Material culture in Hungary and everywhere else

Daniel Miller, UCL

Krisztina Fehérváry 2013 Politics in Color and Concrete: socialist materialities and the middle class in Hungary. Indiana University Press

Léna Pellandini-Simányi  2014 Consumption Norms and Everyday Ethics. Palgrave Macmillan

Hungary is a good place to take stock of the current state of material culture studies. Because Hungary is simply a good emblem of `anywhere,’ in that it represents neither a vanguard nor a backwater, but works as simply another ordinary place. That is significant to me because the material culture studies that I guess I have always wanted to promote are precisely about this same ordinary whether as blue jeans, or domestic interiors.

Fehérváry’s exemplary scholarship, both historical and ethnographic, takes us through both socialist modernism and post-socialist consumer modernism in the development of contemporary Hungary. We see the discrepancies between the creation of demand and the problems of actually fulfilling the expectations that these gave rise to, a problem in both socialism and capitalism. We see unexpected links between modern organicist appeals to nature and older socialist appeals to collectivism. Above all this leads to her ethnographic sense of the contemporary middle-class. The middle class is always beset by contradiction and ambivalence. It is there is the very words `middle’-class. But it is rare to see the routes and reasons so carefully laid out, or its consequences.

Central to this is the appreciation that the built landscape as a palimpsest of various historical periods works to a quite different temporality. It means that having considered how it expresses a relation to ideology we than have the additional problem that as times changes the built landscape becomes at once both anachronistic and yet maintained as the landscape of the present. Her book shows the impact this has on ordinary people’s understanding of their worlds and the betrayal of successive ideals. While also grounding foundational notions of normality and morality, creating what she describes as the normal state of abnormality. These are obviously important issues that can be generalised across the world as people in all regions struggle to literally build their modernity and aspirations in the teeth of failures of all kinds.  I was particularly impressed by the way she blends the descriptions of these material worlds with a sense of humanism and poignancy in respect to their impacts upon ordinary people.

Pellandini-Simányi tackles several of the same themes concerning the normative foundations of contemporary consumption but relates them more to current concerns with `over-consumption’ and sustainability. Rather than using historical and ethnographic sources she focuses on the underlying issues of consumption norms and their moral foundations in a given society. This is a more general, comparative and sociological book though some of the material is from her own research, also in Hungary. What is particularly valuable about that part of the book is that she looked at households which sometimes spanned three generations so she could observe the way these norms change over time.  As in the best of material culture studies this again excavates the most taken for granted aspects of what simply looks appropriate in the same way that Bourdieu examined taste. She has far more emphasis on change compared to Bourdieu with a focus on the reasons that something so engrained is nevertheless subject to change even if this is simply the replacement of one generation by the next. At the same time, as with Bourdieu she retains a strong sense of the link between the normative and practice. She makes good use of comparative studies of how norms of consumption change over time including the Osella’s excellent work in South India, while not ignoring the pressures from commercial institutions. I admit that in some ways I would have liked to see more of her own research findings which here get a bit buried within the more general discussion. But along with Elizabeth Shove she makes an important contribution to seeing consumption as normative pertaining to local ethical debate. She ends with what she calls a qualified liberal approach Habermas and Rawls.

These books are very different with Pellandini-Simányi looking to more sociological debates and Fehérváry exemplifying the depth of engagement and scholarship found in classical traditions of anthropological ethnography. But both speak to the way in which contemporary material culture studies, whether based in Hungary, but equally it could have been Argentina or Australia retain this driving ambition to expose the lightness of materiality. That objects seem to contain a kind of cultural gravity that makes them a heavy burden – they want to remain grounded and foundational and taken for granted as the landscape we live within. It is only by refusing to accept this and giving them an almighty academic kick, that we can excavate underneath to find that actually they came to be there through quite historical, cultural and sometimes fleetingly fashionable reasons. Without this consciousness we lose the ability for introspection with regard to our own material foundations, and granting us this consciousness is the greatest boon that such modern material culture studies has to offer the world.

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