The Way Things Go: An Essay on the Matter of Second Modernism
by Aaron Jaffe
The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2014
160 pp., illus. 51 b/w. Trade $ 67.50; paper, $ 22.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9201-9; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9203-3.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
In the long list of books on objects and things--the thing being the object that suddenly becomes visible in its stubborn materiality and cultural complexity--this is a very, very special one. Not in the sense that its theoretical references are new: Benjamin, Beck, Duchamp, Virilio, Dufy--most readers interested in critical theory and modernism will feel immediately at home--however, home will not prove a comfort zone here. And neither is this book special in the sense that one may feel lost when discovering the kind of objects or things analysed by Jaffe: soap, felt erasers, urinals, can openers, fake ink blots, etc.: There is no surprise with such a selection. Only books seem to offer a dissonant note in this industrial silly symphony, and it is certainly not by chance that Jaffe opens his thinking on objects and things with a challenging musing on something that his students, for the first time in his career, do no longer recognize as an item that belongs to their daily life. From the very start, that most typical of objects, the scholarly book, that transparent container of pure ideas, is turned into a thing that one suddenly feels as something weird and uncanny.
What is different here, and often breath taking, is Jaffe's way of writing and thinking, which at first sight one may label as associative. There is however a method in what seems a kind of intellectual roller coaster--which it is not, on the contrary. First of all, The Way Things Go is a theoretically informed study, that defends the idea that things are on the move (the key word in the title is certainly "go"): They relate to each other, they change our lives and, most of all, they come and go, emerging as novelties and vanishing--or not, and that is one of the problems--as waste. This dynamic thing theory is then historicized, hence the idea of second modernism in the subtitle of the book. While Jaffe's definition of modernism in general may sound familiar ("... a particular scene for presenting aesthetic form and accounting for cultural value in the face of a situation in which there is no coherent epistemological account of the whole...", pp. 16-18), the author relies on Ulrich Beck's "risk society" to make a sharp distinction between things in first modernism, characterized by the urge to produce, spread, buy, consume as many objects as possible, and things in second modernism, when the focus shifts from creation to risk management and objects become possibly dangerous sources of disruption, misunderstanding, pollution, and repression.
Second, next to this general theory that frames the take on object and things, Jaffe has also structured his text in a particular way. Rather than following a linear way of making, unmaking and remaking arguments and hypotheses, he adopts a countdown structure that to a certain extent mimics the idea of object entropy in the XXth Century, while at the same time eschewing narrative. What Jaffe is interested in is not the rise and fall of things and objects--they are, as he rightly states, indestructible--but their side effects, which become more and more scalar, culturally and ecologically speaking. Although the ecocritical dimension of The Way Things Go becomes very prominent towards the end of the book, Jaffe's study is much more than the history of how the status of objects changed throughout first and second modernity and how the promise of things has now turned into a nightmare--all themes well-known in contemporary ecologically inspired object theory. His primary focus is on what things can help us think of, and the model of this take on the object is here Joseph Beuys.
Is The Way Things Go a book that one should read from A to Z, as an old-fashioned book--one of the many objects that were once new and now almost forgotten? Yes, for there is an exceptional drive that makes this work a page-turner. Is it something that can be read as well as a kind of hypertextual network, where one starts with the index and then opens a given page and stays on it, for meditation and further thinking? Definitely, for a simply linear reading of this book and the regular or increased speed that it involves would make the reader miss a lot of the text's richness (most items, ideas, authors, concepts discussed in the book need time, and the book deserves very slow reading, despite the crazy pace of its style and associative thinking). Is it also an object that should be looked at in the very first place, the images being here what triggers the thinking? Absolutely, for it would be a pity to consider the images as simple illustrations. And is there, finally, a preferred way of reading Jaffe's book? This, of course, is a rhetorical question, so no need to answer it.