Material Culture: Habitats and Values

Advanced Seminar

November 3–7, 1996

The relationship between historically different analyses of commodity exchange and of those objects designated as “art” was the subject of a seminar titled “Material Culture: Habitats and Values.” Participants from the U.S., England, and Australia discussed recent research in several intersecting arenas of material culture: exchange theory, which asks how value is constituted; the movement of objects in a cultural hierarchy from things to artifacts to fine art; and the circulation of objects between cultures. “Our central theme was material culture and its transformation of value through movement between contexts,” said Fred Myers of New York University, who organized the seminar with Annette B. Weiner, also of NYU.

Material culture studies traditionally have focused on the technologies of production and the physical qualities of material objects. More recently, anthropologists have begun to explore material culture as an expression of social relationships. “In part, this is a result of the reintroduction of concerns about what objects communicate,” Myers said. “Museum exhibitions were reinvigorated as problems of representation, and objects came to be seen as embedded in more complex social relations.”

At the same time, anthropological work on exchange had become concerned with such issues as what it meant for objects to move between contexts, how giving and receiving defined relationships between people, and how material objects could communicate identity. The goals of the seminar were to generate a set of underlying relationships from these separate theoretical frameworks, to develop a language to talk about the relational properties of material culture, and to map out a deeper understanding of how things acquire meaning in production, circulation, and consumption.

By the end of the seminar week, according to Myers, “all categories had been revised.” The gift/commodity dichotomy, for instance, in which gifts are presumed to be more the bearers of social identity, was found to be no longer a meaningful distinction. Rather than talking about gift economies and commodity economies, participants agreed that different kinds of exchange were concentrated in different arenas of social life within every society. The issue of how objects are classified within different regimes of value, and what they stand for, was identified as an important site for study.

Seminar discussions focused on connecting cutting-edge work on exchange theory with the problem of the boundaries between high and low, addressing questions such as: How do objects become art? How has art appropriated and reproduced national identities? “We were trying to arrive at a common set of theoretical issues and develop a language to talk about the relational properties of material culture,” Myers said. “That sounds abstract, but the papers themselves were very concrete. It’s the linkage between the worlds that was difficult.”

The most exciting moment of the week, Myers reported, came with the recognition that nationalism and modernity were at the heart of both exchange theory and art hierarchies. “We were struggling to understand what nationalism is and how art as a category of object can become the vehicle of national identity. The interest in material culture and exchange really grew out of the development of capitalism in the West and the increasing emphasis placed on commodities. The same is true of our understanding of art since 1850.”

Fred R. Myers, Chair Department of Anthropology, New York University Framing Aboriginal Art: The Circulation of Western Desert Acrylic Painting
Annette B. Weiner, Chair Department of Anthropology, New York University The Object of Translation: Notes on 'Art' and Autonomy in a Post-colonial Context
Annie E. Coombes Department of History of Art, Birkbeck College, University of London The Object of Translation: Notes on 'Art' and Autonomy in a Post-Colonial Context
Ivan Karp Institute of Liberal Arts, Emory University Real Objects, Simulated Experiences and Cultural Differences: Paradox and Tensions in the Making of Exhibits
Webb Keane Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Objects as Signs, Signs as Objects
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett Department of Performance Studies, New York University Discussant
Claudio Lomnitz Department of History, University of Chicago Independence and Ideology in Mexican History
Daniel Miller Department of Anthropology, University College-London Alienable Gifts and Inalienable Commodities
Christopher B. Steiner School of World Art Studies and Museology, University of East Anglia Statues and Statutes: On the Legal Identity of Things
Nicholas Thomas Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University Native and/or National: Indigenous References in Antipodean Modernism

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