Sianne Ngai: Theory of the Gimmick


The 2016 FORART lecture was given by Sianne Ngai (Stanford University) who presented Theory of the Gimmick – her book on the gimmicky artwork as a capitalist aesthetic category.

This talk explored the gimmick as a capitalist aesthetic category: a perceptual form linked in a relatively consistent way to an affective judgment or speech act. When we say that a made object is gimmicky we mean we “see through it”; that there is an undesired transparency about how an aspect of it has been produced and why. The contrived or gimmicky artwork thus confronts us with an object that would seem to undermine its own aesthetic power simply by calling attention to the process by which its effects have been devised. Sianne Ngai explored the mix of attraction and repulsion, of contempt and admiration that the gimmick elicits, exploring its implications in forms specific to capitalist culture spanning from the nineteenth century to the present.

Sianne Ngai is Professor at Stanford University and specializes in American literature, literary and cultural theory, and feminist studies. Her books are Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012), winner of the MLA James Russell Lowell Prize and the PCA/ACA Ray and Pat Browne award for Best Reference or Best Primary Source Work; and Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005). Sections of both books have been translated into Swedish, Italian, German, Slovenian, Portugese, and (forthcoming) Japanese. Her new book in process, Theory of the Gimmick, explores the “gimmick” as encoding a relation to labor (the gimmicky artwork irritates us because it seems to be working too hard to get our attention, but also not working hard enough), and as the inverted image of the modernist “device” celebrated by Victor Shklovsky.

Ngai was a recipient of a 2007-08 Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and in 2014-15 was a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin, Germany. In 2015 she was awarded an honorary D. Phil in Humanities from the University of Copenhagen in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Forart Lecture Seminar 2016, press release