American Studies and the New Materialisms: Vibrant Matter at Work in the American Literary Imagination
Sharing the current interest in the object world and in questions of thingness and materiality, my recent book—The Literary Life of Things (2014)—explores what I call the material imaginary—the various modes in which literary texts invite us to imagine physical objects in active roles that enable and impact people's actions, memories, and self-concepts and shape their social relations and cultural orientations. In my talk, I take up some of my literary examples (ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edith Wharton to Vladimir Nabokov and Jonathan Franzen) in order to illuminate the narrative and aesthetic forms of object life. Bringing literature and theory into relation, I argue that the so-called new materialism was always at work in American fiction. Literary texts exhibit the vibrancy of matter in human lives and beyond, and they dramatize the practical, ethical, and affective dimensions of our everyday engagement with the material world. Whether Arjun Appadurai's concept of the social life things, Bruno Latour's notion of object agency, or Jane Bennett's theorization of vital materiality, new materialist approaches have much to gain (and have indeed profited) from an engagement with the imaginative and aesthetic registers that literature has to offer. Challenging the common idea of the object world's inertia and recognizing the liveliness that resides in matter, American Studies and Object Studies share a theoretical interest in re-conceptualizing materialities and in understanding the political, ethical, and ecological dimensions of object life.