Photography &/as Object Or Thing

Bill Brown’s thing theory focuses on the role of things. Objects are tied to subjects and things can become new objects. An object is “invisible” as we have become unaware of their existence. An object transitions into a thing when it becomes visible and/or one acknowledges the materiality or the function of an object or thingness. This awareness can be physical, for example when an object breaks the thingness is confronted. As Brown states:

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. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation. (4)

There is a subject-object and object-thing relation. Brown speaks about this in terms of the subject/object dialectic and object/thing dialectic. As synopsized by Kim O’Connor of The University of Chicago:

A dialectic is a mode of thought, or a philosophic medium, through which contradiction becomes a starting point (rather than a dead end) for contemplation. Dialectic is the medium that helps us comprehend a world that is racked by paradox…Hegel considered dialectic a medium of truth rather than a means to uncover illusion. Hegel’s dialectic involves the reconciliation of ostensible paradoxes to arrive at absolute truth. The general formulation of Hegel’s dialectic is a three-step process comprising the movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. One begins with a static, clearly delineated concept (or thesis), then moves to its opposite (or antithesis), which represents any contradictions derived from a consideration of the rigidly defined thesis. The thesis and antithesis are yoked and resolved to form the embracing resolution, or synthesis. Succinctly put, the dialectic “actualizes itself by alienating itself, and restores its self-unity by recognizing this alienation as nothing other than its own free expression or manifestation” (Bottomore 122). This formula is infinitely renewable; Hegel contended it would only terminate upon the world’s end. (O’Connor).

In short, dialectic creates a relationship between two words. The relationship is complimentary and in contrast in order to create an absolute truth from their opposition, “from thesis to antithesis to synthesis (O’Connor).”

A thing defines an object and an object defines a subject. The thing or objects thingness is employed to clarify, expand, question, or complicate subject-object dialectic. A thing can stand in for and/or mean a multitude of things. Important to Brown is the distinction that things arise from objects. According to Brown, a thing “denotes a massive generality as well as particularities”:

(1)   The word designates the concrete yet ambiguous within the everyday: “Put it by that green thing in the hall.”

(2)   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.”

(3)   It designates an amorphous characteristic or a frankly irresolvable

enigma: “There’s a thing about that poem that I’ll never get.” (4)

Another dialectic that Brown introduces is looking through-looking at.

 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.” We look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts. A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window. (4)

The window scene in Byatt’s novel should be read in relation to Nabokov’s point about how, things become multiply transparent and read in the context of a dialectic of looking through and looking at: “When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object” (Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things [New York, 19721, p. 1). We don’t apprehend things except partially or obliquely (as what’s beyond our apprehension). In fact, by looking at things we render them objects. (4)

The dialectic, as stated earlier is a three-step process, more concisely from thesis to antithesis to synthesis (O’Connor), I wanted to attempt to synthesis Brown’s definition of look through and look at. Looking at is defined as “the act of directing the eyes toward something and perceiving it visually.”  Looking through is defined as “to examine, esp cursorily.”

By directing the eyes towards things we render them objects by the act of perceiving them visually. We examine these objects cursorily (with excessive or careless speed) (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.”


In “Object Lessons” written by Greg Foster Rice, Bill Brown’s thing theory is applied to specific pieces that were apart of the Black is Black Ain’t exhibition. One piece specifically, titled Chair, 2003 by Rodney McMillian.


Rice uses “Robin Bernstein’s scholarship on the role of things in the performance of identity that rely heavily on material cultural artifacts. Rice states, “her point is not to give agency to inanimate objects,” but to give objects agency to become things. A thing in this sense, “it triggers a stylized bodily performance.” The thing invites the viewer to interact and the object is animated into thingness. “As Bernstein elaborates, …Things invite us to dance, and when we sweep them onto the dance floor, they appear to become animate (Rice, 5).” And “elevates the object into thingness”, anthropomorphizing it. “They do something by inviting humans to move (Rice, 6). Things need people to exist.


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