What is Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Having a Coke with You,” trying to teach you about objects, things, and thingness? “The arts seem to have a material unconscious,” Bill Brown writes, insofar as “they register transformations of the material world that they do not necessarily represent or intentionally express” (Other Things, 9). Beginning from this premise, “thing theory” (as a hermeneutic method, rather than, say, an ontology or a cosmology) asks not what the critic can do to the text but what the text can do to the critic: the poem, approached this way, is already a thing—or rather, an object whose “latent” and “excessive” thingness manifests in and as “the outcome an interaction” between text and critic, poem and reader, art object and perceiving subject (22).
So interaction is the thing—for Brown and for O’Hara’s speaker, too. Published in 1959, amid the mass proliferation of objects in Cold War America, the poem opens with O’Hara’s typical celebration of the quotidian: with Coke rendered not as global brand but as object-event, whose value for the speaker is inadequately comprehended by the theory of commodity fetishism1. There’s something about having a Coke with you, about this ordinary act of consumption, that makes it a “marvelous experience” for the speaker and his beloved, an experience that is intensely theirs but also somehow yours, the grammar of the poem interpellating you as participant.
But Coke in this poem is also a thing among things: clothing, statuary, paintings, places, yogurt. As the speaker curates an assemblage of high, low, and commercial culture, the poem becomes less about objects, despite its litany of them, than about relations—that is, relations between objects and things, subjects and objects, and above all between subjects mediated by objects, persons mediated by things. O’Hara writes in his poem “Interior (with Jane)” that “the eagerness of objects / to be what we are afraid to do / cannot help but move us,” and what he means, it seems to me, is that the being of objects facilitates the social action of subjects.. In the case of “Having a Coke with You,” Coke constitutes an “us,” a small social unit, that moves in time with the rhythms of erotic intimacy: “it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as / still / as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of / it / in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth / between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.”
Such drifting is the embodied, physical manifestation of something finally abstract and metaphysical: the liminal, transitive space between subjects, objects, and systems, otherwise known as “the social.” O’Hara was a profoundly social poet. “I went back to work and wrote a poem,” he explains in “Personism,” his mock-manifesto. “While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement, which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”
The poem, then, between poet and person, is like a cup of Coke, and both poems and Cokes become things whenever they facilitate the relations that precipitate their thingness. This is one way of suggesting that thing theory can be understood as a kind of social theory. Brown hinted at this understanding in his 2001 program essay when he asked, in dialogue with Cornelius Castoriadis, “If society seems to impose itself on the ‘corporeal imagination,’ when and how does that imagination struggle against the imposition, and what role do things, physically or conceptually, play in the struggle. How does the effort to rethink things become an effort to reinsitute society?” (9-10). An answer comes from Bruno Latour, one of Brown’s key interlocutors, who has urged us to acknowledge the presence and power of things in the domain of the social—indeed, to apprehend the social not as a domain of human affairs alone but as heterogenous flux of human and nonhuman actants.
But another, more robust answer emerges from thing theory’s emphasis on relationality. “There is a question implicit in the foregoing analyses and interpretations,” states Henri Lefebvre at the end of The Production of Space. “It is this: what is the mode of existence of social relations? No sooner had the social sciences established themselves than they gave up any interest in the description of ‘substances’ inherited from philosophy […] Instead, like the other sciences, they took relationships as their object of study. The question is, though, where does a relationship reside when it is not being actualized in a highly determined situation” (401). Things provide just such a “situation” for the sociological imagination. When an object becomes a thing it discloses the dynamics of interaction and reciprocation that are so important to sociological theory and that O’Hara captures so vividly. More than merely inviting us to see material things as full participants in social life—a point amply made by traditional material culture studies—thing theory provides an analytic for thinking relationality and thus for reconceptualizing what the social is.
Which brings me, finally, to the relation between thing theory and literary studies. If, as literary critics, we fetishize the point where literature and society meet, then what happens when the very notion of “society”—as an abstract container for human affairs, as what Durkheim called the “total genus beyond which nothing else exists”—comes to seem deeply problematic? If we’re interested in the fundamental link between, say, literary text and social context, then what happens when we realize that (in a memorable phrase quoted memorably by Rita Felski) “context stinks!”? Surely such a realization must precipitate a new practice of literary criticism, not merely an attempt to move beyond the paradigm of critique, but a new sociology of literature that would seek to apprehend the sociology in literature: how literary texts assemble an impression of social form, which is really to say how they fathom that thing called society. And insofar as thing theory is, above all, a robust account of relations and relationality, we’ll need its insights and methods now more than ever.
Brown, Bill. Other Things. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
--. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001): 1-22.
Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
Felski, Rita. “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 573-91.
Latour, Bruno. Reassmbling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.
Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Wiley Blackwell, 1992.
--.” Personism.” www.poetspath.com/transmissons/messages/ohara.html. Accessed 9 May 2017.
Previously in this series: Kate Marshall, "Thing Theory at Expanded Scale"
Next in this series: Elaine Freedgood, "Metalepsis in Real Time"
- 1. See, for instance, Lizabeth Coehn, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Vintage, 2003.