Lost in Things

Questioning Functions and Meanings of the Material World

November 28th - 29th 2013

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Speakers and Abstracts

Jennifer M. Bagley
Tool, Prestigious Object, Magical Device - Following the Neolithic Stone Ax through Time and Space

In the Neolithic grounded stone axes of different forms were produced in central Europe. From the beginning on they could fulfill multiple purposes and possessed different meanings. Most were used as multifunctional tools but some had, according to their form, materiality – and probably especially the color – as well as their mounting prestigious and ritual meaning. Due to the material characteristics of the stone they were preserved in high numbers and found again and again over thousands of years. Their presence obviously called for an explanation, whose main thread as a protection against thunder storms can be traced from roman times through to the 19th century, but detail varied considerable in different times and regions. The example of the Neolithic stone axes and their different uses and ascribed meanings highlights the bilateral relationship of man and object – determined on the one hand by the materiality of the object and on the other hand by the mutability or persistency of the world view of a given society.  

Ludĕk Brož
Reminding Remainders: Indexes Fallen from Sky 

Artefacts produced in the space industry rank among the most sophisticated and costly things ever manufactured by humans. The lifecycle of many of these artefacts is short, since they are ‘used up’ in their designated missions. A closer look nevertheless suggests that this ‘using up’ is never ideal: many artefacts live a second life as debris fallen from the sky. In this paper I will look at the fate of second stages of rockets launched from Baikonur and falling back to the earth in the vast and allegedly ‘empty’ spaces of the Altai Republic (South-West Siberia). I will argue that such ‘emptiness’, as a crucial feature of designated fallout zones, is predicated on the absence of humans; in other words, it is seen as a domain where things interact among themselves. Despite this premise, however, there are many people who use, fear and argue about cosmic debris in the Altai Republic. The important feature of rocket remains seems to be their indexicality: they remind those who encounter them of, for example, space exploration, invisible toxic and/or radiation hazard or business transactions going on thousands of kilometres away. In such an exercise of material semiotics, I contend, nothing less is at stake than the very ontology of the fallen cosmic junk..

Federico Buccellati

The Problem of Architectural Continuity in a World of Change

“The King is dead, long live the King!” With this sentence the office of 'King' is passed from a deceased king to a new king. Such a shift in language may be easy: through this sentence the person meant by the term 'King' changes. But architecture, too, is representative of an institution, person or organization much in the way that a title represents them. However, the connotation embedded in architecture cannot be wiped away with merely a phrase.
This   paper   explores   the   ways   in   which   buildings   'associated'   with   an   institution, person  or organization   lose   meaning,   either   actively   or   passively.   The   examples   given   are   drawn   from   the archaeological record of the ancient Near East, where Palaces and Temples inexorably linked, in their construction, renovation and destruction, to the 'person' to which they are tied. A particular example of this tie is the ‘Residenzstadt’ phenomenon, whereby whole cities are linked in this manner to the king who founds them;  how these cities are founded and change with the passage of time is a further example of the changing ‘connotation’ of a name.

Martin Holbraad

On Pragmatology: from Things to Concepts - or, Savage Thought again

Within anthropology, much has been written about the possibility of a posthumanist critical social science that is able to emancipate 'things' (objects, artefacts, materiality, etc.) from the ensnaring epistemological and ontological bonds of 'humanism', 'logicentrism' and other modernist imaginaries. The aim of this essay is to take this project further by exploring the possibilities for an anthropological analytics that is able to allow things - by which I mean something akin to 'things themselves', though only in the strict heuristic sense that I specify in the paper - to generate their own terms of analytical engagement. Might the feted posthumanist emancipation of the thing be shown to consist in its peculiar capacity to unsettle whatever ontological assumptions we, as analysts, might make about it (including, perhaps, the ontological premises of a 'posthumanist turn' itself)? Might things decide for themselves what they are, and in so doing emancipate themselves from us who would presume to tell them? Might they, if you like, become their own thing-theorists, acting as the originators (rather than the objects) of our analytical conceptualisations?

Arnica Ke▀eler
The Gender of Things. Is “Gender” a Concept for Humans only?
Gender as a social construction is often based without reflection on sex, a biological category supposed to be appropriate or real. Since the writing of Judith Butler sex is also recognized as a construction, build on random characteristics. In this talk gender is not only understand as the difference between female and male, but rather as disproportionate relationship between various subjects, which includes male- female division next to relations of power, class or age. The characteristics, to which gender is often assigned to, are so called “gender markers”. These markers do not only connect characteristics to a gender, as for instance dominance or sensibility, but also create it. The concept, first developed for a traditional social sphere, can also be transferred to the material culture studies. Besides the fact that humans can be treated as things (Igor Kopytoff, with his famous example of slaves), sometimes things are humanized as well. Based on these assumptions, can things have a gender and how would the concept be a useful tool to work with?

Alesya Krit
Redefining Temporality of Materiality: Renovating Decaying Houses in South-Eastern Spain

This proposed paper will address the topic of material presence of decaying houses in the rural areas of south-eastern Spain: long after they were originally built and used by Spaniards, abandoned during the years of migration, Civil War and dictatorial Franco regime, they are still forming the landscape of Spanish countryside. Those ruins are usually evoking the forgetting/remembering dilemma among the locals who have very difficult relationships with their past, especially defining their own role in those continuous historical contexts. The British lifestyle migrants who move to reside in Spain full time, on the other hand, are the new residents who get engaged with those abandoned buildings, renovate them and give those houses ‘a second life’. Since the newcomers are not familiar with the history of those dwellings, or, for that matter, interested in it, they set on a different journey of rediscovery of the material environment of those ruins. The paper will discuss the processes of reengagement, as well as the affect of the decaying houses that shift notions of belonging and mobility among the new residents.

Bj°rnar Julius Olsen
Farewell to Meaning? Halldor's Dump Truck and the Fallacy of Interpretation

A winter day fifty years ago a dump truck suddenly arrives in a remote northern village. The dump truck’s unexpected arrival - and enigmatic fate here - constitutes the background to this talk about theory and interpretation in archaeology and material culture studies. One argument is that our engagements with things and places for too long have been subjected to an aggressive hermeneutics where the never-ending search for “meaning” largely has left out and even irrationalized the sensory, affective and thus aesthetic aspects of these material encounters. As an alternative I explore the possibility of (re)turning to a more banal or na´ve empiricism, an attentive attitude which allows also for affects, aversions, and wonders - for all that instinctively and involuntarily released in our direct encounters with snow, dump trucks, and other things.

Diamantis Panagiotopoulos 
Incompatible (?). Exotic Seals in the Bronze Age Aegean and the Tension between Social Practice and Affordance
In our globalized world, incompatible products have become a rather ubiquitous and cumbersome experience.  Similar problems of incompatibility – though quite different in scale – appeared in pre-modern societies, especially when foreign objects crossed cultural borders acquiring a new context of use/consumption. In these cases, local social practices were confronted with the objects’ ‘affordance(s)’ which were, as a rule, incompatible to each other. Foreign seals which reached the Aegean in the Bronze Age provide a very insightful case study for exploring this problem as well as the inventive reactions of ancient users/consumers. In their place of origin, Oriental seals fulfilled as administrative instruments and prestige objects a strictly regulated function. Many of them were imported into the Aegean region as diplomatic gifts or trade commodities. In their new social context, the inevitable problem of incompatibility between local bureaucracies and the design of these exotica was the determining factor of their second ‘biography’. By focusing on this group of objects and by discussing some pertinent theoretical issues, the present paper aspires to provide new insights into the ‘challenge of things’ which are relevant to recent debates on material culture that bring social anthropology and archaeology closer to each other.

■ˇra PÚtursdˇttir
Ruin/ Ruination: the Aesthetics of Heritage

Programs of heritage management and conservation may be seen as challenging conventional systems of value and care focusing partly or even mostly on things that for some reasons have been abandoned or discarded and thus excluded from other/past systems of value. This focus on things and tangible heritage has lately been criticized suggesting that it downgrades or excludes various other and intangible forms of heritage. This paper seeks to scrutinize the care for things generally sustained in the heritage sphere by looking at the cosmetic transformations and management things undergo through their promotion to the heritage category and by exploring the paradox involved in caring for ruins but not ruination. The paper further discusses the possibilities of a different take on heritage aesthetics and a more thing-oriented heritage conception.

Sebastian Schellhaas
& Mario Schmidt
Money-Eaters and Things-Thinkers: about Luo Lost in Food and Anthropologists Lost in Materiality

Luo live in a world inhabited by eatable and non-eatable others: While emphasizing that women, money and maize porridge are eatable, pizza and pasta are not. Analysing important events of daily and non-daily life (funerals, sexual acts, General Election 2013, ”bitter money”) we want to understand Luo world as one in which the constant initiation of processes of eating and feeding is the foundation of what we call culinormativity. This enables us to leave behind the notion of reciprocity and to explain Luo sociality as one which is centred on the recursive construction of corporal entities. Luo thus circumvent the problem posed by Derrida’s gift analysis as giving, taking and giving again are interfolded in acts of digestion. One cannot feed oneself without eating at the same time. Taking seriously the ability of things to act as concepts, our talk proposes to leave behind material culture studies. What is really obstinate is not the thing, but our belief that there is a thing behind what is already more than a thing: A whole world which just waits to be stepped into. The object’s challenge (its intention) is nothing more than a exemplification of the fact that by encountering the “obstinacy of things”, we are not lost in things, but just fell off the rim of our world into another or, worse, into none at all.

Jens Soentgen
Indigenous Rubber

Rubber is one of the most important materials in the modern world. The substance has a dual history: one part played out in Central and South America, where rubber was already being used in pre-Columbian times. The other part took place in North America and Europe, where rubber in a certain sense was reinvented. This presentation focuses on the little-known indigenous use of rubber in South America, especially in the Amazon basin, and demonstrates that the indigenous processing of rubber was in no way inferior to western rubber technology. It is shown that the indigenous people possessed a functional equivalent to vulcanization that made their rubber products resistant to wear and tear. Their inventions made western rubber-technology possible, however the rise of western rubber industry degraded the Indians to mere rubber-collectors. Instead of the highly sophisticated rubber goods they used to produce - like boots, shoes, coats etc. - from the middle of the 19th century they had to deliver big rubber balls, the so called "negro heads". Today in certain regions of the Amazon basin efforts are made to revitalize the old Indigenous rubber-technology.

Patricia Spyer
A Night at the Museum in Maluku: Animacy, Materiality, Aesthetics

In Michel de Certeau’s “The Beauty of the Dead,” the popular as an object of study emerges out of the elimination of a menace. Such would seem to describe the museum dedicated to Seramese Culture on Seram Island, Maluku. Founded by a former prison director responsible for capturing pagan Nuaulu found guilty of headhunting, he embarked post-retirement on a vast project devoted to the island’s Alifuru culture, especially its alleged bloodthirsty past. Enclosed within the museum and in statues and portraits of the island’s storied warlords, the Alifuru everyday appears domesticated, aestheticized, and  “dead.” But the past in Seram is not quite past--things go bump in the night at the museum, untoward events ensue. This paper explores the unsettling agency of objects as they become seized by a suppressed  past that forcefully reasserts itself during crisis. The potential for animacy and the materiality of things is a concern throughout.

Philipp Stockhammer
How Things Unsettle Us

There is no doubt that things have the power to make us wonder, angry or confused. Hans P. Hahn demonstrated that this potential is possessed particularly by those objects which fall between our categories. In past times, those objects were kept together in the “Wunderkammer” as a place for the wondrous. Nowadays, these things are often called “hybrids” – thus overcoming the problem of classification by creating a new category where “hybrid” often only exhibits the helplessness to work with the objects as such. My aim is to shed further light on the things’ power to unsettle us. I want to show that the most powerful objects are those which seem to be classifiable at the first glance, whereas only the second moment reveals the absence or loss of a relevant feature crucial for our classification. In the first moment of encounter with the object, we are used to seeing through the individual object and to perceiving only the category into which we classify the object. The power of the shifting perception of objects will be demonstrated with case studies from the prehistoric past and from the present.

Publishing Date 19.07.2013 updated 16. 10. 2013