Sianne Ngai


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

Cover Interview of August 18, 2020

The wide angle

Theory of the Gimmick continues the effort undertaken in my previous books, Our Aesthetic Categories (2012) and Ugly Feelings (2005) to get people to take “minor,” trivial, or everyday affective and aesthetic phenomena seriously. The aesthetic forms and judgments I analyze—from ambiguous evaluations like “interesting” to viscerally powerful experiences like cuteness—are specific to capitalism and inevitably compromised: based on mixed or clashing feelings, ideologically ambiguous, and lacking in moral prestige. But they tell us just as much—if not sometimes more—about the world, the way it appears to us, and our complex and historically changing relation to others, as do the philosophically prestigious concepts of the beautiful and sublime.

So my study of the gimmick carries on with a project undertaken in my other books. But it goes deeper, by focusing on “value” and the dynamics of its production and realization underlying the phenomena discussed in these other books. The valorization of commodities ultimately connects the processes of production, circulation, and consumption I discuss in Our Aesthetic Categories.

Some theorists of the contemporary like to proclaim Marx’s value theory obsolete, preferring to use concepts like “human capital” or “bare life” when speaking of how capitalism exploits people, including the many who are not laborers. But simply in being what it is, the gimmick proves that value-labor theory is alive and kicking in the ordinary ways in which people make aesthetic judgments, and thus share their aesthetic experiences with other people.

This is good, because value-labor theory—a theory of social domination based on how value becomes bound to time through the abstraction of labor—highlights and even enables the measurement of exploitation that basic economic forms like the wage and profit obscure. It is also a theory that takes the historical uniqueness of capitalism’s social forms seriously—and as forms which impact as much if not more on those kept or left outside the wage relationship as on those who are inside it.

Aesthetic theory and Marxist theory—in what I take to be its inseparable intersection with feminist social reproduction theory—are thus the main intellectual traditions I engage with.