Between Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus and cyborg theory, we’ve learned that we’re more connected to our things than we like to think. This scholarship suggests the sum of our parts includes just about everything, including the inanimate. Humanness seems to be more nuanced than aliveness. In thinking about life and death as defining characteristics of the human, I cannot help but bring queer theory into the conversation. As Lee Edelman argues in No Future, what is queer is anti-future. The queer is disease, decay, and loss. The queer is a stop, a lack of continuous genealogies. One of the many fears described in homophobic rhetoric is that queerness is itself a contagion and that its end result will be the death of humankind as each child (symbol of the future) grows into a non-reproducing body. Queer moves away from the future or fails to move at all, which is a problem for social structures and epistemologies that demand progression.
But what about all the things? All the things we desire, to which we relate, build our lives around and with, all the things with which we identify and move or fail to move our lives? These things can’t reproduce either. They aren’t alive but they aren’t dead. They don’t exist on our timeline because our timeline is based on “the circle of life” of which they have no part except in relation to us.
Things seem to exist in an entirely different time frame than we do, though they still operate, perhaps because of our relationship to them, in a combination of past/present/future. Souvenirs hold the past, often our own and someone else’s past. Gifts tend to reflect the giver or sometimes ourselves. Even the items that seem to mean the least – those of utility – tend to “live” in some kind of time: the chair at your desk, your iPhone, etc. Various items even change our able-bodiedness, such as wheelchairs and glasses.
This project is similar to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child, which argues against Edelman’s critique of the child as a symbol of futurity because of children’s relationship to temporality and growth. This project argues objects are necessarily queer and furthermore, they queer us and queer our sense of time.
Peter Schwenger points out that if we only exist in relation to others, including other objects, we must consider the role objects play in our lives and how we organize (or disorganize) narratives around them. He points out that we want to possess objects partly because we want them for their own sake but also because we want to be objects. He uses Mrs. Ramsay and the lighthouse as an example from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay considers how we turn to objects when we are alone (in contrast to Marx saying all objects are necessarily alienating) and the feeling of pure stillness they provide can be such a comfort. In fact, Woolf’s language suggests we can find a strange kind of death in objects that is pleasurable. Again, death here is used for lack of a better term because objects are not dead. In their lack of animation, we are able to experience the pleasure of death. When pairing Schwenger with Walter Benjamin’s theory of mimesis, we can see how we can move across the spectrum of animation – from stilling ourselves in our relations to objects to animating objects through our own imitation of them. Our relationship to objects greatly changes our understanding of what it means to be human and the kind of value we place on life, death, and genealogical structures of social progression and ways of knowing.
The gothic content and baroque style of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood predictably emphasizes death and excess. Barnes uses an excess of metaphors that put humans and the inanimate into (in)direct relation to one another in ways that might help us think through interventions in queer studies, non-linear temporality, and thing theory.