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Sianne Ngai (English, Stanford)

Apr 28, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

Theory of the Gimmick

5th Annual Literature & Cultural Theory Lecture
Presented by the UWM English Department’s Graduate Program in Literature and Cultural Theory

What are capitalist subjects saying when we call something a “gimmick,” regardless of the varying objects to which the evaluation is applied and varying identities of those applying it? What about our shared world is being registered, often without the speaker entirely knowing she is registering it, in this aesthetic judgment? This talk explores these questions by focusing on the gimmick as both form and speech act, and on its relation to comedy in particular.

Image from The Way Things Go, 16 mm, color 30 min., T&C Film, Zurich | Peter FISCHLI & David WEISS (Switzerland) 1987

Brown bag lunch seminar

Friday, April 29
12 noon Curtin 939
Reading: Sianne Ngai, “Introduction,” Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard, 2012)

Sianne Ngai specializes in American literature, literary and cultural theory, and feminist studies. Her books are Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012), winner of the MLA James Russell Lowell Prize and the PCA/ACA Ray and Pat Browne award for Best Reference or Best Primary Source Work; and Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Her new book in process, Theory of the Gimmick, explores the “gimmick” as encoding a relation to labor (the gimmicky artwork irritates us because it seems to be working too hard to get our attention, but also not working hard enough), and as the inverted image of the modernist “device” celebrated by Victor Shklovsky. While both are essentially artistic techniques that perform the reflexive action of “laying bare” the means by which their effects are produced, in one case this action gives rise to a negative aesthetic judgment while it becomes a bearer of high aesthetic value in the other.

Extending the focus in Ngai’s second book on the historical significance of the rise of equivocal aesthetic categories (such as the merely “interesting”) and with an eye to the special difficulties posed by the very idea of an aesthetics of production (as opposed to reception), Theory of the Gimmick explores the uneasy mix of attraction and repulsion produced by the gimmick across a range of forms specific to western capitalism. These include fictions by Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, Gertrude Stein, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and Henry James; twentieth-century poetic stunts; the video installations of contemporary artist Stan Douglas; reality television; and the novel of ideas.


Apr 28, 2016
2:00 pm
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Curtin 368
3243 N Downer Ave
Milwaukee, WI 53211 United States
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