Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form 
by Sianne Ngai.
Harvard, 401 pp., £28.95, June 2020, 978 0 674 98454 7
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Agimmick​ is a gadget that flatters to deceive. It reminds us of the difference between what we need and what we can be persuaded to want. Raspberry mojitos hint at arcadia, but they’re never going to taste as good as the ones nobody thought to add raspberries to. An ironing board is a plank with a collapsible undercarriage right up until the moment you try to replace the one you have with something better. Some models boast a stanchion designed to support the flex of the iron so it doesn’t get in the way; others have a metal extension that serves as a clothes rack. In more adventurous versions, the cradle holding the iron is reconfigured as an area of heat-resistant material in the shape of a helipad. All this to save labour. And yet the stanchion is so wispy that festoons of flex soon snarl up on either side of it. Folded, the clothes rack doubles the board’s weight; extend it, and the apparatus has the turning circle of an oil tanker. Fanciful though these additions are, they resist every effort to chisel or blowtorch them off the frame. The gimmick’s stupidity is nothing if not robust.

Ironing boards have a distant ancestor in the table discussed in the first chapter of Das Kapital. In becoming a commodity, the table has ceased to be, as Marx puts it, an ‘ordinary, sensuous thing’ made of wood. ‘It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.’ According to Marx, the value of a commodity – and of the labour that went into its making – is realised only after it has been sold or put into circulation. The gimmick, both a product of technology and its expression, renders labour more abstract still, its value that much harder to determine. Gimmickry is the séance during which some commodities, at least, have begun to dance as if of their own free will. Marx’s term for ‘of its own free will’ is ‘aus freien Stücken’ – literally, ‘out of free (or unbound) pieces’. Gimmickry does not altogether dissolve a commodity’s existence as an ordinary, sensuous thing.

The gimmick is an ideal topic for Sianne Ngai, a critic and theorist with a habit, as she puts it, of hanging large coats on small pegs. Her field of research is the relation between aesthetics and ideology, viewed from a post-Marxist perspective, and she has already made two strikingly original contributions to that field. Ugly Feelings (2005) provides a sweeping yet fine-grained analysis of the aesthetics of negative emotions such as envy, anxiety, irritation and paranoia which, lacking a definite object, offer little or no prospect of cathartic release. Our Aesthetic Categories (2012) examines the equivocations bound up in the judgments we make when we declare that someone or something is ‘cute’, ‘zany’ or (merely) ‘interesting’. These books have earned Ngai a formidable reputation as a considerer of unconsidered trifles that turn out not to be so trifling after all.

The concept of the gimmick has a history in modern American vernacular usage, a history that requires unpacking since, according to Ngai, the gimmick adheres even more closely to capitalist crisis than the negative emotions and unorthodox aesthetic categories examined in her previous books. The term was coined in the 1920s and began to circulate more widely at the start of the global recession of the early 1930s; its usage spiked during the ‘turbulent’ 1970s, ‘in tandem with stagnating wages, rising household debt and increasing market volatility’. From the 1930s to the 1970s, then, a variety of people used ‘gimmick’ in a variety of contexts to have their say about capitalist crisis.

The ‘irritating yet strangely attractive’ gimmick is a ‘compromised form’ which provokes an incurably ambivalent response: it tries too hard (to get our attention) and not hard enough (its claim is that it will save us labour). In our everyday encounters with the gimmick, we register ‘an uncertainty about labour – its deficiency or excess – that is also an uncertainty about value and time’. Such encounters amplify the ambivalence we feel in the face of the mere commodity: ‘from the stainless steel banana slicer to the cryptocurrency derivative, our very concept of the gimmick implies awareness that, in capitalism, misprised things are bought and sold continuously.’ We recognise gimmicks when we see them because they at once over and underperform to an extent that other commodities do not. For Ngai, the gimmick may take the shape of an idea, technique or thing-like device, but is best understood as a performance: it is ‘both a wonder and a trick’, she argues, in a formulation which launches the book’s series of case studies. These are performances that elicit performances from us. In calling an idea, technique or thing-like device a gimmick, we distance ourselves from those who have already drunk the Kool-Aid. What makes it hard to be sure that we’re right and they’re wrong has to do with how ‘aggressively’ the gimmick ‘insists on contemporaneity with its audience’. For Ngai, there’s often a ‘contradiction on the part of the gimmick: that of seeming either too old or too new’. She notes that the cellphone brandished by Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) – a Motorola DynaTAC 8000X – was simultaneously cutting-edge and obsolete.

The gimmick matters most to Ngai as ‘a contrivance that writers, composers and visual artists not only represent but use, deploying it to think through other aesthetic, conceptual or historical problems’. The gimmick ‘haunts’ art in a more intense way than ‘other areas of culture’, she argues, because of art’s ‘equivocal status’ as a capitalist commodity. Modernism in particular, preoccupied as it was with ‘both technique and theory’ – and working, one might add, at once too hard and not hard enough to advertise itself by means of manifesto and provocation – could not hope to avoid accusations of gimmickry. The doctrine of ostranenie or defamiliarisation put forward in the 1920s by the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky sought to pre-empt such accusations by insisting that the work of art should, by contrast with the gimmick, spare no effort in rigorously laying bare its own devices. There were no shortcuts to innovation. Doubts persist, however. Under capitalism, Adorno said, art is always going to resemble a circus stunt or genteel prank.

Throughout the book, Ngai’s focus is on the ‘seemingly esoteric problems’ generated by an eclectic mix of works which have little in common apart from their determination to take liberties with generic convention or to test a medium’s affordances to the limit. Two chapters demonstrate to the full her talents as a close reader of word and image: one on the novel of ideas from Thomas Mann to J.M. Coetzee and Nicola Barker; the other on the creepily insouciant photographs of Torbjørn Rødland. In both cases, the gimmick’s compromised form seems like the only way to accommodate ‘“ideas” imported from criticism or philosophy’ within a genre, or a medium, long (if contentiously) associated with ‘mimetic representation’. Novels of ideas, Ngai observes, in a formula that also applies to Rødland’s photographs, ‘re-enact, in their efforts to comment on, the becoming-gimmick of capitalist thought’.

Nowhere has capitalist thought become gimmick more comprehensively than in the realm of finance, whose devices, engineered to manage deficiencies and excesses of capital by ‘structuring time’, flaunt their status as contrivance while lazily making money out of money. Ngai walks a tightrope between remote media, genres and historical periods in a chapter that compares Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ (1891) with David Robert Mitchell’s zombie film It Follows (2014). The former was published a year after the sovereign debt crisis brought about by the insolvency of Barings Bank, the latter conceived in the aftermath of the 2008 subprime debacle. Both concern ‘gimmicks of circulation’: a once-in-a-lifetime offer of instant gratification which, when accepted – by the purchase of the imp in a bottle, in one case, or by consensual sex, in the other – reveals itself as both a debt and a curse. A sticky end awaits the current bearer of the debt/curse, unless they can transfer it to somebody else. The comparison is a bit of a stretch, since we don’t actually witness any financial transactions taking place in It Follows, but that’s what tightropes are for.

Something happens in this chapter, I think, to the idea of the gimmick. Its crudeness (an imp in a bottle, sex in the back seat of a car) has been reconfigured as a way to take the ‘sublimity’, as Ngai puts it, out of the steepling abstraction of capitalism’s devices. This is also the gist of the book’s two knottiest chapters, which explore passages from Das Kapital and the Grundrisse as an oblique commentary on Stan Douglas’s film and video installation Suspiria (2003) and Rob Halpern’s book of war poems, Music for Porn (2012). Suspiria, we are told, ‘pits’ the gimmick of a conspicuously old-fashioned Technicolor palette against the ‘sublime’ effects created by the installation’s endlessly looping and randomising ‘recombinant machine’. Meanwhile, Halpern’s allegory of the soldier’s body attains ‘an affective power mirroring the social power of all capitalist abstractions’. To characterise the gimmick as an antidote to something else is at once to elevate it above the triviality which gives it its special interest as an idea and to risk losing sight of its inherent toxicity. Hanging large coats on large pegs, these chapters seem to belong to a different book altogether.

Under capitalism, some kinds of labour have been so far abstracted or otherwise hidden from view that they cease to be considered labour at all: the unwaged ‘reproductive’ and ‘kin’ work necessary to create and maintain a labouring population, for example. Ngai’s long engagement with feminist theory has led her to explore the ways in which the waged provision of services on a temporary basis or in a zero-hours contract has come to be gendered female, just as ‘reproductive’ or ‘kin’ work always has been.

The titular employment agency in Helen DeWitt’s delightfully deadpan Lightning Rods (2011) combines female temping with female sex work; the aim is to enhance the productivity of high-performing heterosexual male employees while at the same time indemnifying the companies that employ them against the risk of sexual harassment lawsuits. The service incorporates a mechanical gimmick: a trolley facilitating fully anonymised consensual sex. But all the fun lies in the brazenness of those who have an interest in making the use of such a device appear even remotely plausible. Ngai’s theory of the gimmick is also a theory of comedy: another compromised form that both distrusts and revels in technique. Crudely baring an ephemeral device in order to future-proof it, comedy re-enacts and comments on the gimmick’s normalisation: the process through which the bizarre device or spectacle imagined into being by a madcap inventor becomes part of the furniture. It is ‘not so much defamiliarisation as a kind of funnily irritating refamiliarisation, constantly surprising us with things we already roughly expect’.

The Theory of the Gimmick concludes, boldly and brilliantly, with a meticulous analysis of Henry James’s late fiction. Ngai has noticed that the investigations of opaque social and moral circumstance conducted in these novels and stories have the effect of exposing an over-reliance, in times of emergency, on waged and unwaged care-providers whose work is broadly thought of as female, even when undertaken by a man. On the one hand, there is the large cast of governesses, nannies, tutors and tour guides; on the other, the companions, assistants and deputies thrust, like Mrs Assingham in The Golden Bowl or Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, into ‘intimate, oddly compensated’, and often quasi-familial relationships with those they find themselves looking after or offering advice and comfort to.

In these novels and stories, the figure of the forsaken employee converges with that of the depleted assistant or deputy; this reveals a preoccupation with the relation between labour and value at a moment of ‘ripe capitalism’ when long-established certainties concerning what a parent might be said to owe to a child or an employer to a loyal servant had begun to relax their grip. James did not so much reflect on that relation as develop his own version of the compromised vernacular form that exemplifies it. His late style is well supplied with gimmicks: narrative coincidence, florid metaphor, the use of minor characters to expound or advance the plot. The ‘Master’ who emerges from Ngai’s penetrating and sympathetic scrutiny is an essentially comic writer who is determined to surprise us, in a way that both amuses and irritates, with things we already expect.

The torque Ngai applies to her argument turns it away from the gimmick as gadget in the direction of the gimmick as the performance of a trick; a tendency reinforced, in some chapters, by the construal of such devices as an antidote to something else. She does not need telling that the argument could also be turned in the opposite direction. It is ‘internal’ to the device’s ‘aesthetic form’, as she points out, that it can on occasion ‘slide out of the realm of aesthetic phenomena altogether. Sometimes gimmick just means thing.’ I happened to be reading her book when Donald Trump made a notable addition to the annals of political gimmickry. To me, the decisive moment in his appearance outside a church across the road from the White House, not quite knowing which way up to hold a Bible, was the exposure of the gimmick as an object no longer able to perform its designated narrative or symbolic function. ‘Is that your Bible?’ a reporter asked Trump. ‘It’s a Bible.’ Ngai could point out that in drawing attention to this moment I am in turn performing my disapproval of those who approved of Trump’s performance. But something appears to have come significantly unstuck in his offhand admission that even the most well-seasoned gimmick sometimes ‘just means thing’. The same thought seems to have occurred to some of those who found a use for the term during the key decades of its incubation before and after the Second World War.

In June 1939, Joe Jacobs, the manager of Tony Galento, an Italian American brawler who was about to enter the ring against the great Joe Louis, announced that he didn’t like what Louis had supposedly done the previous year to the rather more agile and skilful Max Schmeling. Louis, he claimed, had made use of a gimmick. ‘For the record,’ the Washington Evening Star noted, ‘the gimmick is a blunt metal instrument, known variously in the fight business as a “persuader” and a “slug”. If and when used, it is camouflaged to resemble a portion of a boxing glove and is carried in the palm of the glove, with just enough protruding to do fearful things when brought into contact with an opponent’s anatomy.’ Such accusations were part and parcel of the hype surrounding interracial fights. Galento was one of the white ‘bums of the month’ taken out by Louis in a sequence of title defences between January 1939 and May 1941. It is striking that the reports of these controversies should so starkly emphasise the thingness of the device. The rivet held in the glove doesn’t merely contravene the rules of the game, like a sly punch below the belt. Its purpose is to bring the whole performance to an abrupt end. This is one gimmick that has taken the opportunity to ‘slide out of the realm of aesthetic phenomena altogether’. The term we need for such devices is ‘crass’: not just stupid, but gross, dense, thick in physical constitution or texture. A metal rivet, a Bible: utterly nondescript, nothing but a thing.

Ngai doesn’t waste time on the more blatant postwar manifestations of gimmickry. No mention is made, for example, of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), which riffs repeatedly on the idea of the gimmick, and is not shy when it comes to crassness. She refers in passing to the film producer and director William Castle, a self-styled ‘master of gimmicks’ who specialised in cheerfully excessive horror movies, only to state in the next sentence that her book will concern itself with more ‘esoteric’ matters. During the 1950s, Hollywood sought to fend off the threat of television by reasserting the superiority of cinema as a medium through a series of technical enhancements: Cinerama, CinemaScope, stereophonic sound. Castle sought instead to return cinema to its origins as a fairground or music-hall attraction. In his 1977 autobiography, unceremoniously entitled Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America, he chronicles the success he achieved with devices like the Tingler, a scream-eliciting vibrator placed under cinema seats which the projectionist could activate at critical moments. The Tingler, like the ‘slug’, was an intervention from outside the realm of the aesthetic. But esoterica can be blatant too: the Tingler had a distant precursor in the fireworks Sergei Eisenstein set off beneath the seats in the auditorium during one of the productions he staged for the Proletkult Theatre in Moscow in the early 1920s.

Vladimir Nabokov’s transition from Russian to English-language writer involved a reappraisal of his own indebtedness to Shklovskian theories of defamiliarisation; and not least the leeway those theories give to gimmickry. There’s a walk-on part in his first ‘American’ novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), for a Futurist poet called Alexis Pan whose bold experiments become old-fashioned almost overnight; after all, ‘super-modern things have a queer knack of dating much faster than others.’ But it’s his penultimate ‘Russian’ novel, Invitation to a Beheading, translated into English in 1959, that most explicitly advances a theory of the gimmick. The protagonist’s mother, visiting him in his prison cell while he awaits execution, is enjoined to note the clock in the corridor outside, whose hands have to be painted on once every hour, by hand. That’s nothing, she replies, in comparison with some of the ‘marvellous gimmicks’ she’s come across in her time. For example, there are the ‘incomprehensible, monstrous objects’ known as nonnons: ‘knobby things’, like some kind of fossil, each paired with a ‘crazy’ distorting mirror. The crazy mirror converts the object’s ‘shapeless speckledness’ into a pellucid ‘sensible image’: a marvel comparable to that performed, in Ngai’s account, by our perception of the gimmick as at once wonder and trick.

The advantage of the nonnon is that it invites attention to what happens before and after the performance: to the thing whose knobbiness is already a kind of warning against itself; and to the hand which, advancing that thing towards the mirror, recedes into a blur. The rack clamped to the top of my ironing board is a bit weird rather than knobby. There’s a warning there, all the same, which I ignore. Extending the rack in the fond hope that I’ll at last have somewhere to hang the shirts I plan to iron, I discover that the apparatus will no longer fit into the average-sized living room.

The idea of the nonnon fits best with occasions on which the gimmick announces itself as a thing. Ngai devotes a couple of incisive paragraphs to Charles Wright’s Harlem novel The Wig: A Mirror Image (1966), a delirious tall tale – ‘folkloric’, Wright called it – spun out of the protagonist’s fashioning of a new hairstyle which, he hopes, will render him racially ambiguous, and thus more employable. The gimmick, she notes, is once again revealed as both necessary and trivial. But we need to acknowledge the care Wright takes to establish the material density of Lester Jefferson’s idea, which requires lavish applications of ‘long-lasting Silky Smooth Hair Relaxer, with the built-in Sweat-proof Base’ from ‘a Giant economy jar’. ‘I stood tall like the great-great-grandson of slaves, sharecroppers, Old World royalty. Tall, like a storm trooper, like an Honour Scout.’ Held up to the distorting mirror of sexual fetishism, the wig-nonnon eventually gets Lester laid, but that’s the limit of its powers. Everything else has been reduced to a blur. The only job he is offered requires him to dress up in a head-to-toe chicken suit in order to promote a fast-food franchise: the suit eclipses the Relaxer, while putting its built-in sweat-proof base to the test. Nonnon-theory might also help to explain the relation between The Wig – a landmark text for writers such as Ishmael Reed, Fran Ross, Colson Whitehead and Paul Beatty – and the two other novels Wright published, both semi-autobiographical, which take a studiously matter-of-fact view of sex, drugs, racism and literary aspiration. Fluctuating between fiction and journalism, full of ‘tricks’ that can’t be mistaken for wonders, The Messenger (1963) and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About (1973) represent the before and after, in Wright’s career, of the gloriously gimmicky performance which is The Wig.

Even when the gimmick lacks material density, it can still behave like a nonnon. Ngai observes that the ‘only moment’ in Mitchell’s It Follows when African Americans are ‘visible onscreen’ – and then at a distance – occurs during a drive through Detroit. The sight prompts a ‘conversation about racialised economic inequality, in which that racialisation is at once alluded to and immediately displaced’. If we think of the debt/curse as a nonnon whose truth is revealed when it’s held up to the crazy mirror of the deceitful sexual encounter, then we can understand that an incidental cost of such clarifications is precisely to displace the visibility of a social order rife with inequalities.

There are in fact at least two other moments in the film in which African Americans are visible on screen, and not at a distance. Both involve the film’s signature slow pan, which in each case comes to rest on the heroine, Jay. In the first of these, the pan begins on an African American instructor reciting a passage from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in class; it ends on Jay, who has just caught sight, through the window, of a zombie headed in her direction. The second occurs in the hospital to which Jay has been taken after a car accident. The pan slowly passes across a variety of familiar hospital scenes, including an African American family at a bedside, before once again finding Jay, who has evidently decided that impromptu post-operative sex with an ex-boyfriend who doesn’t believe in the debt/curse is as good a way as any to pass it along. These shots re-enact and comment on the gimmick’s overshadowing of a complicated and often conflicted world. The nonnon effect amounts to a sudden sharpening of affective focus that at the same time blurs a great deal else. At its heart, however, remains the trivial, necessary performance Ngai has done so much to illuminate.

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