Book Chapter

Things—In Theory

by Bill Brown

How do the literary, visual, and plastic arts fashion questions about the object world and our relation to it?

In the opening pages of Falling Man, an unidentified consciousness struggles to apprehend the devastation of lower Manhattan, “a time and space of falling ash and near night,” of “seismic tides of smoke, with offce paper flashing past,” of “people running . . . holding towels to their faces,” of “otherwordly things in the morning pall.” The man himself does not run. Glass in his hair, glass in his face, he walks. He walks slowly enough and consciously enough to encounter, consciously, the altered object world he inhabits—the things that the novelist, Don DeLillo, insistently tags as things: “In time he heard the sound of the second fall. He crossed Canal Street and began to see things, somehow, differently. Things did not seem charged in the usual ways, the cobbled street, the cast-iron buildings. There was something critically missing from the things around him. They were unfinished, whatever that means. They were unseen, whatever that means, shop windows, loading platforms, paint-sprayed walls. Maybe this is what things look like when there is no one here to see them.”1 The animation of the passage derives from the relays between some things and others: from a dynamic that moves—under the sign of things—from general to particular, abstract to concrete, vague to precise. Things are critically different. The cast-iron buildings and the loading platforms—those things are different. Something is wrong. What’s wrong is manifest there, in those things—shop windows and paint-sprayed walls—but the thing that is wrong, everywhere, looms both within and beyond those things.

DeLillo exploits the ambiguity of things and an ambiguity in things—what Martin Heidegger referred to simply as the word’s broader and narrower sense. For thing (Ding, chose, &c.) can designate merely something (ein Etwas) as opposed to nothing; it can refer to actions or conditions (“Let’s get those things done now”; “things have been pretty shitty”); and it can name any quotidian object—a rock, a knife, or a watch, as he says. Heidegger himself persistently isolates and concentrates on the present-at-hand (das Vorhandene), “what is most immediate, most capable of being grasped.”2 The scale of DeLillo’s concrete things—walls and windows and streets—renders them less graspable. And they can hardly be extracted from (grasped out from) their condition; they thus dramatize how things remain tangled among other things, including the least graspable things, like the thing that is missing—“something critically missing”—the thing whose absence is nonetheless present there.

Not knowing his way, the man vacillates between the thoughtless and the thoughtful. His passing speculation that this state of things may be their state—their state in the absence of human perception, the way things look in the absence of looking—seems to engage traditional questions: whether, for instance, a falling object makes any sound in the absence of an auditor. The speculation might very well bring to mind, chillingly, Jean-Paul Sartre’s analogous point that destruction is only a human experience. Storms, for example, “merely modify the distribution of masses of beings. There is no less after the storm than before. There is something else.” In the absence of a human witness, “there is being before as after the storm—that is all.”3 But most precisely, the man’s speculation entertains the prospect that this event has simply disclosed things as they are: the being of the Kantian thing-in-itself (Ding an sich) outside the spatiotemporal grid of experience, the perceptual apparatus that can only provide apprehension of the thing-for-us (Ding für uns). Perhaps the perceptual apparatus itself has succumbed to the wave of destruction. More likely, the passing thought insists that perception is irreducible to seeing, that it is always a matter of corporeal involvement, never some purified, pristine spectatorship. This is why, objecting to how Kant overlooks “the phenomenon of the body and that of the thing,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty concludes that we “must say that my experience breaks forth into things and transcends itself in them, because it always comes into being within the framework of a certain setting in relation to the world which is the definition of my body.”4 The definition of this man’s body—a passing driver sees “a man scaled in ash, in pulverized matter” (DeLillo, Falling Man, 6)—provides the framework within which he stumbles into one and another question about things and our access to them. All but aimlessly, he stumbles back out.

In the course of the following chapters (the last of which returns to Falling Man), I describe how specific examples from the literary, visual, and plastic arts fashion questions about the object world and our relation to it, about the mutual constitution and mutual animation of subject and object, and about a kind of thingness provoked by the object that remains irreducible to any object form. Within the current chapter, I mean to anticipate those questions and to dilate them, exposing their conceptual infrastructure and providing a genealogy for the distinction to which I repeatedly refer, between objects and things—or the object and its thingness. This is a distinction that, within my subsequent cases, will be reinflected in response to the matter at hand. Here my concern is how things have drawn a more formalized thinking about them and our orientation to them: our life in the midst of things, their lives in our midst.

I retain some version of the much-disparaged subject-object distinction in behalf of apprehending an object-thing distinction whose explanatory power lies in the cultural field (and not, that is, in the field of metaphysics or psychoanalysis). After providing a chart of my scheme for describing the thingness of objects—the thing that is the other thing, understood in either a physical or a metaphysical register—I track Heidegger’s repeated approach to the question of the thing (in its autonomous being). In his final approach (delivered as a lecture, “Das Ding,” in 1950), he develops a version of the object-thing distinction that Lacan takes up in what I read as his inadvertent theory of objects: an account of how the making of the artifact fashions the difference on which signification as such depends. My exposition of their texts and the links between them provides the conceptual historical core of the chapter; this is thought that continues to merit rethinking and that remains at the center of thinking about things. I pursue this genealogy to make sense of the intuition that sustains this book as a whole: that attention to physical objects (material culture) and to thingness (material or immaterial) can productively converge. Because that convergence, in my subsequent cases, is so often mediated by literature, photography, and film (“Why not, if you care so much about material objects, give some thought to that coffee mug sitting right there on the table?”), I conclude the present chapter by pointing to various definitions of materiality per se that argue against one or another fantasy of immediate access to the material world, definitions that suggest instead how the mediation of objects can make their materiality (let alone their thingness) sensible, if not in the last instance fully apprehensible. It would be possible to curate the thinking I track within a material and materialist history—a history of technology and of corporate capital and mass consumption. That is not my aim within the confines of this chapter, however. I want rather to share a feel for things, then and now, in theory.

1. Object-Thing

Insofar as Other Things leaves the subject-object binary in place (while repeatedly discovering it disoriented or displaced), you might want to engage the book as a retrospective inquiry. I look backward from the twenty-first century to some earlier “remedial work on our relation with things,” a phrase by which John Mullarkey characterizes Henri Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics (1903), where Bergson insists, against the philosophical tradition, on the mind’s capacity to follow “reality in all sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things.”5 Above all, though, I look back into a modernity where the animation of the object world, the voice of things, or the indistinction of object and subject does not constitute a general (or generalizable, theorizable) condition but irrupts as a discrete event, the aesthetic effects of which range from the uncanny to the sublime. Nonetheless, as Alfred North Whitehead emphasized, the subject-object relation may pattern experience, but “subject and object are relative terms,” and the relation must not be regarded as the structure of knower to known. This is because “experience is an activity” and the “basis of experience is emotional”: “The occasion as subject has a ‘concern’ for the object,” he argues; “the ‘concern’ at once places the object as a component in the experience of the subject.”6

If the perennially demonized subject-object distinction was a defining feature of modern thought (the thought of Descartes, say), then it remains difficult not to admit (however reluctantly) that this is a modernity that we continue to inhabit. The difficulty might be measured by the story that Jean Piaget tells of the ontogenetic development of the object concept itself, where the human infant achieves the distinction between object and subject as a kind of triumph—the triumph of overcoming the “egocentrism” of radical undifferentiation, where there is neither self nor “objectivity.”7 Only gradually does the infant assimilate the environment as external (xi–xii). This externality may be the basis for—but cannot be equated with—the epistemologist’s idea of a world outside the subject. Rather, it precipitates as a realist metaphysics in which the object seen and grasped and sucked is the object (itself) now apprehended as object.8 Externality designates the emerging consciousness of an object world and spatial relations; it designates the gradual organization of “reality,” which occurs “to the extent that the self is freed from itself by finding itself and so assigns itself a place as a thing among things, an event among events.” This is a “transition from chaos to cosmos” (xiii): a trajectory from the child’s “adualistic consciousness” (that knows no binary) to the production of objects, the coordination of a relationship to those objects, the faith in object conservation (between eight and ten months), and the internalization of those schemata (5, 45, 96). Conferring stability on the object world (on the otherness of the object) stabilizes the objecthood of the self. This is the psychological transition (the denouement of the infant adventure) on which an understanding (such as Hannah Arendt’s) of the stability of the artifactual world depends. But no one has ever experienced such stability as wholly secure: sometimes the same table at which you sit everyday just isn’t the same. It has become something else.

When Piaget moves from his preface to the body of his book, he transposes the “thing among things” into the “object among other objects”: the child, we’re told, eventually “places himself as an object among other objects,” thus becoming “a part of the universe he has constructed by freeing himself of his personal perspective” (97–98). It is as though the psychologist, before rendering this scene of confidence, has registered the way that objects, even in their originary differentiation (as mere things among things) are not yet quite distinct—as objects. Which is to suppose that, however inadvertently and vaguely, he registers some distinction between the object and the thing. This is the distinction that I mean to dilate.

The first chart formalizes the dynamics out of which the distinction between the object and the thing (between an object and its thingness) should become clear.


The arrows designate relations. Things (plural) designates some underorganized material field or some unorganized amalgam or mass: a field of sensations before they are organized into discrete objects; or a more general  field of objects before any one object (a stone, a city, a chair, a can of diet coke) becomes distinct; or that field of “material . . . of which everything is composed,” the “primal stuff” that William James called “pure experience,” one of whose “terms” becomes the subject, another the object.9 Indeed, the field of things should be understood to include the pre-emergent subject as a thing entangled in things—this is a field of things from which both subject and object precipitate in and as their relation. More traditionally, you would find a different horizontal axis (second chart):

That axis describes a dynamic wherein the object emerges from an interaction between the perceiving or apperceiving subject and things. But such a formulation stabilizes the subject before the emergence of an object, neglecting the way that the subject, too, emerges from things.

The diagonal arrows in the first chart point out how some thing, by which I will always mean the thingness of the constituted object, is the outcome of an interaction (beyond their mutual constitution) between subject and object. The thing thus names a subject-object relation. The corollary of this point is that any object can become a thing—or, more precisely, that thingness inheres (as a latency) within any manifest object. Of course, the subject can be an individual or a group—a family, a club, a gang, a subculture, a nation, &c.; group identity can be fortified by the thingness of some object: ritual food, a totem animal, a national flag. And an object can appear in the subject position; indeed the dynamic can be understood most readily through an interobjective relation. Imagine a toy truck beside a magnet that suddenly affixes itself to the truck. From the magnet’s point of view (if you will) the object qua object is beside the point: it doesn’t matter that the truck is yellow and blue, that it is three inches tall, that its wheels are black, that the girl playing with it calls it a truck. What matters is the iron in the truck (or the iron of the truck): that is the thing that compels the magnet—the thing that does not in any sense destroy the object but that renders the object superfluous (except insofar as it provides the source of the thing).

How is it that an object becomes a thing for one or another (individuated) human subject? Such thingness can seem to be the result of subjective response, something akin to what Roland Barthes called the punctum of the photograph: what captivates you, however minor or inadvertent the detail. An “intense mutation of my interest,” he calls it; with his eyes shut, he will find the “detail” continuing to “rise of its own accord into a ective consciousness.”10 He calls it the “partial object” as opposed to the “total object” produced by the photographer’s intention (43, 47). The faint stain on the lampshade here recalls (calls back into being) the faint stain you kept staring at, there, in the lower corner of your family’s dining room drapes.

But such thingness can result as well from the object’s insistence, what Alfonso Lingis calls the imperative that forces the subject’s attention: as fact, as interruption, as summons. “Things are attractions” that “draw our perceptual movements to themselves and hold them”; an object “lures and concentrates the current of feeling in us”; it makes demands: the armchair “calls for composure in the midst of agitation,” and “the worktable calls for devotion to craft.”11 The curiously bulbous ball-point pen compels you (however much you want or need to write) to keep rolling it between your thumb and  ngers. Rolling it. And rolling it.

In any case—physical or metaphysical, with the thing provoked as punctum or as imperative, or both, the two often indistinguishable—the thingness of the object, just as it is irreducible to the object form (be that thingness physical or metaphysical), threatens the coherence of the object. If the thingness of the table resides in the remarkable patina of the bird’s-eye maple (the thing thus emerging from the physical register), the isolation of that property undoes the integrity of the object; it disaggregates what Hegel calls the “community (Gemeinschaft)” of the “objective entity.”12 If the thingness of the chair resides in its historicity— its historical value, its having been sat in by Hegel—the solid object has given itself over to the role of medium, the access it gives to what transcends it.13 My concern is not with an object’s withdrawal from its properties, but with the adamant presence of a thingness that is fully (even exuberantly or aggressively) manifest in those very properties, so long as properties also names metaphysical characteristics (say, the symbolic valence of the wine and bread that makes them other things). When you say that there is some thing about that bust of Balzac that creeps you out, the thing is present and potent, even if it can’t immediately be named or known.14

All this may clarify what I mean by the other thing, by the distinction between object and thing, but such clarity comes, of course, at the expense of the local detail where any thing occurs. Totalizing in its simplicity, the scheme cannot be comprehensive because in itself it cannot disclose the density of the thing as affect or effect. Suffice it to say that my concern is not with whether you succeed or fail to grasp things-in-themselves, objects as they are. My concern is how objects grasp you: how they elicit your attention, interrupt your concentration, assault your sensorium. My descriptions are ontical—addressing the world we inhabit, the what and where and how and why of objects therein; my questions are not ontological in the sense of struggling (vainly) to answer the question of the being of things tout court. Which is not to deny that there are times when such questions, however initially absent, resurface—as the return of the suppressed. (In a less palatable, more august parlance: the ontic study of history slips into the ontological study of the historicity of Being.) The slippage between the two—between the ontic and the ontological—might be said to participate in a variety of oscillations, including the overarching ambiguity that animates thing theory as I’ve described it before. For my original chart introduces a false dilation—a temporality that the thingness of things often refuses: the temporality obscures the fact that, at the same time, the thing can seem to name the object just as it is, even as it names something else.

4. Materiality, Mediation, and the Meta-object

Heidegger concentrates on an object that discloses the thingness of things in its unconditioned autonomy: standing alone and standing forth, the thing things. Lacan excavates the Thing that names, for an individuated subject, the abyss of the real. Not in a genealogical relation to one another, but at some provoked intersection we can begin to glimpse—in theory—how thingness might emerge both outside the subject and at the center of the subject (so far within and beyond as to render within and beyond nonsensical, at times: to render experience infantile—in Piaget’s sense—without the distinction between environment and self). Nonetheless, a commitment to material culture (and the materiality of culture) could claim that they leave things far behind. And yet, within a different frame (that which I understand thing theory to construct and adopt) they dramatize how attention to the object world can assume unexpected dimensions. Attending to the ontic should not foreclose the psychological, or indeed the ontological. Theodor Adorno’s much-invoked assertion that “we are not to philosophize about concrete things; we are to philosophize, rather, out of those things”—has been read as Critical Theory’s version of American Modernism’s “no ideas but in things.”15 But the emphasis can be recast to assert the need to philosophize out of those concrete things, and not just to historicize them (say) or to curate them into a scene of cultural coherence. Concrete things—pots, computers, tables, and chairs—have a vitality that can quickly disturb any such coherence. If that vitality can be captioned as a kind of thingness, this is not some overarching, overwhelming singular Thing (das Ding), but a more quotidian and rambunctious (less august and thus more significant) thing. There’s some thing about this place that gets you (that you find enchanting) and some thing that drives you nuts. The enchanting thing about the place (let’s call it a modest loft in lower Manhattan) might be the look and feel of the worn ebonized floorboards, or the size and shape of the windows; the thing that drives you nuts might be the lingering presence of a strange smell. One limit of today’s philosophical interest in the “permanent strangeness of objects” is that it stabilizes both objects and strangeness and thus can hardly hope to tell you what is strange here, strange now, or what was strange there and then.16 The task of dramatizing the thingness of objects—here and now, there and then— is rarely the task of theory, let alone of philosophy. It is the task of art.

In his “Work of Art” essay, Heidegger writes that we “never know thingness directly,” “only vaguely”; only art can disclose “the thingly character of the thing” (“WA,” 35, 38, 67). In his own effort to think beyond the “impasse” of the distinction between “figurative and so-called abstract art,” Lacan, in his Ethics, contends that when works of art “imitate” objects, they only pretend to do so, for in fact they “make something different out of that object” (141) (“En donnant l’imitation de l’objet, elles font de cet objet autre chose” [169]). They make of the object some other thing. Art also alerts us, more simply, to how media give us access to materiality. So too the literary arts. By introducing the concept of la coupure épistémologique, Bachelard provided Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Alexandre Koyré with the means of characterizing eventful change; by casting science as “projective” (rather than “objective”) within his historical epistemology, he paved the way for what became Science Studies, enabling Bruno Latour (for one) to see multiple participants (material and conceptual, human and nonhuman) at work in the production of facts;17 but when it came to understanding matter, Bachelard drifted away from the scientific fields and preferred to think with literature, as he did in his five great books on the elements, written (1938–43) while he continued to write about science. He preferred literature because he recognized that “literary expression enjoys an existence independent of perception”; literature helped him to adopt a “material psychoanalysis” that could explain, for instance, how “the resistant world elevates one to a level of dynamic existence, an existence of active becoming.”18

It is possible, of course, to argue that any medium (by definition) denies immediate (unmediated) access to materiality. But a more robust line of reasoning has insisted that media disclose an otherwise inapprehensible materiality. For instance, André Bazin, in his “Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1945), argues that “the photographic lens gives us an image of the object that is capable of relieving, out of the depths of our unconscious, our need . . . [for] the object itself, but liberated from its temporal contingencies.” He concentrates on the aesthetic potential of photography to “reveal[] reality”: “only the impassive lens, in stripping the object of habits and preconceived notions . . . can offer it up unsullied to my attention.”19 The claim can be read as a version of Walter Benjamin’s belief that photographic and filmic media provide access to an “optical unconscious,” both in their visualization of otherwise imperceptible physical details of everyday life and in their revelation of how modernity constitutes the human subject.20 Incorporating insights from both Bazin and Benjamin, Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960) asserts the medium’s unique ability “to record and reveal physical reality,” toward which it thus “gravitates.” The point is not just that techniques like the close-up “reveal[] new and unsuspected formations of matter” but that film tout court can prevent us “from shutting our eyes to the ‘blind drive of things.’”21 By contextualizing this publication between Kracauer’s copious notes for the volume (the Marseille notebooks), and his subsequent History: The Last Things before the Last, Miriam Hansen is able to elucidate this “drive” and to dilate Kracauer’s concept of realism, making it clear that redeeming reality is no “realist” project in any familiar sense of that word. For film, as he writes in his notebooks, “brings the whole material world in to play, . . . push[ing] toward the bottom, to gather and carry along even the dregs. It is interested in refuse, in what is just there—both in and outside the human being.”22 He is interested in those contingencies that escape our “habits of seeing,” which are, as Hansen specifies, “shaped by language and circulation, by social, cultural, and representational regimes” (268).

In what amounts to much the same logic, when Emmanuel Levinas addresses the cinema, he points to how it “lay[s] bare what the visible universe and the play of its normal proportions tone down and conceal.” But this claim on behalf of cinema appears within a much broader account of art and the aesthetic—an account in which objects, things, and materiality are the catalyzing terms. The “inwardness of things,” he argues, “acquires personality” in the work of art,23 and “the forms and colors of a painting do not cover over but uncover the things in themselves, precisely because they preserve the exteriority of those things” (46). Theory, when it comes to the topic of things in the twentieth century—to the topic of the thing understood ontologically, psychoanalytically, or materially—keeps pointing to the visual, plastic, and discursive arts. Those arts advance a speculative realism that ignores the discrepancy between the phenomenal and the material in order to lay bare the phenomenon of materiality, the materiality effect that is the end result of the process whereby you are convinced of the materiality of some thing (over and against any traditionally realist aesthetic). They then ask about the other thing. For Heidegger, Van Gogh’s peasant shoes reveal the equipmental being of equipment. For Levinas, painting uncovers things in themselves by preserving their exteriority. The worldly object produced by the artist offers itself as a meta-object that addresses or discloses the question of the object and of the thing.

Don DeLillo develops the dimensions of the meta-object when he portrays two paintings by Giorgio Morandi hanging in a mother’s Upper East Side apartment, part of the background in a space that is “serenely self- possessed.”24 The still lifes hang there as though in citation of the Morandi hanging in Steiner’s salon in Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). But in some sense they hang there simply as a sign of wealth and sophistication (Morandi’s importance within the New York art scene having been established by Lionelli Venturi’s exhibition in the late 1950s).25 They hang there simply. La natura morta di Morandi, one or another, consists of “groupings of bottles, jugs, biscuit tins, that was all” (12) ( g. 1.2). But that is not all.

[Figure 1.2 – Giorgio Morandi, Still Life (1949)]

Mother and daughter certainly ignore the still lifes while arguing about other things:

“You liked asking questions as a child. Insistently digging. But you were curious about the wrong things.”

“They were my things, not yours.”

“Keith wanted a woman who’d regret what she did with him. . . . And the thing you did wasn’t just a night or a weekend. He was built for weekends. The thing you did.” (12)

Under the sign of things, the relay (somewhat comic, somewhat desperate) between confusion and certainty, particularity and specificity, speeds up, with only the Morandi paintings hovering there in the background as though to provide some sanctuary—the “groupings of bottles, jugs, biscuit tins”—from the semantic vertigo provoked by the word thing, its capacity to designate both acts and objects, the abstract and the concrete, the known and unknown. (As Lacan says, “each language has its advantages,” and an advantage of English is the robust promiscuity of this word.)26 But the daughter, Lianne, has already granted the still lifes something beyond their simplicity: “There was something in the brushstrokes that held a mystery she could not name, or in the irregular edges of the vases and jars, some reconnoiter inward”; these are dimensions of the artwork “she hadn’t talked about with her mother” (12). And yet what she does talk about with her mother (“the wrong things,” “my things,” “the thing you did”) reilluminates the things in Morandi’s paintings, as though drawing attention to the fact that the painter painted and repainted the same “bottles” and “jugs” (or “vases and jars”) as though to prove that they are never the same. That the same things can be, somehow, other things. “Three days after the planes” (8), the two women address the matter of Keith, the ex-husband, the man who had been covered in ash and had begun “to see things, somehow, differently.” DeLillo asks you to recognize how even the most serene and simple work of art is at work provoking you to see things differently, far from such catastrophe.

  • 1. Don DeLillo, Falling Man (New York: Scribner, 2007), 5.
  • 2. Martin Heidegger, What Is a Thing?, trans. W. B. Barton Jr. and Vera Deutsch (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1967), 4–5, quotation on 7. Within this chapter I make use of a more literal translation of the German title, Die Frage nach dem Ding. In his prefatory note, Heidegger explains that the work was presented as a course of lectures in 1935–36 entitled “Basic Questions of Metaphysics” (vii). 

  • 3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (1943; New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 8–9.
  • 4. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), 353.
  • 5. John Mullarkey, “‘The Very Life of Things’: Thinking Objects and Reversing Thought in Bergsonian Metaphysics,” his introduction to Henri Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T. E. Hulme (London: Palgrave, 2007), xxviii; Bergson, Introduction, 40.
  • 6. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (1933; New York: Free Press, 1961), 176.
  • 7. Jean Piaget, The Construction of Reality in the Child (1954; London: Routledge, 2001), xii, 3–96 (hereafter cited parenthetically). For his account of the process, see 3–96.
  • 8. Apprehended perhaps as part of a me-not-me network—“sustaining relations of interdependence with the universe”—but one that depends on distinctions, xii. 

  • 9. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 4. See also ch. 2, “The World of Pure Experience,” 39–91; and ch. 3, “The Thing and Its Relations,” 92–122.
  • 10. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), 49, 55. In general, then, Barthes’s exquisite distinction between what we are supposed to see and what instead arrests our attention is a distinction that applies to our interaction with the object world no less than our interactions with the photographic image. To press this point too far, though, would be to deny Barthes the specificity of his personal encounters. 

  • 11. Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 74, 121, 77. Among its many accomplishments, Lingis’s book is an extended, aggressive, and beautiful refunctioning of the imperative in Kant. See, for instance, 64.
  • 12. For Hegel, of course, “thinghood” names the “medium” that keeps the properties of the thing together. His useful example of the object showing itself to be a “thing with many properties” is salt: “The salt is a simple Here and at the same time manifold: it is white, and also pungent, also cubicle in shape, also of specific weight, and so on.” As he goes on to say, “I must take the objective entity as a community (Gemeinschaft).” See G. W. F. Hegel, “Perception: Or Things and Their Deceptiveness,” in The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper, 1967), 161–78.
  • 13. The same can be said for any value: symbolic value (“This was my grandfather’s chair”), sign value (“You notice that this is a one-of- a- kind Philippe Starck ensemble”), or price (“$15,000”).
  • 14. Such a thing-theoretical emphasis on ambiguity and particularity has enabled Wendy Chun to characterize “software as a thing [that is] inseparable from the externalization of memory, from the dreams and nightmare of an all-encompassing archive that constantly regenerates and degenerates, that beckons us forward and disappears before our very eyes.” Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 11.
  • 15. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1997), 33. For a brief account of American modernism, see the introduction to my previous book: “The Idea of Things and the Ideas in Them,” in A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 1–19.
  • 16. Graham Harman, “On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl,” Collapse IV: Concept Horror (May 2008): 6. My point is not to object to Harman’s philosophical account of objects, and I certainly concur with his assessment that “we are never really sure what an object is. Whether we define it as nothing more than electrons, or as just a shape present in consciousness, we replace the fathomless reality of things with an intellectual model of what their underlying reality ought to be” (34). Still, the thingness of objects, in my account, has a distinct trajectory because the thing names a subject-object relation (of the sort that Harman specifically elides). This does not foreclose the possibility that there are moments when the thing about an object seems to name the object’s inherent strangeness, though I consider the assessment of strangeness as such to be a judgment made by a subject (individual or collective, unhuman or human). As the fields of history and anthropology have demonstrated, what is weird for one culture may be the norm for another. Although in this book I spend very little time engaging the new metaphysics (or speculative realism) that focuses on objects and things, particular points often resonate, as when Tristan Garcia argues that “reductionism consists in refusing to consider the irreducibility of a what which is a thing to that which it is.” Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. Mark Allen Ohm and Jon Cogburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 118.
  • 17. See Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts(1979; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986). There are references throughout to Le nouvel esprit scientifique (1934) and to Le matérialisme rationnel (1953), especially the section titled “The Phenomenotechnique” (63–72). 

  • 18. Gaston Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. Kenneth Haltman (Dallas: Dallas Institute, 2002), 5, 31, 29. His rendering of dynamic existence here could be understood as a recasting of Marx’s existential materialism from the 1844 manuscripts.
  • 19. André Bazin, “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema, trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2009), 8–9. Bazin is addressing the “irrational power of photography, in which we believe without reservation” (8). 

  • 20. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1936), trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, in Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935–1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 117–18. 

  • 21. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 28, 48, 58. 

  • 22. Miriam Bratu Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 259. This helps to explain Kracauer’s investment in the “nonanthropocentric tendency of early cinema, its relative indifference to hierarchies between human and nonhuman, people and things” (261).
  • 23. Levinas, Existence and Existents, 49. 

  • 24. DeLillo, Falling Man, 12 (hereafter cited parenthetically).
  • 25. Janet Abramowicz, Gorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 213–17. For the one extensive (and delightful) account of the Morandi in Fellini’s film, see Mauro Aprile Zanetti, La natura morta de la dolce vita: A misterioso Morandi nella rete dello sguardo di Fellini (New York: Istituto Italiano di Cultura di New York, 2008). 

  • 26. Lacan, Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 55.


Join the Colloquy

Thing Theory in Literary Studies

Sarah Wasserman, Patrick Moran
Book Chapter
Book Chapter
Book Chapter
Book Chapter