Archive for January, 2012




The chapter “The Theories of Things” in the book Stuff (2010) by Miller, attempts to set in motion the construction of a philosophical theory that will both; problematize anthropology’s dogmatic framework which uses society as the only lens for analysis when it comes to explaining the material world, and to problematize explanations of diversity that rest on adaptation and function. In order to do so he implores the reader not to look at the anthropological study of materials as uni-directional and hierarchical but instead as a 2-way exchange in which “stuff” has similar influence in creating people as the people themselves have in creating “stuff”. By doing so, he claims we can increasingly become more conscious of the external world (object) and the creation of the person (subject) until they cease to be dichotomous concepts and instead relate in a dialectical relationship.


Miller’s methodology is to redefine culture before defining material culture. In order to do the first, he equates Hegel’s ideas of self-alienation, “where consciousness creates by positing something outside the self’ (59) with  the process of objectification, and also by drawing on Marx’s claim that each stage in our capacity to produce outside ourselves is an extension of ourselves. He bridges both analogies of the unfolding of our consciousness to prove the inextricability of these intellectual and material ambitions. This method provides a justification to outline why we ought to develop more practical theories of material culture


Miller makes a convincing argument because he understands it well enough to point out its limitations. While he does well on drawing on components of various academic arguments and embodying them in Hegel’s teleological account of philosophy and Marx’s inevitability of materialism,  he also makes clear that it is an appropriation of some of his ideas but a rejection of the overall evolutionary claim- the very ubiquitous view that he is trying to discourage.




The chapter “Objects, Exchange, Anthropology” in the book Entangled Objects (2010) by Thomas, explains the implications of the political processes in the system of exchange relations that make up material culture. As these political processes of distributive justice are dynamic, so too are objects and thus he proposes that they are always on a journey through various time periods and contexts, which in turn define the expected rules of engagement for exchange.  Thomas critiques anthropology’s ahistorical evolutionary tendencies by asserting that all exchanges systems are distinct because they reflect relationships outside both parties involved. The exchange should be seen through a group’s history under which its conventions came into being. This method prevents creating an oppositional divide between those that have developed western ideals of exchange and those that are have supposedly not caught up in time to those ideals, thus avoiding the creation of two irreconcilable classes of economy.


Thomas is not so looking to establish a theory like Miller, but rather he is looking to broaden his methods of inquiry so that he can avoid generalizations about non industrialized societies. he would like to take advantage of the well-documented complexities of ethnographic anthropology to respond, rather than to formulate new terms that serve to recreate old dichotomies.



Both articles urge the reader to consider the temporally specific processes that came before the moment of an exchange, rather than to analyze the immediate relationships. “Transactions may manifest but do not encompass the larger field of power-relations that constitute the circumstances…”(Thomas, 8), but “manifestations of customs/institutions from the past  that were “gradually elabora” (Miller, 56)  do. The particularities of time periods become important because they define the material framework that has socialized a particular group and their idiosyncratic parameters of exchange.


Secondly, both articles explore the concept of objects having an inverse to their logic. Miller uses the example of the Kula and the arm shells to explain this concept. These objects circulate because the shells accumulate fame to pass on to their progeny. Meanwhile Thomas points out that we tend to crowd museums to get a glimpse of tribal tools that are reminiscent of simpler times without so much importance on the material. Since objects are materialized extensions of the self, these two articles talk about the impossibility of contemplating the self without the material world ( intangible without the tangible).


Finally, I find it useful to read Miller’s article first. this order is helpful because when Thomas describes the tendencies of ethnographic inquiry to view the world’s tribal cultures as uncompromising to western expectations,it serves as an example to Miller’s “lesson in material culture”.  This model that states that “the more we fail to notice [objects], the more…determinant of us they turn out to be” (59) therefore becomes more concerning because we can see how this analytical deficiency affect the decisions made about and for people considered to be the uncompromising “other”.




Miller: what kind of objects remain true to their original purpose? under what circumstances?


Thomas:  speaks of world nuances and the transformation of objects as “partly constituted by transaction between societies, through our mutual entanglements” and “international relations of production” (9)- in terms of diaspora studies, what are some examples of these transformations?



Commentaries fo Feb1

Posted: January 30, 2012 by shihhsuanchou in Uncategorized

In “Theory of things” the author built on the idea that people make objects, and objects in terms make people, attempt to provide a theory which would bring this man/object relationship further, create transcendence between them. The author first challenged the approach taken by many evolutionary anthropologists to make function the center in explaining human adaptation and development. The author points out that many human practices, beliefs were irrelevant of its physical function, but are shaped by the “complexity and elaboration of symbolic ritual and social distinctions”. He instead draws upon the framework provided by “Frame analysis” and Structuralism, demonstrated with various examples that Things works most effectively when they are invisible, being familiar, taken for granted. This, which the author refers to as “material culture”, makes us who we are by being the exterior environment, and we grow up through the everyday routine of interact with those Things, without paying much attention.

The author theorized this process by drawing upon classical texts in the social science such as Hegel and Marx, and creates a framework which people develop through a process of externalization, self alienation, and objectification. He also points out the potential oppressive capability of the Things/Objects once they are externalized. Using the theory of George Simmel the author explains that the subjective only gain from objectification when it can assimilate the expanding objective culture and what can’t be assimilated becomes oppressive. One such example is money, which on one hand allowed immense freedom and equality, is also a driver of inequality. A contradiction is also exist in the way which our religion, culture treat the material. Almost all social institutions place the immaterial above the material, which ironically is expressed best by extensive material culture. Humanity is often defined in relation to the material, whether is to obtain it or escape it, or both at the same time.


In “Object, exchange Anthropology” The author attempts to build a theoretical framework which can be used to look at the exchange of material in non-western societies. The author suggests that exchange is a political process It reflects and constitutes social relationships between groups and individuals. Cultural differences must be acknowledged and interpreted in a way which reflects local and global historical perspectives.

The author critiques the traditional position of western scholarship of describing non western society as the “other” against western modernity, and thus their economic system being the “savage commerce”. Drawing upon Bronsilaaw Malinowski’s studies the author argues for localized and intensive ethnographic study which adopts the native point of view, see their institutions and behaviors in native terms. The author continue to expand on the different forms of exchange, especially concerning with inalienability of gift. He started with Mauss’ distinction between commodity and gifts, which argue that objects take form of commodity in capitalist society, whereas objects becomes gifts in clan-based society respectfully. Furthermore Mauss claimed that commodities are alienable, independent objects while gifts are inalienable, dependant subjects. The author do not completely agrees with Mauss’ theory for example the notion of the donor acquire superiority through giving have no theoretical necessity. However he uses these distinct forms as a useful departure point by showing gifts radically different from commodities, since the action of giving has a distinctly social effect which commodity transactions don’t. Also by exploring the exchangeability of things depending upon their culturally specific features, the author stated that particular article can be understood as something which can be given, but only at certain time and space. The author wish to disable the simple connection between the gift/commodity opposition and tradition/modern, clan/class, by establishing a greater degree of diversity and contingency.

Both authors attempt to create a more comprehensive theory in dealing with objects and ways which objects interact with people. Whereas Miller pay much focus on the objects which we don’t see, Thomas focus on the objects which we do see and take around. Both in its humidity and activity objects constitute who and what we are.

Jan.31 Object Theory II

Posted: January 30, 2012 by lilzak in Uncategorized

Miller’ article “Theories of Things”, attempts to argue that things make people and people make things. He presents several theories that try to explain how the two influence each other and thus create culture more specifically material culture. One theory addresses the material itself while others go into psycho spiritual characteristics of material such as phenomenology. The author specifies the theories of objectification by Hegel, Marx and Simmel and the nature of materiality and concluded with the consequence of these theories.

Miller seems to jump from one idea to the next which may difficult to follow especially if the reader is not familiar enough with these theories. However, he tried to produce a material culture theory which I find interesting. He states that sociologist Goffman argued that: much of our behaviour is cued by expectations, determined by the frames which constitute the context of action. (Theories, 49).  I think this means that whatever context we are exposed to gives us the cue or signal we need that will determine the response which are not conscious hence the reason why we look for cues. So it would seem that we go from framing to expectation which is the cue to how we behave.

The other theory by art historian Gombrich focused on the relevance of the framing of artworks rather than the artworks themselves. Gombrich argued that when a frame is appropriate we don’t see it because it is a seamless fit so as to convey that it is the framed that is the focus. I think if the frame was central then it would place the artwork on the peripheral causing the artwork to blur. This would cause the artwork to lose its exclusivity. This analogy by Gombrich shows how we see the cue because the expectation is on the work of art thus the frame has to insignificant to the extent that it shows off the work without drawing undue attention to itself. We expect this. (50).

Prestations: Benefit-French origin


Thomas’ article “Objects, Exchange, Anthropology” he explains the Inalienability of the Gift using A. Gregory’s ideas of the difference between gift and commodity stating that objects take the form of gifts and commodities in clan based and class based societies. In clan based societies the dominant process of exchange is consumption and personification or self-replacement of people but in class based societies it is production and objectification. Therefore, the clan based consumes and replaces while the class based produces and commodifies objects.

I don’t agree with Gregory’s fundamental principle of the giver being superior to the receiver because it produces a ‘relationship of indebtedness’. This would not be a gift. It was more like a bribe or insurance because you expect something in return at some later time. If a gift has indebtedness it would be gratitude. According to Gregory a gift has rank so a good gift can place in front of another whose gift is less in value to the receiver. Gregory also states that a gift attached to indebtedness is more of an inversion of the commodity. Therefore, a gift can only be inalienable if it is not a commodity thus obligations are unacceptable.


Reading Response from Week 1- January 18, 2012

Posted: January 27, 2012 by sanahashmidts403 in Uncategorized

Hello everyone, I had a few problems getting added as an author earlier. Here is my reading response from week 1 that I posted as a comment earlier. I have added two questions to my response that were formulated after class discussion that day.

I found the S. Shankar and Z. Turan readings very interesting this week. Both readings argued for a renewed vision of objects as things that are not solely ‘affected’ by social relations, but also have the ability to affect social relations. We find this in the example of Turan’s research into the Palestinian diaspora in New York, where objects such as a grandfather’s couch, a scarf, a teapot and tatoo are not only symbols of social displacement for a dispossessed people, but also a means of redefining social relations in varying contexts by the displaced people themselves. For example, Bassam’s tattoo  can be seen as a product of his yearning for a Palestinian heritage, but the positionality of the tatoo on his back enables him to redefine the public and private spheres of him enacting his identity in his current context. It is also interesting in the case of Bassam, that the teapot passed down from his grandmother, evokes a sense of Palestine heritage which has been  passed down through generations, but also allows Bassam to  draw out the borders of his masculinity (ex. the teapot takes a backseat in the hierarchy of objects which have meaning for him, as opposed to his tatoo for example).

I also found the image in Shankar’s article of the 19-year-old female from a middle-class desi family in California holding up an image of her potential suitor and matching it against her desi ‘bling’ outfit very interesting. In this scenario, Shankar describes how objects (the photo of the suitor, her outfit) to speak to the 19-year-old’s past and the social mobility of her community and also her hopes for the future. According to Shankar’s analysis, the objects do much of the speaking in the world of this 19 year old, where the desi ‘bling’ outfit symbolizes a middle class realization of social mobility, and the photo of the suitor represents anxieties and prospects for the future. I think Shankar successfully uses images in this article to illustrate how objects acquire a language of their own, and an agency of their own.

I think both authors did an excellent job of positioning objects at the center of the socio-political analysis of diasporic lives.  In the past, I often thought of the relationship between objects and the meaning they hold for  people as functioning in the opposite direction (i.e. socio-political analysis positions objects in a certain way). The images and stories of these objects that these readings provided, allowed me to re-think the role of the object and what the object can say or mean independently of what can be said about it.



1) Is there such a thing as an object agency which functions independently or outside from meanings that we attribute to an object?

2) If not, then what is ‘object agency’, or is it a misleading term?




It makes a rhythm and then you dance…

Posted: January 26, 2012 by mahmerkhan in Uncategorized

The diasporic object of my research paper is the Djembe. It is a drum that was made and originated in West Africa, specifically Guinea and Mali. At its widest, the drum is 13 inches and at its tallest, it is 2 feet. The thickness of the wood of the Djembe drum is about 1 inch. The drumhead is made of goatskin. It is about 30 pounds in mass. The drum is hand carved from a singular piece of wood. It is made hollow and on the inside the carvings are rounded off for the sound to resonate in a specific, louder tone. The goat skin covering the drum head is also made from a singular piece that comes from the back hide of the goat. The “spine” of the hide can be seen on the drum. It is stretched and tightened via a cord. The cord is longer than necessary for tuning purposes, as over time, the drum head will get loosened. The Djembe drum is hand made and it costs around $600 CAD. The wood of the Djembe is a hardwood that is made of Mahogany. The method of tightening the cord around the drum is very complicated. The drum head is tied around two iron rings that are the circumference of opening around the top of the Djembe shell. Another iron ring is placed around the middle, where the wide meets the narrow. The skin of the drum head has been extended over the rim to protect the drummer’s hands when playing the drum. Had it not been covered, the iron rings (covered in cloth) would usually be seen and also injure the hand of the drummer. Some Djembes leave the fur of the goat where the skin covers the iron ring for design purposes. It has a few external carvings for design. The wood of the Djembe, on the outside has been coated for protection. The inside is coated in an oil, usually palm oil. The cord is so taut one can play a tune from just from cords themselves. The Djembe is made during the summer season so that the wood is warm and easier to work with. It also resonates sound better when warm, as colder months make the wood brittle thus vibrations do not ring out as well. Maintaing a Djembe is necessary. The entire should be covered when travelling and it should not go from hot to cold rapidly. It should be stored in a relatively dry room at room temperature. The skin of the drumhead should be oiled lightly from both inside and out. After 6 months of continuous play, it should be tightened by a professional. In addition, the Djembe is shipped from West Africa to Toronto, the cords may get lose. If theres one worse then not having a Djembe, its having a out-of-tune Djembe…


Object Description

Posted: January 26, 2012 by jonathansantosdts403diasporiclivesofobjects in Uncategorized

Object Description: “Carta de Chamada”-Sponsorship document in Portuguese

“Carta de Chamada”, is a sponsorship document in Portuguese. From this document it is evident that a Portuguese male immigrant living in Canada is seeking permission from the Portuguese government to allow his family to emigrate from their native country to Canada, where he lives.  The document also guarantees that he will support his family financially.

This document is made out of white paper. It was created by going to the Portuguese consulate in Toronto and after verifying the applicant’s credentials, the Chancellor, the representative of the Portuguese Government in Toronto, approved the application.  The document was typed on official Portuguese letterhead paper.  It contains the Portuguese National Emblem at the top.  It is dated as to when it was signed and the Chancellor’s signature is authenticated by the official Consulate’s stamp.  It also contains a stamp indicating that it has been registered and entered in the official government records and an official number was assigned to it.  Its cost is indicated on the two stamps – one on the bottom left had corner and the second on the top right hand corner.  It cost approximately 240$00 escudos (old Portuguese currency) or approximately $10.00 Canadian dollars.  This object was made official on the 21st day of November, 1967 in the Portuguese Consulate in Toronto which is currently located at 438 University Avenue.



Posted: January 26, 2012 by lilzak in Jan 18

January 17, 2012 The Diasporic Lives of Objects Geraldine

An object not just an object when it is used to enhance the identity of a community.
The article by Shankar makes clear the ties a Desi family have with their extended family and community through ‘objects by relying on borrowed, rented, or even imagined encounters with them. The narrations of these objects seem to be a way they inadvertently add value to the owner and the community thus creating further need for more consumption. I would seem as though the language use also shapes identity, status and value of the people through the objects. So, it’s as though the community lives vicariously through the objects. It is a collectively agreement that they will value themselves and their community by these carefully chosen objects.
The idea that “consumption has been described as a language of communication, it is most often considered in the absence of words” is powerful because we often think of consumption in terms of desire, and status or prestige but very unlikely as a form of communication. We don’t often think that a CLK or a TV would say something about the individual or community. The saying ‘actions speaks louder than words is appropriate here because the act or acquiring objects say so much about who we are.
The Desi community does not seem to value the objects in and of themselves. They value them in the context of the community even though it is the individual that acquires these objects. The community value of the Desis takes precedence over the individual a traditional value. The consumption of objects helps to reinforce the community’ value of cohesion regardless of the struggles they face in the outside world. The objects aid in their value of the community by maintaining its validity. Thus when they meet at social gatherings, the objects help to enhance their collective identity when they use language to convey the stories attached to these objects. This is what Shankar refers to as “symbolic communication in which objects alone, in the absence of words, communicate meaning” and these objects are used as “metaphor [that] can give form to ideas precisely because literal language seems inadequate. The narrative of objects goes beyond the community because they can be seen and shared over and over again with different people who encounter the community or its members