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editorial2015

MCU0010.1177/1359183515622834Journal of Material CultureGeismar et al.

Journal of

MATERIAL
CULTURE

Editorial

Twenty Years On

Journal of Material Culture


2016, Vol. 21(1) 37
The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/1359183515622834
mcu.sagepub.com

Haidy Geismar, Susanne Kchler


and Timothy Carroll
Department of Anthropology, University College London, UK

In 1996, the first editorial in the first issue of this Journal defined material culture
studies as
the investigation of the relationship between people and things irrespective of time and space.
The perspective adopted may be global or local, concerned with the past or the present, or the
mediation between the two. Defined in this manner, the potential range of contemporary
disciplines involved in some way or other in studying material culture is effectively as wide as
the human and cultural sciences themselves. (Editorial Board, 1996: 5)

In this way, the editors staked a ground for a non-sectarian, undisciplined approach to the
study of the material world that they construed as inherently social. They also proposed
that the methods, and theoretical frames, to draw out meaning from within objects, be
grounded with relational perspective that they framed as a dialectic in which persons
and things are involved in a cyclical process of mutual constitution. The first issue contained articles on art and agency, landscape, pottery, consumption and religion, written
by anthropologists, archaeologists and sociologists.
Twenty years on, much has changed but the original ethos of the Journal a commitment to a broad-based, undisciplined, global perspective on material culture has
remained. Since this initial framing, the analytic scaffold for understanding material culture studies has greatly expanded. It is not an exaggeration to say that an appreciation for
material culture has become mainstream in many fields, from sociology to art history,
philosophy and science studies.
This remarkable growth of interest in and thinking about material culture has allowed
us to refine several of the frameworks established in the first editorial. In the first instance,
the language that we use to describe things, objects and artefacts has itself come under
scrutiny. The frameworks we might draw on for the interpretation of the relations between
people and things (broadly conceived) has been enriched by work that insists on not just
a dialectical model, but rather draws on concepts of materialism (Fowler and Harris,
Corresponding author:
Timothy Carroll, Department of Anthropology, University College London, 14 Taviton Street, London
WC1H 0BW, UK.
Email: t.carroll@ucl.ac.uk

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Journal of Material Culture 21(1)

2015), ontology (Rio, 2009), vibrancy (Bartolini, 2015), affect (Born, 2011), and valency
(Taylor, 2015) in order to describe the multilayered ways in which persons and things
might be drawn into relations with one another. Lively debates have ensued as to the
proper subject of material culture studies, which range from Ingolds (2007) advocacy
of a focus on materials instead of materiality to a turn towards ontology that has suggested the decomposition of the very master categories in favour of multiple and different object worlds (Henare et al., 2007). It is clear from these debates that material culture
studies is linked to what some have termed the crisis of representation and, for many,
subjectobject relations has become a shorthand for a way of talking about the interconnection between the material world and the ways in which we describe it.
The Journals initial intention was
not to draw together studies of contemporary consumer goods, landscapes, archaeological
finds, studies of architecture, artworks or ethnographic collections into a new, disciplined
subject area, or even a subdiscipline, but to encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas and
approaches between people concerned with the material constitution of social relations.
(Editorial Board, 1996: 5)

A scan of the Journals author list, and the choice to keep the editorial base within the
anthropology department at UCL, exposes how much this cross-fertilization in fact relies
on and converses with the critical perspectives and methodological rigours of anthropology. The Journal has intentionally privileged ethnographically rich methodological
enquiry in which grand claims and social theory must be drawn into dialogue with real
world evidence, drawn not simply from case studies but from deep and qualitative
engagement. However, by being deliberately agnostic beyond these general principles,
and in the absence of a canonized body of texts that encode theory and disciplinary
method, the Journal has also been able to carve out a space for the working up of new
theoretical and methodological thinking grown out of an intense scrutiny of material
worlds, their idiosyncratic normalcies and perplexing distinctiveness. In this way, the
Journal has been at the vanguard of emerging shifts in theory, from a focus on production
and consumption to divestment (Norris, 2004; Reno, 2009), and for the generation of a
nuanced perspectives on materials and substances (Ferme and Schmitz, 2014; Weismantel
and Meskell, 2014), or theorizing the nuanced materiality of digital archiving practices
(Christie and Verran, 2013; Ngata et al., 2012).
The third contribution that the Journal has made has been perhaps more subtle and
certainly was an unintended consequence of its undisciplined yet ethnographic stance.
By publicly framing material worlds and the manifold and complex semiotic relations
they harbour as worthy of critical inquiry, the Journal has brought together diverse disciplines from across the social and historical sciences, in a move that we hope will eventually spark a radical rethinking of the proximity of disciplines that presently are still
researching and teaching alongside each other in a more parochial manner, rather than
critically engaging across fields. This special issue presents a series of curated articles,
chosen by the editors at the time (Geismar and Kchler) in order to spur on nascent fields
of enquiry that will help shape the ongoing discussions in the pages of this Journal
regarding the nature of relations between and within people and things. These selected

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Geismar et al.

articles invite us to consider the material qualities of social lives, the interpretive and
methodological issues that arise from working directly with material culture, and the
complex immaterialities and absences yet to be brought into our theoretical paradigms.
The articles presented here were chosen deliberately to present what we consider to be
models of different perspectives on material culture studies that embody the commitment
of the Journal to be both non-disciplinary and intellectually rigorous.
We start the collection with Severin Fowles account of recent debates around interpretation and materiality within archaeology and ethnography. Fowles offers a detailed
historical account of the growth of material culture studies in relation to the crisis of
representation. He locates a correlation, if not the causation, of the material turn in the
context of the post-colonial problems of representation and the imperialist heritage of
anthropological enquiry and objectification of the Other. Fowles polemically critiques
the entire project of material culture studies as it is defined by archaeology and anthropology and their colonial legacies. In doing so, he opens up a critical dialogue concerning the state of our non-disciplinary project. What, we might ask, would material culture
studies look like if it was properly decolonized?
Following this piece, Natasha Eaton presents us with an alternative genealogy of the
connection between colonialism and material culture studies (as an appreciation of
objects) seen through the lens of pearls and their shining quality or pearlescence.
Eatons attention to the problem of context, both in the European and traditionally colonial settings, unpacks the richness of the artefact of the pearl not only as an object but as
a space of enquiry with its own contexts and recontextualizations. Drawing on the kind
of material flux suggested by Taussig (2008) with regard to indigo, wherein the polymorphous qualities of the material reverberate out into social, material and ideological
spheres, Eaton paints a rich picture of the material culture of pearls, both historic and
contemporary. For Eaton, the colonial frame is opened up by the objects themselves that
resist, counterbalance and insistently intervene into this context.
Next in the sequence, Fernando Dominguez Rubio also reclaims colonial (in this case
museum) space, by shifting analysis to a context harboured inside the art object.
Dominguez Rubio examines closely the intricate artificial nature by which art objects are
stabilized and maintained as objects. This highly detailed account allows Dominguez
Rubio to articulate a clear distinction between thing as a material entity that changes
through time and object as a set position held by that thing. Through his analysis of
the social and material orchestration needed to maintain an art piece in an object position, Dominguez Rubio draws our attention to the critical role of an ecological approach
to material things, exemplified by the conservator, rather than the art historian, or anthropologist. The situated practice of conservation provides a very different vantage point,
and creates a different kind of thing. The Mona Lisa is as much a technique of stabilizing
the visitor through the careful conservation of oil paint on wood as it is a work of the
genius of Leonardo da Vinci.
Max Liboirons article explores the nature of plastic pollution and the interpretive
issues that it raises for our understanding of the relations between materials and the wider
social, economic and legal frameworks that have been developed to understand and regulate these materials. Working within an ecological approach that links the microscopic to
the epochal, Liboiron addresses the problems relating to how plastics operate as an

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Journal of Material Culture 21(1)

insidious material, moving well past its intended purposes, and how legislative policy
across the global north is not, at present, capable of grappling with the real, yet difficult
to demonstrate, toxic causal and correlative impact of plastic polymers, monomers and
associated chemicals. Her article highlights the problematics of the affective space of
materials unintended, empirically difficult (or impossible) to demonstrate a causal link,
and lasting far longer than the human subject. In the age of the Anthropocene, Liboiron
asks, should we have a material culture approach which looks well beyond the presence
of humans.
Following this, Jennifer Degers article addresses the contemporary practices in
Aboriginal Australia in which people use mobile phone photo technology in order to
re-mediate the ancestral and familial presence. Taking a cue from Geertz, Deger offers
us an account of thick photography in which photographs bring together cultural
meanings, social relations, symbolic and material forms to form themselves as total
social facts. Deger demonstrates how Yolngu family members create the affective space
within mobile phone photo apps, collapsing the distances between geographically
removed kin and living and deceased relatives. Degers ethnography offers us a robust
materialism that at once explores the interocular subjectivity of images passed between
phones and placed in the context of montage images downloaded from the internet, but
does so in a way that squarely situates the very human sensibility of maintaining kin
relations at the very centre of these practices.
Finally, Carlo Severi provides a detailed comparative ethnographic account that revisits the classic case of the nail fetish. In this piece, we highlight our commitment to present
works in translation, in an attempt to overcome the Anglocentricity of the Journal (see
also Galliot, 2015). Severi asks how authority is produced in a context that, in contrast to
the European classical tradition, does not have received traditions of canonical text. By
examining the chimeric qualities of masks, Fang music and fetish production, Severi
thinks against the grain of the singular artefact by exploring its inherent multiplicity,
exposed in linguistic, musical and material registers, condensing multiple identities into a
single one rather than enacting a single identity in several material instantiations.
Taken in total, the six articles in this special issue offer a highly diverse array of
perspectives and analytical styles. In one reading of the collection, Fowles article opens
the debate with a strong problematization of the project of material culture itself: Is it
possible for us to avoid the process of objectification, exoticization and (more implicit
than explicit in his article) the dominance of the Western scholar over the (now post-)
colonial subject within the analytic frame? To this problem, each successive article
could be read as an answer, as each proposes in its own way that material culture studies
can proceed outside the confines of representational crisis, whether it is in the use of
material qualities to critique the colonial project (Eaton), the illusion of artistic genius
(Dominguez Rubio), the insertion of Aboriginal cosmology into cell phones (Deger),
the problem of plastics for our representation of pollution (Liboiron), or the fashioning
of multiplicity (Severi).
Each of these articles is drawn from a different discipline art history, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, science and technology studies. The articles and the
conversation that unfolds between them accentuate the ways that artefacts, as concretizations of relations, are engaged in the production of possible futures for material

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Geismar et al.

culture studies. This collection demonstrates the success of the Journal in generating
cross-disciplinary conversation and consolidating a perspective on material culture
that is multiple, comparative, global, ethnographic, historical and engaged.
References
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Emails: Haidy Geismar: h.geismar@ucl.ac.uk; Susanne Kchler: s.kuechler@ucl.ac.uk

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