CJLC began by asking Professor Arsic about non-capitalist ontologies of things, and then expanded the definition of consumption to discuss the porosity of the self, which led us to think about reading as a tool of perception in the art of ordinary living.
Devika: In your essay “Our Things”, you discuss the modes in which material culture is accessed and how Thoreau’s material ontologies set him apart from our capitalist way of thinking about material culture. To begin, can you give us an understanding of what you think an ontology of things or objects is within this framework, in which accessing, buying, owning are able to give meanings to things in a certain way?
Branka: That’s a very big topic and a field these days — “thing theory.” Beyond the traditional understanding of Marx’s critique of possession and reification, I find in some more recent thinking about things that actually builds on 17th, 18th, and 19th century theories of things. In the works of Thoreau, Melville, and some Romantic poets, it’s possible to differentiate between what philosophy at that point called an “object” and what might be called a “thing.” An object is something that exists necessarily and always only in relation to the subject, and is available for appropriation; a “thing” is something that exists regardless, resists appropriation; it has no inherent value, market value, trade value, nor even aesthetic value – just idiosyncratic value, not referencing anything outside of itself. There are actually not a lot of verbs in our language that can articulate the difference between thing and object.
Thoreau visits estate sales and tries to salvage certain things from the property of people he never met and did not know. Those things typically absolutely no value – they could not be sold, traded, or even exchanged. Thoreau approached things thinking he would incorporate them in a circulation of his own thinking – not in the manner in which Benjamin says commodities speak to their future owners, but in a manner in which they would give him thoughts, and themselves become indistinguishable from thinking.
I am also interested in this relatively recent theory proposed by Jonathan Lamb. He wrote a really interesting book called The Things Things Say about various modalities philosophers and authors of 18th and 19th century England thought about things as opposed to objects. He differentiates objects as entities that depend on human recognition and appropriation, and then in return enact reification, as opposed to things, which can exist with or without humans, in landscapes that are not anthropomorphic.
D: As you were talking about the subject-object relation, you seem to suggest that the process through which things become objects is through language grafting that meaning onto them. I was wondering what ways of knowing things, through and in language, we can have that don’t have that violence outside of renaming them.
B: I think there are many ways of knowing things that actually do not – are we talking about things or objects here?
Melanie: Perhaps things becoming objects.
B: To clarify, objects are things involved in a circulation of trade, exchange, and implication. For that reason, they cannot exist but in relation to a subject or an owner. Objects are known through their market value or exchange value, which makes them, in Marxist terms, little fetishes. But one can know a thing in ways that are not necessarily linguistic — through an affect, or through a memory.
Different things exist in different ontologies. These days I’m very preoccupied by cosmologies of South Pacific peoples, and doing a lot of research on that because of my book on Melville. They found a really amazing way of integrating the non-human forms of life and things. A canoe is a transformation of a tree, and things at large exist as an archive of the living. This is not animism; it’s an integrated way of understanding life, where the living matter out of which a thing is made of continues to live in the thing and then gives the thing a special status. The canoe either becomes sacred, or is integrated into the floor of churches to be part of the life of the living.
There’s a certain kind of respect that’s incurred, that has been afforded to that kind of keeps that thing in a circulation of life but in a way that cannot be either reified or economically valued because the thing is removed into the realm of the sacred, because it’s made out of a living being. The tree sacrificed for a canoe is just one of many examples – these cosmologies can teach us a lot about possible way of lives of things that would not be capitalist objects.
Thoreau critiques people who spend their lives paying off the houses not because he was claiming that people don’t need houses but because these houses are valued according to their market values, or geography (which is again their market values). Instead of developing a relation to one’s own space, these people relate to their houses as object of exchange and profit potential. These days, people will say “my apartment or my house appreciated so much,” as though this makes it better — this is the object of his critique.
M: That brings to mind the contemporary art market, in which people collect art objects to store wealth and accrue value. Even a creative production can be commodified and made into an object. What is the opposite of commodifying art? Your example of the canoe, an extension of a tree, is imbued with meaning from natural life. But could a thing contain human to human relations that are non-economic?
B: There is a way of relating to things from the point of view of a collector, in Benjamin’s sense of the word – there are collectors who collect with the idea of reselling, like what you said in terms of contemporary art. There are people who collect, like I do with books, with absolutely no idea of exchanging or doing anything. It is fueled by an intense obsession with not just the world of things but with what that collection would make to the world of the collector. Some people collect worthless things.
While one can say as long as you collect, you’re piling up and manifesting a capitalist drive to have more, possess more, I would say there’s a deeper way, a way in which the thing enters the bodily emotional and intellectual space of the collector. I am a collector of Japanese stationery, not because I think I can sell it, but because it does something to my writing. I have a tactile relationship to the surface of the paper and so I almost have this little ritual of choosing which paper is right for which sentence, which chapter – it breathes good energy into my thinking, and I write better. I’m sure a lot of people would be successful in doing tracing my attitude to the logic of capitalism, but I think that that would be reductive. There’s so much more to our way of relating to not only things, but things as representatives of the embodied world.
M: That answers to a lot of concerns I have about the way I relate to objects and sort of store myself in objects in my room. I don’t have any intention to exchange those objects, but they quickly accumulate as I curate more things into my life.
I am also thinking about how it’s impossible not to always be consuming. We eat first thing in the morning, which is a kind of consumptive act. From food to clothing, almost all the things we bring into our lives are bought or acquired in some kind of way, especially in this city. In the context of perpetual consumption, does the thing-object distinction present us with a more ethical way to relate to the things we consume?
B: It’s important to note that what we consume is not necessarily always things, and that leads us into a slightly different zone: the question of consuming and consummation, because we consume all kinds of things, from living beings to very sophisticated artifacts, say movies at the theater. So when we start talking about consuming, we are talking about a realm that is kind of broader than the realm of things.
Here, there is a set of questions that is absolutely related to capitalism, most obviously the way we consume energy, enacting geological transformation, climate change, all kinds of stuff to the Earth. There is also a question of ethics that was with us even before capitalism, and only escalated with capitalism’s power, globality, and tremendous technological force. But the question of consuming, for instance life, did not necessarily appear with capitalism. We have to eat — that’s kind of obvious, because if we don’t we put in jeopardy our own life, which is also unethical. But then there’s always the question of how and what we eat. Today, we have to think about that at very many levels, right. Most obviously, we have to think about fair trade, we have to think – a lot of people think about – health issues, organic food, responsible growing. But then there’s also this question of what kind of food, ontologically speaking, people should eat. Should we eat animals? That’s not a question invented by capitalism; it goes very deeply into the question of how we treat life and other living beings, and has a very long tradition, from Vedas and the Upanishads through Greek philosophy. And then we encountered it again in a very powerful way in the 19th century, with vegetarian movements, across the globe, really, in India, in the United States, in Thoreau’s Higher Laws and his call to vegetarianism. If we move the question of consuming in this direction, which I also think we should, then it becomes far more complicated, and it’s not something that’s necessarily related to capitalism, it’s related to how we treat other life forms, and what do we do to decrease the suffering of other living beings.
I would say that the ethics and politics consumption includes a responsibility toward resources, towards our environment, fair trade and labor. But I also want to think that when people think about consuming they think about the lives of beings other than humans, and do their best to respect them, maybe not even consume. I am proposing vegetarianism, but I do not want to sound moral or preachy here. Obviously people eat meat, but if they have to then there are more and less responsible ways of eating meat.
D: I wonder if this distinction between morals and ethics, especially with relation to consumption, comes back to what Melanie said about storing herself in objects. Sometimes, ethical acts can be ways to mark yourself or to be in a certain way, in a more concrete and unified way. But I know you think a lot about moving away from the self or reducing its boundaries.
B: I think about self as something that’s very porous, and in that sense ecological. Self is not something that’s not in a strict opposition, therefore, to the external world, whatever that world is at the moment, whether looking at a thing or a human being or a piece of clothing or artwork. Self is something that is not something that exists in some kind of formed, stable, fixed interiority into which all of this exteriority comes and I kind of process it, but keep it under control. Rather, self is something that’s always in the process of becoming thanks to its interaction with the external world.
Emerson would always say that we find ourselves in a certain mood. A mood is not something we generate, it’s rather that we keep asking ourselves: why might I today be feeling like this, a little bit low? Is it the rainy day? And often when we come to the answer to the question the mood evaporates, which only tells you that our moods have us rather than the opposite. That tells you it’s not that we do not have a self, it’s not either/or. It’s not kind of some hard division, and I anyway don’t believe in strict limits and borderlines of any sort, frontiers even.
Self is constantly being re-negotiated through not just some interiority that, say, psychoanalysis posits with some unconsciousness then that kind of presses on us and wants to get out, but through the external encounters and external world. Therefore, when I fall for an object or for a work of art, there are some works of art where I can acknowledge their aesthetic value, but I pass by that, and there are some that obsess me and I keep going back to them. And the reason for that I suspect is that they act on who I am and remake me.
What I’m saying is that even objects are a part of our self — not because they appropriate it, but because they acted on us, sometimes even generating our desire.
I think the same about clothing — it is not something that is not outside of who I am. So you can say, you live in a capitalist society and there are only so many place people can shop for clothes, which is true. But on the other hand, we do not look the same. You go down the streets and you see people are differently dressed, so that tells you something about their psyches. I refer to Proust and I refer to Deleuze, who thought that our desires are not invested, necessarily, in some sublime minds that are somewhere behind, but that when we see a person we see a person integrated in a landscape, dressed in a certain way — all of that is “person.” When Proust sees Albertine in a beach, she’s a part of the beach and the sea and the atmosphere and all of that, for him, is she.
M: If self is produced by collecting external bits of clothing, curating all that’s supposedly exterior, and becoming at each instant, I wonder if we have a baseline natural desire to possess or have things that come from outside of us, that we then assign the name of a capitalist urge to acquire things in the process of history.
B: I don’t think that one thing would exclude the other. What I am resisting is a reductionist approach that would interpret everything as just the simple outcome of the circulation of capital. Edgar Allen Poe, for instance, wrote a beautiful letter in which he wonders whether people who live thousands of years ago were somehow substantially different from us, on the basis of technology. He said something they had very complicated network relays of desire and encounters that made them feel happy or sad in the way in which we are.
The economic structure changes us, but also doesn’t — not because there is an essential self in us, but because of exactly what you were saying, and that is that porousness of ourselves, the fact that we are made of so many other beings. Think about ancestral religions — the basic reasoning behind them is that we are made of so many psyches that already were, that we are, in a sense, multiplicitous. I think many people realized, a long time ago, what some theorists do not realize today: that we are many. That there are many memories in us that are not ours but are given to us, that become us, that there is a circulation of minds and even gestures or words that make us and remake us in a way that we can’t control, so that we are, actually, made of relations including not just humans, but the environment and animals and plants and the elements. I’m a very different person where I’m close to the ocean. And much better.
D: Is this to say we can’t trace the precise source of our desires, or the precise ways in which things act on us? Is it simply a ‘magical interaction’ produced by this dense conglomeration of relations that you talk about?
B: With this I go in the direction again of Emerson and pragmatism. Emerson thought — and Proust also has a similar understanding, a similar phrase — that there are ‘involuntary perceptions. When I talk about porousness that’s what I mean. We perceive so many things without even knowing when and how and why they work upon us. Those are, in fact, affects that work in us and re-work us before we can even figure out the kinds of changes that have been initiated in us.
This is not to say that we are absolutely doomed or delivered to so many contingent affects, perceptions and sensations that we can’t control. It is rather to say that things start happening to us much before we actually became aware of their happening to us, and then we can then think about whether we can act against them to react to them. But whatever we do to them, we are also, by the moment we start acting on them on them — on our affects or our sensations or our perceptions — touched by them. And that’s what I mean when I say we are acted on or upon — not magically but in a way in which our affects precede us.
But I’m not saying that we are in their control. We can actually look and say, “Here’s what I feel. What should I do about that?” It’s the feeling you find in yourself, and the fact that it’s there changes you, even if of no other reason than for the amount of force that it will require for you to act on it, to act back on it. And that interaction, again, will change you. So I’m not saying that there is not something we can call “rational agency,” but that rational agency is a very intricate and complicated thing made up of a lot of irrational things.
D: The way in which we come to abstractions, especially in the context and the conditions of the university environment, neglects this system of irrationality or seeks to deny it. I was wondering what you thought about that and how you navigate your place here within the university and within the expectations of being in the English department?
B: So for somebody who is so convinced in the porousness of the self and the weakness of rational agency, I don’t want to say that I act as a rational agent all the time. It’s not that, you know, I wake up and have a clear plan of my day hour to hour, as if this is what’s going to happen. I also have a child and that means I’m not in possession of my time.
Research is going on for me 24/7. Sometimes, for instance, I can’t fall asleep and then I start thinking and figure out a paragraph that I couldn’t figure out that morning when I was writing and then I immediately get up and I write it. When I talk now to you I’m thinking “Oh this thing I said about affect I should follow up on.” In a sense, I always write.
The department has a pretty organized set of customs and expectations and behaviors regarding what a good citizen should be or do. And I’m trying to be a good citizen in every realm of my political life, not just in the department but in general.
M: I am thinking about what your conception of rational agency means for us as students of literature — if we define consumption more broadly like you were speaking of earlier, we consume ideas at school, consume what we read and consume in our dialogues with others so as to become, right now, as we learn. I struggle not to be the product of what I’m reading, and am wondering if that’s a problem.
B: Of course! But if it’s a good reading then you’re going to be a good product!
M: But where do we exercise control? When we choose what to read?
B: See that’s the thing! Well, there’s several things, but it’s the thing I’m constantly working through with my graduate students who are in position to write their own dissertation, which is expected to be a piece of of original research and thinking. I’m always advising them that they should not be too original, but just a little bit original. I try to say to them that it’s kind of all happening at the same time. It’s kind of a “mesh,” as it were, but that’s how life is in general.
You never take everything from what you read, that’s impossible. I don’t even think that religious people take absolutely everything from religious texts. I think there’s always some way of filtering. Some things stay with you, and some things you don’t know have stayed with you. And then years later — this happens to me very often — I realize, “Oh, didn’t Kant say that? Where did I read that?” Then I spend days searching through my books and typically even what I’m looking for is not even what I underlined three years ago.
It somehow stays with you and in different periods of time of your life and your thinking, you get back to the books you read and take very different things from them. All that is to say that you filter. You take something that speaks to you, that takes the objects we were talking about “out of your mind,” as Emerson would say.
What does that mean? It means it takes you out of what you already know. That’s when thinking really starts, if you experience this wonderful moment of a thought or a philosopher or an author or an artist or whoever taking you out of what you know to a different place, making you learn new things, seeing things differently then things start happening in a very interesting way. And then it’s all a mesh, because then you read a little bit and then you stop and then you start writing a little bit but then the more you write about it the clearer things that you read become, then you go back and you read which then in turn illuminates some difficult spots in your writing, and so on and so forth.
Good writers really are taken by what they read, really think about it. One thing produces another. My theory is that one can’t write well if one is not a good reader and one cannot think well if one is not a good reader. It all depends on great reading that generates both attention to language and good writing and thought.
B: I just wanted to add that there’s a whole aspect of contemporary world — this world of the web and digital reality where the question of programming what people are going to be and how they’re going to feel is prevalent — that I don’t know about. I have sense that it’s almost a new world – a total world – and so much that we still don’t know about the ways in which that can actually be more in tune with the logic of capitalism and generating and possessing and manipulating minds, generating persons even in a certain way. I say this not as an informed claim, as I am really a very old fashioned person. I write my books in handwriting. I don’t have Facebook. But it is some sense that I’m getting from that whole general reality.
D: Part of the contemporary situation is that the information we start taking in abstraction happens at a disembodied level and the more that happens the harder sometimes it is to interact with materials and allow them to work on you. I was wondering how we might think of more embodied forms of reading of taking in information?
B: Well, that again can be given a narrow and broad answer. For instance Benjamin’s thesis that perception is reading, or Emerson’s, also, is that we involuntary perceptions and voluntary ones. Voluntary is a kind of reading where we select and and choose — in which sense everything is reading. There are things we decide not to read even though they are right in front of our nose in our everyday lives, which is precisely why to teach people the skill of reading and then like really attentive reading is in fact not just a skill from which they reading of literature would benefit but a political skill.
Persons who are skilled in very patient slow attentive reading will miss less disturbing signs, say even in the realm of the political. How do you decide which article you read in New York Times? All of that requires a very developed — but even conversing with other people, trying to figure out what is it their trying to tell me. All of that, you know, the skill of reading well… Attention to reading is not something only students of English and philosophy should be skilled in. I think everybody should be educated in the art of reading because it’s the most essential art for ordinary living. It is, in the end, the art of paying attention.