I’m interested in writing an essay on Thing Theory (Bill Brown’s confusing brain child written in 2001), and the way it connects to the Palestinian love, and alienation from, their land in the poem, To My Mother by Mahmoud Darwesh.
So these are my ongoing notes – there, you have been warned – this will be confusing!
So the first thing I need to do is define what each term is (and try not to use the words ‘thing’ or ‘object’ arbitrarily for the duration of this post).
This is how Brown sees an ‘object’:
‘As they circulate through our lives we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we can only catch a glimpse of things. We look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts.‘ (Brown 4)
So from this what I gather is that an ‘object’ is something that we can overlook in everyday life, or use to interpret other things. In order to be able to overlook these ‘objects’ we must be pretty confident that they are definite and to a certain degree, unchanging.
Alright, so those are some primary definitions for an object – but wait! It changes! Brown then goes on to say:
‘We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.’ (Brown 4)
So now we have some limitations on the ‘object’ – they are only called such for as long as they work in the way that we expect them to. If at any point their function is compromised, they cease to be that definite, unchanging ‘object’. But there’s more – it’s not actually about the object at all! So Brown here says that what is really important is how we see the object, and the established relationship we have with it – not the object itself. What the object really is, is the relationship itself. Okay, so this is now a great deal less concrete and is all up in the air.
Let’s recap: An ‘object’ actually refers to a relationship with individual things that we take for granted and that we assume is definite and unchanging. But the moment we begin to consider that very relationship, perhaps the way it has changed or isn’t functioning as expected, it ceases to be an ‘object.’
So what does it become? Does the terminology suddenly become more clear? No. An ‘object’ becomes a ‘thing’. Yay.
So what is a ‘thing’? Oh boy.
On the one hand, then, the thing baldly encountered. On the other, some thing not quite apprehended. (Brown 5)
Okay, so this isn’t exactly a promising start. He says that ‘things’ are definitely something that we encounter, but also something that we don’t fully understand.
Let’s just move on…
Could you clarify this matter of things by starting again and imagining them, first, as the amorphousness out of which objects are materialized by the (ap)perceiving subject, the anterior physicality of the physical world emerging, perhaps, as an aftereffect of the mutual constitution of subject and object, a retroprojection? (Brown 9)
Oh God. Alright.
So firstly, he asks us to consider ‘things’ as an something undefined that we, the subject, have a conscious perception of, and out of this is born the ‘object‘. So it is the previous (‘anterior,’) form of the ‘object,’ yet one that we don’t notice until there is an established relationship between us and the ‘object‘.
Question: Apparently, we don’t know that something is a ‘thing’ until there is an established relationship between us (the subject), and the ‘object’, (the relationship that we have with individual items which we deem fixed). But if we only know about the ‘thingness’ after we have established the ‘object’, doesn’t that mean that they exist at the same time, and that we are aware of them both at the same time? Doesn’t that mean that they cancel each other out?
Okay, that’s definitely an issue, but I haven’t yet examined the word, ‘physicality.’ So physicality, means: ‘The fact, state, or condition of being physical (as opposed to mental, spiritual, etc.)’ (OED definition). BUT, physicality is also defined as: ‘The awareness of the body or of bodily sensation; a bodily function or experience. Also: the quality of being physically demanding; physical intensity; strong physical presence or appeal’ (OED). So, rather than the ‘anterior physicality’, or the ‘thing,’ meaning something purely physical, it makes sense that what it actually means is the awareness of the object.
Let’s go further to see more of what I mean:
You could imagine things, second, as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects-their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems. Temporalized as the before and after of the object, thingness amounts to a latency (the not yet formed or the not yet formable) and to an excess (what remains physically or metaphysically irreducible to objects). But this temporality obscures the all-at-onceness, the simultaneity, of the objecuthing dialectic and the fact that, all at once, the thing seems to name the object just as it is even as it names some thing else. (Brown 5)
Okay, so the ‘thing’ is the presence of the ‘object’: it is more than the physical form of the discussed item, instead it is everything outside of the established relationship, that may exist at the same time as the established relationship, but may also change our perception of the relationship.
So let’s see if we can sum up:
An ‘object': is the relationship we have with the item or the ‘discussed’ (sorry, trying to avoid the ‘O’ and ‘T’ words). It is only solely an ‘object’ so long as the relationship never changes which would cause us to consider it in more detail, and this happens when the ‘object’ is not functioning as expected.
A ‘thing': is everything outside of the “normal” or established function of the ‘object’. ‘Things’ are the associations that we have with the ‘object,’ that can change our perceptions and relationship with the ‘discussed.’
Both of these things exist simultaneously. The ‘object’ is a normalising force that arguably keeps us comfortable, whereas the ‘thing’ is the alienating force that forces us to change our perceptions of something.
So here’s an extremely mundane example.
I have a teapot (no, I really do), and it is pearly white, and I love it a great deal. The teapot itself in neither the ‘object’ nor the ‘thing,’.
For months before coming to uni I had wanted a teapot to take with me, possibly because I secretly want to be the Mad Hatter in some capacity, but also because I associated it with the evening with my family when we would have tea, and the tea rooms I had been in every so often.
I then saw this teapot at work, and bought it in a fit of euphoria.
At this point, I think we’re beginning to see the ‘thing.’ My associations with teapots then fell on this particular teapot. As I carried it home I considered all of these things in absolute glee, in my hands, I had a way to replicate the evening drinks of tea that I had at home, attempt to be as sophisticated someone who actually knows about tea, and quietly fulfil my desire to slowly go mad.
Very quickly, these became rote, and they became the ‘object’ – the associations I had with the teapot became unremarkable and part of a normal relationship with it – okay that sounds weird but you know what I mean).
Soon, I was nervous about making friends in my flat, and I was very sure that tea could make things easier – I began to associate the teapot with the attempt to make friends, I was simultaneously aware of what I considered teapots to suggest (family/ sophisitication/ Mad Hatter – ‘the ‘object’) and now considered the possibilities – (friendship – the ‘thing’).
Once I used this cunning plan on my flatmates and became friends with them, the ‘thing’ – friendship – became the ‘object’ that I now associated automatically with my teapot.
The associations with my teapot kept on growing, at first making me consider my teapot in a new way (what about loose leaf tea? Oh the possibilities!) but then became rote (oh god I’ve spent too much on my clearly indisputable need for tea and teapot). The ‘thing’ and ‘object’ are simultaneous, and basically mean that we are constantly considering the things we see.