Mirrors into the Past, and the Dark Matter Beyond

Posted: February 2, 2012 by Leftelep in Uncategorized

In this week’s readings we are reintroduced to discussions on the biographies of ‘stuff,’ treading similar grounds (in terms of material and topics) as Appadurai (1986) and Kopytoff (1986) had the week previous. However, this time we do so through variant lenses that interestingly follow up on some of the concerns and curiosities that Appadurai (1986) and Kopytoff (1986) inspired in us last week. For example, Thomas (1991) takes particular interest, as Sean had, in challenging the over-emphasis of a modern vs. tribal cultural dichotomy. The implications of this distinction were discussed in seminar to produce a sense of hierarchy with complex societies exchanging in commodity and less ‘civilized’ societies engaging in the exchange of gifting, dependence, and barter. Additionally, we had discussed how items could be appropriated beyond the uses of which their production was intended (consider rap artists’ adoption of Cristal), in some cases transcending categories bestowed upon them to the point of singularization, a point that Thomas (1991) alludes to as well. Before getting too enriched in a response to this week’s readings though, it is necessary to let the reader know that as I was more-so moved by the former reading by Miller (2010), and as a result shall save this work for later while placing more emphasis on its findings.

In Thomas’ (1991) Chapter, entitled “Objects, Exchange, Anthropology,” we are presented with what he admittedly states to be a mere “distortion” of the conceptual develops presented by the time it was written. However, this should not imply that the work is insignificant, as it is successful in drawing out some useful critiques of its predecessors, particularly those works that re-instill a sense of cultural divide through their attempts to categorize objects. That is, as authors draw examples from various parts of the world to show the dissimilarities between commodity and gifting exchange (as well as systems of value), they end up creating a false dichotomy in which their societies may be categorized. As Thomas (1991) continues, even attempts to alter this, if, hierarchical framing of tribal vs. western societies merely resituates ‘othering’ under different forms of legitimization. What Thomas (1991) calls for is an abandonment of contrasting societies completely and an understanding that global and local affects take root in various ways in all societies, the distinctions to be made need only focus on the ways objects can either take ‘alienated’ and ‘inalienable’ functions. This last part is the main focus of Thomas’ (1991) argument, and disappointingly resembles Appadurai’s (1986) ideas on the processes of ‘singularization’ too closely to be deemed original. This is because ‘alienated’ essentially depicts the commodity that can be parted with, and the ‘inalienable’ is that which has been inseparable from the person who holds such biographic objects, or gifts. Therefore, we can agree with Thomas on many of his critiques, and his work does work to resituate a discussion of things into a more contemporary context. Yet, my own imagination aspires for more.

Meanwhile, Miller (2010), clearly and affectively depicts a connection between stuff and people to the point that their coexistence cannot be imagined. Of particular interest here is the way Miller (2010) brings in a discussion of the importance of material to represent the non-material. He uses Egyptian practices around mummification and deity worship, as well as various Indian Hindu practices, to illustrate how objects can have paradoxical meanings, taking form only to highlight the importance of the non-physical/material existence. This point percolates in my mind as I experience a scientific illustration of the carbon atom as it moves through the carbon cycle in lecture on this day, essentially being framed as having a life history of its own that continuously takes new matter and form. Additionally, at a public lecture series last week, Dr. Imani Kai Johnson (2012) illustrated a dance circle as a diasporic space that resembles ‘dark matter’ – a binding element of the universe which is known to exist, but cannot be experienced in the physical sense. This leads to questions of whether objects or subjects need be highlighted as focus for diasporic discussion. Is the non-physical realm (if we can call it that) just as important as a focal point, and are we now beyond the need to observe their biographies? As Miller (2010) continuously highlights that things can be most powerful in framing our activities and beliefs if they are less visible. We are only aware of their control over us when they are made visibly apparent to us. What is now becoming evident through the help of these reading is the way our social consciousness caries out for years until finally taking physical form, at which point it establishes a fork in the road for new paths or re-appropriations to take place. It is this dynamic, which Miller (2010) informs us is acting out ‘contradiction’ that frames our existence. As it is stated, “human labour transforms nature [or ideas] into objects, creating this mirror in which we can come to understand who we are” (p.58). Therefore, are we simply what objects tell us we are? And if so, can we exist as a society without them? We engage in the creation of commodities all the time without truly grasping what it is we are doing: We are finding mirrors for the future, to instigate contradictions around who we are now.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s