Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Hardback)
  • Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Hardback)

Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Hardback)

Hardback 416 Pages
Published: 16/06/2020
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A Literary Hub Favorite Book of the Year
A New Statesman Book of the Year

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.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674984547
Number of pages: 416
Dimensions: 235 x 156 mm


A culmination of Ngai’s work as a critic…Ngai makes the case that the gimmick, whose value we regularly disparage, is of tremendous critical value. The gimmick, she contends, is the capitalist form par excellence…Ngai’s study lies somewhere between critical theory and Sontag’s best work. - Andrew Koenig, Los Angeles Review of Books

One of the most creative humanities scholars working today…Ngai sets off on another mind-blowing exploration, this time drawing a line between our own judgements of productivity, as well as considering what entertainment is worth to us. My god, it’s so good. - Olivia Rutigliano, Literary Hub

Theory of the Gimmick is a masterpiece—a culmination of the dazzling project begun in Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings and elaborated in Our Aesthetic Categories, both celebrated books that have anchored affect theory to a strong account of tone and form. It is a major advance in aesthetic theory, and Marxist theory in particular, one that could help us all get over our Frankfurt melancholy and down to the garrulous work of actually naming the dynamics that produce art and artistic judgment under capitalism. - Christopher Nealon, author of The Matter of Capital

The gimmick draws out our unease about capitalism’s seductions, deflating their lofty appeals with the suddenness of a punch line. It is an aesthetic category that dunks on capitalism’s too-good-to-be-true promises by dunking on itself…It is undeniable that part of what makes Ngai’s analyses of aesthetic categories so appealing—so appealing as to even appear to raise the esteem of the object under analysis—is simply her capacity to speak about them brilliantly. - Jane Hu, Bookforum

In its extraordinary analysis of the gimmick as a compromised expression of what Walter Benjamin or Fredric Jameson have labeled the age of “late capitalism,” Ngai’s book—much like her previous book publications—is a stellar critique and rethinking of Continental aesthetic theory. …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, Amerikastudien

Ngai exposes capitalism’s tricks in her mind-blowing study of the time- and labor-saving devices we call gimmicks. - Katrina Forrester, New Statesman

Ngai tracks the gimmick through a number of guises: stage props, wigs, stainless-steel banana slicers, temp agencies, fraudulent photographs, subprime loans, technological doodads, the novel of ideas…[She] has slowly been building a reputation as one of America’s most original and penetrating cultural theorists. - Charlie Tyson, Chronicle of Higher Education

Ngai is a keen analyst of overlooked or denigrated categories in art and life…Moves quickly from the fantastical contraptions of Rube Goldberg to the philosophical machinery in Kant or Marx that might explain their appeal…Highly original in theme and suggestive in approach. - Brian Dillon, 4Columns

Ngai has done so much to illuminate. - David Trotter, London Review of Books

Ngai’s penetrating and at times humorous work feels uncommonly generous at a deeply polarized moment when emotions run high and much theory and criticism has taken on an increasingly grave, moralizing tone…Explores across a remarkably broad range of works of art, film, and literature the ‘gimmick,’ a simultaneously attractive and repulsive form that links the aesthetic to the economic. - Matthew Rana, Kunstkritikk

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

The whole book suggests that critique is an occasion for delight, as the explication of how the gimmicks Ngai finds everywhere from Henry James to a toy box reveal the inner workings of capital is accomplished with a joyful relentlessness. The book is a page turner. - Theo Davis, American Literary History

[A] groundbreaking argument. - Choice

[Theory of the Gimmick] firstly offers an eminently usable theory of the gimmick, and secondly offers a series of masterful extensions of that theory in practically unrepeatable analyses of texts…where we witness, in addition to Ngai the theorist, Ngai the virtually peerless reader. - Astrid Lorange, Sydney Review of Books

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