Professor of Gimmickery
Professor of Gimmickery
Original article courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 25, 2020. By Charlie Tyson.
The summer before she enrolled at Brown University, Sianne Ngai got a job as a waitress at a restaurant called the Magic Pan. “This was an era of Reagan and gourmet jelly beans,” she recalled. In a word, it was the ‘80s.
The Magic Pan was committed to satisfying a newly sophisticated American palate. The restaurant specialized in crepes — an exotic European product — at prices low enough for upwardly mobile middle-class families to feast on them.
What was “magic” about the Magic Pan was its method of preparing the crepes. The front of the restaurant was devoted to a piece of culinary theater. The cook on display would dip the bottom of a copper pan into crepe batter. She would then place the pan, upside down, over a flame. On the underside of the pan the crepe would cook to crispy perfection.
Wander into the back of the restaurant, however, and a less spectacular picture reveals itself. After the crepes had browned on the copper pans out front, they were taken to the kitchen and stored in refrigerators. To assemble an order, a staff member would scoop filling into a cold crepe, fold the pancake over, and microwave the dish. In front: warm light, rugs, copper pans. Backstage: pungent smells of broccoli and cheese, creamed seafood, and other fillings; the incessant hum of microwaves.
This now-defunct crepe restaurant dramatizes the structure of the gimmick: an object that is at once overperforming and underperforming, momentarily dazzling but ultimately deflating. Gimmicks, Ngai writes, are “overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks), but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention).” In the front, the Magic Pan featured ostentatious labor — working too hard — with the “magic” of those flipped copper pans. In the back, it relied on labor-saving techniques — working too little — with its microwaves and refrigerated food. And what is a crepe but an overrated pancake?
In Theory of the Gimmick (Harvard University Press, 2020), 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. Across its many forms, the gimmick arouses our suspicion. When we say something is a gimmick, we mean it is overrated and deceptive, that you would have to be a sucker to fall for it. Yet gimmicks exert a strange hold on us. As with a magic show, we can enjoy the gimmick even while we know we are being tricked.
Ngai, a 48-year-old professor of English at the University of Chicago, has slowly been building a reputation as one of America’s most original and penetrating cultural theorists. She has done so by revitalizing the field of aesthetic theory. To some critics, this domain of philosophical inquiry has long seemed fusty and archaic, overly beholden to 18th-century debates. The categories of the sublime and the beautiful, as theorized by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, continue to shape how we make sense of aesthetic experience.
Ngai’s contribution has been to take marginal, nonprestigious aesthetic categories, such as “cuteness,” and treat them with the same seriousness traditionally afforded to the sublime and the beautiful. In her debut book, Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005), she analyzed a set of “minor” negative emotions, including irritation, anxiety, envy, and paranoia. Ngai chose not to focus on the classic aesthetic emotions: states like sympathy, which offer the possibility of moral growth, or passions like terror and anger, which promise cathartic release. Instead, she studied weak, morally unattractive feelings associated with situations of powerlessness. “If Ugly Feelings is a bestiary of affects,” she wrote, “it is one filled with rats and possums rather than lions.”
In the same spirit, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, 2012) named the “cute” (think Hello Kitty), the “interesting” (think conceptual art), and the “zany” (think Lucille Ball’s frenzied attempts to wrap chocolate or do ballet) the dominant aesthetic categories of late capitalism. "Cuteness" captures the mix of tenderness and aggression we feel for commodities — our desire for cute things to hug, squish, cuddle, fondle, crush, and dominate. The judgment that something is “interesting” conveys our hesitant and minimal responsiveness to novelty and change against a background of sameness. (Imagine a series of photographs of filing cabinets, and you will get a sense of this coolly rational aesthetic, which evokes processes of circulation and exchange.) The “zany,” seemingly fun but actually stressful, highlights the shifting boundaries between playing and laboring, work and nonwork, that characterize today’s emotionally strenuous service labor.
Our Aesthetic Categories made Ngai a star. “Once you see the relationship of aesthetics and late capitalism as Ngai wants you to see it,” the critic Merve Emre, an associate professor at Oxford University, has written, “you cannot unsee it.” In the years since the book's publication, Ngai’s ideas have been steadily percolating through domains of culture outside the academy. Her concepts have been taken up by critics at The New York Times and cited in op-eds for the Washington Post. A recent acclaimed essay collection on Asian American identity, Minor Feelings (2020), takes wing from Ngai’s Ugly Feelings. Art-world denizens in particular have claimed Ngai as one of their most beloved theorists. A pair of Los Angeles-based arhctiects drafted a project proposal for an outdoor installation at MoMA PS1 based on her ideas about cuteness. Choreographers have translated her aesthetic categories into dance.
In 1989, Ngai, then a high-school senior, cheerfully told the Washington Post: “I am a nerd. I’m glad to be a nerd.” This youthful declaration set the tone for the career to follow. Ngai does not write for magazines, post publicly on Twitter, produce podcasts, or pursue other forms of engagement used by scholars to break into public view. She is something of a rarity on today’s intellectual scene: a midcareer thinker whose fame rests entirely on two, now three, challenging scholarly monographs.
But Ngai is no figure of old-school academic austerity. She brings an infectious, playful enthusiasm to her discovery of ordering patterns — like the “zany” or the “gimmick” — that are intangible yet real presences in our culture. Her books are erudite, political, and bristling with references. But they are also fun, sweetened with irony and humor, moving between Kantian aesthetics and pop-cultural sources like the Jim Carrey film The Cable Guy (an example of high-octane zaniness).
“Ngai’s remarkably nimble, playful intellectual temperament,” said Christopher Nealon, a professor of English at the Johns Hopkins University, “has always led her to link the ephemeral and the classic, the ‘high’ and the ‘low.’” In an essay from 2006, she reads Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973), a novel that studies a rivalrous female friendship, alongside a feud between supermodels Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. When she discusses aesthetic pleasure in Our Aesthetic Categories, one of her examples is the “Double Rainbow” video. Ngai is, Nealon told me, “a heavy-metal Marxist with a pop-music heart.”
Asked to describe Ngai’s prose style, Jonathan Flatley, a professor of English at Wayne State University, invoked Gustave Flaubert’s dictum that on every page the reader must have “food and drink.” “With Sianne, you’re given treats — a new, surprising idea — every few sentences,” Flatley said.
Ramón Saldívar, a literary scholar at Stanford University, where Ngai was a member of the faculty, endorsed a similarly unstinting view of his former colleague’s intellectual and writerly gifts. “Sianne takes the role of an Adorno for our generation,” he told me.
Ngai sees matters differently. She finds it easy to say what she is not. She is not a public intellectual: She writes too slowly. She is not a charismatic writer: She idealizes clarity but cannot spin the gorgeous sentences she admires in her friends’ work. (“I think of myself as the writer who uses ‘thus.’”) She used to be a poet, but not any longer: She stopped writing poetry about 20 years ago after she came to feel that others were doing more exciting work.
To analyze contemporary culture, Ngai tends to avoid up-to-the-minute slang (such as “cringe” or other internet-speak categories) in favor of folksier terms like “zany” or “gimmick.” She is an enthusiast of banal or even retrograde cultural objects — from Hamburger Helper (the cartoonish white glove promising to save women time in the kitchen) to the 1992 thriller Single White Female (a surprisingly ingenious allegory, in her account, of conflicts within feminism). She will carry around her fixations for years without understanding why a particular object obsesses her. Her attachments are passionate and rare. “I don’t have much of a response to a lot of things,” Ngai told me. “The emoticon would be just a straight mouth.” The smiley face is another of her preoccupations.
We call something “interesting,” Ngai argues in Our Aesthetic Categories, when we feel it is important but cannot yet say why. Our interest “activates a search for that missing concept” that will clarify why we think the interesting thing is worth attending to. The texts and images that stick with Ngai are often “interesting” in this way. They turn out to disclose some piece of knowledge that she hasn’t yet figured out. She gave talks on The Cable Guy for years, for example, before lighting on the concept of the “zany.” She taught Henry James for two decades before writing about him.
Ngai’s process, in other words, takes time. She averages one book every eight years. “Recently, I’ve accepted that I’m slow,” Ngai told me, “and therefore force myself to say no to cool things because I know I can’t execute in a way I’d find satisfying.”
Lindsay Waters, the famed Harvard University Press editor, has served as Ngai’s primary editor for all three of her books. Ngai, Waters said, “writes book books. She keeps biting off these really big topics, so they need space. The Critique of Judgment needed to be that long. And this is her Critique of Judgment.” Her past two books have each sold close to 5,000 copies, in an academic field in which well-respected books might sell 250.
Ngai deserves, Waters suggested, to be a “household name.”
We had planned to meet in mid-March at one of Ngai’s favorite cafes in downtown Chicago. “Maybe the weather will be nice enough that we can sit outside. I probably jinxed it by saying this!” she emailed.
No jinxes were needed, it turned out, and when Ngai and I finally spoke — by phone — the convention center outside her apartment window had been turned into a field hospital, with army trucks streaming in and out.
After having taught in California since 2000 — at Stanford, then UCLA, then at Stanford again — Ngai moved to the University of Chicago in 2017 to be with her partner, the experimental composer Hans Thomalla. Long ago, her parents met as graduate students at the university where she now teaches.
In some respects Ngai lives cheaply, a fact not true of all academic Marxists. Her desk cost $40 at Ikea. It is a marred and disfigured piece of furniture, with patches of paint chipped off from too many hot cups of coffee placed on the surface. “If I look underneath,” she told me over the phone, “I can tell you the name of it.” I heard rumbling sounds and the squeal of moving furniture as she climbed down to inspect the Ikea sticker. Her laughter rang out. “Oh yeah!” she announced with delight. “My desk is called the LINNMON desk.”
Nearly every morning for a year, Ngai would get up at six and sit all day at that battered desk. The desk faces the wall, away from the window, and to write she draws the blinds. (She likes the idea of looking out the window, but there’s too much glare.) Theory of the Gimmick, she told me, was the hardest of her books to write. After finishing it, “I felt like a piece of beef jerky,” she told me. “I felt like the ancient mariner. I was just walking around mumbling.”
What made the gimmick so difficult to write about was a paradox in its structure. Gimmicks draw our attention only to disappoint us. Our initial arousal of interest subsides as we become aware of the gimmick’s shiny emptiness. If we judge something a gimmick, we are saying, in effect, that it’s undeserving of continued attention. For this reason, “the gimmick is a slippery thing,” Ngai told me. “There’s something about the very way the thing works that is going to make you look stupid for writing about it. I felt like the gimmick was punishing me for working on it.”
Imagine a film that resolves its plot by means of a train accident or a case of mistaken identity. When we call such a plot twist a gimmick, we are saying that it strikes us as lazy or fraudulent. The gimmick is a contrivance that seems, well, contrived. Gimmicks strike us as aesthetically compromised. They also strike us, in economic terms, as overvalued. The charismatic but unworthy gimmick, Ngai writes, is “our culture’s only aesthetic category evoking an abstract idea of price.”
Ngai’s point is not that some things are gimmicks and others are not. After all, the judgment that something is a gimmick is, like all aesthetic judgments, culturally variable and resistant to consensus. Ngai’s argument is more ambitious. The gimmick, she argues, “lies latent in every made thing in capitalism.” While certain ideas, techniques, and devices — Google Glass, massive open online courses — might appear flagrantly gimmicky, the gimmick is an undercurrent that runs through all of capitalist culture. This is because, Ngai explained to me, "competition between capitalists produces constant innovation," so that an object we value one day might appear obsolete and clunky the next. Any device introduced to a specific market in the wrong way at the wrong time can turn out to be a gimmick. And objects that once seemed gimmicky — cell phones, for example — can later come to be perceived as ordinary devices.
Literature and art provide a special access point to the gimmick because questions about over- and undervaluation haunt the artistic field. Artistic creation, which strikes us as confusingly labor-intensive but also not “real” work, invites the suspicion of gimmickry. The texts Ngai writes about in Theory of the Gimmick — from the 2014 horror film It Follows to the late fictions of Henry James — don’t only take up the gimmick as a theme. These works of art also riskily use the gimmick to exploit its powerful but degraded aesthetic effects.
Ngai is fascinated by the words we use to communicate our pleasures and displeasures to others. When we call something “cute,” for example, that term names a form we perceive (say, the baby-like features of a teddy bear) as well as our emotional and aesthetic response to that form. Evaluation, Ngai insists, is not a secondary thing that happens after we see a film or look at a painting. How we see and how we judge are united in aesthetic experience.
The verdict that something is a gimmick is a special case of aesthetic judgment. We call something a gimmick when we’re uncertain whether the thing is over- or under-performing, whether it’s a marvel or a trick. The aesthetic judgment that an object is a gimmick, then, encodes an economic judgment about the excess or deficiency of labor. If Ngai’s arguments are correct, the gimmick shows how deeply capitalism has shaped private emotional life. Even our private pleasures and displeasures, Ngai insists, are structured by tacit measurements of labor and value, by our perceptions of how much work a thing is doing. The charismatic but untrustworthy gimmick points like a bright arrow to the always-shifting and often-erroneous appraisals of worth that prop up our economic system. Our misgivings about the gimmick express our broader anxieties about how value is measured under capitalism—including uncertainties about how hard we should be working.
When Ngai was about 9 years old, she picked two yellow paperbacks off a bookshelf in her grandparents’ house in San Francisco. One was a book on the Ku Klux Klan. The other was a novel called Phoebe, about a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant and tries to hide it. Ngai still remembers images of desperate Phoebe plunged in a hot bath, the water foaming and scalding, her mother pounding on the bathroom door.
“I read these extremely stressful books,” Ngai said. “Somehow I think those books got me interested in ideas.” She did all her history projects from elementary school onward on the Ku Klux Klan. As a child, her first charitable donation, of $10, went to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Nearly four decades later, race and gender remain central concerns in her scholarship. In Ugly Feelings, for instance, she describes how exaggerated “animatedness” in cultural representations of African Americans marks racial difference and turns persons into “spasmodic puppet[s].” When she moved to Chicago, her feminist-theory books (Phoebe not among them) were among the first she unpacked and placed on her shelves.
Ngai came to Marxism through feminism, not the other way around. She counts among her formative influences not just Marx and his descendants — Theodor Adorno, Moishe Postone, Fredric Jameson — but American feminist theorists such as Jane Gallop, Eve Sedgwick, and Ellen Rooney. Feminist arguments about the unpaid work of child-rearing, set in relation to Marxist ideas about labor and social domination, continue to excite her.
A more personal influence has been the literary scholar Mark McGurl, professor of English at Stanford. For 13 years, Ngai and McGurl were one of the most famous couples in academic literary criticism. “I spent most of my 30s and half of my 40s with him,” she said, praising the clarity and humor of his writing. “I like intellectuals who are funny.”
Ngai knew she wanted to be an English professor as early as her AP English class in high school. As is true of many aspiring literary scholars, a charismatic Shakespeare lecture pressed her to the point of no return. Early in her time at Brown, she took a Shakespeare survey with the scholar Coppélia Kahn. In the first class of the semester, Kahn lectured on The Comedy of Errors, twins, and the mirror stage. “That was it for me,” Ngai said. “I knew I wanted to do that.”
At Brown, Ngai majored in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. Brown’s theory-heavy major (tenderly parodied in Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2011 novel The Marriage Plot) was her “first exposure to Theory with a capital ‘T.’” The semiotics students read everyone from Ferdinand de Saussure to Julia Kristeva — all the luminaries in a once-dominant but now largely unread canon of high theory. Ngai was one of four semiotics majors in her graduating class. Brown phased out the concentration three years later.
Ngai spent most of her time at Brown in the orbit of the poets Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, who together with the poet C. D. Wright fostered a vibrant poetry community in Providence. She attended readings and befriended graduate students and other poets. She decided to stay on at Brown for an M.F.A. in poetry.
As an M.F.A. student, Ngai maintained a commitment to what one reviewer called “a fairly extreme mode of poetry.” Her poems are jargony, enigmatic. Dashes stretch across the page. In a poem called “My Novel,” Ngai writes of “a meadow full of pronouns … a scene of necessary doubling, where language was rising with the pressure of heat.” Where we might expect to find natural objects — flowers in a meadow, hot air rising — we find only language.
What Ngai came to desire, but did not achieve until after she finished her Ph.D., was to get away from that field of words, that inescapable “doubling” between signifiers and signified. “I started to realize,” Ngai told me, “I wasn’t that interested in bringing everything back to language. I wanted to use that insight to go somewhere else.”
While in her second year of the M.F.A., Ngai enrolled in Harvard’s Ph.D. program in English. For a year she lived what her M.F.A. classmate Thalia Field called a “double life,” driving back and forth between Providence and Cambridge.
“She’s just sneaky,” said Field, who now teaches at Brown. “She had no compunction being like, ‘I’m doing what I want.’ I remember thinking she was so bold.”
Ngai groaned when I asked her about the overlap year. “They’re going to send me a tax bill,” she said.
In 1996, Ngai delivered a conference paper with a fellow doctoral student, Aviva Briefel, about the function of the bathroom in Judy Blume’s novel Forever. The apparent ridiculousness of the topic attracted the notice of the literary critic James Wood. In a send-up of academic culture for The New Republic, Wood described the two totally unknown graduate students as “giggly and squirming.” “These speakers seemed awkward,” Wood wrote, unambiguously.
Briefel, now a professor of English and cinema studies at Bowdoin College, said the New Republic piece was a bonding experience for her and Ngai. The two spent many evenings chain-smoking, watching horror films, seeing bands in Boston, dancing to the Trainspotting soundtrack, and ordering sushi “when we could afford it,” Briefel recalled.
At Harvard, Ngai became increasingly drawn to American literature, thanks to a seminar on Walt Whitman taught by Lawrence Buell. Buell soon agreed to advise her dissertation, along with the critic Barbara Johnson and the philosopher Stanley Cavell.
Buell recalled a moment of meditative silence that occurred during Ngai’s oral exams, just after Ngai had left the room — the period during which the examiners deliberate and prepare their judgment. “I remember Stanley saying,” Buell told me, “with a sense of wonder as well as decision: ‘She has a topic.’” Cavell wasn’t quite sure what Ngai was up to, but he wanted to find out. “His reaction spoke for all three of us,” Buell said. The then-amorphous “topic” would become Ngai’s first book, Ugly Feelings.
While in a graduate seminar with Cavell on King Lear, Ngai began thinking about how hard it is to praise something aptly, in a way that does the thing justice. (Doomed Cordelia says in the play’s first scene: “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth.”) Later, in another course with Cavell — this one on opera — she continued to ruminate on the difficulty of successful praise.
Ngai thought back to one of her classmates at Brown, an art-history major who would always come back to the dorms after class and rhapsodize about Rothko. “It’s not that I didn’t like Rothko,” Ngai said. “There was just something about the way she was articulating her pleasure that made me feel irritated.”
With her art-struck classmate in mind, Ngai wrote a paper for her opera class on the problem of gushing. Even when someone is gushing over something you love, Ngai reflected, there is something off-putting about the spewing of effusive praise. The overwrought speech of gushing is an act of aesthetic evaluation that is itself aesthetically compromised. Gushing, Ngai writes in Theory of the Gimmick, “is the sound of someone falling for a gimmick.”
Somewhere, there is a photograph of Ngai clasping hands with the queen of Denmark. “My Marxist friends would not approve,” she said. In 2015 she flew to Denmark to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Copenhagen. At the end of the ceremony, she found herself face to face with the queen.
The queen “looked straight in my eyes,” Ngai told me, “and asked me what I did.” Woozy with jet lag, the theorist wondered how she could quickly explain feminist social-reproduction theory, Adorno’s interpretation of Kant’s aesthetics, Jamesonian symptomatic reading, and Marxist accounts of value to the blinking monarch before her. “I think I tried to ask her about herself.”
Ngai’s research, though perhaps difficult to summarize before a head of state, could be described easily enough to a bright undergraduate, a colleague in another discipline, or a friend in a coffeeshop. Heady though her interests may be, her writing is free of obfuscation, at least of the willful variety. Theory of the Gimmick, her most explicitly Marxist book yet, gets tangled in the punishing thickets of Marxology only rarely.
Ngai’s playful and unpretentious approach makes her sought after as a teacher and adviser. After three years at the University of Chicago, she is already advising nearly a dozen doctoral dissertations. “She is a mind reader,” Rivky Mondal, one of her graduate students, told me. “Like, galaxy brain. She’s able to see past all the scattered, rough thoughts and find the source of what interests me.”
In her scholarship Ngai draws heavily on ordinary speech, taking her central terms and categories from vernacular rather than academic discourse. She will take a conventional category and press on it until its hidden dimensions and contradictions come into view — until cuteness invites sadism, and “interesting” means “not interesting.”
“I have a populist streak in my thinking,” Ngai told me. “I find it important for philosophical thinking to take everyday language seriously.”
Nearly everyone living in an advanced capitalist society is inundated in low-grade aesthetic stimulation, most of it commercial in nature — from advertising to “cute” commodities to addictive internet content. Ngai is interested in the words ordinary people use to register pleasure and displeasure in response to this cultural environment, in which the aesthetic is at once pervasive and diluted. In routine acts of aesthetic judgment, Ngai argues, people grasp insights — even if only loosely — about the economic processes that govern their world.
The gimmick, for instance, is “kind of a bar-talk aesthetic category,” said Nealon, of Johns Hopkins. Ngai’s reliance on this category returns “intellectual dignity to zones of discourse — and implicitly to people — who aren’t ‘trained’ to think about capitalism in a so-called theoretical way,” Nealon said.
“People get it,” Ngai said. “We’re registering something about the way our world works. People know the gimmick already. All the things I write about — people already knew those things.”