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American Quarterly 56.1 (2004) 193-200

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Matter on the Mind

Nancy Bentley
University of Pennsylvania

A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. By Bill Brown. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 260 pages. $32.00.

In The Lorax, one of the darker works in the Dr. Seuss canon, a vaguely doglike creature, the Lorax, materializes out of thin air to speak on behalf of Truffala trees. Since Truffala trees, no less than Loraxes, are wholly imaginary, one might ask why they don't simply speak for themselves. But even in his most fantastic settings, author Theodor Geisel adheres to a last ontological order: some things speak and some don't. Horton the Elephant speaks, as does the tiny speck of matter he finds and places on a clover, yet the clover and the speck's microscopic house are mute. The division between subjects (creatures who speak) and objects (mute things) is the fundamental boundary in any Seuss world, even when virtually no other categorical distinction—animal and human, the real and the imaginary—seems to obtain.

Like the Lorax, Bill Brown speaks on behalf of things. His study A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature seeks to right an imbalance that has favored the study of subjects over the "object matter" in literature. Brown would agree with Geisel that the object world is at risk, never more so than in our current conditions of postmodernity, where there is "too little sense of things" (19). As our reliance on operations of abstraction intensifies, so our ability to truly apprehend material things appears to atrophy. But relations of social power are not the central focus of his book. Though Brown sees an [End Page 193] ethical dimension to reflecting upon material objects, the book is free of overt moralizing. He seeks instead to evoke the peculiar kinds of power that objects can exercise over subjects, "the pressure they exert on us to engage them as something other than mere surfaces" (12). By exploring instances of that power, he tries to see beyond the foundational distinction between subjects and objects, the result of our Cartesian fall from grace. "The history of modernity," he writes, "propelled both by capital and by instrumental reason, is the history of proscribing objects from attaining . . . any value but that of use or exchange, secularizing the object's animation by restricting it to commodity fetishism alone" (185). But by uncovering other kinds of life belonging to objects, Brown aims to overcome the ontological divide between inanimate objects and human subjects and thus to reconceive the diminished meaning and value of objects within (post)modernity.

To attempt this avowed "experiment" (16), Brown turns to novelists who wrote at the turn of the century, especially Frank Norris, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Henry James. That he turns to literature for this task will not surprise readers who are familiar with other work by Brown, a professor of English. What might surprise, though, is the methodology of The Sense of Things. The topic of material objects would seem to lend itself to a cultural studies approach, with that discipline's interest in the everyday and the low (quoting Jean Baudrillard, Brown notes the object's traditional status as the "alienated, accursed part of the subject" [179]). Moreover, Brown's important first book, The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play, is an exemplary case of the way cultural studies methods can be integrated with the disciplinary tools of literary studies. 1 But while The Sense of Things is just as theory-savvy as Brown's first book, this new study has a stronger affinity with the methods of literary criticism.

This disciplinary shift is not the return of a chastened prodigal son to any literary puritanism. The Sense of Things is as expansive as Brown's earlier study, taking readers on excursions into cultural regions as diverse as Scandinavian folk exhibits and Gertrude Stein's "aural riffs" (74). But Brown does turn his attention from the way material culture imprints itself upon unwitting literary and social...


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