Big Think Interview With Bill Brown

A conversation with the professor of English and visual arts at the University of Chicago.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Bill Brown:  Bill Brown and I’m a professor of English and visual arts at the University of Chicago.

Question: When did you first know that you wanted to study literature professionally?

Bill Brown:  I think I probably recognized that I was going to be something like a literary critic when I started to be conscious of the fact that I read very slowly, you know?  Which is really to say that if I'm reading narrative prose fiction, I tend to read it more like poetry, so I read a sentence and think about a sentence.  And which is, I have to tell you, a huge handicap if you end up being a literary critic, because you have to read lots and lots.  But I think it was probably that, a certain sense of being interested in the lines of prose that made me think that, you know, there was really something to explore, whether it had to do with the rhythm, the symbolism, the tropology, something along those lines.  And I also have to say that I imagine even when I was a kid I was pretty convinced I would be an English teacher.

Question: On which areas of literature are you currently focused?

Bill Brown:  Mostly I work on 19th and 20th century American literature.  Sometimes I do English literature, I have an essay on Virginia Woolf, for instance.  Sometimes a little bit of French literature and increasingly, I also attend to the visual arts.

Question: What does your everyday work as a critic consist of?

Bill Brown: I think it's trying to explain how, both what and how a given text, either discursive or visual, means and by the, what it means and the how it means, I could very well be asking questions that are eventually going to be historically grounded, or with a historical context, which makes a given poem make sense, right?  Or geographical context, how is it that this should, you know, German artist in 1950 was using these materials, that, you know, happened to be outside of Berlin, that kind of thing.

And I would say, a lot of it would relate to the very idea of slowing down.  That is, I think if you read something, something famous, say The Great Gatsby, well, it's not hard to understand, you know?  It's not complicated, it's not like a tough poem, but I think in fact if you slow down and you start to see what it is that Fitzgerald is doing, constructing certain metaphors and deploying and redeploying certain themes as you go through that book, that's how, I think, you realize that in, you know, 100-and-some pages, a very, very short novel, you feel as though you've had a very, very big experience.

Question: What is thing theory?

Bill Brown:  Sure.  I think it, I'm willing to define thing theory but only in the broadest terms.  That is, I would say that the work being done that I would constellate under the rubric thing theory is addressing how it is that the inanimate object world helps to form and transform human beings alike.  So part of that is to say, how does our material environment shape us?  Part of that is also to talk about the production of value, economic value, in Marxist terms, but also various kinds of symbolic value.  So that, I think, most generally.  And I think for different scholars working in different fields, and there are lots of different fields in which one might say thing theorists are working, science studies, archeology, anthropology, literary studies, art history, history, now, they each particular concerns and I think particular ways of understanding the presence and power and meaning of objects, but I would say that certainly that the thing theorists I know are ultimately are interested in the subject/object relation or the human/un-human relation.

Question: What separates an ordinary object from a “thing” worthy of critical study?

Bill Brown:  Right.  Well, and I wouldn't necessarily want to say in literature, and maybe just in the world, right?  But I think it depends on how you or I want to differentiate between an object and a thing.  And I do sort of strongly and adamantly, for me it's sort of axiomatic in my work, but not everyone does.  But in my work, I understand objects to be, in some sense, what we don't notice.  You know, you pick up a glass of water, do you notice the glass?  And probably not.  Do you notice the water in the glass?  Probably not, you're doing this while you're doing something else.  But I would say that the thing-ness of objects becomes palpable or visible or in some sense knowable, where there's an interruption within that circuit, the sort of, the circuit whereby we, you know, float, as we do, through objects.

And so it's when objects become excessive one way or another, and I think one way is certainly that they break, right?  You go to pick up the glass and it breaks in your hand, suddenly you notice it and you notice lots about it.  It's at that moment, I would say, that that object becomes a thing.  But I would also want to say that if you're using a glass and you suddenly recognize, oh, this is a glass that your grandmother owned, and so it has a certain kind of value because of its, the genealogy of its use, that also to me would be a kind of thing-ness, right?  So on the one hand, something that's very physical, on the other hand, something that's very metaphysical, but in both instances, a real retardation of our interaction with the object.  We're stopping, right?  We're stopping because we broke the glass or we're stopping because the glass has, in some sense, broken our habits of use.

Question: What are some notable examples of object fixations in literature?

Bill Brown:  Well, I think there are lots of objects in lots of literary text, right?  And I think that one of the reasons why thing theory or object studies, or whatever caption device one might want to use, has taken off in the world of literary history, and it has, and people working in the 18th century and the 19th century, certainly people working in Renaissance studies, as well as the 20th century, it's because for so long, people just didn't look at the objects, and if one can put it that way.  You know, the objects all are background.  You think about the subject, you think about psychology, you might be thinking about the language of the text, but the environment is pretty much merely the environment.

And Roland Barthes wrote a very famous essay called The Reality Effect, in which his claim is that all the detail, in especially say, Balzac's fiction, is there just to convince us that it's all real, right?  It's insignificant.  And so part of the literary critical task has been to actually try to add substance to all of that detail.  The substance can be actually trying to figure out what a given dresser might have looked like, what it might have meant symbolically within a certain cultural moment, so that's all still just general.  As far as a specific instance goes, different objects, you know, mean differently, right?  So, I think an obvious example, to get back to Gatsby, would be Daisy and Gatsby's shirts, right?  When she says, "These shirts, what beautiful, beautiful shirts," what's her fixation there, right?  And it really does seem to be a fetishization of the objects, right?  And it doesn't seem as though, this is about Gatsby, the human subject, it seems to be about shirts as an exquisite bits of fabrication.

To work very much within the same time period, but at a different country, Virginia Woolf has a very short story called Solid Objects, and it's about a guy who's on a beach and he finds a piece of sand glass, and he goes kind of nuts.  I mean, it drives him to start trying to collect objects, but objects that correspond vaguely with the bit of sand glass, but not completely.  And so it would seem, and both of these cases are cases where the novels obviously mean for us to be attending to these objects.  But it's a very different kind of cathexis and it's not really about that object so much, it's more about, at least finally as I read that story, it's more about getting in touch with something like un-human history, with the history of the earth, rather than the history of humankind.

So I would think of those as two ready-to-hand examples.

Question: Does the literary use of “things” become especially relevant or self-conscious during Modernism?

Bill Brown:  I think maybe special self-consciousness, yes.  I mean, that is to say, if you're reading, if you go back to the beginning of the English novel, if you're in, say, Robinson Crusoe, objects are, you know, hugely important.  In many respects, the objects from the ship that washed ashore save Crusoe.  Right?  Without those objects, he wouldn't be able to survive and he interacts with them in very powerful ways.  And there's a charming, I forget the name of that film, with Tom Hanks in it, that is a Robinson Crusoe-like film, with Wilson, the volleyball that ends up being, you know, personified?  But that story, that story of objects actually saving human subjects who are stranded, is obviously powerful enough to move from the 18th to the 20th century.

So I think what does happen within the Modernist period is yes, lots of writers do become more self-conscious about objects, certainly William Carlos Williams famously writes, "No ideas but in things," and writes that more than once.  And I think that there are a couple of issues within Modernism.  One is a desire, and it's probably an insatiable desire, but a desire nonetheless, to actually somehow or another, apprehend the thing itself, something that's unmediated, something that is not clouded by metaphor or by language, is there some way of making contact with an object to the degree that we might say, oh, that's the thing itself.  Probably not, but that's certainly a will expressed variously in modernism, Fernando Pessoa, Wallace Stevens, in his way, William Carlos Williams.

Another way is less to imagine that we need to get to the thing itself or have immediate access to the object and more about, and this is very much via William Carlos Williams, more being convinced that meaning does reside in small things, right?  So I'm thinking of, we have great miniaturists within American poetry, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, at times, and these are over and over again, I think poets who mean to talk about the magnitude of the world within the miniature.

Question: What is “No ideas but in things” an argument against?

Bill Brown:  Right, right.  Well, a couple of things I would say.  “No ideas but in things” means, to begin with, that Williams does not want poetry that is just sort of mere ideas, mere philosophizing, mere romanticism, say, that isn't grounded in the object world, right?  That's one thing.

The other would be, no ideas but in things, allows the things to actually be grounding the ideas, versus having, you know, the ideas ground the things, if you know what I mean.  So I think it's a sort of reversing priorities.

Question: What is the relationship between objects of fixation in literature and art?

Bill Brown:  Right.  Well, I would, let me answer that, maybe let me avoid that question, perhaps, right?  Because I think that what has become increasingly clear at the end of the 20th century is how much 20th century art is trying to teach us about objects and about object culture, which is to say about how objects make meaning, how objects make meaning for us. And I think right now, certainly in the contemporary art world, there is so much installation work, largely I'm thinking of Tara Donovan's incredible styrofoam cups which end up looking like clouds because they’re glued together, a lot of refabrication.  Or **** production of these object ecology, so it's, you know, toothpicks, Q-tips, and scraps of this, and then the other thing, and they end up being this sort of cosmos.

And artists like that, I think, and not just those artists, I think really mean to be alerting our attention to other ways that objects might be configured, or as I like to put it, or have put it in one essay or another, the possibility that the material world might want to be organized other than the way we've organized it, right?  So that the desire, the denim of your jeans or the cotton of your T-shirt, the object of its desire might be to be a different object, right?  Your T-shirt might actually want to be part of a flag, you know, something along those lines.  And I think it's been a very contemporary art, and a very powerful conduit, to those sorts of ideas.  And those sorts of ideas, philosophically, are very much a part of say, vitalism, I'm thinking of Henri Bergson and then Bergson as re-thought by Deleuze. But it's, I think it's only in the presence of such art that you really experience some of these alternatives, or what I'm calling something like the desire, an inanimate object world's desire to be reconfigured, to have a different shape, right?  And right now, around the city, around your city, if you look at Orozsco’s work in the MoMA, with something like the yogurt tops on four different walls, or Urs Fischer at the New Museum, there's huge aluminum sculptures, I mean, these are all, this is all work that is very powerfully, I think, dramatizing the presence of objects and the importance of objects, as opposed to say, images.  And I think that, you know, if something happened in the 20th century, it's that image culture ended up trumping object culture.  And we have great theories of image culture, too, Debord's Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard's Orders of Simulacra, and we do, I think, also have powerful theories of the object.  But I think that it's really image culture that got the most attention toward the end of the last century.

There's also, there's another artist, a Chicago artist, Marie Krane Bergman, who has for years been doing vast monochrome on canvases made up of very, very small sort of hillocks of paint.  And now one of the practices that she's taken up is to put paint, acrylic paint, on the floor and then to pick it up and hang the paint, after it's dried, hang the paint.  So she will do grids, for instance, and hang them up and then the grid will sag a bit.  And one of the obvious effects of that work is to make one recognize that, you know, paint is never still, you know, paint is always moving.  You know, a 15th century painting, that paint is still moving, it might be moving very slowly, but it's moving.  And it's also, you know, to my mind, a fascinating way for painting to be attending to a different material ground, not as Greenberg and others would say about flatness, about the shape of the canvas, but rather to the paint itself, right?  So now it's just the paint unsupported, as it were supported just by a nail, that becomes the art object.  But there's another moment where, you know, you really do experience with those works, the vitality of paint, even if it's drooping.

Question: Does thing theory fundamentally originate in the visual arts?

Bill Brown:  I think it's, I think there are certainly arguments to be made that say that visual artists have been playing with it for a long time.  I think also philosophers have been playing with it for a long time, poets have been playing with it for a long time.  And I think one of the points that I've tried to make and certainly tried to make in a little essay called “Thing Theory,” is not that thing theory is something that is new, it's rather that newly we need to look back at now say the 20th century and recognize that lots of different artists, different philosophers, different writers, were, in fact, trying to conceptualize objects themselves or objects in relation to one another, and object's relations to humans.  Duchamp is a very good choice, an interesting choice because if you take the “Fountain,” the urinal, some art historians will say, you know, in some sense, the object is beside the point, that it is really, because the real, the real chutzpah of that act is as an act, right?  And the point of it is really about the power of the artist as auteur: I call this art, so it's art, right?

But other people, and I'm thinking in particular of the art historian Wanda Corn, have spent a great deal of time talking about the specificity of the urinal and the French fascination with US porcelain at the time and with modern bathrooms, so it sort of depends on how you look at that.  But certainly whatever Duchamp is trying to do, if he takes a urinal or a bottle rack, or a bicycle wheel that is an everyday object and declares it to be art, whatever he wants people to do, people are going to be newly attending to the urinal, the bicycle rack, the bicycle wheel, right?  And I think, and that really returns to the temporality of all of this.  Because if you take the, Orozco’s yogurt tops, right?  Four of them on four walls, what's he doing by doing that?  Well, one of the things he's doing is just getting us to look at the yogurt top, right?  It's no longer something we're peeling off, it's now sitting against a wall hanging, against a wall.  And it is that slow temporality, that retardation, which makes any -- can make, I think, any everyday object into a work of art, right?  I'll grant you, it probably depends on something else, but it always depends on that.

Question: If you understand both “thing theory” and string theory, do you understand the whole universe?

Bill Brown:  Oh, yeah, absolutely, I understand the universe as a whole.  I know, it's funny, some people will say to me, thing theory, what a strange concept, and then I sometimes will say, well, of course, thing theory is a kind of a joke.  And people will say, oh, yes, because it's a play on string theory, and that's actually not the joke that I mean.  But it's interesting that a bunch of people do, and I'm sure that with enough effort, I could actually make that joke really work for a few people, and for myself.  The joke as I understand is much more, oh, surely things are precisely not what is theory.  You know, like, oh, gee, one races to the concrete in order to avoid theories, so now, you know, now we have to actually have to have thing theory along with all these other theories, that for me is more of a joke.

Question: Has the Internet redefined what a text is for critics?

Bill Brown: Well, I would say it may not be redefining what a text is, but it certainly is generating lots of different conduits to a text, right?  For the time being, I'm going to make texts something that is more virtual than actual, so that any actualization of it, even if the actualization is virtual, if you will, isn't quite the text, right?  So, by which I mean to say, this is going to be long-winded, that the text, so if you take a Victorian novel, Dickens' Great Expectations, it is true that that is a different reading experience if you read it in a handy dandy Penguin paperback, versus if you read it serialized when it originally appeared in England, or serialized when it appeared in the US, when it was then illustrated, different also from the experience of somebody reading a Braille edition, different from somebody reading it online, right?  But we're still, most of us, I think, not some of the book historians maybe, but most of us are willing to say, that we're all reading Great Expectations, right?  And so that's the, and so I want to say we're all reading that text, even though they're in these many different manifestations of text.  And that's my long-winded response.

I think that it could be, I don't know, but it could be that literary critics will be the last constituency to recognize how vastly reading practices have changed.  Just because I think many of us, when we're teaching literature, still do teach books in like book format, like a bunch of paperbacks, that doesn't mean that we don't recognize that our own research has changed considerably and that our student's research has changed considerably, but I think that at least most of my friends in the profession still are very attracted to books as books, to the physicality of them, to the materiality of them.

One of the recent sub-fields within not just literary studies, but also within history, has been the history of the book, a tremendous amount of work and fascinating work.  Certainly one can imagine that the impulse to be writing the history of the book has everything to do with an inevitable disappearance of the book, or maybe not inevitable disappearance of the book, but with, you know, or experienced, or willed unconsciously, as it were, I mean, this is the sort of thing just happens.  I would say the same thing about thing theory more broadly speaking, that is surely a bunch of scholars in lots of different fields who are newly interested in the power of physical objects or interested in materiality, surely, in part, that must be understood as it responds to the digitization of everything, as some people would say.  And there are, well, there is one, there is an archeologist, Colin Renfrew, in England, who really demonizes digital technology and talks about the way it is virtualizing the real world and there's a lovely sentence of his that ends, "all that is left is the smile on the Cheshire cat," right?  I think that's overdramatized and I keep liking to believe, or liking to say, that we're experiencing a kind of melodrama of besieged materiality, that is everybody imagines that the material world is disappearing.  But you know, if you look around, there's still lots of objects to touch, it turns out that whatever computers are doing, they're not quite making the world disappear.  They are certainly mediating the world very differently from the way it was mediated in the past.  And I do think that they've had a powerful effect on scholarly interests, right?

And I think right now, this is getting back to this broad, big question of, why thing theory now?  Why an interest in materiality now?  Why object studies now?  I supposed the obvious thing to say would be to say that it could very well be the case that our most precious object, the earth, is dying, right?  And so that doesn't mean that there is a green dimension to all of this scholarship, but rather that in some cultural unconscious, it could be that it is in fact this recognition that this object that we're all sitting on may have a shorter lifespan than we thought, might very well be part of the drive.

Question: Is the democratization of criticism through blogging a good or bad thing?

Bill Brown:  I think the democratization of criticism for the most part is a great thing, I mean, I think blogs are a great way of making a different kind of public sphere in which literature say, or art, is part of a bigger, longer, in some sense, more complex, certainly much more rapid conversation.  There are certainly downsides to it and I think one of the problems with digital access to information in general, and lots of people have said this, is it's difficult to know, especially it's difficult to know for the people not in a given field, the validity of the information that they're in the midst of sifting through.

But that aside, I think, you know, somebody starting a blog on Great Gatsby and saying, okay, let's now have a conversation about, let's take and meditate a moment about the fact that Gatsby's father, when Gatsby is dead, comes back to Gatsby's house, and rather than looking at the house, looks at the photograph of the house that his son gave him, right?  So let's see a sort of conversation about that on a blog, that's wonderful.  You know, I mean, the fact that then lots of people inside and outside universities and high school might want to participate is wonderful.  And one can only hope that part of what's happening is that that particular moment in that particular novel is being thought with a much greater degree of concentration than it typically is.

You know, but I also do sometimes think, oh, well, is everybody's time going to be spent tweeting and blogging?  I mean, it's just, I mean, and what will happen to the book of literary criticism?  You know?  I mean, you were obviously talking about books such as, like a book of poetry or a novel, but it's certainly increasingly difficult to believe that you will actually have books like the books that I've written appear in book form.  And I was, the last time I was in New York, I was up at the Bard Graduate Center for design in the study of material culture and it was a symposium that was for a bunch of editors for a new book series that Harvard is doing, the University, at present, Harvard is doing, fascinating group of scholars, all of whom work on the material world in powerful ways, one person on textiles, one person on climate change in the 11th century.  But this is a book series that is going to be exclusively digital and universal access, right?  So the irony of that, that this book series entitled, The Cultural Histories of the Material World, is going to have a very, you know, different material manifestation than the sort of manifestations that are going to be part of the project.  It's powerful, I'm delighted that Harvard is taking it on and it strikes me as a very, very important publishing ambition that they have.  But it definitely means that the academy as we know it, the academy as I've inhabited, is going to disappear, something else will happen, and it's very difficult to know what.  Very difficult to know how you assess blogs, you know?

And in the world of art criticism, I mean, I don't know, I read probably more art criticism online than I do literary criticism, and it's difficult to know how to think about that in relation to reading your art criticism in art form as a magazine, right?  And I certainly miss some of the magazines that have left the world and miss some of the newspapers.  So it is a very strange moment, it's a very strange moment.

Question: Who were your favorite authors in your early days as a critic?

Bill Brown:  Right.  Well, as I said before, I was originally much more interested in poetry than fiction, although now I write almost exclusively, although not exclusively, on fiction.  I loved Wallace Stevens, I loved Ezra Pound, I loved Marianne Moore, so the modernist poets.  It took me a while to learn to appreciate, indeed maybe even love some of the earlier poets, Coleridge, and in particular, Wordsworth.

And then I would say, like when I was in graduate school, or maybe right before I was in graduate school, I became very interested in deconstruction.  So in some sense, what some people would call this as facile, but what some people might call the antithesis of what I do now, to the degree that deconstruction is very interested in the language of literature being interested in language, and in the rhetoricity of the alt language and the impossibility of making meaning, things along those lines.  Also psychoanalysis, but I would say deconstruction and the best of the deconstructors, I mean, Derrida and Paul De Man, and I still read their work, I still teach their work, and still find it quite moving, even though, I myself have moved a very, very different direction, although I just finished writing an essay in which, and it's a very short essay, called Textual Materialism, but it ends up being about, it wasn't meant to be, but it ends up being about something like book history on the one hand, all about objects, the materiality of the book, about other things too, but certainly about that, and deconstruction, which would seem to be its antithesis, and yet, Derrida always deployed the master tropes of what one might call book history.  And he was interested in the fold, the margin, the, he was interested in paper.  And in some of the later essays, he talks about deconstruction, about his own practice of deconstruction, as of course, always having a great deal to do with the history of paper, which he says at a certain point, one always knew it was going to be a short history, meaning that, you know, we're in the process right now of moving on from paper.

Question: Which contemporary authors and works excite you?

Bill Brown:  Well, you know, I have to say that I continue to read, with enormous pleasure, Don DeLillo, and I keep re-reading old Don DeLillo, so, Underworld, for instance, you know, I read it, and I keep -- and DeLillo is an object guy, you know?  And as somebody who also, I think, has a great deal to say about waste, right?  About the different states of objects.  And in Falling Man, the very short 9/11 novel, there's a great moment in that, early on, about 20 pages in, when the guy who's name I forget, is wandering through the dust, running away from the Towers, and then there's description of buildings, of dust, and the dust on the buildings, and then there's a line that reads something like, "maybe this is what things typically look like, maybe this is what things look like when human beings aren't around," you know?  And I remember I had a student who said to me, "Do you think DeLillo's been reading your stuff?"  I said, "No, no, I don't think so, but I'm always reading his stuff."  So, but in that instance, it was a very, very powerful way of trying to, with a kind of microscopic focus in some sense, of trying to explain what moments like that do to our apprehension of the object world.  You know, of its stabilities and instabilities of its symbolic value and its non-symbolic value.  You know.  So I would certainly say, DeLillo, I find very, very powerful.

Question: What are a few of your favorite things? 

Bill Brown: Right, what are a few of my favorite things? This is an ongoing question that I have, it's an ongoing question that I pose to my therapist and my therapist poses to me, which really does have to do with whether or not I write about things because I, myself, care deeply about them, or whether I write about things because I see other people caring about them and I'm trying to figure it out. So is it, is my writing about things therapeutic or does it serve some other function? A few of my favorite things, you know, I would say that there certainly objects in which I take great pleasure, but mostly, I'm a failed collector, by which I mean, I really tried, so, stereoscopes, for instance, right, and stereoviews. Early 20th century, I've got three of those, somebody gave me one, I thought, "That's cool," bought another one, bought another one, bought some stereoviews, that's as far as I got, and, you know, if anybody wants to make it happen, because it just, and I thought, those would be great, you put them on a shelf and to me it just seemed like, they seemed like dust collectors, and I never find myself spending more time with them. And that's not the only instance, I mean, I have tried to be some sort of a collector and I'm just not. It's like one of those people who, you know, always gets a chess set because people think you love chess sets, but it turns out you never wanted chess sets, but you now have a big bunch of them. So it could be that my writing about things is my effort to figure out my absence of cathexis on objects, that could be, too. But it's not as though I don't, I mean, I do like, love the material world. I like beautiful furniture, I like beautiful houses, clothes, and things like that. But that's different from being possessed by possessions the way I think most people are who are in some sense normal, that is, I think that it's a normal relation to have to the object world.

Recorded on March 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen