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

\r\n

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

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

Videos
  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less