restricted access The Things Things Say by Jonathan Lamb (review)
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Reviewed by
Jonathan Lamb, The Things Things Say (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 320 pp.

The line of argument in this book is not always easy to follow. It is presented as a study of what the author calls “it-narratives,” a class of eighteenth-century first-person fictional stories of things, mostly written in English—but that is the topic of only one (the ninth) of the book’s ten chapters. The genre is little known and treating it requires preparation; the author uses two different means. The first, [End Page 556] and more promising, consists in putting forth analogies and attempting to justify them. It-narratives are thus compared to the still life, the Ovidian metamorphosis, and the fable. In the final chapter, they are compared also to slave narratives. The second means of preparation consists in helping readers imagine that things say things. The former makes for sensible literary criticism; the latter does not. A time may come when “thing theory” will be smiled upon as a latter-day version of spiritualism. Until then, except for those under its spell, the consideration of it-narratives will require from most of us a vast conceptual generosity. Critical terms of trade such as author, actor, person, and character expand to accommodate the possibility of describing, for instance, the goings-on of garrulous eighteenth-century gold coins endowed with endlessly firm opinions. The accommodation is not always smooth: only at the expense of a widely shared sense of person would one use the word person to denote a gold coin. If you are a believer, however, you will claim that the word fictionally or rhetorically does, somehow, apply and may call in philosophy in the hope of making the move look respectable. There are other problems with Lamb’s second means: whenever words homonymous with current critical terms of trade are seen to have been employed by the likes of Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Smith, the philosophers’ acquiescence in the project of Lamb’s book is ipso facto assumed. As it happens, none of these philosophers cared much for literary criticism, it-narratives or, more to the point, for the concepts that the author deems decisive. Thus, the embrace of philosophy generally proves encumbering to the author’s better critical intuitions.

Miguel Tamen

Miguel Tamen is professor of literary theory at the University of Lisbon and a regular visiting professor at the University of Chicago. His books include The Matter of the Facts; Manners of Interpretation; Friends of Interpretable Objects; and, most recently, What Art Is Like, in Constant Reference to the Alice Books.