How to Do Things with Things: Materiality in Theory

So, funny story about the paper you are about to read: funny from an audience perspective, anyway. It began by asking what exactly mid-20th-century science fiction had to say about “the thing” (an undertaking indirectly inspired by Hanna Pitkin’s remarkable Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social). Mostly I explored Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 Roadside Picnic (which became Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and its ideas about the pitfalls associated with attributing anthropomorphic agency to things (in this case, alien visitors to Earth) which we can grasp precisely as beyond our own grasp. It staged a debate about how to handles the alienness of aliens. On the one side a tradition of cheery satirical portraits of a universe filled with objects and aliens that are knowable to us on our own terms—ranging from Stanislaw Lem’s Star Diaries, to Douglas Adams’ immortal classic Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy to space operas like Star Wars. On the other side was Roadside Picnic—in which the ultimate human mistake is to hoist up a sign that says “Welcome Dear Aliens.” Why a mistake? Because to the denizens of the universe beyond our ken we are nothing more than the bugs who creep out to wave their feelers after their picnic is over and to poke around that picnic’s detritus (readers of the recent Chinese science fiction novel The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin may recall that the alien civilization sends only one open transmission to Earth: “you are bugs.”)

I liked that paper, because it allowed me to argue that thing theory did its best work by acknowledging the incapacity to attribute meaning to the object world where it had also attributed mystery: as Frank Ramsey put it in response to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “what we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” But I also worried that in tarrying with the Strugatskys it failed to return to today’s critical parlance, to enter productively into an ongoing academic conversation.

So to solve what I interpreted as a length problem (too short) I wrote a second half to it (you can probably see where this is going!): That second part attempted to merge my meditation on SF’s capacity to cognize the limits of cognition with the current debate between the virtues of surface reading and of description and the depth reading or suspicious hermeneutics against which such surface reading was ranged. In that half, I took a page out of Rita Felski’s recent jeremiad, The Limits of Critique. Specifically, page 84, which is the moment at which Felski, having registered her dissatisfaction both with coruscating ideological critique and with “surface reading” offers a way to navigate away both from critique and from surface reading: interpretation.

I liked that half too. Then I reread Sarah’s email about the panel and realized that what I had thought of as a paper was actually capped at seven minutes: I recently heard Dipesh Chakrabarty say that we ought to conceptualize the problem of the Anthropocene as the “hurry up please it’s time” rebuttal to the Kantian notion that “there will always be time enough…” Instead the geological scale touches human time and where the two scales clash, guess which one wins. So, in that metaphor, the perpetual Kantian aspirations of my paper got mugged by reality. Goodbye Roadside Picnic, goodbye “The Thing meets Rita Felski” (Hint: Felski wins). I did learn something from those two ghost papers though: SF’s skepticism about making the alien simply familiar and Felski’s skepticism about a depthless world where every surface can be deciphered. So, within my allotted time I think the lesson I learned from those two undelivered (perhaps undeliverable) papers can be summed up in these three telegraphic claims:

1. Beware hypostatizing entities in the hope of establishing a legible beyond (no whistling in place of talking). The fact of graspable limits to our comprehension has plenty of meaning, without our needing to map our own ethical or epistemological presumptions onto that beyond. Such hypostatization seems to me woven into most current forms of “object oriented ontology”: the best way for the extrahuman universe to teach you ethical lessons is for you to start out with those lessons already tucked into your backpack.

2. The mirror image of that kind of hypostatization of the autonomous object is an explicitly anthropocentric “theory of things” that presumes the meaning of objects hangs together socially, the perfect extension of an equally perfect ideological totality. I think here not just of Appadurai’s three-decade-old work on “the social life of things,” but also of a structuralist tradition that conceives of meanings as existing within a comprehensive semiotic system evenly distributed over a culture, brooking distinctions neither between individual agents within that culture nor between the attributes of the objects that are put through the semiotic meat-grinder (meme-grinder?).

3. Making mystery itself into a knowable, parseable quantity seemed to me to fall into the “Welcome Dear Aliens” fallacy—treating the objective world as at once alien and yet also as entirely legible according to our own ethics and epistemology. Yet equally unworkable was a totalizing account of “the role of things” as encompassable totally within a sociological or anthropological semiotics. Instead we need a sense of how the presence of particular sorts of objects offers distinctive scope for action or for cogitation.

However (rule of threes) there exists a third way of thinking about thing theory, distinct from the notion of objects apprehensible as apart and distinct from human meaning and the notion of all meaning deriving from a pre-given social totality (exemplified in Roadside Picnic by the poster that says “Welcome Dear Alien": the kind of human absurdity that presumes aliens are alien in name only). In 1942 Woody Guthrie wrote a song around this question: “What did the deep sea say?” The answer is a bit cryptic: “it moaned and it groaned / And it splashed and it foamed / And it rolled on its weary way.” Though every sound his audience hears comes from the singer, it’s the sea’s presence that provokes and in a sense provides those words. In the same spirit, recent work on “affordances” and on various disruptive encounters between objects and persons—­e.g. Lambros Malafouris's How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement—offer interesting ways to get at that peculiarity of what things mean to us, and what they mean by virtue of us. In other words, to make meaning of objects it’s necessary to grapple with that it means that it is us making that meaning.

In the past few weeks I have also been thinking about Peter Gordon’s striking new book about how existentialism may have shaped Adorno’s critique of idealism and his turn towards an object-oriented materialism; Gordon usefully highlights Adorno’s sense of the impossibility of ever removing our experience from our understanding of the world around us. Ultimately, this congeries—of ideas about affordances, of Malfouris’s theory of material engagement, and of Gordon’s work on the primacy of experience over event—seems to me to come back to the need to continue exploring that fascinating site where human perception and conceptualization come up against a world that is only as alien as we ourselves make it out to be.

Works Cited

Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Harmony Books, 1980.

Appadurai, Arjun, ed. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Gordon, Peter Eli. Adorno and Existence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Lem, Stanisław. The Star Diaries. Continuum Book. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. New York: Tor Books, 2014.

Malafouris, Lambros. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.

Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Roadside Picnic. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2012.

Tarkovsky, Andrei Stalker. Videorecording. Kino International Corp, 2006.


Previously in this series: Sarah Wasserman, "Thing Theory 2017: A Forum"

Next in this series: Priyanka Anne Jacob, "Surfaces and Signs: On The Pond in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond"

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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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