- A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature by Bill Brown
Chicago, 245 pp, £22.50, April 2003, ISBN 0 226 07628 8
When Robinson Crusoe tries to convey what it felt like to be the sole survivor of a shipwreck, he finds himself at almost as much of a loss now, in the telling, as he was then, gloomily pacing the shoreline of an uncharted and to all appearances inhospitable island; until, that is, objects come to his rescue. He cannot describe the ‘thousand gestures and motions’ he made, in his moment of crisis, without any hope of a response. Whatever form they took, the gestures and motions were, he thinks, an expression of despair, on his own behalf, and of sorrow on behalf of his dead comrades: ‘For, as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them, except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.’
It seems that Crusoe’s narrative cannot encompass a state of mind which, having neither a past nor a future, is not strictly narratable. The gestures and motions are not recognisably the product of the man he once was, and they do not prefigure the man he will become (the one they prefigure would be unlikely to survive for very long on a desert island). As narrative fails, description takes over. The bits and pieces obtrude. A description of bits and pieces is concerned with neither memory nor desire. It insists on the presence of the present.
Of course, the hats, the cap and the shoes do stir memory, for an instant; they are a ‘sign’ of those who once wore them. But Defoe goes to considerable lengths to snuff out this flicker of a history in them. The two shoes don’t form a pair. Swept one way and another by the storm, they have come ashore at random. Had they been fellows, Crusoe could have set himself productively to work, and at the same time held communion with their original owner, by placing them on his feet. But since they do not match, the shoes can only be regarded as detritus. Dispersal has cut them off not only from the past, but from the future. They may have some way to go, as detritus, but since the island doesn’t boast a recycling plant, they will remain for the duration what they already are. They constitute the stuff of death rather than the stuff of life.
Narrative keeps fresh the capacity for memory and desire which, in turn, freshens narrative. What is kept fresh by the description of bits and pieces of clothing, or kept sour by it, is something else again: melancholy, perhaps. The hats, the cap and the shoes are not there for anyone. They don’t ask to be inspected. It matters little whom they appear to, and there is no sense to be made of them. This is what the world looks like when there is no one there to see it.
Defoe’s successors seem to have thought that an object was not truly fit to be described unless it was in a state of abject disrepair or decay. And they tended to reserve their most microscopically precise descriptions of rancid formlessness for moments when their protagonists, too, have been brought low, by bad luck or bad judgment. Heroes and heroines should expect to spend some time in the company of detritus. When they sink, the novel sinks with them from narrative to description. The most detailed description in the fifteen hundred pages of Clarissa is of the room in which the heroine, after her rape by Lovelace and her subsequent escape and recapture, has been imprisoned for debt. Entering it, Belford, Lovelace’s confidant, is struck at once by the ‘broken walls, which had been papered, as I saw by a multitude of tacks, and some torn bits held on by the rusty heads’. Belford takes note of a good deal else in the room before he takes note of Clarissa, who has so far remained motionless and silent. His unremitting catalogue of cheap furniture on its last legs is not just a bid for Lovelace’s sympathy. It stands in for narrative, doing what narrative would have done had there been anything left to narrate. Clarissa is already dead, in effect, even if it does take her a further three hundred pages to die.
A list of other heroines brought low would have to include Fanny Price, whose visit to her family in Portsmouth requires her to take note of ‘the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy’. Feeling the loss of Mansfield Park’s moral and physical comforts acutely, and expecting all the while to hear that Edmund Bertram has engaged himself to Mary Crawford, Fanny does a Belford on her own behalf: so effectively, indeed, that Austen, unable to tolerate the suspension of narrative, immediately supplies an event. The butter is not a moment greasier when her father broadcasts the news which will mean for her an immediate resumption of ‘active indispensable employment’, and an end to melancholy.
The establishment in 19th-century life and literature of the commodity as the object par excellence made new work for description. Austen’s filthy cups and saucers, like Defoe’s shoes and Richardson’s rusty tacks, are objects laid low by accident or neglect. A commodity is an object raised in and through its preparedness for exchange – its abstraction from the sensuous human activity of which it is the product – to the status of an idea. Marx’s chapter on commodity fetishism in Das Kapital defines commodification as a form of transcendence. The table that has become a commodity, Marx says, may still stand with its wooden 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.’ Marx pauses over the object which is turning into a fetish; Richardson, by contrast, had paused over the object which was no longer a fetish. Belford notices in Clarissa’s room an ‘old, tottering, worm-eaten table, that had more nails bestowed in mending it to make it stand, than the table cost fifty years ago when new’.
Novels began to fill up with commodities. Henry James marvelled at Balzac’s ‘mighty passion for things’; for Balzac, James said, ‘mise-en-scène’ is no less significant than ‘event’. In Balzac’s novels, moreover, the mise-en-scène is alive with point of view. If a room is empty, Balzac will supply a virtual occupant: someone to notice its contents, and thus to absolve them of inertness. Whatever exists for someone (for anyone at all) has the potential to provoke memory or desire. The parlour in which much of the action of Eugénie Grandet takes place contains two copper candlesticks which can be converted from display to use by the removal of their upper parts; since the story of the Grandets does not seem likely to require such measures, Balzac arranges for a virtual demonstration. The objects in this parlour are described, James says, only in so far as they bear on the action; and their character is indeed altered dramatically by the arrival of Charles Grandet, of the Paris branch of the family, who thinks them incurably provincial.
In many 19th-century novels, description furthers narrative. However, it can still bring narrative to an abrupt halt; and the things which obtrude when it does are not such as to provoke memory or desire. There are few scenes more melancholy in 19th-century fiction, or in paintings such as Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s The Last Day in the Old Home, than the enforced sale of household goods. Thackeray made a specialism of clearance, in Vanity Fair and then again in The Newcomes; George Eliot followed suit, at length, in The Mill on the Floss. Clearance is a double reduction. It deprives commodities of their past, of the surplus of meaning and value they have acquired since their purchase (Mrs Tulliver doesn’t like to think of the teapot she bought as a newly-wed being set before customers at the Golden Lion). And it deprives them of their future, because the ruthless scepticism of the bargain-hunters who thumb curtains, prod mattresses and bang the doors of cabinets exposes these still radiant commodities ” as the waste-matter they will soon become. A table stands on wooden feet, not on its head; and those feet already show signs of incipient rot.
Bill Brown takes up the story of commodification and its discontents as it reaches a climax of a kind in America in the 1880s and 1890s. By that time, the fetishism of the commodity had been further reinforced by the widespread use of elaborate techniques of presentation and advertisement. There have been several informative studies of the effect on human activity of this new ‘society of the spectacle’, including one by Brown himself. What he proposes here is an inquiry along rather different lines: not into the ‘subject’ framed by ‘consuming desires’, but into an ‘object-matter’ which may – especially if it takes a literary turn – avoid consumption altogether.
Although Brown is by no means the first to argue that literature can ‘redeem’ the material world from commodification, he does so engagingly, with ingenuity, tact and an admirable breadth of reference. His first move is to turn the tables on Marx’s table-turning. The table which comes to life in the chapter on commodity fetishism comes to life acrobatically, Brown observes, and so cannot be said to have lost its sensuous form and force. Matter survives commodification intact, inside the idea which has made it a commodity, where it can be grasped by a theory: not Marx’s theory, but literature’s. For Brown, one could say, there is a bad fetishism, theorised by Marx, which raises matter into meaning and value, but always the same (abstract) meaning and value; and a good fetishism, theorised in literature, which raises it yet further, into a compelling particularity.
Good fetishism works by a ‘reobjectification of the object’, which serves to dislodge it from ‘the circuits through which it is what it typically is’. ‘Thingness is precipitated as a kind of misuse value.’ If we use a penknife as a screwdriver, we dislocate it from its routine objectification as an instrument for cutting; and that process of redeployment should enable us to grasp its ‘presence’ as a thing to be compelled by, its radiant ‘knifeness’. I’ve taken this account of good fetishism not from The Sense of Things, but from Brown’s inventive and searching essay on Virginia Woolf and objects, which appeared four years ago in the journal Modernism/ Modernity. It’s odd that no comparable account appears in this book, where the argument does at times depend on knowing the difference between an object and a thing, though the example itself survives intact. Perhaps it seemed in its original formulation a little too much like Heidegger-lite.
For Brown, the clearest statement of good fetishism’s purpose and method is William Carlos Williams’s brisk ultimatum: ‘No ideas but in things.’ This does not mean that there should be no ideas at all, Brown explains. It means rather that ‘the poet should recognise things as the necessary condition for ideas.’ Literature can often be about the reobjectification of the object, and is itself such a reobjectification; or, at least, is so to remarkable effect under specific historical circumstances, in America at the end of the 19th century. Brown’s main focus in The Sense of Things is on anticipations of the American Modernist encounter with the ideas in things in three novels published in the 1890s: Frank Norris’s McTeague, Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs and Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton. The book neither develops nor contradicts the thought provoked by its subtitle, that American good fetishism is in some way exceptional.
McTeague is the story of a San Francisco miner-turned-dentist who murders his wife because she won’t share her lottery winnings; the dentist ends up handcuffed to a corpse in Death Valley with a half-dead canary for company. Mansfield Park it isn’t. W.D. Howells greeted McTeague as a ‘miracle of observation’. The ‘miracle’, as Brown skilfully demonstrates, is in the narrating. In this novel, everyone, including the novelist, proves to be a creature of (good or bad) habit; and habit earns its keep by offering protection against singularity. Like his characters, Norris struggles to achieve quantitatively, by sheer repetition, a certain quality of ‘material thingness’ or presence. On occasion, however, the anxious quantitative habit lapses, and an object pops up, freed miraculously from the ‘circuits’ that define it. Taken down from its position of vantage, the gigantic gold tooth which has advertised McTeague’s business ceases to be a commodity and a sign, and – sat ‘in one corner of the room, next to the window, monstrous, distorted, brilliant, shining with a light of its own’ – becomes instead a thing. It has been reobjectified. Brown explains such reobjectifications as the product of a change of attitude on Norris’s part: a commitment, somewhat ahead of his time, to the techniques that were to ‘energise’ the ‘Modernist capacity to call our attention to objects’. McTeague’s tooth takes its place alongside Duchamp’s urinal, Picasso’s bicycle seat and the ‘broken pieces’ of a green bottle which shine with a light of their own in Williams’s ‘Between Walls’.
Brown turns from the inexorable downward spiral of McTeague to the ‘underplotted sketches’ which comprise The Country of the Pointed Firs, an account of a summer spent in Dunnet Landing, Maine, and of various encounters with people and places (the one being hard to distinguish, at times, from the other). The very sketchiness of these sketches, so unlike Norris’s anxious narrative habit, permits the detailed representation of a ‘world of legible artefact’. In the 1880s, anthropologists had begun to define objects by their function within a specific environment. In museums, the new ‘exhibitionary genre’ of the life-group ‘replaced the serial display – fifty jugs lined up on a shelf – with the re-creation of a scene of use: a woman holding a single jug to bring water to her child’. Like the life-group in a museum, the tableaux which make up The Country of the Pointed Firs reveal the ‘logic’ whereby an ‘everyday object’ becomes, through the accretions of history, a ‘cultural thing’. If Norris subsumes description into narrative (or would like to), Jewett rather more consistently subsumes narrative into description; though she was also concerned, Brown points out, to dramatise the ‘limits of any such materialism’.
The remainder of the book is devoted to Henry James, and, not surprisingly, the emphasis changes. For James’s fiction has to do with ‘the work of the mind as a great thing in excess of things, as it were, which can hardly be measured by any logic of possession or possessive individualism’. The argument has crossed over from the realm of ‘it is’ into the realm of ‘as it were’, where authors dematerialise into adjectives: ‘The Jamesian sense of things can have nothing to do with the sensation of thingness.’
James said that he had at first valued the story which became The Spoils of Poynton – the story of a mother’s dispute with her son over the ownership of the furniture of a fine old house – for ‘the sharp light it might project on that most modern of our current passions, the fierce appetite for the upholsterer’s and joiner’s and brazier’s work, the chairs and tables, the cabinets and presses, the material odds and ends, of the more labouring ages’. These odds and ends demanded a Balzac, James thought. But the sharp light he himself was to throw on them emanates more or less exclusively from the consciousness of Fleda Vetch, companion to Mrs Gereth, the embattled matriarch and collector. Fleda Vetch ‘almost demoniacally both sees and feels, while the others but feel without seeing’.
According to Brown, James’s good fetishism flows from the recognition that ‘the being of things lies no more in the details of their mere physicality than does the being of humans.’ Objects are to be reobjectified not by Balzacian detail alive with point of view, but by their incorporation into the feelings people have for each other. When Mrs Gereth refers to Fleda Vetch as a piece of furniture, she does not mean to insult her; Fleda knows that the meaning and value of their friendship lies in a shared appreciation of pieces of furniture. In this ‘utopia of reification’, Brown argues, a feeling for objects can become the ‘ground’ of ‘feeling as such’. The account he gives of The Spoils of Poynton as a ‘Balzacian novel in excess of Balzac’ is acute and engrossing (though the relationship between Eugénie Grandet and Charles Grandet in some ways prefigures, and is not exceeded by, that between Fleda Vetch and Owen Gereth).
The drawback to this approach, oddly, is that if anything it underestimates the novel’s object dimension. Its focus is exclusively on one set of objects: the spoils which, beginning at Poynton, are transferred to Ricks, Mrs Gereth’s new home, and then back again. But the spoils exist as spoils only in relation to the stuff accumulated in a different manner at Waterbath, the family home of Owen’s fiancée, Mona Brigstock: the cheap blue plates, the pink vases, the stuffed cockatoo on its tropical bough, and all the other ‘maddening relics’. Waterbath’s ‘cynical sameness’ (its bad fetishism) is of course the level above which Mrs Gereth has raised Poynton. But it also provokes in Fleda and Mrs Gereth a feeling about objects which accords neither with good nor with bad fetishism. ‘The worst horror was the acres of varnish, something advertised and smelly, with which everything was smeared.’ Varnish – the stickiness with which the Brigstocks, like the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend, have smeared not only their furniture but, so to speak, themselves – is the stuff of upward mobility. The disgust it provokes in the two ladies might be considered the opposite of – and in aesthetic terms, the antidote to – fetishism’s absorptive process.
When Maggie Tulliver enters the parlour in Dorlcote Mill the day after the clearance, she feels dismay at the sight of the ‘oblong unfaded space’ on the wall where the bookcase had hung. Fleda Vetch, staying at Ricks, is kept awake by the thought of the ‘gaps and scars’ left at Poynton as a result of the voluntary clearance carried out by Mrs Gereth. The empty spaces provoke in both young women a radical disillusionment about things. Fleda goes on to characterise Mrs Gereth as a ‘shipwrecked woman’ whose ‘small salvage’ at Ricks is mere stuff. The reason for her relative immunity to fetishism is made plain when she leaves Mrs Gereth at Ricks to visit her disreputable father in dreary West Kensington. Here, cut off from her adopted home, and not knowing what the man she loves is up to, she has her Fanny Price moment. The moment is provoked not so much by the tea-board (though that does play its part) as by her father’s collection of ‘shabby and battered’ objects: brandy flasks, matchboxes, pen-wipers, ashtrays. Mr Vetch’s fetishism is a grotesque echo of Mrs Gereth’s; it arouses in Fleda, as the tea-board had once aroused in Fanny Price, ‘short wild gusts of despair’. There are objects in The Spoils of Poynton other than the spoils of Poynton, and ways to respond to objects other than fetishism.
There isn’t, for that matter, any shortage of melancholy in McTeague. The sale of household goods takes up almost as many pages in McTeague as it does in The Mill on the Floss: Trina McTeague’s heart breaks, like Mrs Tulliver’s, when the kitchen utensils begin to go. These objects have been reobjectified not by elevation into thingness, but by the sight through other eyes of the waste-matter they will become. It is the same with the gold tooth, which makes a forlorn final appearance as a table piled with greasy dishes before it, too, is sold. The tooth has rather more Mansfield Park in it than William Carlos Williams.
The Sense of Things has a great deal else to say about James (The Golden Bowl, in particular, but also The American Scene); and about Twain, Stein and Cather. It combines fresh thinking about literary texts with scrupulous attention both to historical context and to a wide range of speculative effort, from Thoreau through Simmel, Benjamin and Lukács to Adorno and Lacan. The concept of fetishism seems to be enjoying a vigorous afterlife in cultural theory (after Freud, that is, as well as Marx); Brown has contributed powerfully to its nurture. What his book lacks, I think, is the attention Wallace Stevens gave, in a melancholic late poem, to the ‘plain sense of things’. Stevens’s plain sense is the understanding arrived at after we have come to an ‘end of the imagination’: to a time when the things have no ideas left in them. ‘Yet the absence of the imagination,’ Stevens continues, ‘had/Itself to be imagined.’