Raymond Malewitz is an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film at Oregon State University. He specializes in contemporary American literature, literature and science, and material culture. He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia in 2007.
His current book project, The Practice of Misuse (under revision for Stanford University Press), charts a growing resistance among American artists to models of consumption that push commodities and commodity waste towards real and metaphysical junkyards. Instead of framing this opposition as a nostalgic return to Modernism’s separation of art and state, however, the book shows how recent literature engages the problems of consumption from within through the figure of the “rugged consumer”—a hero (or anti-hero) who creatively misuses the commodities that populate his or her environment. Setting works by Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Sam Shepard, Thomas Pynchon, Shelley Jackson, Chuck Palahniuk, and Don DeLillo alongside contemporary “maker communities” such as Instructables and IKEA Hacker, the book shows how rugged consumers challenge the assumption of single, pre-determined functions for objects. Agents of both the high mythology of rugged individualism and the low folk aesthetic of repurposing household objects, these figures navigate the contested spaces of art, commerce, and eco-politics by making tent poles into prosthetic limbs, liposuctioned fat into soap, and blue jeans into crazy quilts. By translating the products of mass commodification into open sites of creativity, rugged consumers create practical and political solutions to the aesthetic problem of seeing through an object to what Bill Brown, following Martin Heidegger, calls its essential “thingness.”