Postmodernism and Thing Theory

by Matthew Mullins

Matthew Mullins’s book, Postmodernism in Pieces, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. A paperback edition has just been made available. 


In 2016 I published a book entitled Postmodernism in Pieces: Materializing the Social in U.S. Fiction in which I set out to answer a number of questions, including, “What does postmodernism have to do with thing theory?” For many literary scholars, these two concepts might seem unrelated, perhaps even antithetical. Postmodern literature is concerned with ideals, thing theory with materials. Postmodern literature dazzles us with formal and philosophical pyrotechnics; thing theory focuses on the mundane, the everyday, the quotidian. Postmodern literature represents things as symbolic objects circulating through a consumer society; thing theory strives to consider things in themselves. Didn’t postmodern literature free scholars from the necessity of reconciling the text with some material world outside it? Doesn’t thing theory construe the text as another thing among others in a material network? Didn’t postmodernism collapse all material into language, and doesn’t thing theory collapse all language into materiality?

This tension made the collision between postmodernism and thing theory inevitable for me. What I found as I looked back to some of the key figures in the pantheon of literary postmodernism was that many of them would make first rate thing theorists. For starters, these writers have little faith in ideals and generalizations, almost always preferring materials and particularities. In his essay “Postmodernism Revisited,” John Barth associates being a novelist with a predilection for particularity: “Fred and Shirley and Mike and Irma seem intuitively realer to me than does the category human beings; the cathedrals at Seville and Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela seem more substantial than the term Spanish Gothic; and the writings of Gabriel García Márquez and Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon—even the writings of John Barth—have ontological primacy, to my way of thinking, over the category Postmodern fiction” (16). Barth, like many of his postmodern compatriots, prefers to look at things rather than through them.

This compulsion to look at rather than through is central to thing theory. In his field-defining essay on “Thing Theory,” Bill Brown references a scene in A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale in which a dirty window leads a character to look at rather than through the pane and thus long for real, tangible objects (1). Just for fun, the character is a doctoral student who has reached the outer limits of his patience with Lacan and with deconstruction. There is a tension here. On the one hand, postmodern literature is committed to looking at, and yet the project of postmodern theory might well be defined as looking through, looking through whatever seems to be natural, normal, or given to reveal how those things are always already constructed, normalized, or made. We might even read the turn to things as a turn away from postmodernism, or at least from postmodern theory. And yet, this insistence on looking at resonated with my readings of postmodern fiction.

Postmodern fiction is preoccupied with looking at things which, under strict scrutiny, seem to dissolve. What had drawn me to postmodern literature in the first place was its brilliant and manifold ways of undoing what seemed certain. Ishmael Reed could tell a story so familiar that, when it began to smoke and sputter, I’d come to doubt everything I thought I knew. John Barth could play with the conventions of narrative in such a way that I’d feel as if I didn’t even know what a story was anymore. Postmodern fiction would turn its critical gaze on something “given” like race, history, gender, or class, and reveal that whatever it was we thought existed turns out to be a mirage, a fabrication, or—to use postmodern language—a social construction. The implication, for better or worse, was that these things were somehow fake, or that they didn’t really exist. This confused me because the language of “construction” seemed so very material to me; it seemed like the perfect fit with thing theory, which by then had become a branch of a larger tree scholars were calling “new materialism.”

It was reading new materialist scholars across disciplines—Brown in literary studies, Bruno Latour in science studies, and Jane Bennett in political science—that led me to ask a question I couldn’t find anyone else asking: constructed out of what? If postmodern literature was fixated on revealing the constructed nature of the general categories we rely on in our interactions with one another, then what were the particulars out of which those general categories were constructed? More specifically, was postmodern literature simply interested in revealing how race or gender were constructs, or was it actually more concerned with tracing the processes and the materials out of which they were constructed?

And so, postmodernism and thing theory came together because I saw that postmodern fiction was obsessed with the everyday objects out of which humans construct their worlds. Construction became more of a verb, more of a process, and less of a noun or a product. The novels asked me to investigate how race, or class, or history were socially constructed rather than to merely conclude these categories were social constructs. In Reassembling the Social, Latour points out that, for most of his colleagues in the social and natural sciences, “to say that something was ‘constructed’ […] meant that something was not true. They seemed to operate with the strange idea that you had to submit to this rather unlikely choice: either something was real and not constructed, or it was constructed and artificial, contrived and invented, made up and false” (90). This was my experience in literary studies as well. It seemed subtle at first, but the implications steadily grew: I wanted to talk, not about how Morrison could reveal that whiteness was a mere construct—though that is a key element in understanding her work—but about how she could help us come to terms with the historical emergence and construction of whiteness over time. What we needed, it seemed to me, was a more material postmodernism.

But a more material postmodernism leads away from the very usefulness of general categories like, well, postmodernism. It does not have to lead away from categories full stop, but it diminishes the use of categories that take the form of isms because materiality resists the reduction of things to codified orthodoxies or doctrines. Postmodernism falls short of being an ism, and, I concluded, it marks the end of that way of organizing literary history. Like the poems of Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables series, postmodernism’s total commitment to process, to change, represented an end to philosophical/theological categories (i.e. Romanticism, Realism, Modernism, Postmodernism) masquerading as historical/narrative categories. Rather than continuing to construct orthodoxies that we then challenge, deconstruct, and rewrite, postmodern literature marked a turning point in how scholars could conceive of history in view of literary production. The texts themselves resist the kind of classification that must, in turn, be dissolved.

Three years after its publication, Postmodernism in Pieces is being released as a paperback and I’m thinking more and more about books as objects. What are they for? How do they function? The answer postmodernism gave is that books question, critique, and reveal; they challenge, demonstrate, lay bare. Scholars in the postmodern tradition came to rely on literary texts for their inherent suspiciousness. As Rita Felski puts it in her essay, “Suspicious Minds,” they do “the work of suspicion for us” (217). In other words, postmodern literary criticism most often figured literary texts as suspicious objects. But if texts can call into question the things we take for granted, if they can show how those things are historically emergent and materially constructed can’t they also construct other, even better, visions of life?

I don’t know that I saw it at the time, but I was thinking through the uses and limits of suspicion in Postmodernism in Pieces. The works of fiction I examined attend to the materials out of which social categories get constructed, but they, themselves, are also things, things out of which our social spheres are constructed. What kinds of things are Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Don DeLillo’s Underworld? They are certainly suspicious. Jazz offers multiple representations of the same events and entities over and over again. Which perspective is the true perspective? DeLillo experiments with history in a similar manner, giving readers multiple views of the same historical gaps to show that master narratives simply do not work. At root, these texts seem grounded in difference—by which I mean they tend to treat epistemological limitations as evidence of the fact that humans are fundamentally different and disconnected rather than similar and connected.

But these novels are also grounded in recognition. Difference and recognition are not quite at odds, but neither are they perfectly in sync. Postmodern fiction helps us recognize the limits of what we can know, but it does so by putting us in relation with others whose experiences differ from our own. The inevitable demystification of our own stories and assumptions is predicated upon an encounter with unfamiliar stories. If we recognize ourselves in the lives of those who differ from us, we can see the way our own lives are constructed; it becomes possible to imagine dramatically different perspectives, even if only by fits and starts. It is this more constructive and imaginative dimension of postmodernism that seems consonant with project of postcritique as articulated by Felski and others. Presuming the necessary work of suspicion, what other kinds of work can literature do? What worlds can it imagine? What bridges of difference can it cross?

Thing theory and postcritical reading offer new points of entry into the time and texts we once called postmodern. For a while, I thought I had written the last book on postmodernism, but now I can see that perhaps I just wrote the last book that used that old frame to talk about literary production in the postwar period. What other ways of reading may yet open to us?


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