Thing Theory in Literary Studies

That things capture our imagination is hardly news. As Andrew Cole wrote in a 2016 issue of October, "materialism is as old as the hills." Cole claims that new approaches to studying things allow us to find similarities where we have too often found difference, and that this method dates back at least to Hegel and Marx.  ... more

That things capture our imagination is hardly news. As Andrew Cole wrote in a 2016 issue of October, "materialism is as old as the hills." Cole claims that new approaches to studying things allow us to find similarities where we have too often found difference, and that this method dates back at least to Hegel and Marx. The study of matter has proceeded under a number of names: dialectical materialism, material culture studies, and, more recently, vibrant materialism, and object-oriented ontology. The scope of such studies has likewise been expansive, ranging from the sub-atomic to the galactic, from Lucretius to Latour. Nevertheless, "thing theory," a term that loosely bundles together a range of approaches to studying material culture, began to gain critical traction in literature departments in the early 2000s. It gave many literary scholars a new way of looking at old things. For some this included tracing the material histories of objects within books (Elaine Freedgood and John Plotz) or tracing the history of the book as material object (Leah Price and Peter Stallybrass). For others, it meant pondering the ways that language and narrative reorganize subject-object relations in the minds of readers (Bill Brown and Allan Hepburn). Not simply a way of tracking the fate of snuffboxes, stamp collections, and kaleidoscopes, thing theory allowed scholars to consider what our relationships to these items reveal.

By now, thing theory may seem to name an academic trend long past, but the expansion of object studies and various post-humanisms across disciplines suggests that it remains as relevant as ever. Many of the most urgent problems of the twenty-first century reveal an entanglement between humans and things. Climate change, biotechnology, intellectual property, drought and famine, even terrorism and war can hardly be discussed without addressing such entanglement. Recent work in affect theory, animal studies, and the environmental humanities (to name just a few contemporary approaches) shares a commitment to thinking of the human subject alongside the object world. This commitment produces deeply interdisciplinary work. Reading the objects in literature and the object of literature has always involved attention to modes of production, consumption, and perception. Earlier work in thing theory and literary studies borrowed methods from anthropology, archeology, and art history; now these disciplines are borrowing back. Anthropologists such as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015) and Kristin Peterson (Speculative Markets, 2014), art historians like Caroline A. Jones (The Global Work of Art, 2017) and Jennifer Roberts (Transporting Visions, 2014) and media archeologists like Johanna Drucker (Graphesis, 2014) and John Durham Peters (The Marvelous Clouds, 2015) provide rigorous accounts of materiality; they also attend to the narrative, meaning-making capacities of that materiality.

This Colloquy highlights innovative work situated at the intersection of literary and material culture studies. Weaving together insights from different periods and different disciplines, the scholars whose work is presented here study the particularity of things in order to address larger concerns. Literary things can make human desires, narrative forms, historical contexts, and patterns of circulation legible. New methods and approaches may be taking shape; the thing endures. But as scholars of the Anthropocene have made clear, just how long some of our most precious objects can endure still depends upon human stewardship or disregard. Thinking about the agency of things alongside our own has raised a series of ontological concerns that cross disciplinary boundaries. But literature, which can interrogate things as they are and as they might be, has the capacity to point in new directions. Many questions animate the conversation assembled here: what does it mean to "read" an object across disciplinary perspectives?  How do literary movements (i.e. realism, postmodernism) and literary periods (i.e. Victorian, twentieth-century) stage things differently? Does thing theory entail close or surface reading: what is its relationship to post-critical methods and the descriptive turn? Can thing theory grant us access to narratives of exclusion, marginalization, and subjugation that might otherwise remain invisible? Is there an ethical or political danger in dissolving the subject-object divide? Where can the thing lead us today? What stories does it have left to tell? 

Sarah Wasserman's picture
Curator Sarah Wasserman

Sarah Wasserman specializes in American literature from 1900 to today, with an emphasis on

Sarah Wasserman specializes in American literature from 1900 to today, with an emphasis on post-1945 and contemporary fiction. Her research and teaching interests include material culture studies, literary theory, urban studies, popular culture, and digital humanities. Her current book project, The Death of Things: Ephemera in America, examines representations of disappearing objects in post-war American fiction. Sarah is the co-editor of Cultures of Obsolescence: History, Materiality, and the Digital Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Her essays and reviews have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, and The Journal of American Studies. Before joining the department at the University of Delaware, Sarah taught in Germany at the JFK Institute for North American Studies at the Free University Berlin. She is also the recipient of the Wayne C. Booth Prize for Excellence in Teaching from the University of Chicago.

Patrick Moran's picture
Curator Patrick Moran

Patrick Moran is a lecturer in the writing program at Princeton University. His scholarshi

Patrick Moran is a lecturer in the writing program at Princeton University. His scholarship focuses on modernism, material culture, childhood, and the medical humanities. His essays and reviews have appeared in James Joyce Quarterly, Modern Fiction Studies, Modernism/modernity, Éire-Ireland, and Literature and Medicine. He is also interested in creative writing and is currently pursuing an MFA at Columbia University.

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Postmodernism and Thing Theory

by Matthew MullinsEssay
If postmodern literature reveals the constructed nature of our general categories, then what are the particulars out of which those general categories are constructed? more

Things—In Theory

by Bill BrownBook Chapter
Other Things
How do the literary, visual, and plastic arts fashion questions about the object world and our relation to it? more

Thing Theory 2017: A Forum

by Sarah WassermanEssay
In 2001, when Bill Brown published his essay on “Thing Theory,” it seemed that scholars were tired of subjects. But now, nearly two decades later, one must wonder if we’ve also grown tired of things. more

Beating True: Figuring Object Life Beyond Ontology

by Babette B. TischlederEssay
From the perspective of object-oriented ontology, we cannot know the entities in question, even if we weave them into words and sentences: they are “withdrawn,” doing their own thing. more

Thing Theory at Expanded Scale

by Kate MarshallEssay
The following remarks form brief meditations on the scalar pressures that several strands of contemporary critical thought have been placing on the well-recognized expanded field of things that have fallen under the purview of thing theory in the past decade and a half... more

Related Things

by David J. AlworthEssay
What is Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Having a Coke with You,” trying to teach you about objects, things, and thingness?  more

Gold You Can Eat (On Theft)

by Julian YatesBook Chapter
Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression
Everybody knows that some international trade is beneficial—nobody thinks that Norway should grow its own oranges. Many people are skeptical, however, about the benefits of trading for goods that a country could produce for itself. Shouldn’t... more

Metalepsis in Real Time

by Elaine FreedgoodEssay
In Genette’s classic definition, metalepsis is an intrusion of one diegetic level into another, as in Julio Cortázar’s very short story, “A Contiguity of Parks,” in which a character is shot by the murderer in the mystery novel he is reading. more

Introduction to Hoardiculture

by Rebecca FalkoffNewBook Chapter
Possessed: A Cultural History of Hoarding
Hoarding is too ubiquitous and entrenched to be dismembered by the boundaries of national tradition or discipline. more

What’s Really the Matter with Artifacts?

by Crystal B. LakeNewBook Chapter
Artifacts: How We Think and Write about Found Objects
Ready-to-hand, memorable things make the immaterial past materially present for our direct, sensory apprehension as well as our cognitive reasoning, but they are also very nearly thinking things themselves, full of memories that we do not and cannot have for ourselves.... more