Object Theory II: Positioning Objects- Zaldana’s response

Posted: January 31, 2012 by lzaldana in Uncategorized




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?



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