One Weird Trick

Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form BY Sianne Ngai. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. 416 pages. $35.

The cover of Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form

IN FEBRUARY 2005, the literary theorist Sianne Ngai published Ugly Feelings, a book she described as a “bestiary of affects” filled with the “rats and possums” of the emotional spectrum. Instead of looking to the classical passions of fear and anger, Ngai, then an English professor at Stanford University, wanted to explore what she called “weaker and nastier” emotions. The book is divided into seven chapters, each focusing on a single “ugly feeling” such as envy, anxiety, irritation, and a hybrid of boredom and shock she termed “stuplimity.” Based on Ngai’s graduate dissertation, Ugly Feelings (an unusually laconic title for an academic monograph) posed an unusual question for academic criticism: What if the relevant feelings of our current moment were not the traditionally valued ones that led to transcendence and catharsis? What if they were in fact meaner, pettier, more ambivalent—weakly lingering, never quite resolved?

Ngai characterizes ugly feelings as “explicitly amoral and noncathartic”—emotions that do not make us feel virtuous or give us much relief. Writing against centuries of aesthetic theory, she proposed a new set of exemplary moods through which to grasp one’s sense of uncertainty and powerlessness in contemporary life. The book launched Ngai as a theorist of the trivial, the ugly, and the weak: minor aesthetic categories that spoke to readers in major ways. For while ugly feelings were certainly less intense, they were not necessarily more ineffectual. Envy, for example, isn’t just a petty and frequently gendered emotion that should be repressed—it is also a way of acknowledging “a perceived inequality in the external world.”

These less prestigious feelings are often the ones worth talking about. For instance, to express one’s irritation is to voice a small, but ongoing, unease about “a minor, low-intensity negative affect,” such as a racial microaggression. (A good example of this creative use of irritation can be found in Cathy Park Hong’s recent collection of essays Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.) In an interview with Politics/Letters, Ngai explains how these banal encounters “do more cultural work, more imaginary problem-solving” than the monumental experience of the sublime, which is often a sign of our inability to process capitalism’s overwhelming totality. And because everyday feelings of powerlessness are often irresolvable, they also have greater endurance, their persistence wedging a small opening for critical contemplation. Ugly feelings are, in other words, critical feelings—emotions that point, however waveringly, to enduring social and economic problems.

Literary study has long placed aesthetic experience on a marble pedestal. The ideal encounter with a work of art, as philosophers from Plato to Kant have argued, is bounded and autonomous—unsullied by the detritus of everyday life, unfiltered through the individual subjectivity of its beholder. Even Theodor W. Adorno, who acknowledged art’s inevitable sociality in the era of mass modernity, thought that true artwork should seek to remain autonomous by rejecting capitalist commodification. If art made us feel anything at all, it should hardly be the trivialized emotions of envy or boredom, anxiety or irritation. Ngai’s scholarship opens a new way of thinking. Rather than separate art from commodity, she views the two as nearly interchangeable. And rather than discount individual emotional reactions to art, Ngai is interested in aesthetic encounters where the “subjective” and “objective”—internal feeling and external reality—get blurred. Aesthetic experience, she emphasizes, is a profoundly social experience.

Ngai’s second academic book, Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), explores how three seemingly trivial genres—the “zany,” the “cute,” and the “interesting”—are actually those “best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism.” Our Aesthetic Categories zips across centuries and mediums, oscillating between subjects as seemingly disparate as the sixteenth-century Italian theater of commedia dell’arte, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, the sitcom I Love Lucy, and the 1996 Jim Carrey film The Cable Guy. Ngai uses this dizzying array of examples to argue for the coherence of her chosen categories—and at least part of the pleasure is in seeing how she will stick the landing. What is the relationship between anthropomorphized food, Hello Kitty, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, and poo? Ngai’s answer is itself cute, zany, and interesting.

Matthew Broderick and Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, 1996. Photo by Columbia Pictures Corporation,
Matthew Broderick and Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, 1996. Photo by Columbia Pictures Corporation, © 1996 Columbia

GIVEN NGAI'S FLAIR for blasphemous juxtapositions, it’s perhaps unsurprising that her most recent book, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form, makes a serious case for what we might otherwise consider the lowest kind of art object—indeed, barely “art” at all. (Think publicity stunts or the seemingly magical labor-saving kitchen devices marketed on late-night infomercials.) But for Ngai, it is precisely the gimmick’s debased nature that makes it uniquely interesting for critical study. The “flagrantly unworthy gimmick,” she writes, is “our culture’s only aesthetic category evoking an abstract idea of price.” When we dismiss gimmicks as empty artifice, we are making an aesthetic judgment about their value.

As the book’s title implies, the gimmick is both an aesthetic judgment and a capitalist form. It is, moreover, an “ambivalent judgment” (is the gimmick art?) and a “compromised form” (does it even work?). While gimmicks come in many guises—whether a gadget, idea, or technique—what they all share is a capacity to elicit ugly feelings of unease and dubiousness about their actual efficacy and worth. Is the gimmick always a rip-off? “Gimmicks are fundamentally one thing,” Ngai explains, “overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks) but as also working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention).” To see a gimmick is thus partly to see through it—and to see through it is to get an uncomfortable glimpse of how it produces what we take to be its intended effect.

When we categorize something as a gimmick, Ngai writes, we are always “registering an uncertainty about labor” that is ultimately an uncertainty about capitalist production. Karl Marx wrote that the capitalist division of labor is enacted “behind the backs” of its workers, but the transparently unworthy gimmick shines a light into this hidden process—eliciting judgments about labor, time, and value that our bosses would prefer remain unconscious. Consider economic gimmicks such as the get-rich-quick financial devices of the 2007–2008 subprime-mortgage crisis. Or commodities designed to make us more efficient in the domestic sphere, such as Hamburger Helper or the Instant Pot. The gimmick’s implicit promise (and often failure) to save us labor and time only makes us more aware of the expenditures of labor and time already demanded of us. Through this process, the gimmick draws out our unease about capitalism’s seductions, deflating their lofty appeals with the suddenness of a punch line. It is an aesthetic category that dunks on capitalism’s too-good-to-be-true promises by dunking on itself.

As technological developments continue to change how we measure labor and value, the definition of a gimmick is also always changing. What might not have seemed gimmicky yesterday might appear so today. What we consider gimmicky today might not be so tomorrow. The gimmick is, in other words, an object defined by its bad timing—always either too dated or too modern, working too little or working too hard. The Jetsons’ anthropomorphized domestic robots are hokey, retro, and the comically futuristic Google Glass appears cheap despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in its creation. While gimmicks lie latent in every commodity (their profusion in everyday life is what makes gimmicks, Ngai claims, “capitalism’s most successful aesthetic category”), it is nonetheless unsurprising that they seem particularly prevalent in realms obsessed with the relentless pursuit of automation, such as Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

DIVIDED INTO EIGHT somewhat disconnected chapters, Theory of the Gimmick is, perhaps appropriate to its subject, a relatively scattered work. Ngai ranges from subjects as tired as nineteenth-century American literature to those as wired as the magician David Blaine. Some chapters take on an entire genre, such as “the novel of ideas.” Others focus on the work of an individual artist, such as Norwegian photographer Torbjørn Rødland or Canadian artist Stan Douglas. Lacking the organizational clarity of Ugly Feelings or Our Aesthetic Categories, Theory of the Gimmick is closer to a collection of essays than a cumulative argument. Its chapters provide a looser, more uneven—even syncopated—pattern; its broader takeaway is less intuitive. As it draws a miscellany of objects into its orbit, Ngai’s book feels at times almost gimmicky. This is a reaction she anticipates: The gimmick’s “sheer stupidity,” she warns in her introduction, places anyone daring to “analyze it at a comical disadvantage.” Yet it is undeniable that part of what makes Ngai’s analyses of aesthetic categories so appealing—so appealing as to even appear to raise the esteem of the object under analysis—is simply her capacity to speak about them brilliantly.

Ngai’s readings regularly counterpose high culture with low, avant-garde poetry with reality television, philosophy with social media. And fair enough: when capitalism has subsumed everyday life, all art is a commodity and all commodities elicit aesthetic judgments. In a book that explicitly theorizes a degraded form, it might surprise readers that more chapters are devoted to high art than not. Ngai argues convincingly for her examination of the “seemingly esoteric problems” of niche artworks. But it is, at least for this reader, Ngai’s analyses of less obscure culture that most appeal. When she reads Helen DeWitt’s office novel Lightning Rods (2011), in which the productivity of male employees is boosted through a gimmicky temp agency that provides female sex workers, the gimmick’s relation to work and gender comes alive. A chapter on the 2014 horror film It Follows is one of the book’s most lucid and compelling.

Theory of the Gimmick ends with a relatively conventional essay on Henry James. Ngai reads James’s increasingly ornamental narrative style in light of a development in the writer’s own life: his hiring of a female amanuensis, Mary Weld, in 1901. Here the labor-saving device is simply the invisible woman who works relentlessly behind the scenes. By connecting James’s famously wordy late style to the tedious labor required to transcribe it, Ngai nods to a theme that runs throughout Theory of the Gimmick: the often unrecognized affective and bodily labor of women that constitutes so much of our economic system.

I read Ngai’s book in a haze of what you might call ugly feelings—sensations of envy, boredom, and irritation that have yet to resolve into anything approximating catharsis. They are the kinds of everyday feelings, she argues, that have only been sharpened by recent crises in capitalist accumulation, as the fall of waged work and the rise of the gig economy make our labor feel more and more like a joke. Theory of the Gimmick triggers the small but irritating feeling that all the hype about capitalism has been nothing but a cheap trick.

Jane Hu is a Ph.D. candidate and writer living in Oakland.