Thing Theory in Literary Studies

That things capture our imagination is hardly news. As Andrew Cole wrote in a 2016 issue of October, "materialism is as old as the hills." Cole claims that new approaches to studying things allow us to find similarities where we have too often found difference, and that this method dates back at least to Hegel and Marx. The study of matter has proceeded under a number of names: dialectical materialism, material culture studies, and, more recently, vibrant materialism, and object-oriented ontology. The scope of such studies has likewise been expansive, ranging from the sub-atomic to the galactic, from Lucretius to Latour.

Morrison’s Things: Between History and Memory
Kinohi Nishikawa
Toni Morrison began to formulate her engagement with the black past early in her career, in a project for which she served as editor and makeshift curator of objects. In 1974 Random House brought out a book that Morrison had spent 18 months assembling with four collectors of black memorabilia: a 200-page, oversized compendium that conveys the story of African and African-descended people in the New World.
Postmodernism and Thing Theory
Matthew Mullins
If postmodern literature reveals the constructed nature of our general categories, then what are the particulars out of which those general categories are constructed?
Things—In Theory
Bill Brown

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

The Armored Body as Trophy: The Problem of the Roman Subject in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus
Susan Harlan

The treatment of the military subject in Shakespeare’s Roman plays complicates early modern cultural understandings of the material aspects of militant nostalgia. Shakespeare inherits a partial and objectified Roman military figure linked to trophies and armor, and this figure negotiates the early modern English playgoer's relationship to his glorious, unattainable Roman past.

Thing Theory 2017: A Forum
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.
Beating True: Figuring Object Life Beyond Ontology
Babette B. Tischleder
One premise different materialist theories share is that things are alive and kicking: no longer inert matter or mere backdrop of human action and consciousness, the world of objects is seen to have a vitality of its own. While it is important to remember that physical things continue to exist after their social lives (in a narrow sense) have ended, we need to complicate the stories we tell about their active trajectories.
Thing Theory at Expanded Scale
Kate Marshall

Kate Marshall remarks on the scalar pressures that contemporary critical thought has been placing on the field of thing theory in the past decade and a half. She looks at three aspects of this scalar shift: the placement of things in ever-expanding timescales; the cosmological positioning of things either distant or grandiose; and the attempts to thingify systems and collectives.

Related Things
David J. Alworth

What is Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Having a Coke with You,” trying to teach about objects, things, and thingness? In this essay, David J. Alworth uses thing theory as a hermeneutic method to ask not what the critic can do to the text but what the text can do to the critic: O’Hara’s poem, approached this way, is already a thing—or rather, an object whose thingness manifests in and as an outcome of interaction between text and critic, poem and reader, art object and perceiving subject.

Metalepsis in Real Time
Elaine Freedgood
In Genette’s classic definition, metalepsis is an intrusion of one diegetic level into another. The question of who is narrating, who can narrate, who is a reliable narrator and at what point we are in the outermost diegetic level that we fondly or hopefully think of as reality has become a serious one.
Gold You Can Eat (On Theft)
Julian Yates
This chapter constitutes its own order of archival heterospace, keyed to the ways in which orange, the dispersal strategy of particular genus of plant, by and through its recruitment of human animals, comes to interrupt acts of exchange, inclining them toward an economy of the gift or accusations of theft, and so litters our discourses with errant, erring, fragmented, time-bound polities that unfold by and through orange.
Introduction to Hoardiculture
Rebecca Falkoff

Hoarding is too ubiquitous and entrenched to be dismembered by the boundaries of national tradition or discipline.

What’s Really the Matter with Artifacts?
Crystal B. Lake
Ready-to-hand, memorable things make the immaterial past materially present for our direct, sensory apprehension as well as our cognitive reasoning, but they are also very nearly thinking things themselves, full of memories that we do not and cannot have for ourselves.
The Rise of Silas Lapham & the Stuff of Social Mobility
Aaron Burstein

The Rise of Silas Lapham is a somewhat underexamined work among scholars of collecting and thing theory. The story’s aspirational emphasis makes for a highly effective exploration of material subjectivity and class politics, and the things in Lapham’s life reveal an emerging consumer economy within the Gilded Age. These textual elements signify the cultural labor of constructing an upper-class affect, likewise inviting readers to consider their own curatorial habits.

An Object for Future Study
Michael Doss

In the first part of this essay, Michael Doss traces the histories of thing theory and affect studies, which together can be understood as offshoots of a parent trend in the humanities: a demand for renewed methodologies that promise values such as equity, inclusion, decolonization, and political utility. The second part of this essay explores Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers, specifically its orientation toward the future, conveyed by the way it stages the futility of total self-renewal.

New Materialism and the Multicultural Middle Ages
T. Liam Waters
Ana C. Núñez
In this episode of The Multicultural Middle Ages podcast, T. Liam Waters (UC Berkeley) and Ana C. Núñez (Stanford) use New Materialism as a disciplinary approach to the Middle Ages, exploring the connections between medieval cultures, times, and places.

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