- Reviewed by
In The Practice of Misuse, Raymond Malewitz uses an eclectic mixture of Marxist-influenced materialism and the Heideggerian distinction between a thing and an object—the primary basis for an approach he and several others call thing theory—in order to define what he calls "rugged consumerism." He asserts that the rugged consumer uses objects in ways not originally intended, and it would [End Page 577] be fair to say that his approach is itself an example at the level of theorizing the social and artistic movement of the rugged consumers he describes. A bit like the bricoleur who works with what is at hand, by creatively modifying the function and form of consumer objects rugged consumers in Malewitz's analysis repurpose and thus misuse objects with the ultimate goal of destabilizing the supposedly natural practices of late-capitalist consumerism. It is worth noting that Malewitz does not make explicit use of object-oriented ontology, nor does he engage as closely with Heidegger as one might expect—for example, through Heidegger's well-known essay "The Question Concerning Technology" and its notions of enframing and standing-reserve. As far as Heidegger goes, Malewitz's main source supporting thing theory is the well-used hammer of Being and Time.
If his use of Heidegger is somewhat restricted, his examples are not. They range widely, stretching from a creatively misused paper clip (bent into a new form to help reset his router) to the Watts Towers to trash to the Whole Earth Catalog to V-2 rockets. His interest in the object world takes in both the Apollo 13 moon mission itself, through the crew's creative repurposing of various materials into a lifesaving carbon dioxide scrubber, and the 1995 movie about the mission that represents this act of rugged consumerism. As much as Malewitz is interested in objects, his main focus is literary or, rather, the literary use of objects. Covering American culture from the 1960s to the present, he explores the practice of rugged consumerism within Sam Shepherd's off-off-Broadway theater, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, Don DeLillo's Underworld, and Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men.
Through these examples Malewitz wants us to see the way in which rugged consumerism foregrounds the idea that "objects, like people, are subject to the contingencies of a continuing history rather than to the determinist logic of origin" and that when rugged consumers free objects by repurposing them from their intended uses they make us aware of this determinist logic (2). Further, Malewitz contends that such acts of rugged consumerism "challenge the various discourses of power that inhere within the very notion of an object's original, historical use-value." As historical context for the action of the rugged consumer, Malewitz references not just the bricoleur of Claude Lévi-Strauss but also Victor Shklovsky's modernist notion of defamiliarization (an idea itself akin to the Brechtian notion of distancing or alienation, the Verfremdungseffekt). The idea is that once the rugged consumer has produced a moment of defamiliarization by repurposing and thus changing a closed object to an open thing that this will "reanimate a collective, oppositional politics" (5) from within "a culture in which the only readily available platform for collective action is a network of consumer behaviors" (8). The ultimate goal of [End Page 578] a rugged consumer is thus to open the possibility of "an alternative to the passive, collective consumer behaviors at the center of contemporary American society" (23). By anyone's measure, Malewitz makes an ambitious claim for the political power of a segment of American literary and material culture.
One issue with his approach is that his theoretical argument is about the social function of objects while his analysis is mostly about the literary representation of objects, a fine distinction that in this case is of some importance. Another issue that Malewitz seems well aware of is that the problem for such a strong political claim is that although American rugged consumers might...