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What do objects do? A material and visual culture perspective.


Things create people as much as people make them.

(Tilley, 1999:76)

From a theoretical point of view it is obvious that people do encode metaphorical meanings
into things which would themselves have no meaning. But from the point of view of
methodology, of the analysis of material forms, things once created work themselves to
reproduce or transform the social contexts in which they are encountered and move.

Introduction – biographical objects, objectification and the study of material culture

The application of the notion of biography to objects has distinct theoretical and
methodological consequences. What this essay question draws attention to is that comparisons
can be drawn between the biographies of persons and the biographies of things - people think
through the world through objects, and that objects, like human subjects have agency (Gell,
1998). The term biography means a written account of a person‟s life, which is usually done
by another. An object can never be the author of its own biography or of another object in the
way that humans are able to author their‟s and other‟s life stories. There is no escape from the
subject, but objects do to a certain degree dictate how they are appropriated, objectified and
re-contextualized over space and time – for example, the actual materiality of the object sets
limits on its social function, its production, and its modification through subsequent cultural
transformation of value through exchange and whether as gift or commodity (Thomas, 1991).

It is my intention to take as impetus Tilley‟s (1999, 1991) application of metaphor to material

culture in order to consider the implications of applying the term „biography‟ as a
predominantly textual and metaphorical term. Discussions concerning things which have
„biographies‟ highlight many issues and cover many disciplines such as art history
(Baxandall, 1974) and economics and consumption (Miller, 1995;Fine, 2002) – all of which
are far too numerous to mention within the space of this essay. My focus on what biographies
of objects bring to light will be on objectification (Miller, 1987), the metaphorical materiality
of text and image (Tilley, 2004, 1999, 1991), and recontextualization (Thomas, 2001, 1991)
and the artefact as event (Strathern, 1990).

The consideration of biographical objects challenges dominant, Western and Enlightenment

narratives that create a dualism between subjects and objects, whereby the object is always
seen as mute in relation to the subject as absolute agent of action. As Heidegger discusses in
his essay Age of the World Picture, the Enlightenment man of reason made a picture of the
world, and separated it off from himself in order to understand and exploit it. A methodology
which applies the notion of biography to things recovers man‟s embodied relation to the

The current aim of material culture studies, as multi-displinary and within the anthropology
department at University College London (which include amongst others; Tilley, 1999, 1991;
Miller, 1995, 1987; Pinney, 2004; Kuchler, 2001), and from which I take my lead, is to
develop Hegelian, Marxist, and Bourdieurian materialist theories through ethnographic
research in order to de-fetishize objects and to find a more worthy model of engagement with

the world. Anthropology is the study of social relationships and material culture is the study
of objects. Objects are closely linked to what people do and social processes, for as Simmel
argues… „human values do not exist other than through their objectification in material
forms‟ (Miller, 1998b:19). This rationalization can also be extended to allow a certain
rationalization of the being of objects and an argument for the ontology of things (Gell, 1998:
Latour, 1993).

The way individuals and groups objectify their identities allows an understanding of culturally
specific social practices. This approach aims to go beyond physiognomic analysis to question
the artifice of Enlightenment categorizations of the cultural and natural world which subjects
and objects inhabit. The recognition of the contextual, cultural, temporal and spatial
characteristics of things is crucial to this ethnographic re-assessment of modernity‟s
universalizing and homogenizing influences on notions of history. Material culture considers
the methodological consequences of realizing an object‟s agency, its response capacities and
its abilities to carry information; for example Gell‟s anthropological theory of art is; „the
social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency‟ (1998:7).

One of the most fundamental theories to the study of material culture, and by extension
biographical objects, is that of objectification. As Miller argues, „…social worlds are as much
constituted by materiality as the other way around…‟ (1998: 8). Objectification considers the
construction and translation of social relations, culture and value systems through artefacts,
and has three primary concerns. First of all the concept of knowledge and identity is possible
through objects. Secondly, knowledge is carried by relations among relations of things – i.e.
the object has a certain agency (Gell, 1998). Thirdly, there are methodological consequences
of objectification as a theory.

Hegel‟s understanding of the dialectic between subject and object, in Phenomenology of the
Spirit ([1807]; 1977), has been of primary importance to the concept of objectification and
theories of object(s) agency, whereby the subject and object have a feed back relationship. In
perpetual fusion and separation, the subject and object leave an imprint on one another,
enabling a secondary objectivity. Subjectivity is objectified and vice versa, and it is this which
makes possible the application of the notion of biography to things.

Subsequent anthropological and material culture theories and methodologies have taken into
account this dialectical approach to objects and subjects in order to recover the significance of
things as making possible human social relations. Daniel Miller‟s (1998a) theory of shopping
in North London as an act of love, for example, critiques a modernist and post-modernist
assumption of consumption as an evil and excessive act to instead argue that the way people
appropriate objects is far from passive – consumption enables them to perform their specific
social identities. This dialectical understanding can also be linked to tactual and muscular
philosophy‟s of the act such as that of George Herbert Mead (1972) as adopted in post-
processual archeology (Hodder, 1995), and phenomenological methodologies (Merleau-
Ponty, 1962; Tilley, 2004; Pinney, 2004) in which the distinction between man (culture) and
the world (nature) is reexamined to instead posit a mutually intertwined „fleshy‟ relation to
one another:

Phenomenology involves the attempt to describe the objects of consciousness in the manner in
which they are presented to consciousness. It attempts to reveal the world as it is actually
experienced directly by a subject as opposed to how we might theoretically assume it to be.
(Tilley, 2004:1)

A further ethnographically based approach is to problematize the dualism between gift (as
inalienable and non-Western) and commodity (as alienable and Western) as discussed by
Mauss (2001) [1925] in relation to gift giving, and Marx (1976) [1867] in relation to
commodity in systems of exchange (Miller, 2001). For Miller ethnography is the absolute
fulcrum of anthropological study, and it is this which teases out the limitations of
universalizing theory such as that of Bourdieu and Lévi-Strauss‟ structuralist method. It is
Miller‟s (ibid) argument that the gift can be alienable and the commodity can be inalienable in
different cultural contexts, and in terms of the performance of identity by individuals and
groups through objectification.

Not all objects are perceived to have a social life, and this is dependent on a number of factors
such as cultural context (Appadurai, 1986; Kopytoff, 1986), history (Lubar & Kingery, 1993),
and politics (Thomas, 2001):

In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about
people: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its 'status' and in the
period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from
and who made it? What had been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal
career for such things? What are the recognized 'ages' or periods in the thing's 'life', and what
are the cultural markers for them? How does the thing's use change with its age, and what
happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness? (Kopytoff 1986: 66)

To be thought of as having a social life, objects first have to be distinguished as artefacts of

interest by their human subject biographers. The consequence of this is that many objects are
simply ignored and not considered as having an agency that impacts upon, or is bound up in
that of their human counterparts. Bourdieu‟s (1977, 1984) application of the term habitus to
the Algerian Berber home, as the principle which negotiates between practices and objective
structures, functions as an analogy to the social systems in which Berber society operates. In
this case the object which is distinguished is subservient to and merely illustrative of the
person. The person-hood Bourdieu acknowledges in objects, through a sociological
methodology, has been widely critiqued as homogenizing and universalizing. This
physiognomic approach to objects is limiting and fails to take into account the specific
cultural temporal and spatial contexts which a concept of objects with biographies offers.

What is common to many theories concerned with the “life-histories” of things as a means of
understanding how human social practices are objectified, is their focus on cultural context.
Kopytoff and Appadurai approach in The Social Life of Things (1986) to mapping human
identities through the biographies of things has had a huge impact on material culture studies.
Their argument is that instead of contrasting objects with exchange value (such as
commodities) to those of use value (such as a Maussian notion of the gift), it is more
illuminating to attend to the social history or cultural biography of objects which instead
reveal the politics of value, whereby at any point an object‟s value or „singularization‟
(Kopytoff, ibid) may be reversed. An example of this could be the transformation from use to
exchange value that African artefacts undergo once circulating in the global art market.

Bourdieu‟s (1977, 1984) application of the term habitus to the Algerian Berber home, as the
principle which negotiates between practices and objective structures, functions as an analogy
to the social systems in which Berber society operates. In this case the object which is
distinguished is subservient to and merely illustrative of the person. The person-hood
Bourdieu acknowledges in objects, through a sociological methodology, has been widely

critiqued as homogenizing and universalizing. This physiognomic approach to objects is
limiting and fails to take into account the specific cultural temporal and spatial contexts which
a concept of objects with biographies offers.

What is common to many theories concerned with the “life-histories” of things as a means of
understanding how human social practices are objectified, is their focus on cultural context.
Kopytoff and Appadurai approach in The Social Life of Things (1986) to mapping human
identities through the biographies of things has had a huge impact on material culture studies.
It can be argued that the rehabilitation of material culture in anthropology and other
disciplines, and the focus on things with biographies is an attempt to re-instate the sovereignty
of the subject. I intend to come back to the ramifications of a theoretical and methodological
focus on biography and the cultural contexts of things which make the object subservient to
the subject in the conclusion. Things and the metaphor of „biography‟

From the standpoint of culture, the values of life are civilized nature…they appear as
developments of a basis that we call nature and whose power and intellectual content they
surpass in so far as they become culture…the material products of culture…in which natural
material is developed into forms which could never have been realized by their own energies,
are products of our own desires and emotions, the result of ideas that utilize the available
possibilities of objects…by cultivating objects, that is by increasing their value beyond the
performance of their natural constitution, we cultivate ourselves…
(Simmel, 1997: 37)

My understanding of biography in terms of things is that it functions as a metaphor to

highlight the analogies between human and non-human life-cycles. The notion of „biography‟
is predominantly tied to the textual and the cultural as exemplified in language as an arbitrary
system of convention and meaning. The object, in comparison is traditionally thought of in
terms of a visual, less mediated and natural system of communication. To describe an object
as having a biography is a metaphorical strategy to enable fresh perspectives on the dualisms
of subject/ object, nature/ culture, and image/ text; „…speech, phonetic writing and material
culture all involve a similar materialist practice…All are fundamentally to do with
communication between persons and the creation of meaning‟ (Tilley, 1991:16). Lévi-Strauss
(1966, 1962), the anthropologist and Structuralist thinker, was influential in considering how
elements of the natural world – such as animals were used as „signs‟ by “primitive” man to
objectify and communicate complex kinship and social systems. Similar to Nancy Munn‟s
study of Australian Aboriginal Walpiri visual systems (1973), Lévi- Strauss‟ structural
methodology aims to question the view of so called “primitive” modes of communication to
reveal the similarities in complexity to “non-primitive” communicative systems, and the fact
that seemingly disparate objects of study share similar underlying structures. This method can
be criticized on two accounts; firstly, it fails to take account culturally specific historical
contexts, and secondly, it reduces visual systems and objects as modes of meaning making to
“non-primitive” linguistic models and analysis. Lévi-Strauss struggles with the use of
metaphor within a social science methodology, and it is this that Tilley (1999) attempts to re-
address in Metaphor and Material Culture, and later through a phenomenological approach in
Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology (2004).

The application of the notion of biography, (as temporal and spatial), to objects is an
inherently metaphorical and ontological methodology. The recognition of objects which have
biographies embeds man and social relations within the „fleshiness‟ of the world. This can be
seen as a move away from post-modernist (Baudrillard, 1996 ) and post-structuralist (Derrida,

1976) thought which fails to escape the confines of man‟s artificial construction of the world
(in the absence of it being presented to him as it really is) through the creation of speech,
phonetic writing and material culture.

The artefact in relational networks indexes the social relational networks in which it
circulates, „…the stipulation I make is that the index is itself seen as the outcome, and/or the
instrument of social agency‟ (Gell, 1998: 15). One of Gell‟s most central premises is the
notion of patient and agent relations, where at any point a patient can become and agent and
vice versa. However, it is worthwhile noting that Gell privileges the agent-hood of humans
over and above that of objects. Gell as a biographer of efficacious objects advances the
proposition that it is possible to make the social lives of objects analogous to the human

Gell (1998) makes use of Husserl‟s notion of time and protension and retension in order to
draw attention to the way societies construct themselves through complex subject and object
networks of relations, which are not necessarily representative of a linear understanding of
past, present and future events. Similarly, Strathern makes use of a non-linear historical
appreciation of things in her essay „The Artefacts of History: Events and the interpretation of
Images‟ (1990). What Strathern and Gell suggest is that objects simultaneously allow a past
and a future in a present, whatever that may be and in light of cultural and contextual
differences. However, Strathern is far closer to the Latourian point of view which sees objects
as far more than animated illustrations or indexes of human social relations. I will come back
to this point later.

In We Have Never Been Modern (1993), Latour is radically opposed to theories of the
„animism‟ of the object (as expounded by Gell for example). Latour argues that since the
seventeenth century and the age of the Enlightenment, subjects and objects have been
artificially separated off from one another through the separation of the natural and social
sciences as a means for categorization of objects. Latour explores the notion of quasi-objects
to question such historical distinctions and the social, political and cultural significance of the
terminologies of human and non-human. For Latour we have always been at home in a
“nonmodern” world of hybrid permutations of social/ natural objects – for him modern (post-
Enlightenment) narratives of the world house inescapable internal contradictions. Similar to
Heidegger‟s concerns in his essay „Age of the World Picture‟ as referred in the introductory
section of this essay, Latour names this as the „”impossible process of purification”‟, in which
“culture” was made distinct from “nature”. For Latour the notion of biography is too deeply
rooted in “culture”, making it a masked methodology for the re-inscription of man‟s
rationalization of the world and therefore not that distant from the subject/ object dualisms it
claims to be dissolving.

Two biographies of objects

1) African pots

If one wants to distinguish an object of interest it is relatively easy to do so. Telling an objects
life-story illustrates how societies relate to the material world beyond abstract thought. It
offers the anthropologist the opportunity to draw attention to many rich and diverse social and
cultural contexts. I will take two brief examples to illustrate how artefactual evidence
illustrates systems of knowledge.

Pots in African cultural contexts are often metaphorical visualizations of people‟s perceptions
of the world:

The overwhelmingly majority of African pots are made by women…Pottery and female
bodies and their powers are often associated, so that procreation may be explicitly compared
to the process of potting…The patterns used to decorate pottery are not infrequently those
used to mark the human body, so that pottery becomes an idiom in which to think about
fundamental issues of life, death and social transformation. (Barley, 2000)

Like Bourdieu‟s example of the Berber home, African pots can be seen as objectifying
structures of social practice. Many examples of African pots can be found in the Sainsbury
Gallery at the British Museum, London. These objects have been re-contextualised (Thomas,
1991) away from their place of origin and social function, and transformed into decorative art
objects within a museum setting . These (often anthropomorphic) objects, as used in small-
scale societies, and function as crucial metaphors of the human as an embodied social agent.
They constitute some of the most primary ways in which people and cultures make sense of
an otherwise unfathomable world, and support Tilley‟s claim that „things are ontologically
constitutive of our social being‟ (1999: 10). The biographies of objects such as African pots
support Kopytoff and Appadurai‟s (1986) claims that things objectify culture. Artefacts are
objectifications of self-knowledge of individuals and groups – they are a concrete
embodiment of an idea or concept. The metaphorical analogies between the pots and the
beliefs held in traditional and modern African social life is discussed at length by Nigel
Barley (1994):

…official ideologies of African villagers and Western archeologists show that humble pots
are involved in other levels of culture than the practicalities of everyday life and enter into
maps of human knowledge. They lend themselves to the embodying of power relations.
In Africa…they also provide models for thinking about the human body, the seasons of the
year, processes of procreation and reincarnation. They are, as Lévi-Strauss would say,
eminently „good to think‟. (ibid: 17)

Things often objectify the person who produces and makes use of them, such as Hoskins
describes in relation to Betel bags for Sumba people in Biographical Objects (1998). Once the
thing circulates in a different network and context its life can undergo change, and it may take
on a different personhood. Two things impact on this: firstly, the way the thing (once marked
as an object of distinction) is objectified by the subject – i.e. its functionality may completely
change; and secondly, its materiality affects how it may be used and adapted – there are
certain limitations, so its response capacities to some degree dictate how it continues to “live”.
As an exhibit within the British museum, these pots index much more than their social
function at their place of production. They tell a story of the European colonization of Africa
and the subsequent diasporic effect this has had upon peoples and objects; they tell a story of
the regimes of value and knowledge of people who have collected artefacts as illustrations of
material evolution and the supposed intellectual dominance of the post-Enlightenment
Occident. What the British Museum would now hope they objectify is that they are part of a
trans-national world, the British Museum as a global resource and representative of the many
different ethnic and cultural identities of “British” people today.

These pots are images and objects as events. As Tilley (1999) argues in relation to
Batammaluba architecture in West Africa, objects „take on important theatrical and
dramaturgical roles during the staging of social world‟ (ibid: 48). Things are objective models

of human experience. They are seeds that encapsulate the complexity of time and cultural
contexts – at any one moment holding a past, present and a future such as that described by
Strathern or Gell.

2) Hieratic pottery

Things are not merely mimetic of temporal and spatial human social relations, but embedded
within them – and similar to language, material things are metaphorical as carriers of meaning
and as tools for communication (Tilley, 1999).

The notion of things with a biography functions as a metaphor to bridge the gap between the
verbal as abstract thought and the non-verbal as sensual experience, linking the textual
description of objects to the world which is home to them (Tilley, 1999). Metaphor allows
distinct domains to be understood in terms of one another, similar to Lévi-Strauss‟
structuralist method. There are continual debates within the social sciences between the
dualisms of language versus object, text versus image, and culture versus nature, and the
application of the notion of biography to things is important in overcoming such dualisms.

The ancient Egyptian hieratic pottery held in The Petrie Museum, University College London,
combines both text and image. These fragments of pottery (ostraca) as objects tell their own
biography through their form, but also through the hieratic cursive and non-cursive script
(predominantly used from the first dynasty c.3050 - 500 BC) inscribed upon their surfaces -
these objects have material, visual and linguistic elements. It is possible to distinguish the
biographies of these ostraca precisely because the cursive and non-cursive hieroglyphs and
text on them work in harmony with their form, and tell their history in the present. For
example, Fig. 3 has a hieratic account of grain payments or issues in seven lines.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are by their nature pictorial, and combine ideograms, hieroglyphs
representing the meaning of the word, determinatives representing the class of the thing to
which the object belongs, and phonetic signs. Hieratic script is adapts hieroglyphics to make it
quicker to inscribe. Before 7th century BC, hieratic script was used in all areas of Egyptian
life – administrative, business, diplomatic, literary, didactic and private. Hieratic and the later
demotic (c.700 BC- 400 AD) script became more cursive and developed into less pictorial
forms, as the Rosetta Stone, currently held in the British Museum, and known as the most
famous piece of rock in the world, testifies (Parkinson, 2005).

Hieratic pottery (Hope, 2001) has been used to re-construct ancient Egyptian social systems
and kingdoms through an evolutionary model of material and technological development –
their biography has contributed to Egyptology. What the pottery reveals is the way ancient
Egyptians used image as a kind of text. The material and textual elements of each piece of
pottery function dialectically and stand in opposition to the current “modern” dualism of text
versus image. For example, the symbol for a house can be signified through an image as well
as a cursive symbol.

The principal characteristics of the pottery of the main periods of Egyptian history have now
been determined. With this information it is possible to analyze the pottery from most
contexts and suggest a reasonably secure dating, or range of dates, for the material. This
method of dating is used in conjunction with information derived from any inscriptions and
other objects found in the deposit. As well as providing dating evidence for a site, pottery can
indicate the activities carried out on some sites or part of them. (Hope, 2001: 49)

As relational (Gell, 1998) objects their story is part of that of the Rosetta Stone, which has
been used to “tell” (predominantly western) modernity and the development of language as
well as script from pictorial to cursive over time. Their biography is bound up in a story of
modes of communication that saw the progression from describing objects and the world
through image to text. The two worlds of the textual and the material come together upon the
site of these pieces of hieratic pottery. As metaphors, hieratic pottery can „…thus be said to
constitute the flesh of our language and the flesh of things. Linguistic metaphor and the solid
metaphors of material forms doubly constitute our meaning‟ (Tilley, 2004:23).

The artefact as seed

Beginning as an object that is out there, embedded and undistinguished from the rest of
nature, fixed first by sight and then touched by the magic of the hand, the artefact, in its
artifice, becomes a „collapsed act‟, a structure whose response is given in advance (Mead
1972: 121-2, 368-70). Thus, more than a geological specimen and more too than a
technological device, the artefact is a document that describes our past, an image that reflects
our present, and a sign that calls us on to the future. (Richardson, 1989:172)

These two biographies (of African pots and hieratic pottery) reveal how biographies of objects
aid human construction and re-construction of social practice through objectification. From
this point, I would like to move away from the term, „biography‟ to instead focus in the idea
of artefacts as seeds or events.

An Australian Aboriginal object known as a coolamon is an all-purpose bowl carved from a

tree trunk. Aboriginal coolamons are extremely useful in aboriginal life, and are one of the
few core material possessions constantly carried by Aboriginal people. These bowls are made
just from the bark of a tree, and are made by cutting the outline of the bowl into the bark and
then peeling it from the tree in one piece (this process leaves the tree scarred). After the bark
is obtained, it is then heated to make it pliable and the ends folded upwards. Coolamons are
used in a myriad of symbolic ways - for digging, carrying bush foods, separating grass seeds
from their husks, storage of food and water, cradles for newborn babes, ceremonial
boomerangs and shields.

The particular coolamon I will refer to has been used as a water carrier, but is now
temporarily under the guardianship of a British family in South London. What it now contains
are personal items of significance to both the original Australian Aboriginal owner and the
family to whom they presented it as a gift. The object has been recontextualised (Thomas,
1991, 2001), and in gifting it, the original owner has invested in his relationship with the
current hosts. The significance of this is that the object has taken on the combined stories of
people from different cultural contexts through the different objects it contains and its
movement through varying cultural territories. What is maintained is the way both parties see
it as a sacred object. The coolamon in this instance objectifies friendship and conjoins the past
and present social contexts through which it has lived. As a result, possible futures are
envisioned – both in its social life and that of its human guardians.

In her essay Artefacts of History: Events and the Interpretation of Image (1990), Strathern
refers to Sahlin‟s proposition that there „…is no event without system and this is how
anthropologists make knowledge for themselves, by investigating the system. The irreducible
relationship between event and structure is that between knowing subject and objects of
knowledge‟ (ibid: 27). An account of an object‟s biography can be seen to be just such an

investigation. The study of artefacts is linked to the study of time - events can be understood
through artefacts and events are the outcomes of social arrangements which do not necessarily
anticipate those events. The social transaction between the original Australian Aboriginal
owner and the South London family was one of making a gift. This gifting was an event:
„…both past and future time do not have to be placed into a historical context, for they
embody history themselves‟ (op.cit:25). Neither party could explain the exact reason why it
felt right that this once inalienable object should move to London, but just said that it “felt the
right thing to do”. As for the Malangan sculptures which Kuchler (2001) refers to, the image
still remains for the previous guardian – its absence is what makes the image so potent. With
its new guardian there is a real sense of the traces of the previous owner – it is this which
symbolizes the deep friendship that has developed over time as a result of a professional

This object has a relation to two kinds of person-hood; one that contains and retains, and one
that is concerned with sending something out in the hope that something comes back. The
latter is very much linked to a projection of the future, whereby any number of potential
outcomes of this gifting have yet to be played out. The coolamon takes on a significant
dramaturgical role, similar to that described by Strathern (1990) in relation to the event, as a
result of an image or an object, that is already provisionally provided for in the imagination of
the human biographer, yet brings pleasure when the surprise of what happens is more than
either guardian (as biographer) could have envisioned.

The coolamon was sent out in friendship and it retains the image of the previous guardian for
the current one because it is in their house. It means that something will come back, the event
of the return of the first owner to the family‟s house, or something beyond that. One of the
possibilities that had been discussed is that this coolamon, due to the fact that both guardians
work professionally in the arts, might be used in its originary function as a water carrier as
part of a ceremonial performance of the washing of the statue of Captain Cook outside the
Queen‟s house on The Mall in London.

The coolamon has been brought into being through nature and culture simultaneously - the
guardians recognize the way they have been folded in to it as an object and vice versa. Any
number of events, not yet anticipated may occur.

The response to this essay can either be „yes‟, or „no‟. A yes or no response can be argued
through any number of schools of thought (structuralism, post-modernism, phenomenology),
and each school permits both responses. I will discuss the theories of the postmodernist
thinker, Jean Baudrillard (1996) [1968] as a brief example of this. The theoretical intentions
of objectification stand in direct contrast to Baudrillard‟s belief that things, and specifically
technological objects, have a hyper-biography beyond man‟s control and comprehension. It is
possible to make use of Baudrillard‟s theory of simulation and simulacra, which is the process
whereby representations of things come to replace the things being represented, as a critique
of the possibility of applying the notion of biography to things. Baudrillard‟s argument is that
man in the modern technological era is no longer reassured by his power over objects because
he no longer participates in their physicality, and their embedded biography within in the
physical matter of the world – the body of man is no longer in contact with the functional
aspects of what he has produced. This theory advances the notion that things have a
biography, though it enforces a subject/ object split that is irrecoverable.

In comparison to Baudrillard‟s lament that technological objects manifest their own order
within self-organizing systems which dictate man‟s biographies it is possible to see that
objects, whether technologically or mechanically produced, work in harmony with man to
mediate and make possible his/her experiences of the world. The notion that „…man has
become less rational than his own objects, which now run ahead of him…organizing his
surroundings and thus appropriating his actions‟ (Baudrillard, 1996: 50-51) can be put to
positive effect, whereby objects are ontologically a natural extension of subjects existence and
vice versa. Theories of objectification reveal that mechanically produced objects are often as
complex, in terms of the complexity they encapsulate, as technological objects. In his essay
The Technology of Enchantment and The Enchantment of Technology, Gell (1982: 173)
argues for the fact that we are enchanted by a certain „magical‟ technology and efficacy of the
object which we cannot necessarily comprehend:

…technical virtuosity is intrinsic to the efficacy of works of art in their social context, and
tends always towards the creation of asymmetries in the relations between people by placing
them in an essentially asymmetrical relation to things‟

The term 'biography' is metaphorical, and through the case studies of African pots and hieratic
pottery in this essay I have shown how comparisons can be drawn between biographies of
people and biographies of things. However, what is significant to this is that to be seen as
having a biography objects must first be distinguished as things of interest and allowed to
speak by human subjects. For example, African pots show how the term „biography‟, once
applied to things is a metaphorical means adopted by African potters to bridging the gap
between non-verbal and verbal experiences, and to play out possible reasons for their
existence on earth. Hieratic pottery also reveals how material metaphors were folded into
linguistic metaphors by the ancient Egyptians, as well as providing the discipline of
Egyptology to develop over time and the historical significance this has had for the
development of theories about modernity.

However, artefacts should not be used as mere illustrations of social or cultural contexts in
theory and in methodology. It is Strathern‟s argument in Artefacts of History: Events and the
Interpretation of Image (1990), that Melanesians have a reluctance to give exegesis, because
they do not see, as the anthropologists does, that there is an object plus an explanation or the
interpreted happening. It is her argument that we should extend the concept of performance or
event to artefacts to celebrate unexpected happenings. Therefore the artefact as event is a seed
that does not merely reflect back on linear time through a notion of biography which is
cultural and mute in the face of human biographers. The artefact as event is a seed that
contains data and outcomes, and not simply an animated form that is passively used to
objectify and analyze human social practices.

Material objects have intransigent qualities; they are hybrids and quasi-objects of both the
natural and the social sciences as Latour argues in We Have Never Been Modern (1993).
Strathern anticipates Latour‟s proposition when she writes, three years earlier, in relation to
the relatively recent effort to recover material culture studies to the discipline of
cultural/social anthropology (such as Kopytoff and Appadurai, 1986 attempt):

Making social (or cultural) context the frame of reference had one important result. It led to
the position that one should really be studying the framework itself (the social context =
society). The artefacts were merely illustration. For if one sets up social context as the frame
of reference in relation to which meanings are to be elucidated, then explicating that frame of

reference obviates or renders the illustrations superfluous…frames of reference are intrinsic to
the modernist anthropological exercise. These are relationships within which we place our
discoveries about people‟s cultural lives. The reason that objects appear so intransigent is
precisely because they are not the framework itself. Rather, they occupy a dual position, both
its raw material and illustrative of its principles (at once “nature” and “culture” in relation to
the system. This creates a problem for the understanding of Melanesian perceptions.
In supplying social context, the enquiring ethnographer does not merely translate other
people‟s referencing into his or hers, but weights the perception of an object.
(Strathern, 1990:38-9)

The application of term „biography‟ to things (Appadurai & Kopytoff, 1986), for Pinney
stresses (2002: 227):

…their tendency to appear differently according to cultural context, while couched as a

radical critique of earlier concerns about the fixed identities of objects, might be seen as the
paradoxical fitting into place of the last humanist fragment of an anthropocentric „man‟ –
besotted puzzle. Pinney takes his lead in his description of the „wavy‟ meaning in relation to
Automonsters (ibid) from Bruno Latour, whose critique in We Have Never Been Modern
(1993) is that of the continued privileging of cultural agency (man) in what is actually a
“natures-cultures” situation. Pinney describes this as „zones inhabited by hybrids in which
humans and non-humans are „folded into each other‟‟ (2002: 228). The idea of folds is not a
new one, as Deleuze interestingly discusses in relation to Leibniz and the Baroque (2004).
Strathern‟s notion of the object as seed and event also takes a similar perspective; „…wavy
meaning…allows a different kind of narrative, one that brings out the complexity of the car-
network‟ (Pinney, 2002: 230). This approach recognizes the complexity of the form as well as
the cultural properties of the object, which „biography‟ as a tautological mapping fails to
attend to.
Strathern description of the artifact as seed is similar to the approach of Latour and Pinney
who argue that an examination of the object through its social biography and cultural context
continues to re-instate man‟s binary assumptions of modernity post-Enlightenment in a more
subtle way. The coolamon is an event and a seed, at any one point encapsulating its past, its
present and any number of possible futures. However it is an intransigent seed – its
materiality limits the notions of biography which are projected onto it. The term „biography‟
when applied to objects is a metaphorical way of apprehending the world, similar to that of
„society‟ or „culture‟. The cultural context is not the only way to approach objects, and
perhaps instead we should focus on the way objects as forms demand to be perceived and
appropriated, „…for we can extend the same metaphor – talking about events as artefacts – to
visualize how people act as though they had power when confronted with the untoward‟
(Strathern, 1990:40). It is this that both guardians of the coolamon celebrate; perhaps this is
why they felt unable to provide an exegesis for the reason one made a gift of it to another, and
why the event “meant” and continues to “mean” something. Both are waiting to see what
surprises it will offer – as a dramaturgical seed it has been staged to be innovatory. In the
meantime it quietly keeps a friendship going even though those friends and it guardians, may
not be physically present to one another.


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