Bill Brown
Professor of English & Visual Arts at the University of Chicago

String Theory and "Thing Theory"

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The term “thing theory” is a joke, but not a joke about physics.

Bill Brown

Bill Brown is Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor of English and the visual arts at the University of Chicago. His past research has focused on popular literary genres, recreational forms, and the ways that mass-cultural phenomena impress themselves on the literary imagination. He currently studies the intersection of literary, visual, and material cultures. His major theoretical work is in "thing theory," which borrows from Heidegger's object/thing distinction to look the role of objects that have become manifest in a way that sets them apart from the world in which they exist. He edited a special issue of Critical Inquiry on this subject, which won awards for best special issue of an academic journal in 2001. His books include "A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature" (2003).

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.

Recorded on March 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen