AUGUST 10, 2020
SIANNE NGAI IS KNOWN for her close attention to the overlooked, the fringe, the marginal. Her first book, Ugly Feelings (2005), was a taxonomy of “minor” emotional-aesthetic responses like irritation and paranoia. Our Aesthetic Categories (2012) centered on the “zany,” the “cute,” and the “interesting.” With these two works Ngai was credited with making the study of aesthetics — albeit under the banner of “affect theory” — sexy again.
In her third book, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form, Ngai delves further into her longstanding preoccupations: first, the economic underpinnings of aesthetic judgment; second, the way affective judgments are built into nomenclature. (When we say someone’s “cool,” we convey nonchalant admiration; when we call a movie “cheesy,” we come off as knowing, jaded.) For Ngai, the critic’s task is to tease out the two, thus making apparent what gets obscured in the judgments we toss off. Although the subject of Theory of the Gimmick is unsexy at times — there is more than a little on transvaluation and reification — it marks a culmination of Ngai’s work as a critic. Not only does Ngai open up suggestive new lines of inquiry here, but she also completes a critical trilogy begun 15 years ago.
Ngai makes the case that the gimmick, whose value we regularly disparage, is of tremendous critical value. The gimmick, she contends, is the capitalist form par excellence. The book’s argument starts from the simple premise that the gimmick is “simultaneously overperforming and underperforming,” confounding our normal estimations of labor, value, and time. Ngai distinguishes the gimmick from its kin — kitsch, camp, conceptual art — making the case that, although superficial resemblances may bind the gimmick to these categories, the calculations of worth and cheapness it involves us in set the gimmick apart as a specifically capitalist form.
In a series of Kantian-Marxian “antinomies,” Ngai sketches out the gimmick’s contradictory, capitalistic nature: the gimmick simultaneously saves labor/does not save labor; works too hard/too little; is outdated/newfangled, dynamic/static, unrepeatable/reusable, and transparent/obscure about capitalist production. These antinomies are the book’s guiding thread, reiterated and elaborated throughout. They make some of Ngai’s more cryptic-seeming pronouncements intuitive: “The moment in which the gimmick arouses critical response is therefore simultaneously a dissipation of criticality.” “A gimmick that is necessary […] must by definition be trivial.” The gimmick’s capitalist DNA allows for
such reversals [which] are endemic to the world that gives rise to the gimmick’s compromised aesthetic. Like capitalism itself, in which paradoxes like planned obsolescence and routinized innovation abound, the gimmick is a […] fundamentally unstable form.
Capitalism, which ceaselessly generates more work while making workers obsolete, is the gimmick’s progenitor and twin.
The gimmick’s ubiquity, like that of capitalism, makes it similarly hard to pin down. Ngai follows Susan Sontag’s lead in “Notes on ‘Camp’” by personifying her object of study: the gimmick is loud and embarrassing, pestering and diverting like a precocious child. Theory of the Gimmick is never dry because it has the quality of the hunt, even when Ngai arrives at abstract formulations or locates the social value of the gimmick by wading through devalued aesthetic responses (annoyance, embarrassment, amusement). Ngai’s study lies somewhere between critical theory and Sontag’s best work; her rigorous economic analysis, combined with her flair for the memorable epigram, makes the prose rangy and zippy. (She would have plenty to say about adjectival characterizations like these intrinsic to book reviews.)
Also like Sontag, Ngai never flinches from unelevated artworks. She lingers over Nicola Barker’s Clear, a novel about a publicity stunt from the early aughts. She mines relatively obscure works (Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn was new to me) for what they can tell us about our reflexive judgments as consumers and critics. Ngai occasionally corrects these reflexive judgments, too — defending, for example, the “novel of ideas” against its detractors by showing the ways it presents and discards ersatz ideas to sharpen readers’ skepticism. Similarly, she reveals the sometimes-inadvertent profundity of lesser writers like William Golding and Aldous Huxley and lesser works like Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which, in her eyes, inaugurates gimmickry in American literature. Ngai thereby crafts a different account of innovation from the one that usually gets told. Even when she does turn her focus to canonical authors and works, the light falls in unexpected places. She focuses, for example, not on the Wagnerian rhythms of The Magic Mountain but on the heaps of clichés traded between the tiresome antagonists Settembrini and Naphta; not on the syntactically overladen prose of late Henry James but on his servants, amanuenses, and housemaids.
Ngai always looks at objects from oblique and unusual angles; these perspectival shifts are one of her hallmarks. But the book’s most important perspective shift — from the particular (texts, icons) to the systemic (capitalism) — is spread, sometimes unmanageably, across the book’s eight chapters. This is especially the case where Theory of the Gimmick ramifies into para-arguments. One such para-argument revolves around the relation of gimmickry to kin work and emotional labor, which over time become feminized and made to seem “workless.” Ngai takes up Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, whose conceit is that male employees work more efficiently when they can have sex with faceless women in bathroom stalls, an innovation that causes a spike in the corporate world’s female temp population and a concomitant increase in male productivity. In her conclusion, Ngai fashions a proto-theorization of female wage labor’s relationship to gimmickry. The “cheap trick” that becomes so central to the late prose of Henry James coincides with uncompensated care work performed by housewives, maiden aunts, and other female dependents. Ngai rather elliptically clarifies the relation of this para-argument to the arc of the book in an endnote: “The relation between labor and capital has, nested within it, a more structurally obscured relation between waged and unwaged labor; it is also that relation, and its relation to capital, that keeps popping up all over this book” (her emphasis). Ngai herself acknowledges that this para-argument isn’t limited to any one chapter, but instead appears throughout Theory of the Gimmick. And that’s fine. But further elucidation of this structure — which calls to mind the gimmicky Russian nesting doll — would have made her argument cohere better.
If the connective tissue is occasionally missing, that may be because the book occasionally goes into too much detail. Ngai’s exhaustive approach can verge on the technical. An excessive focus on etymology (“gimmick” was coined in the ’20s; as Ngai reminds us several times, it is apocryphally thought to be a metathesis of the word “magic”) slows down the argument in several places. Ngai occasionally strains a point with these etymologies. Of a Torbjørn Rødland photo entitled King Size Sharpie, which depicts a man’s genitals from his point of view and a nearby hand flourishing a Sharpie, she writes: “‘Sharpie’ is a brand of permanent marker; it is also North American slang for a ‘cunning person, especially a cheat’ and thus a metonymic figure for the tricky gimmick.” It doesn’t seem all that likely that a Norwegian, even one well versed in American commercial photography, would have this archaic meaning in mind when titling his photo. He was probably just making fun of nudity by using a candy-bar designation (King Size) that also sounds vaguely porny. Elsewhere, Ngai points to the word “gimmick” in archival sources as if to prove that it is as ubiquitous as she says it is.
Readers, however, will have no trouble being convinced of her simplest and most arresting thesis: that the gimmick emerges under late capitalism, gumming up the capitalist sublime. It’s a glitch in capital’s totalizing system that it weirdly can’t do without. In other words, the idea of the “gimmick” emerges in an age of simultaneous bewitchment and “disenchantment” with cutting-edge technology. This theory of the gimmick applies just as easily to photography and cinema and the art world as it does to literary fiction. And it is just as much an historical argument as it is a literary one. (Her earliest examples of gimmickry come from the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, two authors who straddle the 19th and 20th centuries.)
The historical element raises interesting questions and possibilities. A magic trick from the Renaissance or the deus ex machina of an ancient Greek play do not have the same gimmickiness as a Rube Goldberg machine, according to Ngai, because they don’t result in the same deflated expectations of value. The literary technique of “defamiliarization” — a slowing down of perception that works the reader harder — is often characterized as an avant-garde strategy developed after realism. By Ngai’s lights, it could be reframed as a response to the gimmick’s ascendancy in the 20th century — in the same way that cubism has come to be understood as a form born in opposition to photography. A more precise understanding of the gimmick nuances our perception of proximate categories like the sublime or the avant-garde. This is one of the pleasures of reading Ngai’s work: seeing how these networks of aesthetic forms connect.
One of Ngai’s strengths is her capaciousness — she is as conversant with Technicolor as she is with the care gap — but the wide net she casts demands concentration, all the more so because some threads are dropped. Kant, for instance, is liberally sampled and then more or less left behind after the first two chapters. The gimmick is everywhere but elusive, posing a challenge even for a thinker as systematic and clear as Ngai, whose solution is to conduct an “anatomy of the gimmick.” Consequently, Theory of the Gimmick comes across more as a fruitful set of philosophical investigations tied together by a shared theme than a single cumulative argument. This is not to say the prose isn’t tight — it is — but that the book can be read out of order without seriously hindering comprehension. (Ngai’s recap of her thesis at the beginning of most chapters suggests that she may have had this type of reading in mind.)
Sometimes I did wish for more contemporary examples and counterexamples. In her excursus on the smiley face — deceptively simple, according to Ngai, its very homogeneity and non-specificity tagging it as a late capitalist gimmick — no mention was made of emojis, which would have provided a useful contrast. Emojis come in many guises — homogeneous, yes, yet oddly specific in a way the smiley face isn’t. In her discussion of conceptual artist Stan Douglas’s Suspiria, which makes a kind of ghostly gimmick out of obsolete Technicolor technology, Ngai touches on Dario Argento’s 1977 Technicolor classic, but skips over the uneven 2018 remake, whose gray and incarnadine color palette would have made it a worthwhile comparison. Some attention to RPG video games, which are by nature indefinite and infinitely various, would have nicely complemented her analysis of Douglas’s computer-randomized video installations. (Take the newly popular Animal Crossing, which makes a gimmick of outmoded technologies like bartering to evoke nostalgia for a simpler, pre-financial age.)
Occasionally, too, Ngai glosses over pertinent details. In her synopsis of It Follows she writes: “The drive to the pool through Detroit streets is the only moment in this film in which African Americans are visible onscreen — at a distance, being driven by, through the car windows.” Almost, but not quite. The first line of the movie is spoken by an African American woman unloading groceries from the back of her minivan. “Hey, are you okay?” she addresses her young neighbor, who’s running for her life. “You need some help?” Later, another African American woman, an English teacher, recites several stanzas from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to a classroom of checked-out high school students. Both of these women speak from the corner of the frame, effaced, barely seen; Ngai’s analysis would benefit from factoring in these two instances of cinematographic marginalization. Race would have been a useful category of analysis elsewhere, too. Ngai does not discuss, for example, the monochrome of Rødland’s photographs, which almost invariably center on nubile young white women and slim white men in off-white interiors, except in an endnote. Nor, in her etymology of “jerry-rigged,” does Ngai consider its racist variant, still current in much of the United States.
But she has only so much space and, based on the amplitude of the book, suffered no shortage of examples when deciding on the contours of her study. Ngai could have written a chapter on Leo Tolstoy’s great novella of cursed currency, The Forged Coupon, instead of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp. She could just as easily have devoted a chapter to Jeff Koons instead of Stan Douglas. There are other unexplored but fruitful avenues of analysis. How the gimmick functions in non-Anglophone literature, magical realism for example, merits a study in its own right. The ubiquity of the gimmick makes any narrowing of focus seem at least somewhat arbitrary or restrictive, but this doesn’t mean that Ngai’s theorization of gimmickry can’t be used by other writers. In fact, that is one of the book’s chief contributions: it’s a roadmap for further study.
As I read the book, I found instances of Ngai’s “gimmick” turning up everywhere like a bad penny: the GIF, a perpetual motion machine that’s only valuable as long as you’re still interested in it; Flarf poetry; the fidget spinner; the troll face; ghost hunters; myth busters. (I’m not the first to experience this feeling of déjà vu reading Ngai’s work.) There is no end to gimmickry, once you go looking for it.
Even Ngai isn’t immune to the occasional corny or gimmicky assessment. Of the sex that May Server “pays for” in James’s The Sacred Fount, Ngai writes, “Discerning Server’s structurally hidden contribution to the social value of her sexual partner seems to require the language of not just ‘legerdemain’ but also ledgers.” That she’s willing to try out gimmickry as a critical mode — just as she’s willing to hazard the difficulty of toggling between system and specificity in her analysis of abstraction and concreteness — attests to Ngai’s intrepidity as a critic. It also suggests that confronting gimmickry head-on — just like the middlebrow, the louche, the kitschy — refreshes rather than debases criticism.
Theory of the Gimmick had already gone to press before the coronavirus was making headlines, but flip on any channel and, despite your anxiety, you’ll still find yourself mildly nauseated by the latest advertising gimmick, which is to mix “we the people” with “we the corporation”: “We’re all in this — together,” the disembodied voice on the screen assures us. “We’re here for you in these uncertain times.” So is the gimmick, as Ngai ominously argues. It follows.