Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Encumbered Numbered Words

The introduction of material cultural studies into my web of knowledge has really got my ideas of history turned upside down. I had never previously questioned the authority of the written word in the study of the past. It seemed to be the most efficient and authentic means of communication. Now that I'm thinking about it, that might not necessarily be the case - and at the very least, we really mustn't let the messages of non-verbal aspects of the past fall on deaf ears.

If we look back to before there was language, human beings communicated with gestures or with the help of objects. This was the oldest means of cultural expression. There has to be something said for the diversity of language and how that surely implies a loss of meaning through translation and interpretation of word. Applying words almost reduces the human experience, in a sense, because it is limited to only one kind of interpretation that resembles a classification system and does not consider meaning we derive from our senses. Words are tools used to describe something - words don't really have inherent meaning, but the things they are defining do.

So, do artifacts really speak louder than words?

There's something about being in the presence of an artifact that takes us out of the present time and transports us somewhere else. As Schlereth has noted in his introduction to material culture, "artifacts are here in our time, but we're also there in their time." We are given more of an affective experience, in which we feel what the humans of the past felt by coming in contact with the materials that were part of their existence.

With that said, there are some things to be wary of while interpreting material culture. Sometimes, when the sensory experience is glorified and exaggerated in the field of history, via living history museums or experimental archaeology, it is possible to create a situation where actual history, heritage, and culture are lost in a cloud of emotion. This phenomenon has been referred to as "edutainment" or "Dineyfication." While having an emotional connection with the past is important, it should be experienced through material objects or places that are actually representative of that past rather than through fabricated tourist traps that takes the past out of context.

Part of me is also hesitant to go along with the argument that studying artifacts gives us a less biased account of the past. While it is true that texts have authors to manipulate their words according to a number of personal factors and objects from the past were not in this way directly affected by their owners - someone had to make it - and while this process of production can tell us a lot about the culture from which it was born, can it not also tell us about the biases of its maker? For example, a small jewelry box from the Victorian era can tell us a lot about the values of bourgeois women at that time, but the small thistle engraved on the bottom of the box can speak volumes about the biases of the Scottish nationalist who created it.

Perhaps that's not a sound example, but surely, the biases that come out in the creation of a written work also come out in creation of any kind, be it artwork, carpentry, or textile manufacturing....and let's be honest, in the world of material culture studies, where the culture and not the object should be the main interest of study, what exactly are we looking for if not the values and biases of humans in the past?

So - as I've been thinking about these issues over the last two days - it turns out that there's a lot more I could be studying than the literature of dead white guys.

Material culture - I think I like it.

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