Archive | Book Reviews

Material culture in Hungary and everywhere else

Daniel Miller, UCL

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

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

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

Fehérváry’s exemplary scholarship, both historical and ethnographic, takes us through both socialist modernism and post-socialist consumer modernism in the development of contemporary Hungary.…

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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.…

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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.…

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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. …

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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.…

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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. …

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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.

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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’.

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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.  …

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