Malicious Objects, Anger Management, and the Question of Modern Literature by Jörg Kreienbrock (review)
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Malicious Objects, Anger Management, and the Question of Modern Literature.
By Jörg Kreienbrock. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. ix + 313 pages. Hardcover $85.00, paperback $26.00.

In Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (1957), “Thing One” and “Thing Two” wreak havoc with the world around them, such that in the chaos they appear to multiply and have to be caught and contained. But precisely the disruption they cause for others is the [End Page 693] source of delight for readers. Things—understood here in a naïve, under-determined way—can become annoying; yet this contingent, interruptive annoyance has a comic, imaginative potential.

Kreienbrock begins Malicious Objects with Laurence Sterne rather than Dr. Seuss, and continues with close readings of Jean Paul, Friedrich Theodor Vischer, and Heimito von Doderer. He argues that for these four authors, fiction writing compensates for the anger inflicted on us by recalcitrant objects: by equipment, the stuff of everyday life, things. Modern literature is a form of Anger Management. He takes his cue from Vischer’s infamous phrase “die Tücke des Objekts,” which he embeds in the question of modernity. For Adorno as for Kreienbrock, the subject is objectified in advanced capitalist society (or rather, it becomes impossible to rectify subject and object); and objects may not improve our lives, but instead frustrate us, restricting our freedom. We project negative affects—irritation, anger, rage—onto these objects, to which we also ascribe an obstinate agency.

Since this study is about how we engage with, and behave in, our material and technological environments, it is primarily an ethical investigation, as well as being theoretically informed and aiming at historical explication. It proposes to dismantle “the notion that objects such as doors are ahistorical because they are simply at the mercy of whosoever chooses to use them. The point is not, then, to develop a history of the object but to see the precise place where a door is opened to its historicity. One name for this door is annoyance” (3). In other words, the ways in which we react to a door, for instance, that either creaks incessantly or snaps shut, are conditioned by the cultural climate we inhabit. In post-eighteenth-century, consumerist society, there is ever-more tat that we encounter in our homes or while going about our everyday lives—objects with which we can come into conflict.

Literature is the locus of Kreienbrock’s assessment, since it is discursively assimilative and (in his view) itself resistant to order. It intersects with technological, medical, scientific, self-help, psychoanalytical, and philosophical discourses—Heidegger in particular haunts this project. One problem, however, is that some of Kreienbrock’s authors are said to have responded to major thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, Freud, etc., and thus are rightly read within a historical context. Other big names of philosophy and theory, meanwhile, are confusingly presented in anachronistic conversation with earlier authors: Heidegger is most extensively discussed alongside Vischer, for example, before then being cursorily mentioned in relation to Doderer—a comparison that could have been more historically grounded. As it is, the status of Heidegger’s presence in the text—as a hermeneutic tool for literary-cultural criticism, as a different type of Ding-Denker, or as a participant in the literary negotiation with objects—remains obscure.

In our perception of things, animate and inanimate intermesh with each other. When I travel in a quiet coach and a passenger boards with a cell phone in hand, anger starts to swell inside me—an emotion that has little to do with however pleasant and polite the person may otherwise appear to be. Vischer is enraged by a similar problem of public transport in his 1879 essay, “Podoböotismus oder die Fußflegelei auf der Eisenbahn,” whereby a well-dressed gentleman rests his foot on the carriage seat. For Vischer, the boot is synecdochic for the man’s obnoxious behaviour; as Kreienbrock writes, “[h]is boot is not just one piece of clothing among others worn by the traveler but seems to merge with the wearer’s body. Boot, sole, and heel are [End Page 694] part...