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Sianne Ngai, "Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2020), 416 pp.:


Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2020), 416 pp.

When Marty McFly time travels to the Wild West to bring his friend Emmett “Doc” Brown back to the future, in the third episode of Robert Zemecki’s film series with that very title (1990), the two retreat to Brown’s barn to forge their plan of how to make their time machine work in the plutoniumless nineteenth century. However, once they enter the barn their conversation is persistently compounded by the rumbling of a gigantic apparatus in the background whose technical set-up is incomprehensible, to say the least. Even the camera is unable to present Brown’s mysterious invention in its entirety. Pumps, pipes, steam engines, whistles, valves, and fan belts work in full swing, and Brown needs to climb a ladder to check one of the many pressure indicators of this multi-storied monstrosity. Right before the machine appears to explode there is sudden relief. Steam swiftly blows out of a metal pipe, only to produce: a single ice cube! “It’s a refrigerator,” Marty says in admiration and disbelief as if he knew that the machine is so much more and so much less than that. It is a gimmick—an object and a performative idea that make it “radically uncertain if they are working too hard or too little, if they are historically backward or just as problematically advanced, if they are wonders or tricks,” as Sianne Ngai argues in her 2020 monograph Theory of the Gimmick (49), co-winner of the 2021 ASAP Book Prize.

In this brief sequence from Back to the Future Part III (which is, quite fittingly, completely irrelevant to the development of the plot), much of what Ngai discusses in her book unfolds: a belief in and the capitalist necessity for technological progress, the production and reproduction of simultaneously comically useful and luxuriously useless goods and the permanently unsatisfactory desire to own them, the cult of individual ingenuity, and the promises of mass consumption in the normative stabilization of the domestic sphere. The gimmick is the culmination of Marx’s belief in automatization and a paradigm for the wasteful exploitation of capitalist labor and commodity mass production. In its extraordinary analysis of the gimmick as a compromised expression of what Walter Benjamin (in his Arcades Project) or Fredric Jameson (in his Postmodernism) have labeled the age of “late capitalism,” Ngai’s book—much like her previous book publications, Ugly Feelings (2007) and Our Aesthetic Categories (2015)—is a stellar critique and rethinking of Continental aesthetic theory.

Even though Ngai digs deep into the etymological origins and the career of the term “gimmick”—how it was coined in the 1920s and developed ever since—and seeks to retell the history of the gimmick’s early appearances in modern (U.S.-American) culture, her book neither simply asks nor answers the question of what a gimmick is. From the get-go, the author posits, problematizes, and at times praises the existence and the changing roles of the gimmick in capitalist culture. “[T]his aesthetic category,” she notes early on, “reflects nothing less than the basic laws of capitalist production and its abstractions as these saturate everyday life” (4). Accordingly, Ngai unravels these “basic laws,” repeatedly adding momentous new twists to the established debate about the so-called aestheticization of everyday life (as it had been led most intensely in German philosophy, cultural studies, and sociology after the publication of Rüdiger Bubner’s essay “Ästhetisierung der Lebenswelt” in 1989). Theory of the Gimmick thus revolves around the well-established relation between ideology and aesthetics, centering on the capitalist play with forms of uncertainty: “Could our experience of the gimmick’s compromised aesthetic form […] be related in an even deeper way to the methods and devices of capitalism?” (54). In her post-Marxist reassessment of Kant’s Critiques, Ngai—again—builds on Frankfurt School theory to outline and grapple with a critically updated understanding of aesthetic economy. So, even though traditional critical theory lurks around every corner—from Benjamin’s critique of the ideological disenfranchisement of aestheticization to Horkheimer and Adorno’s attack on the numbing effects of standardization—Ngai’s study at no point runs the risk of becoming “Culture Industry 2.0,” simply because she not merely recounts Frankfurt School insights but works with them on an equal footing (despite her disregard for some of the crucial publications on consumer capitalism and aesthetics born out of Frankfurt School theory such as Wolfgang Fritz Haug’s Critique of Commodity Aesthetics or the writings of Heinz Drügh, for example, his essay on “Fake”).

Readers who are familiar with Ngai’s work might read Theory of the Gimmick as a culmination—perhaps even the synthesis—of her investment in the interconnection of aesthetic experience, affective response, and economic valuation. In eight correlating and extraordinarily self-contained chapters, Ngai moves from her theory of the gimmick (ch. 1) and a discussion of “capitalist enchantment” (ch. 2 and 3) to the culture of finance in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp” and David Mitchell’s It Follows (ch. 4), Marx’s conceptualization of money and value (ch. 5), the work of photographer Torbjørn Rødland and the “gimmick as botched concept” (ch. 6), and the installations of Stan Douglas (ch. 7), only to end with a focus on labor in Henry James’s prose (ch. 8). Throughout these chapters we also find, amongst many other cultural phenomena, shorter and longer discussions of Thomas Mann, Helen DeWitt, P. T. Barnum, and the German Yps magazine, all of them backed up by a thorough and thought-provoking engagement with critical texts such as Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, Stanley Cavell’s “Music Decomposed,” or, of course, Marx’s Capital. In close vicinity of Adorno vis-à-vis the challenges of Kantian philosophy, the book, whose subtitle suggests a theory of capitalist form, is often a treatise on aesthetic form per se, which makes it, at times, quite challenging to follow Ngai on her tour de force through the arts. In an utterly productive but sometimes overloaded way, the gimmick itself distorts and obscures Ngai’s analysis and critique. Everything—literature, art, and the consumer articles of her choice—is being looked at from an unusual angle, presenting these objects as if they were unusual all along.

Theory of the Gimmick is both a serious work in literary studies and one of those refreshing academic publications that are determined to bend established ideas of literary studies dangerously close to the point of breaking. As such, it is a pleasure, a provocation, and an inspiration for scholars whose work meanders between disciplines and different histories of ideas, and who desire to converse with a most sophisticated, yet highly self-ironic style of thinking and writing. In a global academic world that seems to have given up the grey areas between cynicism, moral indoctrination, and populist overexcitement, Ngai’s book presents its readers with a shockingly soothing sense of humor and a mixture of intellectual integrity and critical distance that is neither self-serving nor self-righteous (and thus reminiscent of the wit and candor of Susan Sontag’s essays or Adorno’s Notes to Literature). With rhetorical ease and precision, Ngai is able to simultaneously retrace, reflect upon, and rethink the critical work of Marx and Lukács and the literary universes of Twain and James. And in all these explorations, she presents the gimmick as a transhistorical phenomenon and a self-evading historical truth.

In line with her witty style, Ngai thus looks at remarkably disregarded objects, setting up unexpected comparisons, and following curious hypotheses. Innovation and taste, capitalist form and aesthetic judgement, that is, mark the two trajectories of Ngai’s book. The intersection results in a characteristic feature of late (and advanced) capitalism, namely the production of aesthetic value as guarantor of progress. Unlike Adorno though, Ngai radically refrains from high culture / low culture distinctions. Of interest to her are the aesthetics and the capitalist form of the gimmick, which itself does not make or even care for hierarchical distinctions. But whenever Ngai fully commits to a discussion of the gimmick, her thinking all-too often centers on the essential dualisms of contradicting characteristics that determine the cultural and economic effects of this fleeting object. Which, and this is one of the rare instances in which her study may be criticized, lets her argument appear a bit arbitrary at times, leading her to lose herself in too many details that she obviously feels have not received proper critical recognition thus far (a roughly 75-page “Notes” apparatus is additionally indicative of her desire to be as precise and comprehensive as possible). At the same time, though, the apparent arbitrariness of Ngai’s juxtapositions of too expensive / too cheap, too little / too much, etc. highlights the—almost childish—capriciousness of the gimmick to elude its own theorization. Ngai seems to be ever-newly surprised by her own findings, adding these to the characteristics of the gimmick itself; and since “[t]he gimmick stands out for its instability” (23), it is, at its best, a source of serendipitous and comedic excitement, and, at its worst, a shamming multiplier of modern labor demands—both “a wonder and a trick” (54; emphasis in original). The gimmick appears and reappears as a joke at the expense of our contemporary desire to create ever-new desires only to never be content when they are satisfied. Ultimately, in the gimmick, use value and aestheticization can no longer be separated. In fact, aestheticization becomes one of the primary characteristics of use in the gimmick, thereby reproducing the capitalist logic (and practice) of stubbornly unsatisfied covetousness.

And yet, as specialized and narrow as Ngai’s monograph-long interest in the gimmick may appear at this point, readers of Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick do not need to be invested in the gimmick at all. Ngai focuses on the curious history and present of the gimmick while simultaneously using the gimmick as the stirrup holder of her larger, outright impressive aesthetic theory of capitalist commodity culture as such. Some of her most brilliant ideas, for example her take on the sublime’s “absence from everyday speech” (33), are thrown in as little nuggets, intellectually teasing the reader to follow along. Ngai’s book truly is, as she puts it, “the anatomy of an aesthetic judgment specific to mature capitalism” (22), even though it lacks contemporary examples to support her argument (one may want to think of the art of Jeff Koons or Damien Hurst). Ngai explores the gimmick and its “insistence on contemporaneity” (58) tantamount to the dynamics of late capitalism, and she convincingly shows that there is no end to gimmickry in sight, which, in turn, may just make her book lastingly contemporary. A multi-part event at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt in 2021, which, amongst others, brought together scholars from American studies, German literary studies, philosophy, and sociology to discuss Theory of the Gimmick with the author, is indicative of Ngai’s international success as theorist and critic, and of the highly productive compatibility of her scholarship. Much like Horkheimer and Adorno’s chapter on the “culture industry,” Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’” or Dick Hebdige’s treatise on subcultures, Ngai’s work will not and must not be bypassed by future theories of aesthetics and consumer capitalism, not least in American studies.

Dustin Breitenwischer (Universität Hamburg)

Works Cited

1 

Back to the Future Part III. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd. Amblin and Universal, 1990. Film.

2 

Benjamin, Walter. Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

3 

Bubner, Rüdiger. “Ästhetisierung der Lebenswelt.” Ästhetische Erfahrung. Frankfurt / Main: Suhrkamp, 1989. 143-55. Print.

4 

Drügh, Heinz. “Fake: Drei Aspekte einer Ästhetik des Konsums / Fake: Three Aspects of an Aesthetics of Consumption.” After Facts: Pudding Explosion Rearticulated. Ed. Stefanie Heraeus, Philippe Pirotte, and Fabian Schöneich. Frankfurt / Main: Universität Frankfurt Kunstgeschichtliches Institut, 2018. 122-143. Print.

5 

Haug, Wolfgang Fritz. Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society. Trans. Robert Bock. Cambridge: Polity, 1986. Print.

6 

Hebdige, Dick. Subcultures: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge, 1979. Print.

7 

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

8 

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. Print.

9 

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007.

10 

---. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015. Print.

11 

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966. 275-292.

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