Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Meeting #3 - Notes and Discussion

This meeting’s readings, which focused on the agency of objects and aesthetics, brought forth a number of important ontological and epistemological issues that need to be considered in understanding the study of materiality. Based on this meeting’s readings, it is apparent that while archaeologists are beginning to write more on the agency of objects, many take for granted the reasons for pursuing this particular line of inquiry. This brings about the need to explicitly address the following questions:

1) What is the goal of studying the agency of objects?
2) Why should we study materiality?

The goal of studying materiality and the agency of objects (which is a core concept in the study of materiality) is to come to some sort of understanding of the social lives of human beings. This perspective begins with the assumption that sociality arises out of the mutually constitutive entanglements between humans and the material world (materiality). The processes of materiality are the foundation for the social lives of human beings, and therefore their study is essential if we desire any sort of understanding of human sociality.

Within the study of materiality, there are a number of ontological and epistemological considerations that need to be taken into account.

Ontological Considerations

What seems to be often at issue in the study of materiality is the ontological status and relationship between people and the material world. Should we be thinking about people and things as separate entities or as hybrids/socio-technical assemblages which cannot be separated? In addition, the specific nature of the relationship between people and things is in question and is often a major point of disagreement. (NOTE: it should be pointed out that the ontological status of people and things and the nature of the relationship between the two can be approached both emically and/or etically)

One perspective on the relationship between people and things, emphasizes the dialectical nature of this relationship (see e.g. Gell 1992; 1998). People and things are mutually constitutive, as people act on things and things act back to affect people. People are given priority in this relationship (which is an asymmetrical relationship, as seen in Gell’s primary and secondary agents) and are thus thought to be ontologically separate from things. This is a cognitivist perspective that separates mind from matter, where actions are conceived of first in the mind and then carried out in the world.

An alternative perspective proposes that the relationship between people and things can be understood as socio-technical assemblages, networks of people and things that are inextricably connected. Within these networks, people and things come together in mutually transformative/constitutive relationships, changing the nature of both people and things through the formation of hybrids (e.g. Latour’s example of a person with a gun). In this way, things and people cannot be considered to be ontologically distinct entities, as the very nature of their being is dependent on their mutual connection. From this perspective people and things are given equal weight in the constitution of social life (i.e. the relationship is symmetrical). These assemblages/networks arise out of the engagement of people and things within the course of skilled practice and lived experience (see Ingold 2000).

Another metaphor for this relationship that we discussed was that of the weaving together of threads to form a piece of clothing. The threads come together to create something different and as a whole the threads take on new meaning as part of the piece of clothing. They are inextricably linked to other threads and to remove any of the threads involves changing the nature of the individual thread that is removed and the piece of clothing as a whole. People and the material world can also be conceived of as being weaved together through skilled practice and lived experience to create social life/society. To pull them apart is to pull apart the very fabric of human sociality.

Archaeologists have the difficult task in most circumstances of having to reconstruct the whole of social life with only half of the remaining strands (the things we recover). The archaeological record therefore forces upon us an analytical separation between people and things that we may or may not accept as representative of their status or relationship in the lived contexts of the past or present.

A related additional ontological consideration concerns the nature of agency. More precisely, where is it that agency resides? Is it possessed by people? By objects? Both? Or neither?

The dialectical perspective on the relationship between people and things often emphasizes the agency of both people and things (even if the agency that both possess are seen to vary been people and things-again, Gell’s distinction between primary and secondary agency). Within a network perspective, agency in not possessed by either people or things, but rather can be thought to arise out of and is distributed across networks of people and things. It emerges out of the engagement between people and things in the course of skilled practice and lived experience within in a particular environmental and temporal setting (the environmental and temporal setting enables and constrains the flow of action, but does not determine it) (another way of thinking about this is in terms of the creation of “fields of action”, see Robb 2004).

Epistemological Considerations

Following from the ontological considerations, there are a number of epistemological considerations that should be taken into account in the study of materiality. How do we study materiality? How can we get at the nature of the relationship between people and things? Instead of offering detailed answers to these difficult questions, I only offer some things to consider as an entry point into the study of materiality.

To begin with, materiality must be understood to be historically contingent. While I would argue that the processes of materiality in the most general sense (i.e. that people and the material world affect, and mutually constitute each other and that this relationship is the foundation of human sociality) is a universal aspect of human existence, the precise nature of the relationship between people and the material world will play out differently in different socio-historical contexts. Furthermore, those aspects of the material world which are significant for understanding the processes of materiality will differ with context as people do not engage with all aspects of the material world, and the material world affects people differentially.

Recognizing the historically contingent nature of materiality brings about the necessity of identifying those aspects of the material world with which people engaged, and the potential effects that people and the material world had on each other.

Identifying the aspects of the material world with which people engaged obviously includes recognizing all forms of material culture and modified landscapes. While in most cases this is simple enough, it is important to take into consideration those aspects of the material world that may have been significant but where there is little evidence (or where the evidence is not obvious to us for whatever the reason) for their engagement with people.

Identifying and understanding the effects that people have had on the material world has been widely discussed within archaeology. This has involved the study of the technology, production, and consumption of material objects as well as the modification of landscapes. There has been less study of the effects that the material world has had on people (at least from a non-functionalist/adaptationalist perspective), although archaeologists have been increasingly interested in addressing this issue in recent years. This has come in the form of the study of the social aspects of technology, the biography of objects (both of which we will discuss later this week), the impact of the build environment and landscapes, and aesthetics (which we discussed in the last meeting).

The study of aesthetics provides a useful entry point for trying to understand the potential effects that the material world had on people. It is through the senses that people engage the material world, so to come to some sort of understanding of how and in what ways particular aspects of the material world impacted people’s sensory experience is important for addressing their effects.

However, to try to study the effects that the material world had on people is not enough, and both the study of the senses and these effects requires a consideration of knowledge, belief, and meaning (this is in contrast to the perspective proposed by Gell). The senses are mediated through cultural understanding, belief, and knowledge, and the ways in which people act towards/act with and react to the material world can be thought to be culturally specific skills that are developed through embodied social practice and experience. We learn how to live and act within the material world. We are born into and socialized within pre-existing worlds of knowledge, understanding, and tradition which shape our engagement with the material world. This is why the specific processes of materiality are historically contingent (for more on this perspective see Robb 2004).


Blogger SMH said...

Gracias for all the posts, hombre.

re: the goal of studying materiality
I think this is a great articulation of the sociological understanding of the meaningfulness of materiality, but ecologists (and other disciplines) could equally argue for the importance of materiality's impact on the material world (in this case environmental degradation, the transformation of ecologies, the 'social lives of trees'...) for its own sake. This is the area that seems to most overlap with experimental archaeology, through exploration of the various physical, chemical, and biological attributes of things (potential) when subjected to processes (kinetic). So should studies of materiality (in general) also fully encompass the other, "thing" side of the equation? Or should that be left to the engineers/biologists/chemists? And, is it our responsibility as anthropologists to study the social lives of things for their own sake? (again, in the spirit of ecological impact, etc., or maybe just in the formation process "N-transform" sense) In other words, is it important to explore the social lives of things as much for their own sake as to come to understandings of materiality and sociality?

re: ontological considerations
Although it is a particular problem in archaeology, I don't know that archaeologists are unique in the necessity of addressing objects as separate entities. I would argue that whatever the actuality (Cartesian dualism or sociotechnological network), we may have to rely on the heuristic of a dialectical relationship, if for no other reason than we have to start somewhere. That is, it's hard to talk about a "relationship" (materiality) if there is only a single entity involved. Either way, whether talking about the relationality of multiple entities or component parts of a single entity, we lose our topic if we decide there is no topic. (I think this is in part why Freud remains sociologically hot even though neurophysiologically his ideas are a bit stale.) The metaphor of fabric works very well in this regard, especially since issues of symmetry/asymmetry can then hinge on perspective (/the goals of the researcher) and which thread/s you want to follow to pursue a particular line of reasoning, rather than an absolute condition of the text/context.

re: what is agency and where does it live
I think this is similar to physical problems of (again) kinetic vs.(?) potential energy-- are these actual or simply heuristic concepts? And if they can be categorically separated, where do we draw the line between them? That is, if kinetic energy is not possible without potential energy and vice versa, is agency "possessed" by anything (potential) or is it only evident when actualized (kinetic)? And if they are discrete, should we focus on one more than the other? (If the nonhuman agent falls in the woods...)

re: epistemogical considerations
The point about historical contingency and the "invisible" things of the past is well put, as is the point about the importance of various sensory experiences. (another problem that plagues paleoethnobotanists and economic botanists-- discussions of plant domestication that hinge on the idea that humans are always "struggling to survive" and thus any selection of specific attributes in plants has only to do with maximizing calories and minimizing risks (drought, insects, etc.) instead of the selection of attributes based on color, hallucinogenic properties, flavor, etc.)

8:56 AM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks again for posting Shanti.

Re: the goal of studying materiality
I think it all depends on how you are defining materiality and how you envision the relationship between people and the material world. I think that we definitely must consider the impacts that people and the material world have on each other (hence the emphasis on mutual constitution). If we are talking about the mutual engagement between people and things then we have to explore both sides of the equation. This is more about balancing the equation. The emphasis on (this particular way of thinking about) materiality has arisen, in part, from an imbalance with too much emphasis being placed on either people or things. Anthropologists have often ignored the significance of things in their work. The material sciences and material culture studies have often ignored the significance of people and focus too much on the materials or the things that they study. So I think a balanced perspective is required.

But as anthropologists and archaeologists our goal is to come to an understanding of people. From the perspective of materiality, this requires a consideration of things, because people and things are inextricably bound up together. So to understand people we need to understand their relationship to things (or more broadly speaking, the material world). I don’t think we would want to just focus on things, the properties of materials, or thing-thing relationships, to the exclusion of people however (which those in the material sciences and material culture studies have been criticized of doing). Andrew Jones (2002, 2004) has developed a more object centered approach that emphasizes the biography of objects and the connections between materiality and material science. But the ultimate goal of his work is still an understanding of people (in his case he is primarily concerned with social identity).

I recognize that by emphasizing the ultimate goal of understanding people, I am creating an imbalance between people and things (which seems contradictory to what I said just above). But there is a difference between striking a balance in our conceptualizations of people-thing relations and the specific nature of our research goals as anthropologists. I guess we could have as our ultimate goal an understanding of things in our study of thing-people relations, but it seems to me that this would move us away from anthropology (granted this is based on my particular ideas about what I think anthropology is or should be about and recognize that others may have other ideas about what the goals of anthropology are or should be). While we could emphasize or give priority to the “thing” aspect of this relationship, anthropologically I am not sure why we would want to do this if it didn’t lead us back to our concern with understanding people.

re: ontological considerations
I agree that archaeologists are not at all unique in addressing objects as separate entities. I think that most of the sciences actually do this and some would argue that this is a product of modernist thinking. I don’t think we have to think dialectically to discuss the mutually influential connection between people and things. The notion of networks is an attempt (at least in my opinion) to move away from dialectical thinking (which is too simplistic). But for me the concept of networks still feels a little abstract. This is why I started thinking more about threads, weaves, and fabric (the real inspiration for this line of thinking came from Ingold’s work). But all these spatial ways of thinking about relationships are still a little flat and static. They leave out time, movement, shifting contexts, and the dynamic qualities of these relationships. Still something I’m trying to think through.

Re: agency and where it resides

Yes this is very tricky and takes us into deeply philosophical areas. This is one of those ontological issues that we will never really know but that we need to assert a perspective because many of our ideas are built upon our initial assumptions. Honestly, I have actually grown tired of the concept of agency and all of its different forms (primary, secondary, effective, conscious, human, material, polyagency). Really with all of these concepts we just want to understand what people do/did, how and why they do/did it, what factors influence (allow or inhibit) what they do/did, and how this affects other people (in terms of their actions and life experiences), larger groups (families, communities, societies), and the material world over the course of time. More than anything, agency is more about how we are conceptualizing/modeling/thinking about what people do/did, why they do/did it, and the effects of their actions.

I am of the opinion that agency is only a heuristic device that helps us conceptualize the factors involved in social life and social dynamics. But much talk of agency seems to present it as if it were an actual thing that people or objects have or possess (probably because it is a noun). It is not something that objects or people have. Furthermore, it is not something that we can see or find. Yes, archaeologically we can see the evidence for the choices that people make and the results of their actions. But agency is about “doing.” It arises out of the dynamic relationships/engagements between people and the material world within particular social, cultural, temporal and spatial contexts. It is within these contexts that people and objects “do” things, that is take action or have effects. But it seems to me that agency comes with so much baggage and confusion that I am not sure if it is worth the effort to develop it. I think this is why I am more focused and interested in the concept of materiality than agency (not that they are entirely disconnected). At least in my mind it might be a way to talk about human action and what people do/did without all the baggage of the concept of agency. But I am not sure as of yet. I’ll have to think about it some more.

5:45 PM  

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