Digital Kvelling

Danny Miller, UCL
Bevan. A. and Wengrow. D. 2010. Cultures of Commodity Branding. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Clarke, A. 2010. Design Anthropology. Berlin: Springer Verlag.
Daniels, I. 2010. The Japanese House. Oxford: Berg.
Norris. L. 2010. Recycling Indian Clothing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
The term is probably better known in New York than London, but basically Kvelling is a Yiddish expression for taking pride in the achievement of others, e.g. one’s children. But I don’t see why this can’t extend to students and colleagues. Basically it means that I am using this posting to note four major new publications in Material Culture Studies, but at the same time admitting to a personal interest/pride in all of them.
First a quite superb book The Japanese House by Inge Daniels. Although almost all readers will first be entranced by the excellent photographs taken by Susan Andrews, and the way they have been integrated into the book as a whole to make the entire thing an aesthetic delight, a brief read of any given section of this work will soon inform the reader that this is NOT a coffee table book. Even to call this a work of ethnography would be to diminish the sense of authority it carries. This is clearly someone who had indeed worked as an ethnographer in Japan but more than that spent many years there covering several projects so that the authors knowledge on the history, the wider sociology and popular culture of Japan are as significant as the ethnographic experiences that are essential to her apprehension of something that is in Japan particularly private and normally inaccessible. One reason why there was previously almost no work on this topic was that it was just so hard for an outside to gain access. But irrespective of where this is based, as someone who has been working on issues of homes and home interiors for a very considerable time I am really not sure I have ever come across a better text on the material culture of the home. Without pretention or obfuscation this book manages to convey the kind of holism that is latent in material culture studies and which makes a section on cosmology and the spirits somehow seamlessly joined to issues of political economy, gender, and basic material concerns such as storage and mess. There is a real sense of how the private worlds of the Japanese family are articulated by moving through space, both within the home and outside. The icing on this case lies in a set of charming and fascinating additional essays on topics such as the choreography of domestic slippers, street gardens, alcoves and a dolls festival. I think this is going to grow into one of my all time favourite books in material culture
I am going to be equally effusive about Recyling Indian Clothing by Lucy Norris, this time a colleague rather than a student. This too is testimony to the way contemporary material culture studies are building from fine ethnographic research to encompass a depth and breadth of engagement that is outstanding. While there exists a fine text on clothing and recycling in Saialua by Karen Tranberg Hansen, that covers the kind of international trade we now expect in regard to this topic. Norris has produced a very different and perhaps rather less expected work, with the focus rather more on the internal exchanges and processes within India itself rather than the transnational aspect. Again as in so much of the best material culture work there is no fear of engaging with highly intimate worlds such as the contents of the wardrobe in considerable detail. In common with Daniels we see a key link between a `gifting economy’ which then leads to a surplus of stuff. Between them they thereby create an important complement to the normal linkage made between surplus goods and commodity markets. There is also a very strong sense of cosmological context that determines much of the activity by which things come to leave the person and the house, with a specific exchange relationship between clothing and kitchen utensils. This adds to the important topic of `ridding’ ie how things leave the house previously discussed by the geographer Nicky Gregson. Given the widespread interest in issues of sustainability and recycling there are probably few cases where what might be considered an indigenous system, that is not derived from green or external imperatives, but is integral to social structure and economic processes could be so fully documented and explicated. Again the topic really needed high quality photographic images and these certainly enhance the book.
Two important edited books complete the weeks treasure trove. Alison Clarke has edited a work on Design Anthropology that is remarkable in being really quite different from prior attempts to colonise this domain (which are pretty scarce in any case). This is a broad ranging work with contributions from designers, and historians to ethnographers and theorists. Some of the design issues are quite applied such as Gamman and Thorpe on crime prevention and Dankl on the needs of the elderly. UCL traditions of material culture ethnography is also well represented including Gavey on Ikea, Young on Aboriginal cars and Makovicky on hand made lace thongs an unusual item in that I assume their success is best measured in the brevity of time between being seen and being removed.
Finally it is rare to see such a successful instance of cross-over studies between archaeology and ethnography, (plus some additional history) as can be found in Cultures of Commodity Branding which follows from Wengrow’s path-breaking paper on branding in prehistory published in Current Anthropology. Alison Clarke has a strong presence here also, and a highlight is a section on fake brands with excellent papers by Magdelena Craciun and Rosana Pinheiro-Machado. Frustrating to see that this is only in hardback but at least get your library to order a copy.

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