Tag Archives: material culture theory

Things in Cambridge

The Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) has convened an interdisciplinary research seminar entitled “Things: Material Cultures 1500 – 1900. The brief of the research group is here:

With the dawning of modernity came the age of ‘stuff.’ Public production, collection, display and consumption of objects grew in influence, popularity, and scale. The form, function, and use of objects, ranging from scientific and musical instruments to weaponry and furnishings were influenced by distinct  and changing features of the period. Knowledge was not divided into strict disciplines. In fact, practice across what we now see as academic boundaries was essential to material creation. This seminar series uses an approach based on objects to encourage us to consider the unity of ideas of this period, to emphasise the lived human experience of technology and art, and the global dimension of material culture. It does this by inviting pairs of speakers, often from different institutional backgrounds, to speak to a particular kind of ‘thing’ or a theme that unites disparate ‘things’. Previous ‘Things’ seminars have concentrated on the early modern period generally and the long eighteenth century in particular; this year we have taken the step into the nineteenth century, the era that brought us the mass production of ‘things’. Our aim continues to be to look at the interdisciplinary thinking through which material culture was conceived, and to consider the question of what a ‘thing’ is, with the ultimate goal of gaining new perspectives on the period 1500-1900 through its artefacts.

Here is Simon Schaffer talking about “things” from one of their Mellon conferences:

And here is Edmund de Waal presenting his thoughts on pottery, shadows and archives related to a recent commission for Cambridge University.

The CRASSH website is a rich resource of past talks, many of which are videoed and archived here.

The Power of Objects: Materiality – Forms – Ritual Action

International Conference, Toulouse: May 30th – June 1st 2013

Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail Maison de la Recherche 5 allées A. Machado 31058 TOULOUSE CEDEX 9 Téléphone 05 61 50 24 30

Ethnographers, whether their research results in producing texts or in curating museum collections, seem to share an interest in material artifacts whose symbolic and social functions might be easier to describe than to find their common denominator. Among such artifacts, some are written about as ritual, magical, or power objects, or “idols,” “relics,” and “fetishes,” and given, by the cultures that create them, specific names: agalmata and xoana in ancient Greece, churinga in Australia, boli and basi among the Mande, etc. Others might, despite the strangeness of their power, pass almost unnoticed, like so many materials consecrated by the early Christians, for example, or as certain objects and substances used both within religious contexts and in everyday life as well. Indeed, in analyzing rites, one may observe an ordinary knife becoming the instrument for sacrifices, water the liquid for ablutions, a pan the indispensable receptacle for the communal meal, and a shirt the outfit for the priest. Truly great, then, is the number of elements necessary for the transformation of the universe, for the transition from the day-to-day into this different realm, which is generally saturated with religious meanings. In this realm and in the spaces of transition, things seem to possess more power than a reasonable mind would normally allocate to them. What makes them so potent and how do they attain such a status? How are these powerful artifacts produced? And how exactly does one manipulate or interact with them in order to affect such a transformation?

Materiality Matters at the Association of Internet Researchers Conference

In October I attended the 13th annual Association of Internet Researchers conference (AoIR or IR13) which was held in Salford, England at the University of Salford in the heart of the new home of the BBC, Media City UK. As a conference, AoIR has always been at the cutting edge scholarship on internet research and digital cultures. This year, the presence of Conference Chair Lori Kendall – author of Hanging Out in a Virtual Pub, one of the very first ethnographies of online communities — significantly shaped conversation by productively highlighting issues of gender and the changing relationship between various dichotomies (real/virtual, online/offline) emerging in everyday practice.

While I was not able to attend all of the sessions (there were up to seven simultaneous tracks on October 19th and 20th!! See the programme), a few key themes emerged that are worth sharing with the Material World community. The first was the centrality of ‘materiality’ as a concept for understanding digital media and technology. From Mary L. Gray’s discussion gay youth in rural America and the politics of visibility to Larissa Hjorth’s metaphor of the caravan as a way to rethink and move away from domestication theory to Susanna Paasonen’s analytical paper focused upon defining the ‘object’ of study in internet studies in an age of networked technologies, there was a concerted effort to understand the relationship between the qualities, properties and affordances of new media as they emerge through use. Subsequent talks by Daniel Miller, Zizi Papacharissi and an impassioned talk by Theresa M. Senft further highlighted how materiality matters in current debates in Internet studies.

Throughout the conference it became evident that part of the reason why materiality is so consequential to researchers at AoIR  revolves around the fact that what we previously understood as ‘internet research’ is changing. The dilemma of the object of inquiry in Internet research is no longer only about whether to study “online” or “offline” (although there are still important arguments for taking these perspectives and positions – see the recently released book Ethnography and Virtual Worlds). Rather, the various sessions and papers focusing upon mobile phones, mobile media, locative media (e.g. Jason Farman’s Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media won the annual book prize), mobile internet, mobile markets, mobile apps and so on (over 200 mentions of “mobiles” in the conference program) highlighted how ‘the Internet’ and digital media generally have become intertwined in everyday practice. How we understand, move between and relate to the various apps on our phones, what significance the places that are created through mobile phones, webcams, social network sites or virtual worlds mean for our varied relationships and sense of being human, and how the platforms, apps, data plans, regulatory environments and so on we use to access our friends, colleagues and acquaintances mediate our publics and politics – these all demand attention to the materiality of the various objects, tools and relationships we develop and maintain.

As someone who sees their work embedded within material culture studies, the focus upon materiality was an unexpected but welcome addition to the study of internet and digital media at AoIR this year. Indeed, there is a growing sense of revitalisation and excitement around our understanding of materiality, immateriality and material culture across a range of disciplines. These include the emergence of Platform and Software Studies, conversations around infrastructure in Ubiquitous Computing by scholars such as Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, media and digital anthropology (e.g. the AAS Conference entitled “Culture and Contest in a Material World”), Cultural Studies (CSAA’s forthcoming conference “Materialities: Economies, Empiricism and Things”), to name but a few recent events, books and conversations. What was quite clear at an interdisciplinary conference like AoIR, however,  was that the concept of ‘materiality’ in play embodied a diverse set of debates and histories from Actor Network Theory, Critical Studies, Material Culture Studies and elsewhere. These debates and histories, of course, define how we approach the study of materiality, what the relationship between materiality and immateriality might be for digital media and the internet (and whether this dichotomy, as Tom Boellstorff suggested in the plenary discussion at AoIR, should persist at all) and the consequences of focusing upon ‘materiality’ for our practice. One hopes such a conversation might begin here.

Note: Next year’s conference, chaired by Lynn Schofield Clark (who has done fabulous work on media, religion and families), will be held in Denver in October 2012.

Sherlock Holmes: The Father of Material Culture?

Christopher Pinney, UCL

Sherlock Holmes was many things: cocaine addict, violinist extraordinaire, expert on Ceylonese Buddhism, master consulting detective, and accomplished amateur boxer. He was also a published anthropologist of sorts having (as is revealed in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box [1889]) published two short articles on the outer morphology of the human ear in the Anthropological Journal. But was he also a pioneer in Material Culture?

The firmest evidence for this proposition comes from the first chapter of The Sign of Four (1888). Titled “The Science of Deduction” there is much here that lays the ground for Alfred Gell’s later elevation of the Peircean notion of “abduction” as a key element in his theory of a new anthropology of art (Gell was an ardent Sherlockian).  But it is here that Holmes also reveals that several of his “works” were in the process of being translated into French for publication. These included a volume titled Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccoes which detailed the visual appearance of 140 ashes of different cigar, cigarette and pipe tobaccos with the help of coloured plates. Visual signs and the ability to read them properly were crucial to Holmes’ new “exact science” one based first and foremost on rigorous observation. As he tells Watson: “To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird’s eye as there is between a cabbage and potato”.

Another work in translation described the “tracing of footprints, with some remarks upon the uses of plaster of Paris as a preserver of impresses.” This work was doubtless influenced by Notes and Queries in Anthropology’s pre-occupation with making transient indexical traces permanent with “paper squeezes” and other moulds, and was perhaps also inspired by the work of Gujarati pugees in identifying the movement – through footprints – of criminal tribes. There is an echo here of the “low common intuition” which Carlo Ginzburg suggests colonial practitioners such as W. J. Herschel appropriated when they took Bengali practices of “finger-tipping” and translated them into bureaucratically systematized regimes of finger-printing. Holmes’s pioneering work (including the Priory School narrative – see below) would also have a considerable amount of what, in our present bathetic age, we would term “impact” for it was the inspiration for George Whitty Gayer’s promotion of footprints in Indian police detective work. Gayer, an officer in the Central Indian Police published Footprints: An Aid to the Detection of Crime for the Police in Nagpur in 1909 and acknowledged Holmes’ pioneer work as an inspiration.

Perhaps of more interest from a Material Culture perspective is Holmes’ third monograph, which was also extensively illustrated, although he deprecated it as “a little work”. This examined the “influence of a trade upon the form of the hand, with lithotypes of the hands of the slaters, sailors, corkcutters, compositors, weavers and diamond-polishers”. Holmes declared these “of great practical interest to the scientific detective” but Holmes’ investigations need to placed in the context of the occultism and palmistry which would shortly bear fruit in William John Warner’s popular Cheiro’s Langiage of the Hand (1894) a quasi-Theosophical echo  (Warner claimed to have studied with Brahman palmists in India) of Charles Bell’s The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design (1833). Despite also being an Edinburgh surgeon Charles Bell was sadly only a remote relative of Joseph Bell who had taught Conan Doyle at Edinburgh and who is conventionally credited with providing the lineaments for Holmes’ character and method. From the viewpoint of intellectual history we might see Holmes work as indebted to the two Bells. But equally we might see it as prefiguring what we now know as techniques du corps. It is but a small leap from Holmes’ concern with the manner in which different kinds of work, reflecting cultural practice, come to remodel the body, to the work of later anthropologists. What for Bell was a singular and natural hand becomes for Holmes – in anticipation of Mauss and Leroi-Gourhan’s technogenesis – a concern with the nature of cultural influences “upon the form of the hand” as Holmes puts it. The concern in other works is with hands in the plural, in their social determination.

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