Since we didn’t have much opportunity in our last class to discuss Brown’s “Thing Theory,” I thought I’d post a few potentially useful resources that will help us better grasp not only Brown’s contribution, but also how “thing theory” represents a transition from thinking about things (or, more relevant to our particular interests, media objects) as part of our “material media culture” — something that both emerges from and helps to constitute human culture — toward thinking about things as something that exceeds their relationship to us, to people.
Brown acknowledges that, after Modernity (with a capital ‘M’) supposedly “struck [our objects] dumb,” various artistic movements (e.g., the Constructivists and Surrealists) aimed to rethink objects as playing an active role in “the reshaping of the world,” and sought “greater intimacy with things” (10-11). In more recent years, we’ve seen the rise of “material culture” studies, art history’s new interest in the “return of the real,” and, most recently, “new materialism” — all developments that signal a (renewed) interest in objects. Yet we need to recognize that “although objects typically arrest a poet’s attention, and although the object was what was asked to join the dance in philosophy, things may still lurk in the shadows of the ballroom and continue to lurk there after the subject and object have done their thing, long after the party is over” (3). Long after we, human subjects, have had our way with our objects, things still exist — apart from us.
Things are both materialized objects and something more. They are both (1) “the amorphousness out of which objects are materialized by the (ap)perceiving subject, the anterior physicality of the physical world emerging, perhaps, as an after-effect of the mutual constitution of subject and object” and (2) “what is excessive in objects,… what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects — their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence” (5). Things elude us; we can never know them fully. They lie “beyond the grid of intelligibility” (5). Yet, as many of the other thinkers we’ve met thus far this semester have suggested, we come closest to “confront[ing] the thingness of objects when they stop working for us” (4). When things reach their limits, we have a better sense of what their physical and conceptual boundaries might be.
This is in part why Brown regards Claes Oldenburg’s work as exemplifying the thing. Oldenburg displays, in grand scale and flaccid form, tired, often obsolescent objects. The “abandoned object,” like the typewriter eraser, “attains a new stature precisely because it has no life outside the boundary of art — no life, that is, within our everyday lives. Released from the bond of being equipment, sustained outside the irreversibility of technological history, the object becomes something else”: a thing (15).
 Anthropologist Sev Fowles comments on this ” nostalgia for dirty windows in a hall of mirrors,… for the real lurking in the shadows of its representations. Of course, as Brown notes, it is an impossible desire, one that can only lead to irony, paradox, and playful papers about ‘the pencil, the zipper, the toilet, the banana,’ etc. that aren’t really about these things (as things-in-themselves) at all. Things inexorably slip back into thing theory; material slips back into material culture; and the life of things slips back into the social life of things. All of this rehearses an observation Heidegger made some time ago: the irony that the more we place things before us as objects of contemplation, the more they recede from us as inaccessible things-in-themselves” (“The Perfect Subject: Postcolonial Object Studies”).
Other potentially useful resources:
Brown himself on “Thing Theory”:
William Carlos Williams, “Sort of a Song”
Steven Connor, “Thinking Things”