Thing Theory at Expanded Scale

The following remarks form brief meditations on the scalar pressures that several strands of contemporary critical thought have been placing on the well-recognized expanded field of things that have fallen under the purview of thing theory in the past decade and a half. A small but striking effect of rereading the 2001 “Thing Theory” piece in 2017 is to catch on the playful use, four times, of the temporal marker “these days,” and for me the scale question is an interesting one to pose when considering whether the these days are in fact different days than ours when we talk about the function of things in our current thought. To explore this further, I will look at three aspects of this scalar shift that might give some purchase on this question, each via a quick example. They include: 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. Each of these moves, I would argue, is an unsteady one even with the methodological capaciousness of thing theory, but have been flashing in its orbit with increasing intensity in recent years.

One form of scalar pressure on the thing in theory has arrived by way of several forms of interest in deep time, so that particular objects of interest become fossils, geological strata, and lost and decaying material. Thus the now infamous “arche fossil” of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, a kind of material that precedes the formation of terrestrial life, has become a kind of test case for the scalar finitude of things in measureable time – the examples of such matter include an isotope with measurable radioactive decay or “the luminous emission of a star that informs us as to the date of its formation” (10). The point for me is less whether such matter should be considered within the realm of thing theory—it forms, after all, part of the “unhuman history” Bill Brown describes in Other Things—than the ways in which it has been brought into contact with it.

The arche-fossil’s “luminous emission” also evokes the second scalar shift I’d like to mention, which is embedded in the desire to understand something like a star or galaxy, or planet, in the language of the thing. This impulse is at work in Marilynne Robinson’s characterization of “cosmic realism,” a genre she first locates in the fiction of Annie Dillard, which tethers what she calls “the business of eons and galaxies” to the material of the everyday. And in Robinson’s own writing as well as the body of work attuned to it, we can perceive the beginning of a displacement of the ontologies gathered around objects by their entwinement with cosmologies.

And finally, I would like to point to the ways that thingness is being stretched in scalar terms by an increasing desire to see bodies – and by this I mean collections that are expressed as singularities – as things. The desire to which I’m referring can be seen quite clearly at work in Annie Proulx’s 2016 multigenerational epic Barkskins, which gathers its narratives over four centuries according to two different logics: the first being the predictable novelistic pull of dynasty, but the second being the idea of the forest. Instead of producing a kind of pat eco-fable, or at least not just that, the way that the forest functions formally in Barkskins is to oscillate between singularity and a more composite structure. Working on the level of character, as simultaneously obdurate and ephemeral materiality, and as a system, the forest exists conceptually in the novel always in dynamic relation to its human networks and grasping individuals. This status confusion is ultimately the novel’s most interesting feature and its most profound failure, for “forest” as rendered cannot stand up to the demands of thingness the novel places upon it.

Like the cosmological and temporally distant objects animating so much theorization of human and nonhuman assemblage, Proulx’s forest shimmers as a kind of horizon for what it might mean to think things these days. Ultimately, I don’t think that these scales were not anticipated by the early work on thing theory or even excluded from more recent interventions, but what they mean to us when brought into contact with the heterogeneous language of thing theory has historical purchase in the present. As narratives – fictional and cultural – reach for formal means to capture the newly urgent scales of cosmic and systemic sensibilities, the critical vocabularies developed in the wake of thing theory become newly important as well, allowing the careful attention placed on the aesthetics of objecthood to fasten on to the things appearing most insistently in the contemporary frame.

Works Cited

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

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

Gratton, Peter and Paul J. Innis, Eds. The Meillassoux Dictionary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2008.

Proulx, Annie. Barkskins. New York: Scribner, 2016.

Robinson, Marilynne. “The Nature of Love.” The Washington Post, June 24, 2007.


Previously in this series: Babette B. Tischleder, "Beating True: Figuring Object Life Beyond Ontology"

Next in this series: David J. Alworth, "Related Things"

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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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