The Literary Life of Things
The Literary Life of Things
Introduction: Lively Objects-Scenes of Animation and the American Literary Imagination
Objects are no longer dead. In current critical thought, the material world is gaining much attention, and inanimate matter is seen to possess agency and vitality-to be alive with potential, ontological defiance, and vibrant force. While this renewed focus on questions of materiality in the humanities and the social sciences is a rather recent phenomenon, variously designated as the material turn or the new materialisms, the object world has long played a vital role in the American literary imagination. Because narrative fiction depicts human subjects in the concrete circumstances of everyday life, it is a medium that grants us particular access to a material world that can become fully animate. The worlds conjured up in and by narrative are usually configured as a tangible universe. Be it the built environment of a city, a natural habitat, or the microcosm of the home, material life is depicted as the coexistence of human subjects and inanimate objects. My book shares the 'current interest in questions of material culture, objecthood, and thingness' that W.J.T. Mitchell observes in a number of academic fields-from sociology and political science to literary and cultural studies. Like other new materialist studies, The Literary Life of Things seeks to go beyond the more traditional materialisms inspired by Marx (which remain largely focused on political economy and class relations). It does so in two ways: first, by engaging with the concrete material situations and physical forces that impact and mold human lives, and, second, by spotlighting the cultural, ecological, psychological, affective, perceptive, and aesthetic dimensions of how people relate to inanimate objects and envision these relations.
Setting out from these premises, as well as from the observation that objects have a much-neglected life in fiction, my book focuses on making visible scenes of animation in different literary-material settings. It asks how people's lives are propelled by a dynamics of objects-how human aspirations, fantasies, practices, memories, and self-concepts engage the object world in essential ways. Rereading both canonical and lesser-known texts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction, I explore what I call the material imaginary-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.
It seems a bold claim to say that inanimate things have lives when it is generally understood that they constitute the realm of the inanimate, the inert, the passive backdrop of human action. This book sets out to challenge the common idea of the object world's inertia and lifelessness, and explores how, in American fiction and cultural history, objects are animated in numerous ways. Literary texts encourage us to see our practical, emotional, and imaginary engagement with the nonhuman environment in modes that resist any clear-cut distinction of subjects and objects, the physical and the metaphysical, the animate and the inanimate. The notion of the life of things, then,-whether social, cultural, psychological, or plainly physical-is premised on the recognition that human lives are enmeshed in matter and that we have to account for the agency and vibrancy of physical stuff, whether trees, clouds, toys, or elevators. Taking things seriously means to recognize the liveliness that resides in matter itself, that which Jane Bennett calls 'vital materiality'-'the capacity of things-edibles, commodities, storms, metals-not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.' The awareness that matter is active and potent and