A quiet revolution is underway in academic literary criticism. Three movements are at the vanguard: ecocriticism, digital humanities, and material culture. At first, they might seem distinct. Ecocritics see literature as a response to the environment. Digital humanists see literature as a repository of machine-readable data. Scholars of material culture see literature as a series of objects – books, libraries, reading glasses, engravings – that exist in the real world. All these movements, however, have a shared foundation, with striking implications for intellectual life today.
What they have in common is an interest in things, in the physical existence of texts. This is a remarkable reversal. At least since Wittgenstein, the pervasive trend among Western intellectuals has been to view literature – and indeed, everything else – as essentially abstract, incorporeal, and symbolic. For a great twentieth-century critic like Roland Barthes, even physical items of clothing are essentially symbols. Our jeans may look like tough blue denim sewn together, but what they are really made of is ideology, the secret language or code that constitutes our reality.