Is all material culture sentimental – with value based on subjective feelings and perspectives surrounding particular historical events or contexts? From production to consumption, everyday items don’t typically find themselves preserved, exhibited, or interpreted based on utility alone. As Karin Dannehl demonstrates in “Object Biographies: From Production to Consumption,” in History and Material Culture: A Students Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (edited by Karen Harvey), their stories are mostly unknowable, with ambiguous starts and ends.
Still, this absence doesn’t prevent us from historicizing material culture’s worth, and the ideas that created it. Take, for example, a giant pumpkin – its girth only matched by the bulk of its significance, as Cindy Ott explains in “Object Analysis of the Giant Pumpkin.” Since colonization, the pumpkin has symbolized Europeans' romanticization of American land – its “untamed” state and abundance. From Renaissance art to mid-twentieth-century television specials, the pumpkin has taken on various forms and meanings.
"Gretchen Mol in The Notorious Bettie Page, 2005" GIPHY.
Accessed April 7, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/QmKEe9jP9zNBLBrRJz.
What is a “fetish?” Traditionally speaking, it’s a material object with spiritual power. The word comes from the Portuguese feitiço for “charm” and Latin facere, “to make” – attributed to sailors in the 1600s who dismissed the worldviews of the West African peoples with whom they traded. Nowadays, however, “fetish” has a sexual connotation – thanks to English sexologist Havelock Ellis. By 1901, “certain perversions of the sexual instinct, the person, part of the body, or particular object belonging to the person by whom the impulse is excited” were considered a fetish.
But let’s return to the original definition. As Peter Stallybrass discusses in his essay “Marx’s Coat” in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (edited by Patricia Spyer), Europeans had a tendency to essentialize the commodities in which they traded. Believing something like gold had inherent worth, they naively exchanged things like beads in an effort to “dupe” people from other cultures into accepting “lesser” goods (186). They couldn’t conceive of a world in which an object’s value proceeded from the people producing and consuming it – they didn’t understand that all value is inherently subjective, especially when it comes to material culture.
What does it mean to exhibit material culture? What often comes to my mind is an object stuck behind a glass case or up on a wall in a cold and uninviting space, with only a small block of text offering a singular, linear account of its story. Where did this framework for history-making come from and what purpose does it serve?
Let’s consider Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s chapter “Objects of Ethnography” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (edited by Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine). In it, the author defines an object in situ as “a part that stands in contiguous relation to an absent whole that may or may not be recreated” (388). The act of exhibition is often one of erecting artificial context around de-contextualized material. As such, one finds that museums, galleries and similar sites are simultaneously performative and voyeuristic – a space wherein a thing (or person) may be positioned, watched, known and classified in an intangible stream of consciousness curated by interpreters and fit into historical and aesthetical systems.
"Feudal China Animation by Yang Hua Chun" GIPHY. Accessed March 6, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/ancient-beijing-m3SgylPA0MAlq.
Let’s return to a previous post. I attempted to define “clothes,” “clothing,” “style,” “fashion,” and “costume” – differentiating between seemingly synonymous subjects for the sake of historical (or anthropological) study. Using the Oxford Dictionary and Daniel Miller’s chapter “Why Clothing is Not Superficial” in Stuff, I settled on the following:
Clothes: items worn to cover the body
Clothing: clothes collectively
Style: the wearing of clothing, hair, and accessories in a manner unique to an individual body.
Fashion: a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, accessories, or behavior; the collective following of a trend; the production and marketing of said styles and trends.
Costume: a set of clothes in a style typical of or popular in a particular country or historical period.
While Miller, an anthropologist, concerns himself with the study of clothing – its popularity and how it is worn or used – historians lay claim to the study of costume – drawn to the term for its use of periodization, then versus now. In my previous post, I argued that historians tend to study fashion. Working with extant primary sources (often what was sent to archives by wealthy donors), they focus on clothing that was popular or, rather, well-documented – typical of a small and privileged demographic (such as white, upper-class women) – rather than what was commonly worn in a certain context.
Today, I’m adding to this argument. First, one must recognize the connotations of words like “popular” (relating to the majority of a particular demographic), “latest” (new), “trending” (popular at the moment), and “typical” (commonplace, habitual, customary, or ordinary). The relationship between time and place are ever present – difficult to communicate through inexact terminology.
The design and arrangement of material culture within a given environment aids in modifying one’s sense of space and time. In turn, space and time may convey an intersection of identity politics – such as race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. For example, Angel Kwolek-Folland describes the rise of scientific management in offices and factories in “The Gendered Environment of the Corporate Workplace, 1880-1930” in The Material Culture of Gender: The Gender of Material Culture, edited by Katharine Martinez and Kenneth L. Ames. In the interest of reinforcing a sense of “hierarchy” (or, a classification of those above and below) and “efficiency” (or, what is considered a productive use of time), the layout of “fixtures … desks, chairs, cabinets, and water coolers” were altered to modify behavior and “facilitate particular interactions” (161). As such, the subjective value with which bodies and labor are imbued – the influence of capitalism on lived experience – is evinced in material culture.