This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on July 14, 2017
This week’s theory bite takes a step away from animal studies, to focus on a different relationship between humans and the environment; moving from the animate to the inanimate, this article explores “Thing Theory” and it’s relevance to three different children’s texts.
As described by key theorist Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” interrogates the complex network of relationships that characterize human “being’ within the material world around them, building on the insights of material culture about agency, subjectification, and objectification. Thing theory relies upon the distinction between the “object” – a product of subject signification – and the “thing” – an artifact fundamentally immune to or excluded from signification. Brown explains that, “As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things” (Brown, “Thing Theory”, 4). According to Thing Theory, however, the removal of “things” from “their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition”, disrupts this usual process of cultural signification and objectification, causing one to notice the material reality and opaqueness of the “thing” itself (Brown, “Thing Theory”, 4).
Where, then, in children’s literature do objects serve to upset the anthropocentric process of objectification, and reveal a problematic relationship between people and things? Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book provide good examples.
In Northern Lights, one object in particular becomes central to the story: the alethiometer given to Lyra by the Master of Jordan College. An object of immense value and yet worthless to those who do not know how to use it, the alethiometer’s key significance is not its ability to reveal truth, but Lyra’s misplaced conviction that her purpose in the novel is to take it to her father. Given weight by this conviction, the alethiometer becomes opaque at the end of the novel, therefore, when it is revealed that Lord Asriel has no use for it; as if to enact this clouding of her understanding, Lyra “took up the alethiometer and wrapped it in its black velvet” (378). In this moment, the alethiometer is neither a tool subject to human requirements, nor a signifier of human skill and knowledge, but instead an object of mystery, resisting Lyra’s attempts to remain a stable subject as the alethiometer’s bearer. Only by recognizing the “thingness” of the alethiometer in this moment does Lyra come to understand its true importance: not as a tool she can command, but as an ally with agency and agendas of its own. This recognition is a turning point in the novel, underscoring Pullman’s message about the place of humanity in the world.
Mortal Engines, in a similar manner, removes objects from their familiar circuits within human life as a means of emphasizing human fallibility and vulnerability: as suggested by the hybridity of the title, inanimate objects in the Mortal Engines quartet of novels frequently become entangled with animate subjects. Leaving aside the fascinating question of the cyborg Shrike for a later publication, Mortal Engines initially introduces inanimate objects such as the “seedy” Tom discovers before falling from London to the Wastelands (21). Technologically obsolete, these objects are prime examples of objects removed from “their flow within the circuits of production and distribution” (Brown, “Thing Theory”, 4) by the passage of time, and in their opaqueness the reveal to the reader the illusory nature of human technological superiority.
Finally, Neil Gaman’s The Graveyard Book plays with both genre conventions and the dichotomy of living/nonliving through his portrayal of gravestones. No longer seen “through” to their symbolic signification as memorials to the dead, gravestones in this novel serve a variety of unlikely purposes, ranging from alphabet primer (33) to gateways to other worlds (43). In these roles, the materiality of these stones is emphasized in place of their usual immaterial spirituality: they are no longer signifiers but quite literally ‘stones” which frequently obstruct, support, or block the path of the living Bod who moves amongst them. By disassociating gravestones from their symbolic role in human culture, Gaiman invites readers to reconsider the place of living human beings within the wider matrix of the non-human, immortal natural environment.
For further insight into Thing Theory, you can listen to Bill Brown’s talk “The Nature of Things” on the Big Think Podcast.
Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 3, 2001, pp. 1-22.
Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. Bloomsbury, 2001.
Pullman, Phillip. Northern Lights. Scholastic Ltd., 1998.
Reeve, Phillip. Mortal Engines. Scholastic Inc., 2001.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.