Stuplimity, Sonnets, and Rage

In a fascinating recent post, Michael Lutz adopts Sianne Ngai’s concept of ‘stuplimity’ to think about video games. Ngai coins the term to refer to the combination of shock and boredom, irritation and awe, that marks works as different as the thick language of Stein, the sculptures of Ann Hamilton that lump together thousands of common objects (cf. the SF MOMA’s page on ‘Indigo Blue’) , or the “”pulsating, highly energized, yet exhaustively durational electronic music.”

indigo blue

Ann Hamilton, “Indigo Blue”

While (for Kant) the sublime ultimately distances and elevates, carrying the mind of the viewer to the realization of the still greater capacity of human freedom, the stuplime “draw[s] us down into the sensual and material domain of language and its dulling and irritating iterability, rather than elevating us to a transcendent, supersensible, or spiritual plane” (267).

For Lutz, ‘stuplimity’ comes to constitute an essential affect of video games itself, the way they “seem to confound the epic and exhilarating with the banal and irritating.” Responding to the tendency in recent criticism to contrast flow and glitch–the smooth state of apprehending and processing the world of a game (or other artwork) as it comes to you with the grinding stop of a programming error, a bug, or flaw–he reads a glitched boss battle to show how these experiences are in practice woven together:

[T[he player avatar locked into place, the icons indicating the player needed to use the analog sticks appeared, and a crackling disembodied voice commanded him to “Pull it outta the sky!”

And then nothing else happened for probably more than an hour.

The game didn’t freeze, the music didn’t stop, my friend could still move the analog sticks and influence the movement of things on screen, and every few minutes the game would remind him, as if he had somehow wandered off or forgotten, to “Pull it outta the sky!”

My friend, a tenacious game-player if there ever was one, kept at it.

In the ‘gray time’ of a video game, astonishment and boredom collapse into each other. The substance of the power fantasy is work. He closes:

And perhaps the player sees it — or thinks she sees it: that cool stuff, that Thing, the payoff, the promise of affective astonishment hovering just ahead, bobbing helplessly in the air, waiting to be pulled down to her with just the right combination of button presses.

There is a broader critique just below the surface here. This is the rhetoric not only of games but of gamification: the application of the affective strategies from gaming to other sorts of engagement and labor. Achievements, ‘missions’, and carefully-calibrated reward schedules now drive ‘engagement’ with ad campaigns, training manuals, weight-loss programs and to-do lists. I might argue that there is something deeply stuplime about the MOOC, aggregating and making visible both the tremendous labor of learning and the transformative promise that lies just ahead.


The benefits of four weeks of video instruction, three quizzes, and an exam. (

II. The Sonnet Stuplime

For Ngai and Lutz, then, the stuplime is an affect of late capitalism, generated out of the conditions of labor and aspiration. But as an early modernist, I can’t help but look to earlier examples. Stein and Hamilton influence how I read Erasmus’s exhausting catalog (in De Copia) of variations on “Your letter pleased me greatly,” for instance. At length, the subtle patterns of variation that give it purpose fade into the gray time of reading:

Your letter mightily pleased me. To a wonderful degree did your letter please me. Me exceedingly did your letter please. By your letter was I mightily pleased. I was exceeding pleased by your letter. Your epistle exhilarated me intensely. I was intensely exhilarated by your epistle. Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure. I was in no small measure refreshed in spirit by your grace’s hand. From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable pleasure. Your affectionate letter brought me unbelievable pleasure. Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight. I conceived a wonderful delight from your pages. Your lines conveyed to me the greatest joy. The greatest joy was brought to me by your lines. We derived great delight form your excellency’s letter…

When I read Erasmus, he comes to sound like this, from Stein’s ‘Matisse’:

He certainly was clearly expressing something, certainly sometime any one might come to know that of him. Very many did come to know it of him that he was clearly expressing what he was expressing. He was a great one. Any one might come to know that of him. Very many did some to know that of him. Some who came to know that of him, that he was a great one, that he was clearly expressing something, came then to be certain that he was not greatly expressing something being struggling. Certainly he was expressing something being struggling. Any one could be certain that he was expressing something being struggling.

Some were certain that he was greatly expressing this thing. Some were certain that he was not greatly expressing this thing. Every one could come to be certain that he was a great man. Any one could come to be certain that he was clearly expressing something. Some certainly were wanting to be needing to be doing what he was doing, that is clearly expressing something. Certainly they were willing to be wanting to be a great one. They were, that is some of them, were not wanting to be needing expressing anything being struggling. And certainly he was one not greatly expressing something being struggling, he was a great one, he was clearly expressing something. Some were wanting to be doing what he was doing that is clearly expressing something. Very many were doing what he was doing, not greatly expressing something being struggling. Very many were wanting to be doing what he was doing were not wanting to be expressing anything being struggling.
[full poem and audio of Stein reading:]

(The effect is more pronounced when one listens to Stein reading and then tries to read the Erasmus aloud.) To use Ngai’s terms, “formal differences” give way to “modal differences”–“moody, shifting variations in intensity or degree.” At scale, wit turns to exhaustion. Indeed, sometimes (when I am feeling tired or low, hungover or otherwise uncharitable) I find myself reading sonnet sequences in this same way, grinding out their endless narcissism and small differences, as poem follows poem with a barely new twist on a conceit. Sonnets are like games in this: the momentary mastery of a closing couplet gives way to a new poem that realizes that nothing has been resolved, just as (Lutz points) out a new puzzle, new level, new Goomba or Waddle Dee, scrolls in to replace the old.

I would argue that many of the sequences dramatize precisely this effect, likening it to the self-exhausting wit of the sonneteer (Sidney), the self-lacerating attempts to justify the beloved’s cruelty (Shakespeare), the repetitive shape of female perfidy (Greville), or the cruel implacability of the sonnet mistress (many of the rest). The structure of the English sonnet sequence, with few exceptions, sets out the repetitive button-presses of male sprezzaturra as they fail to pull the heavenly beloved from the sky.

Sonnets, like video games, are not only power fantasies. They are failure simulators.

Such a way of reading is deeply anachronistic. But less so, perhaps, than it may seem. Indeed, perhaps the most common early modern account of poetry emphasizes precisely the aggregative, agglutinative properties of Hamilton’s sculpture. William Webbe writes, in a poetics treatise:

AMong the innumerable sortes of Englyshe Bookes, and infinite fardles of printed pamphlets; wherewith thys Countrey is pestered, all shoppes stuffed, and euery study furnished: the greatest part I thinke in any one kinde, are such as are either meere Poeticall, or which tende in some respecte (as either in matter or forme) to Poetry.

Similarly, in a lovely poem, John Davies has paper itself complain of the

…volumes hugely written,
Where I lye soild as I were all be-( ).

I could easily be-( ) this post with “infinite fardles” of more examples. Instead, I want to point out only that these comments, typically read as self-righteous boundary policing, include an affective and aesthetic critique as well. Or rather, following Lutz and Ngai, that a culture’s poetics are often grounded in ‘ugly feelings,’ in negative affects, and their approach to the failures of art.

III. Postscript: Barnabe Barnes

Trigger Warning: This section discusses a horrible, misogynistic poem of sexual violence.

For much of his sonnet sequence, Barnabe Barnes attempts to overgo the prior tradition. Typically, he combines the Italian octave with the closing of rime royal, resisting the ease of the ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet while still nativizing the tradition. Having learned from Sidney (or rather, mislearned) that the height of sonnet wit is to elaborately structured poems that draw their forms from the figures of rhetoric, Barnes sets out to produce the most elaborately artifical poems, straining scheme and trope to their breaking points. In particular poems, antanaclasis, correlatio, or gradatio will sometimes completely evaporate the meaning:

Right so, my tears, tongue, passions, heart, despair
VVith floods, complaints, sighs, throbs, and endless sorrow,
In seas, in volumes, winds, earth-quakes, and hell,
Shall float chant, breath, break, and dark mansion borrow.

His beloved is not persuaded. And as in so many sequences, the last sonnet catalogs his failures:

Ah me how many ways have I asaid
To win my mistress to me ceaseless suite?
What endless means and prayers have I made
To thy fair graces ever deaf and mute?

As ever, the “endless means” of formal variation do not lead to the sonneteer’s ends. Those two misogynistic conceits of sonnet writing in sixteenth-century England–that great suffering or great wit, wrangled into form, entitle one to sex–collapse into misery. But then the poem turns. “Changing the tenor of my lovely ditty,” Barnes transitions from beseeching to threat. In the closing triple sestina (that most difficult of forms), the beloved Parthenophe is made to appear in the woods, tormented by furies, naked, riding on a goat. The poetic speaker rapes her, and the sequence ends:

Tis now acquitted: cease your former tears, For as she once with rage my body kindled, So in hers am I buried this night.

This is vile, vile stuff. It sardonically describes rape as justice, blaming Parthenophe for the “rage” born of her refusal to submit to the speaker’s desire. The misogynistic undercurrents of frustration and blame here metastasize into something uglier still. To some extent I’m writing about this poem because it still makes me shudder. Barnes sees something terrifying at the center of the poetic enterprise. As wit exhausts itself into stuplimity, he dramatizes exactly the scene that Lutz describes gamers hoping for, the poet overpowering the woman he transforms into “that Thing, the payoff, … hovering just ahead,” “bobbing helplessly.” Rage turns subtext into text.

The English sonnet sequence, Barnes suggests, rests on a fault line. Sonnets are troped as attempts at persuasion, even as the genre demands they not persuade. More: there is no metaphor, no form, nothing that can be written that would entitle one to another’s love. At least within the conventions of the sequence, the sonnet game demands the “endless” overcoming of challenges of wit that bear only a metaphorical relation to the libidinal economy to which they refer. It is the accumulated frustration of this struggle, its overcoming-that-is-not-overcoming and endless false mastery, that leads him to explode with entitlement and misplaced rage. Those who have been following video games this week will recognize that move, as well.