Literary and Critical Theory Thing Theory
Sarah Wasserman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0097


Thing theory names an approach that scholars use to investigate human-object relations in art, literature, culture, and everyday life. Though commonly thought of as a way to study physical artifacts, thing theory is rather a means to explore the dynamics between human subjects and inanimate objects. Thing theory emerges from the scholarly concern with commodity capitalism, and therefore has many antecedents in anthropology, art history, and museum studies. But it more precisely names the theoretical framework that developed within English departments in the 1990s, and prompted literary studies to turn upon the object matter of literature. The phrase “thing theory” came widely into use in 2001, in Bill Brown’s introduction to a special issue of Critical Inquiry titled Things. There, Brown describes the questions that thing theory raises as queries not into objects alone, but into subject-object relations in particular spaces, at particular times. Literature was central to these queries, not only because English departments in the 1990s were home to the “high theory” that Brown draws upon, but because, as he argues, it is a privileged medium for revealing the force of inanimate objects in human experience. In other words, literature makes the “thingness” of objects visible. This distinction comes from Heidegger, for whom objects become things when they can no longer serve their common or intended function. When an object breaks or is misused, it sheds its conventional role and becomes visible in new ways: it becomes a thing. Thing theory draws upon this notion of productive estrangement to consider the meaning that physical artifacts can have for human subjects. While thing theory entails discussions of “real” artifacts, it has primarily been used by scholars in the humanities to discuss the representation of such things in art and literature—specifically as a means to understand what meaning such representations hold. Around 2010, a number of books about the agency of objects by philosophers, political scientists, and media studies scholars inaugurated what might be called a second phase of thing theory. This second phase entailed scholars seeking to decenter the human subject in their materialist studies. These “new materialisms” are less confined to representational forms and have expanded the reach of thing theory well beyond literary studies. The new materialisms—some of which build directly on an older Marxist tradition of historical materialism—and other branches of thought that attempt to decenter the human, including object-oriented ontology, actor-network theory, ecocriticism, and posthumanism, draw upon thing theory but might best be thought of as a set of allied approaches interested in the agency of things. This bibliography tracks the initial phase of thing theory in literary studies, consolidates the earlier scholarship it draws on most consistently, outlines the second phase of thing theory across a variety of fields, and looks to work that has inaugurated new, future directions.

Foundational Works

This section looks at the texts that established thing theory and remain the most commonly referenced works on the subject. Brown 2003 examines the way that American literary texts give readers knowledge of physical objects. But it is Brown 2004, in his introduction to the volume Things, based on a 2001 special issue of Critical Inquiry, that the phrase “thing theory” is used to describe Brown’s approach—a blend of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology—to the study of subject-object relations. The volume brings together eighteen essays from scholars working in what had previously been thought of as divergent fields: physics, modernist literature, sociology, early modern book history, art history, and comparative literature. Despite Brown’s claim that art and literature are primary sites of study for thing theorists, the volume established thing theory as an interdisciplinary method or mode of inquiry that requires attention to materiality as well as to the meaning such materiality can make. Subsequent works of thing theory have followed suit, attending to the materiality of things (even represented ones) as well as the way that those things act upon the subjects with whom they come into contact. Published the same year as Things, Daston 2004 does not use the phrase “thing theory” but considers the way that things “talk” by accreting and shaping meaning. With nine essays by art and science historians, the book helped solidify the contemporary study of things as decidedly interdisciplinary work. Miller 2005 approaches things across history and cultures from an anthropological perspective, arguing that the social focus of anthropology needed to be decentered in order to make room for the material. These foundational collections published in the first decade of the 2000s paved the way for the proliferation of thing theoretical studies from its origins in literary study to other disciplines across the humanities.

  • Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226076317.001.0001

    Examines the relationship between things and ideas in US fiction of the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s (major texts include Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Frank Norris’s McTeague, Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie). Readings show that these fictions encode mass-market capitalism’s influence on culture and everyday life. The book opened many lines of inquiry into the relationship between the cultural and the material.

  • Brown, Bill, ed. Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    Based on a 2001 special issue of Critical Inquiry. Brown’s introduction uses “thing theory” as a phrase to name the work done by the essays in the volume, which consider the force by which objects become fetishes, totems, values, and agents. The interdisciplinary collection includes essays by Rey Chow, Bruno Latour, W. J. T. Mitchell, and Michael Taussig, among others.

  • Daston, Lorraine. Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science. New York: Zone Books, 2004.

    Each of the nine chapters considers a single object—from soap bubbles to Rorschach blots—to determine the cultural significance of that object at a given historical moment. Daston notes in her introduction that the essays are especially attuned to methodology insofar as they seek to make things “talk” without ventriloquizing or anthropomorphizing. The volume includes chapters by Peter Galison, Caroline A. Jones, and Elaine M. Wise, among others.

  • Miller, Daniel, ed. Materiality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    Brings together essays by anthropologists who consider the role of materiality from ancient times to the present in examples that range from Australian Aboriginal art to derivatives trading in Japan. Taken together, the essays from scholars such as Lynn Meskell, Christopher Pinney, and Nigel Thrift argue that the discipline of anthropology should shift its focus from the social to the material.

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