Saturday, February 11, 2006

Meeting #1-Notes and Discussion

Here are some notes on our discussion and some random thoughts that I had on the readings…

Definitions of Material Culture and Materiality

In our meeting we discussed the importance of defining key concepts and terms. Our definitions stem from our theoretical perspectives, and they frame the way we think about and analyze phenomena in the world. For us to be critical of our assumptions, perspectives and ideas, we need to be explicit about the meanings of the terms and concepts that we use. With this in mind, I offer some (rough/in progress) definitions of materiality and material culture (these are in no way meant to be universal definitions).

Material Culture: those non-human entities (actors?) that are (or have been) involved in the processes of materiality.

Materiality: 1) the relationship between people and the material world (general definition); 2) the mutually constitutive relationship between people and the material world (specific definition).

These definitions are based on a particular vision of materiality that attempts to breakdown subject/object dichotomies and recognizes the entangled nature of the relationship between people and the material world. In doing so, this way of thinking about materiality emphasizes the active role of material culture in the constitution of social relations, practices, and human experience. Materials become cultural through their engagement with people (i.e. the processes of materiality). Both people and the material world are transformed through this mutual engagement (the transformation of the material world need not be thought of just in terms of its physical transformation-e.g. I would include here aspects of the landscape that are deemed meaningful through interacting with humans, but which have not been physically modified in any way). The processes of materiality are not universal, rather their specific nature varies according to social and historical context. Likewise, what constitutes material culture will vary, since the non-human entities involved in the processes of materiality will vary.

Dimensionality of Material Culture

We also discussed the notion of the multi-dimensional nature of material culture that was brought up in the essays by Buchli (2004) and Tilley (2001). Multi-dimensionality refers to the sensuous (or more precisely multi-sensorial) and polysemous qualities of material culture. I find this way of thinking about material culture useful, not only because I think that it accurately characterizes the various ways in which material culture can be experienced and understood, but also because it allows archaeologists to develop new ways of conceptualizing and analyzing material culture.

Buchli (2004: 179) points out that our own appropriation of material culture from the past is destructive and wasteful (in ways other than the usual understanding of excavation as a form of destruction). We emphasize certain ways of experiencing objects and ignore other potentialities (e.g. as in museums). In this process, we lose an understanding of the engagement between people and the material world in the past and think about objects from the perspective of present day material relationships (this is an example of our own materiality coming into conflict with past materialities). Archaeology’s emphasis on empirical observation (due, in part, to its desire to be scientific), has led to a focus on the visual aspects of material culture to the exclusion of other possibilities. But there is no reason to assume that the visual qualities of material objects were given priority over other aspects (i.e. dimensions) of these objects in the past. Their texture, smell, or the sounds that they make may also have been significant aspects of how they were experienced in the past (i.e. of past materialities).

One of our goals as archaeologists should be to (re)construct these past materialities through the analysis of material culture (see Meskell 2004 who makes this same argument). The problem then becomes how we do this, for which there is no simple answer (I hope we will spend some time throughout the semester addressing this issue). While we may not be able to understand all of the various ways in which objects in the past would have been experienced (a point that Kat made) (and they may have been experienced quite differently by people within the same historical/social/cultural context), by recognizing that there are numerous ways in which objects from the past could have been experienced (and by considering what some of these may have been), we reduce the effects of imposing our present day understandings of materiality onto the past (which results in ignoring significant aspects of past materialities and experiences of material culture).


One final area that I would like to comment on is the notion of ‘immateriality’ that both Buchli (2004) and Miller (2005) brought up in their essays. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this or how to understand it (especially since I really didn’t like Buchli’s example), but after some contemplation, I see how it might be useful. This notion of immateriality relates to situations where it makes sense or where it could be helpful to discuss why certain material relations or forms of material culture are not present (or disappear). For example, anthropomorphic figurines (which are the topic of my dissertation) are found throughout southeastern Europe during the Neolithic and the Copper Age. But they are very rarely found (if at all) in central or northern Europe during this time period. Why? Why were they so important in the Balkans, and yet never a significant aspect of the societies in central and northern Europe? In addition, anthropomorphic figurines disappear, for the most part, after the Copper Age in southeastern Europe. Why? And, in what other ways did these societies change at this time (that is, what are some of the potential effects of the disappearance of anthropomorphic figurines?)? While answers to these questions have not been forthcoming, answering these questions can play an important role in understanding the significance of Neolithic figurines and the potential effects these figurines would have had on the lives of people within these societies.


Blogger SMH said...

re: the myriad materialities of the past and how we approach them

Is this just a question of producing the largest possible range of potentially analogous scenarios, through ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and archaeological documentation? And then is it more worthwhile to present these potential analogies as a cluster, or should their validity be systematically tested? Or is there another way of approaching past materialities, rather than through these types of analogy? That is, are there other ways of rethinking the multiple possible relationships between agents, aside from just reproducing recorded understandings or sitting around and dreaming new ones up?

This is something I am butting my head against, because I recover a bleepload of seeds only ever classified in the literature as 'weeds', (maybe just used for fuel, or incorporated into the archaeological record through natural processes), and I am feeling doomed by the thought of sitting down and staring at a plant for hours on end, trying to come up with 'new' possible uses, each of which would entail a whole suite of experimental approaches that I don't have the time or money to pursue.... And then, maybe I would discover a splendid new dye or medicine, but if no one in the past ever distilled these products from a particular plant, producing the null hypothesis through archaeological testing would also be sacks of time and money. Which isn't to say that the only valid approach is hypothesis testing, but by the same token I cringe to think of introducing (rather than, at least, inferring) data related to material remains without some kind of critical review. (the problem I have always had with the creative passages in What This Awl Means )

And then there's that nagging issue of immateriality... yeah, I agree that it's worthwhile to approach all those sorts of questions that have no ready answers (and may never have them), but then this is the place where we have real potential to drift into just-so territory. Again, is this a question of presenting the full range of possibility, or narrowing it to the few most probable?

I want answers, John, and I want them now.

7:41 AM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks Shanti for replying to this post. The way that I have been thinking about materiality is to begin with the recognition that it needs to be understood within particular socio-historical contexts. While some very general statements can be made about the processes of materiality (e.g. that it involves the mutually constitutive relationship between people and things-which is only one specific way of thinking about materiality among many), the specific ways in which people and things engage and mutually influence each other will be historically contingent. Actually, it is really only the historically specific instances of the processes of materiality that are meaningful for its understanding.

I do think that we need to keep in mind the possible scenarios, so that we don’t ignore something that we are not normally accustomed to looking for. So it begins with thinking through what we know (or think we know) based on ethnography and archaeology, but also being open to new possibilities (but even these are based on some aspect of previous experiences we have had). I think ethnography is extremely important and is where we should begin. To me it just seems to make the most sense to begin with what we know people do and think. While the situations we are studying will definitely be different, ethnography provides us with an entry point and presents us with what we know is possible based on what we know people do/did. Honestly, I don’t know of any other way to begin. I don’t think this will lend itself to having to deal with an endless array of scenarios, as we do know something about the context we are dealing with and this should limit the possibilities.

I am not sure I understand what you are saying by clustering the analogies and I certainly don’t think we can systematically test these scenarios. It is just a matter of what scenarios are most plausible given our data. I think that we can avoid “just so” stories by grounding our interpretations in detailed contextual data (multiple independent lines of evidence) that were recovered by sound methodological approaches (but I guess all archaeologists would say this, so I am not sure this gets us very far).

I like that you introduced seeds and plants because I wasn’t actually thinking about them in terms of materiality (I wasn’t excluding them either-but just not thinking about them), but they are a very interesting and significant part of the material world that people engage with (and have a strong impact on all the senses). What information can you get from ethnographic research from your region or elsewhere that speaks to what you are finding? How are these plants being used today either by people in your region or elsewhere (if they are found elsewhere)? What are the archaeological contexts of these seeds/plants? What qualities do these plants possess that might make people want to collect/grow/use them?

I think that what first must be established is that: 1) people engaged with/used these plants, and 2) that the plants can be identified to the degree necessary to link them to ethnographic uses or for you to investigate other possibilities based on what is known about the plant.

I am really interested in what you are dealing with and I want to know more. Please tell me more about your research questions and the directions you have gone in (and the dead ends that you have faced).

I agree that immateriality could be a breeding ground for just so stories. But I think that it is not so much the things we address or the questions that we ask that lend themselves to just so stories, but rather the way we go about providing interpretations and answers. I am still on the fence about whether I think immateriality is something that someone could address as a primary aspect of their research (although there are people who have done this) without it being kind of superficial. But, at least with my own research on figurines, it is something that I should deal with and address (but not focus on). An idea of how these figurines may have been used can come from explaining their disappearance.

In answering your final question, I think that we should always begin with the full range of possibilities (within reason of course), but our goal should be to narrow it down to those interpretations that are most plausible based on our data.

5:50 PM  

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