Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form
A provocative theory of the gimmick as an aesthetic category steeped in the anxieties of capitalism.
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.
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About the Author
It is the simplicity and vernacular quality of Sianne Ngai's central concept that elevates this book to a classic in the making. Ngai's most important contribution to Marxist cultural and economic theory comes from her insight that--like the judgment of the beautiful for Kant--the gimmick is a subjective category, neither cognitive nor ethical, but historical through and through. The gimmick is a way to bring together the theory of the commodity with Kant's category of judgment. Through Ngai, we are able to vernacularize Marx and to understand the most basic but enigmatic proposition: that truth and appearance are identical in the commodity.--Timothy Bewes, author of Reification: Or, The Anxiety of Late Capitalism
Books of this ambition and accomplishment are rare! Theory of the Gimmick continues the work of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and others in seriously putting together aesthetic theory and Marxist theories of capital. In an impossibly erudite, wide-ranging, and theoretically sophisticated argument, Ngai gives us a unique insight into the relationship between labor, time, and value in a capitalist economy. This book is a major event in American intellectual life.--Jonathan Flatley, author of Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism