Thing Theory 2017: A Forum

by Sarah Wasserman

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. Though recent philosophical tendencies such as actor-network theory, speculative realism, vibrant materialism, and object-oriented ontology continue to interrogate the role of the object and its agency, they do so against an ever expanding horizon. As the editors assert in their introduction to the 2016 issue of October, “A Questionnaire On Materialisms,” these recent philosophical discourses have shifted “from epistemology, in all of its relation to critique, to ontology, where the being of things is valued alongside that of persons.”  It is this “alongside” that has ascended in the most current debates, those about the network, the assemblage, and the Anthropocene. These terms with their expansive purview can make both the single object and the individual subject seem a bit paltry.

Oddly enough, at the moment it’s also quite easy to feel that everything is a thing: the earth has become an urgent object of study as the dire effects of climate change become ever more palpable, the human is increasingly studied as an object or assemblage under the heading of post-humanism, and scholars from media studies and digital humanities urge us to remember the materiality of our devices, our methods, our clouds. At the 2017 MLA Convention, where the roundtable that generated this forum took place, there were plenty of things on the menu.  A quick search through panel titles for “materialism, materiality, material, and thing” returned 63 hits—from “Dante and Material Culture” to “Object Lessons and Personhood” to “New New Materialisms.” Just this small bit of big data suggests that the interest in materiality is hardly waning.

So while we might agree that the materials of our present and how we should best study them are always changing, the thing—its unruliness, its mystery, its stubbornness—still captivates. Literary scholars have particular insight into the affairs of things, in large part because they have long negotiated the tension between the material and the immaterial: they investigate imaginative forms, questions of representation and understand the book as an object, a material artifact that circulates in multiple economies.  In an effort to get a handle on things, to find out more about the contours of the current relationship between thing theory and literary studies, I invited six scholars to participate in a roundtable discussion, to which Bill Brown would respond. They were charged with the grueling task of saying something about their take on things in just seven minutes. The results, as you can see in the transcripts of those talks gathered here, suggest the many ways in which thing theory matters, still, and urgently, to the study of literature.

What is a thing-theoretical method for literary studies? Thing theory today certainly represents a heterogeneous collection of approaches, but this forum probes the fundamental commonalities those approaches might share. In particular they examine thing theory in relation to current critical trends, addressing how thing theory might align with or chafe against the imperatives of surface reading and post-critical methods. In her discussion of Claire-Louise Bennett’s 2016 short story cycle, Pond, Priyanka Anne Jacob claims that “thing theory is a literary method” because it is “about attentiveness.” To look at things, she suggests, is to read closely. Jacob’s reading of Bennett’s novel offers readers the revelation, however, that close reading may, at times, be surface reading—an attention to the way the things in words can resist and refuse the reader’s desire for meaning. Her sense that literature attends to things while preserving their mystery is echoed by John Plotz’s investigation into the disruptive power that things retain over the humans who seek to understand them. Discussing the way that thing theory can productively acknowledge the limits of understanding, Plotz notes Rita Felski’s “skepticism about a depthless world where every surface can be deciphered.” Echoing through all the essays gathered here is the sense that the thing theorist doesn’t excavate or interrogate so much as she parses how representations of things can resist and rebuff such critical endeavors.

Given this capacity of things to retain some mystery, some opacity, it makes sense that both natural and cosmological wonder appear several times as topics in this forum. As the horizons of literary inquiry have expanded to address the urgency of climate change and develop a sense of the planet(ary), our objects of study increasingly include organic and atmospheric matter: clouds, noxious emissions, the hydrogen and helium that cause stars to shine. But thinking such phenomena as things is not the only possibility that thing theory affords. It also facilitates a kind of positional thinking that responds to what Kate Marshall calls the “scalar pressure” of ecological and cosmological study. This is a notable development: as more scholars turn away from a depth model of literary study, thing theory offers a way of recognizing breadth.  It can ask where one object sits in relation to another and which literary forms might capture that relation even if it occurs in a realm of unfathomable difference. As Marshall puts it, literature can allow us to see “the beginning of a displacement of the ontologies gathered around objects by their entwinement with cosmologies.” Such a perspective emphasizes the ways that humans, objects, and environments exist in multiple, overlapping assemblages that need not always be pried apart and studied for their parts. Instead, as Babette Tischleder suggests, thing theory can help tune us to literary representations of humans’ composite existence in a world of objects that are themselves composite.  Our interactions with nature, she argues, allow us to recognize “our kinship with other earth-bound beings,” regardless of the shape they take. 

Despite the capacity of literature to make the cosmos or even aliens more real to us, it’s true that for now we mortals are bound to this planet and that we have distinct forms of responsibility while we are here. Tischleder’s piece reminds us that although objects may exert forms of agency in dire need of attention, they aren’t the beings generating pollution or climate change. So even as new materialisms probe the possibility of a “flat ontology” in which humans, animals, organic matter and inanimate things coexist and co-constitute one another on equal footing, human influence and interaction remain important objects of study. Much as we might wish to efface or minimize the role of humans in a world that we seem hell-bent on destroying, there’s no escape. Even science-fiction literature that imagines a post-human world still relies on our all-too-human forms of representation. John Plotz captures this inevitable fact when he writes that “to make meaning of objects it’s necessary to grapple with what it means that it is us making that meaning.” Lest this sound somehow disappointing or even dystopic, David Alworth and Elaine Freedgood leave us here with grounds for (cautious) optimism. Turning to Frank O’Hara’s poems, Alworth illuminates the way O’Hara’s objects—cokes and trees and words themselves—facilitate relations not only between things and humans but among people. If, as Alworth claims, “thing theory can be understood as a kind of social theory,” then perhaps it is more important than ever. What does thing theory have to say about humane, if not human interactions? About the precarious ties that bind us? Elaine Freedgood steers toward some answers to these questions in her analysis of thing theory’s elastic movements between referring to objects and fictionalizing them. When, as readers, we recognize that actual things—including ‘real people’—retain something of their obdurate objectness, their facticity, even as they arise out of the words unfurled across the page from a writer’s mind, we confront the strange ratios of disclosure and mystery that thing theory works to understand.  It’s why, as Freedgood concludes, “Fiction, with all of its impossible nouns, may be the genre to which we will need to turn to understand and interpret our post-truth era.” In the era of “alternative facts,” it’s fair to ask if truth is a real thing anymore. I’d like to think it is, at least in theory. 

Next in this series: John Plotz, "How to Do Things with Things: Materiality in Theory"

Sarah Wasserman's picture
Associate Professor of English
Sarah Wasserman specializes in American literature from 1900 to today, with an emphasis on post-1945 and contemporary fiction. She is associate professor of English and associate director of the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. She is the author of The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (U Minnesota Press, 2020) and co-editor of Modelwork: The Material Culture of Making and Knowing (U Minnesota Press, 2021) and Cultures of Obsolescence (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015). Her essays appear in PMLA, Post45, ASAP, Contemporary Literature, Lit Compass, American Literary History, as well as Public Books and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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