Monday, January 25, 2016

Material Culture Theory: Process

           True to the past two week’s readings that the study of material culture lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach, this week offers five different perspectives on material culture and provide examples of how this can be done.

            What seems to run as the common thread among these theoretical underpinnings is the cyclical process of material culture studies. The process of understanding the past through the study of objects, as evidenced by E. McClung Fleming and Jules David Prown’s works, is an attempt to impose some kind of order on the chaos that is the past. Prown defines material culture as “the study through artifacts of the beliefs – values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or society of a given time.”[1] Both Fleming and Prown identify specific steps to analyze objects to get at these beliefs. Fleming shows how identification, evaluation, cultural analysis, and interpretation serve as an order of operations to organize objects into piecemeal windows into the past. Prown offers a similar process, but explicitly states that material culture methodology should be followed in a specific sequence.[2] It doesn’t appear too dissimilar from a scientific method of looking at our historical specimens.

            To me, Fleming and Prown’s processes positioned objects in a space of mediation between creator and/or perceiver and the scholar. As a starting point, a historical subject may have expressed implicit and explicit cultural beliefs to create or justify owning a particular object with a specific visual and identifiable structure and elements. However, a scholar starts backwards by looking at the structure, style, etc. to reach the end point in the study that hopefully identifies those cultural values that created that object in the first place.

            This kind of fluid process and identification is also discussed by Tim Ingold in his quest to champion understanding the building blocks of objects: materials. Ingold argues that talking about an abstract materiality obscures and creates a huge distance between the physical materials we should really be discussing. What was most interesting to me about Ingold was that he presented materials as part of a fluid process of exchange rather than a static existence of objects. Materials are a part of a system that are transformed into an object, just as all humans, animals, materials, and all matter participate in a breathing life cycle.

            Material is also key to English potter Edmund de Waal, profiled by New York Times contributor Sam Anderson. De Waal reminds us that it’s not enough to just look at his finished products, but to take a step back to look at the porcelain that makes his art possible. Porcelain and all other materials are the foundation for the stuff we have. If we don’t look at it and try to understand it in all of its parts, why does the object even matter?

            Which brings me to the most puzzling question I’ve been thinking about since last week’s class. When do objects matter? Carolyn Kitch addresses this in her look at different media such as magazine covers, postcards, and her father’s possessions from his military service during World War II. Kitch asks her students to think about what stuff of theirs might be left behind one day for historians to find. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich also looks at what’s been left behind of furniture to teach us something about what these furnishing say about gender relations in colonial New England. It comes back to the idea of cycle. Objects have a life cycle – they are created, are used, and then they sometimes become obsolete, anachronistic, irrelevant, etc. What I wonder is: when do they become relevant to the historian for study? It is this dormant phase of the cycle between when the object is out of use and when it becomes useful for study that interests me the most. I hope to explore this more as I study my own object.

                [1] Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 1.  

                [2] Ibid., 7.   

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