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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: August 2014

Chapter 30 - Things


I do not want to move beyond a thing, as I am always still approaching it from within a scene of contact.

Lauren Berlant

Is James’s writing a good place to look for things? In an influential essay of 1983, Jean-Christophe Agnew argued that James’s texts reproduce the representational logic of modern commodity culture: they manifest a perspective ‘of “acquisitive cognition,” that is, an appropriative view of social meanings as fungible “things”’. James’s art demonstrates a ‘relentless commitment to acquisition’ allied with a ‘merciless power to detach . . . its objects . . . from their conventional associations and context and accumulat[e] them as resources, as capital’ (Agnew, 82, 97). The things pursued, detached, displayed and circulated by James’s ‘consuming vision’ can thus be understood in terms of Marx’s commodity fetish: they are cognitive and physical products alienated from their economic origins. The more of these reifications a novel acquires, the less it may engage with that material reality from which it has detached its symbolic objects, so that ‘[t]he thickness of Jamesian description grows over the sequence of his novels at the same time as the proportion of direct reference to material life declines’ (Agnew, 84). For Agnew, James’s texts appear to be shamelessly stuffed with things, but these things are merely ‘a consumer culture’s symbolic representations “disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered” – to use Henry James’s words – from the specific and immediate needs of material life’ (Agnew, 82). In this view, a spectacular proliferation of things within James’s texts symptomizes a commodity culture’s alienation from material reality.

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