This week’s readings ask us, once again (and perhaps more explicitly this time), to reconsider how we view the relationship between ourselves and things. British anthropologist Daniel Miller cautions at the end of his aptly titled book Stuff that “denigrating material things, and pushing them down, is one of the main ways we raise ourselves up onto apparent pedestals. From this height we make claims to a spirituality entirely divorced from our own materiality and the materiality of the world we live within” (156). We are challenged to discard the notion that objects are superficial and reinsert ourselves into a world filled with objects that we make and that make us.
Miller starts off this conversation in Stuff and walks us through his unconventional approach to material culture. His aim is not to define or create convention for material culture studies, but to show us that variations exist in how we interact with the things around us. My favorite chapter in Stuff that drives this point home is his case studies on clothes in Trinidad, India, and London. Miller shows us that clothes don’t just say something about who we are, but sometimes they become a part of us. For example, Miller discusses the sari in India and how it almost serves as an extension of the women who wear them. By examining this, “we can see that there are a multitude of different expectations and experiences that are a direct result of wearing a particular item of clothing” (31).
Miller also challenges us to think about universalism and particularity as not in opposition, but that we should think about how and where these ideas might exist in one another. Igor Kopytoff eschews the polarization of another dichotomy, people and things, in “The cultural biography of things.” Kopytoff argues that objects, like people, also have biographies that are informed by various contexts – economic and cultural, and I might even add racial, gender, social, etc. Seth Bruggeman employs this perspective in his cultural economic biography of the Shenandoah River gundalow and how it helped drive Shenandoah Valley’s economy during the nineteenth century. This biography is intriguing because it looks not just into the gundalow’s original use, but also looks at its reuse later on. I was interested to read this because it made it clear that stuff has a life that extends past its original intent. It adapts and is adapted to new cultural constructs all the time.
Kopytoff’s perspective isn’t just useful in Bruggeman’s study, but it’s also helpful for my project, as so far as his idea that conflicting identities are inherent in objects. He writes that the “drama here lies in the uncertainties of valuation and of identity.” For example, the prison in which my bicentennial license plate was made has a long history that stands in direct opposition to the symbolism of freedom that my plate intends to portray. Koptyoff helps me to articulate some of the struggles I’ve had characterizing its conflicting meanings.
Finally, Peter Stallybrass' essay “Marx’s Coat” looks at how Karl Marx used his coat to help make his argument that capitalism is driven by the exploitation of labor. By giving some sort of agency to the coat, says Stallybrass, we see that the coat serves as Marx’s access point to a privileged setting like the British Museum. The coat as the driving force of this narrative reminds me of our first readings for this class in Turkle’s book. Placing objects as the center of our narratives, rather than peripheral to them, shows just how much we need our stuff. We can’t take our stuff, just like we can’t take ourselves, out of the culture we were born into or have chosen to occupy.