- The Things Things Say
There have been murmurings, among some of the very people responsible for the movement in the first place, that the semiotic approach to the study of the material world might be doing nearly as much harm as good. Nobody doubts that the new material culture has demonstrated ways in which human relationships are continually routed through the material world, objects becoming a pseudo-language only slightly more opaque than the spoken word. As one of the foundational branches of “thing theory” in literary studies, this line of thought also has helped to make sense of the predominance of material objects in genres that had historically been associated with the rise of the liberal subject: the novel, if you please, as a prose of things. At the horizon of these sorts of readings, however, there always has been the promise of a radical reorientation of the settled distinctions between subject and object. This would be more than a version of Marx’s surrealist dream of commodity capitalism—of the table forming grotesque ideas out of its wooden brain. And it would certainly be more than merely pointing out the “smudging,” “blurring,” or otherwise complicating of distinctions between persons and things—which would, after all, seem to be a starting point rather than a goal. Such a study would instead develop a sensitivity to those moments when objects, as it were, rise up, become scarce, develop desires, or begin organizing themselves. For all the groundbreaking essays that rethink the relationships between persons and things—human history as a footnote in the rise of the potato, the sentimental journey as a tale of a desobligeant, the ozone hole as neither exclusively a chemical nor a political problem—we remain relatively, possibly programmatically, deaf to what the material world has to say for itself. A study of things not as language, but as authors, seems called for.
Jonathan Lamb’s The Things Things Say is among the boldest recent efforts in this line, a book that “explores the difference between objects that serve human [End Page 447] purposes and things that don’t” (xi). It takes as its epigraph a phrase from Daniel Defoe’s Roxana—“the Thing spoke itself”—thereby announcing at the outset that it will examine the period and place that Lamb suggests was first and most attentive to utterances of the material world: the eighteenth century in Britain and the European continent. In the end, Lamb will cast a much wider chronological net than this; he will be as carefully attentive, in turn, to the anonymous complaints of a twentieth-century Berlin woman as to the celebrated Apology of Sir Philip Sidney. Likewise, his discussion will range across geographies, attending variously to the nonrepresentative alchemy of the Tahitian to’o and the representative fictions of the British Leviathan. But the book’s single most important resource remains a minor but significant eighteenth-century genre that darkly paralleled and frustrated the rise of the novel: the so-called “it-narrative,” a loose conglomeration of books, pamphlets, ballads, fables, and broadsides written from the viewpoint of an object, pet, atom, or other nonhuman. These provide the center of mass for Lamb’s diverse explorations of political philosophy, the history of law, early forms of the novel, the British stage, Grub-Street culture, and so on.
Lamb’s dazzling range of sources and sometimes death-defying syncretic leaps occasionally do obscure the symmetry of his tightly knit argument, which begins with a chapter on possession (“Owning Things”) and ends with one on dispossession (“Authors Owning Nothing”). Much of the first chapter is concerned with a handful of political theorists, including Hobbes and Locke, whose confident remarks on personhood and personal property provide the major foil to Lamb’s discussion. If it is true that you can gauge the strength of an argument by the straw men it adopts, then this is a promising start. Perhaps the most critical concepts Lamb develops here are the parallel tropes of personification and authorship. Personification, in Lamb’s discussion, isolates a certain way in...