Bill Brown
Professor of English & Visual Arts at the University of Chicago
03:59

The Nature of Things

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The critic’s signature "thing theory" is an exploration of how inanimate objects transform us, in art and life.

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).
Transcript

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.

Recorded on March 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen


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