Return of the Thing

Journal of Material Culture (three times a year)
February 21, 1997

The Journal of Material Culture is almost one year old. This is a tough time to be a newborn academic publication. Librarians, these days, think rather of making Herod-like cuts than of placing new orders. Academics want more to read like they want bigger classes and less pay.

The JMC is deliberately interdisciplinary, trying to get archaeologists, geographers, anthropologists and psychologists to talk to each other and address the basic question, What are these things called "things"? An initial programmatic editorial offers vistas of a better, polyphonic world. The risk is that different disciplines will simply talk past each other and that, like the excellent but defunct Res, there will be no solid core of readership to sustain the publication. Wisely, the editors disclaim the aim to found a new discipline. The rank 1960s growth of the now-moribund science of semiotics remains a lesson to us all.

Predictably, articles tend to redefine "thingness". What we thought was passive is better seen as active, what was static becomes dynamic and what was given by nature is really culturally constructed so that the central linking concept is constantly undermined. Matter becomes anti-matter. Objects become products of the process of objectification.

The differences between the disciplines are clear from the start and create a rather itchy mix. The archaeological component oddly combines documentation of fanatical detail and hypotheses of wild surmise, the search for something - almost anything - that will lend significance to all those facts. Colin Richards's study of henges and water and Richard Bradley's of long houses, long mounds and Neolithic enclosures both borrow extensively from anthropology but remain, finally, inconclusive. The basic tragedy of archaeology goes unarticulated: that there is no simple and predictable way to read off social, cultural and cognitive structures from the material alone.

The anthropological contributions impress more by their ability to bring disparate material together than by the importance of their conclusions. Best by far is Alfred Gell's elegant and witty perambulation of the art/artefact debate, a work of art in itself. Consumer studies, usually the "sex and shopping" end of social science, endlessly trudge back and forth across that arid and self-righteous plain defined by the postholes of Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard and James Clifford with no shortage of verbose discours-ese and pious hopes such as "finding the fingerprints of oppression" on a bunch of grapes. Having seen through hegemonic western knowledge, perhaps all that is left is for us to view such articles as "artefacts implicated in the construction, maintenance and transformation of social identities".

Yet some pieces do seem genuinely to leap across the epistemological gap. Two studies on the social and cultural context of technological choice, Dorothy Hosler on Las Animas and Bill Sillar on Andean mummification, are both solid and original and will be usefully mined by several disciplines.

The third volume, it must be said, is a far happier blend than its predecessors. Parts of it, Brian McVeigh on Japanese "cuteness" and Rebecca Ginsburg on the invisibility of tampons, are just plain fun. Perhaps the JMC has finally found its feet and its voice.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

Journal of Material Culture (three times a year)

Editor - Daniel Miller and Christopher Tilley Sage
ISBN - ISSN 1359 1835
Publisher - Sage
Price - £28.00 (indiv.) £90.00 (inst.)
Pages - -

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