Some Preliminary Thoughts on Thing-Theory
Reading Thing Theory, I was struck by Brown’s assertion that things were both “semantically reducible” to objects and, simultaneously, “semantically irreducible” to objects (Brown, 3). What I took this to mean was that the Thing, as we use the word, both refers to a specific Object (for instance a table or a chair) and refers beyond the Object itself (referring to its presence in a space and absence from another space, for one, or the Thinghood — this is a Thing that shares a Thinglike quality with other things — of the specific Object). Things, Brown argues, confront us when they stop working for us.
(Emphasis on stop and not for — things, as he envisions them, do not work against us. We know this because we have built a whole theory around Things, and it serves us. Could things work against us?)
Sometimes things call our attention to them by falling on our heads, or making us trip, or by being turned into art and installed against a white wall. But even this notion anthropomorphizes the Thing into something that desires Human attention and Human thought and conception. What if things didn’t care? Or, what if we were the ones calling for Thing-attention?
In The Force of Things, Jane Bennett writes an entire book on things and thing-power. I have yet to finish the book, but we read the introduction for class. I liked how Bennett focused not only on the Thing, but the Thing in Space and its Relation to Us. She highlights the folly of imagining humans as knowing beings, instead focusing on the recalcitrance of things — between the absoluteness of thinghood and the depth of “capaciousness (vibrant matter)” (Bennett, 3). That, along with “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate” (6).
I’m more interested in that first point of the recalcitrance of things. What are they recalcitrant against? Meaning, human understandability, reduction. They want to exist as things and somehow that is larger than any objective existence. As I’m typing this, I’m looking at a Polly Pocket shaped like a unicorn pinata. A Polly Pocket is a thing that defines, quite firmly, a space full of things. In other words, thing becomes space/environment/time/world. All meaning that is essential to the Polly Pocket is contained within it.
And yet, doesn’t the outside matter? Does a plastic unicorn faux-pinata hold any meaning without human interpretation? Do things lose some essential quality — essence — by being just Things and not objects to our human subjects? And yet — when my niece plays with her Polly Pocket, she neither understands nor cares for unicorn pinatas without an adult telling her it’s a unicorn pinata. Whatever meaning we ascribe to things is essentially inessential. Who cares that she’s never seen a unicorn or a pinata before? Its essence is in being a Thing that exists. Meaning doesn’t matter.
What is thing-power? Both Brown and Bennett point to the fetishization of theory, subject, image/word — the fetishization of relational meaning. The power of the Polly Pocket is that it is a world within itself, cut off from all meaning or relation to the outside world. Its power lies not in the subject that purchases or plays with it, but in its pure vibrancy as matter. What matters is not that it captivates us, but that it doesn’t need us. And such a theorizing of things is itself so captivating that we dive, headfirst, into it. Some other questions I’m considering:
- Are humans things? In our subalterns and subject-object relations, what subversive power do thing-humans hold? I think a good place to look could be Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism, perhaps?
- Is absence equally powerful as presence in Thinghood? It’s not simply that some absences (like a mousehole in the wall) signify presence, but that they assert powerful shapes, too. I think here of Marie Kondo and minimalist material culture, as well as the claim to the serenity of a clean, un-messy space.