Jan. 9, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 7

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    Examination of things wins kudos for University journal

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    [critical inquiry]
    Last month, the University’s Critical Inquiry received the award for Best Special Issue of a scholarly journal at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Bill Brown, the George M. Pullman Professor in English Language & Literature and the College, was the guest editor for the winning issue, entitled Things, which he introduced with an essay on “thing” theory.

    “Theory in general in the last couple of decades has been overwhelmingly concerned with the subject and with the culture of images. Lots of attention has been paid to theories of the gaze–how our ideas of people, and ourselves, are formed in moments of looking, how that act constructs the human subject,” explained Brown. So, why theorize things? Why, as he asks in his introduction, not just let them be? “The idea is that our material environment merits the kind of attention that the image has received, that identities of ethnicity or gender have received–and that the material environment can’t be vaporized so easily by deconstruction, by an anti-materialist epistemology or any other theoretical agenda.”

    Brown explains that the point is not to run away from theory, but rather to challenge and inform it with the closeness of the ever-present physical world, a task this Critical Inquiry issue performs by kicking off with an essay by Sidney Nagel, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and the College.

    Perhaps better-known for his contributions to problems of nonlinear and disordered phenomena in macroscopic systems, Nagel examines in his essay a photograph of a single drop of fluid, exposing a sort of poetics of “the violence taking place beneath the surface . . . as the fluid becomes two separate drops.” This meditation leads into a study of “Descartes’ Geometry as Spiritual Exercise,” which is followed by a provocative piece on the hidden relationship between poetry and the physical sciences as two ways to render something concrete. This article is followed by one describing the strange power of gloves in Renaissance Europe, an early chapter in the history of commodity fetishism.

    “Everybody has had a different favorite essay in the issue, and these examples make it especially clear that this isn’t just a social science or a humanist question or a hard science question,” said Brown. “There’s a really big range of disciplines here–historians, literary critics, physicists, anthropologists are all drawn in. Within each one of those fields there’s a new kind of attention to objects emerging.”

    Brown said bringing theory down to earth makes it more interesting: “It’s not just an empirical, positivistic ground to which you can comfortably turn when you need it. I think thing theory–theoretical attention to the physical object world in general–will do its most productive work if it simultaneously addresses the material world and recognizes ‘materiality’ as a conceptual problem.

    “The usual approach to material culture presumes that if there’s an 18th-century spoon we’re studying, then it’s an 18th-century spoon, and that’s all it is, as opposed to asking historical and philosophical questions the spoon might provoke–why is it the shape it is? Why this and not something else? (A fork is more interesting than a spoon in this case.) Not on behalf of making it disappear, but to look at the conditions of its appearance and the ways it supports or interrupts our lives.

    “Attention to the discursive construction of the physical world doesn’t acknowledge how our material world perpetually trips us up. Things don’t work right; you slam the car door on your fingers, the computer won’t turn on, you end up cutting things with a knife because you can’t find the scissors–these things necessarily shape us,” explained Brown.

    “What’s interesting is what might precede or interrupt our usual ways of being– objects become things when our habits, and whatever we’ve internalized as custom, fail to make things operate as they’re supposed to–then there is access to a new understanding of ourselves and our physical environment.”

    Brown said this new impulse in theory is not so new at all. In the first decades of the last century, such social observers as Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel, and surrealist artist Andr» Breton, already were fascinated by things as problems. He said the avenues they explored also went far beyond a mere condemnation of materialism.

    “The idea that we live in consumer culture, like the talk about consumer desire and commodity fetishism, does not even begin to explain the human attraction to objects and our psychological investment in them. In my field, the United States, 1870-1930, there’s a whole cultural history of this period that has focused on the rise of consumerism.” Brown noted such influential books as Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture by William Leach and Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America by T.J. Jackson Lears.

    “It strikes me that this work never quite gets at the kind of investment humans will make in particular objects, the kind of fetishisms that are irreducible to fetishism-as-usual, whether erotic or economic. If fetishism is in part just granting objects animate autonomy, we do this all the time. We feel as though the toaster is after us, and we scream at objects as though they’re responsible, when we seem to know they’re not.”