An original literary scholar, Sianne Ngai has centered her work on unspooling the social and political histories that form the aesthetic judgments of novels, movies and photographs, as well as the lesser art forms of show tunes, YouTube videos, rubber duckies, stainless-steel banana peelers and emojis.
The author of three serious, philosophically dense books with deceivingly innocent titles, “Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form” (2020), “Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting” (2012), and “Ugly Feelings” (2005), she taps into American’s ordinary use of language to uncover political complexity and ambivalence.
While her style of expression is more down to earth than the philosophers who influenced her scholarship like Georg Wilheim Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and Stanley Carvell, Ngai has carved her own path and thinks in larger time scales.
“Literature is my primary place to study culture,” said Ngai, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at UChicago. “However, I am fascinated by broader problems of representation which leave their imprint across different art forms.”
Ngai will expand that conversation on Oct. 21 in her keynote address during Humanities Day—a cherished tradition since 1980—providing a snapshot of UChicago research to the public and underscoring the power of art, literature, philosophy, music, linguistics, media, and languages.
During her presentation entitled “The Gimmick as Aesthetic Category and Capitalist Form,” she’ll analyze the contradictory forces of aesthetic attraction and repulsion in the pervasiveness of the gimmick.
In this edited Q&A, Ngai discusses the connection between gimmicks and capitalism, why she is attracted to the zany and the cute and what is distinctive about the UChicago culture.
Your Humanities Day keynote address focuses on gimmicks and capitalism. What intrigues you about this pairing?
The gimmick is an aesthetic form which we regard with suspicion. In making dubious claims to value, in particular, it is the aesthetic counterpart to the commodity form, and as such it lies latent in everything made (to be sold) in capitalism.
The gimmick most often appears in the shape of a labor- or time-saving device. While certain ideas, techniques and devices thus seem flagrantly or inherently gimmicky—Hamburger Helper, crypto-currency futures, “readymade” artworks that comment on or interpret themselves—its form haunts all of capitalist culture as a general undercurrent, or as an ever-present possibility. I attribute this to the competition between capitalists, which generates pressure towards constant innovation. Any object we value now might become obsolete and clunky tomorrow.
By linking gimmicks and capitalism, we can track how aesthetic forms, which reappear in different media at once refer to and comment on the social relationships which economic systems at once reproduce and simultaneously obscure. It is these relationships—which I believe art and literature play a special role in revealing—that most interest me.
Why do gimmicks and cuteness in our culture hold such an attraction for you?
They are aesthetic experiences that are nearly universal in American culture. Everyone knows what gimmicks and cuteness are, and they are woven into the flow of our everyday lives. However, there is much more to them than meets the eye.
Gimmicks and cuteness are visceral and emotional experiences, which also contain negativity and ambivalence. Both aesthetic categories connect to larger social, political and artistic problems in our society.
To call someone cute is a way of dismissing that person as powerless and nonthreatening. The gimmick is a more complex judgment, involving displeasure because the thing we are judging seems to be working too hard but also too little. The labor involved in it seems at once excessive and insufficient. For example, special effects in a movie that seem impressive at one time look like gimmicks later. Our aesthetic misgiving about the gimmick is thus connected to a misgiving about an entire economic system in which wealth is measured in terms of value, and in which value is tied to the abstraction of labor.
Why did you decide to become a cultural theorist?
In graduate school, I read Susan Stewart’s book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1993), which strongly influenced me. Stewart interpreted the miniature as a historical phenomenon and as a culturally meaningful problem. Her examples included poems, Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and dollhouses.
Her scholarship was an early example of working in cultural studies in a way that I admired: seeing and tracking aesthetic patterns across diverse instances of literature and culture.
What is distinctive about the culture at UChicago, and how has it changed your research and scholarship?
UChicago has a rich tradition of being an intellectually challenging place of study and conversation for faculty and students. I have noticed more communication across departments and disciplines than at the two previous institutions where I taught. I think teaching the Core courses to undergraduate students helps bring us together more often.
Also, we have great scaffolding here to do our work. In the Department of English Language and Literature, I have colleagues who are inspire and stimulate me and whose work bridges different disciplines and focuses on big problems.
What are your current research projects?
I am working on a book project called “Inhabiting Error” about the affective dimensions of dialectical thinking and how it moves through negation. I am interested in why authors such as Hegel, Marx, and Lauren Berlant write in a way such that the reader often ends up phenomenologically lingering, with them, in a state of being wrong.
For example, when I read Marx and think I am following his critical or corrective description of how capitalism works, a few paragraphs later, I realize that his prose has actually made me re-enact how a capitalist thinks. This intimacy with ideology through its unconscious mimesis or performance is not something I would acquire, had his prose signposted this shift in advance. It is an incredibly risky move to lead readers into patches of misguided thinking before arriving at the truth, but it is the move of every dialectical thinker and writer—including Plato and even Shakespeare. I want to explore how this happens in a range of texts, including especially dramatic ones.
Humanities Day 2023 is Oct. 21. Register today at humanitiesday.uchicago.edu. The event is free and open to the public.