Please join us as Sianne Ngai discusses her recent book, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Harvard University Press, 2020) in a conversation with Tina Post. 3CT co-director Kaushik Sunder Rajan moderates.
Repulsive and yet strangely attractive, the gimmick is a form that can be found virtually everywhere in capitalism. It comes in many guises: a musical hook, a financial strategy, a striptease, a novel of ideas. Above all, acclaimed theorist Sianne Ngai argues, the gimmick strikes us both as working too little (a labor-saving trick) and as working too hard (a strained effort to get our attention).
Focusing on this connection to work, Ngai draws a line from gimmicks to political economy. When we call something a gimmick, we are registering uncertainties about value bound to labor and time—misgivings that indicate broader anxieties about the measurement of wealth in capitalism. With wit and critical precision, Ngai explores the extravagantly impoverished gimmick across a range of examples: the fiction of Thomas Mann, Helen DeWitt, and Henry James; photographs by Torbjørn Rødland; the video art of Stan Douglas; the theoretical writings of Stanley Cavell and Theodor Adorno. Despite its status as cheap and compromised, the gimmick emerges as a surprisingly powerful tool in this formidable contribution to aesthetic theory.
Sianne Ngai is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (2020), Ugly Feelings (2005) and Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012), winner of the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize. Her work has been translated into multiple languages, and she has received fellowships from the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Presented by 3CT and co-sponsored by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, the Department of English, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.