Want to Learn a Thing or Two?

Then you'll want to learn from Bill Brown, professor of English and the visual arts at the University of Chicago and the creator of "thing theory." What is thing theory? What separates a thing that's worthy of study from a thing that isn't? And if you understand both thing theory and string theory, do you understand the whole universe? Brown covers all these questions, plus a few others, in his Big Think interview.


"Thing theory" turns on the distinction between an object and a thing, the latter being something singled out, considered, even fixated upon, apart from the mundane world of objects around us. And when you think about it, the stories we tell are full of significant objects, from Gatsby's shirts in The Great Gatsby to Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away. And that's to say nothing of the visual arts, where the question of what does and does not constitute an art objecta "thing" worthy of the museumgoer's appreciationhas been a major consideration at least since Duchamp.

At the end of the interview we couldn't help asking Brown about a few of his favorite things. Surprisingly, he doesn't have many—and wonders whether his inability to become attached to material objects might have been what got him into thing theory in the first place.

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