Space is a fundamental, ineliminable dimension of existence, which manifests itself in every aspect of material, psychological, and social life. It is also a purely dimensional category, in the sense that it cannot be directly perceived. All representations, therefore, have a necessary spatial dimension and all representations of space require a medium (like objects and events) through which its presence can be made manifest. Moreover, spatial concepts are essential tools for rational thought, indeed, quite possibly a foundational element of rationality itself. Spatial metaphors consequently permeate every aspect of thinking, including topics that are not usually taken to have an intrinsically spatial dimension—from the spatialization of time that Zeno exploited and Henri Bergson complained about to the heavily spatialized vocabulary of information technology (with its computer domains, IP addresses, etc.). This combination of existential importance and cognitive adaptability helps to explain space’s enduring appeal as a focus of critical attention in literary studies but also the difficulty of the subject: the multifariousness and polysemy of spatial terms leads to much confusion between different modes of spatiality and much reliance on loose and often mixed metaphors. It is important, then, for literary critics and theorists to attend closely to the zones of overlap and confusion that might cloud spatial analyses in order to maximize the explanatory potential of the cluster of analytic tools that fall under the heading of spatial analysis. This has become especially apparent in the wake of the spatial turn that took place in literary theory and criticism toward the end of the 20th century.
David Vichnar and Louis Armand
Etymologically and conceptually linked with sense perception (as opposed to, in the Platonic tradition, noēsis or intellection) in ancient, medieval, and early-modern thought, aisthēsis formed part of theorizing not only questions surrounding beauty and art, but also perception, epistemology, and even ontology (in, for instance, the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas). During the Enlightenment and its project of subdivision and categorization of the “humanities,” aisthēsis became subsumed, in the work of Alexander Baumgarten, by “aesthetics,” the study of beauty in the narrower sense. However, by the beginning of the 20th century and the Marxist/Freudian/Saussurean revolution in humanist inquiry and the “avant-garde” revolution in the arts, aisthēsis resumed its place and function as a central node in a vast network of concerns: for the Marxists, the history of aisthēsis follows the pattern of social development of progressive mastery over nature by humankind, described as a process of rationalization (the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory); in psychoanalysis and phenomenology, artistic activity is regarded as the “sublimated” expression of socially objectionable energies, taking place in a world conceived of as indefinite and open multiplicity (John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, et al.); in poststructuralist theory, the image not simply “acquires” a politico-aesthetic function by way of an act of judgement, but rather accedes in its very technological condition to a political imaginary, to an aesthetics as such (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, et al.). In the second half of the 20th century, with the progressive technologization of society, aisthēsis formed the backbone of media studies, which examines how technological innovation overthrows a settled political and aesthetic order, with special attention paid to the effects of electronic media and the hypertext: non-linearity, repetitiveness, discontinuity, intuition (e.g., Marshall McLuhan and Jay David Bolter). At the dawn of the 21st century, in the aesthetico-mimetic doubling of the mediasphere, from teletext and satellite TV to the World Wide Web and GPS, a critical, ecological mode of thinking aisthēsis assumes the ideal function of an “avant-gardism” in affecting the structure of how things come to mean, how meaning is virtualized, and how the virtual is lived.
Phenomenological literary theory has its roots in Edmund Husserl’s studies of the directional acts of consciousness in the first half of the 20th century and Roman Ingarden’s The Literary Work of Art and The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, arguing that literary works can come into existence only in the act of reading. Under the influence of Martin Heidegger, phenomenology absorbed hermeneutic insights from Dilthey, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, as well as existentialist features, foremost from Jean-Paul Sartre, with Merleau-Ponty contributing a corporeal accent by reiterating Husserl’s distinction between the biophysical body (Körper) and the animate body (Leib). George Poulet of the Geneva school and the early Yale critics added an author-oriented form of literary criticism, while Ingarden’s work was taken up by the Konstanz school theorists Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss, the latter challenging ontological approaches by a historically anchored form of reception aesthetics. In the United States, the idea of phenomenology in literature has been prominently pursued by Maurice Natanson. At the same time, phenomenological literary theory is undergoing a revival in the wake of the neo-phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz, notably in such writings as Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature.
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-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.
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.