Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jesse Bordwin reviews The Literary Life of Things

Babette Bärbel Tischleder. The Literary Life of Things: Case Studies in American Fiction. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2014. 300 pp.

Review by Jesse Bordwin

2 March 2016

“We have to follow the things themselves,” wrote Arjun Appadurai in his introduction to The Social Life of Things. [1] This was something new, or at least new again; his essay and others in the 1986 collection prefigured the emergence of a new materialism that would profoundly expand the language we have at our disposal to talk about things, freeing the material world and scholarship alike from the thrall of a Marxian materialism and its ideological offspring. Three decades on, we have good reason to celebrate the revitalizing effect of the material turn on the humanities and the robust critiques of capitalism and environmental degradation it has produced, but so too might we take the moment to reflect on missed opportunities. We can commend the deep-seated interdisciplinarity of the new materialism while demanding a more rigorous account of discipline-specific methodologies and practices. In English departments, for the most part, thing theory and other object-oriented modes of literary criticism pivoted from the commodity to the object in the realist novel as repository of social history, adopting wholesale the object of the social sciences without asking what was lost in translation. Well, what was lost, and how are things in the novel distinct from things studied by anthropologists and archeologists, philosophers, and scientists?

Babette Tischleder’s The Literary Life of Things begins to address these questions. Its title’s play on Appadurai’s collection marks the monograph’s pedigree but more so the disruptive vitality that characterizes its corrective work. Tischleder’s readings are smart and incisive as she traces—constructs, really—an object-oriented American literary tradition that stretches from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Jonathan Franzen, but the payoff for most readers will be in the way Tischleder outlines and practices a new materialism that is particular to the novel. Sacrificing neither clarity nor sophistication for the sake of the other, she writes that it is inadequate to transpose other disciplinary approaches onto the novel because none can “account for the complex ways in which literary texts envision relations between human characters and the material world” (p. 23). To that end, Tischleder develops what she calls the “material imaginary,” to address “the various ways in which literary texts invite us to imagine physical objects in active roles that enable and shape people’s actions, social relations, self-fashioning, emotional states, and moral or cultural orientations, as well as the texts’ own narrative and aesthetic expressions” (p. 18). This attunement to the multiple, interconnected, and formal conditions of things in the novel distinguishes Tischleder from other thing theorists: in a representative moment, she moves quickly beyond the social history that structures Pnin’s encounter with an unfamiliar mid-century American material culture to ask, “how does a literary text render things palpable?” (p. 195). Dialogically balancing literature and theory, The Literary Life of Things reveals a system of literary objects that do not simply reflect our world but refract, distort, and change it, and in doing so it heralds a period of necessary introspection and maturation for the new materialism.

[1] Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” The Social Life of Things (New York, 1986), p. 5.