A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature / Edition 2

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Overview


In May 1906, the Atlantic Monthly commented that Americans live not merely in an age of things, but under the tyranny of them, and that in our relentless effort to sell, purchase, and accumulate things, we do not possess them as much as they possess us. For Bill Brown, the tale of that possession is something stranger than the history of a culture of consumption. It is the story of Americans using things to think about themselves.

Brown's captivating new study explores the roots of modern America's fascination with things and the problem that objects posed for American literature at the turn of the century. This was an era when the invention, production, distribution, and consumption of things suddenly came to define a national culture. Brown shows how crucial novels of the time made things not a solution to problems, but problems in their own right. Writers such as Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Henry James ask why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or remake ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears, and to shape our wildest dreams. Offering a remarkably new way to think about materialism, A Sense of Things will be essential reading for anyone interested in American literature and culture.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226076294
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 245
  • Sales rank: 1,041,439
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Bill Brown is the George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play, editor of Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Westerns, and coeditor of Critical Inquiry.
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Read an Excerpt

A Sense of Things: the Object Matter of American Literature


By Bill Brown

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Bill Brown
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226076296

ONE



The Tyranny of Things

Hamlet: The king is a thing--

Guildenstern: A thing, my lord?

Hamlet: Of nothing.

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet 4.2.27-29
There every thing is frozen-- kings and things--formal,

but absolutely frozen: here it is life.

--P. T. Barnum, quoted in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1846


Should you begin to think about things in late nineteenth-century America, it won't be long before you stumble over Mark Twain's House in Hartford, Connecticut. It's a toe-stubber if there ever was one. Monumental and lavish, it was an architectural novelty (to some eyes, a nightmare) designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter in what you could call a German gothic style. The nineteen-room house became a local attraction even before its completion in 1874. That, obviously, was the idea--Twain's idea about stamping an indelible impression of his status as the nation's most widely read and best paid writer. As though performing a pastiche of the "conspicuous display" that Thorstein Veblen would describe in 1899, Twain bought the adjacent Hartford property in order tohave the shrubs pruned, the trees felled, and thus his mansion properly viewed by the whole neighborhood. Ostentation, of course, was really his second career.

Within the house, as his biographers lament, Twain and his wife Olivia decorated and redecorated. In 1880, they installed the treasures they had amassed while touring Europe (six thousand dollars worth) as Twain gathered material to write A Tramp Abroad (1880), meant as a sequel to the lucrative Innocents Abroad. Among the treasures, Twain was especially taken by an enormous Venetian bed, carved mahogany, complete with serpentine columns and baroque puti. The following year they hired Tiffany to renovate the interior: the Associated Artists painted the public rooms in salmon pink, peacock blue, and silver; they stenciled Native American, Turkish, and Chinese motifs onto the walls and ceilings; they draped the windows with imported muslin and velvet; they installed stained and leaded glass. In the library--which Suzy and Clara used as a theater to perform The Prince and the Pauper, for instance, which Twain himself originally conceived as a play--the girls nightly begged their father to tell them stories about the objects arranged on the mantel. For the library was itself dedicated to theatricalizing those "things in the way of bric-a-brac" that Clarence Chatham Cook had recommended in his guide to modern decorating, The House Beautiful: Essays on Beds and Tables, Stools and Candlesticks (1878).

Whatever pleasure Twain took in the objects, though, and whatever pleasure the girls took in the stories emanating from them, he was patently ambivalent about the decorating aspiration tout court. He mercilessly caricatured Cook's apostles in the House Beautiful section (chapter 38) of Life on the Mississippi (1883). And his letters express frustration and exhaustion with the very projects that enthralled him. During the Tiffany remodeling, he declared the need not for carpenters and decorators but for "an incendiary": "If the house would only burn down, we would pack up the cubs and fly to . . . the crater of Haleakala and get a good rest." Especially alarmed by the strain of the house on Olivia--"I think my wife would be twice as strong as she is, but for this wearing and wearying slavery of house-keeping"--he thought of himself, too, as hideously bound by "house-keeping slavery," from which he could only imagine the "wild independence" he might achieve by living in a boarding house.

Twain seemed to suffer from what one commentator called, in the pages of the Atlantic, a new national pathology, "The Tyranny of Things": the "passion for accumulation is upon us," the author proclaimed; we "make 'collections,' we fill our rooms, our walls, our tables, our desks, with things, things, things." The inevitable result of this passion--which for subsequent generations has seemed the quintessence of so-called Victorian taste--was that Americans ended up "overwhelmed by the invading host of things." Alexis de Tocqueville had once worried that "democratic liberty" would become "democratic tyranny," by which he meant the tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of a despot; by the middle of the century, Emerson foresaw a "fearful extent and multitude of objects," intensified by both the production of new objects and the new proto-mass production of objects; by the century's turn, those objects themselves seemed to tyrannize the subjects of democracy. The problem was not simply that, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman put it, the American woman, "debarred from any free production," had become "the priestess of the temple of consumption, as the limitless demander of things." Everywhere, Thoreau would have found that man he had denounced: the man "harnessed" by the "trumpery which has accumulated from long housekeeping, which he has not the courage to burn," the men who haven't considered "what a house is" and spend their lives being "needlessly poor" to impress their neighbors. For Twain, the harness was tightened by financial pressure; in 1891, the combination of slack book sales (by his standard) and mounting debt forced him to close the house and to go on an extended speaking tour. Still, in the spare Villa Viviani (outside Florence), he came to mourn the loss of the "objects without number" that made "the American house . . . the most satisfying refuge yet invented." Clearly, those objects were for Twain objects of fascination and repulsion, modes of self-definition and self-obliteration, sources of safety and threat.

Where in Twain's writing do we stumble across a sense of things that can help to explain his ambivalence and the source of such tyranny? Not, I think, in the culture of consumption and speculation that he and Charles Dudley Warner satirized and irrevocably named in The Gilded Age(1873). And not in the satirical accounts of decor in the European travel books, in TheAdventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), or in Life on the Mississippi. Rather, it is in the royal court of The Prince and the Pauper (1881) where Twain strives to imagine, within history but also (as it were) beyond history, one dialectic by which human subjects and inanimate objects may be said to constitute one another. He dislodges the question of things--the status of things and the value of things and the meaning of things--from the "tyranny of things" in America, even as he discloses a tyranny of the Thing that helps to explain both the power of monarchy and the problems of democracy. Twain wrote his first notes for The Prince and the Pauper in 1875; he was interrupted by the European tour and his enraging struggle to complete a Tramp Abroad. When he returned to The Prince in 1880, he did so jubilantly, and when he finished the novel in 1881, in the midst of the decorating nightmare, it remained a source of intense pleasure. That pleasure derived, I want to speculate, from his exquisitely perverse exposition of how an object's capacity to materialize identity remains contingent beyond the bounds of democracy and its consumer culture.

Twain thought of his house as "not unsentient matter." If it thus makes some sense to say, casually, that he fetishized his Hartford house, projecting onto it a life of its own, nonetheless his inexorable preoccupation can hardly be explained by "commodity fetishism" as Marx defined it, or by the "consuming visions," the "culture of consumption," or the "fable of abundance" that historians see emerging in the U.S. around 1880. Still, to establish the stakes of The Prince and the Pauper as I understand them, I want to address that fetishism and that culture. I also want to juxtapose a reading of Marx on the commodity with a reading of Twain's romance to portray them as rival yet twinned efforts to explain the tyranny of a "trivial thing. The juxtaposition is meant to exhibit something about both the subjects and the objects of American democracy. But I am especially interested in how Mark Twain shares with Karl Marx a logical, structural understanding of this tyranny, and how the "trivial thing" lurking in Twain's most widely read and least studied romance is explicable neither by the "object lessons" in the period nor cultural histories of the period, neither by the paradigms of consumption provided by novelists like Zola and Dreiser nor by historical accounts of consumerism.

Fetishisms

To gather some sense of these things, you could begin with George Santayana's The Sense of Beauty (1896), for Santayana's understanding of aesthetic value, and of the fetish character of the work of art, helps to clarify what Marx does not and cannot say in his theory of commodity fetishism, where "an extremely obvious, trivial thing" famously turns out to abound in "metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." Santayana did not share William James's antipathy toward the "grotesque stuff called Aesthetics in the systems of German philosophers, from Baumgarten and Kant downwards." But The Sense of Beauty is nonetheless clearly, if unexplicitly, written as an interruption of the Third Critique. To begin with, Santayana refuses to believe that our appreciation of beauty is, unlike pleasure, disinterested--an idea which could "seem[] satisfactory only to the least aesthetic minds." For we might simply say that all pleasure is disinterested, being an end in itself, if we don't also insist that aesthetic pleasures are indeed interested because the beautiful object is coveted, as a presence if not as a possession. Such a formulation shows how quietly yet tenaciously Santayana returns the object to aesthetics, from which, according to one reading of Kant, it had been summarily exorcised. Whether or not one concurs with Santayana's fundamental definition--"Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing" --it is clear that he means to contest the Third Critique with a basic psychological observation (initially shared by Kant yet argued beyond): "an element of sensation" is transformed "into the quality of a thing." Thus beauty, in Santayana's reformulation, "is constituted by the objectification of pleasure. It is pleasure objectified." In his effort to retrieve aesthetics as the study of sensation and perception, he describes beauty as reified pleasure, emphasizing less the quality of the feeling, more the quality (the thingness) of its apparent source.

Although his argument does not wholly square with the basic doctrine of physiological aesthetics--that the sense of beauty has a "purely physiological origin"--his emphasis on sensation and pleasure does away with the idea that judgment plays any role in aesthetic perception. For although the assessment of beauty may be made with the conviction of its universal validity, that conviction, in Santayana's view, is meaningless; it can only mean that someone with the same senses, "associations and dispositions" would produce a comparable assessment. In sum, "the frailty and superficiality of our own judgements cannot brook contradiction;" like any value, aesthetic value is contingent. Whereas, when it comes to calling something beautiful, Kant argues that a man "judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things," Santayana argues that it is because he considers beauty a property of things that a man speaks of judging for all men: "If we say that other men should see the beauties we see, it is because we think those beauties are in the object, like its colour, proportion, or size." Santayana wants to extend Humean epistemology, declaring that our experience of beauty resides in perception and thus cannot be separated from the apperceptive act by which the "chaos of impressions [is] framed [into] the world of conventional and recognizable objects." Emotions, no less than impressions of sense, can be objectified; they can be experienced as objects.

The unreasonableness of such a claim is very much to the point, for beauty, Santayana argues, is "a species of value" that, like all other values, derives from the "irrational part of our nature." And this is why he finally takes recourse in an analogy to the "primitive and inexperienced consciousness" that peoples the world with its projected "terrors and passions." Beauty is a projected value, phantasmatically experienced as integral to the perceived object. Insofar as the experience of beauty is "the survival of a tendency originally universal to make every effect of a thing upon us a constituent of its conceived nature," the study of aesthetics, rather than following Kant 's rationalization, must engage the "animistic and mythological habit of thought."

Such habits of thought supplied Marx with his analogy for the fantasy of autonomous value. Marx, too, was (debatably) making a psychological point about the human perception of value--though not about perception, not about sensation. In Capital, however aesthetically ambitious his account of the commodity may be, the aesthetics of the commodity itself are utterly beside the point. Nothing would have seemed so perverse to Santayana, who proclaims all value to be fundamentally aesthetic and begins his "outline of aesthetic theory" by pointing to the aesthetics of the everyday, the way we live our daily lives through our "aesthetic senses." These are the senses that play no part in Marx's account of commodity fetishism.

Or almost no part. For within the famous opening chapter of Capital it is hard not to sense an especially poignant contradiction. Marx's vivid portrayal of the commodity's vivacity--the imagery with which he portrays the commodified object-come-to-life--does not quite square with his theoretical presentation of the commodity's fetishization. His explanation of the commodity's structure, its bifurcation into use-value and exchange-value, makes it clear that the phantasmatic social life of things depends on their abstraction--more precisely, on their abstractability, their fungibility, their capacity to have a relation to each other that is mediated by the abstracting measure of value. And yet, at the very outset of his account of the fetishism of the commodity, explaining how a material object "transcends sensuousness" once it appears as a commodity, Marx provides a surreal image of a table that by no means etherializes the object. This table, when understood as an object of use, is "wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing," and it becomes, when it "emerges as a commodity," something else: "It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will." What I want to mark as a contradiction--or, more fairly, a productive antinomy--is the way that the table, despite its transformation, retains much of its material form and force: its brain is wooden, it comes to life acrobatically, its very ideas (call them the ideas in things) are understood in relation to physical recreation. This is Marx's way of representing a metaphysical condition as a physical event.



Continues...

Excerpted from A Sense of Things: the Object Matter of American Literature by Bill Brown Copyright © 2003 by Bill Brown. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction: The Idea of Things and the Ideas in Them
1. The Tyranny of Things
Fetishisms
Object Lessons
A Trivial Thing
Democratic Objects
2. The Nature of Things
Iteration
Creatures of Habit
Possession
The Miracle of History
Misuse Value
3. Regional Artifacts
Natural Histories
Life-Groups and the Cultural Thing
Material History
"A Kind of Fetichism"
Waste Matter
Modernist Archeology
4. The Decoration of Houses
Décor
The Novel Démeublé
Reification as Utopia
Things to Think With
Golden Bowls
Coda: The Death and Life of Things: Modernity and Modernism
Notes
Index
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