Sianne Ngai

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for the invitation to reflect on this exciting essay, which pulls so many strands from your work together.

“Speaking in Tongues” suggests that poetry at its core is about polyvocality—and the linguistic subcultures which it at once points to but also often hides or renders strangely obscure in that very act of pointing. As potentially concealing as it is revealing of social identities and conflicts (including modes of what you elsewhere call “negative sociability”), this “indexicality” makes poetry perpetually redolent—excitingly and even alluringly redolent—with the possibility of fraudulence. I use italics since the connotations of “fraudulent” are so predominantly negative. It seems counterintuitive, especially in post-critical times, to think of aesthetic suspicion as a scene of pleasure or discursive play. 

Your argument about the unique indexicality of diction (which you provocatively suggest should dislodge form from its privileged position in theorizations of poetry) overlaps in interesting ways with Käte Hamburger’s simple but always somewhat astonishing argument in The Logic of Literature that lyric utterances are tied to real as opposed to fictive speakers in a way that the novel and drama are not. For Hamburger, poetry is the statement of a real subject locatable in time (and therefore history) and thus fundamentally non-fictional—which is perhaps exactly why poetic diction can be faked? I wonder if there is more grist for your mill in Hamburger’s odd but thought-provoking way of hiving lyric off from the other genres? Whose fictional statements, she argues, are fundamentally detemporalized or detemporalizing in way that poetry’s “reality statements” are not? 

Moving on to another topic: I’d like to hear more about how you regard “style” in relation to the (polarized) concepts of “form” and “diction.” The move of distinguishing “diction” from “form” is clear (and in your essay, everything), but the difference of “style” from the other two terms isn’t quite as obvious and seems to shift in interesting ways as the essay progresses. (This is more of an observation than a criticism).

Diction in the most general sense is usually understood to pertain to vocabulary, to the choice of words in a text, to the kind of language deployed in a poem. Yet diction, unlike style, conveys not only certain individual traits of the author or speaker, but also details of collective or social identity, of the particular linguistic community in which a speaker acquired or absorbed a particular language. (3)

Diction, you say here, “conveys details of collective and social identity” in ways style does not. But doesn’t style do this as well? Aren’t styles as potentially collective (and revealing of historical modes of social belonging) as they are individualistic? I’m thinking here, somewhat predictably, of the gendered style of cuteness, especially as played out on the internet. But we could think of any number of period-specific styles as well.

While style (understood as “individualistic”) is differentiated from diction above, it later becomes aligned with the referentiality or expressiveness of diction, over and against an abstract and implicitly non-indexical form: “Style and diction constitute the primary expressive functions of a text …. whether expression pertains to individual feelings or to social being and collective identity” (5). This alignment leads to a brief consideration of the three concepts as existing on a sort of continuum: “[Diction] lies somewhere between the social abstraction of form and the more transient subjectivities of style” (5).

Continuing to track “style” in relation to the essay’s other key terms, I noticed it aligned once again with “diction” in your striking account of poetic kitsch, which you describe as something like the reification of both: 

Trying to make sense of the generality of poetic kitsch, when style and diction lose all specificity, one is confronted by an artifact whose diction—to return to the boundary of form and style—approaches the abstract powers of form. When poetic diction begins to act like form, it becomes a language without qualities, a language that turns its back on the world, on the details of individual experience. (19, my emphasis)

In the end, style and diction are unambiguously brought on the same side of the vernacular and social-indexical fence, over and against the abstraction and “generality” of form. What links style and diction is that, unlike form, they can be faked. And indeed, lend themselves to or invite the suspicion of faking, in a way that “confirms” their status as sites and stakes of collective identification, disidentification, and struggle:

Curiously, the practice of fabrication, potentially marked by the taint of fraudulence, only enhances the social expressivity of diction. The susceptibility of diction to forgery, or appropriation, is in fact a basic feature of its capacity for exposing patterns of social conflict and shifting priorities in the spectrum of identity. The possibility that the expressive substance of diction can be faked—demonstrating the performativity of the vernacular—actually confirms its potency as an index of social identities and desires, setting it apart from the generality of form. Poetic form, unlike diction, cannot be faked; earlier references to the danger of confusing style and form help to explain why this is so. The abstract nature of form precludes the social and stylistic “fingerprint” that makes forgery possible. One could no more fake the form of a sonnet than produce a forgery of the number 2. Only the style and diction of a particular sonnet—which possesses specific personal and social characteristics—can be faked. 

[…. ] Diction may serve as evidence of authenticity in the presentation of identity, but it can also operate, even when it is faked, as a powerful register of social fears, desires, exchanges, and conflicts. (25-26, my emphases)

The “expressive immediacy” of diction/style gives it a “fraudulent allure”—makes the allure of fraudulence (so much to think about in this very pairing of terms!!) an unavoidable part of poetry. Conversely: poetry’s unusual susceptibility to the suspicion of fraudulence (which stands to reason if we go with Hamburger’s idea of it as a genre of statements issuing from real as opposed to fictional “I-origines”) testifies to diction/style’s indexical nature. This implies that aesthetic suspicion is something that haunts certain genres more than others. It also implies that the suspicion of fraudulence is something we might want to value critically as well as aesthetically, as not only a potential source of play or aesthetic pleasure in its own right (as Poe and Duchamp show by deliberately eliciting it through the hoax and the readymade) but also as a reliable signal that something collectively meaningful is at stake. 

All of this is just me thinking along with your essay—if probably (forgive me) imposing some of my preoccupations on it. I’ll end with a question that does so more directly: what about social being at the abstract level, and the concrete ways in which we experience it? Does your argument suggest that this kind of sociality—say, the strangely asocial, non-intersubjective kind produced by the abstraction of labor and reflected in forms like “value”—cannot be indexed via poetic diction? Similarly, can we speak of modes of abstraction explored through poetry that are entirely specific to being, say, female? Or brown, or a soldier, or gay?

Thank you once again for writing such a rich piece that gives us so much to think about.



Sianne Ngai is Professor of English at the University of Chicago and the author of Ugly Feelings (2005), Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012), and Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (forthcoming 2020).