"Charlie Chaplin Hat Trick" GIPHY. Accessed February 2, 2019.
Clothing and other sorts of adornment are tangible representations of embodiment – what Jules David Prown deems a “partnership of function and style” in his article “Mind in Matter” (13). An object that is worn is used and experienced more personally or intimately than other forms of material culture. Beyond what Prown highlights as a manifestation of personal identity through adornment is utility – how and why the object is used while modifying some portion of the body in a certain way (to cover, reveal, constrict, extend, burden, relieve, soothe, discomfort, protect, endanger, strengthen, weaken, warm, cool, darken, lighten, etc.).
Prown encourages scholars of material culture to first consider an object’s value – inherent in the materials themselves and their (re)use, demonstrated by its usefulness, and imbued by the transitory sentiments of those who possess it based on emotions, aesthetics, spirituality, or interpersonal symbolism (3). An object accrues more meaning for scholars if it “witnessed” or “survived” historical events or is considered “representative” of a specific culture or community (3-4). In order to analyze this confluence of elements, Prown suggests the following methodology:
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.
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.
Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (alternatively subtitled A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World) charts the political and intellectual origins of a postcolonial, multinational movement in the postwar era. As the author opens his introduction – “The Third World was not a place. It was a project" (xv). Zooming in and out on myriad contexts, the book reads like a collection of loosely-connected microhistories retold through a macrohistorical lens. Prashad hones in on prominent thought leaders, events, and initiatives that he deems crucial to the rise and demise of the so-called Third World project. Through eighteen chapters titled for various epicenters of revolution (e.g., Cairo, Havana, Algiers, and New Delhi), The Darker Nations offers readers a biography – or, rather, biographies – of an overarching concept articulated by W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1900 closing address at the first Pan African Convention, “To the Nations of the World” – “There has been assembled a congress of men and women of African blood, to deliberate solemnly upon the present situation and outlook of the darker races of mankind … millions of black men in Africa, America and the Islands of the Sea, not to speak of the brown and yellow myriads elsewhere" (23).
"Wifredo Lam, The Jungle (La Jungla), 1943." The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed November 6, 2018. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/34666.
"UN International Nursery School, 1950." United Nations. Accessed October 23, 2018. http://www.un.org/en/sections/universal-declaration/index.html.
In The Last Utopia, professor of law and history Samuel Moyn offers fellow academics both an intellectual and political history of human rights. He complicates the origins of the concept, commonly conceived of as a postwar phenomenon with a confluence of ancient Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, and secular Enlightenment influences. Simultaneously, he traces its subsequent inscription in the popular consciousness as a universal ideal – a triumphalist, teleological narrative that characterized “human rights” as innate, obvious and inevitable. Ultimately, Moyn argues modern notions of inalienable, individual entitlements that transcend geography and affiliation only manifested in the 1970s.
Moyn deals in the definitions, itemizations, and changing contexts that shaped the invention of human rights. Drawing on both past and presents works in English, French, and German, he uncovers a palimpsest of constructed meaning. These close readings of published works yield a critical historiography that identifies flaws in the telling and retelling of international history. Therefore, The Last Utopia is neither a history of human rights nor an argument for what the concept entails. Rather, the book explores why the concept was invented and redefined over time, in tandem with well-known historical events and watershed moments. It serves as a genealogy, revealing the intentions and insecurities of western nation-states in the twentieth-century, situating human rights within a broader international scheme.