Participants and Talk Abstracts

Arjun Appadurai, Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, NYU

“The Social Things of Life”

Christy Anderson, Art History, University of Toronto

“The Architectural Object: The Matter of Materials”

No one can deny the object-ness of buildings. Yet there is a curious preference in the
scholarship to talking around architecture: its image, context, and the conditions of its
creation. All these aspects contribute to the value of a building over its (often) long life
span. Yet the ideas presented in Arjun Appadurai’s book, and the intellectual currents
that it spawned, offer another way to approach architecture as a less determined, more
vital object in a complex economy of exchange. In a recent book Jane Bennett urges
attention to the vital materialities that operate in the world, the way seemingly inanimate
objects impinge their own reality onto human experience. Buildings do this, of course.
They direct experience by shaping space. But what of the very stuff out of which
buildings are made? This talk will offer up materials as evidence for the social and
political life of architecture. Things are made of things, and architecture is composed of
matter transformed into materials. Architectural value emerges from the vibrancy of its
foundational elements.

Christopher Breward, Head of Research, Victoria & Albert Museum

“The Gritty Object – Things and Museum-based Research”

The most distinctive feature of museum-based research of the kind undertaken at the
V&A is that it is based on objects. Prompted by artefacts from the past, museums have
traditionally tended to ask very focused questions about dating, authorship, manufacture,
and usage. While this approach was once seen as conservative by academics, in recent
years the idea that objects should be given priority—that they should determine the
course of research, rather than serving as data—has become more and more accepted.
Indeed, many observers agree that there has been a “material turn” in fields such
as anthropology, social history, and even literary studies, comparable to the much-
discussed “linguistic turn” that occurred in the humanities some thirty years ago. The
shift towards materiality has encouraged museum professionals and academic researchers
to work together more closely than ever before, particularly in the UK. This has been
beneficial to all concerned. UK based museum curators have broadened the range
of questions that they ask of their collections, and the focus on objects has similarly
transformed the methods and goals of scholarly research and learning in the British
university sector.

There are multiple advantages to be gained by placing objects at the centre of a
collaborative research project, rather than in the margins. First and foremost, artefacts
exert friction on the researcher. General theories are invariably tested by the specificity
and concreteness of objects, which rarely conform to expectation. Partly for this reason,
object-led research is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Fully accounting for the research
potential of even a single object might require contributions by historians of art, culture,
science, and economics as well as specialists in conservation and other scientific
disciplines. Object-led research also often yields evidence of a wider demographic range
than textual sources do, and of interest to audiences beyond the academy. In periods
where many people were illiterate or semi-literate, or where documents are scarce,
objects can often be the only means of accessing the experience of the majority of people
– people whose descendants now form a core audience for museum displays and popularhistories.

Despite all these benefits, object-based research also poses its own challenges. First
and foremost, though museum collections are often defined by the goal of preservation,
researchers are forced to think about the objects they hold as dynamic. Unlike most
textual forms of historic evidence, material things are subject to constant change through
modification, wear and repair. Though authenticity and originality are prized, the fact is
that when it comes to objects from the past, alteration is the norm, not the exception.

That said, a key advantage of object-led research is its direct connection to physical
experience. Every researcher who has worked in a museum knows that handling
unfamiliar objects for the first time is among the most thrilling aspects of their work.
This excitement is telling us something: through touch, we can begin to ask new
questions about those different from ourselves. For those interested in issues such as
comportment, the senses, and sexual and ethnic identity, materiality can provide routes
into unspoken (and perhaps even unconscious) cultural values. Fashion is a particularly
obvious example. Thinking about the self-regulating and expressive function of garments
is an instance in which research can make the lived experience of cultural difference
immediately palpable to all.

This presentation will draw on the speaker’s experience of these issues over two decades
of work in the field of object-based research in a variety of contexts.

Wendy Chun, Modern Culture and Media, Brown University

“Soft Wares, Soft Things”

How did software–initially considered a service–become a thing? And
what is the significance that both software and hardware are now once
more becoming services? This talk engages these questions and also links
the “thinginess” of software / hardware to the increasing proliferation of crises. Crises are
arguably new media’s critical difference: its exception and its norm. Crises are central to
making information valuable and to constructions of new media as empowering.

Didier Gondola, History, Indiana School of Liberal Arts

“The Life of Cloth: Fashion, Performativity, and Materiality in
Contemporary Africa ”

The idea behind this presentation is to show the ways in which cloth as a cherished
fashionable object has been endowed, within the African contemporary context, with a
variety of functions and purposes. Drawing from the work of Appadurai (1986, including
one of its most insightful revisitations by van Binsbergen and Geschiere 2005), Miller
(2005), and Berger (2009), I look at how cloth, from high fashion (Gondola 1999 and
2010), to secondhand clothing (Hansen 2000), to “traditional” fabric (Rovine 2008),
has embodied a host of meanings and values. Going beyond Turner’s likening of bodily
adornments to a “social skin” since, in his own words, the surface of the body represents
the “common frontier of society, the social self” (Turner 1980), I argue that once fashion
items are endowed with power they take on a life of their own and shape the wearer as
much as they are shaped by him or her. In my presentation, I will be using my own work
on high fashion (Gondola 1999 and 2010), Hansen’s study of second hand clothing,
mostly in East Africa (Hansen 2000), and Victoria Rovine’s book on a traditional cloth
from Mali known as bogolan (Rovine 2008). All three focus on interpreting what
adorning the body with objects tells us about the cultures that have been shaping the
fabric of African lives for the past few decades. Their semiotic approaches of cloth
as material culture also point to instances of performativity in which young Africans
in West, East and Central Africa have embraced cloth to enact social meanings and
manipulate collective as well as egotistical identities.

Jonathan Lamb, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, Vanderbilt University

“Can circulating objects also be things?”

Briefly I want to suggest that moving objects behave like things when they no longer
function fully as property: that is to say, when they are moving more under their
own agency rather than that of a human or a market. That this can be a terrible
metamorphosis, especially for human witnesses, is illustrated by a Maupassant short story
in which a man’s possessions take the opportunity of his absence at the opera to evacuate
his house; so that when he comes home and sees what is happening, he goes mad. This
is a theme raised by Arjun Appadarai in The Social Life of Things when he talks of
certain enclaved `tournaments of value’ such as exclusive auction houses and the kula
ring, where the outcome of a fierce desire to own an object often results in unpredictable
movements of things. This debate goes back to the status of the gift, whether it is purely
given and equally purely received, or whether certain social or thingly impulses insist
upon its onward movement—perhaps as a commodity or sign of value, but possibly as
some thing quite different.

Lynn Meskell, Anthropology, Stanford University

“Dirty, Pretty Things: On Archaeology and Prehistoric Materialities”

Looking over the new canon of materiality studies I am intrigued as to why archaeology
— the study of the human past through its material remains — is often silent. In this new
wave of writing you are more likely to find literary theorists, geographers, anthropologists,
historians, and even classicists discussing the constitution of the object world and our human
engagement with things, instead of archaeologists. I would suggest that the omission of an
archaeological contribution is more revealing about a broader scholarly reticence to engage
with the messiness of things, their fundamental embeddedness and their myriad historical
residues and entanglements.
Contemporary ruminations on the object typically focus on free-standing things —
those unencumbered by complicated contexts and other substances, whether a rock, a cell
phone or a snow shaker. The object in and of itself is manifest as a salient set of representations
and significations: it stands at the center of external histories, politics, personalities and so
on, that can be read off the artifact. From this centripetal perspective the chosen thing has
primacy and is elevated to a new status, whereas its co-products and the matrices in which it is
embedded are rendered secondary and supplemental.
Archaeology today has moved away from a purely, or purist, object-oriented approach
and concerns itself with multiple associations, layerings, scalar analyses and specializations.
I outline these developments through a study of Neolithic figurines — once the domain of
artistic descriptions and quasi-religious projections — now situated within a diachronic spatial
analysis, clay sourcing and manufacture, and similarly involves ascertaining the volumes of midden deposits, comparisons with the percentages of species in faunal assemblages,
considerations of human body shape from isotopic data extracted from human bone and so
on. In archaeology such chains of evidence and associations build a greater richness and
understanding of things, but in doing so perhaps things lose their boundedness, their discrete
qualities, and what makes them special or separate.

Harvey Molotch, Sociology, NYU

“Things of Public Trouble”

I will draw on my research on human-artifact interaction in settings like public restrooms,
the New York subway system, and the airport. The applied focus is the role of security
anxiety in structuring outcomes of access, gender privilege, and war.

Rosalind Morris, Anthropology, Columbia University

“A Pound of Sugar, a Basket of Eggs, and the Spillage of Milk:
Worldly Itineraries of Domestic Commodities (or, Recipe for a Personal History of the
World, circa 1986/7, with reference to Henri Lefebvre and Gertrude Stein, via Karl
Marx and Mao Zedong)”

In his masterful multi-volumed treatise on “everyday life,” Henri Lefebvre writes that it
is possible to derive the totality of a socio-economic structure from the fact of a woman
buying a pound of sugar. The relationship between the two would be unfolded in the
dialectic between the singular instance and the social totality. Arjun Appadurai’s concept
of the social life of things offers a counter-model with which to think the relationship
between the event of valorization and the structure of value. For Appadurai, this
relationship is accessible through the analogy of life-history and personal biography,
in a model that assumes the malleability of the status of the ‘thing’ as it moves along
the circuit of exchange relations. In this paper, I consider what is at stake in these two
paradigms via a personal narrative that encompasses events in Kathmandu, Khutsong
and Chernobyl, events that became legible and assumed their general significance only
through processes congealed in the commodity forms of sugar, milk and eggs. The
essay plays with and on these forms, drawing on the literary insights of Gertrude Stein as
well as the political analyses of both Marx and Mao. In an experimental form for which
the recipe is a distant inspiration, it aims both to grasp the political significance of the
domestic, and to illuminate the ingredients of what would later become visible as the
beginning of the ending of an epoch defined by something other than simultaneity.

Local Participating Faculty

Leora Auslander, European Social History, University of Chicago

Bill Brown, Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture, University of Chicago

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations and the College, University of Chicago

Bradin Cormack, English Language and Literature, University of Chicago

Shannon Lee Dawdy, Anthropology and Social Sciences, University of Chicago

Judith B. Farquhar, Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College and Department Chair, University of Chicago

Patchen Markell, Political Science, University of Chicago

Christine Mehring, Art History, University of Chicago

Jane Taylor, Mellon Senior Research Advisor at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape. Visiting Professor, University of Chicago. Professor Taylor is also the CEO of Handspring Trust, a non-profit of Handspring Puppet Company, that is developing LoKO (Laboratory of Kinetic Objects)

Rebecca Zorach, Art History, University of Chicago


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