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An Aesthetics of Gimmicks

Our tastes are active, but compromised.

Charlie Tyson writes about culture critic Sianne Ngai and her aesthetic views in “The Professor of Gimmicks” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 30, 2020).

Ngai’s focus in on the gimmick, that which gives the appearance of being important, but which ends up being empty, shallow, and meaningless. “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.”

Tyson explains, “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.” This is precisely the point that should concern us, for it reveals how, for most Americans, economics and material value have become the driving force and defining motif of life. Ngai is a Marxist, and her analysis of American’s cultural choices and preferences highlights a problem that can be found everywhere within the Christian community as well. 

Tyson says, “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.”

Dr. Ngai’s work can serve as a mirror showing how our aesthetic interests are at once active – since even the most everyday objects of our culture have some perceived value – and corrupt – because everything is assessed in terms of its material and pragmatic interest or use.

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