Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Keeping House

Near the beginning of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping, narrator Ruth Stone describes an act of violent substitution that resonates through the harrowing events to follow. Ruth tells how her grandfather, the patriarch of the family, had emerged from a subterranean dwelling—“no more a human stronghold than a grave”—on the plains of the American West to build a sprawling homestead along an ancient mountain lake called Fingerbone. Into that lake the grandfather then fatally plunges on a moonless night when a spectacular derailment sends his train down to the watery depths, leaving nothing but “a suitcase, a seat cushion, and a lettuce." If the descent of the train—that signal exemplar of technological modernity—to the pit of the lake suggests a loss of master narratives, the conversion of the patriarch and two other train-riders into the most mundane, transient artifacts (valise, cushion, vegetable) inaugurates the cycles of object-oriented temporality into which Ruth’s family then moves. Stripped from illusions of progressive advance, Ruth tells us, the family “had no reason to look forward, nothing to regret. Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle. Breakfast time. Supper time. Lilac time. Apple time.”

Placed within an “outsized landscape” whose door history had never really darkened, life in the rambling house begins to sway. For, beneath the plashing blue Fingerbone lie older waters “smothered and nameless and altogether black”—waters that reek of the dead and, like a good Latourian hybrid, are “full of people." And with the new regime of Ruth’s aunt Sylvie installed in the lakeside home, management of the oikos becomes a veritable satire of bourgeois economics. Thrift is demonstrated as the family amasses and arrays valueless items. Meals are eaten in the dark as the boundaries between house and landscape, nature and culture, become ever more permeable. All the while, the lake brims and swells with the persisting materials it holds in cold storage as they await their fiduciary, cognitive, and eschatological redemptions. In a reverie, Ruth imagines sweeping a giant net across “the black floor of Fingerbone [to find] a great army of berry gatherers and hunters and strayed children. There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbors and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole.” For what, she wonders, “are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?”

In her stimulating paper, Pamela Karimi quotes Daniel Miller’s claim that “just as there is no pre-objectified culture, there is no post-objectified transcendence.” Yet, the desire for Ruth enunciates for restitution amidst and for the serried thickness of material life—a movement from fragmentation to redemption, to adopt Caroline Walker Bynum’s turn of phrase—resounds through much recent writings in material culture studies, thing theory and the conjunction of anthropological, SSK and other fields I take to be denoted by the label “new materialism.” Finding counterpoint to the dystopian textures of Philip K. Dick’s futures in his fictive conceptions of humble clay pots, Bill Brown, for one, has staked out the interpretive hope driving the thing theorist’s “methodological fetishism” (in Arjun Appadurai’s famous phrase) as a tactical suspension of the hermeneutics of suspicion. This is, Brown writes “not an error so much as it is a condition for thought, new thoughts about how inanimate objects constitute human subjects, how they move them, how they threaten them, how they facilitate or threaten their relation to other subjects.” And while recent scholars following, say, Pamela Smith and Michael Cole have used works of seemingly excessive materiality to positively valorize “artisanal epistemology” or the intelligence of the goldsmith, it is useful to recall the tone and directionality subtending the materialist’s preferred genre of the case study. As literary historian Jim Chandler reminds us, “the word case, as its etymological root suggests, has to do with falls and befallings, with the world of chance and contingency and the positing of worlds – normative orders – against which chance and contingency might be established as such.”

Falling like a stone—falling like Helen Stone, the mother of our narrator in Housekeeping, into the dark lake—brings us back to Ed Eigen’s scintillating talk. While his felicitous title “Lithographies” nearly literalizes the writing of her Family Stone that Ruth Stone undertakes in the novel, the dispersal of staining, stony materials across the face of waters that he narrates so compellingly echoes Ruskin’s scattering of miniature stones in dust even as it evokes Housekeeping’s seeming flat plot. Yet, like the “stone oil” or petroleum that pools and pulses below the Middle Eastern cities in Pamela Karimi’s analysis, the hegemonic force of those liquids to organize the thoughts and plots of those above becomes increasingly insistent as Housekeeping reaches its violent climax. “What is thought, after all,” Ruth asks as she sails above the eternal, encyclopedic museum of material life that is the lake, “what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate?” Like the swirling waters of the planet Solaris in Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic film, these dark, deep immiscible materials that drive wars so that we can drive cars or that enable the production of marbled accidents continue their economies—they continue to keep house—below us, beneath us, in us.

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