On Thursday, April 18, 2019, Sianne Ngai came to Miami to give her lecture “Transparency and Enigma in the Gimmick Capitalist Form.” Ngai is a professor of English at the University of Chicago and the recipient as of a fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in Humanities from the University of Copenhagen. Her Miami lecture primarily focused on her forthcoming book, Theory of the Gimmick, which examines the strongly mixed feelings we experience when confronted with the gimmick, and how this experience directly connects to capitalist structures.
The Cambridge Dictionary definition of gimmick is “something that is not serious or of real value that is used to attract people’s attention or interest temporarily, especially to make them buy something.” During her lecture, Ngai provided examples of what qualifies as gimmicky. She said that something can be called a gimmick if it simultaneously does too little and too much. Food choppers that are designed to cut up one specific kind of food, like bananas, might be considered gimmicky. Ngai said that while a banana chopper might seem like an advanced method of cutting a banana, it most likely requires more time and labor than it is worth.
This idea of the gimmick not being conducive to our conceptions of how much labor something should involve is fundamental in Ngai’s critique of the gimmick reflecting capitalistic structures. Ngai said that a gimmick is considered too ahead of its time while also feeling like something from the past; she also said that the experience of the gimmick has a fundamental relation to the other. In order to experience the gimmick as a gimmick, a person has to imagine that there’s a person who would not experience the gimmick as such.
The gimmick, Ngai said, is a reflection of how we value time and labor in our culture, as well as how our capitalistic system informs aesthetic taste.