Bill Brown, in his seminal essay, "Thing Theory," argues that "We look through objects because they are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful." Thus objects are imbued with meaning that is relevant to the objects’ owner/s. By contrast, "we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us." (Critical Inquiry 28, no.1, Autumn , 1-22). Things are dead objects.
Something about this analysis troubles me. This feeling of unease stems from a semantic disagreement between Brown’s use of the terms "object" and "thing" and our everyday deployment of the terms in the English language. When was the last time you told someone that you had remembered to bring your "objects" with you?
"It’s okay, I have my things with me."
"Put it with the other things over there."
"I don’t want to leave my things lying around."
We play with things, use things, buy things, worry about things. We own things. At the point of ownership, the object undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a thing.
The object is the mass-produced Polaroid camera made by a corporate retailer with a nation-wide chain of stores. The object is boxed and packaged to look like a million of the same, identical objects. It sits on a shelf in a store and we, the customers, are objective to it. It is just another Polaroid camera.
Someone buys a Polaroid camera. It is no longer a camera but their camera, the camera which will travel with them on holiday, catch fleeting moments at parties, remind them of the time they visited such-and-such for Christmas.
"I’ve had this thing for ages, I hope this bit doesn’t come off. It would be such a shame if it broke."
"I wonder why she hasn’t swapped to digital? I guess using Polaroid is just her thing."
The thing is an object imbued with life, meaning and personality. The thing is an individual; the object is one of many. The poet Charles Baudelaire describes how ‘the overriding desire of most children is to get at and see the soul of their toys" (The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, New York: De Capo Press, 1994). This is what we do when we use our things, as their proximity and familiarity to us slowly reveals them.
When their lives are over, our things become objects once more. They are thrown out, burnt, destroyed, ripped up, sold on. Our things become dead objects. In second-hand shops, our things become objects become things again. In museums, things are taken to represent entire cultures or societies. They are stripped of their individuality. They are made anonymous, generalised and objectified in glass cases and displays.
Curators say: "I have a wonderful collection of objects."
But what of stuff? Is stuff going to be the next big thing?