Daniel Miller's Stuff brings together in one compact volume a deftly rewritten and engaging retrospective summary of 30 years of cultural anthropology carried out in the Caribbean, London, India and elsewhere. At the core of the book is the "paradoxical" argument, pioneered by Miller, that to understand people we need to understand things and the dialectics of our relationships with them. In a nutshell, this is the material culture approach to understanding identity and social interaction. And it is a shot across the bows of those who reductively equate an interest in things (materialism, shopping and consumption) with the superficial, and those who bemoan the rise of consumer society as "symptomatic of a loss of depth in the world".
In keeping with his desire to make us "give a stuff about stuff", Miller clearly explains, with minimal jargon, both the theories of things from Hegel to Marx and Georg Simmel that underpin the material culture approach, and what the latter can do. The deal clincher is its deployment of the Hegelian concept of objectification to understand, theoretically and practically, how people can (I think at least partially) overcome what Marx saw as "alienation" under capitalism. So instead of the loss of control over production irrevocably producing a harmful split or dichotomy between people and things, subjects and objects, the material culture approach stresses the dialectics of objectification, as value and meaning pass back and forth between people and things in their everyday use.
So from clothing, home decoration and furnishings to media, the internet and mobile phones, Miller shows how things, far from being either permanently alienated overpowering ideological objects, or merely existing as the banal or ephemeral background stuff of life, instead make us as people as much as we make them. Thus, while houses ("the elephants of stuff"), in their "hard strong material presence", can achieve mastery of "us" by teaching us class, gender and other social relations and dispositions, the values and meanings objectified in housing are themselves subject to change. And it is the process of material reappropriation that potentially changes us, too, as our sense of gendered identity is, for example, opened up by our interaction with things. With regard to exteriors, Miller argues that middle-class resistance to modernism was objectified in "suburban colonies" with their "bay windows, pebble dash and porches", just as in the personalisation of the interiors of council flats, working-class alienation was challenged also. In both cases, housing is accommodated (or transformed) by us as well as simply accommodating us, by reinforcing a fixed given.
Yet the quiet "humility of things" means stuff gets overlooked. With regard to clothing, Miller tackles head-on the argument that style is necessarily superficial by interrogating Western philosophical assumptions that being must universally be a matter of inner meaning and depth. Whether it's the practice of wearing street style in Trinidad or saris in India, clothes emerge as no mere semiotic representation of a deeper fixed interior being. Rather, it is dress and dressing itself that produce the subjective sense of being.
Reversing the surface/depth hierarchy of Enlightenment thought, Miller reveals how for the Trinidadian or Indian woman, every surface flash of colour and twist of cloth performatively creates and recreates being and the specificities of territorial or gendered identity. Juxtaposing the assumed Western universal with the particularities of other cultures means, he says, "there is no reason at all why we should consider our real being to be deep inside and falsity on the outside". So Stuff challenges both the academic orthodoxy and common-sense view that "denigrates material culture in our own society" but elevates and valorises it in anthropological studies of exoticised, spatially and temporally distant "others".
Stuff, then, really is a little gem. Timely, well written and highly accessible, it is a concise and grounded resource in the struggle to analyse the complexities of contemporary cultural life. When so much religious, political and media discourse casually and reductively draws attention to both the "materialism" of our age and, one-sidedly, to its damaging social and ecological effects, Miller's book is a find. For undergraduates and general critical readers alike, it will be a welcome and thought-provoking reminder that the material world of things we have created, and which in turn helps to create us, needs to be understood dialectically - for better and for worse.
Finally, as the global economic and climate crises remind us of the continued prescience of Marx's theory of alienation, subsumed in Stuff's Hegelian appropriation of the positive possibilities of objectification, the book's planned sequel, Consumed by Doubt, looks promising too. This volume, Miller explains, will focus on the contradictory consequences of materialism on the environment. Given that capitalism appears increasingly like Marx's sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers he has conjured up, this looks likely to be very interesting stuff, too.
By Daniel Miller. Polity Press, 220pp. £50.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745644233 and 44240. Published 23 October 2009