thing theory (2008)

anth g6085


tim gunatilaka (columbia university)

There’s the Yes as an affirmation, an agreement, the Yes as an exclamation, a celebration, a greeting, the Yes as the response to romance, a seduction, the Yes as a conversational placeholder, and, as Barack Obama’s New Hampshire speech highlights, the Yes as the rallying cry for political revolution. There’s the spoken Yes, the imagined Yes, the gestured Yes, the rock band Yes. There’s the Yes of the ears, the eyes, and the mind. The unspoken, signified, tactile Yes: a check mark, a thumbs up, a head nod, a handshake, a signature. And what about Yes’ antithesis: the word No? Jacque Derrida writes that No “is most certainly not symmetrical to” the word Yes (274). After all, a double negative turns into a positive. Meanwhile, two Yeses may double an affirmation but not always. As Derrida continues, “The difference between the two yeses, or rather between the two repetitions of the yes, remains unstable, subtle, sublime. One repetition haunts the other” (287). Additionally, let’s not forget the all-important Perhaps, the mediating Maybe, and the sometimes Yes but other times No. Then, there are the moments when the word Yes does not even signify a Yes.



This problem of mistaken meaning, confused context, and fractured communication brings me to James Joyce’s Ulysses, and specifically, Derrida’s reading of the novel. As Graham Harman moans, “No figure in the history of philosophy is simultaneously so observant and so irritating as Jacques Derrida” (110). Indeed, Derrida leaves no pebble or pun unturned in his close reading of Joyce’s pioneering text. In an example of overdetermination and literary criticism at its finest, or perhaps feckless, Derrida’s essay “Ulysses Gramophone” scrutinizes the presence of Yes in the novel, determining that the word appears 222 times. This number does not even account for other moments of, what Derrida calls, “yes without the word yes”: the Yeahs, the Yeas, the Yas, the Ayes, the letter I, and the seeing eye (266).  For a punishing punster like Derrida, these latter homophones are fundamentally related. While such a position borders on hyperbole, I would agree on some level. As mentioned earlier, one’s signature can indeed operate as a Yes. A signature can certify that Yes, I have read this document’s guidelines with my own eyes; or Yes, I can corroborate that I filled out this form truthfully; or Yes, the person before you is in fact the person he says he is. One’s signature (and, for that matter, initials) is often used as a representation of both the affirming Yes and proof of one’s identity. Thus, the Aye can stand for the letter I.




Returning to Derrida’s primary point, Ulysses presents a day in the ho-hum life of Leopold Bloom. He’s a failure at his job; his friends despise him; and he rightfully suspects his wife is cheating on him. Though Bloom’s narrative composes most of the text, the novel finishes with a stream of consciousness from his wife at bedtime. Through eight sentences spanning 42 pages and offering 79 yeses, Molly Bloom thinks about the sad state of her marriage, her adultery, reincarnation, her childhood, and finally a happier past—an intimate moment with Leopold when she replies to his proposal with that magic monosyllable of ultimate affirmation and affection:

... I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. (732)

In Molly’s memory, she not only vocalizes Yes to Leopold, she says the word with her eyes. With the text’s reference to a “mountain flower” in bloom and “perfume” she seems to even smell the word Yes. Finally, she feels “his heart” beating for the very word. In this way, Yes as a verbal performance becomes the sensory embodiment of love itself.

Since she’s accepting Leopold’s proposal for marriage and most likely sex, the Yes, here, operates as a promissory note—currency to be cashed in now, and later, and over and over again, as Molly replays the scene in her mind. Derrida writes, “The word yes is written, quoted, repeated, archived, recorded, gramophoned, or is the subject of translation or transfer” (266). Thus, the word Yes, like all good actors, must be translated for it to accomplish its affirmative action. But in order to be thinged, the Yes, whether spoken for the ears, written for the eyes, or signaled otherwise, demands an outward performance or communication. In this way, an unexpressed thought of Yes may not be a Yes at all. The text is only too well aware of this tension, as the above idyllic moment in the Bloom marriage proceeds exclusively in Molly’s head; she does not explicitly share her pleasant feelings with Leopold. In “Words and the Murder of the Thing,” Peter Schwenger likens the verbal representation of a thing—in our case, Yes as love—to a form of recreation, thereby connecting verbal performance and embodied reality:

When such a being is named, then it is also changed. It is assimilated into the terms of the human subject at the same time that it is opposed to it as object, an opposition that is indeed necessary for the subject’s separation and definition. All our knowledge of the object is only knowledge of its modes of representation. (101)

Without any audible, visual, or tactile materiality imparted to Molly’s ultimate Yes, the Blooms will likely continue on the same dreary path the next morning. Unless Molly communicates her feelings to the object of her affection, nothing may ever improve between the Blooms.

Besides counting the number of affirmations, Derrida also notes, in “Ulysses Gramophone,” that the French translation of Ulysses has more “ouis” than the English text has “yeses.” Along such lines of linguistic-cultural difference, it’s important to note that Latin, Mandarin, and Gaelic, among other languages, do not have equivalents for the word Yes. This means that multiple civilizations and language systems have thrived without it. Thus, it’s clearly possible to operate intellectually without a word for Yes. Perhaps, then there is another cause for the word’s ubiquity in our culture—some desperate anxiety to fill an emotional void and reify the act of affirmation in a singular syllable. Perhaps, this is how the word Yes has transformed into a thing, elevated to a dignity not afforded to other three-letter words. That said, a more likely reason for the word’s prevalence is merely a matter of verbal economy; that is, saying Yes is more efficient than speaking a full affirming sentence for every question asked.

Yes is not only a tool of efficient communication and production, it has become a lucrative industry in its own right, through self-help seminars, motivational speaking, and business management literature. The back cover of Jeffrey Gitomer's Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude reads, “When you’ve got a YES! Attitude, you assume everything will start with YES! ...and you’ll find a way to YES! even when the first, second, and third answer you hear is NO!” These lines presume that getting Yes for an answer is a malleable process, a bargaining position, a matter of proper persuasion. Yes thus becomes a construct. The power of Yes boils down to convincing everyone to agree that what you are saying is, in fact, right. On the other end of the Yes industry, there are books that have turned away from the Yes-maker toward the Yea-sayer. In two books, Maria Headley’s Year of Yes and Danny Wallace’s Yes Man, the authors decided to say Yes to everyone and everything for a year. After some disastrous dates, Headley met her future husband. Meanwhile, Wallace got some new credit cards and joined a group that believes aliens built the pyramids in Egypt. Moreover, in an added demonstration of Yes as big business, both books are currently being turned into films. Yet, the reason I bring them up is to examine Yes when employed as a meaningless reflex. Yes is an object in search of a subject; it’s always an answer calling for a question. It can never exist, therefore, in itself. For Harman, words, like Yes, have no meaning in a vacuum; “What they have is an intimate reality, a foot permanently jammed in the door of the world. To try to approach their ‘meaning’ in any way is necessarily to do so from the outside, by means of a relation” (110). Each Yes must signify more than an empty reflex; each Yes must mark its own specific moment of affirmation.

On that account, what do we make of the Yes Man (and Yes Woman)? According to Derrida, mechanical responses, like the Yes Man’s yeses, constitute an automatic gesture of subordination that “persecutes the most spontaneous, the most giving desire of yes” (276). Does this mean some yeses are less consequential than others? If so, does this diminish the import of Obama’s call-and-response rallies? Or the affirmative Amen’s at church services? I would argue that the course of repetition does not necessarily have to strip away the power of those affirmations. Nevertheless, following Derrida’s logic, there is indeed a context in which yeses clearly fly forth without substantive meaning or forethought—and that’s the Yes as a conversational placeholder. Imagine when you mindlessly repeat Yes or politely nod along as someone prattles on and on in a conversation. Think about how often you say Yeah as an automatic response—not as an affirmation but simply to fill awkward silences and a loss for other words. Bill Brown’s parsing of how we use the word Thing applies quite well to this idiom. Brown writes that the Thing “holds within it a more audacious ambiguity…. The word designates the concrete yet ambiguous within the everyday…. It functions to overcome the loss of other words or as a placeholder for some specifying operations” (4). So I’ll follow my own cue and stop prattling on. I’d like to leave you, however, with a short clip—from the movie Fargo—a comic noir that subversively examines the dialect of northern states and highlights just how pervasively Yes functions as a basic connector and enabler in human interactions: And for inquiring minds, a rough count shows that the preceding document contained 82 yeses.




Derrida, Jacques. “Ulysses Gramophone.” In Acts of Literature, edited by Derek Attridge, 253-309. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Gitomer, Jeffrey. Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude. Upper Saddle River, NJ:FT Press, 2006.

Harman, Graham. Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Chicago:Open Court, 2005.

Joyce, James. Ulysses: the 1922 Text. Oxford: Oxford, 1998.

Schwenger, Peter. “Words and the Murder of the Thing.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (Autumn, 2001): 99-113.