Think about how easy it is to take objects for granted. You probably have many things literally within arm’s reach at all times—your phone, a wallet, maybe a pair of earbuds. We interact with and use objects every day, some more often than others, some with more ease than others, but always with intention. After all, these objects only make sense in the context of a subject, usually us, who bestows upon them a purpose. But what happens when this purpose is lost? What about when an object breaks, falls into obsolescence, or is no longer understood? This, and more, is the study of Bill Brown’s essay, “Thing Theory,” in which he provides a way of thinking about the relationships between objects and things as well as our relationships to both.
As a point of clarification, when Brown talks about “things” here he is meaning exactly what it sounds like: that which we refer to when we say, “hand me that thing over there” or, “what’s that thing you showed me last night?” Things represent that which lies just beyond our grasp. They’re something we know exists and can describe, perhaps even define, but cannot name. As Brown describes it:
The word designates the concrete yet ambiguous within the everyday: “Put it by that green thing in the hall.” It functions to overcome the loss of other words or as a place holder for some future specifying operation: “I need that thing you use to get at things between your teeth.” It designates an amorphous characteristic or a frankly irresolvable enigma: “There’s a thing about that poem that I’ll never get.”
In understanding the thing then we start to understand our relationships with objects. An object loses its identity and becomes a thing when it no longer fits our model of what that object should be:
We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.
Thus this transition from object to thing becomes less about the thing itself. After all, the thing is still the thing; a broken drill is still made of all the same atoms as a working one, give or take a few. What becomes more clear is our relation to the object. When a drill breaks, it’s no longer a drill to us because it cannot perform the function for which it was named.
There are clear connections between these ideas and Modernist design principles. As Louis Sullivan’s maxim goes, “form follows function.” What, then, happens to the form when the function can no longer be fulfilled?
A few other Modernists played with the idea of the thing as well. Brown mentions in his essay the work of Surrealists, who frequently removed objects from their comfortable, functional context and turned them into things: Salvador Dali dreamed of a manuscript written in white ink on a brand-new Rolls Royce; André Breton dreamed of finding “a book with a wooden statue of an Assyrian gnome as its spine, and with pages made of black wool” at a flea market.
There’s a similar stark awareness of the object that comes from looking at René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images. The painting, which depicts a pipe and displays the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (“this is not a pipe”), depicts an object but it is not the object. As Alfred Korzybski said, “the word is not the thing.” I’m also reminded of the work of Giorgio de Chirico, an artist whose work influenced the surrealist movement greatly and revolved around mysterious, ominous scenes. His paintings contained many things, but even the objects you might be able to identify were placed outside their normal context. These objects, now placed in a strange setting with no suggestion as to why it would be there or how it came to be, defy normal understanding and lose any associations with a subject—they can now be understood as things.
Speaking more generally, I think one of the most interesting things Brown mentions is the role that things play in our lives. Since they no longer carry the burden of having to serve a purpose or perform a task, we accept things for what they are—we don’t judge them for their usefulness. There’s a piece called Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, a large-scale sculpture of a typewriter eraser by American sculptor Claes Oldenburg that sits in the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art. Brown describes the different experiences of people who come across the sculpture:
The pleasure of looking at the people looking at the Typewriter Eraser, amused by its monumentality, is inseparable from the pleasure of listening to the child who, befuddled by an anachronistic object she never knew, pleads: “What is that thing supposed to be?” What is this disk with the brush sticking out of it? What was a typewriter? How did that form ever function? The plea expresses the power of this particular work to dramatize a generational divide and to stage (to melodramatize, even) the question of obsolescence. While the “timeless” objects in the Oldenburg canon (fans and sinks) have gone limp, this abandoned object attains a new stature precisely because it has no life outside the boundary of art—no life, that is, within our everyday lives. Released from the bond of being equipment, sustained outside the irreversibility of technological history, the object becomes something else.