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A Theory of Cuteness

by Ian Bogost on 08/12/09 12:59:00 am   Expert Blogs

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Today John Sharp showed me this insanely cute dwarf miniature horse, named Koda. It's about as big as a cat, so noticeably smaller than a normal miniature horse because it is, well, a dwarf.

Click for a bigger image, or see more pics here.

One of my favorite sidetrips in Graham Harman's Guerilla Metaphysics (back in print soon) is his theory of cuteness, which I find to be the most convincing and elegant treatment of the notion around. Here's the key passage, from page 142 of the book:

Cute objects are either lovely, or else they are delightfully absorbed in some technique that we ourselves take for granted. That is to say, certain actions are performed by certain worldly agents with a regularlity and ease devoid of any hesitation. Horses gallop, donkeys eat, humans write letters, and native speakers of a language use it fluently. The labors of such agents become "cute" when they are slightly underequipped for their task: a newborn horse trying to prance on its skinny, awkward legs; a sweet little donkey trying to eat a big pile of hay with its sweet little mouth and tongue; a child handing us a thank-you note with imperfect grammar; a foreigner misusing our language in slightly incorrect but delightfully vivid fashion. In each of these cases, the cute agent is one that makes use ofimplements of which it is not fully in command.
Koda realizes one of Harman's examples (the little donkey). Koda really drives home the soundness of this account of cute, and also why it is different from Japanese cuteness: the latter produces a sense of protection and innocence; the former accounts for a much wider scope of slight inabililty, one that has nothing to do with parental instinct and everything to do with the delight of slight insufficiency.From a design perspective, cuteness has been so taken over by the Japanese Sanrio variant, especially in popular media like videogames with many imports, that we've lost touch with this other, more "Western" version of cuteness. Pokémon or Yoshi or Kirby are enormously competent, which isn't necessarily how cute reads. A truly cute character or situation doesn't just relate to its appearance and features, but also to its abilities. But I can think of precious few characters from toys or videogames that are cute in this way. Mostly they appear, rather than behave.

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