Objects & Things

objects & things, design, art & technology

Bill Brown’s Thing Theory

with 4 comments

One of the exciting aspects of the discourses of objects and things is their diversity. Disciplines seems to be reaching out to one another in new ways, learning from each other, through texts that might otherwise go overlooked, due to differences of method or field. The obvious example is Harman’s engagement with Latour. As another example, in a recent post on Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant discusses Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. And of course there is the work of my colleague Ian Bogost, as he brings together OOO and Digital Media Studies.

The work of Bill Brown is important to include in this growing corpus on objects and things. In 2001 Brown edited an issue of Critical Inquiry on the topic of “Things.” Brown also edited a book entitled Things, which includes essays from Critical Inquiry as well as other essays, bringing together scholars from across the humanities and social sciences.

The open paragraph of Brown’s essay for Critical Inquiry is provocative.

Is there something perverse, if not archly insistent, about complicating
things with theory? Do we really need anything like thing theory the way
we need narrative theory or cultural theory, queer theory or discourse
theory? Why not let things alone? Let them rest somewhere else-in the
balmy elsewhere beyond theory. From there, they might offer us dry
ground above those swirling accounts of the subject, some place of origin
unmediated by the sign, some stable alternative to the instabilities and
uncertainties, the ambiguities and anxieties, forever fetishized by theory.
Something warm, then, that relieves us from the chill of dogged ideation,
something concrete that relieves us from unnecessary abstraction.

Later in the essay Brown states,

If thing theory sounds like an oxymoron, then, it may not be because
things reside in some balmy elsewhere beyond theory but because they
lie both at hand and somewhere outside the theoretical field, beyond a
certain limit, as a recognizable yet illegible remainder or as the entifiable
that is unspecifiable. Things lie beyond the grid of intelligibility the way
mere things lie outside the grid of museal exhibition, outside the order
of objects. If this is why things appear in the name of relief from ideas
(what’s encountered as opposed to what’s thought), it is also why the
Thing becomes the most compelling name for that enigma that can only
be encircled and which the object (by its presence) necessarily negate.

Something about characterizing things as the “illegible remainder or as the entifiable
that is unspecifiable” troubles me. Things are legible – the challenge is how to read them. Or maybe the challenge is not how to “read” them, but how to engage them in some other way, beyond the notions of reading that terms such as “illegible” suggest.

Regardless, Brown’s work is thought-provoking, and too, enjoyable to read.

Now, of course the argument can, and should, be made that there are important distinctions between objects and things (more on that in a later post). Brown himself points to this when he states “…Thing becomes the most compelling name for that enigma that can only be encircled and which the object (by its presence) necessarily negate.” So, the intention here is not to conflate object and things, but rather simply to claim they belong together. They certainly swirl together in Latour.

And Brown’s “Thing Theory” provides us one more way to consider this world of objects and things.


Written by cdisalvo

February 7, 2010 at 2:07 am

Posted in theory

Tagged with ,

4 Responses

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  1. I haven’t read Bill Brown’s texts, so take this with a grain of salt, but from the excerpts cited here, it looks like he may be shying away from objects (in favor of things) because “objects” for him are primarily intentional objects, i.e. tied to subjects. It’s clear that he’s trying to break with what has now come to be called correlationism, so this might explain his terminological choices, with the implication that his thing theory needs even more urgently to be brought into dialogue with object-oriented ontology. Just a thought…


    February 7, 2010 at 8:20 am

  2. @Shane, I’m an pretty certain that you are spot on – for Brown objects are tied to subjects.


    February 7, 2010 at 4:47 pm

  3. I’m completely without context for understanding this, so I don’t know if my thoughts are the same as what Brown is talking about. Nevertheless, as I’ve become a design student and become more invested in the field, I’ve been struck more and more by the incomprehensibility of objects/things. In my courses, we’ve tried to uncover all that makes objects what they are (everything from design styles and culture to economic influences and business practices) and explain how objects come to be–but the more I think about those things, the more impossible it seems to explain how and why objects exist. We can “read” objects as well as we can, but the true, complete cause for an object will always escape us. Is that along the same lines as Brown’s theory?

    I have a background in philosophy, but this whole field is new to me…any suggestions on where to start reading about this, aside from what you linked to?


    February 26, 2010 at 11:37 am

    • @ Dan. The literature on objects is pretty vast. If you are particularly interested in Object Oriented Ontology, I’d suggest you start with the Speculative Realism Aggregator, which was put together by Ian Bogost. Also given your background in design, I’d highly recommend Bogost and Montfort’s book Racing The Beam.


      February 28, 2010 at 2:37 am

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