Sianne Ngai


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

Cover Interview of August 18, 2020

A close-up

The photographs by Torbjørn Rødland on pages 216-217 showcase a gimmick he often uses in his images: a hand entering from an invisible space outside but also entirely specific to and thus belonging to the picture—a space Eyal Peretz calls the “off”—to manipulate or toy with something inside its boundaries. I say a lot about this “handy” device, how it enables Rødland to introduce a surprising abstraction into his imagery, and why it reminds me of the white-gloved, disembodied hand of Hamburger Helper: a product originally designed to save American housewives time and effort in the preparation of family meals.

So here we have a classic gimmick: the labor-saving device. Represented by that other classic gimmick: the advertising icon. We find this recursivity in the original Helper jingle, which readers my age and older might remember: “Hamburger Helper / helped her hamburger / help her / make a great meal.” And so the gimmick assists in reinforcing the euphemism of the housewife as the performer of a personal service (“helper”)—as opposed to a reproductive laborer whose contribution to surplus-value is structurally concealed by the wage.

As a literature professor who thinks it is important to recover the work of brilliant but forgotten or little-known writers, I also hope that the reader turns to page 11. I have a short reading there of a zany novel published in 1966 by Charles Stevenson Wright, a queer experimental writer who has fallen outside the canons of both postwar American and African American literature. The Wig opens with the narrator’s explanation of how racism’s blockage of his ability to acquire a wage directly forces him to acquire a gimmick. This gimmick is the novel’s eponymous wig, or new way of styling the narrator’s hair—via a product called Silky Smooth—so he can appear non- or “less” Black to racist employers.

Wage, wig, and gimmick all slide together here in a provocative way that anticipates all of the major themes in my book—and that reminds us of how one cannot talk about capitalism without talking about racism. The Wig, which I think Wright wants us to imagine as almost just as easily titled The Wage, also highlights one of the most important contradictions involved in the valorization of commodities, which is the way in which capitalism links the necessary to the superfluous. That contradiction gets mirrored in the gimmick’s flagrantly unworthy form.