What happens when things play a part in literature? Bottles, walking sticks, umbrellas, amulets, jewelry, furniture, and so on, often carry significance far beyond the apparent value and function they are assigned. Things can speak volumes about genre, plot, personification, tropes and so forth. They can articulate nostalgia for the authentic real or they can become uncanny if we are in doubt as to their status or ontology. They can be made to speak manifestly like anthropomorphic beings or implicitly and metaphorically. When things ‘come alive’ in literature they can reflect on the nature of writing (pen, ink, book) or they can serve as mnemonics within a fictional text. Things can form poetic lists, suggest social or psychological value when given as gifts, point to a culture of commodification, or serve as exotic souvenirs. In short, things take on a host of inflections, not least in shaping an ecology of sorts in the relationship between humans and things. The interest in materiality and material culture in literary studies in recent years has produced a subfield, aptly named “Thing Theory” (Bill Brown). This seminar will examine thing theory by way of analytical examples culled from a variety of genres from Icelandic sagas to Danish fairytales to Norwegian novels to Swedish poems (the list of primary texts will be selected in concert with seminar participants’ interests), often in conversation with selected excerpts from major international writers like Dickens, Kleist, Rilke, Kafka, and Borges. Critical thinkers will include Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes; and we will consult recent works on thing theory such as Bill Brown (“Thing Theory”, A Sense of Things), W.J.T. Mitchell (“Romanticism and the Life of Things”), Elaine Freedgoodd (The Ideas in Things.), Peter Schwenger (The Tears of Things), Miguel Tamen (Friends of Interpretable Objects), Barbara Johnson (Persons and Things), Jonathan Lamb (The Things Things Say), Mark Blackwell (The Secret Life of Things), Susan Stewart (On Longing), Jane Bennett (Vibrant Matter).
Themes include: Gift (exchange, value), Memory (nostalgia, trauma), Reification (objectification, anthropomorphism, personification); Counterfeit (fake value, ethics), Ecology (nature, man).
Prerequisites: Graduate standing; consent of instructor.