Sianne Ngai


On her book Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form

Cover Interview of August 18, 2020

In a nutshell

This book looks closely at an aesthetic form unique to capitalist society: the irritating and yet strangely compelling gimmick. It argues that the gimmick lies latent in every made thing in capitalism. The gimmick is an unconvincing aesthetic object that we tend to describe in specifically economic terms as cheap or overvalued. It can take the guise of an aging “special effect,” a questionable financial strategy, a supposedly time-saving kitchen gadget, or a foam served in a high-end restaurant—any device we regard as making dubious claims about value. It includes both the painstakingly devised and the gratuitously disposable. The gimmick is also an aesthetic judgment, or spontaneous, feeling-based evaluation. It is what we call things when we are uncertain if they are wonders or just tricks. Most crucially, the gimmick strikes us as working both too little and too hard.

In our encounter with the gimmick’s dissatisfying and yet still bizarrely attractive form, we are thus registering an uncertainty about labor, value, and time: the essential metrics of capitalism. These measurements become tellingly impossible to separate in a system compelling continuous technological innovations as capital moves around the world in search of profit, expelling labor from the lines it abandons and throwing entire populations out of work. Our ambivalent experience of the intrinsically overrated gimmick thus ultimately reflects doubt about where “value” is said to reside in capitalism—and about why wealth needs to be measured in this specific form in the first place.

I look at the gimmick from a variety of angles but mostly within the domain of culture or art, where ambiguities about value and labor have always come to the fore—and especially in our late capitalist present. I focus on works by artists who willingly take the risk of deploying the gimmick in efforts to represent and reflect on its compromised form. Tracking this form across a variety of objects—novels by Helen DeWitt, Nicola Barker, Thomas Mann, Henry James, and Mark Twain; horror films like It Follows, the photographs of Torbjørn Rødland, and the video art of Stan Douglas—we see how the gimmick sparks not only suspicion but comedy. Both point to deeper anxieties about capitalism as a whole.