Working Too Hard, Hardly Working: Sianne Ngai Delivers Goldstone Lecture on the Theory of the Gimmick (by Andrew Schlager)

            Sianne Ngai, Professor of English at Stanford University, delivered the annual Goldstone Lecture on Wednesday, March 22nd, 2016. Students and faculty gathered to listen as the prominent literary critic and affect theorist shared an excerpt from her current book project, Theory of the Gimmick. As NYU English Department Chair Christopher Cannon explained in his introduction, the Goldstone Lecture is endowed by a no-strings-attached gift from the late Professor Richard Goldstone. The department decided to use his donation for a lecture to be delivered by the scholar “in the profession from whom we’d most like to hear,” and Ngai’s lecture attracted an eagerness and a buzz worthy of such a charge.

            Ngai began by noting the strange mingling of revulsion and attraction that (hall)marks our aesthetic response to the gimmick—a phenomenon that, given its habitat on the underbelly of seriousness, seems to align naturally with Ngai’s other work. Citing the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “gimmick,” Ngai noted how its definition initially places the gimmick in the material objective realm, as a thing, a device, a trap, or a contraption, but then slowly, clause by clause, abstracts away—so that the gimmick is always an idea, too—a concept as well as a thing. Ngai argues we feel this union of the material and the conceptual as a negative convergence, the gimmick offering up the abstract in the concrete. During the Q&A that followed, one attendee observed that when we talk about an artist’s “thing” (“The intimacy of violence is like, Scorsese’s thing”), we very subtly note the objectified scene of the gimmick’s crime. As a point of comparison, Ngai distinguished the capitalist gimmick from the modernist literary device, best emblematized in the Brechtian laying bare of machinations, or making visible the production of an effect or surface. This modernist device Ngai sees as adding value to an aesthetic experience, whereas the gimmick’s foregrounding of production devalues the object, such exposure and transparency debasing as opposed to complicating its worth.

            The irritated sense that the gimmick is both conceptual and material, both trying too hard and not trying hard enough, both saving time and wasting time, keys into a number of the antinomies of the gimmick that Ngai worked through in her lecture. The gimmick saves labor as it wastes labor, is both outdated and newfangled,appears as a dynamic event and as a static thing, occur singularly, never to be repeated, and yet is exhaustively repeated. The gimmick shuttles between these contradictory poles. The gimmick eschews, forbids, is two sizes too big for the synthesizing machinations of the dialectic, and is instead formed, as Ngai suggests, like the parallax, as a resulting angle between and not reducible to two fixed positions.

            At its heart, the gimmick embodies the antinomies of Capitalism, and the economics of the gimmick, as a value conserver and waster, as a labor saving device that works overtime, reproduces the central material contradictions of our economic system. The Capitalist Gimmick converts its exploited labor into an aesthetic cheapness that, like the commodity, both seduces and repulses.

            For a portion of the evening, Ngai directly theorized the gimmick, but she also engaged with a number of imaginative texts that both reflect on and in some sense function as gimmicks. Ngai treated Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Helen DeWitt’s 2011 novel Lightning Rods as central to her own theorization of the gimmick, and by making contemporaneous two works separated by over a century, Ngai performed the very perpetual present tense conjured up by the gimmick itself. Ngai reads Twain’s novel as a kind of “bad infinity,” where the narrative falls of into a series of gags. Honing in on a moment in the novel where a character retells an unfunny joke he’s told billions of times, Ngai concludes that the gimmick displaces its own contemporaneity and seems both behind and ahead of its audience.

            DeWitt’s labyrinthine postmodern satire of temp agencies and sex workers exposes the capitalist gimmick’s operation as not de-familiarization but re-familiarization—drawing back its gimmicky curtain only to reveal everyday truths. Unlike Twain’s novel, Lightning Rods models the gimmick without becoming one, and exposes the sexual fault lines along which the gimmick treads, where women and temps are analogized as the ultimate capitalist gimmicks—cheap labor, undercompensated laborers who are profit protecting devices.

            Afterwards, Ngai gracefully fielded questions from the audience, addressing Moby Dick’s relationship to the gimmick, the gimmick of the novel of ideas, and patent law as a gimmick of futurity. With regards to the subjectiveness of the appellation “gimmick,” Ngai compellingly suggested that though she and her mother might disagree on whether a particular thing is a gimmick or not, her mother’s explanation of what makes a particular thing gimmicky would align with her own.  Someone even asked if the theory of the gimmick might help elucidate the rise of Donald Trump—though another audience member quickly warned that Trump’s greatest triumph is that he looks like a gimmick, without being one, that he passes as a gimmick but packs a fiercer punch. Perhaps then Trump performs the gimmick as mere aesthetic category, such that his gimmick is his gimmick, his shtick, seeming like a shtick. For such a consideration, we’ll have to wait for the publication of Ngai’s book, which we all may hate to need as a bible for our times.