Theater of Cruelty

The «smart» interior of everyday life

Theory of the Gimmick
Forfatter: Sianne Ngai
Forlag: Harvard University Press, (USA)
GIMMICK / Sianne Ngai is one of the most original Marxist cultural theorists of her generation. But she seems keen on pulling the aesthetics down into the mud.


What do such different "things" as a banana slicer in stainless steel, a journalistic-literary hook (which should capture the reader's fleeting attention already in the first line) or a dubious financial derivative have in common with, for example, sitcom laughtracks (so-called canned laughter), the trivial but effective plots in porn movies, or the futuristic glasses, Google Glass? That question is posed by cultural theorist Sianne Ngai in her latest book, Theory of the Gimmick. The book follows on from her two previous books, Ugly Feelings (2005) and Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012), adding the gimmick to a list of completely mundane, almost banal, phenomena, concepts, words and emotions. which the Ngai has made its metier to analyze.

Creepy Google Glass

So what is a gimmick?

That, it must be said, is difficult to give a clear answer to. But it is precisely the fundamental ambivalence of the gimmick – an everyday category that falls indefinitely between aesthetic and economic judgment – that is the focal point of Ngai. For a gimmick is at once everything and nothing. Nothing, because it's not necessarily a 'thing' at all. The concept itself contains a judgment of taste, an aesthetic assessment. Thus, every thing – potentially, at least – is constantly at risk of being judged as inferior, kitsch, untimely, banal: a gimmick. According to Ngai, a gimmick is characterized by trying too hard to be something it obviously is not, and thus comes to appear as something overrated bras.

The smart glasses, with a slightly more stylish design perhaps, can one day become part of the urban everyday life.

They 'smart, but also pretty creepy Google Glass, for example, was neither a particularly sexy spectacle aesthetically considered nor a particularly good business idea. But the product follows the cultural template for a gimmick to the letter. At first, the glasses were hugely talked about and hyped in the media and then flopped enormously and were taken completely out of production – partly because Google spectacle wearers were harassed and assaulted in the open street.

Fascination or contempt

Thus, when we spontaneously call something a gimmick, we express our fascination or contempt (and often both at the same time), but thus also invoke a superpersonal standard, as we seem to expect our personal assessment to resonate more widely in public: It is obvious, most critics of Google Glass, for example, would probably think that this is a completely incompetent gimmick. Who really wants a community where everyone can monitor everyone via a small built-in gadget in the glasses (imagine a perverted beach guest with glasses like these)?

But Ngai stresses that "while it's imminent to make fun of Google Glass, which 'went black' just three years after its launch as a consumer good in 2012, it's worth noting," that a new version of Google Glass now used in factories and warehouses where workers need to keep their hands free while receiving real-time information ». Although it appealed more to the IT programmers who had created the technology, than to a segment of younger self-conscious spectacle wearers in the cities, it became a consumer flop, an overrated (price-wise as well as aesthetic) gimmick.

Aesthetics: credit cards, cell phones

What does this example tell us about the gimmick as a social structure, Ngai asks, and gives in the book's subtitle a hint with a cartwheel: «Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form». Calling something a gimmick is thus at the same time an expression of an «aesthetic judgment» and a «capitalist form». A gimmick is therefore not just a thing, you could say, but first and foremost a social relationship that is expressed, by, for example, things, gadgets, fixed ideas or other of the "smart" interior of everyday life.

Thus, under capitalist conditions of production, anything is potentially a gimmick, and vice versa. In particular, new technological innovations are naturally overrepresented among the things that are first judged as pure gimmicks, but later perhaps widely adopted by the population: 'Just as credit cards, mobile phones and ready meals were once considered extravagant, so' smart glasses' look. now appears to be one of the industry's favorite tools, ”writes Ngai. And it's not hard to imagine that brillen, with a slightly more solid design, perhaps, even one day can become part of the urban everyday life, which is increasingly colonized by «smart» products.

Aesthetics, as a common human field of senses and experience, can no longer be understood as a particularly exalted, isolated sphere, which only particularly receptive philosophers, sensitive artists and professional academics can request the provision of privileged access to spread. Ngai seems intent on dragging aesthetics down into the mud and letting the lost philosophical discourse of the “beautiful” be confronted with our most crippling thinking at all: economic thinking.

A risk of being judged as inferior, kitsch, untimely, banal: a gimmick.

Ngai's distinctive combination of philosophical aesthetics à la Lace with a critique of the political economy à la Marx provides space to consider the «beautiful», the «beautiful» and the «sublime» side by side with the categories of the economy of goods such as the «cheap», the «overvalued», and the pure and simple «bras». As Ngai writes, the "aesthetic disappointment associated with the gimmick points to a sense of lack of economic value, by which our spontaneous assessment actually diagnoses a 'mismatch' in the ratio between the work and the time" that the commodity form structurally implies .

The gimmick is not only a passive symptom that can be read in cultural products, it is also part of contemporary art's own repertoire of critical counter-strategies, which Ngai points out in one of the book's most recommendable chapters on the Norwegian-born photographer and contemporary artist Torbjørn Rødland, who uses the gimmick to bring the photograph out of sync with our expectations of it.

Heterodoks cultural critic

With this, Ngai cements his third book title at the prestigious Harvard University Press, publishing his name as one of the most original Marxist cultural theorists of his generation. Ngai is part of a younger generation of heterosexual American cultural critics who are taking over where critical theory and other Marxist-inspired cultural analyzes allegedly ran "out of steam." But while their anti-Marxist post-critique has been gaining traction over the past decade, the ongoing uprisings from the United States to Lebanon are now seemingly complete – obviously inadequate to understand the social contradictions of capitalism.

Ngai has understood this, and she therefore insists that late capitalismns cultural logic should be examined on the basis of the real fault lines. The spontaneous aesthetic assessments that cause people to trample Google Glass to pieces, for example, are associated with an almost intuitive rejection of a differentiated capitalist exploitation that extends from the factory floor to the street…

Dominique Routhier
Dominique Routhier
Routhier is a regular critic of Ny Tid.

You may also like