CFP: The Retro-Futurism of Cuteness

Editors: Jen Boyle (Coastal Carolina University) and Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington and Lee University)

Publisher: Punctum BooksUNDER CONTRACT

(“punctum books is an open-access and print-on-demand independent publisher dedicated to radically creative modes of intellectual inquiry and writing across a whimsical para-humanities assemblage.”)

The OED dates the first reference to “cute” in the sense of “attractive, pretty, charming” to 1834. In 2005 and 2012, Sianne Ngai, channeling Takashi Murakami and Andy Warhol, offered a critical overview 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? The history of aesthetics, of course, did not begin with Kant and Burke. Albertus Magnus, in De Pulcho et Bono, defines universal beauty as one that demands “mutual proportions among all things and their elements and principles . . . with the clarity of form.” And while there are elements of what could be called an “impure” aesthetics throughout the early modern period, sublime affects and proportionaltiy continue to be the markers of aesthetic robustness. Cuteness is neither the sublime nor the well-proportioned. It is a bastard child of the dainty and the dumpy; what’s beautiful may not be cute, but what’s ugly and monstrous may be. Cute cues and affects: softness, roundness, infancy, femininity, helplessness, vulnerability, harmlessness, play, enjoyment, awkwardness, neediness, intimacy, homeliness, and simplicity. At the same time, cuteness is cheapness, manipulation, delay, repetition, hierarchy, immaturity, frivolity, refusal, tantrum, and dependence. Cuteness is perhaps the aesthetic threshold: “too cute” is a backhanded compliment. 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.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 addition to a peer-reviewd and edited collection in print, a multimedia companion volume will be published via Scalar.

Word length: 5,000 words


June 1, 2015: Paper proposal

July 1, 2015: Notification of paper acceptance

September 30, 2015: Full manuscript of paper; peer reviews begin

September 1, 2016: Anticipated publication of print volume

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

Please send queries and proposals to both editors: Jen Boyle ( and Wan-Chuan Kao (