Literary criticism has long wavered in its attitude toward intention, sometimes considering it inaccessible and undesirable, and at other times, the source and arbiter of meaning. Much of this debate hinges on whether intention is understood as a mental event in the mind of a human or not. While some influential scholars of literature have tended to approach intention with the view that intention is a mental state, philosophers of action have long held that intention is a description of action that occurs in the world. This latter view promises to reinvigorate intention as a useful concept in literary study as scholars continue to expand the notion of text, beyond its purely verbal component, to text understood as the literary artifact comprising, and shaped by, human and nonhuman agency alike.
Do considerations of Asian America as, to use Kandice Chuh’s words, a “subjectless discourse” entail a turn toward objects? “Object theory” refers to a broad range of intellectual currents that take up objecthood, things, and matter as starting points for reconceptualizing identity, experience, politics, and critique. A few prominent threads of object theory include new materialism, thing theory, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology. Versions of object theory have also been developed in disability studies, critical ethnic studies, posthumanism, and multispecies studies. What spans these varied, sometimes contentious fields is an effort to displace anthropocentrism as the measure of being and knowledge. By troubling the (human) subject, the poststructural and deconstructive turns in Asian American studies have especially primed the field to more closely engage the place of objects in Asian America. While Asian American writers and critics have tirelessly explored subjectivity and its mixed fortunes—from providing access to legal rights, political representation, and social resources to facilitating the reinforcement of racial and ethnic hierarchies—they have also sought to tweak the historical relationship of Asian Americans to objects. Asian Americans have been excluded, exploited, and treated as capital because they have been more closely associated to nonhuman objects than to human subjects. Asian American literary studies develops object theories to grasp these dynamics through investigations of racial form, modes of objecthood, material things, ecology, and speculative fiction. Ultimately, object theory leads Asian American literary studies to reconsider the place of human subjectivity in politics, attend to the formation of Asian America through nonhuman matter, and develop positive visions for Asian American futures from speculative imaginations of being and reality. This article discusses the place of object theory in Asian American literature and surveys key topics, including phenomenologies of race, transvaluations of objecthood, speculative realisms, and ontologies of Asian America.
T. Hugh Crawford
Actor-network theory (ANT) is a methodology developed in the 1980s by scholars working primarily in the sociology of science and technology. It is a novel approach as it attempts to redefine actors not so much as willful or intentional agents but instead as any entity—human or nonhuman—that in some way influences or perturbs the activity of a techno-social system. Most effective when examining limited systems such as ship navigation, electrical network failures, and the like, ANT resists large generalizations and categories, including the very notion of the “social” which, according to actor-network theorists, is never an explanation but instead is that which must be explained. Well into the 21st century, practitioners have both embraced and critiqued ANT, but it remains a useful form of inquiry.
Feminist, queer, and transgender theory has developed an array of fruitful concepts for the study of gender. It offers critiques of patriarchy, the gender binary, compulsory heterosexuality, heteronormativity, and homonormativity, inter alia. New Materialist feminists have analyzed gender variance, continuous variation, and continuous transition through concepts such as rhizome, assemblage, making kin, and sym-poiesis (making-with). Feminists of color and postcolonial feminists have theorized intersectionality—that gender always-already intersects with race, class, sexual orientation, and so on—and gender roles outside the white middle-class nuclear family, such as othermothering and fictive kin. Materialist feminists have studied gender as social class, while psychoanalytic gender theorists have explored gender as self-identification and in terms of the relation of gender identification and desire. Queer theory has explored vexed gender identifications and disidentification as well as heterotopias, counterpublic spaces, and queer kinship beyond the private/public divide. Transgender theory has critiqued transmisogyny and theorized transgender and trans* identities. Indigenous feminist and queer theory has theorized Two-Spirit identities and queer indigeneity in the context of a decolonial vision. Theorists of masculinities have analyzed masculinities as historically specific, plural, and intersectional. Gender studies, in all this diversity, has influenced most fields of study—for example, disability studies in its theorization of complex embodiment, its development of crip theory, and so on. Gender studies, in turn, has greatly benefitted from the study of literature. Literature has been indispensable in the genealogy of dominant gender norms such as the 19th-century norms of the angelic/demonic woman and self-made man. In return, gender theory has offered fresh insights into literary genre, for example the Bildungsroman. Since the development of gender theory, it has taken part in an ongoing dialogue and cross-fertilization with literature, evidenced in self-reflexive and critically informed literary texts as well as in gender theory that includes autobiographical and literary (e.g., narrative, figurative, fictional, poetic) elements.
New materialism (and new materialisms) is part of the material turn currently sweeping through the humanities and social sciences and entails a paradigm shift toward a more material(ist) understanding of social and cultural life. From new materialist thinking, new (empirical) approaches, methods, methodologies and objects of study ensue. The new materialisms emerge from feminism, philosophy, and science and technologies studies and critique the foundational binaries of modern thought, especially the nature/culture, object/subject, human/thing dualisms, whose anthropocentric biases are seen to have led to the current ecological and civilizational crisis and the incapacity to think through and adequately engage with them. Proposing to give things their due, new materialisms are interested in “the force of things” and debate “the agency of things.” The post-anthropocentric interest in the vitality of things parallels the non-dualist modes of thinking of indigenous ontologies on which some new materialisms may in fact be based, but whose influence has so far insufficiently been acknowledged. At its most radical, new materialism is posthumanist, part of the nonhuman turn. A number of scholars have sought to bring the insights and concerns of new materialism(s) into the fields of literary theory and criticism, developing “thing” or “stuff” theory and seeking to conceptualize and operationalize a new literary materialism. For this, they draw on insights from a range of disciplines, including material culture studies, book and print culture studies, and comparative textual media studies. Given the importance attached to the linguistic turn as the cultural moment and textual approach in relation to which new materialists agonistically construct the newness of their material(ist) endeavors, the publication context of Roland Barthes’s famous essay “The Death of the Author”—the multimedia magazine in a box Aspen 5+6—is highlighted as an important site for critiquing a nonmaterial approach.
Ecocriticism describes and confronts the socially uneven encounters and entanglements of earthly living. As a political mode of literary and cultural analysis, it aims to understand and intervene in the destruction and diminishment of living worlds. A core premise is that environmental crises have social, cultural, affective, imaginative, and material dimensions. Although ranging in its critical engagements across historical periods, cultural texts, and cultural formations, ecocriticism focuses on the aesthetic modes, social meanings, contexts, genealogies, and counterpoints of cultural practices that contribute to ecological ruination and resilience. These include myths about frontiers, progress, and human mastery over animality and nature; capitalist modes of valuing, devaluing, and radically transforming lifeworlds; and biopolitical and racialized inequalities in health, risk, development, and disposability. Ecocriticism also involves broad theoretical engagement with discursive formations and semiotic significations, including the interrogation of crisis frameworks and apocalyptic representations, considering their histories, scales, and temporalities, while also asking how any particular socioecological arrangement comes to count as a matter of concern, for whom, and in which contexts. The concept of nature is a long-standing theoretical topic in ecocriticism. While nature may seem, rather straightforwardly, to be the domain environmentalism seeks to protect, it is a concept on which hinge crucial and contested claims about ontology (the nature of something, such as assertions about human nature as an inherent, often determining set of shared qualities) and epistemology (how we know what is real, such as the scientific practices through which credible assertions can be made that the planetary climate is changing), claims whose modern authority has rested on positioning nature as a domain outside culture. While structuralist and poststructuralist theorists have destabilized the binary opposition of nature to culture, the political and epistemological imperative to engage with nature as simultaneously material and semiotic has spawned an array of theoretical developments, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg figure and other “natureculture” assemblages to new materialisms. Meanwhile, nature circulates as a commodity form and spectacle animating digital, film, and television screens as well as many other consumer products and experiences. Cultural studies approaches to ecocriticism raise questions about the relationships of visual, narrative, and sound representations to economic power, media technologies, and the material and social ecologies through which they are produced and which they form and transform.