Thing theory

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Thing theory

Thing theory: A critical framework, emergent in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, for considering physical materiality and the interaction or relationship between subjects and objects. Thing theory is interdisciplinary, with thing theorists working in fields ranging from anthropology, history, and literature to philosophy, political science, and science studies. The term was coined by the academic Bill Brown in Things, a special issue of Critical Inquiry (2001) in which Brown brought together a range of scholarly works under the aegis of “thing theory,” the title of his introductory essay. In “The Nature of Things,” a 2010 interview with the online forum Big Think, Brown defined thing theory “in the broadest terms” as “how it is that the inanimate object world helps to form and transform human beings,” including in its purview both “how the material environment shapes people” and the “production of value” — not just economic but also symbolic, that is, perceived importance regardless of measurable economic worth.

Many thing theorists draw a distinction between objects and things. Indeed, Ann D’Orazio described Brown’s thing theory in her essay “Little Things Mean a Lot: The Everyday Material of Palestine” (The Comics of Joe Sacco [2015]) as “creat[ing] a framework for thinking about how things function simultaneously as objects and things.” In “Thing Theory,” Brown characterized objects as items we “look through,” and things as “the concrete yet ambiguous within the everyday,” lying both “at hand” and “beyond the grid of intelligibility” — in essence, as containing or conveying some unnamable, unspecifiable more. Subsequently, in “The Nature of Things,” he posited that objects are, “in some sense, what we don’t notice” (giving as examples a glass or the water within it) and that “the thing-ness of objects becomes palpable or visible … when objects become excessive one way or another” (as, he said, when the glass breaks or you realize it was your grandmother’s).

Thing theorists treat things as having power, agency, meaning, and even articulacy — qualities we tend to associate with subjects rather than objects. As John Plotz explained in “Can the Sofa Speak? A Look at Thing Theory” (2005), thing theory “is not a theory about the cultural significance of objects”; rather, “it urges us to take our account of ’things that talk’ as far back as Hieronymous Bosch monsters … , and as far afield as Rorschach blots,” as illustrated in Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science (2004), an essay collection edited by Lorraine Daston. Brown, for his part, drew on Arjun Appadurai’s “methodological fetishism,” i.e., “returning our attention to the things themselves” (The Social Life of Things [1986]), in “Thing Theory” to consider “how inanimate objects constitute human subjects, how they move them, how they threaten them, how they facilitate or threaten their relation to other subjects.” Thing theorists thus turn the usual perspective of people as the subjects, as the makers of things and their meaning, on its head, exploring how things impact or even “make” people, so to speak.

Thing theory has manifested itself in a number of literary applications. D’Orazio, for instance, used it, together with Jane Bennett’s vital materialist theory, to explore the agency of objects such as tea, trees, and the hijab in Sacco’s Palestine, a nonfiction graphic novel. Plotz pointed out in his “Sofa” essay that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s original subtitle for her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) — “The Man Who Was a Thing” — was “meant to shock us far more than Uncle Tom’s merely being an object might.” In The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (2006), Elaine Freedgood read nonmetaphorically significant objects in Victorian novels as offering moments of textual “splitting,” where the text reveals the hidden work of imperialism. For instance, she argued that reading the Bartons’ calico curtains in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) seriously as things — rather than simply as a minor textual detail indicating domesticity — allows us to explore the text’s associations with the slave trade and Indian calico — and thus the novel’s associations with British imperialism. In “The Secret Life of Things (Virginia Woolf and the Matter of Modernism)” (1999), Brown explored Woolf’s use of things in her short story “Solid Objects” (1920), arguing that the protagonist’s passion for collecting glass, flotsam, and jetsam from a beach — fragmented things, which cannot be easily pieced together into useful wholes — reflects “a history of the senses fundamentally altered by the facts of wartime scarcity and postwar depression.”

For further reading on thing theory, see Brown’s A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (2003) and Things (2004), an essay collection edited by Brown. Other examples of works addressing thing theory and the related field of material culture studies include Bruno Latour’s essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” (2004); W. J. T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (2005); Peter Schwenger’s The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects (2005); and Daniel Miller’s Materiality (2005), which asks whether we can have “a theory of things.”