restricted access Other Things by Bill Brown (review)
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Other Things. Bill Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. 448. $40.00 (cloth).

Bill Brown has had things on his mind for quite some time. In The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane and the Economics of Play (1997), he used Crane’s fiction to explore the disquietingly everyday objects which populate their imagined worlds, not just as descriptive details of the modern, but as strange historical presences telling stories about technology, race, and the lived experience of capitalism that few had found there before. Then, in 2001, Brown edited a special issue of Critical Inquiry—later expanded into a 2004 book—entitled Things, which introduced what he called “thing theory.” In the meantime, his 2003 book A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature put this theory into practice, with searching readings of Mark Twain, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and more that sought to reorient our views of realism and naturalism at the turn of the twentieth century around the accumulated coins, vases, carpets, chairs, and other material artifacts that situate these texts within the circuits of commodity exchange even as they turn on forms of value that the market rarely assigns, and only intermittently makes visible. Other Things is, at one level, a continuation of this inquiry into the period of modernism. It lets us see how Brown’s work has developed alongside such books as Douglas Mao’s Solid Objects (1999) or Daniel Tiffany’s Toy Medium (2000), and has helped inspire newer work on modernism’s object culture, like Aaron Jaffe’s The Way Things Go (2014). Jaffe even cracks a second-order joke that captures the pervasiveness of objects in the criticism and theory that Brown has long championed and produced. “The recent interest in thing theory,” Jaffe writes, “is really little more than a thing preoccupation: a thing thing.”1

What makes the joke is what, at another level, threatens to unmake the theory. When some “thing” now becomes “a thing”—like an internet boyfriend (Gosling begat Cumberbatch begat Oscar Isaacs) or Kanye going Molly Bloom on Ellen (google it)—we usually don’t need a theory to explain it, and can’t be sure it will last long enough to warrant one. These memes are not exactly the kind of thing that Other Things is after; [End Page 683] though Brown is aware, I think, that many of the physical objects to which he is most attracted are almost as resistant when it comes to saying why we give them our attention. And this is so, at least in part, because our attention to them can become quite frustrating—because it seems distracting, non-productive, obdurate, obsessive, repetitious—when we’re made conscious of it. Drawing on, but even more importantly, scalding down from Heidegger’s “overwhelming singular Thing (das Ding),” Brown asks that we attend instead to “a more quotidian and rambunctious (less august and thus more significant) thing. There’s some thing about this place that gets you (that you find enchanting) and some thing that drives you nuts.” Brown is fascinated by things with a “vitality” that eludes the “scene of cultural coherence” we might erect around them, that “quickly disturb” the network of historical, ideological, or psychological rationales that might otherwise resolve their fascination into a structure that would be less “significant” precisely because it underwrites a theory of the self or of the market or of late capitalism (39). This is to say that “things” disclose their actual significance for Brown less in the language we can use to talk about them, and more in how we catch ourselves attending to them—bodily, intuitively, performatively—before we know that they are there, or pause to justify their hold on us. Brown begins a chapter on Virginia Woolf’s “Solid Objects” with a suitably concrete set of second-person instructions: “You should be reading this with something in your hands besides this book. And something, really, besides a pencil or pen. Something like an empty glass, a rubber band, a paper clip that you can rub between your fingers, that you can twist and bend back and forth” (49). It...