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.
Object Theory and Asian American Literature
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.
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.
Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO)
Object-oriented ontology (OOO) is an intellectual movement in the arts and humanities sharing certain affinities with both phenomenology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT). It is a philosophically realist position often at odds with existing currents in postmodernism and critical theory. The best-known idea of OOO is that objects “withdraw” from all direct human and non-human contact, so that relations between things are always indirect and must be accounted for rather than taken for granted. More broadly speaking, however, OOO is a theory of two kinds of objects (real, sensual) and two kinds of qualities (real, sensual). Real objects and qualities are not directly accessible to thought, perception, practical use, or even causal relation, and must be approached by more allusive means. Sensual objects and qualities, by contrast, exist only for some other entity, human or otherwise. Each type of object has troubled relations with each of the two forms of qualities, resulting in four basic tensions, the analysis of which is the heart of object-oriented method in every field and not just literature. OOO literary theory has a special fondness for the weird: especially the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose work is taken to exemplify two of the key ontological tensions. Dante and Edgar Allan Poe are also key OOO figures, due to their manner of theatrically investing their characters and readers in sincere relations with objects. OOO’s relation with the formalist aesthetics of Immanuel Kant is ambivalent, since Kant is admired for cutting off the aesthetic object from its surroundings but challenged for his modernist assumption that the human and non-human must never be mixed.