The Nature of Things

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 \r\nAllen


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

How does criticism affect popular culture?

Popularity is slippery, and shouldn't be confused with quality, says critic A.O. Scott.

  • Popularity has a funny way of correcting or reversing itself, says journalist and film critic A.O. Scott. It's a weird and fickle index—never identical to quality, though it can coincide with it.
  • Movies like Avatar that are capitalist consumer hits can fade over time. Meanwhile works that were initially passed over can be dredged out of forgotten corners to glory many years later.
  • Moby Dick is an example of how critics can turn the tide of popularity, for better and for worse. First, critics dismissed Moby Dick and it was forgotten until a resurgence of interest by critics many years later. It's now a staple of American literature.
Keep reading Show less

The Sooner You Expose A Baby To A Second Language, The Smarter They’ll Be

Just hearing two languages helps babies develop cognitive skills before they even speak. Here's how - and how you can help them develop those skills.

Personal Growth

A new study shows that babies raised in bilingual environments develop core cognitive skills like decision-making and problem-solving -- before they even speak.

Keep reading Show less

11 holiday gift ideas for the person impossible to shop for

From coffee makers and headphones to a calming weighted blanket, something here should appeal to just about anyone on your list.

  • Check out 11 awesome holiday gift ideas, each up 75% off.
  • Options include an ultrasonic cleaner, a portable video projector and a weighted blanket.
  • You can save an extra 15% off each item with the coupon code MERRYSAVE15.

  • Keep reading Show less