Faculty

Our Love-Hate Relationship with Gimmicks

Sianne Ngai

The seductive wonders of Nabokov’s mirror or Egan’s PowerPoint are harder to find in the gimmicks of the present. Recent headlines offer up a wide range of gimmicks rushed into production to contain the spread of the coronavirus (robot chefs, antiviral cars), as well as products and ideas whose sudden obsolescence (“fun” workplaces, airline miles) reveals that they were gimmicks all along. Why is a word used to describe a literary technique also the word used to describe the buffoonery, the cruelty and carelessness, of contemporary political and economic life? What is in a word as minor as “gimmick”?

For Sianne Ngai, a professor of English at the University of Chicago and the author of “Theory of the Gimmick” (Harvard), the answer is: everything, or at least everything to do with the art consumed and produced under capitalism. One of the most original literary scholars at work today, Ngai has made a career of unravelling the social and political histories that shape our aesthetic judgments (“How beautiful! How hideous!”) of novels, films, and photographs, as well as of show tunes and YouTube videos, bath toys and smiley faces. Her work draws attention to the public dimensions of apparently private reactions to art, and to the world in which these aesthetic experiences arise—a “capitalist lifeworld,” she writes, where art is increasingly trivial and artifice reigns supreme, where fun and fright merge to create the same arresting, alienating magic as Nabokov’s mirror.

With Augmented Reality, You Can Now Superimpose Publicly Exhibited Artworks in Your Home

YOU BE MY ALLY, 2020, LED Truck, Text: Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa, © 1987 by the author. Used with permission of Aunt Lute Books, www.auntlute.com; Sappho, fragment 1 from If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson, first published by Alfred A. Knopf, © 2002 by the author. Reprinted by permission of the author and Aragi Inc. All rights reserved. Chicago, Illinois, USA (© 2020 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Christopher Dilts)

For a week in October, LED trucks featuring animated, illuminated quotes from conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s latest public art project, You Be My Ally, drove around downtown Chicago and the city’s South Side. Those walking on the University of Chicago’s campus can currently use their phones to project all 29 quotes from the project, selected from texts from the University’s Core Curriculum, onto seven university buildings using a free web-based augmented reality app.

But for the first time, using the same app, art enthusiasts can also superimpose a public exhibit of Holzer’s work—each of the quotes—in their own houses, or wherever they might be. Instead of seeing the words Suddenly incoherence feels violent, a quote from “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem, rolling up the sleek Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed façade of the university’s School of Social Service Administration, users can experience this zooming towards them from a distant spot in their kitchen or bathroom.

Prof. Martha Nussbaum to Address Animal Rights in Humanities Day Keynote

Martha C. Nussbaum presents the keynote address at Humanities Day, Oct. 17

Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum has built her storied career on championing underdogs. Now, the influential philosopher and humanist is turning her attention toward the entire animal kingdom.

The University of Chicago scholar argues for both an ethical revolution and new legislation to protect animals against mistreatment, including the poaching of elephants and rhinos and the devastation of natural habitat through climate change and human greed. But how do we create a wholly new approach to protect diverse animals?

Nussbaum will further that conversation during her keynote address on Humanities Day, hosted Oct. 17 by UChicago’s Division of the Humanities.

Her address, titled “Animals: Expanding the Humanities,” will be held at 11 a.m. CDT during the first fully virtual celebration of Humanities Day. Now marking its 40th anniversary, Humanities Day highlights the power of art, literature, philosophy, music, linguistics and language—presenting the public with a snapshot of leading humanities research at the University of Chicago.

True or False? What a UChicago Linguist Will Look for During the Presidential Debates

Chris Kennedy

On Sept. 29 in Cleveland, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face each other on stage for the first time. 

The candidates could face more scrutiny than they have elsewhere on the campaign trail, as moderators, pundits and their opponent may fact-check them in real time. But will fact-checking make a difference in the way audiences receive the candidate’s messages?

That’s a question which University of Chicago linguist Chris Kennedy has thought about for years. The William H. Colvin Professor of Linguistics teaches a course on truth, examining the concept’s relevance in an age of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” In 2018, he also focused on the nature of truth in a keynote speech for Humanities Day, an annual UChicago tradition that began in 1980.

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