While reading Jane Bennett’s “The Force of Things” I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was avoiding an explicit discussion of a central aspect of her argument: the aesthetic discourse underlying her use of the term assemblage. In describing her encounter with the trash-mise-en-scéne in front of Sam’s Bagels on the morning of June 4, 2002, she writes:
“Here each thing is individuated, but also located within an assemblage—each is shown to be in a relationship with the others, and also with the sunlight and the street, and not simply with me, my vision, or my cultural frame. Here thing-power rises to the surface. In this assemblage, objects appear more vividly as things, that is, as entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics.” (351)
While I don’t dispute that the articles of refuse, the sunlight, the street might have some relationship with one another, independent of an observer—the sun bleaching the trash, the activities of the street pushing it aside to the storm drain grate, the trash items colliding and overlapping as they blow about—I would argue that it is precisely Bennett’s culturally trained vision that lends them the “thing-power” she so values. Montage, juxtaposition, defamiliarization. The techniques of the historical- (prewar) and neo- (postwar) avant-gardist movements provide the aesthetic training for Bennett’s experience of the scene not as trash-objects but as irreducible things. In this instance, the power she attributes to the assemblage of things has less to do with the things themselves than with her perception of them as an integrated aesthetic object. Knowingly or unknowingly following the 20th century avant-garde, Bennett is simply applying a particular aestheticized visual practice to the realm of the everyday. (Alinae is right on when linking Bennett’s perspective to the experience of a Rauschenberg “Combine”.)
To drive home this point, it would be interesting to compare Bennett’s perception of the trash-assemblage with Thoreau’s famous description of the thawing sand-bank at the end of Walden (in the chapter “Spring”, see paragraph : http://thoreau.eserver.org/walden17.html). Both are visions of the dense web of material forces and flows that entangle the human and the non-human. And both are highly aestheticized. But the aesthetic discourse structuring Thoreau’s visual perception is obviously vastly different from Bennett’s. I doubt very much that Thoreau would see in a pile of garbage what she does.
This might be a long way of going about asking a more general question about how central a certain aesthetic sensibility is for a “theory of things.” Is this how academics animate the inanimate? What are the consequences of aestheticizing things in different manners? Bill Brown is explicit in harkening back to the revolutionary aesthetics of the historical avant-garde. Gell on the other hand, with his theory of “captivation”, seems to see things more through the “Sunday painter” aesthetics of the bourgeois dilettante.
Beyond visual art, we might also think about the role of writing and literature in our engagement with “things.” Bennett writes that, “like Thoreau, I hope to enhance my receptivity to thing-power by writing about it, by giving an account of the thing-ness of things that might enable me to feel it more intensely” (349) . . .