Beating True: Figuring Object Life Beyond Ontology

Snowflakes meandering downward like plumes of dust, grey against the impenetrable whiteness of the sky, a hum of airplane in the distance, the frantic twitter of sparrows that have taken residence in the ivy on the adjacent house wall. Light breezes of winter air filling the room, caressing the bare skin that protrudes from under the warmth of the down duvet. Sitting up changes the entire scene and shifts the frame of the visible: the sky, no longer a formless mist, presents itself with a pinkish stripe of morning light bouncing off its lower edges over a cityscape of antennas, roofs, and treetops. The flakes swirling in the air are white now. A thin layer of snow has settled on the cars, grass, and pavement in the backyard.

A slice of life upon waking up. Is this already a story? Do we have characters or, at least, some actants? Or is it simply an expression of independent “thing power,” as Jane Bennett would have it, an assemblage of elements—water, wind, noise, light—that impress themselves on the mind, yet act independently of human doing. From the perspective of object-oriented ontology, we cannot know the entities in question, even if we weave them into words and sentences: they are “withdrawn,” doing their own thing. The scene presented here is, quite obviously, entirely suffused with humanness: a small window on the world, a moment, a bounded perception, an embodied experience.

Such evident subjectivity does not square with a philosophy oriented toward an independent reality of object being­—a philosophy that projects an ontological beyondness where entities come into their own at a remote distance from human knowledge, design, and desire. 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. Situating my own approach to object life necessitates taking issue with some of the premises that define recent ontological thought, and I take Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Economy of Things as a case in point. Her book departs in crucial ways from the more traditional materialisms inspired by Marx by shifting the emphasis from the human to the nonhuman. She deliberately leaves aside questions of subjectivity for the sake of “developing a vocabulary and syntax, and therefore a better discernment of, the active powers issuing from nonsubjects” (ix). While innovative, this shift of attention to the nonhuman also entails significant blind spots. Neither conflating the life of things with human biographies, as anthropology tends to do, nor singling out scenes of independent object agency, as Bennett does, grants us a view of the bigger picture. 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.

Bennett’s “political ecology of things” sets out from a scene of discarded objects that continue to unfold their vital activities as trash—accumulating and thriving in the shadow of consumer practice. Thing power denotes the “lively powers of material formation”: nonhuman forces that reside in and emanate from “quasi agents” such as minerals and metals, oxides and acids. Bennett refers to Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands (1998), which details a voyage to the wetlands and toxic disposable world of northeast New Jersey. It illustrates “vibrant materiality” and the “force of things” (viii): "The garbage hills are alive...there are billions of microscopic organisms thriving underground in dark, oxygen-free communities…” (Sullivan, cited in Bennett). Bennett highlights the landfill's animate nature in Sullivan's account—the way things thrive, ingest, exhale, seep, creep, eat away—and hence the actions performed by remnants of capitalist production and consumption, the mostly unseen afterlife of obsolete matter in a state of vibrant disuse.

Granted, the dump circumscribes a region where material life unfolds independent of human doing and a region where things interact with one another, thereby forming those assemblages that Latour has called interobjective. Bennett, eager to avoid an “anthropocentric style” of thinking, suggests “bracket[ing] the question of the human and to elide the rich and diverse literature on subjectivity and its genesis, its conditions of possibilities and its boundaries” (ix). Yet we cannot ignore the human factor if we consider the larger landscape of Bennett’s vibrant ontology: the dump—however energetic the interactivity of nonhuman forces within its bounds—is a site of human creation, a resting place for human products, the shit end, so to speak, of the ever-shorter life cycles of capitalist production, including a never-ending stream of disposables whose very purpose it is to be thrown away. From this perspective, then, the vital ecology of garbage is hardly independent of our economies: human purpose, profit, and planning enter into the mix and fuel the activities of the nonhuman in order to produce a truly Latourian “laboratory” of incalculable material agency.

One crucial insight gained from “older” materialisms, which are as compelling today as they were in the second half of the nineteenth century, is that the human and the nonhuman are co-constitutive in our political economy: the power of corporate capital, financial speculation, and unequally distributed means of production; people’s sweat, skills, and intelligence; animals’ flesh, bones, skin, and labor; Earth’s oceans, crops, guts, and other exploitable “resources,” are all assembled in the commodity. Together they constitute our (culture) industries and precarious ecologies, our global forms of trade, traffic, and obsolescence. Isolating a single episode of object life as independent from these complex economies runs the risk of the (involuntary) fetishism that Marx warned us about. Focusing exclusively on the commodity’s decline in the dump while disregarding its historical provenance is as short-sighted as spotlighting only the heyday of its desirability and market value. In the age of the Anthropocene, we cannot afford to abandon a dialectic mode of thinking that bears in mind how the new is always pregnant with the obsolete in our more-than-human economies, a mode that acknowledges the co-constitution of history and ecology, capital and class, coal and comfort.

This is the crossroads where my notion of object life departs from Bennett’s as well as from other ontologies focused on the autonomous reality of objects, especially those endeavors that try to determine the agency of matter by keeping humanity out of the picture. The critique of the new materialist approach I have sketched will remain rather cursory; rather than venturing further into the realms of political theory and philosophical ontology, I want to suggest that embracing literature and its imaginative registers offers an alternative way of thinking materiality and of theorizing things.

I believe that creative practice is constitutive of our being-in-the-world, and that, from a phenomenological perspective, it makes little sense to draw a sharp line between meaning and matter, representing and producing worlds. As embodied beings and storytelling animals, we cannot escape a human perspective on the world. Perhaps we get closer to the heart of things if we consider philosophical and literary texts alike as figurations that ­­unfold in the world rather than beyond. From a hermeneutic point of view, perception and interpretation do not amount to “an additional procedure of knowing but constitute the original structure of 'being-in-the-world'" (Heidegger, cited in Meretoja 96). And as literary scholars, we know quite well that narrative worlding is rarely an order-inducing affair that renders reality plausible and coherent. Rather, literature has its share in troubling our habitual worldviews and refreshing our perceptions, especially by enacting nonhuman agency and recalcitrance in unforeseen ways.­

The life of objects can be grasped through the imaginative forms of worlding that literature, art, and other cultural expressions afford. The kinds of world building that literature enables engage the reader in an interactive practice with the text, an imaginary and affective investment that generates a dynamic literary universe by extending the reader’s Lebenswelt toward imaginary scenarios in the process of reading. A literary world is always animated by the reader’s own powers of immersion; it is equally real and imagined, fuzzy and concrete. The evocative power of fiction as well as nonfictional modes of storytelling do not prompt us to create a land elsewhere, but invite us to expand the experiential and imaginative range of our world. “Literary worlds,” writes Joseph Natoli, “bring about transfigurations of character, time, place, and event, of, in short, the external world precisely because they are involved in producing as well as in representing” (3).

The animate character of the material world resonates in the thingness of narrative and the sound of words and sentences. The interest in the conjunction of the literary and the material, thing theory and ecology, as well as the manifold associations of the nonhuman and the human, constitute, according to Rita Felski, one of “the most lively fields in literary studies” (737). In my book The Literary Life of Things (2014), I have traced the ways in which literary texts invite us to imagine inanimate things that actively make, merge, and meddle with human lives. What I have called the material imaginary is neither restricted to, nor is it independent of, the world of human affairs, but it brings into view the manifold entanglements between people and things—the modes in which objects afford, affect, and mold, but also challenge and trouble social practices, perceptions, affective bonds, and cultural orientations­­.

The spatiotemporal orientation of writing offers its own creative epistemology, one that does not hallucinate an ontological elsewhere independent of a perceiving agency. Literary texts convey the condition of their own embodiedness, their creative power of worlding through words. Rather than just representing the material world, literature can­ register the 'materiality effect' of thingness as it impresses itself on the mind, touches the senses, stirs our emotions, and resonates in our imagination. In this mode, then, I want to encourage taking critique in a direction where practices of writing and reading help us push the imaginative limits of theory. What do we learn by measuring the distance between the subject and the object, Mars and Jupiter, the Holocene and the Anthropocene? Weighing entities, we are prone to miss that fusion and friction are relevant modes of grappling with the physical universe. Neither physics nor ontology, but the united wisdom of all our senses allows us to hear the sound of sequence, heed the tone of telling, and build a world from words. Here's how they reverberate in Ellen Hinsey's poem, “On the Endurance of the Flesh of the World”:

As reported to the ear, drizzle's voice endured
Discreetly, rain's temper, incessant. Unseen,
Water rose briefly in towers against a siege
Of wind; and sand persisted—­­pressed its hands into all
The crevices of the hours: for turning as it did
In its own tight ether, the soul knew not that,
Even in seclusion, the elements beat true
Against the hard frame of the mind.

Though oriented by our minds, it is the elements that teach us true horror and true bliss. Without them, we could not fathom how time congeals into space, accumulates and assembles, and loses traction on the way. How critters of all kinds, not just us, attach themselves and run in fear and have hearts that pump steadily until they stop. That clouds are baroque and real at the same time. That this moment no longer is. Feeling the instant involves recognizing our kinship with other earth-bound beings (whether squirrel, tree, phone, paper, or rain). Figuring the future involves telling stories that will not cease bearing the traits of our own embodiment and mindedness in a more-than-human world.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010.

–––––. “Systems and Things: A Response to Graham Harman and Timothy Morton.” New Literary History 43.2 (2012): 225-33.

Felski, Rita. “Latour and Literary Studies.” PMLA 130.3 (2015): 737-42.

Hinsey, Ellen. “On the Endurance of the Flesh of the World.” In The White Fire of Time. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 2002.

Meretoja, Hanna. “Narrative and Human Existence: Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics.” New Literary History 45.1 (2014): 89-109.

Natoli, Joseph. Mots D’ordre: Disorder in Literary Worlds. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Pinsky, Robert. “Swamp Dreams: A Voyage to the Toxic yet Lovely New Jersey Meadowlands.” New York Times, 19 April 1998.

Tischleder, Babette B. The Literary Life of Things: Case Studies in American Fiction. Frankfurt am Main/New York: Campus, 2014.


Previously in this series: Priyanka Anne Jacob, "Surfaces and Signs: On the Pond in Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond"

Next in this series: Kate Marshall, "Thing Theory at Expanded Scale"

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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.


Nevertheless, "thing theory," a term that loosely bundles together a range of approaches to studying material culture, began to gain critical traction in literature departments in the early 2000s. It gave many literary scholars a new way of looking at old things. For some this included tracing the material histories of objects within books (Elaine Freedgood and John Plotz) or tracing the history of the book as material object (Leah Price and Peter Stallybrass). For others, it meant pondering the ways that language and narrative reorganize subject-object relations in the minds of readers (Bill Brown and Allan Hepburn). Not simply a way of tracking the fate of snuffboxes, stamp collections, and kaleidoscopes, thing theory allowed scholars to consider what our relationships to these items reveal.

By now, thing theory may seem to name an academic trend long past, but the expansion of object studies and various post-humanisms across disciplines suggests that it remains as relevant as ever. Many of the most urgent problems of the twenty-first century reveal an entanglement between humans and things. Climate change, biotechnology, intellectual property, drought and famine, even terrorism and war can hardly be discussed without addressing such entanglement. Recent work in affect theory, animal studies, and the environmental humanities (to name just a few contemporary approaches) shares a commitment to thinking of the human subject alongside the object world. This commitment produces deeply interdisciplinary work. Reading the objects in literature and the object of literature has always involved attention to modes of production, consumption, and perception. Earlier work in thing theory and literary studies borrowed methods from anthropology, archeology, and art history; now these disciplines are borrowing back. Anthropologists such as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015) and Kristin Peterson (Speculative Markets, 2014), art historians like Caroline A. Jones (The Global Work of Art, 2017) and Jennifer Roberts (Transporting Visions, 2014) and media archeologists like Johanna Drucker (Graphesis, 2014) and John Durham Peters (The Marvelous Clouds, 2015) provide rigorous accounts of materiality; they also attend to the narrative, meaning-making capacities of that materiality.

This Colloquy highlights innovative work situated at the intersection of literary and material culture studies. Weaving together insights from different periods and different disciplines, the scholars whose work is presented here study the particularity of things in order to address larger concerns. Literary things can make human desires, narrative forms, historical contexts, and patterns of circulation legible. New methods and approaches may be taking shape; the thing endures. But as scholars of the Anthropocene have made clear, just how long some of our most precious objects can endure still depends upon human stewardship or disregard. Thinking about the agency of things alongside our own has raised a series of ontological concerns that cross disciplinary boundaries. But literature, which can interrogate things as they are and as they might be, has the capacity to point in new directions. Many questions animate the conversation assembled here: what does it mean to "read" an object across disciplinary perspectives?  How do literary movements (i.e. realism, postmodernism) and literary periods (i.e. Victorian, twentieth-century) stage things differently? Does thing theory entail close or surface reading: what is its relationship to post-critical methods and the descriptive turn? Can thing theory grant us access to narratives of exclusion, marginalization, and subjugation that might otherwise remain invisible? Is there an ethical or political danger in dissolving the subject-object divide? Where can the thing lead us today? What stories does it have left to tell? 

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