The pages of 20th century American literature are stuffed with stuff. When you begin to read for things, you will encounter them constantly: baseballs, bric-a-brac, books within books. There are dolls, chairs, paperweights, cans of ground coffee, red wheelbarrows. The plethora of objects on the page has fueled a branch of academic inquiry dubbed “thing theory”—a capacious subfield that ties together strands of material culture studies, art history, and literary studies, among other arenas. In his foundational book, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (2003), Bill Brown proposes a rereading of texts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to “ask why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or re-make ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies.” Brown reads for the relationship between things and ideas, and puts forth an account of literary objects that extends beyond commodity fetishism, a reading that stretches toward the strange vibrations of matter in literature and our lives.
Versions of this heuristic are flourishing in other humanities disciplines, too, among them philosophy and political science, often challenging the traditional distinctions between subject and object. There is a whole genre of popular literature dedicated to “object lessons” and investigations of “the private lives” of everything from coffee cups to car engines. Indeed, Wasserman asks, “Who really thinks of matter as static and stable anymore?”
Wasserman is not really reading for the presence of the thing but its absence, or more precisely its disappearance. Unlike other thing theorists, she is not so much interrogating the way we live among objects but rather what is generated by the constancy of their death. She homes in specifically on the category of “ephemera”: objects that were not made to be saved, like stamps and playbills and ticket stubs, which were often pinpointed to a specific event or time. “Unlike the stubborn fact of the obsolete object, ephemera are a fleeting currency,” Wasserman writes. “Unless cared for or accidentally preserved, they vanish into an unknown or unseen horizon. Defined by their imminent disappearance or destruction, ephemera call into question our most basic assumptions about matter.” What is generated, Wasserman asks, by the experience of living with things that are vanishing constantly? And, paradoxically, why does so much ephemera seem to persist, at least partially, saved in collections or now even suspended in digital libraries centuries after they might have been trashed?
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