Experimental Criticism / Notes on Cringe / Marie Ungar

Illustration by Fran_kie

This cluster on “experimental criticism” grew out of a graduate seminar on this topic that took place at Harvard in the fall of 2021. All the essay contributions to the cluster bear some relation to the course, whether as revisions to participants’ final projects or as pursuits of experimental practices explored and initiated there. To register the collaborative pedagogic origins of this project, in lieu of a typical introduction, we have provided an annotated syllabus, with snapshots of participants’ reflections on the semester’s readings and discussions footnoted at the bottom of the page. You are invited to click on any of the numbered footnotes scattered throughout the syllabus to jump to a specific annotation. In addition to offering a window into our individual responses to the course readings, we hope that the annotations provide you with a collective context for the essays to follow.

Within the cluster, you will find experimentation that takes many forms: Yoojung Chun’s choose-your-own-adventure rumination on the constancy of parental grief, as depicted by the intersections between the art video game “That Dragon, Cancer” and the 14-century Middle English poem Pearl; Marie Ungar’s investigation of the category of “cringe,” what it might look like if Susan Sontag and Erving Goffman joined forces; Elinor Hitt’s encounter with the “kinesthetic empathy” inspired by the choreography of Blondell Cummings; William Martin’s essay/fiction hybrid, describing a senior named Dexter’s spectral encounter with the wisdom of Charles Waddell Chesnutt in his university’s archive; Harry Hall’s poignant parody of academese, presented in the form of a futuristic academic lecture on the film Call Me By Your Name, in a 2052 edited volume; Sam Bozoukov’s paratactic account of learning to listen to literature—and to life’s unpredictable lessons—through Milton. Accompanying our cluster as a special feature is a questionnaire that was sent to several of the leading author-critics on our syllabus, requesting their thoughts on the status of disciplinary experiment today. The responses we received, from Charles Bernstein, Samuel R Delany, Wai Chee Dimock, Eric Hayot, Emily Ogden, and Paul Saint-Amour, are a trove of useful references, reflections, examples, and qualifications.

—Beth Blum

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That’s Cringe. It’s always a pejorative. Nobody wants to be Cringe. Nobody wants to be affiliated with that which is Cringe (though we often want to point and gawk—hence the phrase’s popularity). But what exactly is “Cringe”? And, more importantly, how does one avoid it?

Cringe has much in common with Camp: It’s an aesthetic sensibility—difficult to pin down—that’s seeing new and frequent usage. But the relevance of Cringe lies as much in its status as threat as diagnosis. Cringe is an ever-present risk, a hypothetical that influences action. Fear of Cringe stays our hand—from deviation, from striving toward the uncertain, from experimentation.

1. Some groundwork: The verb “to cringe” describes a motion, a fearful or embarrassed wincing away—however, the Cringe I’m concerned with is the label Cringe, as in: “That’s Cringe.” This phrase evolved from cringe-as-wincing but doesn’t remain fully tethered to it. It’s a description and an accusation—a pointing of fingers. It can be said of oneself or another; of a person, action, or object; to someone’s face or behind their back. In contrast to Camp—a label which elevates what might otherwise be condemned—Cringe is an indisputably derogatory label. The degrader may or may not be embarrassed or wincing. Often, That’s Cringe is uttered with an expression of stony cool.

2. Only recently have attempts been made to describe “Cringe”—notably by journalist Melissa Dahl in her 2018 book Cringeworthy and by YouTuber Natalie Wynn, better known by her alias “ContraPoints,” in her 2020 video essay “Cringe.” Dahl’s book falls shy of tackling the “Cringe” sensibility, only interrogating “cringe” as a verb and “cringeworthy” as an adjective that isn’t clearly delineated from embarrassment. There are significant connections between what is Cringe, embarrassing, and humiliating, but these terms aren’t synonymous.

3. In her video, Wynn makes some important distinctions. One, between “self-cringing”—what Dahl describes as “an unpleasant kind of self-recognition where you suddenly see yourself through someone else’s eyes” (8)—and cringing at others. Two, between cringing at and with others. Cringing with others often describes second-hand embarrassment; however, “In the Internet sense of the word, Cringe is not just vicarious embarrassment,” Wynn says. She suggests we cringe at others not because they’re embarrassed but because they aren’t. We cringe because of their delusion, because of the difference between how we see them and how they see themselves. Wynn cites bad American Idol auditions, where the singers compare themselves to rockstars but sound like shrieking horses.

4. It’s this final category—cringing at—that’s relevant to Cringe as sensibility, to what That’s Cringe describes and enacts. Like pure Camp, pure Cringe is always naïve. Cringe which knows itself to be Cringe is, to the spectator, less alluring and less repellant. Cringe which knows itself to be Cringe is less fear-inspiring.1

5. Enough of the abstract. I posted a poll on my Instagram story: “Give me an example of something you think is ‘Cringe.’” The responses:

“uncalled for oversharing to a large group”
“Basing your entire personality on one narrowly defined interest”
“saying here for a good time not a long time in a tinder bio”
“Adults doing baby talk”
“men flirting”
“men making thirst traps to fiona apple”
“making tiktok skits”
“saying doggo unironically”
“the word ‘doggo,’ or ‘puppers’”
“harry potter fans”
“‘i did a thing’”
“Reality TV”
“The word cheugy”
“i say this as an anime enjoyer but anime LMAO”
“When you’re hungover and remember something dumb you did”
“being pitied is cringe af”
“‘Ruthkanda forever’”
“that hello kitty says blm meme and related things”
“the way my lover says ‘byeeeee’ in a high pitched voice like he’s a teenage girl”
“calling ppl cringe for doing things they like is cringe”
“my face”
“my entire life”
“Asking your friends to give responses abt what is ‘cringe’ on your Instagram story”
“expressing any emotion at all”

I’ll add a few: Cultural appropriation is cringe—someone who thinks they’re doing something that will make them seem cool while coming across as ignorant or disrespectful. The high school teacher who awkwardly stumbles over teenage slang to appear “hip” is Cringe. Pretension—thinking something is more important than it really is—is always Cringe.

6. “I’ve come to realize that cringing happens when you accidentally let an unscripted, unpolished version of yourself escape,” Dahl writes. I disagree—true Cringe is not fed by accident but by deliberacy. Cringe happens when you deliberately present a version of yourself that fails to have the desired effect on its audience. True Self-Cringe happens when you realize this failure. You might cringe at an accidental mishap—dropping a plate in a cafeteria—but it wasn’t Cringe, in that you did not choose it. True Cringe requires a deliberate action that comes from a place of naiveté.

7. The majority of the responses to my poll support the idea that Cringe points to a deliberate act, as opposed to a mistake. Deliberate acts can include expressions of taste or affiliation with an object.2 True Cringe occurs when an act of self-presentation is received differently than intended. People who write “here for a good time not a long time” in their Tinder bios think it presents them as exciting while many interpret it as dull. People who bring up their NFTs for clout find themselves social outcasts among environmentally-concerned crowds. Cringe is context-dependent. Having surveyed people within my social circle, many but not all of these answers overlap with what jumps to mind when I think of Cringe—but there are evidently many people who think “here for a good time not a long time” is a desirable Tinder bio, given the number of people using it. And in many circles NFTs do enhance social capital, hence their success. Cringe occurs most rampantly when different subcultures collide, yielding scenarios in which acts of self-presentation are received differently than the actor intends or expects.

8. Humiliation does not always involve Cringe, but to label something as Cringe is always an act that entails humiliation. When we call something Cringe, we identify an attempt that has been made and give it a failing grade. We disqualify the actor from the identity or attribute they believed they were showcasing. “If I fail to communicate my meaning, and if you tell me I’ve failed, then you will have humiliated me,” Koestenbaum writes in Humiliation (43). An invocation of Cringe behind the actor’s back is an incomplete humiliation—without the actor’s awareness and, consequently, without eliciting any feeling of humiliation.

9. Expressing any emotion at all. Because Cringe depends on context, anything can be Cringe. “Maybe it is humiliating to attempt anything,” Jenny Zhang writes in her essay “How It Feels.” One way to mitigate one’s risk of Cringe would be to attempt to live with as little deliberate self-presentation as possible and somehow communicate this. But to do so would be a tremendous feat of self-presentation. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman describes the effort required to make effort itself invisible:

To give a radio talk that will sound genuinely informal, spontaneous, and relaxed, the speaker may have to design his script with painstaking care, testing one phrase after another, in order to follow the content, language, rhythm, and pace of everyday talk [….] And so individuals often find themselves with the dilemma of expression versus action. (Goffman 32-33)

If, to avoid being considered Cringe, you have to give the appearance of lacking intention in your self-presentation, and if you can only do so at the expense of actually lacking intention, then you perpetually risk being exposed—your actions received in the opposite way than you clearly intend.

10. My entire life. The only true way to mitigate all risk of Cringe would be to not exist—or, less extreme, to self-isolate with nobody knowing you are doing so. To live and interact with others, directly or indirectly, is to accept the risk that anything we do could be Cringe.

11. Zhang writes: “I sincerely don’t know why poetry can be mortifying and tattoos can be cool.” The laws of Cringe state differently: Poetry can be mortifying and tattoos can be mortifying. Once, I dated a boy with a skull tattooed on his thigh. I thought it was a Cringe tattoo to have—it attempts something; it implies you think it appears cool, while others see a skull as lame and basic—but I didn’t ask about it. It turned out he thought it was Cringe, too, enough to bring it up. “I got it when I turned 18,” he explained, as a way of saying: I thought it was cool, but now I’m older and wiser and know you probably don’t perceive it that way. Now I perceive it the same way you do! This is but a relic of past Cringe! When we self-cringe (which is always retroactive), we often make it known—so that others will see our past selves and not our current selves as the naïve Cringe actor.

12. What Zhang gets at, though, is that some acts of self-presentation carry a much higher risk of Cringe than others. The more deliberate, effortful, and sincere the action seems, the more likely it will be interpreted as a failed attempt—and the more splendid the failure.3 Writing—especially published writing that claims sincere self-representation—is perhaps as risky as it gets. To call any presentation of one’s inner thoughts “art” is to imply some expectation it will be received as profound. Bad writing—even just mediocre writing—is so frequently Cringe because one can infer from its publication that the writer truly believes the work—the bland, uninspired, derivative, run-of-the-mill work—to be good, to be true, to be worthy. Here follows a few literary case studies that can help us understand Cringe.

13. Rupi Kaur: The New York Times bestselling poet and Instagram star is one of the most Cringe writers writing today. Her poetry is laughably bad—short, aphoristic truisms intended to be profound that clearly miss the mark. One of her poems reads:

are your own
soul mate (Kaur 189)

Here’s another:

i was music
but you had your ears cut off (Kaur 115)

What makes her exceptionally Cringe is how seriously she takes her work. Take, for example, her aesthetic of self-deification. In a recording of one of her readings, Kaur appears dressed in gold and wearing a large, round, vertical headdress like a halo—choices that interact in a jarring way with her self-proclaimed aesthetics of accessibility and radical sincerity. Theatrics intended to portray her as a deified, healing presence make her poems seem even more like jokes she is not in on. “In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails” (Sontag 7). Kaur’s failed seriousness is not just Cringe but Camp—the overlap between Cringe and Camp is what makes much Cringe delightful rather than painful. Friends have shown me clips of her readings on YouTube for fun. “It’s good because it’s awful” (Sontag 13).

14. My Immortal: The 2007 Harry Potter serial fanfiction work by FanFiction.net user XXXbloodyrists666XXX aka Tara Gilesbie (whose actual identity is disputed) could be the most canonical piece of Cringe writing ever produced—or it could be a brilliant parody. I first heard the opening passage of My Immortal coming back from a high school field trip on a school bus late at night, read aloud by one of my classmates so we could all laugh:

Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears [….] I love Hot Topic and I buy all my clothes from there. For example today I was wearing a black corset with matching lace around it and a black leather miniskirt, pink fishnets and black combat boots. (qtd in myimmortalrehost.webs.com)

You get the idea. For many of my friends who were also teenagers in the 2010s, this is a shared cultural touchstone—everyone heard it in similar group settings; everyone reveled in how bad it was, filled with over-the-top self-descriptions that sound like attempts to present the protagonist as a too-cool-for-you goth to live through vicariously. However, the narrative voice is obliviously uncool. The author’s notes (abbreviated “AN”) indicate that “Gilesbie” thinks the criticism she’s receiving is arbitrary and unfounded. She writes: “STOP FLAMMING DA STORY PREPZ OK!” and “if u flam it menz ur a prep or a posr!” (qtd in myimmortalrehost.webs.com)—often adding that she won’t continue writing until she gets good reviews. Her implied expectation of praise is in stark contrast with her laughably bad writing. My Immortal illustrates the importance of what we perceive the actor’s intent to be in our evaluations of whether an act is Cringe. Readers really care about whether the author wrote it sincerely or as a parody of fanfiction-writ-large. At first I assumed it was sincere. After reading reporter Adi Robertson’s article “The Worst Thing Ever Written: the terrible, wonderful weirdness of fake fanfiction,” I was convinced otherwise. Robertson writes:

The story, though, just seemed too over the top to be real. “Tara” couldn’t keep her protagonist’s name straight for more than a few words, but she made oddly obscure references to Tom Bombadil and Socrates. Her author’s notes started repeating, while the prose and story got progressively surreal, culminating in Ebony and Marty McFly time-traveling to an anachronistic version of the 1980s where Tara implores her readers to ignore references to Marilyn Manson and 2002 horror film The Ring.

The point isn’t whether it’s sincere or a parody, but that the distinction matters. Why do people go to so much trouble to make the case in either direction? It changes who we’re pointing at when we say That’s Cringe. Writing that invokes our Cringe sensibilities as a means of (successful) humor is not Cringe itself—rather, it says That’s Cringe! about something else, at which the writer and audience laugh together. “A work can come close to Camp, and not make it, because it succeeds” (Sontag 7). A work can come close to Cringe, and not make it, because it succeeds—because the author knowingly, rather than naively, invokes Cringe.

15. David Foster Wallace: The primary Cringe object here is not Wallace or even Wallace’s writing but he who likes Wallace. I say “he” because liking Wallace is a gendered Cringe act, especially Cringe when performed by a masculine actor who fits the audience’s stereotypes of a Wallace fan. Though Wallace’s work risks Cringe in its gargantuan display of effort and sincerity, the reason references to Wallace are often met with rolled eyes has more to do with what the act of invoking his name conveys: “lit-bro shorthand” synonymous with “is one of those motherfuckers,” connoting an overly-inflated ego and masculine self-importance (Fischer). He who brings up Wallace (without the appropriate self-aware disclaimer) presumably invokes Wallace’s name to seem uniquely intelligent and interesting. To the in-the-know audience, he seems interchangeable with hundreds of others who fit the same pejorative stereotype—and oblivious to this fact. “Every guy I’ve ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf,” actor Jason Segel remembers the bookseller saying to him when he bought Infinite Jest (Fischer). Visibly displaying an unread copy of Infinite Jest (or talking about the book despite having only read a couple pages—another common occurrence) is the ultimate Wallace-related Cringe act. It adds another layer of failed self-presentation: an attempt at indicating literary sophistication that comes across as posturing.

16. Here, it might be important to note that I’m a poet, a Wallace fan, and—as a teenager—I wrote a few bad fanfictions and thought the mall goths who got their outfits from Hot Topic were cooler than I’d ever be. This fits neatly into a larger phenomenon: People actively enjoy and seek out jokes made at the expense of stereotypes of the subcultures with which they identify. In explaining “In-Group Cringe,” Wynn suggests that “we form obsessive and addictive contempt for people who have traits in common with us; people who make us uncomfortable because we see something of ourselves in them [….] particularly when they’re embarrassing themselves in front of outsiders to the group.” It’s like saying: I’m a poet, but not that kind of poet. I’m a Wallace fan, but not that kind of Wallace fan. Similarly, in “Cringe Criticism: On Embarrassment and Tori Amos,” Nick Salvato writes that “it is easier to imagine the conditions within which one would cringe in a complex disidentification—predicated, in the first place, on identification—from another rather than from one’s self (probably, in that case of auto-disidentification, a self that is former and recollected)” (687-688). By pointing, I preempt and diminish the possibility of my being pointed at.

17. Sontag writes her notes on Camp as notes because it’s “embarrassing and solemn to be treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp” (2). I’m under no illusion that one can salvage an essay titled “Notes on Cringe” from being, to some extent, Cringe. To format a work with reference to a famous work is a blatant form of pretension. It broadcasts a belief that one is capable of stepping into a revered context. It provides a concrete reference point for how one sees one’s act—whether equivalent, parodic, or just a little clever—a reference point from which the reader’s impression might differ. Even self-awareness doesn’t save it—I still hoped you might chuckle; I still thought it was a good idea; I still attempted something that maybe failed—though my expressed knowledge of this possibility makes the Cringe less pure.

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Works Cited

Dahl, Melissa. Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness. Portfolio/Penguin, 2018.

Dalton, Chaelee. “So Cringe.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, May 2022, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet-books/2022/05/so-cringe.

Fischer, Molly. “Why Literary Chauvinists Love David Foster Wallace.” The Cut, 12 Aug. 2015.

Girlboss. (2020). Poetry Reading with Rupi Kaur at Girlboss Rally. YouTube. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnSiOE8FjdY.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, 1959.

My Immortal, 2008, https://myimmortalrehost.webs.com. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.

Kaur, Rupi. Milk and Honey. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2018.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. Humiliation. Picador, 2011.

Robertson, Adi. “The Worst Thing Ever Written: The Terrible, Wonderful Weirdness of Fake Fanfiction.” The Verge, 10 Dec. 2013.

Salvato, Nick. “Cringe Criticism: On Embarrassment and Tori Amos.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 39, no. 4, 2013, pp. 676–702., https://doi.org/10.1086/671352.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes On ‘Camp’,” 1964.

Wynn, Natalie (“ContraPoints”). Cringe, YouTube, 10 May 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRBsaJPkt2Q. Accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

Zhang, Jenny. “How It Feels.” Poetry Magazine, 2015, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/70231/how-it-feels. Accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

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This is part of the cluster Experimental Criticism. Read the other posts here.

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  1. “Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying” (Sontag 6).
  2. Objects like NFTs or the word “doggo” can be described as Cringe, but this is shorthand that points to actions involving the object.
  3. See Chaelee Dalton’s recent essay “So Cringe” for an understanding of a different metric along which things are more or less likely to be labeled Cringe—one concerned with devotion toward something outside of the self.
Marie Ungar
Marie Ungar is a writer and editor studying contemporary English literature at Harvard University. Her research interests include ekphrasis, elegy, non-linear narrative time, autotheory, visual poetry, and cross-genre and cross-media work more broadly.