Why are textual sources (particularly written documents like ledgers, correspondence and diaries) treated more favorably than objects, film, photography, literature and even (soon enough) digital files as traditional historians craft their narratives? The gaps and silences of the archive (not to mention the biases and falsehoods) are contained within all materials – past, present and future. In other words, nothing is guaranteed to be “correct” or “factual.” All sources can lie. In turn, how do we know what we know? Historians in particular should be more self-reflexive.
We consistently take one source as true over another, or over nothing else (absent any other information) – if several sources testify to one story, and a single source claims another, etc. Historians dabble in games of probability – the likelihood an event or exchange could have happened, an idea or emotion could have been provoked, and so on. If we weren’t there, if we didn’t experience these things firsthand, who are we to fabricate what took place? Even then, memory is alterable and unreliable. But this is the hubris of historians. Reiterating Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s concepts of historicity 1 and 2 – what happened and what is said to have happened – we are consistently balancing what can never be known and what might be known, respectively.
"Bra Burning Feminist from Daria" GIPHY. Accessed January 19, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/miss-america-hdOaZWIfFCxgs.
When studying material culture, how do we parse materialism and consumerism? Take, for instance, Daniel Miller’s chapter “Why Clothing is Not Superficial” in Stuff, which warns against the biases of western scholars who study material culture. Miller bandies about several buzzwords in the space of one paragraph without taking the time to define them for his reader – “material culture,” “materialism,” “materialistic,” “consumer society” and “modern mass consumption” (22). However, what one might gather from this cluster of terminology is that while materialism holds that “people are constituted by things and appearances” (22), consumerism includes the capitalistic underpinnings of such a philosophy (or, the production and consumption of said materials within a capitalist system). Therefore, words like “materialistic” have taken on connotations of superficiality because of a narrow, western economic perspective. As such, we find that the white anthropological gaze may romanticize and celebrate the labor and handicrafts of other cultures, yet condescendingly critique the value placed on specific material goods like clothing (15). These scholars fail to identify the role that stuff plays in our everyday lives – the interplay of aesthetics and physicality, spirituality and social politics – beyond production and consumption.