Big Think Interview With Bill Brown

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Bill Brown: \r\nBill Brown and I’m a professor of English and visual arts at the\r\nUniversity of Chicago.

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Question: When did you first know that you wanted to study\r\nliterature professionally?

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

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Question: On which areas of literature are you currently\r\nfocused?

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

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Question: What does your everyday work as a critic consist\r\nof?

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

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And I would say, a lot of it would relate to the very idea\r\nof slowing down.  That is, I think\r\nif you read something, something famous, say The Great Gatsby, well, it's not\r\nhard to understand, you know?  It's\r\nnot complicated, it's not like a tough poem, but I think in fact if you slow\r\ndown and you start to see what it is that Fitzgerald is doing, constructing\r\ncertain metaphors and deploying and redeploying certain themes as you go\r\nthrough that book, that's how, I think, you realize that in, you know,\r\n100-and-some pages, a very, very short novel, you feel as though you've had a\r\nvery, very big experience.

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Question: What is thing theory?

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Bill Brown: \r\nSure.  I think it, I'm\r\nwilling to define thing theory but only in the broadest terms.  That is, I would say that the work\r\nbeing done that I would constellate under the rubric thing theory is addressing\r\nhow it is that the inanimate object world helps to form and transform human\r\nbeings alike.  So part of that is\r\nto say, how does our material environment shape us?  Part of that is also to talk about the production of value,\r\neconomic value, in Marxist terms, but also various kinds of symbolic\r\nvalue.  So that, I think, most\r\ngenerally.  And I think for\r\ndifferent scholars working in different fields, and there are lots of different\r\nfields in which one might say thing theorists are working, science studies,\r\narcheology, anthropology, literary studies, art history, history, now, they\r\neach particular concerns and I think particular ways of understanding the\r\npresence and power and meaning of objects, but I would say that certainly that\r\nthe thing theorists I know are ultimately are interested in the subject/object\r\nrelation or the human/un-human relation.

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

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

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

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Question: What are some notable examples of object fixations\r\nin literature?

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Bill Brown: \r\nWell, I think there are lots of objects in lots of literary text,\r\nright?  And I think that one of the\r\nreasons why thing theory or object studies, or whatever caption device one\r\nmight want to use, has taken off in the world of literary history, and it has,\r\nand people working in the 18th century and the 19th century, certainly people\r\nworking in Renaissance studies, as well as the 20th century, it's because for\r\nso long, people just didn't look at the objects, and if one can put it that\r\nway.  You know, the objects all are\r\nbackground.  You think about the\r\nsubject, you think about psychology, you might be thinking about the language\r\nof the text, but the environment is pretty much merely the environment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Question: What is “No ideas but in things” an argument\r\nagainst?

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

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

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Question: What is the relationship between objects of\r\nfixation in literature and art?

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

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And artists like that, I think, and not just those artists,\r\nI think really mean to be alerting our attention to other ways that objects\r\nmight be configured, or as I like to put it, or have put it in one essay or\r\nanother, the possibility that the material world might want to be organized\r\nother than the way we've organized it, right?  So that the desire, the denim of your jeans or the cotton of\r\nyour T-shirt, the object of its desire might be to be a different object,\r\nright?  Your T-shirt might actually\r\nwant to be part of a flag, you know, something along those lines.  And I think it's been a very\r\ncontemporary art, and a very powerful conduit, to those sorts of ideas.  And those sorts of ideas,\r\nphilosophically, are very much a part of say, vitalism, I'm thinking of Henri\r\nBergson and then Bergson as re-thought by Deleuze. But it's, I think it's only\r\nin the presence of such art that you really experience some of these\r\nalternatives, or what I'm calling something like the desire, an inanimate\r\nobject world's desire to be reconfigured, to have a different shape,\r\nright?  And right now, around the\r\ncity, around your city, if you look at Orozsco’s work in the MoMA, with\r\nsomething like the yogurt tops on four different walls, or Urs Fischer at the New\r\nMuseum, there's huge aluminum sculptures, I mean, these are all, this is all\r\nwork that is very powerfully, I think, dramatizing the presence of objects and\r\nthe importance of objects, as opposed to say, images.  And I think that, you know, if something happened in the\r\n20th century, it's that image culture ended up trumping object culture.  And we have great theories of image\r\nculture, too, Debord's Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard's Orders of\r\nSimulacra, and we do, I think, also have powerful theories of the object.  But I think that it's really image\r\nculture that got the most attention toward the end of the last century.

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There's also, there's another artist, a Chicago artist,\r\nMarie Krane Bergman, who has for years been doing vast monochrome on canvases\r\nmade up of very, very small sort of hillocks of paint.  And now one of the practices that she's\r\ntaken up is to put paint, acrylic paint, on the floor and then to pick it up\r\nand hang the paint, after it's dried, hang the paint.  So she will do grids, for instance, and hang them up and\r\nthen the grid will sag a bit.  And\r\none of the obvious effects of that work is to make one recognize that, you\r\nknow, paint is never still, you know, paint is always moving.  You know, a 15th century painting, that\r\npaint is still moving, it might be moving very slowly, but it's moving.  And it's also, you know, to my mind, a\r\nfascinating way for painting to be attending to a different material ground,\r\nnot as Greenberg and others would say about flatness, about the shape of the\r\ncanvas, but rather to the paint itself, right?  So now it's just the paint unsupported, as it were supported\r\njust by a nail, that becomes the art object.  But there's another moment where, you know, you really do\r\nexperience with those works, the vitality of paint, even if it's drooping.

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Question: Does thing theory fundamentally originate in the\r\nvisual arts?

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

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

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

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Bill Brown:  Oh,\r\nyeah, absolutely, I understand the universe as a whole.  I know, it's funny, some people will\r\nsay to me, thing theory, what a strange concept, and then I sometimes will say,\r\nwell, of course, thing theory is a kind of a joke.  And people will say, oh, yes, because it's a play on string\r\ntheory, and that's actually not the joke that I mean.  But it's interesting that a bunch of people do, and I'm sure\r\nthat with enough effort, I could actually make that joke really work for a few\r\npeople, and for myself.  The joke\r\nas I understand is much more, oh, surely things are precisely not what is\r\ntheory.  You know, like, oh, gee,\r\none races to the concrete in order to avoid theories, so now, you know, now we\r\nhave to actually have to have thing theory along with all these other theories,\r\nthat for me is more of a joke.

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Question: Has the Internet redefined what a text is for\r\ncritics?

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

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

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

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

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Question: Is the democratization of criticism through\r\nblogging a good or bad thing?

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

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

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

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

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Question: Who were your favorite authors in your early days\r\nas a critic?

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Bill Brown: \r\nRight.  Well, as I said\r\nbefore, I was originally much more interested in poetry than fiction, although\r\nnow I write almost exclusively, although not exclusively, on fiction.  I loved Wallace Stevens, I loved Ezra\r\nPound, I loved Marianne Moore, so the modernist poets.  It took me a while to learn to\r\nappreciate, indeed maybe even love some of the earlier poets, Coleridge, and in\r\nparticular, Wordsworth.

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

\r\n\r\n

Question: Which contemporary authors and works excite you?

\r\n\r\n

Bill Brown: \r\nWell, you know, I have to say that I continue to read, with enormous\r\npleasure, Don DeLillo, and I keep re-reading old Don DeLillo, so, Underworld,\r\nfor instance, you know, I read it, and I keep -- and DeLillo is an object guy,\r\nyou know?  And as somebody who\r\nalso, 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\r\nnovel, there's a great moment in that, early on, about 20 pages in, when the\r\nguy who's name I forget, is wandering through the dust, running away from the\r\nTowers, and then there's description of buildings, of dust, and the dust on the\r\nbuildings, and then there's a line that reads something like, "maybe this\r\nis what things typically look like, maybe this is what things look like when\r\nhuman beings aren't around," you know?  And I remember I had a student who said to me, "Do you\r\nthink DeLillo's been reading your stuff?"  I said, "No, no, I don't think so, but I'm always\r\nreading his stuff."  So, but\r\nin that instance, it was a very, very powerful way of trying to, with a kind of\r\nmicroscopic focus in some sense, of trying to explain what moments like that do\r\nto our apprehension of the object world. \r\nYou know, of its stabilities and instabilities of its symbolic value and\r\nits non-symbolic value.  You know.  So I would certainly say, DeLillo, I\r\nfind 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 \r\nAllen

\r\n

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

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