FEBRUARY 8, 2017
“MATTER” SEEMS TO BE a straightforward idea: it’s the stuff that comprises a rock, a table, a chair. For centuries, some have argued that this stuff is all right there in the world; others have claimed it can be reduced to nothing more than human thought. In recent years, however, dualists — those who, traditionally, define matter against mind or spirit — have found themselves increasingly under siege, while a wave of scholars have challenged the notion that matter is rudimentarily inert. Among such “new materialists,” political theorist Jane Bennett and professor of feminist studies Karen Barad have each advocated for matter’s agency, at least when it combines into assemblages like electrical power grids and apparatuses from scientific experiments to sonograms.
In its efforts to present itself as a genuinely new materialism, however, some of this matter-animating work can overstate its own novelty. While acknowledging predecessors from Henri Bergson to Niels Bohr, new materialism tends to present much recent critical work as insufficiently concerned with the nonhuman, the embodied, or the material. Despite the marked differences between scholars who might identify as new materialists, object-oriented ontologists, immanent naturalists, speculative realists, and post-humanists, these new materialists share a set of general assumptions: they tend to emphasize a contingent ontology or metaphysics over epistemology, reject anthropocentrism (though much of it carves out room for anthropomorphism), and highlight the complexity of matter in all its relational forms and compositions. Much of this work, too, is interested in climate change and the ways contemporary global capitalisms have challenged our understandings of mind/body, nature/society, human/nonhuman, animate/inanimate, and subject/object binaries.
In his latest book Other Things (2015), Bill Brown stakes a claim in just about all of these “new materialist” concerns. He writes about capitalism, the Anthropocene, and globalization. He describes his work in terms of the ontical and draws heavily from the work of object-oriented ontologists, speculative realists, and the French science studies scholar Bruno Latour (a frequent new materialist interlocutor). He avoids taking the old binaries for granted, especially that particular binary relationship between a thing and an object explored in Heidegger’s philosophical work, which elaborates the difference between something that exists “for us” and something that exists “for itself.” For decades now, Brown has been thinking and writing about “thing theory,” as he has called it. But in Other Things, he attempts to make clear the connections between his work and the recent surge of critical work involving things, objects, and matter.
Brown starts Other Things by approaching animate matter through the Shield of Achilles, “Western literature’s most magnificent object,” a metal-crafted thing on which two cities, the City of Peace and the City of War, “come to life.” He writes, “The poem repeatedly clarifies that Achilles’ Shield is at once a static object and a living thing.” This combination suggests an ambiguous ontology “in which the being of the object world cannot so readily be distinguished from the being of animals, say, or the being we call human being.” But in the hands of scholars interested above all in “rhetorical analysis” and especially in ekphrasis, Brown says, such ontological possibilities have been largely ignored, and the shield’s apparent animation has been rendered immobile.
Rather than ignore the shield’s ontology, Brown wants to insert the shield into a “history of animate matter,” where it would anticipate the later vital materialisms of Rodin, Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari, and Bruno Latour, among others. Brown argues that Homer’s poem “does not acknowledge our more modern convictions about the difference between the animate and inanimate, subject and object, persons and things.” In Homer’s world, he says, gods can appear in Troy. They can intervene explicitly in human life. Why, then, should it come as a surprise that a shield wrought of bronze, tin, gold, and silver might vibrate with its own life?
Brown’s interpretation of the shield is a good example of the sort of materialism explored throughout Other Things. What is important to Brown is “the Shield’s thingness, as opposed to its sensible (formed and perceived) objecthood.” This thingness marks the life proper to the shield, an “other thing” (marked by a combination of animacy and inanimacy, by a meaning we can glimpse but never fully comprehend) that exceeds and is irreducible to the object’s form. And though Brown’s ultimate aim is not to develop anything like a complete history of animate matter (after he deals with Achilles’ Shield in his “Overture,” he shifts directly to examples from 1890 to 2010), his analysis of Achilles’ Shield encourages his readers to imagine a longer history than the one ultimately presented here. More than that, though, the example shows us where Brown is willing to go and where he is not. Unlike many other writers talking about the vitality of matter today, Brown makes an ontological argument drawing on the work of a vast array of other writers, filmmakers, philosophers, and artists, from Heidegger and Lacan to Virginia Woolf and Man Ray, from Brian Jungen to Shawn Wong.
Brown’s longstanding interest in this “other thing” (or thingness as distinguished from objecthood) is the book’s driving force. Brown wants, as he puts it, to explore “the force of inanimate objects in human experience” by showing “what literature and the visual and plastic arts have been trying to teach us about our everyday object world: about the thingness that inheres as a potentiality within any object, about the object-event that precipitates the thing.”
His work is a subtle challenge to versions of new materialism that deemphasize or even disparage questions that involve “the real” being given form by language and representation. For those grouped together as new materialists (for example, many writers in the collection The Speculative Turn), the consensus seems to be that structuralism, deconstruction, theories of the subject, and an emphasis on discourse, social construction, image, and text, are all dead ends — whether under the name “critique,” “correlationism,” “anti-realism,” or anything else — along the path toward understanding “the real.” As Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, and Nick Srnicek put it in the context of continental philosophy in their edited collection on speculative realism:
It has long been commonplace within continental philosophy to focus on discourse, text, culture, consciousness, power, or ideas as what constitutes reality. But despite the vaunted anti-humanism of many of the thinkers identified with these trends, […] humanity remains at the centre of these works, and reality appears in philosophy only as the correlate of human thought. In this respect phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism have all been perfect exemplars of the anti-realist trend […]. In the face of the looming ecological catastrophe, and the increasing infiltration of technology into the everyday world (including our own bodies), it is not clear that the anti-realist position is equipped to face up to these developments. The danger is that the dominant anti-realist strain of continental philosophy has not only reached a point of decreasing returns, but that it now actively limits the capacities of philosophy in our time.
For his part, trained as a literary scholar, Brown does not try to mount the attacks on language and discourse or even epistemology that are peppered throughout work of thinkers like Bryant and Harman, though he does take brief shots at structuralism and deconstruction. And his close analyses of various objects allow him to provide more nuance and historical specificity when it comes to discussions of modernism, postmodernism, and continental philosophy — without succumbing to the anthropocentrism that so worries most new materialists.
Brown is careful to temper, too, recent tendencies to undermine the subject. As part of his consideration of thingness, he considers how we distinguish ourselves from those “other things” that are not persons, and how personhood depends on and grows to resemble these other things. For him, doing so involves maintaining the subject-object divide. For thingness is at its core a relationship between subject and object, where the two are not only mutually constitutive, but also mutually animating. For instance, in revealing the thingness of a comb, Man Ray’s photographs explore the relationship between humans and everyday objects; they also help observers imagine a secret life of objects ultimately inaccessible to their understanding. Meanwhile, when Brian Jungen dissects Air Jordans and turns them into authentic-inauthentic Haida masks, he is revealing a certain thingness of both sorts of objects in their relation to various object cultures including primitivism, US commodity culture, the traditional art of the Haida and other indigenous people of the Northwest Coast.
The arts in general, and literature in particular, play a crucial and welcome role in Other Things, shaping what we perceive as animate and inanimate, mattering and not mattering, like and unlike us. The arts are also key to the politics of Brown’s book, which argues that understanding things differently — perceiving them and acknowledging the extent to which they animate us as we animate them — could have political effects. As Brown writes, the arts:
disclose the complications, equivocations, mediations, and possible destinations of any […] democracy, present, past, and future. Literature may indeed be the place where, in Latour’s words “the freedom of agency” — that is, the distribution of agency beyond the human — “can be regained,” but it is also the place where such freedom can be lost — or, most precisely, the place where the dynamics of gaining and losing are especially legible. In other words, literature also portrays the resistances to that freedom and the ramifications of it, be they phenomenological or ontological, psychological or cultural.
Brown makes what is likely the most sophisticated and strongest case for literary and historical study within a new materialist framework by suggesting that thingness can best be explained “in the cultural field,” rather than through, say, metaphysics.
In particular, Brown makes a persistent case for real imaginative and political possibility in objects, or “‘object possibility’: the chance that some thing about an object might mediate persons differently, that difference might glimmer within the object world as though in a crystal ball.” His most favored terms — “misuse value” (the value that comes from using objects in an unexpected way) and “redemptive reification” (a kind of reification that reveals an object’s thingness) — are predicated on this possibility.
Other Things is most lucid when applying such ideas to particular art objects and literary texts: when Brown examines the redemptive reification associated with pottery and handcrafted jewelry in Philip K. Dick’s novels, the object possibility in the “black collectibles” found in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, the misuse value of a piece of glass in Virginia Woolf’s short story “Solid Objects,” or the ability of postmodern artworks to help us imagine an “unhuman history” that may include humans but is not anthropocentric.
In these moments, Brown reveals nuance and historical specificity that bolster a kind of new materialism that can sometimes play too fast and loose with its predecessors. Even if I admire this generosity and rigor of thought, however, it is up to us to decide whether we believe — as Brown says he does — in the power of thingness (or, more specifically, the power of our recognizing thingness) to transform life as we know it.