Arsić unpacks Ralph Waldo Emerson’s repeated assertion that our reality and our minds are in constant flux. Her readings of a broad range of Emerson’s. Columbia UniversityVerified account. @Columbia. “The best education is one that prepares you for your own venture into the unknown. Melville’s Philosophies departs from a long tradition of critical assessments of Melville that dismissed his philosophical capacities as ingenious but.

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CJLC began by asking Professor Arsic about non-capitalist ontologies of things, and then expanded the definition of consumption to discuss the porosity of the self, which led us to think about reading as a tool of perception in the art of ordinary living.

To begin, can you give us an understanding of what you think an ontology of things or objects is within this framework, in which accessing, buying, owning are able to give meanings to things in a certain way?

There are actually not a lot of verbs in our language that can articulate the difference between thing and object. Thoreau visits estate sales and tries to salvage certain things from the property of people he never met and did not know. Those things typically absolutely no value — they could not be sold, traded, or even exchanged. Thoreau approached things thinking he would incorporate them in a circulation of his own thinking — not in the manner in which Benjamin says commodities speak to their future owners, but in a manner in which they would give him thoughts, and themselves become indistinguishable from thinking.

I am also interested in this relatively recent theory proposed by Jonathan Lamb. He wrote a really interesting book called The Things Things Say about various modalities philosophers and authors of 18 th and 19 th century England thought about things as opposed to objects.

He differentiates objects as entities that depend on human recognition and appropriation, and then in return enact reification, as opposed to things, which can exist with or without humans, in landscapes that are not anthropomorphic.

Department of English and Comparative Literature

As you were talking about the subject-object relation, you seem to suggest that the process through which things become objects is through language grafting that meaning onto them. I think there are many ways of knowing things that actually do not — are we talking about things or objects here? To clarify, objects are things involved in a circulation of trade, exchange, and implication. For that reason, they cannot exist but in relation to a subject or an owner.

Objects are known through their market value or exchange value, which makes them, in Marxist terms, little fetishes. But one can know a thing in ways that are not necessarily linguistic — through an affect, or through a memory. Different things exist in different ontologies. They found a really amazing way of integrating the non-human forms of life and things. A canoe is a transformation of a tree, and things at large exist as an archive of the living.

The canoe either becomes sacred, or is integrated into the floor of churches to be part of the life of the living. The tree sacrificed for a canoe is just one of many examples — these cosmologies can teach us a lot about possible way of lives of things that would not be capitalist objects. That brings to mind the contemporary art market, in which people collect art objects to store wealth and accrue value.

Even a creative production can be commodified and made into an object. What is the opposite of commodifying art?

Your example of the canoe, an extension of a tree, is imbued with meaning from natural life. But could a thing contain human to human relations that are non-economic? There are people who collect, like I do with books, with absolutely no idea of exchanging or doing anything.

It is fueled by an intense obsession bganka not just the arsc of things but with what that collection would make to the world arzic the collector. Some people collect worthless things.

I brnka a collector of Japanese stationery, not because I think I can sell it, but because it does something to my writing. I have a tactile relationship to the surface of the paper and so I almost have this little ritual of choosing which paper is right for which sentence, which chapter — it breathes good energy into my thinking, and I write better.


That answers to a lot of concerns I have brana the way I relate to objects and sort of store myself in objects in my room. We eat first thing in the morning, which is a kind of consumptive act. From food to clothing, almost all the things we bring into our lives are bought or acquired in some kind of way, especially in this city.

In the context of perpetual consumption, does the thing-object distinction present us with a more ethical way to relate to the things we consume?

So when we start talking about consuming, we are talking about arisc realm that is kind of broader than the realm of things. Here, there is a set of questions that is absolutely related to capitalism, most obviously the way we consume energy, enacting geological transformation, climate change, all kinds of stuff to the Earth.

But the question of consuming, for instance life, did not necessarily appear with capitalism. Today, we have to think about that at very many levels, right. Most obviously, we have to think about fair trade, we have to think — a lot of people think about — health issues, organic food, responsible growing.

Things Beyond Commodities: An Interview with Branka Arsić

Should we eat animals? I would say that the ethics and politics consumption includes a responsibility toward resources, towards our environment, fair trade and labor. But I also want to think that when people think about consuming they think about the lives of beings other than humans, and do their best to respect them, maybe not even consume. I am proposing vegetarianism, but I do not want to sound moral or preachy here. Obviously people eat meat, but if they have to then there are more and less responsible ways of eating meat.

I wonder if this distinction between morals and ethics, especially with relation to consumption, comes back to what Melanie said about storing herself in objects.

Sometimes, ethical acts can be ways to mark yourself or to be in a certain way, in a more concrete and unified way. But I know you think a lot about moving away from the self or reducing its boundaries.

Self is something that is not something that exists in some kind of formed, stable, fixed interiority into which all of this exteriority comes and I kind of process it, but keep it under control. Emerson would always say that we find ourselves in a certain mood. Is it the rainy day? And often when we come to the answer to the question the mood evaporates, which only tells you that our moods have us rather than the opposite.

Self is constantly being re-negotiated through not just some interiority that, say, psychoanalysis posits with some unconsciousness then that kind of presses on us and wants to get out, but through the external encounters and external world. Therefore, when I fall for an object or for a work of art, there are some works of art where I can acknowledge their aesthetic value, but I pass by that, and there are some that obsess me and I keep going back to them.

And the reason for that I suspect is that they act on who I am and remake me. I think the same about clothing — it is not something that is not outside of who I am. So you can say, you live in a capitalist society and there are only so many place people can shop for clothes, which is true.

But on the other hand, we do not look the same. You go down the streets and you see people are differently dressed, so that tells you something about their psyches. What I am resisting is a reductionist approach that would interpret everything as just the simple outcome of the circulation of capital. Edgar Allen Poe, for instance, wrote a beautiful letter in which he wonders whether people who live thousands of years ago were somehow substantially different from us, on the basis of technology.

He said something they had very complicated network relays of desire and encounters that made them feel happy or sad in the way in which we are. Think about ancestral religions — the basic reasoning behind them is that we are made of so many psyches that already were, that we are, in a sense, multiplicitous. I think many people realized, a long time ago, what some theorists do not realize today: With this I go in the direction again of Emerson and pragmatism.


We perceive so many things without even knowing when and how and why they work upon us.

Those are, in fact, affects that work in us and re-work us before we can even figure out the kinds of changes that have been initiated in us. It is rather to say that things start happening to us much before we actually became aware of their happening to us, and then we can then think about whether we can act against them to react to them. But whatever we do to them, we are also, by arsc moment we start acting on them on them — on our affects or our sensations or our perceptions — touched by them.

What should I do about that? And that interaction, again, will change you. The way in which we come to abstractions, especially in the context and the conditions of the university environment, neglects this system of irrationality or seeks to deny it.

I was wondering what you thought about that and how you navigate your place here within the university and within the expectations of being in the English department? The department has a pretty organized set of customs and expectations and behaviors regarding what a good citizen should be or do.

I am thinking about what your conception of rational agency means for us as students of literature — if we branks consumption more broadly like you were speaking of earlier, we consume ideas at school, consume what we read and consume in our dialogues with others so as to become, right now, as we learn.

But where do we exercise control? When we choose what to read? Where did I read that? It somehow stays with you and in different periods of time of your life and your thinking, you get back to the books you read and take very different things from them. All that is to say that you filter. What does that mean? It means it takes you out of what you already know. Good writers really are taken by what they read, really think about it.

One thing produces another. It all depends on great reading that generates both attention to language and good writing and thought. I say this not as an informed claim, as I am really a very old fashioned person. I write my books in handwriting. Part of the contemporary situation is that the information we start taking in abstraction happens at a disembodied level and the more that happens the harder sometimes it is to interact with materials and allow them to work on you.

I was wondering how we might think of more embodied forms of reading of taking in information? Well, that again can be given a narrow and broad answer. Voluntary is a kind of reading where we select and and choose — in which sense everything is reading. There are things we decide not to read even though they are right in front of our nose in our everyday lives, which is precisely why to teach people the skill of reading and then like really attentive reading is in fact not just a skill from which they reading of literature would benefit but a political skill.

Persons who are skilled in very patient slow attentive reading will miss less disturbing signs, say even in the realm of the political. How do you decide which article you read in New York Times? All of that, you know, the skill of reading well… Attention to reading is not something only students of English and philosophy should be skilled in.

It is, in the end, the art of paying attention. Perhaps things becoming objects.