Christian Gauss Award Shortlist
Winner of the ASAP Book Prize
A Literary Hub Book of the Year
“Makes the case that the gimmick…is of tremendous critical value…Lies somewhere between critical theory and Sontag’s best work.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Ngai exposes capitalism’s tricks in her mind-blowing study of the time- and labor-saving devices we call gimmicks.”
“One of the most creative humanities scholars working today…My god, it’s so good.”
“Ngai is a keen analyst of overlooked or denigrated categories in art and life…Highly original.”
“It is undeniable that part of what makes Ngai’s analyses of aesthetic categories so appealing…is simply her capacity to speak about them brilliantly.”
“A page turner.”
—American Literary History
Deeply objectionable and yet strangely attractive, the gimmick 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 working too hard (a strained effort to get our attention).
When we call something a gimmick, we register misgivings that suggest broader anxieties about value, money, and time, making the gimmick a hallmark of 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; 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ngai exposes capitalism’s tricks in her mind-blowing study of the time- and labor-saving devices we call gimmicks.
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.
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.
Ngai has done so much to illuminate.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[A] groundbreaking argument.
[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.
- 2021, Joint winner of the ASAP Book Prize
- 416 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
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