Author Archives: Haidy Geismar

Haidy Geismar

About Haidy Geismar

Lecturer, Digital Anthropology and Material Culture, UCL

Adventures in Sound: A Grand Tour on Vinyl

Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder, Rochester Institute of Technology

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This project explores the contribution of consumer artifacts to the imagination and construction of modern US identity and cosmopolitan, global citizenship. We undertake fieldwork in our living room (Riggins 1994), offering a critical visual and cultural analysis to show how peripheral objects reveal often hidden pedagogical aspects of consumer culture. The intersections of identity and material culture emerge, in this case, via vintage vinyl record albums in a music genre specifically constructed for creating world-aware listeners and prepared adventurers –the travel record. Interestingly, these albums re-circulate today as retro classics, precursors of television adventure travel and exotic food shows, and are collected for their value as windows into bygone eras.

As we have argued previously, record albums occupied a space evoking identity and group membership in many US homes during the 1940s, 50s, 60s as recording technology emerged and developed, bringing sounds, sights and specially designed furniture into the home. Here we examine examples from a large, privately owned LP archive, selecting an illustrative sample from the 1950s and 1960s, the era in which the LP record emerged as a dominant information distribution format and international tourism developed for a mass US population. In this way, the marketing of hi-fi sets, packaged tours, and exotic aesthetics united to create a sense of the good life, which included a vision of the rest of the world and how to travel through it.

In attempting to make the unfamiliar more palatable and the culturally sophisticated more accessible, record albums often became opportunities to inform and influence consumers (e.g., Borgerson and Schroeder 2006). Just as album cover images served a pedagogical function in guiding post-WWII consumers in decorating their homes or hosting a dinner party, travel records – featuring music, pictures, and destination information – helped ready US consumers to take on the world. We build upon consumer culture studies that adopt a historical approach to music and its’ ephemera and also draw upon work from popular music history (Morgan and Wardle 2010; Wilentz 2012). Engaging notions of materiality and agency in the constitution of consuming subjects (Borgerson 2005), our research offers compelling visions from a time that brought international travel more fully into modern US consumer culture.

As with many LP album covers, travel records feature compelling photos and graphic design: “for many people, record sleeves have the capacity to trigger memories and convey emotion in the most personal way” (Schoonmaker 2010, p. 168). Further, the phenomenon of commentary beyond the recording per se, in the form of liner notes, was particularly common with music “from far away places” (Borgerson and Schroeder 2003). A typical example is 1958’s “A Visit to Finland” album, featuring “A smörgåsbord of Finnish pops by famous Helsinki artists” designed to guide Americans into the Helsinki music scene of the day.

Although some travel records were slapped together in US studios with little or no connection to cultural or historical context, many in our collection showcase more authentic music of the destination. For example, the respected jazz label Verve Records collaborated with Esquire Magazine to release several “sound tour” albums that included gatefold sleeves, color photographs, and “insider” information for the continental connoisseur.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the long playing record, Columbia introduced its “Adventures in Sound” series in 1958.  “Adventures in Sound” sought out interesting sites and captured actual performances from around the globe.  “Holiday Abroad” albums sponsored by the now defunct Sabena Airlines featured water color paintings by Moyelle Thompson, each cover showing the same youthful couple (sporting a tiny Sabena flight bag) engaged in an iconic touring moment. Vox Records distributed the “Cook’s Tour of” series that included stops in Cuba, France and Italy – and wherever Cook’s Tours promoted travel.  “Inspired by the pages of Holiday magazine”, Decca’s travel albums featured Rio, the Alps, Paris, Italy, Vienna, South American, Hawaii, and the West Indies. Your Musical Holiday in the West Indies includes Calypso and Steel drum tunes from the likes of Lord Kitchener and the Iron Duke.  One apparently well-traveled and dreamily dozing blond woman appears on Fiesta Records I Remember Germany, I Remember England, as well as, I Remember Sweden.

Producer Dave Dexter’s “Capitol of the World” series from Capitol Records featured albums from at least twenty-five countries, including the Belgian Congo, Egypt, Chile, and Argentina. The war in the Pacific was still recent memory when Capitol released Japan: Its Sound and People. Four subcategories were designed to bring particular aspects of a country’s music and culture to the listener: “modern song stylists” for “popular tunes of the day presented by the top stars of foreign lands”; “folk songs” for “authentic music of the people, handed down from generation to generation”; “folk dances” for “traditional dance music that captures the living spirit of distant lands”; and “unusual recordings” for “exotic instruments and unique musical groups rarely heard” in the US.

Capitol of the World liner notes link featured artists to the moods and culture of a particular national capitol, and often present parallel texts of English and the country’s language, including Arabic script and Chinese characters. Titles like Songs of India (Recorded in Calcutta), Autumn in Rome, Rainy Night in Tokyo, and Honeymoon in Rio provide hours of listening, as well as an introduction to core aesthetic and cultural elements beyond day-to-day US experience and education. As the notes inform us on An Evening with Najah Salam and Muhammad Salman, Lebanon’s capitol city Beirut, and its “exotic Arabic music,” friendly people, and nighttime beauty “all combine to create evenings unlike any you could ever spend elsewhere short of the Prophet’s Paradise.”

Three relevant themes emerged from our investigations: 1) consumer “education” about Western lifestyle myths, promoting appreciation and adoption of aesthetic values that accompany cultured lifestyles; 2) international travel – or at least representations of travel – as a site of consumption organized around identity projects and 3) the role of the LP in the historical context of contemporary consumer tastes (Borgerson and Schroeder 2013; Osbourne 2012).

A key insight from our previous work was that the more consumers stayed at home, the more they needed objects, artifacts, and practices that linked them to affiliated people, communities, and environments, that is reference groups, real or imagined, beyond the walls, doors and windows of home. Here, we observe a related, but distinct consumer process: in order to venture beyond familiar territory of home lifestyle and mores, popular culture objects, artifacts, and practices were required to usher US consumers into the broader world.


Borgerson, Janet L. (2005), “Materiality, Agency, and the Constitution of Consuming Subjects: Insights for Consumer Research” Advances in Consumer Research, 32, 439-443.

Borgerson, Janet L. and Jonathan E. Schroeder (2003), “The Lure of Paradise: Marketing the Retro-escape of Hawaii,” in Time, Space and the Market: Retroscapes Rising, Stephen Brown and John F. Sherry, Jr. (eds.), New York: M. E. Sharpe, 219-237.

Borgerson, Janet. L. and Jonathan E. Schroeder (2006), “The Pleasures of the Used Text: Revealing Traces of Consumption,” in Consuming Books: The Marketing and Consumption of Literature, Stephen Brown, (ed), London: Routledge, 46-59.

Borgerson, Janet and Jonathan Schroeder (2013), “Visual and Aural Imaginations of Home: Constructing a Consumer Vision of Contemporary Lifestyle,” paper presented at the Consumer Culture Theory Conference, Tucson, Arizona, June.

Morgan, Johnny and Ben Wardle (2010), The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995. New York: Sterling.

Osbourne, Richard (2012), Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record. Surrey: Ashgate.

Riggins, Stephen Harold (1994), “Fieldwork in the Living Room: An Autoethnographic Essay,” in The Socialness of Things: Essays on the Socio-Semiotics of Objects, Stephen Harold Riggins, (ed.). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 101-147.

Schroeder, Jonathan E. and Janet L. Borgerson (2012), “Packaging Paradise: Organizing Representations of Hawaii,” in Against the Grain: Advances in Postcolonial Organization Studies, Anshu Prasad, (ed). Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press, 32-53.

Schoonmaker, Trevor, ed. (2010), The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wilentz, Sean (2012), 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.





On Facebook, Death and Memorialisation

Over at the UCL Social Networking Sites and Social Sciences Project, Danny Miller writes about his research at a London hospice where he has been exploring the resonance of new media at the end of life:

Alongside my ethnographic research in The Glades I have now been working for over a year alongside The Hospice of St Francis. When I am in the UK I try to spend a day a week interviewing their patients who are mainly terminal cancer patients. I was delighted to hear this winter that the wonderful hospice director Dr Ros Taylor was awarded an MBE in this year’s honours list. My intention in working for the Hospice was a concern that a project of this size should also have an applied or welfare aspect where we could see the direct benefit. The initial work was simply an attempt to see how the hospice could benefit from new media. The report was published on my website, but once I was working with them I realised that in a way the hospice was the clearest example of what the whole team have endeavoured to demonstrate through this blog.

The hospice movement represents no kind of technical or medical advancement. It is entirely the product of a transformation in collective consciousness. Previously it was assumed that when people knew they were dying this was tantamount to a stage in merely their withdrawal from the world. We talk about ‘investing in our children’ as though there were long-term financial assets. The same logic would condemn the dying as of limited value. The Hospice movement was all about saying that knowing someone is terminal should be seen as an opportunity. It is no longer a medical issue, they will not be cured, instead we can concentrate on their quality of life and make this stage of life, since that is what it is, as enjoyable and fulfilling as it could be. Everything that Dr Taylor says and does demonstrates this, as does my colleague in this research Kimberley McLaughlin a senior manager of the hospice.

On reflection this is perhaps our single most important finding also as anthropologists of social media. People become fixated on the technological advances of new media. What each device can now be capable of – the latest app or smartphone or platform. These certainly feature throughout our work. But the vast majority of our blog posts are not about that. Instead they describe changes in the same collective consciousness: the social uses that people creatively imagine for these media as part of their lives.

The two issues come together in my observations of Facebook in relation to death and memorialisation. One of my early informants was a woman who felt that she wanted to use the experience of terminal cancer to help educate the wider world about her experience. A subject people tend to avoid but need to gain a better understanding of. I last saw her six days before she died and she was quite clear that using Facebook as almost a daily blog had enabled her to do just that. I am hoping (if I obtain the funding) to make a film based on her and other patients who have used Facebook in this manner.

I would be equally positive about the ways people have found to use Facebook in memorialisation and grief. Previously we have tended to use highly formal and religious institutionalised frames for dealing with death. As I argued in my book Tales From Facebook, this was out of synch with changes in our notion of the authenticity of the individual. Where once we took formal posed pictures, now we like to capture images that seem spontaneous, informal and thereby more ‘real’ to us. Similarly we needed a form of memorialisation that contained this element of personalisation and immediacy. People on Facebook can put both serious and jokey memories and do so at a time of their choosing. I find these sites poignant and effective. I don’t find other social media sites, such as Twitter or Instagram, as having the same potential, so I hope we retain this capacity of Facebook.

But the point is that the inventors of Facebook were certainly not thinking about its relationship to death or memorialisation. Rather, as in the case of the invention of the hospice movement, this reflects a change in our collective imagination in what we could potentially do in relation to death and grief. This is why we argue it is anthropology rather than more tech-driven studies of new media that are most suited to understanding what social media actually become. Most of these reports reflect not the technological potential, but the imaginative realisation of social media.




An update on our perspective on Open Access

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In October last year (2013) I posted a draft of an editorial for the Journal of Material Culture which rehearsed some of the options we (the editorial board led by myself and Susanne Kuchler, with guidance from Danny Miller) have been working through regarding taking the journal towards Open Access. The take home message for that piece was that we felt strongly that the current recommendations for open access “compliance” in the United Kingdom were inadequate and inappropriate in terms of their effect upon ideas not just of scholarship, but on scholarly community. The prevailing models in the UK for Open Access, known as Green and Gold, both depend on individuals to decide whether or not their individual articles should be made open access. Gold Open access costs significant amounts of money but results in an article openly available through the journal’s home page. Green means that any author has the right to post the accepted version of their article on their homepage or institutional repository (for some journals after a specific embargo period). This is very much a national situation for OA in the UK and it’s different in the US (and indeed in many other places), but in our editorial, Susanne Kuchler and I argued against models that sidestep the journal itself as an intellectual frame for committing to OA by passing the buck to individual authors. We raised questions regarding the implication of moving to a view per article/pay per article model for the future of scholarly journals.

Some people interpreted the editorial as a statement against OA. In fact, we take the journal’s responsibility for open access very seriously and have spent considerable time (after hours from our regular job and duties as editors) exploring these issues as we really want the journal to be accessible to everyone who wants to read it. we are balancing these desires with the fact that Sage owns the journal’s name, the back issues and has said that they will reform the journal with a different editorial board if we leave to move to an open system (like open journal).

Our editorial launched an online questionnaire with which we hoped to gather more opinion from material world readers and Journal of Material Culture readers. This probably says more about electronic survey burnout and the limitations of our own reach, than it does about the question of open access but since December 2 we have had only 16 respondents to the survey (If you would still like to participate you can by following this link.).

Whilst 16 is obviously far to few a number to make any kind of generalization, I can report that out of the 16 respondents (15 of whom work in academia), most only read the journal in digital form accessed via a university subscription. Of those 16 people, 5 would be prepared to pay a submission fee to a journal without guarantee of acceptance (and 11 would not). The following chart shows how people felt about paying for open access, upon acceptance for publication:


The following response was more interesting:


People had many different ideas about the most appropriate source of funding for open access, but NO ONE thought that authors were the most appropriate vessels to provide for open access.

People were also given the chance to provide substantive comments about open access and 5 people chose to share their opinions, which I cut and paste here:

Respondent 1: Publishers views should not be considered. They are not neutral stakeholders. Their goal is to maximise profits, not to further scholarship or increase accessibility, despite the lipservice they may pay.

Respondent 2. Elsevier, T&F, OUP, and many others are multinationals using slave labour of tenured individuals (not me – I’m unemployed though I have a visiting fellow position) to maintain the high standards of journals. They are taking public money and putting it into private hands, just like in war time. Some of the most interesting, innovative, and exciting journals are open access. While stodgy publishers need to make their buck somehow, knowledge and research should be shared among those to whom it is relevant. The multinationalisation (a fantastic nominalisation) of publishing is as boring as it is restrictive and elitist.

Respondent 3: The questions are confusing. The question of whether I am prepared to pay for my article depends on how and by whom the journal is edited. I refuse to pay submission fees if the journal is edited by a large publisher such as currently is the case with JMC with SAGE. As long as the journal is with sage, I don’t pay any submission fee. If the journal would move to Gold open access and away from SAGE to an independent, not for profit platform, I would be prepared to pay. The question is not: to pay or not to pay, but about the relationship between publisher and author. The main point is to get away from for profit publishers.

Respondent 4: In principle I am fully supportive of the move towards open access. However, as an early career researcher (postdoc), I am concerned about the transition to open access on two different levels: 1) Whether my financial situation (be that personal finances or relating to grants/institutions) will limit my ability to publish my work in a timely manner; 2) How the costs of open access AND the changing nature of publications under these changes will affect my ability to be competitive on the job market. We have very little information, for example, about how hiring committees view open access/non-traditional publications vis-a-vis more established journals, or whether open access will make the road towards a monograph publication (still considered a basic requirement for permanent employment in anthropology) more difficult/costly.

Respondent 5: effectively is a ‘pay to publish’ system that also completely excludes early career or independent academics who have neither the money nor the backing of an institution to pay for them. This will ultimately mean that material from these types of researchers and writers will never be published, thus compromising the academic exercise and diminishing the scope of debate as some excellent work will be missed, go unheeded. A disaster for the future.

These figures show that there are many different opinions and feelings about open access even within our admittedly tiny sample.

At the same time as publishing this editorial, impatient and unsure of our options, we also decided to experiment with Green open access. We emailed all the contributors to the first issue of this year and asked them to upload their author version (which we handily appended as a cleaned up pdf) to their own home page or institutional repository, in compliance with Sage’s Green archiving policy. We also asked them to send us the link and we set up a sort of mirror page of the journal, with the intention of creating a Green archive. So far, only one person has even replied to this email so the site remains empty apart from our editorial).

Now there are many reasons why people may not fill in online forms, reply to emails from me, or want to self-archive their publications, but to my mind these experiences highlight the need to make decisions about journals at the highest level, in the model of Cultural Anthropology, rather than leaving it up to individual authors or readers which will naturally result in a patchy experience of open access at best, and no open access at worst.

They also indicate that there is a much more complex field of engagement with these ideas than would be seen from the presentation of very polarized debates in the media. I present these partial perspectives here not as an indication of any complete picture of opinion regarding open access, more as the beginnings of an ethnography of how open access is currently being parsed by some people in the academy whose views are not often represented in literature that presents the voices of editors and publishers, but far less often authors. Indeed, in a conversation I had recently with another journal editor, they observed that many of their authors are content to have their work behind paywalls. They observed that many people working in South Asian studies are extremely fearful of cases like Wendy Doniger‘s, namely of having their work willfully misinterpreted by others in what are highly fraught political contexts (in Doniger’s case, Hindu nationalists succeeded in having her scholarly book on Hinduism pulled from the shelves in India). This is NOT my view, as I do not think we should write or publish defensively or with only a control audience in mind (and Doniger’s book was published by Penguin and was hardly behind a paywall) but I cite it, and the comments above, to reflect the fact that there are large number of academics who are either disinterested, or fearful, of open access, for numerous different reasons (sometimes just because they are plain old tired!) and that we need to take stock of their opinions and situations, if we are to convince them that open access is something that they should sign up to.

This experience has also shown me how geo-located these debates are – the conversation in the US is different to the UK, which is different again to France, India, China or Australia. The Journal of Material Culture has an extremely international author pool which may (or may not) explain why many of our authors seem to be less engaged than we are in the highly specific questions that are emerging around OA in the UK.

So now – alongside the issue of how to take the Journal of Material Culture forward in terms of open access, I am also wondering why this isn’t of concern to many people, what issues do drive decisions around publication and how we can participate and even intervene in those conversations, expanding the one we are already having. I see this is a nascent anthropology of open access which would locate OA as an experimental moment within a very particular institutional discursive frame that constitutes authors, intellectual property, and openness in specific ways. I’ve started a small dossier of these fragmented perceptions, misgivings, and complex feelings that may not only help us to see OA as some others do, but help us to unpack the assumptions about OA that we ourselves are working with. As always, comments more than welcome here or on the survey.


More commentary on iconoclasm in Papua New Guinea

After a legal case to have the speaker of the PNG Parliment’s order to destroy several of the building’s carvings recognized as illegal failed, a group of academics has published a discussion paper entitled “Purging Parliament: A New christian Parliament in Papua New Guinea“.

The piece debates whether or not it is appropriate to understand the iconoclasm of the Speaker of the house in religious terms, or whether or not the event “signals deeper social transformations underway”.

My Street Film Project: Submissions Open for 2014

My Street’s annual competition is now open for submissions, with a deadline of May 19th.



My Street is a documentary film archive, focused on the UK, but expanding rapidly across Europe of short films produced by amateur, professional (and anything in-between) filmmakers. The project is resolutely local – all video and film must be pegged to a post code – but within that frame allows participants to speak to their locality in a multitude of different voices, styles, and genres.

Tracing continuity between childhood and adulthood: body attachments and practices that persist in a growing self

Valentini Sampethai, Goldsmiths University

One day in the summer I turned eighteen, I was sitting on the deck of a boat with my friend Danae listening to the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”. At some point, she turned and said to me, “Isn’t it sad, we’re not teenagers anymore?”.

We both agreed that none had felt any significant difference, nor had assumed any particular air of seriousness after our symbolic entry into adulthood. Already childhood had become idealized, a focus of nostalgia, although probably none of us had had a trouble-free childhood without its dark moments of fear, pain, and anxious questions. Still, childhood has been the largest chunk of our lives so far, and for a lot of us, the foundation for who we are today. This period of time is simultaneously irretrievable and yet very near; there exist moments when one can glimpse the children we used to be, when things like Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story, or our all-time favourite toys make their way into our life.

These transformations, the momentary back-and-forths, and the ways childhood experience is integrated in a body alongside the emerging adult identity constitute my focus here. This, then, is a study of people I grew up in constant contact with, and of parts of our childhood’s material culture that transcended their status as mere objects: for whatever reason, we separated them as special, and for a while they were an extension of our bodies, constantly attached to us. Like Andy in Toy Story 3, most of us are now away from home, scattered in different places, leaving our toys behind or taking them along. Our choices about what to do with them poignantly reflect our sense of identity and continuity between the past, the present, and the future. The toys, smelly, worn out and overused, serve as visual reminders encapsulating our process of becoming.


My study, based on my undergraduate dissertation, brings together explorations of the body, selfhood, and material culture; through these the themes of memory, attachment, continuity and becoming are examined in terms of the process of growing up.  My study of the continuing attachment to childhood toys in adulthood and their incorporation in the present endeavors to show how these categories are all inter-related, placing the individual body at the center of a network of relationships and stories that produce a self and a subjectivity.

Drawing from Van Wolputte I take selfhood to imply “a body-self that […] extends in space and time, in material culture, in animals, and in the bodies of others” (2004: 252). Thus, the body is treated as a place where stories, images, and memories reside (Belting 2011). As years of everyday conversations and shared experience with the girls –I played with their toys and they played with mine when we were small- made it difficult to relegate life to the level of academic discourse, I found Csordas’ viewpoint on embodiment particularly useful:

“Embodiment […]is situated on the level of lived experience and not on that of discourse; embodiment is about “understanding” or “making sense” in a prereflexive or even presymbolic, but not precultural, way (Csordas 1990, p.10).” (Van Wolputte 2004: 258).

Hence, I will be focusing on ordinary experience and preoccupations of everyday life; situations that may be paradoxical, funny, moving, ridiculous, familiar, or uncertain, general in that many of us experience them but particular in that we do so in diverse ways.  

Attachment to Soft Toys and the Creation of Bodies Invested with Life

“Like most little boys, he has had toy animals to play with, but though he loves them all, his best friend has been his Teddy Bear, called Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh, for short. The funny thing is that Pooh doesn’t like being called a Teddy Bear now […]. You see, what they both feel, and what I feel too, is that Pooh is really alive and does things, but a Teddy Bear is just a toy which sits about and does nothing”

A.A. Milne, The Christopher Robin Story Book (1966: v-vi)

It is probably impossible to count the instances in our childhoods in which we were exposed to some sort of story where magical objects, animals and toys talk. An obvious one of the 1990’s was Toy Story, and then there were old fairy tales, Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, where objects are companions that interact with the heroes and even are their best friends. It is not hard to imagine, then, how this belief in magic and animistic thought was something we were open to as children, taking care of our favourite toys as if they were real, saying good night to them and worrying about how they would feel if we neglected them. Since children are allowed to believe in magic, we were able to be more explicit about the importance of objects in everyday life, an apt example to Miller’s claim that “…material culture matters because objects create subjects much more than the other way around. It is the order of relationship to objects and between objects that creates people through socialization whom we then take to exemplify social categories” (2008: 287). Toys were magical because they represented a world of new possibilities, where we could create a person from our imagination, a friend that we could carry everywhere with us and on whom our shared experiences would become inscribed in the wear and tear of overuse. As Winnicott suggests,

“the thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is found to be reliable” (2005: 64).

Such objects, due to their constant attachment to children’s bodies and the love we infuse them with, come to acquire a substance and become consanguineous to us; we remain attached to them and our parents cannot decide to throw them away because they are a part of us. They become synonymous to us and to home; my granddad, when my brother and I left home for university, placed the teddy-bears we each had in their house on his library with our names written on them, the toys serving as a presence and a reminder of an absence simultaneously.

However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,

Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)

Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)


Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad's library. (Photo taken by me).

Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad’s library. (Photo taken by me).

However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,

“the object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated. […] It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating […]. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own” (2005: 7).

Hence, that toys are important to most children is not a statement that needs further discussion; however, sometimes they are so loved and so firmly situated in a network of relationships and narratives of shared experience, that they survive adolescence and remain important in adulthood.


From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: "Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).

From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: “Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).



 Introducing the girls and the toys

Eva and Georgia are twins who have been my best friends since we were babies, and to them, toys are family.

Mema and Memos, matching dog and cat backpacks, were given to them as a present when they were five. Three years later the toys got married and had children. Mema took her name from the word “Beba” (meaning “baby girl”), a term of endearment for Eva when she was small. Naming Memos with the male equivalent of Mema was Eva’s idea, a result of their being a pair, one for each twin. Since Memos was given to Georgia and Mema to Eva, each is the respective mother of her toy, but they are very attached to both.

Rebecca, their other favourite toy, is a soft doll that my mum, who is Georgia’s godmother and an old friend to the girls’ parents, bought for Georgia when she was small. She is also part of the family as she is Georgia’s daughter, and the story is that she is now grown up and studying to become a doctor. Notably, Rebecca has her own teddy bear.


Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).

Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).

When I asked the girls –rhetorically- if they would ever give these toys away, Eva almost shouted “Never!” and they both outright rejected the idea. I asked if they are saving them for their children, to which Eva replied, seriously but with a hint of a smile showing she knew the situation was slightly comical, that she would not do that either because she would not entrust them to anyone, what if they ruin or lose them?

Fair enough, the girls are very careful in their handling of their toys nowadays; although in the past they slept with them now they put them aside because they are so tattered they might damage them. Mema, by far the most used and loved of all, has a ripped ear and a broken zip with a great story behind it. When, one day they were in kindergarten, the zip broke, they were so distraught in their crying that all the other children there started to cry with them. This aptly shows how clear Eva and Georgia make that these are not mere toys, but so important and loved that they should be treated as live beings. Even when they were small, that distinction was apparent: they never played with them as they – or we- played with Barbie dolls, but rather they were constantly there, like a part of the family that they would not lower to that level of playing like they did with other, generic toys. As they commented, now they actually play with them more than when they were children, but this form of play consists of creating and maintaining a network of relationships and family ties, getting everyone present to play along with them. This is seen in how family links transcend the limits of Eva and Georgia’s family, making me Mema’s godmother, a guy we know from a summer holiday Rebecca’s no-good boyfriend, and Mema’s dad a constant mystery but rumored to be Eva’s first (and ex) long-term boyfriend.

When, still with the idea of childhood nostalgia in the back of my head, I asked them the abstract, and supposed-to-lead-to-analysis question of what the toys mean to them, Eva just looked at me for a while and simply said: “We just love them very much, they are like our children”. That was the final point clarifying that these toys are not symbols or nostalgic memorabilia for an innocent and idealized past self, neither are they representative of an idea; it is the toys themselves they loved, and love, and will love as they were and will be growing up and experiencing relationships, break-ups, university, in parallel with Memos, Mema, and Rebecca.

For the past two years, the twins have been separated for more than a few days for the first time, Eva studying in North-Eastern Greece and Georgia at home in Athens. Initially Eva had taken Mema with her, but in the end they brought all of the toys to their family home in Athens so that they can be together as a family and because Memos was sad without Mema. One could expect that in separating the twins, the toys belonging to each would be separated too, but ultimately, the story about the relationships between them was too strong, and perhaps the girls did not want to increase their separation by expanding it to the toys. Anyway, Eva comes to Athens often, and Georgia and their older sister Anna visited her in the North some weeks ago and of course brought Mema along.


Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls' older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).

Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls’ older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).

What is notable is that their relationship to their toys has not changed. They remain equally important and played with, way past their conventional place in time; however, it is not that the girls perpetuate their sense of childhood selves through their holding on to their favourite toys, rather that the toys have become so essential that they are a stable point of continuity across time. Furthermore, as this is primarily a form of play that Eva, Georgia, and-to a lesser extent-Anna engage in, it is a practice of their own that enhances the strong bond of sisterhood between them.

Consequently, the girls and the toys develop alongside each other, a link constantly sustained in the narratives weaved by the girls in parallel to their own social relations and life events; the toys, when considered as live beings, are dynamic and familiar like friends that you have shared a lifetime with; as material culture they are objects of utmost value, bearing the visual marks of stories, adventures and mishaps that are safe from obsolescence because they are encapsulated in something tangible, soft, and smelling of home.

That should make it understandable why they are still so important and why the girls are indifferent that this is not what is expected of ‘mature adults’; if growing up involves learning how to love and care for someone else and if, as Miller says, “possessions often remain profound and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people” (2008: 1), then the girls, who love their toys even if they are old now, may have something to tell about building profound social relationships and also, about the fluidity of age categories, which can be shaken up by different performances, much like what Judith Butler (1990) suggests may happen with gender.

Conclusion: Playing, Cultural Experience and the Collective Imaginary

Play, an embodied state that is “always a creative experience, and […] a basic form of living” (Winnicott 2005: 67), does not necessarily involve toys or objects made for children; it may be found in any sort of “creative relation to the world” (Milner 1952 cited in Winnicott 2005: 52), practiced by adults and children alike. As a form of living and a state that, in its freedom and creativity, is thoroughly fulfilling, it is very important in the production of a self with passions and interests of one’s own pursued in play, positioned at the center of a network of relationships with objects and people. If “the body and experiences of embodiment are produced in the doings of people by social and cultural rituals that are personal and communal” (Waskul and Vannini 2006: 7), and there is a “collective imaginary” (Belting 2011: 56) of intersubjectivity connecting the girls and their toys with a shared stock of memories or images, the toys, as receptacles of all these memories still being created, are very important in defining the bond of the girls and everyone included in the network of relationships.

If  “the place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object) […], the same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in playing” (Winnicott 2005: 135). Thus, the girls’ toys may have been one of the first elements used in building a network of relationships involving family and their friends, loved ones, even acquaintances who made an impression; in sustaining their role in adulthood, they become yet another thing that bolsters the bonds between them and what is important in their lives.

Finally, I wish to emphasize how the twins’ attachment to their childhood toys is not a case of nostalgia and passive clinging to the past. Rather, it is a dynamic process of creating relations and narratives that weave inextricable links between the past and the present, thus allowing for a growth that holds on to what they do not want to forget or let go of. The girls have managed to incorporate something of ‘the past’ into the present by keeping it alive and loving it, thus creating a complex “aesthetic” (Miller 2009:296); and this ability to maintain a close link with the past while living in the present is an enviable art.


Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. By Linda Woolverton, Paige O’Hara, and Robby Benson. Perf. Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson. Walt Disney Pictures, 1991.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Csordas, Thomas J. “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology.” Ethos 18.1 (1990): 5-47.

McLoone, Paul, and Feargal Sharkey. Teenage Kicks. By J.J. O’Neil. The Undertones. Castle Communications, 1993.

Miller, Daniel. The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

Milne, A. A. The Christopher Robin Story Book. London: Methuen and, 1966.

Milner, Marion. “Aspects of Symbolism in Comprehension of the Not-Self.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1952): n. pag.

Toy Story 3. Dir. Lee Unkrich. Perf. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack. WaltDisney, 2010.

Turner, Terence. “Bodies and Anti-bodies: Flesh and Fetish in Contemporary Social Theory.” Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. Ed. Thomas J. Csordas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U.P., 1994. 27-47.

Waskul, Dennis D., and Phillip Vannini. “Introduction: The Body in Symbolic Interaction.” Introduction. Body/embodiment: Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. 1-18.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 2005.

Wolputte, Steven Van. “Hang on to Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, and Selves.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33.1 (2004): 251-69.

Communities and Commodities: Anthropological Perspectives on the Material Bases of Social Groups

CALL FOR PAPERS: American Anthropological Association annual meeting, Washington, DC, December 3-7, 2014

While commodity consumption and commodification, especially when tied to globalization, were once primarily defined as superficial pursuits in modern societies linked with the homogenization or “loss” of culture, we now understand that people  use commodities, even mass-produced goods, in highly varied and culturally-meaningful ways. Commodities can and do reflect a community’s status, ethnicity, identity, and even morality. The creation, acquisition, and exchange of commodities can be processes of socialization that reinforce some identities and social ties while downplaying or masking others, and this can occur at many scales and toward many purposes. The existence and use of varied commodities by people in ancient and modern communities in ways that create or manifest material patterns (e.g. specialized crafts, organized labor, slavery, the body as a sexualized commodity), reinforces the need and potential of research in all of the subfields of anthropology on this subject.


We welcome papers from across the sub-disciplines of anthropology that explore how communities, past and present, are produced through the practices of making, moving, controlling, and consuming commodities. From Marx’s ‘relations of production’ to Appadurai’s ‘social life of things,’ scholars of society and culture have investigated the links among social organization, cultural practices and identities, and the economy. Building on these ideas, we welcome papers that apply a wide range of theoretical stances. We are especially interested in how a focus on the material dimension of this topic provokes questions about how best to identify, investigate, and understand multi-scalar communities from the perspectives of material remains, social practices, historical patterns, political economies, language and communication, and physical bodies.

If commodities are one anchor for this session, the idea of the community is the other. We define communities in an open-ended way – drawing especially on John Watanebe’s definition of the community as the union of ‘people, place, and premise’ – to investigate the ways in which economic practices are social practices. Defined broadly, communities of study may be imagined (in Benedict Anderson’s sense) and/or ‘real,’ and they may be based in spatial proximity, biology, production, consumption, or other practices.

Questions addressed by this session may include: How do workshops, factories, and unions become sites of social production and group identity? How do changes in global commodity flows challenge existing communities or bring new communities into being, and how do existing communities  create links to new commodities? How do commonalities and conflicts over consumption practices galvanize some communities and dissolve others? How do more hidden points in commodity chains – from storage and transportation, to sale and stealing – become the basis for social groups to form and operate? How can communities become commodities in and of themselves (such as tourist destinations)? Linking all of these questions are material patterns that reflect and reinforce communities.

We especially encourage submissions that explore how material goods and the places where they are made, stored, transported, sold, and consumed become anchors for social relations. However, this is not an effort to fetishize the commodity, but rather to better investigate the many ways in which products of economic demand are producers of social groups. Our focus on the material qualities of commodities is deliberate, as it provides a link to various anthropological approaches to study communities past and present.

If you are interested in participating, please contact both John Millhauser ( and Dru McGill ( with an idea of your topic. The deadline for submitting abstracts to the AAA is April 15 (both for sessions and individual papers). Once we have gauged the level of interest and range of topics, we will contact potential participants to let them know if their paper fits. Participants should be prepared to provide a rough draft of an abstract to us by April 8th so we can organize the session (or sessions, depending on the response) and provide instructions for submitting abstracts to the AAA. Details are also available on the AAA website:

We also plan to submit this session for sponsorship by the Society for Economic Anthropology:

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions whatsoever,

John & Dru &


Professorship in the Cultures and Materials of Knowledge – Gottingen University

The University of Göttingen is currently inviting applications for a Professorship in the Cultures and Materiality of Knowledge (W2 tenure-track).

The position is initially available for a five year period and may be extended into a permanent professorship following a positive evaluation.

We are looking for a professor with expertise in the research and teaching of knowledge cultures, with particular emphasis on the materiality of knowledge, as exemplified by the Göttingen academic collections. The successful candidate will manage the recently established research centre, which will serve as a focal point for future projects in knowledge research in close cooperation with respective departments, groups and colleagues at the University of Göttingen.

The candidate is further expected to take a leading role in the development and setting up of the doctoral programme ‘Material Cultures of Knowledge’, which includes teaching duties of 4 semester hours a week, predominantly in the above mentioned doctoral programme. In addition, the professor will work in close association with the Göttingen Institute of Advanced Study, the Lichtenberg Kolleg and join collaborative efforts to establish a museum dedicated to the representation of knowledge cultures and the world of scholarship, drawing on the University’s rich academic collections.

Focal points in research and teaching should be demonstrated in the following areas:

-  theories and cultural practices of academic collections

  • -  the history of the sciences and humanities (18th-21th century)
  • -  the theory and history of material and knowledge cultures

In addition, experience in the following areas is advantageous:

    • -  theories and cultural practices of academic collections
    • -  exhibitions and outreach activities.Applicants must have an outstanding Ph.D. in a related discipline and demonstrate other scholarly achievements, such as those acquired within the framework of a junior professorship or habilitation. In addition, applicants should demonstrate teaching experience in related fields, such as the history of science, study of material culture, art history, literature, anthropology, cultural studies, etc.

      Further information about the position is available at the following website: www.uni-

      Additional prerequisites in appointing limited term professorships are regulated by Section 25 of the Lower Saxony Higher Education Act (NHG). As a Public Law Foundation, the University of Göttingen holds the right of appointment. Further information is available upon request.

      We explicitly welcome applications from abroad. As an equal opportunity employer, the University of Göttingen places particular emphasis on fostering career opportunities for female scholars and therefore strongly encourages qualified women to apply. Under certain circumstances, part-time employment is possible. Candidates with disabilities who are equally qualified for the position will receive special consideration.

      Please submit your application including a curriculum vitae, a detailed representation of training, academic history, previous employment, teaching experience, and a list of publications within six weeks after publication of this advertisement. Applications should be addressed to:

      Präsidentin der Georg-August-Universität Göttingen Prof. Dr. Ulrike Beisiegel
      Wilhelmsplatz 1
      37073 Göttingen


What is a photograph

what is a photograph


The current exhibition at the International Center of Photography, New York, asks “What is a photograph?”

Organized by ICP Curator Carol Squiers, What Is a Photograph? explores the intense creative experimentation in photography that has occurred since the 1970s. Conceptual art introduced photography into contemporary art making, using the medium in ways that challenged it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broadened the notion of what a photograph could be in art. A new generation of artists began an equally rigorous but more aesthetically adventurous analysis, which probed photography itself—from the role of light, color, composition, to materiality and the subject.What Is a Photograph? brings together these artists, who reinvented photography.