Night-Time Wanderings and the Out-of-Place

As I walked home late one night last week, I came upon a scene that perhaps many of us are familiar with. In a dark corner of a quiet area there lay a pair of new looking shoes, laced up and stood together, as if worn by a phantom man (they were a man’s shoes). There was something jarring about the scene. The shoes were too clean to really “belong” on the street, but yet there was nobody in sight, and who goes home without their shoes? After a moment I walked on, of course, but the image stayed with me. I couldn’t help thinking about the circumstances in which those new shoes came to be on that dark street corner.…

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Occasional Paper 6: Destructivistas

Joel Cahen (2012, revised 2016)

With our present day awareness, the arts as we have known them up to now appear to us in general to be fakes fitted out with a tremendous affectation. Let us take leave of these piles of counterfeit objects on the altars, in the palaces, in the salons and the antique shops. They are an illusion with which, by human hand and by way of fraud, materials such as print, pieces of cloth, metals, clay or marble are loaded with false significance, so that, instead of just presenting their own material self, they take on the appearance of something else. Under the cloak of intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us.

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Digital Ontologies

Hannah Knox, Department of Anthropology, UCL

Last year, someone made the observation at a workshop I was attending, that no single person knows how a contemporary computer works. The rapid development of computing over the past 70 years, the interconnectivity of the internet, and the layers of programming needed to make digital devices function, mean that digital technologies have gained a kind of distributed autonomy, divorced from the understanding or expertise of any individual person or group of experts. One response to this complexity has been to argue that if we want to understand digital technologies as material culture, we should not really concern ourselves with how these technologies come into being, but should simply look at how they, like other forms of material culture, are understood and deployed in everyday life.…

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Book Review: My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries by Elizabeth Chin

Haidy Geismar, UCL Anthropology

My Life With Things: The Consumer Diaries by Elizabeth Chin, 2016. Duke University Press.

My Life with Things is an engaging, quirky, auto-ethnography detailing key moments of Elizabeth Chin’s life, focusing especially on her passionate relationship with commodities and processes of consumption (from shopping in thrift stores and on eBay through to her obsessions with home decoration). Narratives and diaries written over several years present Chin’s anxieties, desires, and needs as they are emerge in relation to shopping for clothes, for her home, and for her daughter. These are interspersed with a tracking of the personal and familial relationships of Karl Marx. The central argument, that the personal is political, that materiality matters, and that political economy is a sensorium of lived experience as well as a systemic process of the book builds upon Peter Stallybrass’ beautiful essay, Marx’s Coat (1998).…

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On Miniatures: a dialogue

In a new series of postings, we draw two research projects on miniatures together in dialogue:

Miniatures Matter

Jonathan Walz

Jonathan Walz is an anthropologist who practices archaeology in eastern Africa and the western Indian Ocean. This contribution arises from his long-term interest in representations of archaeology and Africa and previous explorations of miniatures, often overlooked by archaeologists more typically drawn to monuments. The tendency to miniaturize impacts the form and substance of practices, materials, and the eventual effects of things on humans in the endless entanglement of material, agency, subjectivity, memory, and affect. Postage stamps collapse of multiple symbols into proximity motivates metonymy and the exchanges and contests among bundled ideas rooted in the negotiated political landscape of the public and nation-state.

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Broken Stories

Adam Drazin, UCL Anthropology

How, when and why do people start to see something as”broken”? Do objects around the home just have two states, broken and working, or are there many other kinds of states they can be in? Clearly, the significance of many domestic objects is in relation to the projects of home which surround them and preoccupy the groups of people living together in a household. In some ways, household things are materialisations of projects, and ideas of being broken and fixed express this.

The Broken Stories project involved a group of Masters students on the UCL course Materials/Anthropology/Design at UCL working with Fixperts on issues of what kinds of fixing happen in the home, and what kinds of situations the Fixperts might get involved in.…

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Knowledge as Material Movement in Surfing and Anthropology

David Whyte, UCL Anthropology


Unpacking at Duggie. Photo: David Whyte

“We’re probably going to surf Banna Strand, but the swell might still be a bit small, I just can’t decide.” Dylan slumps back into the passenger seat of my car and throws his phone momentarily from his hands. He has spent most of the journey with it held to his nose, furrowing his brow as he examines various surf forecasts from across the southwest coast of Ireland. Dylan is one of those people for whom finding good waves has become an obsession, and missing them an unthinkable tragedy. It is a cold October morning, and the swell from Hurricane Joaquin is forecast to make landfall along Ireland’s Atlantic coast around lunchtime.…

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The Lunar New Year Gift Index 2.0

Members of the Emerging Subjects project at UCL and the National University of Mongolia contributed to this post.

 What does focusing on gifts given and received during the Lunar New Year tell us about the general economy in Mongolia? Last year we posted our first Lunar New Year Gift Index (LNYGI) and found that the slowing economy shaped how Mongolians celebrated the holiday, with people confining the celebrations to fewer days and opting for more useful gifts (like socks) that support Mongolian businesses. This year, Mongolia’s economy has been shaken further with pressures of increasing public and private debt and the slowdown of commodity prices globally. We found that people bought less over-all in preparation for the Lunar New Year. While prices have decreased (especially the price of meat), the cost of this year’s celebration was very straining. …

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The Absent Stone

Sandra Rozental, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Cuajimalpa,
Mexico City
La Replica
The Absent Stone (2013) is a documentary film that combines contemporary ethnographic filmmaking, animation and a wide range of found footage and archival visual materials to tell the story of the largest single-stone sculpture in the Americas, and how it was transported from a village in the Texcoco area to one of Mexico City’s busiest streets. In 1964, the sculpture, which archaeologists believe to be a pre-Columbian rain deity, was forcefully removed from Coatlinchan following military intervention. Using national patrimony laws to justify the extraction, the state repurposed the 167-ton carving as a monument marking the entrance of the newly-built National Anthropology Museum. The engineers and architects in charge of the feat were stunned when the sculpture’s arrival resulted in one of the most abundant rainfalls the city has ever seen during its alleged dry season.…
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Big Bang Data

Jo Cunningham, UCL Digital Anthropology

Recently, a cohort of students from the Masters in Digital Anthropology course visited the ‘Big Bang Data’ exhibition at Somerset House.  Exploring the rise of Big Data, the exhibition featured a mix of pieces commissioned from media artists alongside exhibits explaining the history and scope of the ‘data explosion’.  Here are a few of the students’ reactions to exhibition pieces that inspired them:


Big Data and Twig Data by Jo Cunningham


The Big Bang Data exhibition identified 2002 as a landmark year for data when digital took over from analogue. During 2009, more data was produced than all the preceding years put together.  This explosion in data production is linked with the capacity to store data and one of the exhibits showed the evolution of storage devices, from punchcards that could hold just 0.08 kilobytes, to floppy disks, CDs, and finishing with DNA, 1 gram of which can store 455 exabytes.  

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