Skip to content
BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access March 26, 2019

Theorising Things, Building Worlds: Why the New Materialisms Deserve Literary Imagination

  • Babette B. Tischleder EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Cultural Studies


The New Materialisms constitute a rich field of critical inquiry that does not represent a unified approach; yet there is a general tendency to theorise objects by highlighting their agency, independence, and withdrawnness from human actors. Jane Bennett speaks of “thing power” in order to invoke the activities of “nonsubjects,” and she suggests to marginalise questions of human subjectivity and focus instead on the trajectories and propensities of material entities themselves. This essay takes issue with Bennett’s and other New Materialist thought, and it also offers a critical engagement with Bruno Latour’s notion of nonhuman agency. In his recent work, Latour has been concerned with the question of how we can tell our “common geostory.” Taking up his literary example (by Mark Twain) and adding one of my own (by William Faulkner), this essay argues that our understanding of the powers of rivers and other nonhuman agents remains rather limited if we attend primarily to the mechanics of storytelling in the way Latour does. Rather, it is the aesthetic and experiential registers of literary worlding that offer alternative venues for imagining nonhuman beings and our interactions with them in the era of the Anthropocene.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.10.1215/9780822391623Search in Google Scholar

Bennett, Jane. “Systems and Things: A Response to Graham Harman and Timothy Morton.” New Literary History 43.2, 2012, pp. 225-33.10.1353/nlh.2012.0020Search in Google Scholar

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Human Agency in the Anthropocene.” Perspectives on History 50.9, 2012, p. 35.Search in Google Scholar

Felski, Rita. “Latour and Literary Studies.” PMLA 130.3, 2015, pp. 737-42.10.1632/pmla.2015.130.3.737Search in Google Scholar

Faulkner, William. “Mississippi.” Encounter October, 1954, pp. 3-16.Search in Google Scholar

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6, 2015, pp. 159-65.10.1215/22011919-3615934Search in Google Scholar

Harman, Graham. “Entanglement and Relation: A Response to Bruno Latour and Ian Hodder.” New Literary History 45.1, 2014, pp. 37-49.10.1353/nlh.2014.0007Search in Google Scholar

Latour, Bruno. “On Interobjectivity.” Mind, Culture, and Activity 3.4, 1996, pp. 228-45.10.1207/s15327884mca0304_2Search in Google Scholar

Latour, Bruno.. “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene.” New Literary History 45 1, 2014, pp.1-18.10.1353/nlh.2014.0003Search in Google Scholar

Meretoja, Hanna. “Narrative and Human Existence: Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics.” New Literary History 45.1, 2014, pp. 89-109.10.1353/nlh.2014.0001Search in Google Scholar

Moore, Jason W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso, 2015.Search in Google Scholar

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.Search in Google Scholar

Morton, Timothy. “Poisoned Ground: Art and Philosophy in the Time of Hyperobjects.” symploke 21.1, 2013, pp. 37-50.10.5250/symploke.21.1-2.0037Search in Google Scholar

Natoli, Joseph. Mots D’ordre: Disorder in Literary Worlds. SUNY Press, 1992.Search in Google Scholar

Pinsky, Robert. “Swamp Dreams: A Voyage to the Toxic yet Lovely New Jersey Meadowlands.” New York Times 19 April 1998.Search in Google Scholar

Tischleder, Babette B. The Literary Life of Things: Case Studies in American Fiction. North American Studies. Frankfurt: Campus, 2014.Search in Google Scholar

Tischleder, Babette B.. Thinking Objects, Building Worlds. “Why the New Materialisms Deserve Literary Imagination.” Projecting American Studies: Essays on Theory, Method, and Practice. Heidelberg: Winter, 2018. 225-39.Search in Google Scholar

Tischleder, Babette B., and Sarah Wasserman. Cultures of Obsolescence: History, Materiality, and the Digital Age. Palgrave, 2015.10.1057/9781137463647Search in Google Scholar

Received: 2018-10-29
Accepted: 2018-11-30
Published Online: 2019-03-26
Published in Print: 2019-02-01

© 2019 Babette B. Tischleder, by De Gruyter Open

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Public License.

Downloaded on 26.3.2023 from
Scroll Up Arrow