performance, laboring ceaselessly to self-present as capable, relatable, etc. Underlying the lighthearted joking of zany exists the burden of pressure to perform and please.

Zany is perhaps the most direct aesthetic embodiment of the Instagram experience. From scrolling through the feed to flicking through stories to perusing the conglomeration of contrived moments in time compiled on a person’s profile, the volume and movement of content on Instagram epitomizes the frenetic. It’s all in good fun though, right? Not so much when a meme becomes a conduit for advertising or an alternative to therapy. It turns out that maintaining a fun persona online is work. 

What is considered fun is subject to a high turn-over, colluding with flagging attention spans. In order to maintain the spirit of fun integral to Instagram, we bring our personal aesthetics to extremes. It is quite often the case that someone is far less bold, animated, or sexy than they appear in the digital realm. Indeed, the fun of Instagram in large part derives from the space it provides for playing with identity, trying on new modes of presentation through a medium with a built-in audience. However, like a house of mirrors, the images reflected are more often than not distorted, entrapping us within a prism of narcissism that complicates the question of identity, prompting us to ponder who we are being for and for what purpose.

By reviewing Ngai’s three categories, cute, interesting, and zany, a striking representation of the state of aesthetic judgments emerges into view. The ambiguous, noncommittal conditions of contemporary life alter the way we conceive of taste, in turn, producing ambiguous, noncommittal evaluations and affects. To me, Instagram seems like an intervention on the behalf of the postmodern era, compensating for the lack of fully realized feelings by granting the freedom to manufacture affect. Through the platform, we present our shining, complete personas, rendered intelligible through the visual’s inclination towards categorization. Yet, this freedom to define identity on our own terms has usurped definitions governing aesthetics and their accompanying affects, often leaving us less liberated than confused. 


  1. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1.
  2. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 101.
  3. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 116.
  4. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 152.
  5. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 135.
  6. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 188.
  7. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 188.
  8. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 206.
  9. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 155.
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