Aesthetic Seminar. Theory of the Gimmick
Sianne Ngai is Professor of English at Stanford University
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This lecture offers a theory of the gimmick as an explicitly capitalist aesthetic category. The gimmick is both a form that simultaneously repels and attracts us and the judgment by which we express this ambivalent mixture of feelings. Brought out in a unique way by comedy, the particular mix of irritation and charm that the gimmick elicits stems from a series of internal contradictions, all related to labor, time, and value. Most significantly, gimmicks strike us as both working too little (e.g., as labor-saving “tricks”) but also as working too hard (overstrained efforts at getting our attention). In both cases the aesthetic judgment implies a norm of social labor akin to Marx’s concept of the “historical level of productivity,” which in turn mediates the gimmick’s unusually direct relation to a judgment of economic worth: “cheap.” This sets the gimmick apart from all other aesthetic categories, including commodity aesthetics like cute or glamorous, which do not wear ties to the economic world on their sleeves. As both a compromised aesthetic form and equivocal aesthetic judgment encoding a specific relation to production, the gimmick offers us an surprisingly rich place to think about capitalist aesthetics and the intertwining of technique and enchantment therein.
The lecture is open to the public.
Speaker: Sianne Ngai