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.