Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Winter 2001

Volume 28 Issue 1
    • 1Bill Brown
    • Is there something perverse, if not archly insistent, about complicating things with theory? Do we really need anything like thing theory the way we need narrative theory or cultural theory, queer theory or discourse theory? Why not let things alone? Let them rest somewhere else—in the balmy elsewhere beyond theory. From there, they might offer us dry ground above those swirling accounts of the subject, some place of origin unmediated by the sign, some stable alternative to the instabilities and uncertainties, the ambiguities and anxieties, forever fetishized by theory. Something warm, then, that relieves us from the chill of dogged ideation, something concrete that relieves us from unnecessary abstraction.

      See also: Bill Brown, Objects, Others, and Us (The Refabrication of Things)  ·  John Tresch, “Matter No More”: Edgar Allan Poe and the Paradoxes of Materialism

      Bill Brown, professor of English at the University of Chicago and a coeditor of Critical Inquiry, is the author of The Material Unconscious (1996) and A Sense of Things (2002).

    • 23Sidney R. Nagel
    • The serenity of the picture of the drop falling obscures the violence taking place beneath the surface as the fluid fissions and becomes two separate drops. The sinuous contours of the drop, apparently hanging quietly in space, give no suggestion that at a more microscopic scale molecules are moving rapidly, tearing apart from one another. We see a departure from smoothness only at the apex of the conical neck connecting the round liquid sphere at the bottom to the brass nozzle at the top. If we had taken the picture a moment later, the liquid would be in two disconnected pieces separated at the tip of that cone; a moment earlier it would have hung together in one large and rather boring blob. An extraordinary transition is taking place.

      See also: Sigrid Weigel, The Flash of Knowledge and the Temporality of Images: Walter Benjamin's Image-Based Epistemology and Its Preconditions in Visual Arts and Media History

      Sidney R. Nagel, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago, has worked on problems dealing with nonlinear and disordered phenomena appearing in macroscopic systems far from equilibrium. He has recently coedited with Andrea J. Liu Jamming and Rheology: Constrained Dynamics on Microscopic and Macroscopic Scales (London, 2001).

    • 40Matthew L. Jones
    • Most academics are familiar with a comforting fable, subject to minor variations, about René Descartes and modern philosophy. Around 1640, Descartes philosophically crystallized a key transformation latent in Renaissance views of humanity. He moved the foundation of knowledge from humans fully embedded within and suited to nature to inside each individual. Descartes made knowledge and truth rest upon the individual subject and that subject's knowledge of his or her own capacities. This move permitted a profoundly new thoroughgoing skepticism, but rather than undermining universal knowledge by positing a uniformity of human subjects, this move ultimately guaranteed intersubjective knowledge. Knowledge became subjective and objective. Not content merely to make man himself the ground of knowledge, Descartes went further to make the human mind alone the source for knowledge, a knowledge modeled after pure mathematics.

      See also: Dennis Kezar, Shakespeare’s Addictions

      Matthew L. Jones is assistant professor of history at Columbia University. He is preparing a cultural history of mathematics and natural philosophy as spiritual exercises in seventeenth-century France, especially in Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz.

    • 72Daniel Tiffany
    • The incorporation of verbal identities by these objects reveals—even in the case of the meanest inscription—important details about their social and imaginative identities. Unlike the phenomenon of the modern commodity fetish, which comes to life only at the moment of exchange, these artifacts speak on the occasion of their manufacture, or under the condition of ownership (as distinct from simple possession). Yet the grammatical construction of the owner/maker formulae undermines the peculiar agency of the artifact. For although these objects speak and thus appear to occupy, at a linguistic level, the position of a subject, their grammatical position in these statements is usually in the accusative case ("Godric made me"), thereby preserving their status as objects that are acted upon. The incorporation of verbal identities thus secures for these artifacts a novel position suspended between subject and object, human and thing.

      See also: Daniel Tiffany, Rhapsodic Measures

      Daniel Tiffany is the author of Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound (1995) and Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric (2000). A poet and translator, he is coeditor of a new book series on auditory culture and teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

    • 99Peter Schwenger
    • The potter who made the vase created a thing that represents both the Thing beyond signification and that which attempts to contain it, in the form of the vase's sides enclosing its hollow. The Thing, Lacan asserts, "will always be represented by emptiness, precisely because it cannot be represented by anything else-or, more exactly, because it can only be represented by something else. But in every form of sublimation emptiness is determinative .... All art is characterized by a certain mode of organization around this emptiness" (E, pp. 129-30). This circling by words we have seen in carafe, jug, and vase, where richness and emptiness produce each other continuously within the work. And this instability makes of the work, and of the object that is its subject, something unfamiliar, disturbing, uncanny. If there is a murder of the thing by the word, then, this does not definitively annihilate that thing; it only trans-poses it to the scene of an interminable haunting of language.

      See also: Peter Schwenger, Corpsing the Image  ·  Garrett Stewart, Bookwork as Demediation

      Peter Schwenger is professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Fantasm and Fiction: On Textual Envisioning (1999). He is currently working on The Tears of Things, a study of the melancholy associated with objects.

    • 114Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones
    • At the very moment, then, that the demonized concept of the fetish is emerging to characterize the false animations of the idolater (Akan or Catholic), the unpaired glove takes on a new animation, as it is released from the "utility" of the pair. It is materialized as pledge or gage, absent lover or material memory, tactile presence or gaping hollow. If, as Derrida suggests, the fetish emerges when the unpaired object is no longer bound "to 'normal' use," the paradox of the single glove in the Renaissance is that it is the norm, at least within literary and artistic representations.35 Materializing the unpairedness of the human body, the single glove was haunted by its absent other, whether that glove was with a lover or a messenger, whether it remained on the table beside the sitter or was held as a withered and spectral hand.

      · 35. Derrida, "Restitutions," pp. 332, 333.

      See also: Dennis Kezar, Shakespeare’s Addictions

      Peter Stallybrass teaches English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of, most recently, O Casaco de Marx (Marx's Coat) (1999) and Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (2000), written with Ann Rosalind Jones. Ann Rosalind Jones is Esther Cloudman Dunn Professor of Comparative Literature at Smith College and author of Currency of Eros: Women's Love Lyric in Europe, 1540- 1620 (1990) and coeditor and translator, with Margaret E Rosenthal, of The Poems and Selected Letters of Veronica Franco (1998).

    • 133Jonathan Lamb
    • A subgenre of fiction appeared in the eighteenth century, preponderantly in English, now known variously as 'it-narratives', 'object tales', and 'novels of circulation'. They were autobiographies of things and creatures—dogs, coins, and articles of dress were popular—and they exploited two of the century's dominant preoccupations, one with the ancient doctrine of metempsychosis and the other with the modern theory of sympathy. They imitated Ovid and cited his Pythagorean beliefs to show how metamorphoses between the human and nonhuman occur when confusion amidst the world of objects destabilizes personal identity or when personal identity contrives to extend itself beyond the limit of species. Sympathy was the measure of the 'kindness' of these changes, the degree to which the feelings of different creatures might be communicated and shared. It was monitored by sentimental novels, whose authors and readers shared a belief in the benevolent tendency of a sensus communis, and were not shy of including animals and artefacts within it. But some of these it-narratives are surprisingly unkind to the extent that they show sympathy to be a perverse outcome of a defensive or hostile relation between species and things.

      See also: Heather Keenleyside, The First-Person Form of Life: Locke, Sterne, and the Autobiographical Animal  ·  Bill Brown, How to Do Things With Things (A Toy Story)

      Jonathan Lamb is a professor of English at Princeton University. He is the author of, most recently, Preserving the Self in the South Seas (2001) and coeditor, with Vanessa Smith and Nicholas Thomas, of the anthology Exploration and Exchange: A South Seas Anthology, 1680-1900 (2000).

    • 167W. J. T. Mitchell
    • What exactly is the physical? Is it the physical body? Or the physical, material world more generally, the object of the physical sciences? Is it the domain of nature, the nonhuman realm of what Wordsworth called "rocks, and stones, and trees," and all the rest-the earth, the oceans, the atmosphere, the planets, and stars in their courses?8 And what is the rhetorical or theoretical force of invoking the physical as a thematic within romanticism? Is this a signal of a new materialism, another overturning of Hegel and idealism? Is it a reflex of the fashion for bodily matters in contemporary criticism and, if so, is this a natural body or a cultural body? A virtual techno-body, a gendered, racialized, erotic body, or a body without organs? Where does the invocation of the physical locate us in the endless debate of nature and culture, the natural and the human sciences? Is it a replaying of the old romantic division between the physical, understood as the organic, living substance, and the material, understood as the inert, dead, or mechanical?

      · 8. Wordsworth, "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal," Selected Poems and Prefaces, 1. 8, p. 115.

      See also: W. J. T. Mitchell, Art, Fate, and the Disciplines: Some Indicators  ·  N. Katharine Hayles, Simulating Narratives: What Virtual Creatures Can Teach Us

      W. J. T. Mitchell is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in the departments of English and art history at the University of Chicago and has been editor of Critical Inquiry since 1978. His most recent publication is The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (1998), and the following essay is part of a new book entitled What Do Pictures Want?

    • 185Christina Kiaer
    • The productivist critic and theorist Boris Arvatov, whose theory of the socialist thing I will be considering in this essay, describes the development of the ideal form of the modern thing in this way: "the mechanism of a thing, the connection between the elements of a thing and its purpose, were now transparent" ("EL," p. 126). The transparent or indexical thing demonstrates its tselesoobraznost'—the connection between its material form and its purpose—by showing us how it was made. This "rhetoric of indexicality" dominated Constructivist writings, and it has contributed to our usual definition of Constructivism as an avant-garde that embodies the modernist desire for transparency and rationality. But I believe that this rhetoric has been too narrowly interpreted in terms of an instrumental utilitarianism. Instead, the transparency and rationality of the Constructivist thing does not preclude it from addressing the opacity of commodity desire in the everyday life of modernity. The utilitarian "goal" or "purpose" referenced by tselesoobraznost' isnot only the mechanical purpose of the thing but the larger purpose of confronting the phantasmatic power of the commodity object and redeeming it for socialism.

      See also:  Daria Khitrova, “This Is No Longer Dance”: Media Boundaries and the Politics of Choreography in The Steel Step  ·  Charity Scribner, Object, Relic, Fetish, Thing: Joseph Beuys and the Museum

      Christina Kiaer is an assistant professor in the department of art history and archaeology, Columbia University, where she teaches modern art. She has recently completed a book manuscript, Imagine No Possessions: The "Socialist Objects" of Russian Constructivism. She is currently researching a new project on the socialist realist painter Aleksandr Deineka.

    • 244Jeffrey T. Schnapp
    • The title of my essay echoes that of one of late antiquity's most learned works: Martianus Capella's Marriage of Mercury and Philology. But whereas the fifth-century Neoplatonic philosopher was concerned with timeless nuptials of the intellect, allegorical nuptials joining the trivium to the quadrivium, eloquence to learning, I am interested instead in the convergence between two bodies in the accelerated time frame that corresponds to the advent of modernity. The first of these bodies is the active ingredient in coffee, isolated for the first time in 1820, a substance emblematic of the modern individual's striving for hyperproductivity and appetite for hyperstimulation. The second is the most important of the new metals embraced by twentieth-century industry: aluminum—a material discovered in 1854 but first produced on an industrial scale at the turn-of-the-century mark.

      See also:  Jeffrey T. Schnapp, The Fabric of Modern Times  ·  John Guillory, The Memo and Modernity

      Jeffrey T. Schnapp is the director of the Stanford Humanities Laboratory. Among his recent publications are A Primer of Italian Fascism (2000), Gaetano Ciocca—Costruttore, inventore, agricoltore, scrittore (2000), and Vedette fiumane (2000). Forthcoming in 2002 is Ball and Hammer (Tenderendath e Fantast).

    • 270John Frow
    • Rather than thinking in terms of an opposition of things to humans or of inanimate material entities to bodies endowed with consciousness and intention, it makes sense to recognize both the heterogeneity of things in the world—complexly ordered along intersecting scales running from the material to the immaterial, the simple to the complex, the functional to the nonfunctional, the living to the inert, the relatively immediate to the highly mediated—and the fluidity of the relations between these categories. Thingness and the kinds of thingness are not inherent in things; they are effects of recognitions and uses performed within frames of understanding (which may be markets or ad hoc negotiations of action or desire or bodily skills as much as they may be intellectual formattings or sedimented codes). And persons, too, count or can count as things. This is the real strangeness: that persons and things are kin; the world is many, not double.

      See also: Bill Brown, How to Do Things With Things (A Toy Story)

      John Frow is Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. His most recent books are Time and Commodity Culture (1997) and (coauthored with Tony Bennett and Michael Emmison) Accounting for Tastes: Australian Everyday Cultures (1999).

    • 286Rey Chow
    • Collectors are among the most suggestive characters in literary histories, East and West. What is intriguing about them is often not only what they collect but also the paradoxical movement, inscribed in their collecting behavior, from the frivolous to the serious, from the casual pleasures of accumulating nonessential objects to the most perverse kinds of addiction. This movement reveals a type of personality disorder that can be aesthetically fascinating. But aesthetic observations alone have far from exhausted the interpretative possibilities of the collector's obsession; other libidinal ramifications, albeit less frequently observed and explored, lurk behind what seems at first to be a matter of pure eccentric individualism. This is especially the case if a collector is faced not only with his or her collected objects but simultaneously with the forces of socialization, such as the moral imperative of self-sacrifice vis-à-vis a collective. At the juncture between the love for the inanimate as such and the demands of group identity, what might the act of collecting signify? What might an intimacy with inanimate objects do to one's sense of communal belonging, of being part of, say, a national community?

      See also:  Hiram W. Woodward, Jr., Acquisition

      Rey Chow is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Brown University and the author of several books, including, most recently, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (forthcoming).

    • 305Michael Taussig
    • I take my title from one of the Ariel poems Sylvia Plath was writing up to the day she took her life at the age of thirty, and it is with her preoccupation with death and memory that I am myself preoccupied, most especially when I feel her poems enter into the things they refer to and take me along with them. This I call mimesis, but call it what you will; it stops us in our tracks as a mighty magic come alive as death animates things. As such these things are not symbols or star points for a multitude of poetic associations. Nor are they signs of anything much. Rather they are things, just things, criss-crossing back and forth between the animate and inanimate with the poet as the point of mediation, the question insistently posed, the question that makes us seem no less foolish than wise: How is it that the distinction between subject and object, between me and things, is so crucially dependent on life and death? Why is death the harbinger and index of the thing-world, and how can it be, then, that death awakens life in things? Over there, death, the graveyard where things erupt like gravestones, the entity-place. Here, me and life in buzzing blooming confusion, antithesis of entification. It was not always like this. It needed the Great Awakening brought by Enlightenment for death to finalize things. In other times and places the debate rages.

      See also: Michael Taussig, The Beach (A Fantasy)  ·  Michael Taussig, What Color Is the Sacred?

      Michael Taussig teaches anthropology at Columbia University. His books include The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1990), Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987), The Nervous System (1992), Mimesis and Alterity (1993), The Magic of the State (1997), and Defacement (1999).

    • 317Lesley Stern
    • Clearly it is a matter of potential and performativity. Certain film texts, certain cinematic objects, certain cinematic moments yield more value than others in this quest to understand the Thing. But they become rewarding not by virtue of certainty but, as Auden says, when the thing's "formula escapes you," when "it has lost / the certainty that constitutes a thing." Rosebud endures not because it is the key to understanding Citizen Kane but because, in the moment when the word materializes as a thing (at the end of the film), when it comes within reach, it burns up. Like a cigarette. Rather than closing down on the past it inaugurates a new process, it touches me somewhere between here and there, activating new memories, as is the case when Maggie Cheung holds her cigarette nonchalantly and blows smoke in my face. Guided by film, in these and other instances, we approach ideas no longer on highways leading through the void but on "paths that wind through the thicket of things."

      See also: Lesley Stern, Conversions (A Story Blown Hither and Thither)

      Lesley Stern is professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of The Scorsese Connection (1995) and The Smoking Book (1999) and editor, with George Kouvaros, of Falling for You: Essays in Cinema and Performance (1999). She is working on a book about things in the cinema.