Thinking Through Things

Daniel Miller, UCL
On Thursday 7th December a book launch was held for a new volume Thinking Through Things. Edited by A Henare, M Holbraad and S Wastell and published by Routledge.
The book is clearly of interest to anyone in material culture studies. The primary theme is concerned with transcending any dualism between things and concepts, for which purpose there is considerable engagement with epistemological and ontological issues. The intention is not to develop a new theory, but rather to affirm an analytical methodology, that anthropologists could utilise to gain insights in their various studies. The inspiration is quite clearly the work of Marilyn Strathern, and the degree to which this clearly represents a cadre of younger scholars working enthusiastically to related themes is testimony to her inspiration at Cambridge. After Strathern the other key influences would be the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro who has been debating related issues with Strathern at Cambridge. The introduction works through the general concepts surrounding perspectivism that was central to these debates and the degree to which these raise such ontological questions.
The most impressive achievement of the book as a whole is the way these ambitious analytical debates are tied to a constantly high level of scholarship and ethnographic depth that characterise the individual contributions. The papers are much too rich to be constrained within any single theme. For example Amiria Henare’s chapter concerns the interpretive flexibility with which they key treaty that bound the Maori and the colonialists has been dealt with in the subsequent period. She demonstrates how this interpretive flexibility is not something that came from the generic West but is grounded in Maori transformative and dynamic genres. A similar point is made by Wastell through showing that while the envisaging of Western law by the Swazi of Southern Africa as encompassing, was presaged by their notions of divine kingship, this was not an aspect of cultural continuity as conservative. Rather they should be seen as consummate modernists.
Another interesting pair of papers includes a revision of Alfie Gell’s book Art and Agency by James Leach based on research he has conducted on collaborations between artists and scientists in Cambridge. Gell is also employed by Pedersen on shamanist ontologies in Mongolia and in a chapter by the PNG anthropologist Andrew Moutou on switching our conceptualisation of museums from issues of classification to issues of how people conceive of loss (something close to my own current work). Also based in PNG is a sparkling essay by Reed on smoking amongst prisoners in Port Moresby.
The most curious aspect of this book, however, is its first sentence. This states `what would an artefact-oriented anthropology look like, if it were not material culture?’ I found this slightly weird since my own conception of material culture is of a field in which people do not by and large define themselves in a semi-disciplined form, making it quite hard to see it as something one excludes oneself from from. Rather, as one hopes is the case with this weblog, it is more a welcoming and inclusive space for people with shared interests and an eclectic base. The sentence is elaborated upon in the introduction largely by separating out the transcendence of the dualism of thing/concept from that of subjects/objects. Actually I think this is not at all an accurate description of the papers that follow. Several, such as Empson’s paper on Mongolia, seem to me quite clearly exemplifications of the concept of objectification and the way a Strathernian approach to relationships can best be understood through exploring the process of objectification itself which as is clear in Strathern’s own work certainly implicates issues of subjects and objects. But the volume’s introduction does lead to an intriguing result. I felt the fullest exemplification of this desire for separation comes in Holbraad’s paper on the concept of mana which is also applied to a case study of his own fieldwork in which he asserts that one cannot distinguish between the concept of power and the actual powder as used by Cuban diviners. This is expertly done and I wholeheartedly recommend the chapter in question. But what intrigues me is that here it probably is the case that the degree of focus on this powder/power concept/thing ends up with the author paying relatively little regard to something that has been core in material culture studies which is the being of the Cuban diviner. In other words that appreciating that we have here a rather different kind of `object’ should in turn lead an appreciation that we have a rather different kind of subject.
This then has a paradoxical, but I think highly significant result. The separation from material culture might have been an attempt to preserve a more central social anthropology. But it is clear that by narrowing the brief of the introduction the result (if the authors had actually followed such advice), would have not been to make the book more anthropological but actually less so. As I have argued in my introduction to the book Materiality (2005, Duke University Press), I think we should by now be beyond such issues and one of the most powerful contributions of material culture studies is to try and represent the vanguard of anthropology as a whole. An anthropology that no longer feels any such need to ground itself only in concepts such as society and social relations on the one hand, nor take refuge in cognitive studies on the other, but one that is comfortable with the idea of a prior materiality within which a more specific social anthropology can flourish. In short material culture is not a subset of social anthropology but more the other way around. Material culture is a condition for anthropology itself.
Such a material culture adds to anthropology but subtracts nothing. The problem is that this is a relatively new understanding of anthropology, and while adventurous in some ways these Cambridge anthropologists were quite conservative in others. To be frank, I suspect they chickened out of any direct identification with material culture since they were scared that the term might still have a somewhat lower status than mainstream social anthropology. Something which may reflect their parochialism, since in general I don’t think this is a fear that holds much ground these days. To use the term would not then be a commitment to any particular approach, since again as this weblog shows it is both relaxed and eclectic. It is merely an acceptance that materiality is one of the necessary engagements of a larger anthropology.
Ultimately, however, whether people call themselves material culture or not is of limited interest, what matters is the quality of the work and the quality of the insights. And, whether the authors like it or not, this is a volume of considerable interest and consequence to anyone working in the field of material culture studies, with many exemplary chapters.


  1. Hi Danny,
    I really enjoyed reading your review and it certainly was effective in making me buy the book. I was particularly interested in you point about the relevance of the debate about the status of material culture within anthropology. Although I whole-heartedly agree with your overall argument, I wonder whether your suggestion of a current openness towards material culture within “mainstream” social anthropology is perhaps a bit too optimistic?

  2. Dear Danny,
    For quite a while, as you might have noticed, I’ve been ducking the debate with
    you about ‘the first sentence’ of our Thinking Through Things book (“What would
    an artefact-oriented anthropology look like if it were not about material
    culture?”), which you attack with verve in your review for materialworldblog.
    I’ve been ducking the debate because I agree with a lot of your comments
    regarding the ‘tactics’ of the matter, and certainly I do not feel very
    strongly about the more logistical matter of whether x (materiual culture
    studies) is or is not to be included in field y (anthropology). Personally, I’m
    only interested in this question for what it is able to tell us about x and y,
    and that’s the substantive question, to which I now turn.
    I emphasise that I am speaking entirely off my own bat here, and not on behalf
    either of my co-editors or the contributors to the volume. My argument is
    simple. ‘Material culture’ is a phrase with connotations, both historical
    within arch & anth and etymological, that cut against the ‘ontologising’ move
    that I (and Viveros de Castro but not Starthern, as I understand her) am
    interested in performing. Like the term ‘worldview’, it builds the analytical
    *distinction* between things and concepts and so on (though not necessarily the
    *separation*, as your original (1987) Hegelian position illustrates) into the
    demarcation of its field. The problem with this is that if you *set up* your
    field of study as one of ‘material culture’, then you prejudice the kinds of
    stuff you are able to find within it. Namely, you bind yourself to finding
    ‘materials’ (objects, artefacts, etc.) and ‘culture’ (ideas, worldviews,
    imaginings, or even social relations and so on). You may then, having found
    these things, ask yourself how they relate to each other, why they need each
    other, what the role of consumption of one by the other is, and so on. All
    these questions, inspirational though they clearly are, are neveretheless *also
    always* a function of your analytical prejudice, i.e. the fact that you’ve
    decided a priori that the world contains ‘materials ‘ and ‘cultures’.
    Of course, this assumption might *turn out* to be a good one in all sorts of
    contexts. But, as the Thinking Through Things book tries to show, this
    is a question that should be *asked a posteriori*, i.e. it should be treated as
    an ethnographic ‘mootness’, rather than treated as an analytical credo, built
    in, no less, to the terms by which the discipline (or the subdiscipline… who
    cares other than us at UCL?) is set up. And I do think that many of the
    articles in the book, including my own, show that on certain ethnographic
    occasions the distinction between materiality and culture distorts and
    One way of putting it, that I suspect you might appreciate, is in terms of the
    (okay, hackneyed but to me entirely compelling) story of the Fall. This was the
    kind of deistic idea I was hinting at in my introductory comments in the
    booklaunch in the British Museum, when I presented our line of argument as
    ‘magical realist’. What we are after in TTT could be described as a return to
    (analytical) innocence. This is of course a potentially blasphemous innocence,
    since it seeks to overcome the curse of the Fall, denying its very premise (as I
    explained). In fact, one could say that the nature of the Fall is precisely to
    be consigned to *accept its premise*, and then struggle for ever more to
    reconcile one’s self to it. That, as I understand it, is what ‘material
    culture’ and ‘social anthropology’ (as well as both the putative separation
    between them *and* their normative reunification) are doing: tragically
    accepting the premuise of the Fall, and, working within it, trying to overcome
    it. In contrast, my ontologising move presents the possibility of *not playing
    the game with God’s rules*, or rather, playing the game with *god-like* rules
    (viz. the rules of Eden, so to speak). The saving grace of this
    (apparent) blasphemy is that the only way to uncover those rules is by taking a
    position of radical humility. Which is to *refuse* to accept the
    starting point that most defines *us*, which is the distnction the Fall
    itroduced, and rather transform the ‘us’ in light of the Other – which in
    anthropology is of course the Informant, by analogy to, well, God.
    Leaving this stuff aside (and I know I risk being called pretentious for writing
    it, but there you go…) I want to end by addressing your spot-on point about
    how my paper shows that ironically my repudiation of ‘materal culture’ pushes
    me further away from soc anth than material culture studies in its now
    conciliatory stance wants to be. Well, you are right! As I already hinted,
    the very idea of ‘anthropology’ is as prejudiced as that of material culture.
    As I like to say to students, who’s this ‘anthropos’ guy anyway? If you ask
    our more ‘tribal’ informants, they will say (or would have said at the
    time of (non-)’contact’) that they’d never met him… ‘Anthropos’, in fact, –
    they’d say – is not someone you can meet at all, since anthropos is *them*, qua
    *us* (i.e. to ‘them’). The Other, in other words, is by definition not
    ‘anthropos’. Paradoxically, anthropology has built the non-possibility of the
    Other into its own premise, as the study of an inclusively construed ‘anthropos’
    – what they call ‘humanity’. Once that logical move is in place than all
    Otherness must appear in the form of ‘variation’ (variation on the abiding theme
    of ‘anthropos’ of course). But, as we try to show in the book, there is
    irreducibly more to Otherness than ‘variation’.
    In light of this critical position, I use the term anthropology only for
    folkloric/traditional reasons – as well as political/logistical ones of course.
    I’ve proposed a neologism for the kind of excercise I am pursuing, which is
    ‘ontography’. My book manuscript on Cban Divination and Anthropological truth,
    on which I’m still working, is about this, and about how ontography is
    ultimately a divinatory exercise – provided of course one eschews the
    anthropological tendency to assume that *divination* (rather than
    ‘anthropology’) is the more ‘folkloric’ term…
    As you so rightly detect in your review of TTT, an ontographic perspective has
    little to say about ‘people’ (leaving the question of ‘anthropos’ to one side
    here…). The great *cost* of this approach (and now I am speaking, well
    precisely, ‘personally’) is that it eschews human empathy and all the questions
    that it asks of us. And given what I know about *your* project as it had
    transmogrfied in your more recent writing, this puts us in diametrically
    opposite shores. This may seem like like a conversation stopper, but actually I
    think it is not. The fact that we are *so diametrically* opposed in the
    implications we draw from our projects makes me suspect that we are confonting
    *the same problem*, and it is that problem that guarantees the contact of our
    respective projects. My guess is that this problem pertains to the
    underpinnings of our concerns, which I articulate as the search for
    what I call ‘decency’. Crudely put, I think your decency leads you to
    *embrace* your informants, and that puts you on the spot when it comes to
    articulating the assumptions that might allow you to do so. Conversely,
    my concern for decency leads me to remain silent about my informants, bacause,
    as with God, I feel I cannot presume to say anything ‘about’ them.”

    Dr. Martin Holbraad
    Department of Anthropology
    University College London

  3. Martin
    Thanks for your comment on the review which is clearly in keeping with the depth of thought expressed by the book itself. Briefly, on your last point, I can only respect your perspective on the question of empathy, and agree with your representation of how it differs from my own.
    The first issue is more complex. You tend to assume that the term material culture must establish a distinction based on the material, while you want to establish a position of original innocence or purity. Actually, as you also recognise, my entry into material culture was also through a dialectical position which sought to refute dualism and in its own way start from an analogous sense of transcendence or purity.
    But now I would prefer the position I took in the introduction to the book materiality. I think most people who study material culture are looking to transcend such a distinction or separation whether a priori or a posteriori, whether myself yourself, Latour, Strathern or phenomenology. So there is no point in any of these accusing the other of latent dualism. But at the same time the colloquial world of everyday speech constantly affirms a dualist representation of the world with many terms for things and materials, and I think we have to respect that also. Otherwise we lose our power to even speak to others in a way that still communicates and can be understood and we also appear to repudiate the understandings of whole populations. The trick is to recognise the register of perception from philosophical transcendence to everyday dualism. But equally we must also recognise – which is one of your points – that it may be ordinary people of any land and colloquial world views – who see the world as philosophical transcendence, while academics and philosophers may choose to affirm dualisms and separations. Danny

  4. I just heard the presentation of some of Amanda’s arguments on this book, in Oslo, at a conference on Contemporary art and Anthropology and I cant wait until I get my hands on a copy.
    It sounds great, a great addition with valuable arguments for discussion on the topic of material culture and the way we “interpret” or “translate”, or not, objects

  5. Apologies to all the readers of the blog.
    Dr Amanda Ravetz who I met at the conference I mention above, gently pointed out to me that I had committed a gaffe by mixing up her name with the name of Dr. Amiria. While both Dr. Amanda Ravetz and Dr Amiria spoke at the conference, they discussed different subjects.
    In my comment above I was mentioning Dr Amiria and her comments on the book she mentioned in her presentation: “Thinking Through Things”.
    I hope I am on time to correct my gaffe!

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