Remarks on Sianne Ngai's "Theory of the Gimmick"

On November 16th, I had the good fortune to be a respondent at a Columbia University Seminar in Literary Theory meeting on Sianne Ngai’s new book Theory of the Gimmick. (Sianne was the main speaker.) Below you’ll find the script I used as the basis of my opening remarks. These thoughts are fairly preliminary, and focused on the introduction of Theory of the Gimmick. I make them public in case anyone finds value in them. Some of this language is going to be incorporated into the introduction of an ALH special issue I’m co-editing with Dan Sinykin, so please forgive the repetition.

I am pleased to be responding to Sianne's Theory of the Gimmick today. I worked with Sianne almost 15 years ago when I was a graduate student at Stanford, and I have been following with great interest the development of her career.

Sianne has what, to my mind, is an unusually coherent intellectual trajectory. I think of Theory of the Gimmick as something like the culmination of her thinking, the third book in a trilogy that begins with Ugly Feelings and continues with Our Aesthetic Categories. The project, as I understand it, is committed to remapping aesthetic theory in light of, on the one hand, the resources of ordinary language philosophy, and on the other, Marxist feminism.

We see both influences in the introduction to Theory of the Gimmick. This theory of the gimmick brings Cavell and Marx into productive dialogue. For Sianne, aesthetic judgment is ordinary, in the sense used in ordinary language philosophy, and it's everywhere, from reality television to the avant-garde. And in its ordinariness we are given a way into some of the most vexing and complex problems of social coordination.

I find this populist or demotic approach to thinking about aesthetic judgment much more appealing than the alternate, let us say more backward-looking, approach to aesthetics that is resurgent today. By contrast with these other recent thinkers, what Sianne shows us the scene of aesthetic judgment. This scene is what I think unites here work on affect in Ugly Feelings and her work on aesthetic categories in later work.

Aesthetic judgment is a speech act, whether or not specific acts of justification and aesthetic analysis are verbalized. The speech act is immanent to the very possibility of aesthetic judgment, which is not to say that acts of judgment aren't also verbalized, but their structure, when they are verbalized, makes explicit what is already latent within them.

Sianne follows Cavell in specifically seeing aesthetic judgment as an example of what Cavell calls passionate utterances. Passionate utterances are a category of speech act Cavell puts forward as an addendum or reworking of J. L. Austin's speech-act theory. Specifically, Cavell thinks that Austin doesn't give sufficient attention to the passions, and that his category of perlocutionary utterances—utterances that are meant to have an effect on a listener—invites the same kind of enumeration of verbs and systematic analysis as the more prestigious category of illocutionary utterances.

There are technical things to say about this, but the point as I understand it is that acts of aesthetic judgment are versions of passionate utterance for Sianne, and they raise all the thorny questions such perlocutionary speech acts always raise. Aesthetic judgments open up a scene of conversation and debate. And it is this scene that, I think, has been the object of Sianne's inquiry.

Then there is the feminist-Marxist side of Sianne's work. This is, for me, the most fascinating dimension, and it raises again what to my mind is the most pressing question for Marxist literary criticism, one broached in the famous introduction to Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious, but still to my mind unsettled. This is the problem of mediation.

By way of outlining this question, let me draw attention to verbs and adjectives of mediation in this introduction. So we read, for example, that the gimmick "indexes" unease about capitalism. The crises of capitalism are "coiled in" the gimmick. The gimmick is our "distinctively aesthetic way of processing" the truth of capitalist accumulation. At other times, we learn that the gimmick is a "survival strategy" within a capitalist labor market. The gimmick and capitalist form are "isomorphic." These are all ways of mapping a relation between what an earlier era would still call base and superstructure, but the senses of these verbs and adjectives are not exactly identical. The gimmick seems to skirt the line between symptom and agent within advanced capitalism. In that sense, there is a gimmick-like ambiguity in this introduction's way of describing the power of the gimmick. Is it productive? Is it useful? Or is it unusually passive and reactive?

Studying the gimmick is really the perfect way of asking the question of how capitalism get into, is part of, thwarts or colonizes, the aesthetic category? A less productive approach to the gimmick might follow Michael Clune, who argues that capitalism prevents aesthetic judgment from happening. Instead of aesthetic judgment, you get market determination. Will this sell, or won't this sell? A better approach to the gimmick, which I take Sianne's work to exemplify, is to say that capitalism produces a set of unique aesthetic effects.

So when we start thinking that a work of art behaves in a way that resembles an exploitative product, we call it a gimmick. We are accusing this gimmicky object of not being aesthetic at all, but as Sianne shows again and again the gimmick is itself a kind of aesthetic. Various levels of judgment emerge. We think there is another person who is being duped by the gimmick. They fail to recognize that the gimmick is gimmicky. For the dupe of the gimmick, the gimmick is just a successful aesthetic effect. There is the astute judge who understands that the gimmick is merely or only a gimmick and who think he isn't suckered by the gimmick. But the paradox is that we recognize the gimmick aesthetically but as a failure to be aesthetic.

If I, in my own work, part ways with Sianne's approach, it might be with its emphasis on this scene of everydayness, and her emphasis on the hidden springs and motors of social life. Marxism, after all, tells us that social life is coordinated "behind our backs." That is, there is coordination through processes of abstraction that no agent or person in the system opts into or elects.

I guess what I am interested in, in contrast, are the explicit institutions that, often in explicit and mappable ways, coordinate social life. So my recent work, for example, is very concerned with the publishing industry. I am working with Dan Sinykin on a special issue of ALH on this institution. There is, for me, an unsettled question of what mode of sociality or relation defines the interplay of aesthetic judgment. 

If I cannot make an aesthetic judgment without becoming involved in a scene, we might—as good materialists—wonder whether and to what degree the reaction of the person in the relation might emerge differently in the face of different power relations. So the literary agent's passionate avowal of the brilliance of a book might find its counterpart in the editor willing to buy that book at auction, and the editor must find a counterpart in her publisher or in the book buyer. What those who focus on institutions might study is how the dynamics of the sociality produce successful and unsuccessful acts of (always already) performative judgment.