Creepiness as an aesthetic judgment

[The following is a segment from a draft introduction for Creepiness, which did not seem to fit very well with the rest of the argument.]

Anyone who undertakes to define creepiness faces seemingly insuperable obstacles. How can we define a concept that can include such heterogeneous examples? We might be tempted to say that any quest for a unifying concept is doomed to fail, that creepiness simply has many different definitions. Yet there is a problem here as well, because creepiness cannot be easily replaced by other descriptors. If we were to call any of these examples anything other than “creepy,” something would be missing. For instance, we might call the sleazy attempted seducer pathetic, but that is something very different from being creepy. Similarly, we might call him threatening, but that misses the mark in the other direction. We may get the sense that the sleazy guy is not above resorting to a date-rape drug, but if he actually did so, he would no longer be merely a creep—he would be a criminal.

We might not be able to say what creepiness is, but we somehow sense that when something is creepy, it is very emphatically and precisely creepy—no other word will do. Indeed, if the phenomenon in question can be plausibly described by another word, that in itself disqualifies it as being properly creepy.

I have initiated many conversations about creepiness over the years, and each one confirmed this basic point. Though my attempted definitions of creepiness were always rejected out of hand, each group—whether I was out for drinks with a friend or at a dinner party, whether I was among academic colleagues or students or strangers—could identify creepiness with confidence. It was as though creepiness, while undeniably a subjective reaction, was nonetheless something objective. The structure is similar to Kant’s notion of an aesthetic judgment. When we judge something to be beautiful, we are not doing the same kind of thing as when we determine something to be triangular or wooden. We aren’t applying an objective standard or concept, but making a subjective judgment, a judgment about how something makes us feel—and yet this judgment is one that we expect other rational people to share. It is, so to speak, objectively subjective.

It may seem strange to extend this structure to cover the creepy, but Sianne Ngai has recently argued that we need to expand our aesthetic vocabulary beyond the region of the beautiful. In Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), she puts forward the categories of the zany, the cute, and the interesting, and I’d like to add an example that is closer to the familiar ballpark of beauty: namely, the tacky. When we judge something to be tacky, we aren’t simply calling it ugly, or garish, or unstylish. We are calling it precisely tacky. The quality of tackiness cannot be fully described but can be confidently identified—it is not an objective category, but an objectively subjective judgment.

Ngai’s goal in designating “our” aesthetic categories is not simply to enlarge our vocabulary for its own sake, but to help aesthetics take into account things like history and class and power. We can say the same of tackiness, a judgment that is always time-bound and caught up in the dynamics of class and class-aspiration. Something can be the peak of fashion one day and a tacky faux pas the next. What’s more, the same basic type of object can have a stylish and a tacky version, with the latter usually associated with the lower classes. For the wealthy and upwardly mobile, there are dark slim-cut jeans, while the lower classes wallow in their tacky “dad jeans”—and perhaps by the time this comes to print, the fashion-forward will have embraced “dad jeans,” rendering dark slim-cut jeans a tacky imposture.

Power dynamics are certainly at work in judgments of creepiness as well. Think of the creepiness of the stereotypical “redneck,” skinny and gawky (or repulsively obese) with a mouth full of crooked teeth, always living under a cloud of suspicion for insufficient exogamy. This judgment of creepiness goes hand in hand with the broader desire of many American elites to disown white working class and rural populations.

[And here the abandoned segment joins up with more usable fragments….]

8 thoughts on “Creepiness as an aesthetic judgment

  1. The class aspect touched on at the end is interesting. There’s definitely a pop culture stereotype of the Creepy Redneck (Deliverance & etc.). I’m coming up blank on Creepy Working Class Guy, though. Did you have a particular example in mind?

  2. Are tackiness and kitsch similar? After all, kitsch is an attempt by the middle classes to affect culture. Clement Greenberg: Kitsch is imitative of the effect of art. I would argue that poorly dressed rednecks and old people aren’t even trying to look stylish. Must one at least care to be tacky?

  3. Eric, maybe kitsch affects the effect of an aesthetic; it doesn’t really believe in the specific aesthetic standard but it’s nice to have it around. Tacky, on the other hand, really does believe in the specific aesthetic but suffers Dunning-Kruger complications about what’s standard.

  4. It seems that the word “creepy” is mostly used by women to describe unattractive men who desire them. It’s not a purely aesthetic judgement, although it has an aesthetic component.

    I actually think that it’s as simple as that. The “creepy” individual can be unattractive in a variety of subjective ways (overweight, underweight, poor hygiene, wrong race, wrong social class, etc.) and the desire can manifest in a variety of ways as well (running the gamut from the desire for friendship or company to leering or a lewd proposition).

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