Into the Blue Again: Postmillennial Dissolution, Academic Remnants, and Sarah Wasserman’s The Death of Things
The Death of Things. By Sarah Wasserman. University of Minnesota Press, October 2020.
In early June 2021, the London School of Economics blog published a piece by British sociologist David Beer titled “In Defence of Writing Book Reviews,” inspired by Benoît Peeters’ 2012 biography of Jacques Derrida. Beer describes how, for Derrida’s generation, “the book review was seen to be a space in which new knowledge could emerge” from “dialectic exchanges and from the cut and thrust of debate. The review was […] a site of contestation that could be used to provoke new insights or to identify questions that were yet to be addressed.” The culture that fostered this kind of generative debate has been eroded by what he calls “the logic of the systems governing research”—a diplomatic way of describing the neoliberalisation of higher education and, in particular, the various excellence frameworks that have reshaped British HE over the last three decades. (I don’t think I’m imagining this—Beer’s specialism is the politics of metrics, so). Beer’s words have lingered with me over the last couple of months, not only because of what his idyllic vision of mid- to late-twentieth-century phallic sparring leaves out (about which more later) but because I read it the same day I requested, for the sixth time, an extension for a review originally due on the 15th of January 2021.
Sarah Wasserman’s The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (Minnesota University Press, 2020), a supremely gorgeous account of the stories US novelists tell about the strange life of ephemera, traces, and palimpsests, lingered on my “to-do” list for ten months. It appeared in my mailbox in October 2020, seemingly out of nowhere (I had forgotten I had agreed to review it). It then moved from my home to my office and back home again, where it migrated from the “to read soon” bookshelf to the “to read later” shelf, momentarily (my gosh, what optimism!) to my nightstand, and then onto the corner of my desk, where it sat each day, quietly reproaching me, alongside a gradually mounting pile of scraps of paper inscribed with cryptic and increasingly panicked reminders whose origins I had long forgotten:
By July, The Death of Things had become something of a witness to the living archive of my dashed plans, botched ideas, and a still-open insurance claim for a Sunbeam Mixmaster bowl that got smashed in transit somewhere between Sun City, Arizona and my home in Southwest London. The book’s movement across my flat over the course of the last academic year has been a reminder of many things apart from unmet deadlines: the press of time, my own limitations as a literary studies scholar who finds it more and more difficult to read, and the competing and, it increasingly seems, incompatible priorities of contemporary academia. The sight of the book has variously excited, saddened, pained, and haunted me.
For something that Beer doesn’t mention is the curiously emotional nature of (putting off) reviewing books at this moment. One reads with a heightened awareness of the intense privilege it is to have time to read and to write about what one has read. One reads, too, with an acute sense of precarity—be it that of one’s employment, or of the standing of one’s department, institution, discipline, or higher education itself. That heightened awareness breeds, in turn, a curious mix of ecstatic pleasure, joy, and anxiety that seem to feed off of each other. To quote the essay by Sigmund Freud with which Wasserman opens her enquiry, “‘Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment’” (17). Delight at the prospect of an afternoon of undisturbed reading, and recognition of how quickly it will pass, commingle, turning into nostalgia for the present—what the Portuguese call saudade, and the term the Modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used to articulate the ache inherent to the modern self, ever aware of its own precarity. (The fact that saudade itself became a defining trope of the fascist regime that governed Portugal from 1934 until 1974 seems, shall we say, not unconnected to the melancholy apparent in current discussions of the crisis in the humanities, liberal arts education, and higher education more broadly.)
If you are an academic in the UK, engaging in an activity like reviewing may breed both guilt and a kind of thrill. How transgressive, to write something that the Research Excellence Framework (which establishes the amount of funding granted to our institutions) deems worthless! How subversive! How radical! How stupid! Finally, you may find yourself confronted, while reading, with the reality of all the books that you haven’t had time to read and probably never will. Indeed, the delight of opening a book at the end of the academic year may carry with it the fear and dread that you won’t remember how to read, or be able to engage for more than five minutes before feverishly checking your phone for emails or being distracted by the list of other things you need to do that would be more “productive” than this. You may ask yourself: Can I do this? Can I get to the end?
As it turns out, The Death of Things engages with precisely these kinds of questions, both explicitly and implicitly. For this book about what the novel form “does” with the transience of the object matter of US culture under consumer capitalism—which is to say, how US novelists across the last century have contended with the fundamental instability of a material world governed by the twin imperatives of productivism and built-in obsolescence—is also a book about how and why we ascribe value to some things and not others, and about the value of literary studies’ insights into value. It is a book about things in the process of disappearing, as Wasserman puts it, but it is also about the ever-shifting relationship between things, people, and ideologies, and about the curious capacity US culture has for elevating ideology to the status of a privileged object that it then sells back to its people, and the world at large, for profit. In each chapter, Wasserman picks out specific objects—postage stamps, scraps of paper, city blocks, buildings, world’s fair exhibits, domestic dirt, an apparition on an advertising billboard—to demonstrate the ways and forms in which ephemera persist.
Ephemera, she notes, endure not only by chance but thanks to the care and attention of those who deem them worth reclaiming, be these antiquarians, collectors, hoarders, political activists, religious followers, or writers. Fictive ephemera are best seen as the result of the novelist’s caretaking—a salvaging process that reveals their resistance to the categories to which they’ve been assigned (5). Crucially, Wasserman argues that attending to the ephemera of literary fiction is an inherently feminist task, for transient things “point to entangled, embodied ways of being [and] remind us to look askance at heroic and punctual—often masculinist—narratives of origins and ends” (36). Attending to ephemera “brings to the narrative foreground certain forms of temporary community and fleeting resistance that have long been the province of women” as well as revealing how “it is often in the detail, the discard, and the disappearing object that a novel’s concern with ethnicity, class, and minority status reside” (36). Indeed, attending to the ephemera of literary fiction that skews left might provide a way into analysing the reactionary strains of certain forms of real-life collecting (of Naziana, golliwogs, child pornography, etc), and those strands of popular fiction, far-right activist writing, and digital media that enlist ephemera to commemorate dubious histories.
In this way, Wasserman’s project links to the work of theorists who study and use ephemera to dismantle both hegemonic norms and the white male centricity of the last century’s countercultural movements. Here I am thinking in particular of Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer’s concept of “femmage” (feminist collage), which they advanced in the late 70s to highlight Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, and the various neo-avant-gardes’ debt to centuries-long domestic practices rooted in reclamation and reuse—weaving, quilting, scrapbooking, and so on. But consider, too, Bernadette Mayer’s The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (1994), which enacts what the historian of waste and housework Susan Strasser calls the “stewardship” of ephemera and effluvia that has long been the domain of women, showing the simultaneously dispersive and ecstatic effects of a life spent in the service of caring for others.
Or consider the trajectory of the myriad abandoned PhD theses that litter the feminist fiction of the 70s, 80s, and 90s (Marge Piercy’s Going Down Fast ; Alix Kates Schulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen ; Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room ; Paule Marshall’s Daughters ; Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt ), torpedoed by a white male-dominated academic establishment disinterested in what Whitney Otto’s protagonist calls the “small footnotes” of history (5). Read through Wasserman’s lens, these scuppered projects form a record both of vanquished aspiration and feminism’s pivotal role in advancing those areas of inquiry that contemporary scholars might take for granted: oral history, domestic space studies, the sociology of housework, and so on. (Might the feminist novel of the last half century be best read as a repository for the rejectamenta of white male academia?)
There are likewise exciting connections between Wasserman’s attention to the marginalised fictive writers and scholars who curate the ephemera of the novel and the work of contemporary artist-practitioners working at the intersection of queer, feminist, and critical race theory. I am thinking in particular of Decorating Dissidence, an interdisciplinary network of scholars and artists studying the legacy of marginalised women artists; Daniel Fountain’s practice-based work on queer waste and craft; Michael McMillan’s showcasing of Black British history via displays of Afro-Caribbean interiors and their legacy in mainstream British culture; and the scholars involved in Second Hand Cultures, a project based at Cardiff University focused on the politics, ethics, and form of reuse.
This is also to say that while Wasserman’s project focuses on the US, the ideas she advances are relevant to broader discussions of other literary traditions’ engagements with nationalist myth-making, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, commodity circulation, US imperialism, and Americanization. She herself notes the curious connections that tracing literary ephemera allows us to make between seemingly unrelated texts and identity groups. But the stamp collecting practices of a Jewish American boy at the dawn of the Second World War as recollected by his adult self (E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair), a Black American man’s theft of electric power at the height of the Civil Rights era (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man), and the real-life story of Latino Chicagoans’ veneration of a water mark on an underpass wall, also invite comparisons with other fictions beyond the United States’ shores. Because the story of twentieth-century ephemera is ultimately a story about capitalist networks of circulation that traverse the globe. It is a story about mediated images beamed to human subjects thousands of miles away from where they were filmed, about the power of slogans, soundbites, souvenirs, and now digital media to shape subjects in ways their originators could not have predicted, and about the strange afterlives of these things as human subjects reclaim, rework, and give them new meaning.
In its firm focus on subject-object relations, The Death of Things is also a bracing polemic against the recent overshadowing of psychoanalytic, historical materialist, and Brownian thing theory by what Maurizia Boscagli refers to as the “new materialisms”. Described variously as Object-Oriented-Ontology, New Materialism with a capital N, Actor-Network-Theory, transcendental materialism, and so on, these theories call for the recognition of the vibrancy of matter and the unexpected agential potential of synthetic materials and mass-produced objects. Like Boscagli, Rosi Braidotti, and, more recently, Mary Foltz, Wasserman is at pains to highlight the nonsensicality of correcting the universalising of the subject by dispensing with it entirely. As Braidotti vociferously noted in 2017 in a keynote address at the 8th Annual Conference on the New Materialisms, to address crises that are the direct consequence of centuries of excluding entire groups from the category of the “human” requires more attention to that category, not less (she reiterates this points here and here and here: “Declaring some categories ‘human’ or not is a way of indexing access to powers and entitlements”). It is wealthy human subjects, after all, who set the stage for toxic emissions, sweatshop fires, and food-borne viruses by lobbying policy makers to loosen environmental and labour protection regulations. It is wealthy human subjects who evade tax laws, and then channel the capital accrued into tax havens set up by other human subjects (accountants). And it is the bodies of human subjects, and generally the poorest and most marginalised, that end up bearing the toll of gas leakages, chemical spills, the pumping of livestock with antibiotics and hormones, and FDA laxity around (for example) the use of E-numbers or the addictive properties of opioids.
As Wasserman puts it, the novel reveals objects to be “nodes in densely webbed networks of historical, political, and environmental forces” (14). And “the turn to things as they appear in the works of American writers […] helps us make sense of who we are when we cannot legitimately claim to constitute ourselves independently of chaotic and unequal regimes of production, consumption, and disposal” (9). The novel form enlivens us to the mutual constitution of subjects and objects while revealing the ephemeral qualities of the “fantasies […] of permanence, of national coherence, of a universal subject, of a particular future” so often linked to commemorative objects and monuments (30). What’s more: “If all that is solid leaves its mark even as it melts into air, then it makes sense that the individual subject never fully disappears, as [Fredric] Jameson claims, but emerges altered as she wanders through the terrain of the late twentieth century” (27). Marx, Jameson, André Breton, and Walter Benjamin meet here in a spectacular counter to posthumanism that also draws out the unexpected feminist inflections in each.
For Wasserman, one means of disclosing the way that literary ephemera “reorient readers toward an unfamiliar past that fades, recedes and challenges the conventional sense of what endures and why” is to reclaim the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, a mode of thinking that in US literary studies has fallen out of favour in the last two decades (31). Now, it bears emphasising that this turn away from psychoanalysis is not universal. Perhaps as a result of the dominance of literary modernism in twentieth-century literary studies in the UK, and the proliferation of work on interwar, wartime, and post-Second World War writing that more or less explicitly engages with theories of trauma, shock, and so on, the scholarly discourse here has never quite dispensed with the psychoanalytic. Indeed, UK literary scholars’ method for dealing with psychoanalysis’s reputation as a “problematic pseudo-science,” as Wasserman puts it, has not been to sweep it away, but to contextualise it historically—to “fix [it] in a formulated phrase,” as the line in Eliot’s “Prufrock” (1915) goes. Application of the theories of Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, et al. in turn remains confined, for the most part, to specific genres such as sci-fi, (eco)horror, and the (eco)gothic. Then again, by dint of its size, US academia produces such a vast amount of scholarship compared to the UK and other countries, that the new materialist turn there inevitably impacts the discourse elsewhere: where the US goes, the rest tend to follow. As such, Wasserman, Braidotti, and Foltz’s calls both for a reassessment of psychoanalysis and a recognition of the enduring relevance of class-, race-, and gender-based critiques are perhaps a useful corrective to a shift UK academia has yet to fully experience.
The Death of Things extends Braidotti et al.’s argument by subtly drawing our attention to the similarities between the new materialisms’ eclipsing of the subject, and the reification at work in the exhibitions, advertisements, and propaganda campaigns depicted in her chosen texts. What is a focus on things without subjects if not, itself, a kind of fetishism, and more precisely the kind of fetishism celebrated in the long tradition of advertising that subjectivizes products and objectifies their users, turning a can of Coke into an entity capable of transforming the world itself, and its users into clichés? I am referring, of course, to Coca-Cola’s infamous “The Real Thing” ad (1971), in which hundreds of youth sang on an Italian hilltop about wanting to “buy the world a Coke / And keep it company” in a rather fabulous if unintentional confirmation of Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye’s theory of complex interdependence (i.e., that international relations would come to rely less on military force and more on economic incentives). Where the “Pepsi Generation” ads of the 1960s had capitalised on the generation divide between Boomers and their parents (and the slogan, “Come Alive!” suggested Pepsi’s capacity to both animate young people and galvanize them into action), “The Real Thing” positioned Coca-Cola as ending conflict, full stop. In doing so, it not only reduced the struggle for world peace to thirst for a carbonated beverage. It reduced the world itself to a passive object to be “kept company” by the bringer of Coke; it elevated the drink in its iconic bottle to an embodiment of authenticity; it reduced authenticity to desire for a consumer good; and it elevated that desire to a universal human truth. The Real Thing is both Coke, and a universal longing for Coke the ad equated with being human. To be human is to want Coke; to want Coke is The Real Thing; and the Real Thing is consumer longing. That this campaign now inspires a new kind of longing among those of us besotted by the aesthetic of mid-century advertising—the fonts, the photographs made to look like hand-drawn illustrations, the long form copy, and, yes, even the disembodied hands and gargantuan objects that literalise Marx’s concept of the subject-object —says a great deal about the enduring power of that strategy to shape the children and grandchildren of the campaign’s first viewers. What is the compulsive screen-grabbing and meticulous cataloguing of vintage ads but an attempt to hold onto a past that by definition can’t be fixed in place?
Pepsi’s “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation!” ads (1963–1967) positioned Pepsi as the drink of the Baby Boomers, though without ever mentioning the issues—Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Second-Wave Feminism—that divided them from their parents.
“The Real Thing” (1971), by McCann Erickson, responded to Pepsi’s targeting of the youth market by positioning Coca-Cola as a harbinger of world peace, binding people around the world via the shared love for its thirst-quenching flavour. According to the Coca-Cola website, the ad was inspired by McCann Erickson creative director Bill Backer’s sight of the appeasing effects of Coke on his fellow passengers during an unexpected layover at Shannon Airport, in Ireland.
The leaps of logic involved in such mystification have been Don DeLillo’s bread and butter for decades (ironically, Americana, his first novel, came out the same year as “The Real Thing”). As Wasserman notes in her discussion of the billboard in Underworld whose advertisement for Minute Maid orange juice momentarily hosts a ghostly apparition, the novelist’s aim is not to stress the object’s agency but, rather, to “suggest that pausing to look at objects differently can create new subject positions and relations” (211). Indeed, I would go further—just as the vibrant waste matter and frictionless flows of capital that course through DeLillo’s novels give expression to the disempowerment of human subjects, the collision of apparition and larger-than-life orange juice poured by a disembodied white female hand in this particular scene crystallises the reliance of consumer capitalism on the elevation of goods to gods and the reduction of human subjects to tropes. The whirring refrigerators, monstrous landfills, elusive baseball, and sibilant televisions in DeLillo illustrate late capitalism’s reliance on occluding the human even and especially in its calls for “customer-centric” approaches. The category of “customer” is, in effect, a form of objectification—while the work of faith is, in some ways, a means to transcend that objectification.
Among other things, The Death of Things repeatedly demonstrates the American novel’s concern with disclosing the full horror of such substitutions. As she puts it, this “writing […] is at its most revelatory when it tackles the magical structural ambiguity between subjects and objects that cannot be represented easily in other media” (230, emphasis mine). Indeed, one of the points Wasserman’s book seeks to land is that the humanities matter, and that what literature has to say about matter matters. The case studies it uses to reveal these “sayings” are fascinating. (I am resisting the word “lessons” here because this isn’t, after all, a book about didacticism, but about revelation and obscuration, about the novel’s capacity to simultaneously reveal and conceal and in so doing transform our understanding of our relationships to objects and each other.)
Few literary studies monographs actually manage to do the thing that most of us claim, and perhaps even believe, we do: shift paradigms and show our field’s “relevance” to the so-called “real world” beyond. And that’s okay, since many of us are only saying we’re doing this because we’re told we have to, and the stakes of our work actually lie elsewhere. As a friend once put to me, if you shift the paradigm every time you write something, don’t you eventually end up where you started? But one of the (many) lovely things about The Death of Things is that it actually does offer a new way of seeing, while also constellating outwards, offering ideas as springboards for the reader to jump off from. Wasserman’s prose is limpidly clear, and she is at pains not to wander into abstractions, but her style—conversational, punctuated by a dazzling proliferation of quotes from scholars across disciplines, and coursing from detailed close-readings of literary passages to ruminations on how these might inform our understanding of US politics after Trump—invites digression. The ideas expressed both stand on their own and ask to be upended, turned around, prodded, and rearranged, while the simultaneous accessibility and sophistication of the prose brings to mind an interactive exhibition. Come and touch all of the things, it suggests, but also, Look at how beautifully they are arranged!
And how many things there are! While the book nominally focuses on E.L. Doctorow, Michael Chabon, Philip K. Dick, Philip Roth, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, Marilynne Robinson, and Don DeLillo, it is a veritable who’s who of literary ephemera, spanning the work of Theodore Dreiser, H.G. Wells, Ida B. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, Georges Simmel, Nathanael West, the California junk artists, James Baldwin, Samuel R. Delany (to name but a few), as well as actual ephemera, including stamps, ads, video games, stains, and reclaimed ash heaps. These are brought to life in a lucid account accessible for undergraduate students as well as an informed general audience, which makes it tempting to speculate how it might influence teaching and scholarship of the next couple of decades (providing, of course, literary studies lasts that long).
It might seem odd to eulogise at length about beautiful prose in an academic monograph, and yet the beauty of The Death of Things’ structure, and the elegance with which specific ideas are arranged and interspersed with those of others, seems an extension of the imperative driving it. Implicit in Wasserman’s application of ideas from historians of the book and of paper to twentieth-century and contemporary culture, and in her analyses of the legacy of both analytical approaches deemed outdated and the shiny new approaches that risk crowding our vision, is that scholarly works, too, are “things”. The form of Wasserman’s text self-consciously performs this, each chapter beginning with a discussion of the text discussed in the previous section, so that the reader is confronted, each time, with the affective pull of residual questions, and a “living” example of how the recent past continues to inform and shape the present, each moment accruing rather than passing.
Ephemeral myths, lasting legacies
“Because ephemera vanish in principle and yet so often remain with us, they dramatize the dynamics between the temporary and the permanent, between extinction and longevity, and thus between the valueless and the valuable,” Wasserman tells us (3). The novel form itself is primed to think through those tensions, its decline having been predicted innumerable times since its inception and the paper on which it was historically printed exemplifying the friability and vulnerability of material things to destruction. More intriguingly, Wasserman shows us how novels “create ephemera” (4, emphasis in the original). Literary depictions of ephemera “draw readers’ attention to the vexed status of ephemera as things that usually vanish and endure only with care, attention, or representation,” and as such, they are not simply “descriptions of ephemera”—rather, they “ephemeralize their objects” (4). The act of cataloguing and commemorating disappearing objects not only preserves them but brings them into being—the fictionalised version of the real-world postage stamp gains a literary double, the fictitious playbill appears where there was none. Both call attention to transience more broadly—and, too, to the odd slippages between categories, states, forms, and temporalities that fiction often plays out.
Wasserman’s first chapter examines E.L. Doctorow and Michael Chabon’s accounts of the inherent ephemerality of the 1939 New York World’s Fair in World’s Fair (1985) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), respectively. Wasserman contextualises these novels within the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century exhibitions to consider the different temporalities at play in corporate display. It is a fascinating piece, advancing the deceptively simple claim that the aim of world’s fairs was to “bre[ed] practices, structures, and goods” that would, themselves, become “increasingly ephemeral under industrial capitalism” (41). The latter “required […] temporary landscapes that did not eradicate the unconscious sense of accelerated accumulation for modern subjects, but instead staged that feeling as uncanny amusement” (42).
To my mind, Wasserman’s reading usefully complicates those of historians of science, technology, and design advanced in the 1990s, whose articulations of the temporal narratives advanced by corporations at the World’s Fairs of 1959, 64/65, and 82 completely overlooked both the significance of the fairs’ own duration and the enduring effects of these encounters on those who visited them. Michael Smith, Roland Marchand, and William L. Bird revealed General Electric, Ford, General Motors and Westinghouse’s various mystifications of science and exercises in “technological determinism” aimed at “obscuring the social relations and social choices that are the very substance of technological development” (Smith 1993, 229). By contrast, Wasserman uses the fictionalisations of these events to reveal the novel form’s longstanding attention to viewer perceptions of display—an attention that predated the field of consumer research, reader-response theory, and the recent interactive turn in curatorial practices, by several decades at least.
To encounter the competing temporalities of the corporate exhibit or the museum display in a literary text is to be confronted, in some cases violently, with their profound and enduring effects on subjects, particularly children, who corporations recognised as the next generation of consumer-citizens (to use Liz Cohen’s concept). Wasserman’s attention to the specificities of the child’s experience of display brings into focus the long pall cast by these exhibits, and chimes, in my opinion, with a whole host of retrospective literary accounts of the wonder and awe inspired by corporate imagery, and the bewilderment at the belated discovery of its illusoriness. I am reminded in particular of Kurt Vonnegut’s seemingly glib aside in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) that people went to the 1964/65 World’s Fair to “[see] what the past had been like, according to the Ford Motor Car Company and Walt Disney [and] what the future would be like, according to General Motors” (13). The impact of those visions was profound, as attested by Vonnegut’s narrator’s inability to remember when the fair itself took place: the vague description “whatever the last year was for the New York World’s Fair” becomes a catch-all for 1964, while the novel itself proceeds to showcase just what happens when the self becomes “spastic” in the folds of a corporate-sponsored time that can’t quite rid itself of the residual traumas of the Second World War. Or indeed, my favourite line in DeLillo, from Americana (1971)— “as a boy, and even later, quite a bit later, I believed all of it, the institutional messages, the psalms and placards, the pictures, the words. Better living through chemistry. The Sears, Roebuck catalog. Aunt Jemima. All the impulses of all the media were fed into the circuitry of my dreams. . . . One thinks of an image made in the image and likeness of images” (129—30).
Wasserman’s account of children’s encounters with the object matter and dream-imagery of corporate messaging and display vividly throws into relief that these encounters have a legacy that endures long after the dreams have been cast off and the child has grown up. And that legacy matters, as perhaps best illustrated by the fraught tension between the nostalgic imagery that has shaped the media landscape of the last fifty years, from Happy Days and Dirty Dancing to Mad Men and Wandavision (ah hah! That’s what that note was about!) and the frustration contained in the expression, “OK, Boomer.” Indeed, one has only to consider that Aunt Jemima herself—the quintessential antebellum “Mammy”—endured on the brand’s packaging until June 2020, and was only removed after the mass protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, to see just how steadfastly the ephemera DeLillo describes have endured, and for how long their affective pull for white Americans has overridden Black Americans’ calls for equitable treatment (the brand itself was renamed in February 2021). The world’s fairs were temporary and the children who visited them grew up, but, as Wasserman’s readings of their literary counterparts shows, the dreams they conjured endured, and continue to haunt our present. That it is a literary critic showing us this, via readings of literary texts, is a case study in why our field matters and, too, why some might want to shut it down.
This chapter on ephemeral displays also relates in interesting ways to the logic of postmillennial retail spaces such as the pop-up store—whose lure is, precisely, its impermanence—and the temporary showroom. In the UK, the latter is increasingly used in lieu of an actual high street presence by midmarket furniture retailers. As well as drastically reducing overhead costs, the temporary showroom turns the trialling of a sofa or armchair into an exclusive experience to be seized before it vanishes. Not quite what Freud had in mind when writing, in the shadow of the First World War, about “Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment rais[ing] the value of the enjoyment,” but then again, the story of advertising is the story of psychoanalysis’ co-option, so are we really surprised?
I am getting distracted. But this, too, is a state that in its sprawling tentacularity The Death of Things both encourages and reflects upon. I was left wondering, in fact, whether Wasserman’s ideas about ephemerality might usefully contribute to our understanding of online reading, scanning, and link-clicking. And it was this, in particular, that triggered the thought: “Internet users who post photos or share messages can have the strange sense that their content is never really theirs to possess, nor theirs to erase […] the twenty-first century avalanche of immaterial data that must be algorithmically sorted finds its antecedent in the twentieth-century surfeit of stuff, most of which appears to vanish but revisits us in this or that [preserved] object” (8). Quite apart from the duality of the transience and durability of the stuff we share with others, there is, too, the fragile friability of how we come to connect online, thanks to algorithms that encourage us to click here and not there and to like this and not that—but thanks, too, to chance. And as net neutrality comes increasingly under threat (in the US it was undone under the Trump administration, while the UK laws are currently under review), digital chance is, itself, becoming an ephemeral thing.
Wasserman expands her discussion of the relationship between ephemera, ideology, and temporality in her second chapter, which analyses Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth’s counterfactual histories of the Second World War in The Man in the High Castle (1962) and The Plot Against America (2004). Her analyses of the texts’ depictions of stamps and stamp collecting demonstrate how the texts do “not monumentaliz[e], but ephemeraliz[e]” the past, revealing its openness to revision. These analyses link to other discussions, including the critical reception of the books and their respective legacies in popular culture, the connotations of collecting and salvaging in wartime and, more broadly, in times of political crisis, and the ways in which literary depictions of accrual and commemoration challenge theoretical conceptualisations of these practices—in this case, Baudrillard’s understanding of collecting as “‘a triumphant unconscious discourse’” driven by the desire for mastery and control (73). The ephemera that Dick and Roth’s fictitious collectors “fervently try to save retain traces of extinction and disappearance” and, as such, “become poignant symbols of the uncertainty and contingency that counterfactual history intends to record” (74).
Particularly striking is Wasserman’s assertion that counterfactual novels “make powerful and perpetually relevant critiques of American exceptionalism by collapsing the distances between America and Americana and then exposing Americana—stamps, comic books, memorabilia of various kinds—as serial, counterfeit, and ephemeral. If the objects we use to prop up our national identity and ideals are shown to be mere props, we are forced to reckon with the fantasy and fallacy of American democracy” (74). As Wasserman notes, these questions are especially urgent today—the today of the monograph, i.e. 2020, but also the today of its readers in 2021 and beyond. Indeed, there is a particular ache to reading these words in the aftermath of the attack on Capitol Hill, that at the time they were written had yet to happen. There is also an ache to thinking of what might happen to the various objects captured in the photographs and videos of the attack—the fox skin, horned Viking hats, Medieval-ish pelt, and so on, themselves redolent of some mythical warrior past. What will come after the thinkpieces in InStyle and The Atlantic on the semiotics of white supremacists’ clothing choices? Will the objects end up on eBay? In a museum? In a Netflix docudrama? In a novel? What might Roth and Dick—or indeed DeLillo, whose wry account of object afterlives in Zero K Wasserman discusses in her last chapter—teach us about the power of these objects? And how might the events of the last two decades, including the nightmare of the so-called forever war in Afghanistan, indelibly change the way we in turn understand Dick and Roth’s texts?
Our present similarly haunts the book’s subsequent chapters. The chapter on Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison’s articulations of the palimpsestic qualities of Harlem and the legacy of slavery and segregation embedded in the infrastructure of American cities also shows how these texts complicate binary readings of urban change as either utopian “urban renewal”, as it was once called, or an ethnic cleansing gentrification. Of particular note is her use of the term “infrastructural racism” to name the way that “racist social forms are embedded in the built environment”, as well as the resistance of the “collective black life of the city” to erasure, and her analysis of the “frenetic, even propulsive” pace of the inventory in Invisible Man’s infamous eviction scene (132). Wasserman shows how the belongings piling up on the sidewalk for all to see “accumulate a kinetic speed” that in turn “evokes the paradox of gentrification”, wherein the social backdrop (i.e. class and race inequality) “remains static while the material and infrastructural foreground undergoes rapid change” (132). In this way, the objects “form a record” of “infrastructural racism”, illuminating “the particular violence of gentrification by which the private is made public” (as exemplified, here, by the document attesting to the evicted tenant’s grandfather’s freeing from slavery) (133). Wasserman handles Ellison and Himes’ engagements with material embodiments of the historical treatment of Black subjects as commodities delicately, but firmly—like the horrified onlookers in Invisible Man, we cannot look away.
The following chapter, on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), similarly knits together literary analyses that are readily applicable both to contemporary fiction and to contemporary politics—in this case, the politics of housework, alternatives to the nuclear family, and the disciplining function of the vocabulary of domestic hygiene. Notably, Wasserman’s readings challenge established interpretations of the novel’s protagonists as “bad” housekeepers by demonstrating how these purportedly feminist analyses affirm the very ideals of domestic order and heteronormative femininity that Robinson is at pains to dismantle. The alternative readings Wasserman advances of the novel and its protagonists’ curation of dirt, detritus, and paper scraps are incisive, and readily applicable to domestic fiction more broadly.
I want to linger, however, on Wasserman’s final chapters, on Thomas Pynchon’s first two novels, V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), respectively. While both sections make for riveting reading, I was disappointed by their lack of engagement with literary waste studies. Indeed, while The Death of Things persuasively demonstrates, throughout, that ephemera are distinct from ruins, waste, and souvenirs as these have been conceptualised by archaeologists, anthropologists of waste, and museum curators, it doesn’t quite answer the question of how literary ephemera differ from literary waste as conceived by literary studies scholars. Now, it bears recognising, given this article’s concern with the impingements on our time, attention, and capacity to bring things to completion, that post-digitisation, and in the accelerationist academic culture of the last twenty years, scholars have had far more to sift through than their predecessors (by the same token, I will be amazed if anyone gets to the end of this piece). One simply cannot read or comment on everything, and The Death of Things engages with such a prodigious number of scholarly discourses that one can’t really fault it for eliding this one. Nevertheless, the omission does seem a missed opportunity, given the profound resonances between the ideas Wasserman advances and those articulated in works such as Will Viney’s field-defining work, Waste: A Philosophy of Things (2014), a project whose digital predecessor inspired my own shift, as a PhD student, from literary objects to literary garbage; Christopher Schmidt’s Queer Excess: The Poetics of Waste in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith (2014); Rona Cran’s Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture (2014); Susan Signe Morrison’s The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (2015); Sarah K. Harrison’s Waste Matters: Urban Margins in Contemporary Literature (2015); Brian Thill’s contribution to the Bloombsury Object Lessons series, Waste (2015); and, most recently, Caroline Knighton’s Modernist Wastes: Recovery, Re-Use and the Autobiographic in Elsa von-Freytag-Lorighoven and Djuna Barnes (2020) and Mary Foltz’s American Sh*t: Contemporary American Literature and Excremental Culture (2020), mentioned earlier.
These literary waste scholars “use” literature to demonstrate waste’s suppleness as a thing that slips in and out of the “use value” state, and whose influence or legacy leaves a trace, even when it has been efficiently removed from sight. Like Wasserman, they show how literature enlivens us to the resistance of objects, people, actions, and time-use to hard and fast definitions of worth, and the ways in which attending to valueless stuff might inform both aesthetic experimentation and radical resistance to different forms of oppression. Indeed, because “waste” can be both a noun and a verb, discussions of it end up being about the transience and devaluation of both things and the space and time that they take up. This is the central thesis of both Viney’s Waste: A Philosophy of Things, his earlier work on waste in J.G. Ballard, and my work on the legacy of Surrealist salvage and time-wasting in Ballard (here and here), second-wave feminist fiction (here and here), and DeLillo. US scholars of literary waste have also been more resistant than their counterparts in philosophy and anthropology to the new materialist turn. Waste is understood by many of us to be a thing that produces effects, but also imbricated in processes and, crucially, connotative of social meanings and redolent with haunting signification: thus, for example, Foltz powerfully situates the bodily excretions, toxic emissions, and landfill waste in Ishmael Reed, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Pynchon, Gloria Naylor, Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Franzen within the history of psychoanalytic approaches to scatology to disclose the ways in which the category of waste has been mobilised to justify the oppression and exploitation of specific demographics. Literary waste studies highlights how the spectre of becoming-waste haunts the object matter of literature, and particularly that of the last two centuries (although Morrison, who is a Medievalist, would disagree with me here: her book Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics (2008) reminds us that the death inherent in things haunted literature long before industrialisation and planned obsolescence).
It seems to me that the question of what distinguishes ephemera from waste as it is conceived by literary studies scholars, and whether theories around these two categories might usefully inform one another, is a vital one. In my own book on the subject, I have defined waste as conceived by twentieth-century novelists as a stage in the lifecycle of a thing that can, however, pass; as a state that is in turn ascribed to people to justify different kinds of exclusion; and as a category assigned to certain kinds of time-use—daydreaming, pottering about, dawdling, and creative thinking—that distract from the “serious” stuff of money-making. One question Wasserman’s book raises is whether the concept of ephemera might serve as a more useful one than waste for thinking through the questions that literary waste studies asks. Certainly, I was left thinking that as both concept and category, the ephemeral encompasses more and less than waste in ways that effectively render theories of the latter redundant (what a sentence to write!).
On a more granular level, I was struck by the absence of engagements with the wealth of scholarship on the effluvia that defines Pynchon and DeLillo’s oeuvres and the tradition of feminist fiction of which Marilynne Robinson’s work is a part. Granted, this probably says more about my own obsessiveness about these particular authors and my allegiance to my field—a compulsive and all-consuming focus that arguably occludes other ways of seeing, and that it is the job of a book like The Death of Things to puncture. Perhaps, after all, foreclosing a discussion of waste is necessary to retraining the reader’s eye and recalibrating their attention to attend to different schema. Put differently, does the absence I am mourning really matter, when these chapters advance compelling ideas and thrust into relief aspects of their respective texts that have been overlooked? And, speaking more broadly, is not the case that the intense pressure and sense of urgency that our generation of academics feels—the lack of time, the paucity of jobs, the sense that the university itself might be dying—render redundant the kinds of intellectual jousting that characterised (some) scholarship of Foucault and Derrida’s time? Seriously: we all have better things to do than ponder absent footnotes. Which is also to say: how much of the point-scoring of Baudrillard, Bloom, and Barthes’ cohort of reviewers might have been better left off the page—and how much of it might have been avoided with some self-reflection or, you know, a quick chat?
I am not being entirely glib here. One thing that I kept thinking about, while reading The Death of Things, was the way Wasserman’s approach speaks to our current moment of simultaneous isolation and interconnection. Those confined to the home during the pandemic have seen few people “IRL” but dozens if not hundreds of online contacts per day. Retreat into the self has been accompanied, for some, by an opening outward into video calls, online dating, social media chats, online gaming, and so on. Whether these connections are meaningful or not (or how one even judges that) is not the point—the fact remains that we have all been engaging with apparitions, if not the same as those Wasserman explores in her chapter on DeLillo’s Angel Esmeralda and Chicago’s Underpass Mary, then certainly akin to them. Offline, interactions that one might have discounted, if not overtly avoided, pre-pandemic have (for some) accrued greater meaning. If the person who delivers your mail or the dog walker who passes your house every day at the same time are your only contact, then the pleasantries you exchange, the duration of their smile, and whether they meet your eyes and for how long comes to matter a great deal. The ephemeral connections between selves otherwise intent on avoiding physical proximity or breathing each other’s exhalations become pregnant with precisely the urgency and value that Wasserman identifies in collapsed buildings and throwaway notes.
In a similar vein, the discovery that someone else out there is doing a thing like you but different comes to feel important in a way that it might not have, were the culture around us not so hostile to the kinds of looking and thinking that we literary scholars do. It matters less, frankly, that this book about vanishing things doesn’t treat waste as a vanishing thing (I mean, my God, who cares?) than that the person who wrote it exists, and that she, too, thinks that vanishing things matter. One reason why a return to the academic days of yore holds no appeal for me, personally (apart from the fact that as a woman and a foreigner in both the UK and the US, I wouldn’t have been let in) is precisely the one-upmanship that the so-called proletarianization of academic work is rendering obsolete. If there is one thing to be gained from academia having a less privileged place in society and society having little interest in what we have to say is that we will, perhaps, feel less need to pontificate, and spend more time building community.
Again, a novel anticipated these ideas. Or rather, the memory of reading this novel has informed my thinking, which is often what we mean when we say that a book anticipated the concerns of our present. In The Heat of the Day (1949), Elizabeth Bowen describes the effects of the Blitz on Londoners: “among the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time. The wall between the living and the living became less solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned.” Without wishing to compare either the pandemic or the crisis in higher education to the Blitz, or indeed to further fuel the overhyped mythos of the so-called Blitz spirit, I think it’s worth highlighting the sense of potential that underlies Bowen’s characterisation. What she is describing is not the naïve notion that “we are all in this together” but rather a collapsing of distinctions and old understandings that by definition leaves open the question of what comes next. Wasserman’s theory of things on their way to dissolution that never quite get there similarly suggests a series of hopeful possibilities. The constellation(s) of meaning(s) rendered possible by attending to ephemera are, in a sense, infinite: one begets another and another and another. For some, this might seem overwhelming—as overwhelming as the vastness of the Internet, when one tries, and fails, to fathom its size. But it is also quietly exhilarating, and it is to such exhilaration that I think Wasserman’s readings point. The strange resonances they reveal—between the trajectories of objects in novels and in the material world beyond, and the strange slippages between the categories we used to taxonomise both—are truly compelling.
Relevant ephemera, ephemeral relevance
There is of course a risk in the account I have given of fueling the self-defeating assertion that literature matters because it “relates” to the outside world and to our own time. This line of argument, with which anyone who has attended a meeting about student recruitment or graduate employability will be familiar, takes as given that both literature and academic thought are ethereal, rarefied, and abstract things separate from the materiality of “real life.” If one accepts this distinction, then demonstrating the “value” of studying literature or indeed other humanities subjects necessarily requires demonstrating that the gap between these two spaces can be bridged, and that it is worth the effort. Hence the rise of an entire genre of consultancies devoted to applying the ideas of Copernicus, Descartes, and, unbelievably, the French Situationists, to content marketing and organization management. And hence the rise, of course, of the rhetoric of applied literary studies, which in its focus on the employability skills to be developed from studying literature suggests, too, the impropriety of mining it for other things. It’s not difficult to read the subtext here: those who have no business studying ethereal, rarefied things—read: minorities, working-class students, or really anyone who isn’t part of the landed gentry—must be confined to studying the tangible aspects of literature, in order to shield them from the temptation of getting notions above their station.
Wasserman’s book does do a masterful job of demonstrating the weird and wonderful ways in which a literary text, or a literary scholar’s approach to analysis, might inform our understanding of the “real world.” But it also, and more importantly, shows up the absurdity of the distinction between literary/real and the binaries of value/valueless, whimsical/profitable, and ethereal/tangible on which discussions of the future of humanities subjects are premised, and which are, more often than not, merely a means to justify gatekeeping. The literary ephemera that Wasserman identifies as oscillating between states illuminate the transience and fictitiousness of the institutions, systems of belief, ideals, and class distinctions, we treat as solid, and which it is the literary novel’s raison d’être to destabilise.
In The Writing of Anxiety: Imagining Wartime in Mid-Century British Culture (2007), Lyndsey Stonebridge recounts Inez Holden’s recollection of the sight of a tree draped with silk, damask and some odd stockings strewn by the bombing of a nearby building: “‘A surrealist painter whom I knew slightly was staring at this too. He said, ‘Of course we were painting this sort of thing years ago, but it has taken some time to get here’” (75). In 1966, J.G. Ballard similarly commented that “the techniques of surrealism have a particular relevance at this moment, when the fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘false’ […] The task of the arts seems more and more to be that of isolating the few elements of reality from this melánge of fictions.”
Wasserman’s theory of literary ephemera is of a piece with these articulations. Her contention that the literary ephemera of American fiction “show the nation itself to be a dubious article of faith, one whose history cannot be authenticated” (77) is also a statement about the novel form itself, and its unique capacity to expose the tenuousness of the things that we believe to be true, important, or worth salvaging. And by “true” here I mean factually correct or in existence. Holden was responding to the Blitz’s disembowelment of London. Ballard was responding to the sensorially arresting effects of highways and advertising billboards, and the rise of celebrity politics as later embodied in movie-star-turned-candidate-for-state-governor Ronald Reagan. But Wasserman is writing about the collapsing of the binary true/false and real/fiction in light of the rise of “fake news” and “hoaxes” disseminated by thousands of social media accounts operated by bots. In such a landscape, one either embraces delusion and conspiracy or hones their close-reading skills. And that’s without going into the ramifications of the rise of marketing degrees that produce graduates conversant in the language of benevolent free enterprise, corporate responsibility, streamlined efficiency, and agile working, and for whom the incitement to “humanise your brand” does not prompt scepticism or dismay, but excitement. Against such a backdrop, the importance of attending to the entanglement of subjects and objects gains newfound urgency.
This is not (just) to say that the world needs readers, and those attuned to the nuances of language more than ever, but that Wasserman’s readings of literary ephemera will resonate with anyone who has been struck by the uncanny affinities between the events of the last five years and the work of the novelists of the last three quarters of a century—because, of course, these events are but a logical extension of problems identified by the latter. Her understanding of the dynamism of ephemera and, too, that all things contain the potential (or threat) of becoming ephemera, provides a useful way into thinking about how to navigate the surfeit of once-hidden things that have, in the twenty-first century, come to light, and how to reiterate, to a public increasingly sceptical about the things we do, that literature has long trafficked in the questions that now dominate our headlines.
Modernism and postmodernism anticipated the Internet by some way: what are The Waste Land and The Arcades Project if not the epitome of hyperlinked texts, as indeed Heather Marcelle Crickenberger’s hypertext, The Arcades Project Project (2002–2007), demonstrated? On a separate note, if the swift ascendance of specific thinkers and approaches thanks to the combined forces of digitisation, social media, and the so-called accelerated academy is anxiety-inducing for some, I find aspects of it compelling. Might the supplanting of one “turn” with another (thingly, spatial, bodily, animistic, chemical, and so on) be a way to prevent stasis and to ensure, for example, that the overcorrections such as the one Wasserman (to my mind, rightly) identifies in the shift from subject-dominant readings to object-oriented ones don’t have enough time to erase what they replaced? Perhaps this is overly optimistic—naïve, even. But Wasserman’s readings invite such optimism, suggesting that ephemerality need not be a bad thing, no less because ephemera always leave a trace.
I read The Death of Things over a weekend of an all-too-brief heatwave, while sunbathing in the little green near my home. The sun was sweltering, and the place where the sky meets the ground oscillated in the heat. My sunscreen slipped off my skin as I sweated. The book itself fell apart in my hands a couple of hours in. (This is not, I should mention, a fault of the binding: to sunbathe properly, you need to bend the book spine so your face doesn’t get overshadowed. The cost of a good tan however is, sometimes, a broken book.) There is something lovely about reading a book about ephemera in this way. Reading about things does, indeed, enliven one to things. And reading about dissolution does sharpen one’s attunement to all of the things dissolving around us, and the fleeting nature of the things we most treasure—in my case, afternoons free of commitments, summer weather (which in the UK lasts barely a month), and the ability to concentrate.
Purely by chance (the result of seeing this tweet, and a colleague’s response to it), the lyrics of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” (1981) knocked around my head as I read, and, in turn, as I have written this piece. I love this song for a lot of reasons. It ironises both a white male-centric American Dream that treats women and minorities as ancillary objects and the subsequent cliché of the (white) American Domesticated Male rendered infamous by the Beat generation and dude-bro writers from Updike and Carver to Mailer, Bellow, and Yates. (Sing with me now: “THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL WIFE!!”) It conjures the memory of my dad, with his Italian accent, singing, “How did I GET here?” as he drove me to school as a kid (he assures me, now, that he was “being ironic”). But mainly, I love the radical hopefulness inherent in Eno and Byrne’s articulation of the impermanence of beautiful houses and large automobiles and the multi-billion-dollar industries that incite us to desire them. The song upends the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that consumer capitalism makes out commodities, including commodified experiences and people, to be. Perhaps, after all, it would have been better to let them go. As Wasserman teaches us, “things rarely come fully into possession,” while there is a generative capacity to loss (2; 30). Her contention that it is “the vanishing that is precious” (15) finds its counterpart in David Byrne’s speculative vision of subjects and things ending up “into the blue again after the money’s gone.” The Death of Things invites us to consider what the blue might consist of apart from bankruptcy and foreclosure—while Wasserman’s attention to marginalised subjects, including in the works of writers often associated with the category of “male, pale, and stale,” usefully corrects the enduring legacy of white male-centric critiques of capitalism. This is no mean feat and offers a useful example for how postgraduate and early career scholars might re-orientate the discourse around some of the more problematic mid- and late-twentieth century white male writers and mine them for new meanings.
Perhaps, for some, reading the news or watching rising death tolls is enough reminder of dissolution—who needs a theory of it? The students in my twentieth-century dystopian fiction class this year hovered around this position for a while—but they also came around to the other side of it, which is, If not now, when? And if not this, what? In other words, what better way to understand the world that seems to be falling apart around us than by thinking through the ways that it does, in the company of the variegated visions of writers who have spent their lives imagining the different paths that dissolution can take? Wasserman’s book eloquently demonstrates the merits of such exploration.
Rachele Dini is Senior Lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Roehampton, London (UK). She is the author of Consumerism, Waste, and Re-use in Twentieth-century Fiction: Legacies of the Avant-Garde (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and “All-Electric” Narratives: Time-Saving Appliances in American Literature, 1945–2020 (Bloomsbury, 2021), and the editor of Queer Trash and Feminist Excretions: New Directions in Literary and Cultural Waste Studies (SUNY Press, 2022), as well as the founder of the International Literary Waste Studies Network and a lifelong collector of ephemera, most of it pink. Her current project, Postmillennial Nostalgia: Mid-Century Modern and the Politics of Longing, examines the political ramifications of the last half century’s obsession with mid-century modern fashion and design. The author would like to thank Duncan Salkeld for getting “Once in a Lifetime” stuck in her head for much of July 2021.
This review was commissioned by editors Sabrina Mittermeier and Jake Casella Brookins from a hard pitch; the editors had previously published one of the author’s pieces. No review copy was arranged by ARB. A version of this review appears in American Literary History.