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Sianne Ngai: Theory of the Gimmick

W.M. Keck Lecture Hall
September 26, 2016 at 7:30pm

Sianne Ngai is Professor of English at Stanford University. Her books are Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012), winner of the Modern Language Association James Russell Lowell Prize; and Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005). Sections of both books have been translated into Swedish, Italian, German, Slovenian, Portuguese, and (forthcoming) Japanese. Ngai was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and has taught at the Cornell School for Criticism and Theory. In 2015 she received an honorary D. Phil in Humanities from the University of Copenhagen.

Sianne Ngai black and white foliage portrait

Ngai’s current project explores the gimmick as a capitalist aesthetic category encoding a contradictory relation to labor and time: the gimmicky work seems to both work too hard to get our attention, but also not hard enough; it also seems to be at once too old and too new. Ngai also explores the gimmick as an inverted image of the modernist "device" celebrated by Victor Shklovsky. While both are artistic techniques that perform the reflexive action of "laying bare" the means by which their effects are produced, in one case this action gives rise to a negative aesthetic judgment while it becomes a bearer of high aesthetic value in the other. What accounts for this difference? Extending Ngai’s previous work on the historical significance of the rise of equivocal aesthetic categories (such as the merely 'interesting') and with an eye to the special difficulties posed by the very idea of an aesthetics of production (as opposed to reception), Theory of Gimmick explores the uneasy mix of attraction and repulsion produced by the gimmick across a range of forms specific to western capitalism. These include fictions by Mark Twain, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, and Helen DeWitt; twentieth-century poetic stunts; the video installations of Stan Douglas; reality television; and the novel of ideas.