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.
This 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.