Tag Archives: technology

Mundane Objects: Materiality and non-Verbal Communication by Pierre Lemonnier

Haidy Geismar, UCL

The latest issue of Hau has a symposium on Pierre Lemmonier’s latest book, Mundane Objects, with commentary by Bruno Latour, Chris Ballard, Tim Ingold, Paul Graves-Brown, Susanne Küchler and a response by Pierre Lemmonier. The series of comments essentially sum up a “state of the art” comment on material culture theory, which Tim Ingold pithily sums up to date:

Perhaps there is something to be said for going back to the anthropological debates of the 1960s and 1970s on such themes as symbolic condensation, the distinction (or lack of it) between ritual and practical-technical actions, and how to do things with and without words. Arguably, our understandings have not been much advanced by subsequent approaches to material culture, for example by treating it as a system of signs whose meanings could be read off from the objects themselves, by entering them as candidates for social life but only as tokens of exchange among human beings, or by focusing on their consumption at the expense of their production.Nor—and here I agree wholeheartedly with Lemonnier—is there anything to be gained from leaving the heavy lifting to such philosophical juggernauts as “agency” and “materiality.” Most agency-speak is as tautologous as the functionalism it replaced: where before, if the presence of a thing has effects (and it would not be present if it did not), these effects were attributed to its functioning, nowadays they are attributed to its agency. The argument is no less circular, and equally ridiculous, especially coming from the mouths of celebrity philosophers. The concept of “materiality” is just as vacuous, no more so than when the abstraction that led from materials to materiality is followed by a counterreification from materiality to materialities, leading to the absurdity of describing a thing made from many different materials as an assemblage of multiple materialities. We have had more than enough of both agency and materiality, and they have got us nowhere. We need to go back to basics. But do we start with objects or affects, artifacts or materials,communication or participation? In each of these pairings, Lemonnier opts for the former. I opt for the latter (Ingold 2012). I wonder whether there might be some way of putting these two perspectives together. Now, that would be an advance.

In other commentary, Latour applauds Lemmonier’s emphasis on techniques and technology as a way to subvert the ethnocentric preoccupation with a crude object focus that comes with many contemporary theorizations of materiality, recognizing the very plasticity of the material world and Susanne Küchler provocatively thinks through the nascent material qualities of computers and other interactive digital technologies.



Rethinking the Technophobia of Old Believers

Kriistina Pilvet (EHI, Tallinn Univ.)

This posting deals with the Old Believer’s congregation of Piirissaare — a little island situated in lake Peipus which makes up part of the Russian-Estonian border. The main focus of this case study is the interaction of their identity and the modern technology they use in order to perform their culture in the peripheral region of one of Europe’s more avant-garde ICT countries.

Normative discourse on Old Believers, especially in Estonia, has often presumed some insularity, un-moderness and technophobic behaviour from the representatives of the given congregation. This narrative is so embedded in the representation of Old Believer’s that it has become a ‘norm’. Several different sources starting from academic publications in anthropology (Dolitsky & Kuzmina 1986; Vorontsova 2000; Filatova ; Ziolkowska 2011) and ending with different travel agency brochures and web sites (www.puhkaeestis.ee, www.estravel.ee) as well as ethnographic films (Brummend 2011) tend to associate Old Believers with traditionalism and a restrained way of life. Such sources thereby contrast this situation with what the modern audience may call “nowadays modern lifestyle” which involves several different interactions with the material world in a most contemporary manner. It has thus been assumed that technology in its digital and industrial manifestation has been prohibited in the vastness of the current field.

The boundary between traditional and modern has been clearly lined in the context of the given field. But if to look deeper into the subject, we realise that those binary oppositions are actually creations of the modern world itself which attempt (via those imageries) to contrast themselves from the Old Believers, thus expanding the gap between the rest of the world and the Old Believer congregation. These actions manage to work as constant hints for the ‘otherness’ of the community. My observations of the field in the given congregation has lead me to alternative conclusions; it is that Old Believers have always interacted with the modern world in the terms of the values and technological innovations which progress may offer. Moreover, they have never denied the usage of technology within their everyday doings.

Technology in the given congregation has become a part of their culture, since it serves as a means of reproducing their traditional actions. In the ceremonial life of the Old Believers, they have preserved many elements of an older time. However, in the modern areas of their living, some innovations in the rites of their life cycle together with the local specificity have appeared. It is that technology does not contradict the traditional in the given example because those seemingly binary opposites manage to work hand in hand by complementing each other. Technology is seen as a highlighter of the true Old Believer identity since it improves their traditional practices. Roughly speaking, technology may function as a method of becoming a ‘better’ Old Believer.

Fishing is considered by me as the most characteristic features of the complex ‘identity-set’ for the Old Believers of Piirissaare. The geographical location of the island has contributed to their everyday-life. Today, even the most ‘old school’ inhabitant of Piirissaare accompanies his fishing practices with several technological innovations such as GPS devices, motorboats, motorbikes, mobile phones (Horst & Miller 2006) and so on. It is perceived as an inherent element of their everyday-life doings since it manages to improve the practices and simultaneously reproduces the identity of Piirissaare’s Old Believers.

Peipus pier

Fig. 1 Piirissaare pier (Lake Peipus 2013, photo by the author).

The island’s overall appearance constantly alludes on their traditional practices, demonstrating its most commonly used facilities within the main landscape of the place (Fig. 1). By walking along the closely pressed houses that are traditionally lined up in the row, creating the long and narrow street, you can find numerous stakes that are covered with the fishing nets which have been put up there in order to get dry or in some cases to get fixed. The overall action usually takes place in front of the house, rarely if ever the requisite is situated behind the house.

This is the place where also the disassembled motors of the boats and old motorbikes are often ‘presented’, thereby not allowing to forget the true essence of the island (Fig. 2). The smaller technological devices used in fishing (GPS devices, mobile phones) are revealed solely in the lake, during the fishing procedure, when they are used for the initial purpose. At that same time as their usage, technology adopts its meaning. It becomes one in the case when it is used – outside of the human context it stops to function as a technology. “It is a system that contains itself a technological device and a human who uses it, maintains and repairs it” (Dusek 2006: 33). Despite the picturesque view of the technological devices in the front yard of their houses, they start to function as one only within the lake when they are used.

Peipus boats

Fig. 2 Old Believer boats (Peipus 2013, photo by the author).

GPS devices manage to designate the location of fish, whereas mobile phones serve for the designation of the fisherman themselves. One of my informants once claimed: “ I don’t even remember when there was a last time when I went fishing on the lake without the GPS device with me, it has become so normative.” Thus, usage of those devices together with the motorboats that allow them to move faster and the motorbikes that are used for transporting the heavy engines to the pier, have become normative for the Piirissaaare’s Old Believer’s due to their auxiliary factor within the system of their working habits.

Work (fishing in particular), as one of the defining elements of the Piirissaare’s Old Believer’s identity is improved by the means of modern technology. Taking this into consideration, the initial boundary that was set up between the traditional and the modern fails to work as confronting in the given case, since ‘oppositions’ are working in a reciprocal relation. Modern, in the face of technology, manages to highlight traditional (fishing) and thus reproduces the characteristic features of Old Believer identity. They do not suspend themselves from the modern world and the innovations that this world may offer. On the contrary, they manage to carry their values through life, simultaneously adapting in the modern world.


Brummund, Marc (dir). 2011 Film: Fish and Onion. Doco film.

Dolintsky, A. & L. Kuzmina. 1986. Cultural Change vs. Persistence: A Case from Old Believer Settlements. Artic. 39(3): 223-231.

Dusek,V. 2006. Philosophy of Technology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Horst, H. & D. Miller 2006. The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication.Oxford: Berg.

Vorontsova, L. & S. Filatov 2000. “Paradoxes of the Old Believer Movement”. Religion, State & Society. 28(1): 53-67.

Ziolkowska, M. 2011. “Anthroponynmy as Element Identificational Minority. The Characteristics of Polish Old Believer’s Names”. ESUKA – JEFUL. 2(1): 383-398.

Unpacking the Cars and Sheds with Genevieve Bell

Unpacking Cars Intel Image

Intel’s resident cultural anthropologist, Dr. Genevieve Bell, was recently featured in an article, “Intel’s Sharp-Eyed Social Scientist” in the New York Times. The article traces some of the findings and insights from Bell’s 16 years at Intel, including a study of how people use technology in their car which will be of interest to material culture studies and STS scholars. Her video interview with Sydney Morning Herald, A Moment with Genevieve Bell, also features some of her recent work in Australia on people’s everyday relationships with sheds.

The Tool at Hand

The exhibition,  The Tool at Hand asked what would it be like to create a work of art using only one tool?

In the Spring of 2011 the Chipstone Foundation and the Milwaukee Art Museum invited sixteen established artists from Britain and America to participate in an unusual experiment. Each artist was asked to lay aside his or her standard tool kit and craft a work of art with one tool alone. The challenge presented to the artists sounds simple: create a work of art with one tool. The material and tool were left open-ended with the purpose of encouraging creativity within the one-tool constraint. The Tool at Hand brings together these artworks, the tools that crafted them and short, explanatory videos produced by each artist.  This was the artists’ invitation video, which the filmmaker, Nicola Probert, also created using only one tool.

Now all the artworks are on line, archived alongside essays and short films made by the artists who used tools ranging from a hammer, to a knitting machine, data, and a macbook pro.

CFP: History of the Media in Transition Periods

Extended abstracts (500 words max.), for a 15 minute presentation, can be submitted by e-mail to: ecreacomhistory@gmail.com until 17th March 2013

4-6 September 2013
Lisbon, Catholic University of Portugal

Convergence and digitalization have become buzz-words employed to demonstrate how technological change has impacted on the media and is reconfiguring today’s media systems. Accordingly, media research in the last decade has centered itself on the contemporary changes operated on and by the new media, sometimes over-estimating the transitions that are taking place and not acknowledging common patterns that can be found between the emergence of new media and the appearance of other means of communication in previous decades. In fact, instead of being something new brought by digitalization, moments of technological transition can easily be found in many historical periods, namely throughout the 20th century. While today the internet and new media are inducing new patterns of media consumption, back in the 1920s radio broadcasting facilitated change in everyday life by bringing entertainment into the homes, while in the 1950s television also enabled new patterns of media consumption inside the home.

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Camp 2.0

Matt Voigts, Digital Anthropology, UCL

 The shores of Camp Grady Spruce

In 2012, an estimated 11 million American children attended summer camp for a day, week, month or more. Camp reads at times like a performance art parody of ethnography: a constructed community, in ‘nature’, often suffused with Native American-inspired tribal imagery. Indeed, both anthropology and camp began in the late 1800s, creations of a ‘civilized’ world exploring more ‘primitive’ lifestyles. In England, researchers like Frazer and Tylor synthesized cultural theory from the British Empire’s field reports. In New England, around the same time, outdoorsmen and churchmen began leading groups of children on camping trips, indulging an “Arcadian myth” (as described by Schmitt, 1969) of unspoiled wilderness as refuge from the unhealthy, congested modern city.

As the two academic book-length studies of camp – Van Slyck (2006) and Paris (2008) – catalog extensively, just how technologically-advanced the camp environment becomes is, in practice, a matter of negotiation. Flush toilets, air conditioners, movies, and stereopticon shows (to name a few) have all been employed at summer camp over its century-plus history. The contemporary camps at which I conducted my MSc dissertation fieldwork prioritize interests of safety and leisure in choosing what to include in the experience. Children’s encounters with potentially dangerous aspects of nature (wildlife, water) occur under close supervision.

In the service of enhancing the immediacy of the group experience, contemporary campers are not typically allowed personal communications devices. The Internet and cell phones are, nonetheless, integral to forming my field sites’ constituent community. I conducted participant observation at Camp Quest Oklahoma (June 24-30) and Camp Quest Texas (August 5-11), two of about a dozen Camp Quest (CQ) weeks held nationally (plus one in Canada and another in the UK), geared toward children from non-religious families. Most of the adults involved in planning and staffing the camps were apostates; after losing their religions and reading material from the ‘New Atheist’ movement, they went online to sites like meetup.com to find a nearby community of likeminded individuals. As described by Tillery (1992), one of the few anthropologists to study camp, the experience of friends and campfires can be a powerful agent for communitas. In forming a camp, CQ’s planners and participants (mostly, people outside American Judeo-Christian normativity) created a temporary hangout space, an opportunity for bonding around traits which the children’s families felt pressure to suppress in everyday life.

For Tillery (1992, p.376-7), camp was “the autonomous other community to which I removed myself yearly to enact a complex symbolic transaction with the rest of my life… to reflect upon, and transact the nature of, my identity and presence in that life.” The ‘transactive nature’ that Tillery discussed in personal terms, I was interested in exploring in terms of mass culture and technology. Camp is an experience at once ‘natural’ (as in, in nature) and yet also alien to children’s lives; adults respond to this complexity by framing the experience in terms of both ‘reality’ and through association with fictions. For example, counselors at CQ Texas referred to a densely-foliaged island at their host camp – Grady Spruce – as ‘Mordor’ after Lord of the Rings’ most foreboding landscape, in an attempt to heighten the experience for campers: to emphasize its difference from the everyday, to drive home both the ‘reality’ and danger of the island’s nature.

 Surf Board

These combinations of nature, fiction, localized and mass culture are shown visually in the above picture, painted by college-age counselors at Camp Waluhili (CQ Oklahoma’s host), which hangs at the camp’s dining hall. In the center are the counselors themselves, depicted as their nicknames, which are bestowed on them at the end of their counselor-in-training program; each counselor finds his or her name at the end of a string, which has been looped elaborately throughout the cabin, through and around its furniture and windows. The nicknames (“Ms. Starburst”; “Mr. Tumnus”) – as well as the iconography of the board itself – are drawn from combinations of mass culture, inside jokes, and the archetypal experiences of camp life itself. Throughout the camp, the counselors refer to each other exclusively by their nicknames in front of campers (and anthropologists). While this heightens the atmosphere of the camp, it also serves another, practical purpose: helping to prevent campers from contacting counselors outside of camp, a prohibition instituted by Camp Fire Green Country (Waluhili’s parent organization) to help guard against child abuse.

You can hear a similar cycle of camp, mass culture, and technology in this song: A Pizza Hut, sung by a few of Camp Waluhili’s counselors, that references mass culture (Pizza Hut, Star Wars), technology (Macintosh, Linux), and the camp environment itself (campers, counselors). You can also see it in the logo for Camp Waluhili this year – an iPad (certainly, something not allowed at camp) reimagined with camp iconography. Camp situates itself in campers’ lives and the technologies they use, even as it kindly requests campers leave their own mobiles, laptops, and music at home in the service of the Great Outdoors and the immediacy of the camp experience itself.



Paris, L., 2008. Children’s nature: the rise of the American summer camp. New York: New York University Press

Schmitt, P.J., 1970. Back to nature: the Arcadian myth in urban America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tillery, R.K., 1992. Touring Arcadia. Cultural Anthropology, 7(3), pp.374-388.

Van Slyck, A.A., 2006. A manufactured wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.




2013 Conference: Brave New Worlds – Transforming Museum Ethnography through Technolog

Deadline for Submissions: 7 December 2012

We invite papers from curators, conservators, artists, makers, anthropologists, art and design historians, digital media practitioners, researchers and others that explore the impact of technology upon the development and interpretation of museum ethnography, historically and today.

See further details at: www.museumethnographersgroup.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=29&Itemid=41

Reading Artifacts Summer Institute 2012

Discover alternative historical perspectives and methods in the midst of Canada’s largest collection in science, medicine and technology. Our annual artifact sessions in the CSTM storage facility bring together Canadian and international scholars from across the disciplinary spectrum. Participants immerse themselves in our collections gaining renewed appreciation for artifacts and the multiple, unpredictable stories they tell.

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