Daniel Miller, UCL
I just wanted to point out a couple of books of interest to material culture studies that otherwise might be missed. The reason they might not appear on the radar is that the in one case they come from a more literary or humanities perspective and THE other from a kind of more positivist sociology than we usually address. But both of them are helpful since even for a perspective such as material culture which prides itself on looking closely at otherwise disregarded aspects of the everyday material world these two books delve impressively deeply and excavate stuff from the deepest levels of ubiquity for our contemplation.
The first is Paraphernalia by Steven Connor (London: Profile Books 2011). The author is Professor of Modern Literature and Theory at Birkbeck College and clearly given to writing about themes he regards as quirky and illuminating from below. His academic muse seems to be the French philosopher Michael Serres about whom he has also written extensively.
The delight of Paraphernalia is it is really a kind of literary equivalent of tipping out a person’s handbag or the back of their desk drawer and contemplating what we find there, drawing significance from this of detritus of daily life. The subtitle is the curious life of magical things. There are 18 chapters which include keys, combs, buttons, batteries, pins, rubber bands, sticky tapes, sweets and wires. I think this list makes the point pretty well. Very much in the spirit of material culture studies, although I don’t think the author is particular aware of such studies, his job is to focus down on that which by virtue of its ubiquity and taken for granted nature remains largely out of focus. There are two main resources he brings to bear on his quest. One is simply to recover the history of the thing which because the object has been disregarded has also been disregarded. The other is to locate literary references to the objects in question which give insights and demonstrate its metaphorical reach or presence that might otherwise have been missed.
One of the significant points of linkage between us and this class of objects is the practice of fidgeting, which he describes at one point (page 81) as playing with ourselves at a distance. Possibly an unfortunate turn of phrase, but if you refuse the other allusion you can see what he means. For most of us there are times when to fidget is very much a necessity more as a calming experience. There is some kind of reassurance given by the very materiality of the thing and the way we test it, measure it, find out what we can and cannot do with it, often bending and stretching it to breakage that clearly helps us confirm our relationship to the material world in a particular way. He describes this attribute of such things as magical. Again I am not happy with the choice of word. I finished the book thinking there could and should be a more anthropological and theoretical version of this study, less psychological and less literary that advances thinking in material culture studies. But what would thereby by inevitably a rather disenchanting study would also lose most of what is beneficial about the book in question. Which is its precisely its ability to enchant, to let us wander through this literary world in rapt contemplation that at least for me was sufficiently entrancing as a reading experience that for a change I was too engaged to actually fidget with anything at all.
Now if you think that Connor gets us as deep into the archaeology of the handbag as we are ever likely to go you would be wrong. Since the second book that is Islands of Privacy by Christena Nippert-Eng (University of Chicago Press 2010) contains six pages which do nothing but list the precise contents of some 48 purses and wallets (101-7). This is a book I was much looking forward to since her earlier study of the interrelationship between the material culture of home and in the workplace is one I have long used for teaching. Again she has picked a hugely important theme that has been neglected from a material culture perspective, which is how precisely do people in our contemporary world create and guard their privacy. So in the chapter entirely devoted to purses and wallets what she is primarily concerned with is which may be regarded as of the public domain and which the private, also how these are used to craft identity. Another chapter which I found of considerable interest is concerned with cell phones and e-mails and the new domains which both threaten privacy but also provide new niches. A third chapter on doorbells and windows help cement this impression of the virtues of giving attention to the grounding of these technologies of privacy guarding in this case the material order of space.
I would have criticisms of this book. It is actually a rather undisciplined publication with far too much direct reporting from her 74 interviews, Edited into a quarter of its present size it could have made its points more incisively and successfully instead lapsing into a kind of positivist collection of things and quotations. But as such I found it helpful to see the kinds of material culture studies I am more familiar with thereby bookmarked by the more literary presence of Connor on the one hand and the sociology of Nippert-Eng at the other end. Between them they make a strong argument for a material culture study of these same objects of everyday paraphernalia but perhaps chartering a third course between these two.
Daniel Miller, UCL