Protagonist Objects

Posted: January 16, 2012 by mitsar in Jan 18

Two readings this week, the first by Karen Schamberger (and others) ‘Living in a Material World: Object Biography and Transnational Lives’ and the second by Shalini Shankar ‘Metacosumptive Practices and the circulation of objectifications’, discuss the narrative behind objects and their relation to people living in diasporic communities. The reason I chose these two readings was because I was intrigued by the idea that an object can be a source of connectivity to a community,  culture or past not just in the traditional sense of inheriting heirlooms or passing down traditions from generation to generation. The first article does this by bringing to light the narratives of specific objects and their relation to transnational migration, while the second discusses materiality in terms of how it maintains a sense of kinship within a community, even if the material in question has no traditional significance.

The first article, ‘Living in a Material World’ discusses the concept of object biography as examining particular objects that are interwoven with the personal biography of someone who experienced the struggles and hardships of migrating to a new place. The authors of this article and the Australian Journeys Gallery Development Project exhibited over 50 objects that tell the stories of transnational migrants to Australia at the National Museum of Australia. The purpose of this project is to shed light on the value of the objects not just for their traditional purposes but also in their contribution in telling the story of migrants to Australia. In effect, it is not the object that aids the narrative of the person it belongs to, but rather it’s the person who gives the object its narrative. One example is that of Guna Kinne, who donated a dress she made, now a symbol of Latvian nationalism and part of the traditional practice of national dressmaking. The dress, which was completed at different stages throughout her life, holds a deeper meaning for Guna who brought the dress with her from Latvia to Germany to Australia. What’s more is that the dress is not simply a reproduction of Guna’s traditional culture but has characteristics that are unique to her and her experiences. The approach taken by the participants of the Australian Journeys Gallery Development project of object biography for me seemed a little obscure at first. Traditionally one would think that a national Latvian dress would be significant to Latvians only. My first thought was why the dress wouldn’t be donated to a Latvian museum, denoting the fact that this tradition of dressmaking is a testament to Guna’s loyalty to her heritage? What significance does it have to an Australian? I soon realized that the dress is part of a bigger narrative that talks about the role of transnationalism on a world-wide scale (a scale that is hard to conceptualize in many ways). We often take advantage of the fact that practically all objects, ideas and traditions are passed down from generation to generation and what I often tend to forget is that each time they are passed down, they are altered in some way that relates to the social environment of that time. The jacket of Guna’s dress, for example, is embroidered differently than her original pattern, marking it her own creation that in a sense tells her own story. It became clear to me by the end, that perhaps this seemingly strange perspective of objects isn’t all that obscure. Thinking back to objects that have been passed down in my own family, I realized that most of these things are representative of my family specifically, not just the whole of my cultural heritage.

The second article, Metaconsumptive Practices and the Circulation of Objectifications, explores the use of language and objectification as a means of maintaining community ties within a diaspora.  Shalini Shankar explores the world of the Desi community in Silicon Valley during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This tight-knit community grew in Silicon Valley throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s working at local technology companies, aiding to the development of the dotcom boom. In this community the use of material culture is a marker of wealth; the purchasing of expensive cars for example is one way one can show off one’s status within the community. In fact, Shankar notes that more religious and traditional objects and heirlooms have less significance in the everyday lives of this community. Perhaps because these heirlooms are not valued the same by everyone. Expensive cars and electronics, being the same cost for everyone are a significant marker of a family’s success and the youth especially have established a dialogue through catch-phrases, photos, and videos that give value to their affiliations with one another.  Shankar’s approach in exploring the Desi community and material culture seeks to correlate a tight-knit community and the importance given to material value. Shankar shows the juxtaposition of material wealth (deemed in this case to be of Western standards) in a culture that holds tightly to traditional values and the language used to give value to that wealth. It seems to me, however, that at times she tends to underplay the value of religious and traditional and insinuates that the tightness of the community is held through material consumption and the value it denotes on a family.  She explains that this is evident by the focus to which what type of car one drives up to an event  and how while being shown videos of these events, the procession of the car is shown repeatedly, while the religious parts of the ceremony are skipped over. I’m not sure this necessarily denotes a lesser importance in tradition rather than an extension of traditional values in which material wealth are a marker of success. Tradition still plays a large part in the Desi community, as Shankar demonstrates, with arranged marriages, the importance of impressing future in-laws and the up keeping of religious ceremonies. She also notes that despite the ability to mobilize upward economically, Desi families don’t necessarily do so in order to stay close to their families and communities (i.e. don’t move out of their current neighborhoods to more expensive ones). It would seem to me that the importance of having an expensive car in Silicon Valley could be equivalent to having something as valuable back at home. Another thing I noticed was that Shankar didn’t touch on was whether the pictures, videos and narratives were ever sent “home” to families who did not immigrate to Silicon Valley. If so, do they carry the same value and awe-factor as they do in Silicon Valley?

When we think of museum pieces on display, we often think of that object as belonging to a faraway time and place that has little to no connection with our current lives. Instead we might think about the objects that perforate our lives and hold specific meaning to us and our families. Objects are not just functional apparatuses that aid us to bear the cold or transport us from one place to another, but carry proof that these apparatuses hold more than just pragmatic meanings in our lives. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that those museum objects likely once belonged to a family with its own narrative and that our own objects may one day be displayed in a museum, even perhaps an expensive car. What both readings in this case did, at least for me, was bring light to the fact that material objects are more telling of our personalities than anything else. This may seem like an obvious conclusion but it showed me how easy it is to take a discussion of this for granted and chalking it up to merely the history of our ancestors. How important is it to study objects from a perspective where the objects are the protagonists of the story and we are the secondary characters? Last year in another DTS class we discussed the way in which we view and classify World Religions and how it might skew our perception of different societies and cultures. I can’t help but wonder if these two articles don’t shed a light on a new way in perceiving things.  Lastly, if we take the approach of Shankar and her observations of the method of objectification used in the Desi community, can’t we apply this to almost all other communities, even those that are not necessarily in the diaspora? I ask this because I’m still flip-flopping between whether Shankar’s article is a testament to how strongly the Desi community has clung on to their traditions and adapted their environment to these practices or if the value given to such things as expensive cars, especially by the youth, is a sign of divergence from tradition.

  1. jonathansantosdts403diasporiclivesofobjects says:

    Objects do indeed create people
    This week’s readings examined the relationship between objects and Diasporic communities. After examining the stories found within the readings, I began to realize how important objects are as they engage in uniting people across the globe. To me, the two readings, “Living in a Material World: Object Biography and Transnational Lives”, and “Material Objects As Facilitating Environments: Palestinian Diaspora” illustrate how objects unite people to a specific Diasporic group. These two readings illustrate the narrative of Diasporic object’s and their transnational voyage. Furthermore, both readings depict how important a role objects play in creating a collective identity amongst Diasporic communities and individuals.

    “Living in a Material World: Object Biography and Transnational Lives”-Karen Schamberger
    The author of this reading sought out to prove how an object fashioned the life story (biography) of two Diasporic individuals. The two objects mentioned within the reading were; a traditional Latvian dress and a Vietnamese musical instrument, “Dan Tre”. The stories of both objects suggest to me that objects play a fundamental role in the shaping of all transnational lives. I am of the opinion that the author successfully argued his point. Through creating the objects both individuals, Mrs.Guna Kinne and Mr. Minh Tam Nguyen established, expressed and were able to preserve their culture and identity. It is evident that both the dress and the musical instrument represent the experiences of these two Diasporic individuals, especially the resistance and adversity they and many others faced while immigrating. This reading conveyed the significance of objects by illustraighting the clear relation between important moments and their respective objects.

    “Material objects as facilitating environments: The Palestinian Diaspora”-Zeynep Turan
    The author of this reading sought out to prove how objects within the Palestinian Diasporic community signify a collective Palestinian identity. Hence the argument can be made that due to their long history of displacement, Palestinians are able to establish a sense of homeland through certain objects. After examining this reading I now know that objects represent who you are, your origins and your history. It is evident from such work that objects both serve as a reminder of the past (history) and as a tool for continuing a culture (future).
    Within such work, the author interviewed four American Palestinians; Mariam Haddad, Samy Malik, Bashar Khanafi and Warda Raleh. When examining these four interviews it is evident that there is a range of different relationships with objects. For Mariam it was photos of grandparents and a cross pendant that bridged the gap between her and her Palestinian roots. For Samy, it was his Palestinian scarf that represented a country of refugee. For Bashar, it was the tattoo of the Palestinian flag on his back that reminded him of the everyday Palestinian struggle. For Warda, it was her mother’s dress, her numerous passports and the metal bed frame that reminded her of home. The author successfully argued his point as it is evident that people who are displaced surround themselves with objects that stimulate remembering home.

    Within both works it is evident that objects do indeed play an important role in shaping the lives of Diasporic individuals. Both readings portray how objects shape and reflect ones experience and are also used to establish a sense of belonging and a connection to the home land. I conclude with 2 questions, (1) If displaced people do not control what happens to them do they have the power to choose what they remember? (2) What if an object that brings together a community harms, oppresses or destroys another community. Is it still a good object?

  2. I am a bit confused about our weekly duties regarding who should do the weekly commentaries and such.. I thought you (Chole) will do your weekly commentary on March 14 (which seems to be what the schedule above indicated).

    Nevertheless since you have nicely posted your comments on the readings please allow me to comment on it. I completely agree with you on your view about the Schamberger piece. As the author demonstrated the objects in the two examples were not merely symbols of their respecting cultures, but also represents the lives and the transnational experiences of the two donators. The fact that the two objects were hand-made by themsleves likely have further strengthened the symbolic meaning, bond, and impact between the object and their creator.

    However I disagree in some parts on your analysis concerning the second article by Shankar. For example you stated that:” In fact, Shankar notes that more religious and traditional objects and heirlooms have less significance in the everyday lives of this community.” My impression is that the author acknowledges the importance of such inherited objects in tradition and culture, but objects such as heirlooms simply occupied a different realm of life other than the daily discourse of objectifications. After all I can imagine a heirloom inherited from the ancestors can only fuel the daily conversations so far, while the ever-changing world of new luxurious goods can probably keep them talking for quite a while. Again it is not to say traditional items do not have their importance’s, they just occupy a realm other than daily chitchat.

    Back to the article itself, a point which I found interesting and worth noting in is that the author described how people adapt popular Hip-pop culture and merge them with essential South Asian qualities to create the “Desi Bling”, which its objectification is also circulated through both the objects themselves as well as a combination of images and speech.

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