Category Archives: Book Reviews

Things in Culture, Culture in Things

Emily Brennan, UCL Anthropology

Approaches to culture theory 3: Things in Culture, Culture in Things

Edited by Anu Kannike and Patrick Laviolette, 2013, Estonia: University of Tartu Press.

TiC coverThis volume addresses the dynamics of materiality over time and space. In cross-cultural, multi-temporal and interdisciplinary studies the authors examine how things gain meaning and status, generate a multitude of emotions, and feed into the propagation of myths, narratives and discourses. The book is divided according to four themes: soft objects, stoic stories, consuming and the collectable, and waste and technologies. The first section discusses the meanings of the lived environment on the individual and national levels. The second section provides specific examples on the role of things in identity construction. The third section focuses on historical and contemporary aspects of consumption and collecting. The phenomena under scrutiny in the fourth section are moral dilemmas associated with and representations of dirt/waste and advancements in science and technology. Presenting diverse case studies of material culture, the volume points to rich interdisciplinary approaches in cultural theory.

Things in Culture, Culture in Things aims to present an unconventional compendium emphasising the ‘storying of things’ in material culture. It has been published in response to the fourth annual autumn conference of the Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory (CECT) which took place on the 20th to 22nd October 2011 in Tartu, Estonia. Contributions are from Hungary, Finland, India, Sweden, Germany, Canada, the UK, and Estonia from departments including sociology, anthropology, English literature, cultural studies, archaeology, journalism, information and communication studies, linguistics, history and behavioural sciences; this gathering is exciting whilst bringing a challenge in finding threads of connection with which to introduce and structure the book. The result is an over-arching vagueness which frames the chapters.

The book is broken down into four sections: Soft objects; Stoic stories; Consuming and the collectable; and Waste and technologies. The first section, Soft Objects, starts with a chapter from sociologist Stephen Harold Riggins: an ethnography looking at the home of an artist influenced by the punk scene. The chapter is entitled The natural order is decay: the home as an ephemeral art project, and simultaneously reflects on Riggins previous auto-ethnographic work. This is followed by Carlo A. Cubero’s chapter on the diasporic sounds of the African kora, combined with ethnographic filmmaking as method; Placing objects first: filming transnationalism. The section ends with Rowan R. Mackay’s chapter Beware of dreams come true: valuing the intangible in the American Dream which discusses the relationship between the tangible and the intangible.

Stoic Stories follows. These chapters are described in the introduction as “arduous and touchy” (Laviolette in Laviolette and Kannike 2013: 22). Susanne Nylund Skog’s chapter The travelling furtniture: materialised experiences of living in the Jewish diaspora looks at how memories materialise in narratives through domestic furniture. This is followed by Timo Muhonen’s A hard matter: stones in Finnish-Karelian folk belief. Muhonen separates individual stones from archaeological monuments as powerful individual units in folk belief. An embroidered royal gift as a political symbol and embodiment of design ideas by Kirsti Salo-Mattila is the final chapter of this section and investigates political history through artefact analysis.

The third section, Consuming and the Collectible, begins with Maria Cristache’s chapter entitled The ‘vintage community’ in Bucharest: consumers and collectors. This Romanian ethnography suggests that a hybrid form of consumption is at play, whilst emphasising the experiential over mnemonic aspects of vintage clothing consumption. Roosmarii Kurvits’ chapter follows: The visual form of newspapers as a guide for information consumption looks at the relationship between visual form, linguistics and national identity through newspapers in Estonia. This is followed by Visa Immonen’s chapter entitled Design for individuality: the Jordan Individual toothbrushes and interpassivity in material culture which discusses gender and individuality in toothbrush design and consumption in Finland. The final chapter of this section focuses on colonial collecting: Collecting the Nagas: John Henry Hutton, the administrator-collector in the Naga Hills by Meripeni Ngully.

The final section of the book is Waste and technologies. The section begins with Waste and alterity in ‘speculative fiction’: an assessment of the de- and re-evaluation of material objects in selected dystopian novels by Brigitte Glaser is a literary analysis which focuses on waste and related ideas in fictional works by Margaret Atwood and Ronald Wright. This is followed by Toilet cultures: boundaries, dirt and disgust from Remo Gramigna which uses the toilet as an entry point to the nature culture debate, a discussion of typology, and ‘human waste’, before moving on to a discussion of boundaries, dirt and disgust. The final chapter of the book is the only one written collaboratively; The social childhood of new ambivalent objects: emerging social representations of new biotechnologies by Maaris Raudsepp and Andu Rämmer.

There are some fascinating chapters here. The content is extremely varied and shows the complexities inherent in interdisciplinary material culture. Whilst it is difficult to find continuity in the volume this is not surprising and perhaps less problematic if one considers it as a diverse posthumous collection of work rather than one which is meant to work together. The occasionally eccentric content of the book is amusing in the narrative context in which the volume is set.


The Distributed Effects of Alfred Gell

Distributed Object

Book Review:

Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell.

Edited by Liana Chua and Mark Elliot

Berghahn Books (London & New York), 2013



By Fiona P. McDonald (University College London)


According to Georgina Born in Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell, “we all have our own Alfred Gell” (p. 130). Therefore, I too must admit to having my own Alfred Gell—one more clearly understood to me after exploring an entire volume dedicated to what can best be summarized as profound scholarly reflections on the distributed effects of Alfred Gell’s endeavor to identify an anthropological theory of art in his Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998). Distributed Objects is a captivating pendant piece to Gell’s original publication. It is not meant as a guidebook to understanding Gell’s work; rather it is a collection of complex studies that capture distinct engagements with Gell’s ideas around an anthropology of art. A sound understanding of (or at least an attempt at having read!) Art and Agency is suggested in order to fully appreciate the depth to which each chapter in this volume unpacks Gell’s work.

Comprised of eight chapters—seven written by academics from Britain’s leading institutions, plus one chapter by Gell himself—Distributed Objects represents a remarkable breath of engagement with Gell’s oeuvre across a variety of disciplines. From anthropology, ethnomusicology and literary theory, to contemporary art, as well as performance, archaeology, material science, and art history, the scope of disciplinary expertise in this volume is extraordinary. The entire volume is book-ended by two overview texts. The first is the Introduction, where the editors Liana Chua and Mark Elliot contextualize their own understanding of Alfred Gell—a summation that eases both seasoned and novice readers through Gell’s oeuvre and the density of research that follows throughout the volume. The final text drawing a close to Distributed Objects is by Nicholas Thomas, who presents a succinct Epilogue that is itself a truly distinguished review of this volume. It leaves the reader with a somewhat buoyant view when looking ahead to identify and understand future spaces where the distributed effects of Gell can be located within a museum context.

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The Noodle Narratives: A worthy successor to Sidney Mintz?

Adam Drazin, UCL Anthropology, and convener of the MA program Culture, Materials and Design

noodle-narr_custom-dc422cdcd6e7173a5488bf859f8972c5329257eb-s2-c85In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Aloud (, the book the Noodle Narratives was compared to Sidney Mintz’s classic study Sweetness and Power (  In Sweetness and Power, Mintz famously shows how sugar underwrote and structured the capitalism of slave labour and factory labour in the British Empire, and convergently set out what class meant in the British Empire in consumption.

Is this comparison justified?  Are noodles the capitalist staple infusing our contemporary world system?

For Frederick Errington, Deborah Gewertz and Tatsuro Fujikura, noodles represent ‘Big Food’.  They a staple food, made from wheat processed to have flavour, carbohydrates, just enough protein, an unimaginable (and unnecessary) shelf life, and adaptability of consumption.  The authors illustrate their capacity for cultural shape-shifting.  From Japanese noodle museums, they are heritage.  Among American students and convicts, they provide for sensitive, personal and memorable moments.  In Papua New Guinea, instant noodle-based entrepreneurialism forms the basis of kinds of private enterprise which anthropology has for a long time identified as potentially deeply significant moments of local sociocultural change.

There is no doubting the globalism and social ubiquity of pre-processed instant noodles, nor their simple technical ingenuity.  This book is very successful at demonstrating the way that a loved and personal commodity is associated in many different parts of the world with groups of people among whom underprivilege resides with aspiration.  Even this book itself will be ‘loved’ by many readers, on account of the noodle contagion.  The book also draws attention to the shifting nature of inequality as a global issue, but does not necessarily manage to provide answers.  While relatively clear forms of class, based on production and consumption, provided a clear architecture for Mintz’s devastating critique, the ideologies of inequality with which the Noodle Narratives deal are less clear.  The significance of the global uniformity of the technical production, and materials, of processed noodles are clear, but the prolific translation of these into ideas of what society is in localised contexts through cultures of knowledge, is more murky.

The reader of this book will be left with many intriguing questions about globalism and how anthropological ideas can travel.  Aside from being a good exploration of the role of materials in consumption, the book is an illustration of how the power and cultural influence of notions of ‘cheap’ and ‘processed’ remains undervalued by anthropology, and of how many cultural concepts such as these require to be unpacked and expanded by contemporary material culture studies.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family History of and through Objects

By Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center)

After knowing about the book for a couple of years, I finally found the time to read The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), Edmund de Waal’s evocative exploration of his material patrimoine. The book traces its author’s geographical, archival, and emotional wanderings though the past century and a half and across the globe as he pieces together the story of his family, largely through its accumulated—and then mostly alienated—collections. Where objects are no longer extant, de Waal reconstructs their once-presence from lists, ledgers, account books, registries, catalogues, photographs, letters, memoirs, and novels.

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Book Review: Museum Pieces by Ruth Phillips

Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums

Ruth Phillips (2011, Montreal: McGill-Queens’s University Press)


Reviewed by Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center)

“Canada’s collaborative models of museum practice have arisen as organically from its history as the canoe or the snowmobile.”

The first sentence of Ruth Phillips’ long-awaited volume of essays on museums and indigenous people encapsulates a number of her analytical perspectives: it delimits the general institutional field of her study and suggests that particular collaborative practices are characteristic of their national context and their slowly evolving forms. But by invoking iconic modes of both indigenous and settler transportation, Phillips also implies that the museum itself is a form of technology—an engineered machine for achieving specific goals. She even materializes her own contributions to the field by invoking the polysemous term “pieces” to describe the essays contained herein. Throughout the book, she draws on Actor Network Theory to argue for the vital agency of museums (and essays about them) as key players in movements for effective social change, and the value of public controversies for spurring positive developments in institutional policy and protocol. Long a tool of colonial and imperialist ideology, Phillips advocates for the postmodern museum to be a broker and mediator of renegotiated postcolonial relationships—the museum as both beneficiary and sponsor of changing government attitudes toward indigenous peoples.

Likewise, the subtitle of the book communicates central themes within her larger argument. By focusing on developments in Canadian museums over the past fifty years, Phillips calls attention to the country’s cultural and political particularities while demanding a greater recognition for Canada’s role in exporting its innovative methodologies to museums worldwide. Her use of the term “indigenization” operates at multiple levels. On the one hand, it suggests that developments local to Canada—birthplace of multiculturalism as national policy—have a unique flavor (and American readers may note, by contrast to general conditions within the U.S., the strong influence of federal funding, government task force reports, and nation-wide initiatives on largely publicly funded institutions). On the other hand, it calls attention to the positive impact that Canada’s indigenous people have had on transforming national institutions—indeed, on forcing them to operate with indigenous principles in mind to a certain extent. In this latter sense, Phillips’ choice of “indigenization” over an appropriate alternative such as “decolonization” signals an important shift of focus from institutional actions toward indigenous artists, curators, and activists who demanded change. Finally, by hedging the subtitle with “toward,” she implies that the work of institutional transformation is unfinished business, and she offers the essays as both documentation of past developments and prompt to future ones.

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Zeitgebers, Pacemakers and Objects of Time

Charles Stewart, UCL Anthropology

timeThis being athletics season, I was watching a major European track event on the television when the pacemaker caught my attention in a middle distance race.  The announcer was excoriating him for running too far ahead of the pack, thus becoming an irrelevance. Pacemakers, also referred to as ‘rabbits’ (but never called ‘pacesetters’ in the running world) are paid to run laps at a clip that puts runners in position to break records. They may be compared with an apparently more dependable species of ‘rabbit’, the mechanical ones used at dog tracks; fluffy little dolls suspended from an iron bar, motorized to speed ahead of the greyhounds, luring them to chase.  At many American dog tracks races begin with announcements such as ‘here comes the bunny.’

Kevin Birth’s rich and insightful new book, Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality, prompted me to see these rabbits in a new way.  Unlike clocks or calendars they do not provide absolute measurements; nor are they autonomous environmental cues (zeitgebers), such as sunrise, the sound of birds or the feel of diurnal temperature fluctuations, which influence our internal circadian rhythms.  Rabbits are zeitgebers (literally ‘time givers’) of another sort: they regulate time to achieve relative targets such as a world record or a fast-enough dog race.  As Bachelard pointed out, temporal rhythms are fundamental to existence.  We all have phases of being hungry or sleepy, for instance, and we intimately know ourselves to be enmeshed in multiple, overlapping rhythms.  Happiness, according to Bachelard, rests in awareness of these rhythms and the ability to live in harmony with them.  Ideally we would work exactly when we felt most energetic and rest when tired.  The problem is the tyranny of ‘superimposed time’. Reference to yet one more pacemaker illustrates this bind – the cardiac pacemaker, which overrides the lazy or inconsistent heartbeat of the individual.  Beneficial and life-saving, yes, in many circumstances, but until recently, anyone switching these devices off could be accused of murder as Katy Butler explains in her heart-rending account of her father’s declining health (‘What Broke My Father’s Heart’).  Pacemakers can superimpose lifetime on bodies that have otherwise run out of life-sustaining rhythms.

Colonization involves the superimposition of time on a different scale. Methodists setting a clock in their mission church among the South African Tswana inculcated a new consciousness of time, prayer and work according to the Comaroffs.  Standardized Western temporal templates were foisted onto people around the globe who had generally told time according to social and environmental rhythms. Nuer time reckoning according to the cycle of activities involved in cattle raising, or Balinese time regulated in relation to kinship are two classic examples.  Into these worlds barged clock time.  Birth convincingly demonstrates that these absolute time scales predicated upon homogeneous units (e.g. days, hours, seconds) did not arise with nationalism as Benedict Anderson asserted, but rather as accompaniments to centralized power more generally. This takes us back at least to the Roman Empire, and it is no coincidence that months bear Roman names, while the division of the day into 24 units comes from ancient Sumer.  For these reasons Birth considers modern time to be necromantic in its dependence on the inventions of the dead, which we follow without understanding the underlying principles.  I liked the imaginative resonance of that assertion, although I remained unpersuaded at a pedestrian level.  For one thing, every complicated cultural tradition transmitted to the present would be necromantic.  And in any case, it depends on what one understands necromancy to be.  My association was with using the physical remains of the dead for magical purposes, or as objects for divination or musing such as when Hamlet holds the skull in his hand while reflecting: ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…’

Objects of Time ranges over matters of time and time keeping historically, with fascinating examples from Roman and Medieval times.  It is also deeply informed by Birth’s ethnographic experience of life in Trinidad, where he has conducted field research resulting in an earlier book Anytime is Trinidad Time.  What he can show is that people live according to a multiplicity of temporal cues in the course of an average day.  They make only occasional or oblique reference to clock time, and clock time is often subordinated to their system of reference. If a regular ball game in the park opposite one’s house normally ends at 2 p.m. then, whenever the sound of play stops is 2 p.m. – whether or not the clock agrees. Trinidadians have a multitemporal, cross-cutting system of time reckoning based on all manner of sonic, social and solar cues. The advent of clock time and the power we may suppose it to have established through colonialism (or modernity in general), has not been decisive and overriding like the heart pacemaker, but rather creolized into local repertoires of time telling. The clock is only a facet of Trinidad time. Like distance runners they can choose to ignore the pacemaker.

The cover of this book shows a timepiece from the French revolutionary period with two dials. One displays the newly introduced, hyper-rational revolutionary time (10-hour day) and the other the traditional 24-hour day.  It is an object that reveals how difficult it is to translate time systems; so difficult in this instance that a mechanical calculator was needed.  This illustrates one of Birth’s key insights, that clocks have a ‘formal completeness’ that allows them to inform experience very powerfully and fundamentally; map IS territory.  Furthermore, clocks, together with all other chronometric objects and environmental cues, form part of an extended mind, a distributed cognition whereby humans and objects prop one another up in a system of relations.  Different time keeping systems, or bodies of experience such as those found on Trinidad, are thus immensely difficult to translate into one another since they exist as sedimented sets of experiential logic.  Local multitemporal timekeeping is the stuff of Bourdieu’s habitus; a body of knowledge that comes and goes without saying.  Birth compares the situation with language relativity, and observes that we can generally translate languages and understand one another across language barriers.  With language we can always resort to saying the same thing using different words to convey the basic concept.  As artefacts, timekeeping objects cannot gloss one another; their inner experiential worlds cannot be translated.  In the Middle Ages a spacium was the unit of time it took to walk a particular circuit. A monk might be instructed to eat for no longer than one half spacium. The Western clock requires no experience of walking in order to tell time in agreement with others.  Time keeping objects woven into multitemporal repertoires are, we might say, ontological and it is considerably more difficult to translate ontologies into one another than it is to translate words or concepts. One has to live into them.

REVIEW: Conversations with Landscape

Book Review
Benediktsson, Karl & Katrín A. Lund (eds). 2010.
Conversations with Landscape. Farnham: Ashgate.

by P. LAVIOLETTE, Anthropology Dept, EHI, Tallinn University

Finally a book that could speak to me. And yet, with the unpredictability of conversational direction that the editors remind us of in their introduction, what would I hear? How to respond? Such ideas were made even more daunting when flipping through the table of contents to realise that we are dealing with a cacophony of no less than eighteen different authorial voices, not to mention those of informants, reference citations and of course the unique narrative style of the volume itself.

Why get drawn into this particular conversation then? There’s indeed a plethora of books on landscape out there. Not so many, however, deliberately embrace an ‘undisciplined’ perspective which is explicitly sensitive to the approaches and debates advocated within material culture studies itself (Basu 2013). This collection is both subtle and wide ranging in terms of the ambiguity it provides regarding the many facets of conversation. Inspired, for instance, by certain deep-ecology principles (e.g. Aldo Leopold; David Abram and so on) the editors set the scene by pointing out: “the idea that a conversation of some sort can be had with landscape thus has a long and complex history” (p.3). They also pick up on the work of Barbara Bender. Adopting her ideas about the extended ‘anarchy’ of landscape, its unruliness, allows them to develop a fascinating, politically charged, discussion about the ‘horizontality’ of our imaginations as well as the spatial dimensions of our embodied thinking, experiences and actions (p.5).

With the idea firmly established for the multi-sensorial dimensions of conversation laid out in the introduction, we are on familiar ‘non-representational theory’ ground in this volume. Yet this is also a facile categorisation which I suspect the editors might contest, or at least react to in some form or other. Theories and descriptions that fathom the diverse perspectives from which people embrace and are embraced by landscapes are now starting to surface with more regularity. As are comparative studies of the ways in which we experience. Indeed, scholars are increasingly tackling the shortage of detailed descriptions of landscape sensations. Recent writings by cultural geographers, historians, ecologists, political scientists, sociologists and social anthropologists have reinvigorated the fascination with the intricacies of place and landscape. This attention reveals the ease with which the problems of culture and environment trespass conventional disciplinary boundaries.

To be honest, the idea initially of reviewing a book with what seemed to be an array of Nordic case studies by predominantly Icelandic based authors left me somewhat cold. This was based, however, on a knee-jerk reaction which was completely superficial and misguided. Once I started travelling through the text though, the strength of the inter/trans-disciplinarity in the volume’s essays became evident. As a collection, they provide a comparative perspective on the conception of landscape as a cross-cultural process. Such collaborations inform us that the relationships between culture and the environment centre on the considerations of perception, positionality and practice.

The volume sets out to depict how landscapes are understood, constructed, negotiated and conveyed through various mediums: social space, consumption as well as community relationships. The work is framed intellectually by a range of ideas concerning the critique of representation (within archaeology, art, cultural geography, literary studies, philosophy and social anthropology) which actively engage with reflexive, even poetic, discourses. Within the scope of philosophical reflection as well as a series of multi-sited, ‘social-science at home’ studies, the book largely examines how everyday ‘Nordic’ landscapes are embedded, materialised and visualised into the world of social relationships. But the overall approach is intentionally diversified, highlighting heterogeneity and some of the ironies of socio-cultural construction. It is also highly erudite, as demonstrated by the extensive bibliographies which indicate that the contributors are exceptionally well read across a number of subjects in the social sciences and humanities.

Equally worth noting, nearly half the chapters include visual illustrations. This is particularly surprising since the volume includes contributions by philosophers and literary scholars (not especially known for visual communication). This is the strength of collaboration which the collection exudes. Artists working along side scientists and theorists of the humanities/social sciences.

Moreover, it is refreshing that the volume does not have any overt subsections. Indeed it works as an integrated whole. One cannot easily provide any comprehensive categorisation without potentially providing a counter synergy. At the end of the introduction, the editors do provide a rationale for the ordering of the chapters. Adapting their own structure somewhat, I’d suggest the following groupings for those who had to be mercenary about which chapters applied most to their professional identities: the introduction, plus chapters 14, 15, and 16 form a section about collaborative research which draws together all the volume’s representative disciplines. Chapters 2-3 predominantly make up a philosophy section. This is followed by chapters 4-5 which act as a geography/archaeology section. Chapters 6-7-8 are dedicated mostly to anthropology whereas chaps 9-10-11 deal more explicitly with geography, art and literature. Finally, the expertise of the editors is manifest with essays by a geographer and an anthropologist respectively in Chapters 12-13.

For the sake of brevity here, I shall not examine any of the chapters individually save to mention how Chapter 7 by Lund & Willson gives us a succinct insight into the volume’s conceptual rationale:

 Thus, it is the ground which one’s footsteps follow that is the point of ongoing sensual dialogue – the touching point which generates the rhythms which, as we will illustrate, engenders conversations with landscapes” (p.97-98).

As a review which is still drifting, I would finish this particular journey with a sidetrack – that in which the main tenets of the volume in question are reminiscent of a recent interview between the philosophers Raphaël Enthoven and Ali Benmakhlouf (2013) who outline, in a mobile fashion, the philosophical premises of conversation. During this semi-spontaneous, semi-directed film interview which moves through a few Parisian locales, they reflect that if discussion is a journey, to which the destination is more or less known in advance, then conversation is perhaps more analogous to the stroll of the flâneur. It is all the more fruitful when it serves no particular purpose. Under this playful guise, the conversation has the double advantage to multiply the subjects of study, to be inquisitive without constraints, to deal with serious things with the lightness they sometimes deserve. To test, finally, the intimate need which prevents us from saying absolutely anything whilst allowing us to speak haphazardly, with divergences and digressions.

Conversations with Landscapes strikes such a balance between openness and experimentation on the one side and comprehensiveness on the other. Between the significance of rooting ideas in the local and the importance as well as difficulty of making certain universalising generalisations in textual form.


Basu, P. 2013. Material culture: Ancestries and trajectories in material culture studies. In Carrier, J.G. & D.B. Gewertz (eds), Handbook of Sociocultural Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury.

Benmakhlouf, A. 2013. Interviewed by Enthoven in Conversation – ‘Philosophie’ (01/03/13), (in French).

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Control Order House

Control Order House is the latest project of the artist, photographer and archivist Edmund Clark.

Clark’s first project, Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out, explored the domestic architecture and environment of the Guantanamo Bay Military Base and tracked this “domesticity” back into the homes of British detainees, particularly following the case of  Omar Deghayes who was imprisoned in GTMO from 2002-2007 when he was released without charges. This photographic project explores three ideas of home: the idea that GTMO is home to an American community of military personnel and their families, that it is home to prisoners arrested as terrorists, and the homes where former detainees are now trying to rebuild their lives.

“Control Order House continues my exploration of the use and representation of control and incarceration in the ‘War on Terror’. Following on from ‘Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out’ I use the prism of the ‘home’ to question representations of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and to evoke the impact on the individuals concerned. I see my work as visual histories which bring new perspectives to the wider social, political and legal aspects of these issues, and explores the material and evidentiary nature of images and documents”

In his latest project, Control Order House, Clark lived for several days in the home of someone in the UK living under a control order. Control Order House engages with ideas of control in photography by foregoing the normal process of editing and mediation to reproduce the images, unedited, in the order in which Clark took them, exploring the monotony and claustrophobia of a controlled person’s life. The inclusion of official documents and correspondence also illustrates the weight of state actors against the individual. Control Orders were introduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. Between 2005 and 2011, 52 men suspected of involvement in terrorism were under Control Orders and subject to various constraints. These included the power to relocate them to a house anywhere in the country,

Control Order House engages with ideas of control in photography by foregoing the normal process of editing and mediation to reproduce the images, unedited, in the order in which Clark took them, exploring the monotony and claustrophobia of a controlled person’s life. The inclusion of official documents and correspondence also illustrates the weight of state actors against the individual.

Control Orders were introduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. Between 2005 and 2011, 52 men suspected of involvement in terrorism were under Control Orders and subject to various constraints. These included the power to relocate them to a house anywhere in the country, to restrict communication electronically and in person, and to impose a curfew. ‘Controlled persons’ were not prosecuted for terrorist-related activity and the evidence against them remained secret. One man was subject to these controls for more than four years. Control Orders were replaced by Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) in 2012. Nine men are currently subject to a TPIM.

(Images reproduced thanks to Edmund Clark and Here Press).

Culture Works

Reflections on Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility Across the Neoliberal Americas (NYU Press 2012),

Arlene Davila, NYU Anthropology

Each book has an ethos, and a lot of my work has been led by a critical angst on the mainstreaming of Latino culture, which is also reflected in Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility Across the Neoliberal Americas just published by NYU Press.  Yet in hindsight, Culture Works is mostly informed by the love, admiration and appreciation for creative workers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with for years, especially the locally-based, community-identified and informally generated creative work and workers I encountered in Puerto Rico, Latin@ New York and Buenos Aires, who are working with great difficulty in challenging times.   This a context where, more and more, culture is only appreciated as an economic engine, or as a development tool, or for the profit it can generate, and where artists are valued in terms of their entrepreneurial skills more than the work they do within communities.

Indeed, the last decades has seen a growing and uncritical boosterism around creative economies and the role of creative classes within urban policy circles, developers, and even critical scholars.  The focus, however, is mainly on creative workers in high scale industries, advertising or design, rather than on the plight of the many grassroots “barrio creatives” I encountered in New York City, Puerto Rico and Buenos Aires. These creatives are just as important to the health of global creative cities, but are regularly bypassed from most national and global considerations on urban cultural policies.  As a consequence, are quick to extend tax break and incentives to any development that comes packaged with a “cultural” component, while local community institutions linger.   Culture Works asks why this is the case and challenges us to expand definitions of what should be regarded as most centrally valuable.

Recreation of Old San Juan architecture inside Puerto Rico's largest shopping mall, while street use ordinances restrict public space of space in Old San Juan highlight the sanitization of space at play in many cities across the Americas. These restrictions are affecting the celebration of the island's most important festivals which provide some of the few outlets left for artists and vendors to make a living.


Foremost, Culture Works challenges the elitization of creative work and its use as an added-on ornament to “soften”, veil or ameliorate the social inequalities brought about by neoliberal policies, and projects.  One example discussed in the book is the inclusion of old San Juan architecture and the celebration of Puerto Rican crafts airs inside shopping malls that are intended to “puertorriquenize” these malls veiling the rapid privatization of space spurred by a bonanza in shopping mall constructions.  Another is the promotion of tango tourism as part of the neoliberal transformations behind the construction of a new Buenos Aires that has resulted in the up scaling of the city primarily for tourists and expats.

In particular, the book highlights similar dynamics around the ways in which how culture is being used across the Americas, if not globally, despite the many differences at play.  Yes, there are different philosophies of government between Argentina’s more socialist government and the overtly neoliberal administration at play in New York City, while the colonial island state of Puerto Rico may seem to have little in common with the dynamics apace in New York city, the global arts capital of the world. There are also considerable differences between the primarily Puerto Rican and minority Latino artists in New York and the artists I met in Puerto Rico and Argentina who face hardships but not around the existence of a “culture” that deserves promotion and showcasing, as Latino artists working in the United States regularly face.

These differences notwithstanding, each location evidenced an emphasis on more entrepreneurial artists, the upscalling of space and a narrowing of what counts as culturally valuable and worthy of investments. Similarly, in all three cases the use of culture for tourism, or for economic development, was accompanied by disparities that limited which cultural workers and artists could most legitimately claim the status of “creative worker”. Namely, the artists, whose merchandise looks good in the mall and ‘professional’ dancers from the better barrios in the capital who speak English and can fit comfortably with tourists.

Culture Works exposes these dynamics in order to 1) reevaluate the work, the value, and the many cultural and economic contributions of local based cultural workers. And 2) in order expands dominant definitions of who counts as creative worker and what counts as creative work. My hope is that we can finally put an end to all the boosterism surrounding discussions of creative work in most discussions of urban development and consequently be more equipped to address key questions of cultural equity.

I do this by focusing on the rubrics of space, value and mobility as three sites were tensions of creative work are especially apparent. In terms of space, I highlight the linkage between the privatization of space and the fate of growing numbers of peoples who seek their livelihoods through culture.  These dynamics are especially evident in Puerto Rico where thousands have turned to the selling of artesania after massive government layoffs, even though few people can access the rapidly diminished public space to make a living.

Issues of value are at the heart of all case studies and Culture Works shows how value is directly tied to policies and investments, in other words, I show how value is never a naturally determined but rather structured and created by urban and cultural policies and economic incentives favoring one or another cultural initiative, or one cultural product or representation over other.  Take for instance, the cultural policies that lock most of New York City’s government funding for the arts to a few institutions in the city, (primarily the largest and most tourist known) leaving most cultural organizations to compete for the remaining minimal budget.

In particular I argue that we should indeed begin to talk openly about political economy of the arts without fear that mixing art and economic realms would “pollute” the ‘sacredness’ of art.  Specifically, I suggest that delving into the economy is not only central for exposing how value is created through investments, but also for imagining alternative criteria for defining what’s valuable and worthy of investments. In particular, Culture Works exposes the racial politics of creative economies, particularly evident around the debates over whether Latinos merit the construction of a national museum in the nation’s capital, racial dynamics that inform what’s worthy of showcasing.  In other words, Culture Works argues that engage with questions of value is to engage with politics.  It demands that we expose the premises and biases in which decisions about what is valuable and worthy of promotion and preservation are regularly made.

Finally, I address matters of mobility, or the movements of peoples and things that accompany all these neoliberal restructuring of space.

These dynamics have local manifestations; for instance, in the segregation, surveillance and policing of space; but also global ones, in terms of who can travel and can access the necessary paperwork to become “global” versus others destined to remain undocumented or “alien,” because of their race, class, citizenship or nationality.

My concern is a simple one:  to expose that creative industries favor certain type of mobile bodies while circumventing the social and physical mobility of others.  For instance, I examine the mobility of North American and European creative expats: the kid who wants to finish his novel or the laid off designer who wants to make a severance check last, who can easily move and settle in Buenos Aires, and even set up to sell jewelry in the street on an impromptu basis, versus the immigrants from “pueblos limitrofes,” such as Bolivia, Peru, who are banned from accessing the city’s key centers. For expats from Europe and North America, moving to Buenos Aires on a semi permanent basis becomes one of the strategies through which creative workers maneuver economic uncertainty and achieve social mobility, but not without affecting possibilities for local artists.

In sum, Culture Works asks who benefits from the growing emphasis on creative economies, how have these industries affected the lives of the growing number of people who gain live hoods through culture.  My hope is that the book can bring attention to Issues of equity and creative economies are concerned and make us more sensitized to the plight of some many people who make a living of creative work and should be at the center of any discussion of contemporary urban and creative economies.


Arlene Davila is Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at NYU.  Her previous books include Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race and Barrio Dreams:  Puerto Ricans, Latinos and the Neoliberal City. Website:

Review: Harnessing Fortune

Empson, Rebecca, 2011. Harnessing Fortune: Personhood, Memory and Place in Mongolia. Oxford University Press.
Daniel Miller, UCL
One of the issues in teaching material culture studies under the auspices of an anthropology department is explaining what is, at least in my case, a very conservative attitude to ethnography. I have always insisted that my PhD students understand and undertake what could be called classic ethnographic research as the basis for their PhD. The research must be based on working with a specified group of people for at least a year, being as much engaged with their every day activities as possible. In my case I have always insisted that even in the digital field this had to be as much an off line as on line experience. But to persuade people of this it helps if one has to hand exemplary ethnographies that really do demonstrate the `added value’ of sustained ethnographic study. There are of course classic studies, of which my bedrock has always been Munn’s Fame of Gawa but one also wants to see current exemplifications that tackle the often far more dynamic situations of the contemporary world.
Rebecca Empson’s 2011 monograph Harnessing Fortune works a treat for these purposes. Empson was a student of Caroline Humphrey at Cambridge, who has consistently produced key papers in material culture studies throughout her career. As with Humphrey, Empson also works with the Buriad (Buryat) peoples of Mongolia. If Annette Weiner described her work in terms of “Keeping while Giving”, Empson is more focused on Keeping while Separating. The economy of herding requires considerable mobility of various kinds and separation both cyclical and developmental is essential in the region. But these populations have complex means for retaining certain elements of persons, horses and other features that are moving on, thereby securing the element of fortune that was associated with their initial presence and possession. The study is thereby able also to show how accumulation and indeed possession operate alongside the fluidity of mobility.
The monograph has a broad range of concerns including the sense in which people are retained within other’s bodies as in rebirth, and the hidden dimensions of relatedness that revolve around shamanistic practice. For scholars specifically interested in material culture chapters two to five are the most valuable. Chapter five, for example, has a fascinating discussion of mirrors as revelations of that which otherwise cannot be seen, and chapter two provides much of the analysis of the retention of fortune using retained material forms. But the heart of these more material aspects of this book is found in chapter three. This is concerned firstly with the household chest but most especially with the photographs, both those displayed on the outside of these chests and also in albums within. Careful attention to every aspect, from the juxtaposition of montage, to the formality of pose, to the ethnographic sense of when and in front of who photos are either displayed or hidden all become part of the analysis of how material forms and images are able to constitute and retain relationships even when person of property is otherwise absent and separated.
Showing how photographs stand in the stead of, but also greatly extend the role of genealogies, many of which were previously destroyed for political reasons, has been very helpful to me in trying to think of how to work with the change from older genres of photos to the visual aspects of Facebook which is something I want to work on more in the future. In each of these iterations one can see how other networks of relatedness move beyond but also appropriate ideas of obligation that derive from kin relationships. In an Appendix she provides the illustrations and more detailed analysis of seven households. In her final chapter there is dramatic shift to the issue of arson, which reminds us that there are still more devastating loss of presence in the world beyond wiping out ones online presence.
As well as the dense ethnography, Empson also clearly places her material in relation to theorists such as Gell and Strathern, helpfully concentrating on the differences between the implications of her study and previous discussions of agency and relatedness. The book is the product of several fieldtrips conducted both for PhD and later Post-Doctoral research and has that aura of confident knowledge of her ethnographic context that comes with this intensity and longevity of fieldwork. The writing is unpretentious and effectively engages readers with the empathetic experience of that fieldwork. As with most good monographs the end result is not grand theory, but a clear sense that the particular material cosmologies of these people demonstrate possible ways of using material and social relatedness that were not captured by our prior theoretical discussions which now have to be re-thought and nuanced in the light of this new evidence. Which is exactly what a good ethnographic monograph should do.