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“萌”力为何征服世界

By Simon May

In such uncertain and uneasy times, and with so much injustice, hate and intolerance threatening the world, dont we have more serious things to focus on than the escapades of that feline girl-figure Hello Kitty?1 Or Pokémon, the video-game franchise thats hot again in 2019 with a major US and UK film release for its rodenty detective Pikachu, its YouTube trailer notching up more than 65 million hits and counting.2 Why the proliferation of emojis? Or the cute logos that adorn countless products, from computers and phones, to clothes and food; from childrens toys and calendars, to package bags and contact lenses?

“萌”物為我们烦闷压抑的生活带来了一丝甜蜜。但是,我们为何偏爱“萌”物?难道只是为了逃避残酷的现实世界?对此,有何进化论方面的解释?而在更广泛的文化领域,“萌”又扮演着什么样的角色?


The craze for all things cute is motivated, most obviously, by the urge to escape from precisely such a threatening world into a garden of innocence in which childlike qualities arouse deliciously protective feelings, and bestow contentment and solace. Cute cues include behaviours that appear helpless, harmless, charming and yielding, and anatomical features such as outsize heads, protruding foreheads,3 saucer-like eyes, retreating chins and clumsy gaits.

Perhaps, as the Austrian scholar of animal behaviour Konrad Lorenz suggested in 1943, our response to these sorts of cues evolved to motivate us to give our offspring the extensive care and nurture that they need to prosper. According to Lorenz, the same visual cues can arouse us to equally intense—or possibly more intense—caregiving when we encounter them in exaggerated and distilled form in animals, such as birds and puppies, and even in dummy models, such as dolls and teddy bears.

The social psychologists Gary Sherman and Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia go so far as to consider the cuteness response as a “moral emotion” par excellence: a “direct releaser of human sociality” that stimulates us to expand our circle of altruistic concern to an ever-wider social sphere.4

But if cuteness were merely about the charming, innocent and unthreatening, or if our attraction to it were motivated just by protective instincts, or the search for infantile and reassuring distractions from the anxieties of todays world, it wouldnt be so ubiquitous. Those qualities speak only of what we might call the“sweet” end of a whole spectrum of cuteness. As we move toward the “uncanny” end, sweet qualities get distorted into something darker, more indeterminate and more wounded. Something like Jeff Koonss Balloon Dog series (1994—2000), which seems at once powerful (made of stainless steel) and powerless(hollow and lacking a face, mouth or eyes). It is hulking5 yet vulnerable-seeming, familiar and also unfamiliar, reassuringly innocent and also unsafe, defective, knowing. It both comforts us in a world of unnerving uncertainty—and gives voice to that same world, but crucially in a lighthearted register.6

This faintly menacing subversion of boundaries—between the fragile and the resilient, the reassuring and the unsettling, the innocent and the knowing—when presented in cutes frivolous, teasing idiom,7 is central to its immense popularity.


Cute is above all a teasing expression of the unclarity, uncertainty, uncanniness and the continuous flux8 or “becoming” that our era detects at the heart of all existence, living and nonliving. In the ever-changing styles and objects that exemplify it, it is nothing if not transient, and it lacks any claim to lasting significance. Plus it exploits the way that indeterminacy, when pressed beyond a certain point, becomes menacing—which is a reality that cute is able to render beguiling precisely because it does so trivially,9 charmingly, unmenacingly. Cute expresses an intuition that life has no firm foundations, no enduring, stable “being”, and that, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger intimated,10 the only ground for life lies in the acceptance of its ungroundedness. And it often does so with something like the “artifice and exaggeration”, expressed in a manner that “dethrones the serious” or fails in its seriousness, that the cultural critic Susan Sontag attributed to camp.11

This “unpindownability”12, as we might call it, that pervades cute—the erosion of borders between what used to be seen as distinct or discontinuous realms, such as childhood and adulthood—is also reflected in the blurred gender of many cute objects such as Balloon Dog or a lot of Pokémon. It is reflected, too, in their frequent blending of human and nonhuman forms, as in the catgirl Hello Kitty. And in their often undefinable age. For though cute objects might appear childlike, it can be strikingly hard to say, as with ET, whether they are young or old—sometimes seeming to be, in human terms, both.

In such ways, cute is attuned to an era that is no longer so wedded to such hallowed dichotomies as masculine and feminine, sexual and nonsexual, adult and child, being and becoming, transient and eternal, body and soul, absolute and contingent, and even good and bad—dichotomies that once structured ideals but that are now taken to be more fluid or porous.13

Moreover, as a sensibility, cute is incompatible with the modern cult14 of sincerity and authenticity, which dates from the 18th century and assumes that each of us has an “inner” authentic self—or at least a set of beliefs, feelings, drives and tastes that uniquely identifies us, and that we can clearly grasp and know to be truthfully expressed. Cute has nothing to do with showing inwardness. In its more uncanny forms, at least, it steps entirely aside from our prevailing faith that we can know—and control—when we are being sincere and authentic.


Although attraction to such cute objects as the mouthless, fingerless Hello Kitty can express a desire for power, cuteness can also parody and subvert power by playing with the viewers sense of her own power, now painting her into a dominant pose, now sowing uncertainty about who is really in charge, now making her realise that the cute ones surrender is actually a way of entrapping her, now making demands for care or protection from her.

For this reason, cute is one—perhaps very trivial, very tentative—way of exploring whether and how the paradigm15 of power can be exited. Indeed, this might explain why cute has stormed popular culture in those parts of the world—notably the US, Europe and above all Japan—that since the Second World War have sought, intermittently16 and with many setbacks, to reduce the role of power in determining the structure of human relations and, most conspicuously, of international relations.

在這个充满了不确定与不安的时代,有如此之多的不公、仇恨和偏狭威胁着世界,难道我们没有什么更严肃的事情需要关注吗?为什么大家要关注猫女孩Hello Kitty的大冒险?又或者去关注神奇宝贝——这个电子游戏特许经营系列2019年因其在美英上映的电影《大侦探皮卡丘》又火了起来,电影在YouTube上的预告片点击量超过6500万次。为什么emoji表情符号会风靡开来?又或者说,为什么装饰了无数商品——从电脑、手机到衣服、食品,从儿童玩具、日历到包装袋、隐形眼镜——的可爱商标会广受欢迎?

人们对所有“萌”物的狂热,显然是源于他们渴望从这样一个充满威胁的世界逃离到一个纯真的花园,在那里孩子般的品质唤起使人愉悦的保护感,并带来满足与慰藉。“萌”的信号包括看起来无助、无害、迷人和柔弱的行为,以及如超大的头部、突出的额头、碟子般的眼睛、向后削的下巴和笨拙的步态等身体结构特征。

也许,正如奥地利动物行为学家康拉德·洛伦茨在1943年提出的,我们对这些信号的反应不断演化,刺激我们为后代提供他们健康成长所需要的广泛的关爱与养育。按照洛伦茨的说法,当我们在动物(例如鸟类和小狗)甚至在假人模型(例如娃娃和泰迪熊)身上以夸张和纯粹的形式遇到这些视觉信号时,它们可以唤起我们同样强烈——或许更为强烈——的关爱之情。

弗吉尼亚大学的社会心理学家加里·舍曼和乔纳森·海特甚至将人们对“萌”的反应视为绝佳的“道德情感”:这是一种“人类社会性的直接释放因素”,激励我们将自己的利他主义关切扩大至更广泛的社会领域。

但是,如果“萌”只是关于迷人、无辜和没有威胁,或者如果它对于我们的吸引力只是出于保护的本能,或是为了寻找婴儿般的、令人安心的事物来分散当今世界的焦虑,“萌”就不会如此普遍存在了。这些品质仅仅体现了我们称之为“萌”的“甜美”一端。当我们走向“怪怖”的一端,甜美的品质就会被扭曲成更黑暗、更不确定、更使人受伤的东西。像杰夫·孔斯的“气球狗”系列(1994—2000),看起来很强大(由不锈钢制成)却又很弱小(空心而且没有脸、嘴或眼睛)。它体型庞大而又看似脆弱,令人感到熟悉却也不熟悉,有着令人放心的天真却也不安全、有缺陷且精明世故。它既在一个令人不安、充满不确定的世界中抚慰我们,同时也为这样一个世界发声,但重要的是,它在一个轻松愉快的语域中发声。

这种对边界略带威胁性的颠覆——在脆弱与坚韧之间,令人放心与令人不安之间,天真无辜与精明世故之间——以“萌”的那种轻浮、调侃的风格呈现,是其大受欢迎的核心。

“萌”首先是对我们这个时代在一切存在(无论有生命的还是无生命的)的核心所探测到的不清楚、不确定、怪怖以及持续不断的变动或是“变化过程”的一种调侃似的表达。在呈现出“萌”的不断变化的风格与物品中,“萌”如果不是转瞬即逝那就毫无意义,而且它也并不要求具有持久的意义。此外,“萌”还利用了这样一点:不确定性一旦超过一定程度,就会变得具有威胁性——现实就是“萌”之所以迷人,正是因为它是以一种微不足道的、亲切愉快的、没有威胁的方式展现出魅力。“萌”表达了一种直觉,即生活没有坚实的根基,没有持久、稳定的“存在”,正如哲学家马丁·海德格尔所表示的那样,生命的唯一根基就在于接受生命无根基可依。“萌”经常用“技艺和夸张”之类的东西以“废黜严肃”或是不严肃的方式表达出来。文化评论家苏珊·桑塔格将这种方式归于“坎普”。

这种渗透“萌”的所谓的“不可明确性”——即对曾经被视为泾渭分明的、不连贯的领域(例如童年和成年)的边界的侵蚀——也反映在许多如“气球狗”或神奇宝贝等“萌”物的模糊性别中。这还反映在“萌”物常常将人类与非人类形式混合,就像猫女孩Hello Kitty那样。而且这也反映在它们常常无法确定的年龄上。虽然“萌”物可能看起来如孩子般,但就像外星人一样,很难说究竟它们是年轻还是年老,而且有时候从人类的角度来说似乎既年轻又年老。

“萌”以这样的方式适逢一个不再死守神圣的二元对立的时代:男与女、有性别与无性别、成人与儿童、存在与生成、短暂与永恒、身体与灵魂、绝对与偶然,甚至善与恶——这些二元对立曾经是理想的构成,现在却被认为是更加流变的。

此外,作为一种情感,“萌”与现代的人们对真诚和真实近乎宗教般的狂热追求是格格不入的。这种追求可以追溯至18世纪,它假设我们每个人都有一个“内在的”真实的自我——或者至少有一套信仰、感受、动因与品味来决定我们是怎样独一无二的存在,而且我们可以清楚地掌握并知道如何真实地表达它们。“萌”与展示内在无关。至少在其更为怪怖的形式中,“萌”完全超出了我们所普遍坚信的一点:在我们真诚与真实的时候,我们能够了解和控制。

虽然我们被像无嘴、无指的Hello Kitty这样的“萌”物吸引可以表达一种对权力的渴望,但是“萌”也可以通过操控观赏者对自己权力的感觉来戏仿、颠覆权力,时而将她绘成一个居高临下的姿势,时而让人不确定谁才是真正的老大,时而让她意识到“萌”物的投降实际上是一种诱捕她的方式,时而要求从她那里寻求照顾或保护。

因此,“萌”是一种或许非常微不足道、非常具有试探性的方式,来探索是否以及如何让权力范式退场。确实,这或许可以解释为什么“萌”已经横扫世界上一些地区的流行文化——特别是美国、欧洲,尤其是日本:自第二次世界大战以来,尽管时有中断、屡经挫折,但这些地区一直力求减少权力在决定人际关系以及国际关系——后者尤为显著——的结构中所起的作用。

1. escapade: 胡作非为,冒险;feline: 猫科的,猫一样的。

2. rodenty: 啮齿类的;trailer: 预告片;notch up:赢得,获得。

3. anatomical: 解剖学的,身体构造的;protrude:突出。

4. par excellence: 最卓越的;altruistic:利他主义的。

5. hulking: 大而笨重的。

6. unnerving: 令人不安的;register: 适合特定场合使用的语体风格。

7. frivolous: 不严肃的,轻浮的;idiom: 艺术风格,特色。

8. flux: 不断变化,不断波动。

9. indeterminacy: 未知,不明确;beguiling: 迷人的,魅惑的。

10. Martin Heidegger: 马丁·海德格尔(1889—1976),德国哲学家,20世纪存在主义哲学的创始人和主要代表之一;intimate: 暗示。

11. Susan Sontag: 苏珊·桑塔格(1933—2004),美国作家、艺术评论家,主要著作有《反对阐释》《激进意志的风格》等。她的评论性作品涉及对时代以及文化的批评,包括摄影、艺术、文学等,被誉为“美国公众的良心”;camp: 坎普风,源自法语俚语“se camper”,意为“以夸张的方式展现”。1964年,桑塔格发表随笔《坎普札记》(Notes on Camp),将其解释为“对某些非自然之物的热爱,是一种以牺牲内容为代价的风格”。坎普的表现形式通常是技巧的、夸张的、边缘的、媚俗的、做作的、形式的等等。

12. unpindownability: 該词由pin down(明确说明)演化而来。

13. be wedded to sth.: 支持(某种看法),执着于(某事);hallowed:神圣的;dichotomy: 二分法;porous:多孔的,可渗透的。

14. cult: 狂热崇拜。

15. paradigm: 范式。

16. intermittently: 断断续续地,间歇地。

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