Daniel Miller, ed. Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter. U. of Chicago, 1998

4/20/98
Tracy Luedke (tluedke@indiana.edu)

In the introduction to Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, Daniel Miller describes the book as part of the second stage of the development of material culture studies. The first stage was the recognition by writers such as Appadurai and Bourdieu as well as Miller that material culture is important and worthy of study. The second stage is the argument made in this book: that it is crucial to focus on "the diversity of material worlds" without reducing these material worlds to symbols for "real" social processes nor cloistering them in sub-studies of like objects. That things matter has already been ascertained; this books intends to investigate "why some things matter" more than others and in particular contexts.

Miller claims a focus on objects themselves that does not however "fetishize" :What we may regard as unique to our approach is that we remain focused upon the object that is being investigated but within a tradition that prevents any simple fetishization of material form. Indeed we feel that it is precisely those studies that quickly move the focus from object to society in their fear of fetishism and their apparent embarrassment at being, as it were, caught gazing at mere objects, that retain the negative consequences of the term ‘fetishism.’ It is for them that Coke is merely a material symbol, banners stand in a simple moment of representation or radio becomes mere text to be analyzed. In such analysis the myriad diversity of artefacts can easily become reduced to generic forms such as ‘text’, ‘art’, or ‘semiotic.’ In such approaches it is not only the objects that remain fetishized but also, as Latour (1993) has argued with respect to the fetishism within debates about science, it is the idea of ‘society’ as a kind of thing-like context to which all such materials should be properly reduced that becomes equally a moment of fetishism. Here, by contrast, through dwelling upon the more mundane sensual and material qualities of the object, we are able to unpick the more subtle connections with cultural lives and values that are objectified through these forms, in part, because of the particular qualities they possess. (9)

I find particularly important in this approach the stress on the sensual qualities of the objects under study: the emotions elicited by the way the sound of a radio fills a space, the color of a carpet or lawn, the texture and weight of a piece of paper in the hand, the shape of a bowler hat. If we are truly to understand people’s involvement with and decision-making regarding things, it may be through investigating these bodily experiences, elusive because they are naturalized, but crucial elements in the formation of likes and dislikes, nostalgia, memory, and attraction.

The focus on the diversity and specificity of material objects and their significance is suggested by the book’s subtitle: Why Some Things Matter. Miller says that the word "matter" was consciously chosen to evoke the sentimental associations that the subjects of study might have with the objects in their lives; it puts the stress on emic not etic perspectives. Miller suggests further that this stress on the emic parallels a shift in attention from processes of production to those of consumption, a recognition that identities are often constructed in relation to acts of consumption.

On the other hand, Miller clarifies that the stress on the emic must not turn into, as in postmodernism, "mere reportage of the voice of experience" (12). It is recognized that people will sometimes disavow objects, but then attend to them in ways that indicate that the objects indeed "matter." This book recognizes as its subject objects that are explicitly and/or implicitly valued.

To impose some order on such an approach, in which there may be no obvious boundaries among the limitless array of subjective criteria as to what "matters," the book is organized around varying scales of space. The first section deals with "the domestic sphere", the second section with "the public sphere", and the third section acts to bridge the two previous sections in addressing "the global sphere."

The first section includes three chapters which address material culture in domestic spaces. Tacchi addresses radio and its role as an element in the home which mediates self-image and social relations. Tacchi considers radio "material" in the way that it adds a palpable texture to the home environment, and thus participates in shaping the domestic space. She addresses her informants’ interactions with radio in terms of their uses of silence and sound, of radio as background and foreground, as a private or a social activity. One extended case in the article concerns a young women who is an avid music fan, and listens both to her extensive CD collection as well as being actively involved a social life around the radio, joining a listener panel and going to meetings and entering contests. Trisha listened to radio instead of always listening to her own collection of CDs because "she felt she was sharing her passion with other people." (40). Tacchi suggests that "radio stimulates the imagination, and imagination gives substance to sound. And sound can be seen to give substance, in its materiality, to relations between self and others" (43). My main question for this analysis is that of how we define the "material", and the implications for defining something like music in that way, a topic to which I will return at the end of the essay.

Chevalier describes the creation of domestic space through a dynamic interchange between home and garden in the households in a British neighborhood. She employs two related concepts to talk about the relationship between interior decor and gardening: "appropriation" and "colonization" : nature enters the home through the view, and the home enters the garden through furniture and others interior objects; each "appropriates" the other in a kind of "reciprocal colonization" (53). Chevalier defines "appropriation" as : "the construction of an inalienable environment through the use of mss-produced objects" (47). However, to my mind, "appropriation" and certainly "colonization" imply that the user has not typically had access to or rights to the object being used; the terms also imply a subtext of social, economic, or political power inequities. It seems clear that there is a movement of objects in both directions and hence a purposeful blurring of the division between the two spaces, however, using "appropriation" and "colonization" to describe what is to my mind engagement with nature on the part of middle class British gardeners seems to me an overstatement. Chevalier also draws an interesting distinction between English and French relationships to houses and their accumulation of objects as a comparison between two culturally different approaches to the transmission of material culture through lineage. For the British, the home is a symbol of the accumulated life of the married couple and is not intended to be passed on to the next generation, whereas for the French the lineage is "materialized" in the passing on of a house and its objects.

Clarke investigates the use of catalogues within households. This consumption behavior illustrates the ways that consumption is intertwined with and constitutive of multiple social relationships. The use of and negotiations around the use of these catalogues is often part and parcel of the moral economy within the household. The author chose Loot, a free-advertising paper in London which carries especially second-hand items, and Argos, which sells new, mass-produced items. In the case of Loot, the ambiguity of the personal nature of the transactions and of the objects themselves, objects with "histories", constituted both the appeal and the danger/threat perceived by users. Loot as a place for the exchange of objects with histories serves both as a source of the goods that might populate newly created relationships and romances and as well a place to "launder" those objects which carry now inappropriate emotional and social baggage. Whereas Loot requires skill, work, and negotiation, Argos provides a more controlled shopping experience based on standard commercial products. Argos acts as a more basic, trustworthy source of goods. One clear role that Argos plays is in socializing children as shoppers. The case study reveals children poring over the pages, particularly in the preparation of Christmas lists, practicing the comparing, deciding, and fantasizing of the shopping experience.

The next section deals with three public contexts for consumption. Pellegram’s chapter examines the uses of various kinds of paper within an office context. He suggests that paper carries "latent" as well as overt messages. The heft and letterhead of an official document, one which will carry the writer’s "image" to the outside world, can be juxtaposed to the Post-It note and its scribbled message. Because it is the vehicle for a more explicit kind of message, the sensory attributes of paper itself are often taken for granted in the office, although the medium itself is also communicative. Pellegram shows that the importance of the latent message communicated by the physical qualities of a document is inversely related to the individual’s status within the company. For example, a technical person submits only a typed, proofread document to a superior for perusal, whereas it is not considered unusual for the superior to pass a handwritten document on to a subordinate. As an epilogue to the paper, Pellegram points out the bulky presence that large amounts of stored paper can acquire. The saving and storing of paper, often "just in case", points to an attachment to the physical object of paper. On the other hand Pellegram also describes the profound sense of satisfaction with which people purge their stores of accumulated paper.

Jarman addresses the significance of fabric in the banners used in Protestant parades in Northern Ireland, particularly as the banners have come to embody Protestant history and identity. A historical connection is made between the economic role of the textile industry and the fabric of the banners as the vehicle for communication of these social messages. Textiles, particularly linen, undergirded the 18th c. rise of the Protestant bourgeoisie and cloth then became the medium for expression of the volunteer companies, political organizations, formed in the late 18th c., which became a fashionable pastime for middle class men. Over time, banner making became standardized, and certain design elements achieved particular symbolic significance, such as the bowler hat which became the symbol of the Orange order and of a Protestant sense of Britishness. Individual banners also have specific "biographies"; a banner is born of many months of hard work in raising funds and is welcomed to its place through a ceremony of religious dedication which "removes the taint of commercialism"; a banner may represent an organization for as long as 25 years. The images and messages depicted on the banners also reify a selective historical memory: certain incidents or individuals are decontextualized and valorized, for example Jarman describes a banner which commemorates the killing of two Orangemen by the IRA in 1976. This commemorative banner, however, disavows the wider context, that these killings were revenge for the killing of Catholics by the Ulster Volunteer Force. Thus, objects as history tell a particular version of history through their selectivity; these particular objects are as much about forgetting as about remembering.

Finden-Crofts addresses Trinidadian Calypso and the social influence that it sometimes has on those who hear it. Calypso has long been used as an element in advertising and Finden-Crofts also shows it to affect social and political processes. Some Calypso songs are explicit social and political critiques. For example, the Gypsy song "The Sinking Ship" (1986), provided a powerful metaphor for the failings of the government, the PNM, and is credited as having influenced the brief coming to power of the NAR party. Other calypsos are more frivolous in their intent, but may nonetheless have more profound effects, spawning new social practices, such as the "whoa donkey" craze of the 1994 Carnival, in which "[w]hat had originally began as a chant at a fete had developed into a set of popular calypsos, a dance, an addition to local Trinidadian dialect, a method of persuading people to pay their bills, and finally a term used to describe the behaviour of politicians" (166). Calypso capitalizes on ambiguity and double entendre such that a message can have multiple layers of meaning.

The final section of the book deals with "the global sphere," and acts to illustrate some of the links between the domestic, the local public, and the global. Miller’s chapter addresses the use and understanding of Coca Cola and other sweet drinks in Trinidad. Miller critiques the common use of Coke as a "meta-symbol," and attempts through his chapter to understand Coke in a local Trinidadian context. He describes the primary Trinidadian classification of sweet drinks into categories of "black" and "red." These categories are tied to and instrumental in the creation of ethnic categories. Red sweet drinks are associated with Indians and black sweet drinks with Africans. Interestingly, however, this discourse is not reflected in who actual consumes which drinks. In fact, Miller suggests that the key issue in the creation and maintenance of both the ethnic categories and the commodity categories is the process of objectification. Thus, Africans drink red sweet drinks in part because it allows them to "consume" an image of Indian identity which is important as the "other" in opposition to themselves and is also important as an element of their identity as Trinidadians. In a similar way, Coke and other sweet drinks are shown to mediate conflicting impulses toward nostalgia and modernness. Within the general contours of the field of sweet drinks, Coke has a particular identity, most notably as the mixer for the primary alcoholic drink of the island, rum and coke. Miller’s concluding point is that it is important to assess even global products such as Coke as they are locally understood and consumed. As well, it is worth recognizing that Coke has a particular place in discourses about globality, but that that discourse must not be confused with local emic understandings.

Rausing describes the localization of "Western" objects, particularly those received as Swedish aid on a former collective farm in Estonia. The meanings attached to particular goods are shown to be informed by historical and cultural contexts of exchange. Western goods were particularly associated with a return to "normality" after collectivization; on the other hand Western goods held an ambivalent position, falling as they did in ambiguous relationship to the perceived opposition between low-quality Soviet goods, often shunned and considered literally polluted by Chernobyl, and locally-made high quality Estonian goods which were a source of pride. The relationship of Etsonians to Sweden and Swedish aid is informed by a desire to leave Soviet identity behind and identify with a notion of Swedish heritage, despite the paucity of Estonians of Swedish heritage in the area. But Swedishness has achieved a certain capital in the current context of identity politics; thus, for example, all the people in positions of power in the village studied had learned Swedish. Rausing points out the irony that with the breakup of the Soviet union, Estonian identity was transformed from that of being nominally Western in the context of the Soviet Union to being considered Eastern in the context of the West as a former member of the Soviet Union. Rausing describes the relationship between her field site village and a town in Sweden, a relationship which seemed to be premised on the Swedes’ image of the Estonians as backward and unfortunate, damaged by Soviet influence, but still "relatives" and worth redeeming through a good dose of Swedish rationality. It is within this context that Swedish goods are sent as aid to Estonia. From the perspective of the Swedes sending, for example, their second-hand clothes, the exchange is enriching, especially as they imagine their goods will be appropriately recontextualized in Estonian homes. From the Estonian perspective, however, a sense of impoverishment accompanies receiving these items, items that were perceived as inferior for having been abandoned by their former owners. The tension around receiving these goods also stemmed from the inability to reciprocate in the usual way.

The final globally-oriented chapter is Johnson’s chapter about gendered objects in the Philippines. The author takes up Weiner’s argument that women are especially associated with the creation and maintenance of objects of inalienable wealth associated with cultural tradition. He also shows that women’s involvement with inalienable goods is as much a part of nationalist as cultural discourses. As well he finds evidence that Philippino women are actively involved with "alienable" commodities. Rausing describes the distinction between traditional and modern applied to women’s clothing, a distinction which is premised not only on style but also on the attributes of the fabrics themselves. One place where the importance of women’s dress is stressed is in the context of the wedding. Some take a third option, which is the reformulation of traditional and modern (istyle) into an amalgam of the best of both, an option which has become increasingly attractive to the educated elite. On the one hand Philippino women are shown to be the keepers of inalienable wealth in the form of gold jewelry, which interestingly, for all its "inalienableness" often spends its time moving in and out of the pawnshop. On the other hand, women actively embrace istyle, in their traveling and working abroad, and in their trips to visit the gay-transvestite beauticians who are seen to embody the ephemeral fantasy-life of istyle. Johnson concludes that the categories of traditional and modern are not bounded oppositions, but are rather elements in a discourse about femininity and local culture in the context of the modern world.

The book is very interesting, both in the theoretical directions outlined by Miller in the introduction, and in the individual case studies provided by the chapters. There is however, a certain disjuncture, as I perceive it, between the goals suggested by the introduction and the actual results in the chapters. Miller states that the goal is to attend to objects themselves, especially to their sensual qualities as perceived by their users. This is partly a response to that "fear of objects" that would belittle the study of objects as tangential or petty or fetishizing. Moreover, this book is meant to get beyond the fact that material culture is important and into the specifics of why specific things matter to people in specific contexts more than all the other things that are a part of those contexts at those moments. This, Miller suggests, can be best accomplished by getting down to the basics, as it were, the sensual aspects that make things matter; to my mind this means the way they feel (emotionally as well as physically), taste, smell, sound, look. To me, this endeavor of trying to understand the most basic elements of other people’s bodily experiences of the world around them speaks from the heart of the anthropological project, to step into someone else’s shoes, if only temporarily and incompletely.

My question is whether this was accomplished by the authors. A key element of this question is how to define what is "material." I have no desire to draw too rigid a distinction between hard, physical objects and intangibles, processes, or events which are objectified, or thing-like. But I do think that it is important, for the sake of investigating connections between sensory experiences and intellectual, emotional, or social experiences, to at least include in an analysis of this sort attention to those explicit, physically experienced aspects of whatever is being considered "material culture." Music is a good example. Besides the aural experience of listening to music, there is the physical experience of the bass vibrating your body; that feeling is directly related to the nature of the medium by which you are listening. The stereo with four foot speakers or the kitchen radio are things that matter too. CDs come into one’s possession bearing, besides music, artistic cover art, printed lyrics, and the thanks to families and deities by the musicians involved. Things are polyvalent, and things are made up of other things and attached in literal and figurative ways to still other things. And I think it is worth gazing a bit more intently at those objects and all their physical, sensual attributes. That fear of objects does not seem to be entirely gone; there is still a tendency to switch rapidly to the social and symbolic valences of those sensual experiences.