Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form
by Sianne Ngai
Harvard University Press
Published 16 March 2022
They give you little bullshit amounts of money for working, wages and so forth and then they steal all that shit back from you in terms of where they got this whole other thing set up, this whole credit gimmick society, man. Consumer credit: buy shit, buy shit, on credit.
— Ken Cockrel, member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, featured in the film Finally Got the News (1970)
I am recalling an image of a crudely animated Mark Zuckerberg alone in his Metaverse in front of a simulated Eiffel Tower, an image that circulated at the time the fantastically expensive product was launched to a largely underwhelmed, often derisive public. The image quickly became a meme, and apparently struck a nerve with Zuckerberg, who responded in two ways. First, he released a slightly updated version of the avatar, with the addition of slightly textured hair on his short, crescent shaped fringe and some freckles across his face. Second, he objected to the public’s response, expressing frustration – even disappointment – at the collective fixation on the Metaverse as a product that looks cheap but that had in fact cost the company an unthinkable amount of money. ‘I know that sometimes when we ship a product, there’s a meme where people say, “Hey, you’re spending all this money, and you’ve produced this thing,” and it’s — I think that that’s not really the right way to think about it.’ As vague and tautological as the statement reads, it says a lot about both the image and the Metaverse, and about Zuckerberg’s defensive reflex to rehabilitate both: they had been judged as gimmicks, and as a result, had been determined to be at once too cheap and too expensive, too little and too much, suggestive of both an outdated version of the internet and a future that has not yet arrived. More than that, they had been judged as gimmicks that, however unwittingly, had demystified something about the obtuse process through which living labour becomes abstracted into slick commodities with natural-seeming values. Zuckerberg asks the consumer not to focus on how much the Metaverse had cost his company because he understands that its attraction as a product will depend on its capacity to appear with all the allure of a fetish. Instead, as Sianne Ngai describes it in Theory of the Gimmick, ‘What we ultimately judge in our spontaneous encounters with [the gimmick’s] flagrantly unworthy form is the erroneous appraisal of value in general—and through this, an entire system of relations based on the mismeasurement of wealth’. If the image of Zuckerberg’s pathetic visage in non-space seemed like a harbinger of something, the question we might ask is, a harbinger of what, exactly?
Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (2020) is the third book by Ngai that examines – and offers a robust critical framework for understanding – minor affects and ambivalent aesthetic judgements that index the historically specific relations intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production. The first book, Ugly Feelings (2005) studies ‘negative affects’ such as envy, irritation, anxiety, and paranoia as they appear in literature and art as a way of registering blocked, obstructed, or frustrated agency in an era of ‘fully administered’ late modernity (Ngai borrows Adorno’s phrasing). The exemplary figure, for Ngai, is the titular character from Herman Melville’s Bartelby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853), ‘a fiction in which the interpretive problems posed by an American office worker’s affective equivocality seem pointedly directed at the political equivocality of his unnervingly passive form of dissent’. What, Ngai asks, does Bartelby’s inexpressive refusal mean? By way of answering this question, Ngai finds the thesis of her book: ‘affective gaps and illegibilities, dysphoric feelings, and other sites of emotional negativity’ can be read across the archive of late modern cultural objects in order to theorise the ‘suspended agency’ characteristic of social experience in a historical moment for which alienation, disaffection, and powerlessness take the form of amoral, non-cathartic, and petty feelings that are politically ambivalent. We ought to neither romanticise them nor assume that they are always already cooptable into productive feelings (as when, Ngai notes, citing Paolo Virno, insecurity becomes a motivational force for workers). Instead, we ought to study their ambivalence as capable of telling us something about the way that ambivalent aesthetic experience and diminished political agency come together in a specific moment in the history of capitalism: these ugly feelings, Ngai argues, are necessary objects of study for understanding social formations, cultural practices, and political imaginaries of subjectivity mediated by the capital relation. More than that, the domain of the ‘literary’ provides the ideal site for such study, insofar as the assertion of artistic autonomy that emerges in this historical period – an assertion that would try to make the aesthetic and non-aesthetic quite separate – betrays an anxiety about the relevance of art and its capacity to meaningfully transform the world in which it uneasily sits. This means, argues Ngai (in conversation, still, with Adorno), the ugly feelings expressed in the literature of this historical moment can be read as indirect expressions of ugly feelings elsewhere: literature’s anxiety is not separate from, but rather the product of, culturally specific and historically contingent modalities of feeling.
Ngai’s next book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012) proposes that ‘the zany, the interesting, and the cute are our most pervasive and significant categories [because] they are about the increasingly intertwined ways in which late capitalist subjects labor, communicate and consume’. These three categories – as trivial as they might first appear – index the processes through which capitalism as a world system mediates social experience: production, circulation, and consumption. Zaniness, with its registration of the embodied, affective, performative dimensions of the body at work, indexes production and its uncanny transformation of labour-power into surplus value. Interestingness, a designation in which we defer judgement, speaks to an indeterminate registration of the information-saturated circuits of communication and exchange through which a cultural object passes between sites of production and consumption. Cuteness, an aestheticisation of powerlessness, tells us something about both the desire and the destructiveness elicited by the commodity form. Importantly, the three categories suggest aesthetic experiences that are irreducible to definite judgements. When we call something zany, interesting, or cute, we are not necessarily judging it positively or negatively. Instead, we are announcing a certain kind of ambivalence about what is being experienced. It is in this way, Ngai argues, these ‘minor’ categories are paradoxically central to what she calls, drawing on Jameson’s periodisation, ‘late capitalism’: they are categories that describe the experience of living in a specific historical conjuncture as well as categories that betray the transformation of experience by that very conjuncture. Theories of aesthetic experience are necessary for understanding how we come to see, and then speak about, what is before us – whether what is before us is a work of art, an advertisement, a roster, or a mass-produced commodity.
If Ugly Feelings presents a ‘bestiary’ of minor affects that characterise the equivocality of subjective life of ‘late modernity’, and Our Aesthetic Categories a ‘quotidian triad’ apt at indexing the central processes of capitalism in its ‘late’ moment typified by ‘performance-driven, information-saturated and networked, hypercommodified world’, then Theory of the Gimmick continues this trajectory of whittling down the catalogue to one paradigmatic entry.
The gimmick, Ngai argues, is ‘capitalism’s most successful category’, ‘lies latent in every made thing in capitalism’, ‘arguably a miniature model of capital itself’, ‘an entirely capitalist aesthetic’, ‘lies latent in our encounter with every artefact in capitalism’, and ‘what all concepts fall under threat of becoming under conditions of capitalist valorization’. The gimmick, is, therefore, perhaps the aesthetic category that captures the affective experience of life as mediated by the capital relation. The gimmick names the ambivalent judgement by which we come to apprehend the very process through which capitalism reproduces itself, and the abstractions that naturalise that process. When we judge something to be a gimmick, we are experiencing ‘dissatisfaction—mixed, for all this, with fascination—linked to our perception of an object making untrustworthy claims about the saving of time, the reduction of labor, and the expansion of value’. This dissatisfaction and distrust, as well the fascination and even pleasure we might experience as part of the judgement, stems from a larger dissatisfaction and distrust in the claims about labour and value – indeed, in the correlation of labour and value – that are central to capitalist accumulation and yet are increasingly fraught in a moment defined by longterm stagnation and declining productivity.
This is where the central argument of Gimmick gains a historical specificity that both connects it to the earlier books and marks a certain kind of break: this is a theory of aesthetic experience in the era of what Robert Brenner has called the ‘long downturn’. ‘The evolution of the advanced capitalist economies since World War II naturally divides itself into two roughly equal parts, each about a quarter-century in length’, writes Brenner in the preface to his book The Economics of Global Turbulence (2006), ‘a period of prosperity from the later 1940s to 1973 and an era of slowed growth and increasing economic turbulence from 1973 onwards, marked by deeper recessions and the return of devastating financial crises absent since the Great Depression.’ The long downturn, that ‘extraordinarily extended phase of reduced economic dynamism and declining economic performance’, has extended ‘through the end of the old millennium and into the new’. It is our moment, our downturn.
Not coincidentally, therefore, Ngai charts a sharp increase in the use of the word ‘gimmick’ in 1973, that busy year that has come to stand for the beginning of the end of growth. ‘The year … sees the first in a series of oil shocks, the formal withdrawal of the U.S. from its Southeast Asian adventure, and the final collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system setting the stage for increasing trade and current account imbalances; concomitant with these is a global downturn of markets’, writes Joshua Clover in Riot Strike Riot, which repurposes Brenner via the world-systems analysis of Giovanni Arrighi to theorise the ‘long crisis’ of our present. ‘The world-historical year of 1973 is the swivel, with the collapse of industrial profits signaling the onset of what should rightly be called the Long Crisis, with its recompositions of class and global division of labor that progressively undermine the possibilities for militant labor organization in the west.’
If Clover’s project is to understand how people ‘fight to get free’ in the era of the Long Crisis, Ngai’s resonant project in Gimmick is to understand how this particular aesthetic category, above others, has come to encode ‘the limits to accumulation and expanded reproduction that expose capitalism to crisis’ in the same historical moment. Rather than offering (only) a cultural history of the gimmick, Ngai offers a theory of the gimmick as the aesthetic category by which we encounter the fundamentals of capitalist accumulation both in operation and at the breaking point afforded by the long-term crisis from which capital has yet to recover. This is not to say that the gimmick as a specific kind of device, trick, or technique does not exist prior to 1973: it is, as she persuasively argues, contemporaneous – even synonymous – with the commodity form itself. Nor are the examples she draws on restricted to this period of the long downturn/crisis: the final chapter, a surprising and virtuosic reading of Henry James, represents an excursion from the book’s overall periodisation. Nevertheless, the point that Ngai makes throughout Gimmick is that insofar as the gimmick embodies the contradictions of capitalism, and insofar as crisis, to cite Clover again, represents ‘contradictions at breaking point’, the gimmick is an increasingly present and prevalent category through which we identify the felt dimensions of the present.
Because gimmicks reveal, through their failure to properly conceal, the process through which labour becomes abstracted into the objective-seeming property of value, and because the long downturn represents a sustained crisis of capitalist reproduction for which this process is fundamental, the gimmick is able to tell us something unique about the aesthetic dimension of value itself – the way it is made to appear and disappear, as liquid and as solid as Marx’s metaphors of congealment and crystals betray. To go one step further, we might say that this book represents Ngai’s attempt to bring aesthetic theory and value theory together. What, precisely, Marx means by ‘value’ is one of the enduring points of disagreement for scholars, and yet – or, more precisely, therefore – it is also one of his most important concepts. Endnotes articulates an interpretation of Marx’s theory of value resonant with Ngai’s reading in Gimmick:
Value is a relation or process that unfolds itself and maintains itself through different forms — in one moment money, the next the commodities that compose the labour process (including the commodity labour-power), the next the commodity product, and then again money — whilst always maintaining a relation in its money form to its commodity form and vice versa. For Marx then, value is not the embodiment of labour in the commodity, nor an unmoving substance. It is rather a relation or process which dominates those who bear it: a substance that is at the same time subject. (My emphasis)
‘Capital itself is the moving contradiction,’ writes Marx in a well-known passage in the Gundrisse, ‘[in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.’ Capital is accumulated through the extraction of surplus value, that is, the labour-power exerted in excess of what it costs. Capital seeks to minimise the time it takes for workers to reproduce themselves (through labour-saving measures) in order to maximise capital accumulation which can only be derived from labour’s surplus. Surplus value can be extracted by extracting more labour-power (lengthening the working day), defined by Marx as absolute surplus value, or by reducing labour time through efficiency measures (technological innovations), that is, relative surplus value. Ngai writes: ‘Intercapitalist competition for greater productivity … replaces living labor with machines. This makes an increasing fraction of living labor … redundant but without changing accumulation’s dependency on surplus labor’. Endnotes again, reframing Marx’s general law of capital accumulation:
The capitalist drive to produce surplus value is paradoxically both the drive to exploit labour-power and, simultaneously, to expel it from the production process. Capital is impelled by its own dynamic, mediated through the competition between capitals, to reduce necessary labour to a minimum, yet necessary labour is the basis on which it is able to pump out surplus labour. Necessary labour is always both too much and too little for capital.
An increasing amount of people are finding themselves outside the wage relation; at the same time, capital accumulation requires the exploitation of labour-power. In other words, the capitalist mode of production compels one to work in order to live, but at the same time, excludes an increasing number of people from the domain of work. (John Clegg and Aaron Benanev put it better: ‘Capital may not need these workers, but they still need to work.’) This aspect of capital’s foundational contradiction, for Ngai, is part of what is perceived when one determines something to be a gimmick: the gimmick elicits both fascination and unease about the claim to be a labour-saving device whose promise seems to be a trick. The gimmick represents a promise of increased efficiency in a moment that, amidst declining productivity and ever expanding surplus populations, can only appear at once empty and vaguely menacing. When we judge something to be gimmicky, we are not only judging something that indexes contradiction but is also felt to be contradictory itself – a promise and a trick, a device and the failure of that device, a coverup and an admission. In this way, the gimmick is an irritant. Its antinomies agitate us:
The gimmick saves us labor.
The gimmick does not save labor (in fact, it intensifies it or even eliminates it.)
The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too hard.
The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too little.
The gimmick is outdated, backwards.
The gimmick is newfangled, futuristic.
The gimmick is a dynamic event.
The gimmick is a static thing.
The gimmick is an unrepeatable “one-time invention” […].
The gimmick is a device used “hundred and millions and billions of times” […].
The gimmick makes something about capitalist production transparent.
The gimmick makes something about capitalist production obscure.
Specifically, the gimmick has something to say about the ‘proliferation of labor-saving devices in tandem with an intensification of human labor in the immediate production process; increase of labor productivity in tandem with lesser availability of secure work; planned obsolescence and routinized innovation; overproduction of commodities in conjunction with the creation of “surplus populations” unable to buy goods’. More than this, the gimmick yokes the aesthetic and economic registers by impelling in us a judgement about something’s value: the gimmick appears to be a cheap trick even when it may also look, or be, expensive. Insofar as the gimmick, for Ngai, arouses our suspicions about the occluded relations between labour, time, and value inherent in the capital relation and the commodity form, its appearance as value out-of-place or fraudulently/incorrectly assigned makes it a category equally applicable to objects, devices, and even ideas. ‘What we ultimately judge in our spontaneous encounter with its flagrantly unworthy form is the erroneous appraisal of value in general—and through this, an entire system of relations based on the mismeasurement of value’.
If Ngai’s project might appear enormous and all-encompassing, that is the point: it aims not only to theorise the gimmick as a – or rather the – aesthetic category through which we come to perceive and judge cultural objects in a particular historical conjuncture. It aims, in addition, to argue for aesthetic experience per se as a critical mode through which to understand how we come to experience the specificity of a cultural moment in its temporary totality: that is, aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgement are not only to be found, nor studied, in the rarified instances in which we come to consume cultural objects in social institutions of art:
For subjects weaned on an incessant flow of advertisements, who can intuit what the mediation of relations by “spectacle” means without reading theory, and who are familiar in some way with the gendered, racialized, or class-interpellating experience of aesthetic shame, most aesthetic judgments, while affectively spontaneous, are not ones of “conviction”.
Aesthetic categories, Ngai explains in a talk she gave as part of the Red May series in 2021, are double-sided: they represent the connection between the perception of ‘socially preshaped’ forms and an evaluation of those forms. This connection occurs in the spontaneous feelings we have that impel us to make an aesthetic judgement – when we call a Hello Kitty keyring cute, or when we find pleasure in dismissing the cheap-looking graphics of Zuckerberg in the Metaverse as a gimmick. Such aesthetic judgements, as Ngai argues, take the form of an utterance that, even if it is not actually directed at someone else, nonetheless implies an address, a specific or generic other. Aesthetic experience is, in other words, intrinsically social. Despite the fact that our perception of an aesthetic object will remain our own experience, the judgement that follows will always be a speech act directed outwards, an articulation of experience that is irreducibly intersubjective. We do not say, to paraphrase Kant, This keyring is cute for me, but This keyring is sooo cute! and therefore extend a call, even a demand, for this judgement to be shared. In this sense, ‘what is most crucial and strange about aesthetic experience … is precisely how it binds the way in which we face or address others to appearances we can only perceive for ourselves’.
For Ngai, what is often neglected in philosophical accounts of aesthetic experience as well as in art theory is the specific manner in which this address occurs: ‘aesthetic judgments are stylized verbal performances that can become objects of aesthetic judgment in turn’ (my emphasis). Ngai seeks to correct the tendency for philosophical and theoretical inquiry to focus on the first part of an aesthetic judgement – the perception of form – and less on the second part – the outward address that articulates a judgement. This shift in focus allows Ngai to consider precisely how social meanings emerge from the changing conditions of cultural production as well as how different cultural objects can be both representations of and meditations on a certain aesthetic category. In this second sense, we can see the logic that underpins her choice of case studies across the chapters of Theory of the Gimmick: what unites texts as diverse as It Follows, the 2014 horror movie by David Robert Mitchell, Music for Porn, a book of poems by Rob Halpern from 2012, and a series of stories/novels from Henry James’s later stage of writing, is that they each run the risk, as Ngai puts it, of being charged with gimmickry for their attempt to limn the contours of the gimmick as an aesthetic category worthy of inquiry. I’ll return to these case studies later, but for now, I will emphasise that her choice is indicative of Ngai’s insistence that the way we talk about aesthetic experience becomes, in turn, the material for further aesthetic experience. This is one of the significant achievements of her scholarship – by focusing on the dynamic discursivity of aesthetic experience, Ngai gives an account not merely of this or that text but on the capacity for texts to be generative sites for the study of discourse itself. Because of this, the texts themselves are not the exemplary aesthetic objects under analysis: the aesthetic experiences that the texts register, and the aesthetic experiences that the texts occasion, as well as the broader aesthetic experiences that structure the conditions of the texts’ production and consumption, are all equally treated. The broadness that she affords aesthetic experience brings everyday acts – earning a wage, paying rent, navigating bureaucracy, accruing debt, managing relationships, consuming commodities, exercising, sleeping, eating, and so on – and, importantly, the way we feel about such acts and their management by systems and structures, into view. As she puts it to Christopher Nealon in the Red May talk, vernacular judgements are evidence of the fact that people not only understand, but have critiques of the world they live in. This is never more obvious than when one calls bullshit on something, whether one is registering a minor annoyance or a major injustice.
So far I have drawn primarily from the Introduction and first chapter (called ‘Theory of Gimmick’) to give a broad account of the book as a scholarly and political project. In what follows, I will offer summaries of the remaining chapters before concentrating on a more in-depth reading of a single chapter which, to my mind, stands out for its inventive, expansive, and impressive analysis of the gimmick and its indexation of the economic. First, the summaries.
Chapter Two, ‘Transparency and Magic in the Gimmick as Technique’, attempts, according to Ngai, ‘to track, across the writings of disparate, mostly non-Marxist thinkers, a latent theorization of the gimmick adjoining the Marxist one in this book’. Ngai charts what we might call a ‘prehistory’ of the mature-stage capitalist mode of production that is the focus of the majority of the book’s theory and reading. She reconstructs the emergence of the work of art during the context of rapid industrialisation. ‘When we say a work of art is gimmicky, we mean we see through it—that there is an uninvited transparency about how it is producing what we take to be its intended effect’: this ‘uninvited transparency’ stands in contrast to the forms of transparency – self-consciousness about art’s techniques and processes – that come to be a hallmark of modernist art. The transparency of the gimmick, Ngai writes, is a reversal of what is Viktor Shklovsky term ostranenie or defamiliarisation/estrangement that is the seemingly-paradoxical effect of an artwork that lays bare its own devices. It seems like a paradox, but isn’t, since what Shklovsky calls for is the slowing-down of perception such that an artwork cannot simply be received as a single, unified symbol. Its appearance as strange or unfamiliar lies in the fact that despite showing its own process of becoming, an artwork can never fully reveal itself, since, as Paul Chan would say, the parts do not make a whole.
When we determine something – an artwork or not – as a gimmick, we are identifying something unconvincing or fraudulent about what is being revealed: we perceive the transparency of the object to be obscuring something that undermines the object itself. Gimmicks are commodities, Ngai writes, ‘produced in a system in which labor is separated from means of production, in which the continual transformation of technology toward increasing productivity is compulsory, and in which social exploitation is hidden in the very forms that express it’. If the gimmick is latent in all forms produced under capitalism, then it is latent in every work of art; if modernism is primarily concerned with art’s (over)identification with its own technical processes, a concern that sees it converge with theory, then a work of art is likely to be called a gimmick when its claims about its own techniques of production raise suspicions about what is obscured by those very claims; the gimmick is, therefore, a judgement that arises from an aesthetic experience in which enchantment vacillates with disillusionment around the question of the nature of production itself. Because when we make a judgement we make it to each other (we issue a demand), there is a pleasure in finding something to be a gimmick, a pleasure predicated on the assumption that someone else might not see the tricks for what they are (we might also add, there is no doubt also pleasure in sharing in the experience of finding something gimmicky, too: they are perhaps pleasures with slightly different textures).
Chapter Three, ‘Readymade Ideas’, brings us back to the contemporary moment and to the ‘novel of ideas’ as a literary genre whose ‘integration of concepts’ is liable to be read as gimmicks. The novel of ideas predates conceptual art, though they are usefully considered alongside each other. In the former, transparent techniques/devices are used to freight readymade ideas into the novel form: these techniques include, as Ngai writes, ‘direct speech by characters in the forms of dramatic dialogues or monologues’; ‘overt narrators prone to didactic, ironic, metafictional commentary’; ‘flat allegorical characters’; ‘experimental formatting’; ‘sudden, unexplained, narratively isolated outbreaks of magic in a predominately realist frame’; and ‘even a curious thematization of the “device” or gimmick as such’. Such techniques, and by extension the novel of ideas, have often been criticised for their disruption – even obstruction – of what is considered fundamental to the novel: narration. By bringing in pre-determined and often didactic ideas or theories into the narrative space of the novel, such criticisms say, a reader is given both too much and too little: too many conceptual devices, not enough with which to build a world immanent to the novel and therefore capable of fully experiencing. In other words, the novel of ideas is akin to the novel of gimmicks. This, for Ngai, offers an opportunity to consider the novel of ideas and its proximity to the gimmick as generating a valuable archive of literary artefacts to read that both comment on, and risk reproducing, gimmicky devices. In such novels, Ngai argues by examining specific texts and their techniques, an obviously specious element of the novel directs the reader toward a second-order reading, a kind of ‘double-voicing’.
In the second half of the chapter, Ngai brings her reading of the novel of ideas to bear on a single text, Clear: A Transparent Novel by Nicole Barker (2003), written contemporaneously with a controversial installation that saw, in real-life as well as in the book, the American artist David Blaine suspended in a transparent box above London for forty-four days without food. Barker’s novel fictionalises a series of responses to the artwork by a gathering crowd of onlookers, and focuses on a main character who becomes increasingly embedded in the drama of the crowd. The novel is written in a particular kind of voice familiar to anyone who spends time online: a kind of clipped, jokey, vernacular that defines social media posts as much as popular journalism. The character’s ongoing judgement of the artwork, as well as interactions with members of the crowd for whom the work is variously genius or gimmick, shows the ‘second aesthetic object generated by the judgment of the first one, the gimmick’: the novel is concerned with the ‘verbal performances correlated with affects not identical to, yet echoing or amplifying, the affects that gave rise to them’. Barker offers something of a meditation on the kinds of doubts aroused by the economically exceptional and problematically valued work of art in mature-stage capitalism. With reference to David Beech, who suggests that insofar as the work of art appreciates value ‘proportionately to the growth of information and judgment’, Ngai shows that the concern in Barker’s novel is threefold: to chart the work of art that aims to set into motion information and judgement; to document the suspicions that such artworks arouse in relation to the inflation or misapplication of value; and to show that the affects accompanying the judgement of a gimmick mimic the gimmick itself, hence why the novel assumes the shape of a clickbait article to capture discontent with a clickbait artwork.
Chapter Four will be the focus of a slightly longer engagement, so I will skip it for now. Readers may recognise Chapter Five, ‘Visceral Abstractions’ as a standalone essay published in GLQ back in 2015. This chapter is exceptional in the book for the fact that it does not once use the word ‘gimmick’. Its focus, instead, is a careful rereading of Marx on abstract labour, a rereading that allows for a deeper engagement with what is so fundamental to the book’s central claim, that is, that the gimmick directs us towards the ‘moving contradiction’ of capitalism in which dependence on labour-power and a drive to reduce labour coexist and, over time, produce and entrench crisis if new frontiers of extraction cannot be found or are not effective in jump-starting productivity meaningfully. The chapter begins with a consideration of the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘abstraction’, noting that they have come to mean something quite opposite to what Marx meant. If today, the terms are used – as Leigh Claire La Berge has shown, particularly to describe finance – to mean unrepresentable, complex, or even fictitious, for Marx the term designates a necessary aspect of knowledge and the correlative of the concrete: the abstract allows us to theorise the social whole while the concrete allows us to theorise the lived dimensions of that whole. Or perhaps more succinctly: abstraction allows us to trace the relations between parts and the totality, that is, the relation between concrete things and the abstract relations that condition them. Where the accumulation of surplus value is concerned, actual people sell their labour-power, but the value of that labour-power is only realised retroactively through exchange. As a result, what is often called ‘abstract labour’ contains a tension: ‘it is the form that social labor assumed in a society based on the private organization of production and circulation’. Value is not produced through labour directly, but through the processes of exchange that realise the value of labour-power relative to labour conceived as a generality. Being abstract doesn’t mean it is not real, both in its effects and insofar as it is the consequence of specific actions and social relations.
To consider more closely the ‘thingly’ dimension of Marx’s conception of abstract labour, Ngai examines his use of metaphors that, in their various suggestions of physical matter, seems to contradict the abstraction under description. This is only so, argues Ngai, if we assume that the material metaphors are supposed to denote the physiological aspects of labour (the worker working) rather than the transformation of that labour into value according to a process of abstraction for which there is no precise language to describe. Ngai reads the 2014 book of poems Music for Porn, in which Rob Halpern explores the fantasy of fucking a soldier, as a meditation on capitalist abstraction and its oddly constructed metaphors for their ‘socially binding actions’. Halpern constructs his fantasy of the symbolic soldier as it confronts the body of the actual soldier, exploring the relations between abstract and concrete labour, citizen and enemy. Halpern’s desire, written as both poetry and critical reflections on that poetry, vacillates between seemingly contradictory metaphors that draw abstraction in visceral, bodily terms; this, for Ngai, is work that explicitly thinks through Marx’s value theory and its capacity to define abstract relations that are as real as the people they expend. We might well ask, at this point, where the gimmick resides in this chapter, if at all. In the Red May talk, Ngai singles out Music for Porn as an exception to the other examples, which are chosen for their direct, even if unnamed, treatment of the gimmick. She says, rather, that she was drawn to discuss Halpern as a way to think through Marx’s theory of value insofar as Halpern’s book does just that, in both implicit and explicit ways across its two registers, poetry and essay. The experience of reading the chapter as it falls halfway through the book is somewhat of a reiteration of the foundation of the theory of the gimmick, that is, the internal contradiction of capital accumulation and its appearance as a set of relations that do not add up: labour, time, value. But it goes further than that, too: through a close reading of Halpern, Ngai offers insight into the peculiar poetics that complicate as well as elucidate Marx’s difficult constructions that bring work itself – the everyday exhaustion of the body – into contact with the abstract labour through which value is realised. Reading Marx’s crystals and meat jellies not just like poetry but through it becomes, in this chapter, a way of better understanding the more technical terms in the theory of value. It therefore clarifies what has already been, and underwrites what is yet to come in the book.
Chapter Six, ‘Rodland’s Gimmick’, offers a close analysis of the work of the Norwegian photographer Torbjorn Rodland, whose comedic images offer a single ‘idea’ expressed as a provocation to reconsider concepts, and by extension conceptual art, in the ‘gimmick’s compromised key’ (204). Rodland’s photographs, to summarise, show scenes that are explicitly contrived or staged with the aim of producing a simple visual gag. But they are also often incomplete images in which the intrusion of hands and/or gaze of the subject implies an ‘out-of-shot’ world, or rather, non-world, that all the photographs make reference and therefore belong to: this non-world is suggestive of the ‘empty reality principle’ that defines capitalism as a system in which we all live ‘in the same abstraction-dominated world’ and yet are prohibited precisely by abstraction from experiencing the world in common. Rodland’s work, concludes Ngai, ‘produces an image of the paradoxical blend of crisis and stasis that defines our age of secular stagnation’.
Chapter Seven follows on from the last to consider a different contemporary artist, Stan Douglas. In particular, Ngai considers the largescale video installation Suspiria, staged in an earlier form at Documenta in 2002 and then reworked in 2003. The work superimposes video footage of scenes derived from Grimms’ fairytales superimposed with surveillance feeds. A computer performs a live mix of footage, feed, music, and narration, meaning the work unfolds according to a random and practically infinite set of possible combinations. Importantly, the scenes all show instances in which labour is exchanged for money: scenes of getting or offering work. The work is named for the 1977 film of the same name which was shot in the now obsolete Technicolor – an effect Douglas uses to accompany certain interactions in the work’s articulation. Ngai is interested in why Supiria received criticism where other Douglas works have not. Why has this work been charged for gimmickry? Her analysis fixes on a specific form the gimmick takes, that is, the special effect. Special effects are prone to be judged as gimmicks when they come across as cheap, obvious, or outdated in the context of the media in which they appear. Douglas’s work, which self-consciously plays with Technicolor, a long out-dated effect, directly ‘tarr[ies] with the gimmick’, and therefore puts the work at risk for the amplification of this effect in judgements the work elicits. And, because the work stages almost infinitely recombinable scenes of exchange that play out on the screen between characters whose dialogue is determined by chance-operation that pulls from a vast database of possible plotlines and narrative arcs, both the use of the ‘gimmicky’ visual effects and the charges of gimmickry laid against the artwork are suggestive of what makes the work so interesting:
Suspiria … uses exchange to reveal the spectrality of value’s social substance, which entails giving visibility to a collectively generated abstraction intrinsically resistant to the empiricism of our senses. The appearance of color solely and exclusively in conjunction with representations of labor-abstracting exchange conjures the image of capitalist “value” itself.
The final chapter, ‘Henry James’s “Same Secret Principle”’ is at once a departure from the previous chapters’ collective focus on contemporary art and literature and a consolidation of their key insights. It takes the form of a historical excursion to the turn of the twentieth century to consider an earlier moment in which the occluded nature of affective labour became a fixation for the author who, as Ngai argues, at the time of writing the thematically linked works under discussion, was doing so via dictation to a typist whose presence in the text as an invisible worker set the theme in motion for James. ‘James’s moment,’ she writes,
was one of ripe capitalism (and late or divesting empire) in which … the question of what a parent owes a child, or an employer a long-time servant, or a state an unexpectedly unprofitable colony, was becoming increasingly unclear. It is as if for James, the mystifying veil of social forms his character struggle to penetrate is somehow connected to reproductive or affective work through a logic as opaque (and fascinating) to him as as it is to them.
Across these different works, Ngai shows, service or care workers, or else characters deputised into service or care work in an employee-like relation, are made to keep a secret that becomes an increasingly difficult task to carry out. It is as if, writes Ngai, ‘the relation between the waged and unwaged version of the same kind of work were itself the “social secret” sought by his increasingly obsessive analysis’. Insofar as affective and care work were and remain feminised, a second conclusion can be drawn: ‘Gendered labor is performed to disclose/maintain a social secret and in doing so must itself be hidden’. So, what of the gimmick? In three of the works from this period, James uses what Kent Puckett calls ‘cheap tricks’: narrative coincidence, overcomplicated metaphors, and so on. In these works, James’s literary techniques come to mirror the overly obscured, diverted, and seemingly self-negating terms through which social relations are obliquely referred to in order to maintain the open social secrets that protect the division of labour, as well as the distinction between waged and unwaged, productive and reproductive work. What critics register as writerly devices – gone awry, perhaps, or not quite landing – are in fact registrations of their own kind of the complex codes that underwrite social structures, family dynamics, workplaces, and even national imaginaries at a certain point in time when the wax of industrialisation coincides with the wane of British imperialism. James’s secret principle, Ngai concludes the chapter and therefore also the book (for there is no standalone conclusion), points us once again to Marx’s moving contradiction: labour-saving devices, in the capitalist mode of production, threaten the worker and not work itself. Gimmicks unwittingly testify to this existential threat. Gimmicks are latent within every commodity and as such, offer a way to understand our ambivalent attachments as the necessary object of our analysis. An inelegant way to put it: we are right to call bullshit on bullshit and we are right to consider this minor act significant for where it might lead us.
Finally, Chapter Four: ‘It Follows, or Financial Imps’. This Chapter stands out as a demonstration of how far the theory of the gimmick can go in both offering a less-than-obvious reading of a popular text (in this case, the horror film It Follows) and analysing the manner in which texts come to reveal the material conditions in which they were made. If the gimmick is, above all, the aesthetic category that signals crisis, then this chapter is a masterful articulation of precisely and how and why this is so.
To begin, Ngai suggests that financial strategies can be understood as gimmicks: ‘as a device for managing deficiencies and excesses of money by structuring time (and in so doing, … labor), finance confronts us with an interestingly amplified instance of the gimmick’s structure and ambiguity’. In the moment we are calling the long downturn or the long crisis, financialisation refers to strategies of capital accumulation predicated on the circulation of money itself, imagined as ‘fixes’ to the economic crises wrought by deindustrialisation and waning productivity, as well as to the attendant entrenchment of credit and debt amongst wage stagnation. Financial instruments can be understood as devices that promise future profit via speculation – such devices, as Annie McLanahan suggests are also tricks: ‘Whereas globalization is a spatial fix that increases the space over which commodities can be produced and circulated, … financialization makes possible a kind of “temporal fix”: it allows capital to treat an anticipated realization of value as if it has already happened.’
The first text under analysis is the short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ written by Robert Louis Stevenson and published in 1887. In the story, a man is sold a magic bottle containing an imp. This device grants any wish other than immortality, and must be sold before the owner’s death at a loss. The device, in other words, provides almost infinite credit as a price that steadily approaches zero as it circulates. A resonant financial device – or metaphor thereof – is the focus of It Follows. In the film, a teenaged girl is unwittingly burdened with a curse that is transmitted via sex: the curse, which Ngai calls a ‘debt’ grants her a few days to transmit it to someone else, or a Zombie-like creature who can take the form of any human – a friend or stranger – will come to kill her. The catch is that the Zombie walks slowly, slow enough to buy the curse-holder/debtor some time, chiefly by getting in cars and driving through the city and away from the always-walking Zombie:
The point of all this slowness and circularity [Ngai is referring here to the film’s trademark 360 degree shots] seems to dramatize that, thanks to “credit” qua way of extending time, “crisis” takes longer than one might think to arrive—even when it is clear that is has already happened (or is already happening?) … [I]t comes with the calling in of a debt never explicitly agreed to by the individual but which transferred to her regardless, due to having been, as we discover, always already distributed, shot through the pores of an entire system. The revelation of indebtedness, more or less simultaneous with that of having been extended “credit,” thus coincides with an unhappy confrontation with social totality.
This, suggests, Ngai would suffice as a reading of a film ostensibly ‘about’ the subprime mortgage crisis that triggered the Global Financial Crisis, as well as about debt more broadly as that which holds the system of capitalism up in the first place (Ngai reminds us, via La Berge, that we get paid for work already done). But! The film doesn’t end where one might expect, with the teens who get embroiled in the curse’s deathly promise teaming up to kill it in a coordinated attack on the Zombie at a swimming pool. Only they didn’t kill it (because capitalism is, as Marx memorably put it, already dead and ‘vampire-like’?) and it returns to terrorise the teens once again.
It is here that the gimmick represented by financial strategies and the film’s central gimmick, a weird pink plastic clam shell redolent of a makeup compact and/or contraceptive pill case that acts as an e-reader for a single text, Dostoesky’s The Idiot, come together in Ngai’s reading. This ‘nonsmart device’ that a character is seen to be constantly reading from has no place in the film’s narrative other than to draw attention to itself as a gimmick that cannot be located in time: it is both archaic and futuristic, old and new. Since no smart phones are used by other characters, it suggests that it is before the smartphone at the same time that its limited capacity and material form suggests an era already passed.
Taken together, the film’s contradictory signals work against a tendency to associate the devastation wreaked by the surreptitiously circulation of socially infused debt that it depicts exclusively or even primarily with the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. By making it difficult for us to attribute the film’s representation of suffering to a single event, It Follows also makes it difficult for us to see “crisis” in the world it engenders by finance alone.
The chapter concludes by concentrating on the film’s resolution of the circulatory curse, linking it back to ‘The Bottle Imp’. There’s an implicit difficulty, she notes, in finding an end to a story of endless circulation. In both cases, the heterosexual couple, in order to safeguard itself against the mutual destruction of passing the curse back and forth, imposes it on an ‘economically unproductive, figuratively kinless person’: in ‘The Bottle Imp’, a ‘convict’ sacrifices himself by being the last to buy the bottle which he refuses to attempt to sell because he figures himself already damned to hell; in It Follows, it is implied that the curse is passed on to a sex worker to free the couple form that has been forged from the film’s narrative. Ngai, reading Melinda Cooper on the relation between sexual production and the role of finance in the reproduction of capital, argues that ‘family values’ represents a key meeting ground of neoconservative and neoliberal ideology: family values names an attachment to the private family unit that is taken to be an adequate substitute for welfare. Debt allows families to continue to function as private entities at the same time that ‘behind everyone’s backs, new financial securities for the investor class [are] being built’. The two texts under discussion, therefore, shed light on the primary role of the couple form and the private family in the assumed ‘resolution’ or absorption of endlessly circulating debt. In so doing, they also draw attention to the role of finance in its broader context:
As our two tales tell, credit buys time, stretches already overextended resources out. In so doing it not only puts off but elongates the temporality of crisis and/or culmination, making the end into a duration as opposed to a point. In Marx’s words, it enables the “stretching of productive consumption,” a key to the “stretching of the reproduction process itself”. Fnancialized consumer credit thus continues to prop up the United States economy as it has since the mid-1970s in compensation for stagnant wages and accumulating cutbacks in social insurance. It has been able to do so in part because the form of the financial commodity is uncannily good at obscuring its relation to wages and welfare.
What Ngai does in this chapter is to show a specific mobilisation of her theory of the gimmick in a way that is both attentive to the texts at hand and suggestive of the more totalising claims she makes on behalf of the gimmick as a category that describes the experience of apprehending a world in the long durée of crisis. What makes Ngai’s work so impressive is her ability to set out a coherent theory and then to show that theory at work in a manner that is so particular, so transformed through close reading and historical analysis, that the ‘examples’ she provides of her own theory appear almost implausibly singular. In this sense, Gimmick does two quite distinct things. It 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. Taken together, the two things that the book does are not contradictory but they are also not mirror images of each other. The non-equivalence is where we witness, in addition to Ngai the theorist, Ngai the virtually peerless reader.
Earlier I cited Ngai’s enthusiasm for texts that get close enough to the gimmick in their examination that they risk taking on the gimmick’s form, or at least, being charged with such a thing. It seems Ngai herself, in taking that same risk, attracts such a charge. In the last paragraph of an otherwise complimentary review for the New Yorker, Merve Emre offers this:
As “Theory of the Gimmick” proceeds, one senses Ngai working harder and harder to equate the techniques of artistic production with the productive processes of capitalism. Gradually, the concept of the gimmick begins to recede from intelligibility, until one is left suspicious of the category—of all aesthetic categories. And the more we become aware of Ngai working hard, the more we wonder if her high-concept procedure, developed in the course of three ingenious books, isn’t something of a gimmick itself.
(The proverbial ‘one’ does a lot of work here – Emre offers a critique without identifying herself directly with it.) Emre implies that Ngai’s propensity to work hard as evidence that she is working too hard in the manner outlined by Ngai herself as a feature of the gimmick. Eventually, Emre continues, Ngai works so hard that the concept becomes unintelligible. But working hard is not the constitutive feature of the gimmick, at least, not without its dialectical other, working too little – and it would seem implausible to charge Ngai with the latter. The concept is rendered, I would argue, not unintelligible but endlessly, exhaustingly dynamic: for it names not a static quality but a social relation. If we are suspicious of the gimmick it is not simply because it is everywhere but because it makes us aware, even partially, that what it occludes from view is the secret that underwrites our common misery. It’s a trick that fails enough to reveal the bigger trick that, in its long, slow failure, presents at once a threat and a possibility.
Thank you to Andrew Brooks and Tim Gregory for reading, and for contributions via suggestions, challenges, and responses.
- Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945–2005 (Verso Books, 2006)
- John Clegg and Aaron Benanev, Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital (Endnotes 2, 2010)
- Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso Books, 2016)
- Leigh Claire La Berge, The Rules of Abstraction: Methods and Discourses of Finance (Radical History Review, Issue 118, 2014)
- Annie McClanahan, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture (Stanford University Press, 2017)
- Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2007)
- Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2007)