Related Things

What is Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Having a Coke with You,” trying to teach you about objects, things, and thingness? “The arts seem to have a material unconscious,” Bill Brown writes, insofar as “they register transformations of the material world that they do not necessarily represent or intentionally express” (Other Things, 9). Beginning from this premise, “thing theory” (as a hermeneutic method, rather than, say, an ontology or a cosmology) asks not what the critic can do to the text but what the text can do to the critic: the poem, approached this way, is already a thing—or rather, an object whose “latent” and “excessive” thingness manifests in and as “the outcome an interaction” between text and critic, poem and reader, art object and perceiving subject (22).

So interaction is the thing—for Brown and for O’Hara’s speaker, too. Published in 1959, amid the mass proliferation of objects in Cold War America, the poem opens with O’Hara’s typical celebration of the quotidian: with Coke rendered not as global brand but as object-event, whose value for the speaker is inadequately comprehended by the theory of commodity fetishism.[1] There’s something about having a Coke with you, about this ordinary act of consumption, that makes it a “marvelous experience” for the speaker and his beloved, an experience that is intensely theirs but also somehow yours, the grammar of the poem interpellating you as participant.

But Coke in this poem is also a thing among things: clothing, statuary, paintings, places, yogurt. As the speaker curates an assemblage of high, low, and commercial culture, the poem becomes less about objects, despite its litany of them, than about relations—that is, relations between objects and things, subjects and objects, and above all between subjects mediated by objects, persons mediated by things. O’Hara writes in his poem “Interior (with Jane)” that “the eagerness of objects / to be what we are afraid to do / cannot help but move us,” and what he means, it seems to me, is that the being of objects facilitates the social action of subjects. In the case of “Having a Coke with You,” Coke constitutes an “us,” a small social unit, that moves in time with the rhythms of erotic intimacy:

it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.

Such drifting is the embodied, physical manifestation of something finally abstract and metaphysical: the liminal, transitive space between subjects, objects, and systems, otherwise known as “the social.” O’Hara was a profoundly social poet. “I went back to work and wrote a poem,” he explains in “Personism,” his mock-manifesto:

While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement, which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

The poem, then, between poet and person, is like a cup of Coke, and both poems and Cokes become things whenever they facilitate the relations that precipitate their thingness. This is one way of suggesting that thing theory can be understood as a kind of social theory. Brown hinted at this understanding in his 2001 program essay when he asked, in dialogue with Cornelius Castoriadis, “If society seems to impose itself on the ‘corporeal imagination,’ when and how does that imagination struggle against the imposition, and what role do things, physically or conceptually, play in the struggle. How does the effort to rethink things become an effort to reinsitute society?” (9-10). An answer comes from Bruno Latour, one of Brown’s key interlocutors, who has urged us to acknowledge the presence and power of things in the domain of the social—indeed, to apprehend the social not as a domain of human affairs alone but as heterogenous flux of human and nonhuman actants.

But another, more robust answer emerges from thing theory’s emphasis on relationality. “There is a question implicit in the foregoing analyses and interpretations,” states Henri Lefebvre at the end of The Production of Space.

It is this: what is the mode of existence of social relations? No sooner had the social sciences established themselves than they gave up any interest in the description of ‘substances’ inherited from philosophy […] Instead, like the other sciences, they took relationships as their object of study. The question is, though, where does a relationship reside when it is not being actualized in a highly determined situation. (401)

Things provide just such a “situation” for the sociological imagination. When an object becomes a thing it discloses the dynamics of interaction and reciprocation that are so important to sociological theory and that O’Hara captures so vividly. More than merely inviting us to see material things as full participants in social life—a point amply made by traditional material culture studies—thing theory provides an analytic for thinking relationality and thus for reconceptualizing what the social is.

Which brings me, finally, to the relation between thing theory and literary studies. If, as literary critics, we fetishize the point where literature and society meet, then what happens when the very notion of “society”—as an abstract container for human affairs, as what Durkheim called the “total genus beyond which nothing else exists”—comes to seem deeply problematic? If we’re interested in the fundamental link between, say, literary text and social context, then what happens when we realize that (in a memorable phrase quoted memorably by Rita Felski) “context stinks!”? Surely such a realization must precipitate a new practice of literary criticism, not merely an attempt to move beyond the paradigm of critique, but a new sociology of literature that would seek to apprehend the sociology in literature: how literary texts assemble an impression of social form, which is really to say how they fathom that thing called society. And insofar as thing theory is, above all, a robust account of relations and relationality, we’ll need its insights and methods now more than ever.


[1] See, for instance, Lizabeth Coehn, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage, 2003).

Works Cited

Brown, Bill. Other Things. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

–––––. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001): 1-22.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Felski, Rita. “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42.4 (2011): 573-91.

Latour, Bruno. Reassmbling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Wiley Blackwell, 1992.

O’Hara, Frank. “Having a Coke with You.” Accessed 9 May 2017.

–––––“Interior (with Jane).”



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

Next in this series: Elaine Freedgood, "Metalepsis in Real Time"

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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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