An Object for Future Study

by Michael Doss

Part of the series: New Directions for Thing Theory in Literary Studies: A Forum.

Imagining the future of thing theory is as vexing as predicting the trajectory of the humanities in general. Graduate students are especially prone to think about futures—and futurity—given our state of affairs. Even describing such circumstances feels, at this point, redundant if not cliché. A chorus of digital voices bemoans the plight of the humanities, formally in special issues of major journals dedicated to thinking about the future of humanistic work, and informally on Twitter. We complain almost exclusively to each other, even though debates about the value of the humanities extend beyond university walls. Part of this is because our technologies funnel inward; another part because academics generally make for bad first responders considering publishing timelines and paywalled journals designed to limit readership; another part, the most vexing of all, is because scholarship and activism (and even advocacy) only sometimes overlap. The reality of graduate students and junior academics haranguing each other indicates a predominating mood that deserves our attention. This mood is anxiety and its object is the political and social relevance of our work. It may seem that I am dismissing the very real, material, concerns of young academics, both ones who have found ways to sustain their scholarly ambitions and those preparing their exits. However, I highlight our collective lamentations and its likely futility not to suggest we shouldn’t complain, but instead to consider why we fervently critique circumstances we know are unlikely to change to people who almost certainly agree with us. This open-access special forum provides a valuable opportunity to think about the future of thing theory specifically and the humanities more broadly, but fortune telling is not my aim. Our need to write about, think about, and theorize the future tells us far more about the present anyway.

The present state of thing theory might be described in Freudian terms, as a formative part of the past that continues to influence us. For all of thing theory’s well-documented limitations and blind spots, its expansion into new and vibrant fields and its lingering presence continue to demand our attention. Even if we feel fatigued when thinking about literary objects like Flaubert’s barometer or Byatt’s dirty window, the innovative and wide-ranging work on objects that has proliferated in the last decade hardly allows us to dismiss thing theory. To the contrary, we affirm its potential as we delineate new methodologies and see literary objects in new ways. We might wish to bury thing theory as a thing of the past, but it has imprinted on us ways of thinking that cannot (and should not) be erased. Our desire to move on, to recreate, to build from scratch is indicative of a collective mood in the humanities today. This impulse-qua-demand for rebirth is a response to the academic job market, which is structured to suggest that every emerging scholar develop new paradigms and novel methodologies. These fantasies of newness—even if they have emerged from unfair expectations of labor—are blueprints for a more progressive and inclusive world, but more accurately, they describe our current affective moods. Wherever thing theory takes us, however it blends into existing and emerging fields, it must take affect into account. Even while both thing theory and affect studies seem to be out of vogue in many circles, they each have established ways of thinking that can be traced to myriad fields within the humanities.

In this essay, I argue for the relevance of affective study that can be achieved vis-à-vis our attachment to the (no-)future-oriented thinking that currently pervades the academy. The first part of this essay is concerned with tracing two fields—thing theory and affect studies—from their points of origin to the numerous areas of study for which they have paved the way. By accounting for such origin stories, we gain a diagnostic understanding of the present. By thinking about thing theory and affect studies at a confluence, we stand to see twin trends in the academy as offshoots of a parent trend in the humanities: a demand for renewed methodologies that promise values such as equity, inclusion, decolonization, and political utility. These undoubtedly democratic principles are welcome in that they promote the applicability of the humanities. Debates surrounding both thing theory and affect studies remain cantankerous precisely because the future of the humanities is in jeopardy. However, the aim of this essay is not to participate in such vibrant and sometimes violent conversations, but instead to account for the now-central role that futurity plays in so many of our conversations. In the second part of this essay, I explore Rachel Kushner’s stunningly evocative 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers. Specifically, I imagine this novel’s orientation toward the future, conveyed by the way it stages the futility of total self-renewal. Through its characters and objects, The Flamethrowers demands we reckon with our complicity with systems of oppression—our rootedness—by sketching vignettes of failed self-renewal that hinge on the very impulse to describe and manifest a future that we see belaboring the humanities.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t support and enact better and more inclusive methodologies. In fact, we must advocate for a plurality of incisive, generous methods in literary studies. Thing Theory, originating with Bill Brown’s now-famous introduction to a special issue of Critical Inquiry, has maintained its status as a bulwark in literary criticism, even as it has shifted, morphed, and dispersed into other fields. Object-oriented ontology and new materialisms have branched off from thing theory as sub-fields of their own. Scholarship that borrows from and grapples with Bill Brown’s foundational ideas continues to emerge. Sarah Wasserman’s The Death of Things (2020) provides one example; Wasserman produces the first sustained analysis of ephemera in post-1945 American literature, “investigat[ing] why an object might be treasured for its passing or pastness.” [1] Even if we are to take Wasserman’s hint that the death of things she explores in her monograph implies a death of thing theory, it’s hard to overstate the potency of thing theory as a parent methodology of numerous ways of thinking currently in vogue. A wealth of other works, such as Christina Harold’s Things Worth Keeping (2020), explore the fraught relationship between us and our objects under late capitalism. Even Marie Kondo’s rise to mainstream prominence suggests at least an enduring public interest in our objects, especially as they become more numerous, obsolescent, and complex. In all of these recent studies that draw upon and expand thing theory, affect plays a key role. If Bill Brown’s central insight is that “the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation,” then we might reimagine “relation” as a description of affect rather than a description of power. [2]

Affect studies, which can be traced as an offshoot of psychoanalysis with feminist commitments, reached its heyday with works such as Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (2005) and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011). While the work of both scholars remains central to many academic conversations, this brand of affect studies is often considered passé, akin to thing theory. But also like thing theory, the echoes of this scholarship reverberate today. We might look no further than the robust and lasting debates about critique and its alternatives, which came to dominate mainstream academic conversation with the publication of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (2015). Felski, and many other scholars like Sharon Marcus, Steven Best, and Heather Love, champion the emotional reaction of the reader in literary analysis. Debates surrounding post-critique are largely outside the scope of this essay; their robust perseverance, though, suggests that the time of reckoning with emotions in the realm of literary analysis remains upon us. Proponents of these methods of reading generally hover on what we might call democratic values; that is, taking all readings and responses seriously. Scholars who push back, like Bruce Robbins and, to a lesser extent, James Simpson, cling to two main ideas: that post-critique deskills the profession via its insistence on flattening conversations about literature; and that post-critique is fundamentally apolitical and thus eschews the most important work of scholars in the humanities. Wherever one stands in this debate, the persistence of questions about how we interpret our objects of study underscores a sense of heightened anxiety; because we are unsure that the humanities have a future, we are unsure if we should read with greater intensity to unveil the brokenness of our social systems, or if we should instead think about our work as scholars in new ways entirely.

Even if the impulse to predict the future is symptomatic of such anxiety, can we still imagine what the future might hold? Even when we trace how we got here, or when we describe the predominating mood of the contemporary moment, we do not quite articulate our expectations for the future. Thinking about thing theory in particular, where can we expect the field to go considering the interlacing and complex issues surrounding the future of the humanities? I think there’s promise in reading literature at the confluence of thing theory and affect studies. It is by taking affect seriously that thing theory can expand as a more ubiquitous, democratic, and inclusive field. This is not because affect studies has risen to prominence and thus must be considered by any field hoping to maintain its relevance. It is, instead, because representations of objects have a privileged role in conveying complex affective moods. Studying objects in literature (rather than following the well-trodden path of producing subject-based analyses) grants readers access to material worlds that provide context for characters who negotiate their fictional object worlds even when they do not fully understand them. After all, objects can act and be acted upon in ways that humans cannot. I turn, now, to Rachel Kushner’s mesmerizing 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers, which provides a case study for how literary objects prompt us not to ruminate on an unknown future, but to develop an affective position in response to our present.

The Flamethrowers is a historical novel with multiple temporal and narrative registers that, as Andrew Strombeck points out, “do not cohere.” [3] At its core, the novel is about a nameless artist, called Reno based on her hometown. Reno struggles to create a life; she “ha[s] to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West.” [4] Rather than exploring Reno’s artistic struggle and possible success as a künstlerroman, in which an artist ultimately rejects everyday life in order to reach the full height of their talents, Kushner explicates the impossibility of total self-renewal. Even the protagonist’s nickname (the only name she is given), Reno, alludes to the futility of a dream of rootlessness. The novel includes far more than images of Reno’s art-making and troubled dalliances in New York; it also tracks Sandro’s (Reno’s boyfriend) wealthy family in Italy both in the deep past and the present. At the intersection of these disparate narratives is Reno’s motorcycle, considered as the “form” of the novel by some. [5] Sandro’s family owns Moto Valera, an Italian motorcycle and tire company, and it is through the motorcycle that we begin to see the opaque connective tissue between the narrative threads Kushner presents. Borrowing from Caroline Levine’s recent work, I argue that the motorcycle is an object that mediates between temporal and spatial registers, and as the end result of a complex and fraught network of exchange.

The disjointed objects and characters of The Flamethrowers echo, with kaleidoscopic intensity, the impossibility of casting off one’s roots. Reno is the first and most obvious example: in an early chapter of the novel, she travels to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, focusing on speed, hoping to take photographs that would capture “the experience of speed.” [6] Reno narrates that these photographs would be “nothing but a trace. A trace of a trace,” but even that admission ironizes her quest as she acquiesces there will be at least some material remainder. [7] Examples abound: Sandro’s minimalist art—large aluminum boxes displayed in empty rooms—is meant to signify nothing but itself, and yet these boxes are “stamped by the factory,” which offers an apt synecdoche for Sandro’s failed attempt to denounce his wealthy family from which he continues to benefit; Ronnie, Sandro’s best friend, and Giddle, a drifting waitress, both offer rich and varied accounts of their pasts. [8] These stories, which range from pathetic to grand, only cast these characters as forlorn, searching figures. None of Kushner’s characters manage to fool each other, either with their questionable origin stories or with their dreams of divorce from those pasts. The novel doesn’t stop here, though. These characters, hollowed by their drive toward newness, become primed for revolutionary movement and violent acts—many of them without clear objectives. By positioning revolutionary acts as an outlet for individual frustration instead of as a coherent political response with tangible social benefits, The Flamethrowers creates a world of interconnectivity and historical collisions that disallows neat Marxian pairings of oppressor and oppressed, demanding instead that we account for inevitable complicity with those systems we wish to become traceless from. Reno’s and Sandro’s art objects may seem at first glance to signal aimlessness, but in fact, they sketch an affect of thwarted desire to cast off the complicity that Kushner insists remains unavoidable.

There are two particularly disjointed chapters in the novel that sketch the intertwined and deeply problematic relationship between workers in Brazil and the Moto Valera company. These chapters are only connected to the core story of the novel—to the present-day Valera family and to Reno—through the materiality of the tires, which begin with trees and sap. At first glance, these chapters might seem to perform a didactic function. The first of these chapters, titled “It Was Milk,” reads like an exposé on modern capitalism but with a noticeable absence of tonal cues that would underscore the politics of the novel in a conclusive way. This chapter describes T.P. Valera’s (Sandro’s grandfather) perverse education in the forest as he ‘learns’ to equate human beings to machinery. He effectively learns to “conscript. . . nature into service” as a way to advance his business interests. [9] This first chapter set in Brazil mirrors the insidiousness of the capitalist project by casting T.P. Valera’s descent into exploitation as symptomatic of a larger system he exists within. The second chapter set in Brazil, titled “The Trembling of the Leaves,” shifts perspective from T.P. Valera to the workers. Here, the workers grapple with their predicament, considering options such as burning “the booklet,” which allegedly keeps tracks of payments owed, though the workers are rarely if ever paid. [10] The workers lack options for real protest or rebellion, though; they resist direct action because they hope that they will one day be paid. Strangely, these brutal descriptions of exploited workers fall flat. The Flamethrowers provides access to a deep historical narrative that is only offered to the reader; we know Reno’s attempt to become rootless is futile even if she does not. These historical chapters, obscure in their affect, stand in like thorny interruptions in the characters’ attempts to use objects—art, motorcycles—to become blank new subjects.

Discussing “the politics” of The Flamethrowers is an elusive task. Not only in the two chapters set in Brazil, but also with historical sketches of revolutions and revolutionary groups—from the March on Rome to the Motherfuckers to the War on Wall Street—the novel seems to beg for analysis that accounts for revolutionary potential in a neoliberal moment. Lee Konstantinou discusses this in light of contemporary political challenges. He asserts: “in order to become something like an occupier, one must traverse from a state of political naivety through a phase of cynicism of post-modern irony, arriving finally at a state of postironic political commitment.” [11] This delineation is apt, yet it largely overlooks Kushner’s depiction of “colonial exploitation in Brazil.” [12] A reading of The Flamethrowers that concludes with a condemnation of the 1% and the unification of the 99% thus limits its scope to the present of the novel, neglecting the wider historical arc Kushner traces. It is true that Reno is politically galvanized, in a certain sense, over the course of the novel. But it is not difficult to see the whimsical nature of her shift: her main impetus for running from Sandro is not revelation about exploitation or her role in the world, but because she sees Sandro embracing another woman. At the novel’s end, Reno is waiting in the French alps—ostensibly for Gianni, the Valera family mechanic who introduced Reno to his group of radicals; and more abstractly for what might come next in broad and ill-defined ways. The final sentences of the novel read: “The answer is not coming. I have to find an arbitrary point inside the spell of waiting, the open absence, to tear myself away. Leave, with no answer. Move on to the next question.” [13] Reno’s project of self-renewal fails once again; her ambition to uproot herself conflicts with the vestiges of her past she cannot seem to shake off, and here, at the end of the novel, she recognizes that clinging to newfound political allegiances similarly offers her little in the way of a substantial identity.

Reno’s failed project of self-renewal offers a difficult lesson in futility; it is by reading Reno’s story alongside the narrative of the production of tires that qualifies us to understand her complicity in systems she cannot fully recognize. Reno is, of course, driving a motorcycle built from the exploitive system of capitalism as she tries to wash away her roots. By and large, Reno is not an emotive character—her flatness and the absence of tonal cues offered throughout the novel do not erase affect, though. Instead, we are primed to look for it in other places. The tires, the trees, and the sap extracted from the trees hardly provide us with a clear and conclusive understanding of Reno and who she is, though. But they do describe how the complexity and interconnectivity of exploitation and consumption obfuscates any real sense of freedom or newness, thereby leaving readers with an affect of complicity that is registered by material traces that can be forgotten but never erased. This is the difficult lesson The Flamethrowers imparts on us. But, to look closely again at the final sentences of the novel, we might consider Reno’s capitulation as recognition. She has not yet figured out how to live in harmony with a world whose troubling histories influence her future, but she is nevertheless coming to terms with the limitations of a world constituted by inescapable roots. The persistence of these roots is illustrated most clearly by Kushner’s object world that effectively rejects the fantasy of personal renewal. Without a pat conclusion, readers are instead left with affect; as privileged observers, we are culpable and complicit as we face the damning systems and structures that brought about the contemporary world.

Kushner’s novel conveys how the representation of networked and interconnected objects lay bare complex historical relationships between people and their things. Through these depictions, affect comes to the fore; in Reno’s case, these are affects of frustration, anxiety, and powerlessness. And yet, at the end of the novel, she has no choice but to forge ahead without the answers she seeks throughout the narrative, without certainty. Kushner’s novel thus offers us a prescient lesson—taught through objects and through affect—about how we ourselves might proceed without certainty. The future of thing theory and the futures of young scholars are more uncertain than ever, regardless of how much trend forecasting we attempt. But, like Reno, in this uncertainty, we should not stop asking questions, or seeking answers. Taken together, affect and objects have much to teach us about where we might go next—or at least how we might feel as we go there.

Next in the series: “Grocery Shopping at the End of the World” by Molly Macveagh.


[1] Sarah Wasserman, The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 15.

[2] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (Oct. 2001): 4.

[3] Andrew Strombeck, “The Post-Fordist Motorcycle: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and the 1970s Crisis in Fordist Capitalism,” Contemporary Literature 56, no. 3 (2015): 453.

[4] Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (New York: Scribner, 2013), 8.

[5] Strombeck, “The Post Fordist Motorcycle,” 453.

[6] Kushner, The Flamethrowers, 30.

[7] Kushner, 30.

[8] Kushner, 92-93.

[9] Kushner, 126.

[10] Kushner, 213.

[11] Lee Konstantinou, “Conclusion: Manic Pixie Dream Occupier,” Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 275.

[12] Kushner, The Flamethrowers, 276.

[13] Kushner, 383.

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