Please See Attached: Reading for April 19

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(Photo Credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick)

Bruno Latour, “Crisis,” in We Have Never Been Modern. (Translated by Catherine Porter Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993), p. 1-12.

Latour uses the idea of ‘networks’ to demonstrate how ‘he and his friends,’ (sociologists, historians, economists, political scientists, philosophers [and] anthropologists) come to understand the connections among cultural forces including “knowledge, interest, justice and power … heaven and earth, the global stage and the local scene, the human and the on human.” (Latour, p. 3) Latour maintains that he and his colleagues must work as intellectual hybrids, say, “half engineers and half philosophers,” to shuttle back and forth between their disciplines as they read networks of stories (translated meanings) that are interwoven between these areas of concern. (Latour, p. 3)

These networks weave unthinkable interconnections between three great bastions of critical approaches for understanding our world: ‘naturalization (nature), socialization (collective), and deconstruction (discourse). (Latour pgs. 5-6)  According to these critics, Latour’s networks do not exist. According to Latour, these networks are real and the critics should be facing a crisis that their fiefdoms have no borders. (Latour, p. 6)

Latour asks, “Is it our fault of the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?” (Latour, p. 6)

Latour’s dissent reveals a post-modern crisis: we don’t understand what ‘modern’ means to us today. Our postmodern loss and confusion has left us “no longer committed heart and soul to the double task of domination (capitalism) and emancipation (liberalism).” Latour states that to be significantly engaged in the critical project of understanding our world, we need to engage in two discrete practices: translation and purification. (Latour, p. 10)

Translation “creates mixtures between … hybrids of nature and culture,” or networks; and purification creates two “ontological zones … of human beings and non human beings,” or “the modern critical stance.” (Latour, p. 10) Latour sets up a puzzle of a dichotomy of purification and translation. The purification happens between non-humans and nature and humans and culture, representing a further dichotomy. Likewise, the translation happens between hybrids and networks.  If we “consider these two practices of translation and purification separately, we are truly modern…we willingly subscribe to the critical project” of understanding the significance of cultural connections, albeit as hybrids. (Latour, p. 11)

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(Photo Credits: Laurie Fitzpatrick)

Addendum: This has been a rewarding and exhausting semester and I feel I have traveled miles and decades with this class. Nevertheless, I confess this is how I  b a r e l y got through tonight’s blog:

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Historical Sounds? Readings for April 12

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(Photo Credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick)

Mark M. Smith, “Sound—So What?,” The Public Historian 

Mark Smith’s article covers historical sound studies from three conventional American periods: Colonial era, 19th century, and the 20th century. (Smith, p. 133)  He posits that attention to sounds made during these times can “allow us a deeper appreciation of the texture, meaning, and human experience of that past.” (Smith, p. 133) For this he references the works of three historians, Richard Cullen Rath and his seminal book, How Early America Sounded (2003), Sarah Keyes in “Like a Roaring Lion’: The Overland Trail as a Sonic Conquest,” (2009, in the Journal of American History), and Emily Thompson in The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America 1900-1933 (2002). 

All three authors point out the importance of understanding how sounds have an historical presence, as they call attention to “the importance of studying the relationship among the senses, or synesthesia.” (Smith, p. 142)

When Rath writes about colonial sounds, he is also examining the socio-religious authority of sound, particularly in the Anglican churches of the Chesapeake region as compared to the egalitarian, octagonal Quaker meetinghouse. In the Anglican Church, Rath points out how the rooms structure: pulpit for the minister, pews for the congregants, shapes the sound in the room to reinforce the idea that the minister (leader) is heard and the listeners (followers) are meant to hear. Further, when these listeners are heard, the acoustics of the space collects their noise into a muddled, loud, reverberating “joyous noise unto the Lord.” (Smith, p. 135) Rath contrasts this collective hierarchy with the more egalitarian Quaker meetinghouses whose octagonal rooms bounced sound such that every voice was heard, more or less equally. (Smith, p. 136)

Keyes considered the 19th century sounds of western expansion across America, in the noisy form of the wagon train of the “overlanders” who were overtaking the so-called ‘open lands’ in western territories. They traveled in long trains of creaking wagons that could stretch for miles, generating a cacophony of gunshots, whip cracking, people yelling and animals bellowing, pots clanging. Keyes maintains this was a deliberate claiming of sonic space where sounds became important in the liminal, contested space of the American west. European Americans sought to shatter the silence where stealthy, howling things prevailed. The consideration of this kind of sound reveals how European Americans dominated native people and the wild landscape through the ear with sound.

Thompson returns to the colonial ideal of joyful noise, or reverberation, and points out how in an age of urban crowding and the commoditization of silence and controlled sound, reverberation became the noise of the inefficient and economically backward. (Smith, p. 139) Buildings of that time were redesigned to absorb and shape sound and become part of an effort to create “good sound sanctuaries” (Smith, p. 140) that in effect segregated as it classified bad noise and good sound.

All three authors, considered by Smith, remind us that people in the past “processed meaning and underwent experiences” through sounds as much as sight. (Smith, p. 141) Smith asserts that when different sounds from different times are thought of in new ways, we refute “binary distinctions between premodern (oral) and modern (literate) cultures.” (Smith, p. 136)

 

Emily Ann Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933

Through the rise of the acoustical materials industry at the turn of the last century, new materials were built into city scapes (including churches and auditoriums) that created refuges from the noise of urban life. (Thompson, p. 6) These refuges, in turn, transformed “quiet from an unenforceable public right into a private commodity, available for purchase by anyone who could afford it.” (Thompson, p. 6)

Once space became cordoned off, silenced, and turned into a commodity, it became a vessel for further economic exchange in the form of the consumption of electroacoustic signals: essentially “microphones, loudspeakers, radios, public address systems, and sound motion pictures.” (Thompson, p. 7)

According to Thompson, this new sphere of economic exchange moves from noise as “pollution and the degradation of the environment” towards sound created by engineers and musicians then commodified by their agents, show promoters and ticket sellers (and so on), as a cultural production enmeshed with the technology of controlling and producing ‘sound.’ (Thompson, p. 9)

The construction of acoustical space, and the subsequent production and commodification of sound belies the ephemeral quality of this wave form that spreads out but does not melt or disappear into the air through which it moves.

Since we’re getting into physics, I must point out that Thompson’s discussion of Sabine’s and Eyring’s separate equations that conceptualized reverberation differently in a seemingly tiny way, reveals the emergence of quantum physics (energy in discrete packets as opposed to a smooth continuum) in the science of sound.

The applied physics of sound heralded “the culmination of a culture that had invested science with unprecedented authority.” (Thompson, p. 318) Today we enjoy a postmodern soundscape that offer a range of possibilities from a conservative (and commodifiable) position that “sounds must be based in the architecturally constructed sound-space” to the more accessible and democratic possibility of a “digitally constructed sound-space.” (Thompson, p. 324)

References:

Mark M. Smith, “Sound—So What?,” The Public Historian 37:4 (November 2015): 132-44.

Emily Ann Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933

Commemorative Monuments: Premature Closure and Inescapable Questions, readings for April 5

Kirk Savage: Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves

 

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Washington Square Park, Philadelphia, PA. (Photo Credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick)

Before I read Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, I had read one book and a few articles about the cultural significance of commemoration of a birthplace or the celebration of anniversaries, but Savage’s book is different in its examination of a full blown cultural contest played out in the national arena. After reading Savage, the controversial nature of commemoration is obvious and unavoidable: public monuments are meant to bring people together, placate and instruct them in normative views.

Savage considers both proposed and constructed, public antebellum and reconstruction era public monuments that depicted forms of emancipated slaves, political figures, and war heroes. He tells “the story of how a nation redefined itself in the most permanent form of self-reflection it had, the public monument … [as these objects] mapped abstract notions of individual responsibility and collective purpose onto the material reality of the national landscape …with race at the center of the process.”(Savage, p. 209) The act of commemoration, according to Savage, shrinks temporal horizons of events recorded as orthodox narrative histories into a completed past that is sealed off, sometimes marginalizing “the very people doing the commemoration.” (Savage, p. 65)

Savage references abolitionist Fredrick Douglass’s call for the “incorporation into the American body politic” of emancipated African Americans and the way he wanted these objects to reflect “manliness” and an emergent position of dominance as a “structural opposite of [African American] slavery” and submission. (Savage, p. 117-118) However, for this black male body to gain admittance to the public sphere, it couldn’t look to African, too scarred, or too vital or appealingly athletic (read sexy). Eventually, this body was replaced with cool indistinct versions based on classical Greek models, or replaced altogether with the “body of the white hero Abraham Lincoln.” (Savage, p. 54) Representations of kneeling slaves disappeared altogether as “conventional rhetoric became archetypal Lincoln standing before the kneeling slave, who “could then disappear from the commemorative stage,” and make way for new “white” and singular images of Lincoln. (Savage, p. 121-122)

Meanwhile in Dixie, commemorations took the form of Robert E. Lee riding a horse, at once an heroic, Arthurian figure astride a powerful beast of burden, that sought to enshrine the “pro-slavery argument: a benevolent master gradually uplifting the primitive African into Christian civilization through the secure shelter of slavery.” (Savage, p. 129) Savage’s juxtaposition reveals a deeper American cultural pattern that reaches past the experience of enslaved Africans to the deepest roots of colonialism in the Americas, back to Spanish (Catholic) and English (Protestant) cloaking of their colonial desires to enslave native and African people with the finer raiment of converting “noble savages” to Christianity. However, just as images of a singular white Lincoln were not permitted to show a masculine and powerful African American, so to were Reconstruction era images of Robert E. Lee prevented from showing subjugated or dependent black bodies. To disassociate the defeated Southern Confederacy from slavery in public sculpture, Lee sat firmly on his horse as a military hero (and not a southern slave owning planter) with biographical similarities to Washington who were both from Virginia, and were both reluctant leaders). (Savage, p. 131)

A final shift in 19th century Post-Civil war monuments is seen in their commemoration of the common soldier in both cities and small towns, giving rise to memorials that reconciled the tension of emancipated African Americans and hegemonic White Americans in the image of the politically neutral citizen soldier. The singular Citizen Soldier was also a nationalistic image that evoked Washington to reach past the pain and uncertainly of the Civil War to the Revolutionary era America of the yeoman farmer who could be called upon to form a standing army. Still, as an everyday war hero, their lives were “circumscribed by subordination to authority and regimentation of routine … [to represent] … the two extremes of masculinity, one the hero and the other the slave.” (Savage, p. 168)

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National Guardsman celebrated in front of the Union League of Philadelphia (Photo Credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick)

Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars”

Yellis tells us we hold museum exhibitions for two reasons, “[we] have a new story to tell or [we] have a new way of telling an old story.” (Yellis, p. 334) He considers three questions devastating to museum professionals that museum visitors might ask, “Why are [curators] doing this? What kind of exhibition is this? … Have I seen this exhibition before?” (Yellis, p. 343) Yellis maintains that should a museum visitor ask any of these questions, then the exhibition has somehow failed. But the curator can avoid this fate if they keep this question in mind, “What do we think we are doing when we make this exhibition.” (Yellis, p. 344)

Yellis referenced a controversial 1992-1993 exhibition created by Fred Wilson and held at the Maryland Historical Society (MHS) that opened up a discussion of how museums make exhibitions, and how the exhibition-making process help people “fight about the past more productively” as museums enter boldly into the arena of contested histories. (Yellis, p. 335) Wilson – an outsider to the curatorial world — literally ‘mined’ the MHS collection for challenging artifacts (a Klu Klux Klan hood, a whipping post) juxtaposed with baby carriages and Victorian chairs, to figuratively set intellectual land mines for museum visitors. According to Randi Korn who wrote about the exhibition, visitors had a wide range of responses to Wilson’s method, from obliviousness, to strong emotion (anger and sadness), to wondering why it had taken so long “to present this perspective in a museum.” (Korn, in Yellis, p. 337) Wilson’s juxtapositions of objects broke the normative time-line used by traditional history telling that went far beyond informing viewers through interpretation of objects, into violating the conventions of presentation to question and satirize the act of interpretation for the public.

According to Yellis, the three tools of the curator are the text and the object, and their combination that guide the visitor. Museum professionals like to keep control of the visitor experience through the “mechanics of exhibition development.” (Yellis, p. 343) Yellis leaves it up to the reader — rather rhetorically — to decide if museum professionals should use these tools to pursue the way of opening “windows on rich and nourishing realities … or [keep] those windows concealed and locked, providing instead cheap reassurance.” (Yellis, p. 347)

References:

Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)

Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” Curator: The Museum Journal 52 (October 2009): 333-348

Commodities as Material Culture, Readings for March 29

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(Lower Swedish Cabin, Photo Credit Laurie Fitzpatrick)

Daniel Miller, Stuff

Miller’s premise in Stuff is that ‘things make people as much as people make things,’ and he takes the position that the best way to understand humanity is through our materiality, and this can further be understood through the capitalistic production and distribution of the things we use.

In one easy example of material consumption at least, Miller treats us to a view into the world of Trinidadian sartorial display, where the “individual construction of an aesthetic [is] based not just on what you wear, but on how you wear it.” (Miller, p. 15) Their fashion isn’t about accumulating expensive items of clothing (they put together outfits from just about anything that fits their style of that moment), but about learning from the stylistic vanguard of that moment, then moving on towards future innovation as a transient expression of “the event, the moment.” (Miller p, 15) A Trinidadian seeks to know who they are in that mysterious emptiness of a superficial self of that moment.

Compare this to stylish London shoppers, who, in contrast, spend impressive sums of money in their quest to “to express themselves, even find themselves, through their clothes.” (Miller, p. 33) Despite their relative wealth and access to designer clothing, the average Londoner does not enjoy a Trinidadian celebration of style and bravado, and ultimately — community, but instead feels an all too familiar anxiety: ‘what do I wear.’ According to Miller, Londoners find it difficult to revel in an external presentation of themselves, and they suffer from a burden “to know for themselves what it is they want and who they want to be.” (Miller, p. 38) Viewed this way, the ‘self’ of a London fashion victim becomes an equally mysterious black hole, on either side of which is the macro world of ‘who they should be,’ and the micro world of the inability to choose one representative thing from a thousand possible alternate representative things.

Miller reasserts his idea that material culture is concerned as much with how things make people as much as how people make things, when he juxtaposing the theory of Hegel and Marx against that of semiotics. Miller has us first consider the restrictions of the ancien régime of pre-revolutionary France, where people dressed according to their station in life so that others could ‘know them,’ and describes how this persists in the theory of semiotics: objects are signs and symbols that represent us. In Hegel and Marx, we can see that human labor “transforms nature into objects,” that humans use to know themselves, demonstrating how our own labor produces our culture, in the form of stuff. (Miller, p. 58) This stuff we produce and consume, are familiar and invisible to us as props for our everyday lives, and because of their invisibility, these objects have the greatest power to prompt and shape (as oppose to reveal) our behaviors.

Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process”

Kopytoff defines commoditization as any object that bought for money. This definition – in and of itself — is simple and limited, until you look at how commoditization changes from one society to another, becoming a special expression of exchange.

Kopytoff’s position is valuable to a material culture study when you think of the biography of a commodity and consider the variety of exchanges that occur. He uses a car for an example, and lists a series of possible biographies: physical biography, technical biography, economic biography, several possible social biographies, and so on.  These ‘biographies’ result from our need to impose order on the chaos of random existence, write narrations of our exchanges to make sense of our lives. When biographies threaten to overlap and blur, we impose hierarchies to structure this understanding, and herein, cultural bias and contemporary power structures are revealed.

Things that are precluded from commoditization reveal a power in that society that sets the object aside – singularizes it — as ‘prohibited’ from this form of exchange of object for money. Any individual can singularize an object and find themselves “caught between the cultural structure of commoditization and his own personal attempts to bring a value order to the universe of things.” (Kopytoff, p. 76) According to Kopytoff, in complex societies, people yearn to privately singularize objects most obviously in the form of “collectibles.”

These spheres of exchange of commoditized objects contain both the singularized individual in Western European society and the slave; contain the realities of selling our labor in a capitalistic economy versus trafficking in labor or ‘wage slavery.’ Kopytoff asks, “how secure are the Western cultural ramparts that defend the human sphere against commoditization.” (Kopytoff, p, 85)

Here, Kopytoff references a person’s multiple social identities – or biographies — much like the identities created by fashion trends that were referenced in Miller, identities created as much by the clothes as the people create the clothes to reveal the identity. Kopytoff references the impossibility of choosing one biography over another, the way a fashion victim in Miller’s London can’t find an outfit to wear that can adequately express their identity. Kopytoff resolves this as a “complex intertwining of the commodity exchange sphere with the plethora of private classifications,”(Kopytoff, p. 88) similar to the way Miller would say we combine the macro world of who we should be with the micro world of our inability to make this choice.

Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat”

Stallybrass considers a commodity not as an object but as a pure exchange value, and as a pure commodity, it achieves a “destiny as an equivalence.” (Stallybrass, p. 183) This idea of a pure commodity leads us to Marx’s greatest joke, “the fetishism of the commodity inscribes immateriality as the defining feature of capitalism.” (Stallybrass, p. 184)

Stallybrass creates a biography of Marx’s overcoat, that went in and out of a pawn shop throughout the 1850’s and into the early 1860’s, during the time he was researching and writing The Eighteenth Brumaire and Capital. Without his overcoat, Marx could not gain access – as a properly dressed man – to the British Museum, and he could not do his research. Thus, according to Stallybrass, “what clothes Marx wore shaped what he wrote,” revealing a ‘vulgar material determination’ that Marx contemplated. (Stallybrass, p. 188) Stallybrass follows Marx’s pawned coat into the financial details of his ‘domestic life, then, depended upon the “petty calculations” that characterized working class life.” (Stallybrass, p. 192)

When the coats and fine clothes of Marx and his wife entered the pawn shop, these objects lost their singular value to enter into a sphere of exchange, and become a commodity. To say this another way, the clothes shed their sentimental value to assume a new exchange value. This represents a state of alienation akin to a condition experienced by the entire working class: “the producers of the greatest multiplicity of things that the world had ever known, were forever on the outside of that material plenitude.” (Stallybrass, p. 199) These are Marx’s workers separated from the means of production.

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Foxconn workers assembling Apple products, 2012

(Photo Credit: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/02/23/business/economix-foxconn1/economix-foxconn1-blog480.jpg)

References

Daniel Miller, Stuff (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)

Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process,” in Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat,” in Patricia Spyer, ed., Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (New York: Routledge, 1998).

Landcape and the Control of Space: Odology, White and Black Landscapes, Victorian Rituals Enacted in Hallways, and Gendered Environments

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The “Burger Tank” on Temple’s Campus

(Photo Credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick)

In this week’s readings, we’re being asked to consider space (encompassing the landscape, buildings, furnishings, juxtapositions of men and women in work spaces) as a material object that both reveals as it controls human thinking and behavior.

J.B. Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994)

Jackson begins with a discussion of “the road as a very powerful space” that has the potential to destroy the neatly grid marked, old Jeffersonian fiction imposed across America. (Jackson, p. 6) Roads that are also meant to serve the small community, and not the state, are a thing of the past as now our modern world has largely replaced small, local roads with broader, straighter, more traffic laden and hence restless new roads.

As if escaping this sterile modernity, Jackson next examines the American Southwest, because, he states, “”in New Mexico history remains exposed for all to see,” from ancient pueblo dwellings to the place where the neutron bomb was tested. (Jackson, p. 15) Here, in thinking he has detected a new hardscrabble community of individuals who deliberately confront rather than avoid the elements, Jackson finds himself. For example, when he indulges in a wholly romantic, East Coast and largely Protestant/Anglo consideration of ancient pueblos, he mystifies (as a protean vernacular form) what he willfully misunderstands: here there are no individuals and no singular rooms with singular purposes.

Then Jackson jumps back to our present to consider the American trailer and the little parks in which they are located, to rightly observe these places are “small scale architectural version[s] of a widespread modern tendency to organize all spaces in the landscape in terms of some special function.” (Jackson, p. 65) He correctly asserts this is a “vernacular concept of a space: a space [that] has no inherent identity, it is simply defined by the way it is used.” (Jackson, p. 65)

When considering the so called ‘natural world,’ Jackson begins with the assertion that nature creates two feelings in people: either fear and hostility or a sense of safety. Next, Jackson sketches a broad, Western European and European American male history of contested space and resources (the King’s woods as considered by Frank Forester, Henry William Herbert, Thomas Cole, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Thoreau) to illustrate his idea of the “cult of the forest.” (Jackson, p. 85) It is this forest, and wilderness at large that the Sierra Club and other contemporary environmental organizations Jackson seems somehow at odds with, seek to preserve as a pristine environment. Jackson views the Sierra Club as operating for nefarious reasons because humans, they contend, should be kept out of these precious spaces. Jackson asserts we heed a ‘humanized landscape,’ as he is confident the wilderness will “be still available to those who want a transcendental experience.” (Jackson, p. 90) So, like, do what to our national parks?

After similar considerations of the vernacular of trees, the vernacular of gardens, the vernacular of working – but not really working yet enshrining old tools in a vernacular space of work, and so on, Jackson pulls his kitchen camper truck into the driveway of his trailer to gaze admiringly into the mirror of his Protestant/Anglo ethos (first encountered in the beginning of this book) to observe, “that was a definition emphasizing the privacy of the house, the interior as a refuge.” (Jackson, p. 145) Then restless, he pulls out again, and after a discussion of cars that grinds into a lower gear to discuss work trucks (both introduce a different spacial order) , Jackson finally introduces a lovely word: Odology, which is “part geography, part planning, and part [building and social] engineering.” (Jackson, p. 191) We had best recognize we are languishing under a new odology: our major roads as managed, authoritarian flows of economic benefits. (Jackson, p. 193)

Dell Upton, “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” in Robert Blair St. George, ed., Material Life in America, 1600-1860 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988).

Upton’s article brings up the endlessly interesting struggle to know how racial and economic hegemonies are imposed on people through material culture, and in this article, the landscape of houses, work buildings, slave quarters, hedgerows, pathways, and roads themselves. Upton considers the white dominant landscape of Virginia Planters to reveal their hegemony was never total over African Americans. According to Upton, the unified landscape of the White European American planter was indeed a fragmentary one that was “composed of several fragmentary [landscapes], some sharing common elements of the larger assemblage” of spatial divisions among settlement patterns. (Upton, p. 357)

Upton goes further to draw a finer contrast between enslaved African Americans and free but poor White European Americans when he observes that the Spartan dwellings of the latter reflected a lack of economic success, while the poverty of arose from the appropriation of their labor. (p. 361)

There is no question that the great Virginia planter intended that his landscape was hierarchical, which is reflected by the series of physical barriers one must pass through to reach the main house, barriers that are physical metaphors for social barriers thrown up against enslaved Blacks and poor Whites. (Upton p, 362 and 363) The slave, for one, could simultaneously be contained in a stable environment and evade constant enforcement of the power of the planter if they traveled through the woods (the periphery) from their dwellings (slave quarter) to the work fields. In this way, enslaved African Americans ‘pushed back’ in a holistic, space based way on the Virginia Planter.

 

Kenneth Ames, “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America,” Journal of
Interdisciplinary History 9 (1978): 19-46.

One never knew a piece of furniture within a space could be so controlling. Consider first the large, dark, generally walnut, basically unattractive (to many contemporary aesthetics) hallstand that is placed in the ‘sorting space’ of the hallway of the Victorian home. The hallstand is a mish-mashy bit of home décor that, according to Ames, provides large and expensive mirror that signals wealth as it provides a means for checking one’s status through clothing, has only a few pegs to signal what important personages are present — or are conspicuously not present, and a table that could hold grooming tools. This hegemonic hallstand is only outdone by the equally co-directing card receiver that instantly telegraphs to all the success or failure of one’s participation in the ritual of ‘social calling.’  These items, plus stiff back chairs, are organized in a relatively empty space (as compared to the chokingly decorated Victorian parlor, for example) that is meant to sort people in terms of their status: those who are important are whisked into comfortable rooms while those who are unimportant must wait in this hall amidst the inanimate company of these reminders (Mr. Hallstand, Miss Card Receiver, and Grandfather Chair) of their inferiority.

 

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Joan Crawford, Working Girl, from the 1931 movie, “Dance Fools, Dance”

Angel Kwolek-Folland, “The Gendered Environment of the Corporate Workplace, 1880-1930,” in Katherine Martinez and Kenneth L. Ames, eds. The Material Culture of Gender: The Gender of Material Culture (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997), 157-79.

Kwolek- Folland examines largely white collar, corporate American work spaces from the years 1880 through 1930 to observe how “male and female definitions of the purpose and experience of work reinforced corporate status.” (Kwolek- Folland , page 175) What is largely clear is how this experience evolved, as revealed by the inefficiency (despite the efforts of Systematic managers and efficiency engineers) of how the work space was divided and designed to separate genders and reinforce paternalistic, normative power of men.

At first, the corporate personality attempted – through gender environments – to both project and protect family based gender norms through the devised stance of corporate domesticity, largely to “salve the fears” of customers and employees who were equally alarmed by women entering the workforce. (Kwolek- Folland, p. 159)

Later, gendered mental spaces grew from these physical environments to include time (the rigid chronological structure imposed by time clocks) and status (manual versus brain workers) further segregated men and women in the workplace. Finally, private space for men became the “most sought after mark of status … [that] … validated the manhood of those who possessed them by emphasizing individuality and personal freedom.” (Kwolek- Folland, p. 167) The total effect was to further segregate male and female spaces in the corporate environment.

Kwolek- Folland’s essay deconstructs these environments, their evolution, to reveal their meanings without resolving the inequalities they might represent. It is clear that the effort to “defuse the sexuality that was encouraged by gendered offices” did not work. (Kwolek- Folland, p. 172) One could observe that the more a manager or efficiency designer worked toward removing tensions between the sexes, the more they weirdly created and encouraged this tension as a perpetual motion machine that in truth existed to support its own European American Male hegemony.

Bellion’s Citizen Spectator: Lifting Veils … Endlessly, Reading for March 8

Bellion’s Citizen Spectator examines how early American citizens were trained through optical strategies to discern truth from fiction in perilous, post Revolutionary political times. Bellion’s thesis about trained seeing evolves through six chapters:

  • the illuminations and deceptions inherent in the emerging sciences of looking through microscopes and the emerging entertainments of projected phantoms in Chapter 1
  • the illusions of trompe l’oeil represented by Peale’s illusionistic paintings of people in spaces and Lewis’s museum displays of originals and their imitations in Chapter’s 2 and 4
  • Birch’s etchings of an idealized urban Philadelphia that focused on the importance of the viewer’s perspective in Chapter 3
  • the revelation of the gendered construction of knowing that lurked behind the desire to look for and reveal ‘the invisible lady’ in Chapter 5
  • the nostalgic ‘looking back’ of 1820’s America, of a citizenship longing for the “seeming stability of the Revolutionary generation” in Chapter 6 (Bellion, p. 326)

For everyday citizens of Philadelphia, passively seeing and more active looking, questioned perceptions and heightened discernment were all politically charged acts. Women and men were urged by both Federalists and Anti-Federalists to develop necessary powers of perception through a variety of visual media (not limited to the forms mentioned above) so as citizens of the new Republic, they could create their own perceptual vigilance and see through the deceptions of competing ideologies.

Birch’s interestingly odd illustrations of Philadelphia landmarks reinforce the Enlightenment ideal of the grid that imposes Cartesian order on the natural land. (Bellion, p. 131) The Cartesian grid reinforces Birch’s Utopian view of Philadelphia, thus calling attention to the act of looking that further reinforces the Common Sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment that citizens of Philadelphia could believe “their environment could be apprehended reliable through sensory perception.” (Bellion, p. 140)

Bellion’s discussion of the citizen spectator’s search for the Invisible Lady reveals “contemporary concerns about female sight and speech” at a time when women were enjoying an increased presence in the public sphere. (Bellion, p. 234) Aside from gendered concerns, this particular deception invoked a politicized desire for revelation as it represented, according to Bellion, “that most egregious insult to republican ideals of transparency: the closed-door proceedings of factions,” or “conspirators possessed of privileged information.” (Bellion, p. 267) Like the more pedestrian instructional illusions from Chapter 1, the Invisible Lady deception appeared in vernacular locations such as “taverns, inns, and museums of curiosity” as opposed to the more rarefied and exclusive venues enjoyed by the trompe l’oeil deceptions of Peale and Lewis, or the subscribers who purchased Birch’s illustrations. These informal locations freed the female voice from male control (being cast as prattling, gossipy, unimportant) to reveal this voice as an agent of real political and social power: because the Invisible Lady never asked permission from men to be heard.

After decades of heightened spectator-awareness, “a shift in the forms and functions of pictorial illusion” ushered in a paternalistic, nostalgic fantasy about George Washington, depicted by Raphael Peale’s Patriae Pater. (Bellion, p. 18) This trompe l’oeil painting and others from the 1820’s no longer challenged the viewer to detect ‘painterly artifice,’ but instead invited them to lose themselves in “the tour de force of verisimilitude.” (Bellion, p. 288) This new approached turned inward from the realities of empirical looking and the need to not be fooled, and in the case of Peale’s touring exhibition of Patriae Pater, focused on a new national need for political healing, embodied by the glorified image of a dead president that rather shamelessly contributed to the early cult of Washington through Peale’s use of well known tropes of death and resurrection.

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Trumpeting, foot lifting Mastodon skeleton, silently imitating life in a darkened gallery of the State Museum of Pennsylvania, February 2016 (Photo Credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick)

Old Cabins and Such, Glassie and Pye: Readings for February 16

This week’s three readings ask us to consider the politics of making material objects. First, Glassie states that folk culture is disappearing because popular culture is replacing the need to invent technological solutions for local problems. Next, Pye frets over the utter disappearance of the handmade (workmanship of risk) from our environments and what that means for people. Finally, Morozov asserts that although we have moved from a ‘back to nature’ movement in the 70’s (where Pye leaves off) through ‘hacking’ and now to ‘making,’ we have not yet solved the ‘workmanship of risk’ problem because we are still seduced by what he terms the “lure of the technological sublime.”

Henry Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969)

In Patterns, Glassie gives us a sturdy, thus relevant working definition of Material Culture as embracing “those segments of human learning which provide a person with plans, methods, and reasons for producing things which can be seen and touched.” (Glassie, p. 2) He defines a ‘folk thing’ as an object that is produced outside mainstream or academic culture. Deetz in Small Things Forgotten would characterize this as academic architecture – a building plan drawn up by a trained architect then built by workmen, compared to vernacular architecture – a building made by workmen from no plan other that what they copied from an architect. Glassie later asserts that the cultures that produce popular and folk material objects influence each other and produce modified objects. (Glassie, 24 – 25) Finally, he discusses the problem of discerning the difference between a folk object, a folk art object, and a kitsch object (a velvet painting or the work of an ‘untrained genius). Glassie straightforwardly defines ‘folk art’ as “secondarily art – it is craft, that which is primarily practical and secondarily aesthetic in function.” (Glassie, p. 30)

After setting up these definitions, Glassie presents a methodology for determining if an object can be classified as ‘folk’ by breaking the object down into its components of form, construction, and use. He asserts that “form is of the utmost importance because it is the most persistent, the least changing of an object’s components.” (Glassie, p. 8) Glassie discusses the need for theory and analysis as a means to move beyond the material qualities of the object to infer its significance when he states, “the best student of folk culture is both fieldworker and theorist…” who will move beyond understanding the object’s form, construction, to speculate about the mental intricacies that surround, support, and reflect the object’s existence. (Glassie, p. 16)

After providing these definitions, Glassie deepens his method for understanding regional patters. He states “folk material exhibits major variation over and minor variations through time,” then contrasts this with products of popular academic culture that change little over space but much over time. Thus, the characteristics of folk objects will have differences over space and a popular object will reflect differences, or changes over time.’ (Glassie, p. 33) Through “Patterns,” Glassie moves from a discussion of seminal Mid-Atlantic regional patterns to show their influence on Southern, Northern, and the Midwestern folk patterns in the United States. Glassie breaks this down further to examine subregions of agricultural and non agricultural lifeways. Then he shifts his analysis to consider first the causes of these regional patterns, and then the presence of nonregional patterns brought in by Native Americans and further waves of European immigrant culture.

To demonstrate these patterns, Glassie primarily examines log buildings and more refined wood or stone houses, and includes objects such as agricultural tools, canoes, chairs, baskets, grave stone carving, and children’s toys. Glassie concludes with his reassertion that “an examination of the material tradition of the eastern United States leads to the recognition of three major divisions: North, Mid-Atlantic, South.” (Glassie, p. 234) As of 1968, Glassie remarks that folk culture in the United States is vanishing in the face of popular culture, an ongoing process that began with the influence of mid-eighteenth century scientific agriculture and mid-nineteenth century industrialization. Glassie states, “material traditions were developed as a solution to practical problems which no longer exist, and modern technologies provide easier solutions than folk ones do for the problems that remain.” (Glassie, p. 237) He concludes with a call for folklorists and anthropologists to study Eastern folk material culture. (Glassie, 241) I wonder what he would have to say about the forces of cultural homogenization at work in the United States that have accelerated this process in the 48 years since this book appeared. These dizzying array of forces include the interstate system (barely a reality in 1968), cable television, film, malls (now a dying economic model), superstores like Walmart, personal computers and the Internet, smart phones, social media, 24 hours saturation news coverage, international travel, to name a few.

To perhaps turn inward from the cacophony and threat of global modernity, much academic study in the area of American folklore material culture has followed Glassie, and one flourishing example I am familiar with is the ongoing Foxfire project (http://www.foxfire.org/) that began in 1966. Today, this non-profit organization offers publications, resources for educators, classes, and a museum that are “grounded in the Southern Appalachian culture” that “promotes a sense of place and appreciation of local people, community, and culture as essential educational tools.” (Foxfire website, “About Us” page: http://www.foxfire.org/boards.html, accessed 2/13/2016)

New Sweden and Log Cabins, a Reckoning with Glassie

That said, Glassie incorrectly asserts that colonial era German log cabin construction techniques found in Pennsylvania set the regional patterns for cabin construction in the South, the North, and the Midwest. Glassie’s assertions came into question in the academic literature of the early 1980’s and continued through the early 1990’s. Although Glassie gives a nod to the presence of some Fenno-Scandian log construction techniques in Pennsylvania (a specific area is not mentioned), he moves quickly to give full credit to the influence of colonial German, British, German, Irish, and Welsh cabin builders, but no Swedes. (Glassie, p. 48-49) When he mentions Scandinavian influence, it is in conjunction with Central Europe (German influence), then only in passing to subsequently go ignored entirely. (Glassie, p. 9)

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Swedish Log Cabin, detail of “V” notching. (Photo Credit, Laurie Fitzpatrick)

The periodic resurgence of interest in the influence of Fenno-Scandian material culture in the Delaware Valley (generally coinciding with the anniversary celebrations of the founding of New Sweden) is well represented by Terry G. Jordan’s 1983 article, A Reappraisal of Fenno-Scandian Antecedents for Midland American Log Construction. For this research, Jordan examined wood buildings throughout Finland, Sweden, and Northern Europe, and concluded that a specific log notching technique was practiced in areas of central Sweden, at that time populated by Finnish immigrants who were rounded up and transplanted to the Delaware Valley as colonists for New Sweden. Jordan further noted that colonial Finns and Swedes were the first Europeans to build these log structures in the Delaware Valley, some 30 years before the arrival of German, Welsh, and Scotch Irish immigrants who were brought in by the British. Jordan rests his argument by invoking the doctrine of first effective settlement, proposed by the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, who stated, “the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been.” (Zelinsly in Jordan, p. 94) The Swedes and Finns of New Sweden had lived, farmed, worshiped, and been quite fruitful and multiplied along the Delaware River for 26 years before the British took possession of the area. Scandinavian homes, plantations, and churches were sometimes confiscated and sometimes purchased so the English could wholly subsume New Sweden and remake it as a wholly British colony.

A Side Note

Despite overlooking the cultural contributions of Scandinavian colonists (everyone ignores the Swedes), I liked Glassie’s book so much that I gave into my hard cover book fetish and purchased a good condition, used hardcover version. Then I bought another copy – soft cover without any writing inside – and sent this to my father in Tennessee. Now, my dad (who is in  his mid 70’s, does Yoga daily, had a guru in the 1980’s, earned his PhD from the University of Minnesota in Child Psychology yet began his academic career as an engineer, worked for NASA and designed the fenders for the moon rover) has made his living since the 1980’s restoring Victorian homes in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is the only contractor I know of in my hometown who will enter your property and convert his measurements using his engineers slide rule. His tolerance for pattern and detail far exceed my own, and I know he will enjoy this book as much as I did.

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Why used booksellers love me (Photo Credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick)

David Pye, “The Workmanship of Certainty and the Workmanship of Risk,” in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Pye elaborates on the modernist Man Versus Machine problem as he asks us to consider the difference between workmanship of risk (at the far end of this spectrum: wholly handmade) and workmanship of certainly (at the far end of this spectrum: machine made). Understanding both this difference between these two terms, as well as the reality that nearly everything in our environment is now the product of the workmanship of certainty, leads Pye to ask how this changes the visible quality of our environment. His arguments work toward validating the need for craftsmen who make things by hand – often expensively –in a world where our technologies invent machines that get closer and closer to what the craftsman can achieve while simultaneously training us to lower our expectations and accept inferior goods as our ‘new normal.’

The first problem for our environment Pye identifies is how the workmanship of certainty will reproduce every quality we seek except ‘diversity,’ as defined by Pye as – say – a well made cabinet made of gnarled, knotted wood. A second problem he notes is a decline in workmanship.  Pye bemoans this predicament,  “it is futile to hope that the process of decline can be reversed … to match the size of the industry.” (Pye, p. 347) The third and forth problems he sees are high cost and a loss of uniqueness.

Pye frequently references high cost of the workmanship of risk without discussing how production choices of the workmanship of certainty are market driven. As we sell our labor to producers, we have little or no control over what is produced, and these decisions are made by what the producer can sell. Later, Pye mentions luxury goods like haute couture, handmade musical instruments, and yachts without examining the alternate, elite economy that supports this manufacture – because clearly in this market, someone is selling their highly skilled labor to produce these paradigms of perfection. Although Pye rather hopefully states, “for if any artist is to do his best it is essential that his work shall not be influenced in the smallest degree by considerations of what is likely to sell profitably.” (Pye, p. 351) He recognizes that “some trades which are dead economically, are all alive in human terms, and still have much to show the world,” then he concludes by pointing to the need for artists to adopt a more holistic approach to the workmanship of risk that goes beyond a monetary transaction towards choices the craftsperson will make to support their chosen lifestyle. (Pye, p. 351)

The problems Pye identifies in environments dominated by the craftsmanship of certainty are a lack of diversity, a lack of craftsmanship, the high cost of craftsmanship, and a lack of uniqueness. These are symptoms of a larger disease he misdiagnoses as a lack of design. His argument didn’t imagine high end merchandise manufactured through the craftsmanship of certainty and sold in, say Nordstroms, or every day Scandinavian design found at Ikea. Pye’s malady caused by a lack of diversity might be better diagnosed as an utter lack of ingenuity in our environments. For example, what will be lost will not so much involve suffering a generically designed, clean environment made of either shiny or textured materials, but rather an environment utterly lacking highly individualized and ingenious technological solutions (modernist folk if you will) that have the power to instruct those who experience them in unique and spontaneous ways of solving problems to meet needs.

Another issue is the implication that artists were somehow less constrained by market forces before the workmanship of certainty came to dominate our culture. The high visual arts, crafts, couture, and architecture from before the Industrial Revolution (I am not referencing folk survivors since Pye isn’t talking about them either) were commissioned and preserved through the agency of some wealthy patron, or government supporting an artist. Pye’s conclusion that artists “work will be done for love more than for money” is a wholly contemporary possibility.

So then, once our creativity and ingenuity is no longer needed to solve technological problems in our environment, where does it go? Morozov might suggest it sits on our desks and follows us around in our pockets as we ‘hack’ and ‘make’ our world as digital dreams realized through 3-D printers. Well, sort-of.

Evgeny Morozov, “Making It: Pick Up a Spot Welder and Join the Revolution,” The New Yorker (January 13, 2014), http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/13/making-it-2

Morozov draws a clear comparison between today’s Maker movement to the Hacker’s movement of the 1970’s, then he deftly torpedoes and sinks both. According to Morozov, Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue and an early promoter of the personal computer, drew inspiration from the Stanford based Homebrew Computer Club that included Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the founders of Apple Computer. Brand combined Job’s “access to tools” ethos with his own revolutionary zeal to create the ideal of the “hacker,” an empowered and defiant individual who controlled information with their new personal computer.

Just as “hacking” was in itself another middle class fiction (many hacks succeeded not in smashing oppressive economic systems, but rather got people to ‘hack’ these systems so they could do more work, faster), so to “making” is equally fictitious. Making, according to Brand, inherited the ‘hacker’ mantle as it represents a new social movement that – according to Morosov’s definition – represents today’s way of defying authority by doing things your own way.

Makers aspire to merge their wholly self-owned labor (assisted by scanners and 3-D printers, or robot laborers) with their entrepreneurial impulses to engage in meaningful (and hopefully lucrative) self employment. But the movement has weaknesses as scantily regulated corporations target, acquire, then compromise new maker businesses. Additionally, and perhaps terrifyingly, the Department of Defense has now funded ‘makerspaces,’ or vast studios of technology where makers develop their products.

Raising money for production has created a “new kind of immaterial labor [known] as “virtual craftsmanship”; others [describe] as vulgar hustling” online to attract investors to fund the development of their products. (Morosov, “Making it”)  It’s a brave new world of Twitter followers and Google search engine optimization that raises the online profile of the maker, and hopefully, raises the cash to fund their ideas.

Another thing the maker movement might not yet acknowledge is that not everyone wants to be the drivers of their own bus. As a matter of fact, despite the persistently abused American myth of the Yeoman Farmer who bravely makes his own way alone in this cold and cruel world, most would rather be passengers on the maker’s bus, and riding in as much comfort at the lowest price possible.

There are an exhausting number of buses to drive and ride, which is a good thing for our economy.

However, it must be acknowledged that there are times in a person’s life when they can only ride the bus, but then they might decide to drive their our own bus for a while. And what if bus driving is unappealing for them. Can they return to being a rider, without shame and regret in a Brave New Maker world?

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(Photo Credit: http://www.culturalweekly.com/ken-keseys-mobile-trancendentalism-in-magic-trip-movie/)

 

References:

Henry Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969)

Terry Jordan, “A Reappraisal of Fenno-Scandian Antecedents for Midland American Log Construction,” Geographical Review, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 58 – 94.

David Pye, “The Workmanship of Certainty and the Workmanship of Risk,” in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Evgeny Morozov, “Making It: Pick Up a Spot Welder and Join the Revolution,” The New Yorker (January 13, 2014), http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/13/making-it-2

Image of Ken Keysey in an article by Levi Asher, “Ken Kesey Moves in “Magic Trip” Movie” in Cultural Weekley, http://www.culturalweekly.com/ken-keseys-mobile-trancendentalism-in-magic-trip-movie/, accessed on 2/14/16

Readings for February 9th: Archeology and the Anthropological Artifact

In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life and “Tradition and Innovation in African- American Yards”

“Small Things” and “Tradition” are from roughly the first half of the 1990’s and are focused on how everyday objects or purposefully arranged found objects can be read to tell the reader something about the person who either discarded or arranged these objects.

James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1996)

Deetz outlines a material culture methodology that examines a wide range of things (buildings, grave stone carvings and grave dressing, pottery shards, clay pipes), then weaves this information with written material from primary and secondary sources to reveal connections to recorded movements or beliefs of that time, or to recover wholly forgotten lifeways.

His opening chapter defines and illustrates ‘historical archaeology,’ then advises that interpreting this information by means of figuring out common sense uses (to us) is unreliable because this understanding is relative as well as complex. According to Deetz, “in the past people have done things and behaved in ways that to us might seem almost irrational but to them may not have been.” (Deetz, p. 34)

Deetz next examines headstones in 17th Century New England to reveal a meaning behind a stylistic evolution of their carvings. He begins by citing the pioneering work of Harriette Forbes that produced a seminal text about New England gravestone art, then discusses the softening of the ‘deaths heads’ as they became cherubs and increasingly abstract designs that represented ‘visual punning,’ or the “the creation of symbols which carry a double meaning,” such as “the heart, a life symbol [that] was often incorporated in subtle ways into an otherwise grim symbol of death.” (Deetz, p. 105) He reads this change over time to reveal the influence of the Anglo-American religious movement sweeping the countryside at that time, the Great Awakening.

Next, Deetz cites the work of Glassie as he turns his attention to architecture to first distinguish between vernacular and academic building traditions. He begins by offering a clarifying archaeological definition of focus and visibility: “Focus, the degree to which a pattern of postholes, cellars, and hearths can be “read” clearly as to how it represents the structure that once stood over it. Visibility means the actual amount of physical remains,” that can be examined. (Deetz, p. 128) Deetz explains why we see regional differences in building styles: cultural isolation combines with the needs of the new environment and results in an academically influenced vernacular building style. (Deetz, p. 146) He looks ahead to Glassie’s classic work, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States, to describe the generative and transformational basic forms of buildings that can be shown as schema basic and combined forms that “can be shown to be combined according to a set of transformations to generate culturally acceptable house forms.” (Deetz, p. 154) In many examinations of regional building structures in the late 60’s onward, one finds schemes showing Glassie’s method to analyze historical architecture.

In the final chapters, Deetz turns his attention to those ‘small things forgotten,’ and transforms them into ‘small things remembered’ with his demonstration of how material culture studies reveal the lives of colonial era African Americans. Here, written records are scant, thus Deetz’s must assemble fragments of information from oral tradition, archives, and archaeology to reveal the lives of a group of four free Black men who lived in Parting Ways, Massachusetts around the turn of the 19th century. Specifically, Deetz brings to life Cato Howe, a Revolutionary War veteran who showed up in the written record when he applied for a government pension in 1818 for his military service. Upon his death, Mr. Howe appeared again through an inventory of his personal property. This man was not wealthy, he was a farmer, but Deetz helps us imagine the quality of Howe’s life, the difficulty of his labor, the food he ate, the family he created, and friends he had. As Howe begins to live and breathe in our imagination, Deetz reveals a deeper layer of Mr. Howe’s existence: after the 1978 examination of his (and three other graves) in Parting Ways, an unexpected “dimension to the nature of the cultural heritage” is revealed through the discovery of fragments of pottery and glass dressing their graves, that revealed “African American ritual practices and their West African roots.” (Deetz, p. 207) Instantly, African American culture became distinctly different from nearby Anglo American culture as we see similar artifacts used in wholly different ways. The essential difference of their arrangements, according to Deetz, reveals our implicit assumptions as the people unearthing this history.

Deetz’s method is particularly eloquent in chapter 8, “The African American Past,” where he begins with Thomas Jefferson’s 1781 report that a particular type of regional pottery was produced by native tribes in Virginia. Through the 1970’s, regional archaeologists determined this pottery was in fact manufactured by African Americans. A deeper consideration of the implications of this manufacture stunningly revealed a once lost lifeway: to save money, plantation owners gave African Americans the means to produce their own cookware, which in turn let these enslaved people preserve an essential part of their culture. An examination of clay pipes from that early time decorated with African designs, shows modern readers that the distribution of these artifacts over time “bears witness to nothing less than the passing of an entire social order.” (Deetz, p. 250)

In his final chapter, Deetz asks us to reconsider our assumptions of “cultural similarit[ies] between new and old America,” and that “such “common sense” judgments have led to the unfortunate clean-and-sterile  aspect of many of America’s outdoor museums.” (Deetz, p. 254) However, this analysis seems to focus on ‘culture’ in general (how an object looks or can be read), and not so much on an anthropological approach that would consider the ‘culture of technology’ (how it feels to use an object). For example, if one wanted to understand, or get a ‘feel for’ the experience of a 17th century cabin builder, it could be instructive to use a period ax to chop down a tree then hew a log. You would get a sense of the time and physical exertion this effort would take, the kind of injuries your body might suffer, how weather conditions would effect your work, how your lack of experience with this tool and that material you are working with effect your craftsmanship, how the tool wears and breaks, and so on. All of this information could be used to help explain why an object looks the way it does. With additional sources of information (written archives, demographic and economic studies, artistic motifs, for example) it should be possible to infer at least some of the cultural values of the tool users. However, in the spirit of Deetz, the examiner should make every effort to situate their imaginings on the objects at hand and firmly in the time that is being considered, so their current ‘common sense judgments’ don’t sully their insights.

 

Grey Gundaker,“Tradition and Innovation in African- American Yards,” African Arts 26 (April 1993)

Gundaker brings us to an appreciation of present day “yard work,” or “working the yard” of contemporary African Americans. You can find these yards in West (Baltimore Avenue) and North Philadelphia. I have recognized the specialness of these places, and have a pidgin understanding of their language, but Gundaker introduces deeper language and greater possibility for understanding these complex spaces. Her article offers a method for creating an analytical narrative for why these places look the way they do.

Gundaker considers combinations materials (found objects, substances such as water and lime, re-purposed building materials) and symbols and figures from African religions including Santeria, Candomble, and Shango, and reads the significance of these spaces (dressed or worked yards) to their makers. Some combinations tell stories, some memorialize the dead, other combinations create protective spaces. Gundaker explains, “I have tried to show that yards vary owing to the wide assortment of commercial and found objects and plants, constraints and possibilities for adaptation offered by particular sites, and the makers’ aesthetic predilections.” (Gundaker, p. 71) Beyond this, the author invites an appreciation of this African American “cultural [process] that makes sense of everyday works and lives.” (Ibid)

After reading the article, I took a moment to inspect my interest in the anthropological topic of this article: exploring a subaltern space made special by its maker (African American) and its themes (protection, cultural continuity, exotic ritual). Could I be indulging in cultural tourism?

Consider the yard of a European American, decorated with rusty buckets or old chairs, perhaps ‘inspired’ by Martha Stewart or a dozen other main stream ‘craft’ based decorators. A yard like this might include Christian or Pagan protective elements. Or imagine the yard of a collector with interesting juxtapositions of antique and contemporary items. Would we find this nearly as fascinating? Is there a language here to be discovered? Is there a lack of need for protective elements? If so, why? And just what does that red bird whirly-gig imply?

Can we turn this anthropological eye on European Americans, and through the lens of Pop Culture, discern triumphalist structures of power and dominance?

Finally, here are some images I made of a pair of worked yards in West Philadelphia on the 5000 block of Baltimore Avenue. Viewing these yards after reading Gundaker, I was able to more clearly read and thus better appreciate protective elements (dogs) and understand colors (blue for Yemaya and red for Chango) and so on. More importantly, I was reminded of the importance of presence. An object can have a presence, or a feeling it inspires in you when you are near it, as can a space. The maker wants their work to have a presence for it to be ‘good’ or of significance. To fully experience what these makers intend, you need to go stand near or in the space and let its complexity draw you in (click on the image to get a larger view):

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Photo credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick

“Small Things” and “Tradition” and the Lower Swedish Log Cabin

I have been researching the material qualities of the cabin, but more so, the history of its environment and in doing so, have come to understand that I might be able to say something about the first builders, but more importantly, I’ll be able to say much more about the cabin’s preservers.

Here is the descriptive plaque near the cabin:

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Photo credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick

Note the tentative nature of this language that says, “of it’s type” and “evidently.” What I know is: a dendrochronological study has been done on the logs of the cabin, and it has been dated (in 2 sources) to 1709 and 1697, respectively. There has also been some archaeology done on the interior and immediate exterior of the cabin, but no definite 17th century items were identified.

Further, this cabin is on the flood plain of Darby creek, and the area has experienced epic flooding in recorded history. Of note is the flood of 1843 after a sudden, fierce storm that caused a flash flood on the creek, pushing the water 15+ feet over its banks (http://www.phillyh2o.org/backpages/Floodof1843.htm). Stone bridges, dams, and mills along the creek were washed away. How did this little cabin survive?

Curiously, on the last page of a 1997 report by Barry Kent that interprets the artifacts found around the cabin, there appears a map of the creek titled “Alternate sites for the Lower Swedish Cabin.” I am going to find out what that is all about.

It is my hope that by understanding how the cabin and the history of this landscape intersect, I will come to know something about the people who occupied this cabin and thus kept it around for use. Further, I hope to develop a clearer understanding when this building transitioned from a rudimentary structure to house a mill worker (object with practical value), to a sentimental log cabin in the woods (object with aesthetic value).

I think the 19th and 20th century objects — or “small things forgotten” — gleaned from the cabin floor (kaolin pipes, glass beads, buttons, pins, combs, iron hardware and tools, and coins) can help me discern this transition.

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Photo Credit: Laurie Fitzpatrick

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In all fairness to Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Hannah Arendt, ed., Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), from last week’s reading — when I walked into the brier patch of that reading assignment, to get past my frustration, I should have done some online research to contextualize Benjamin so I could better appreciate his ideas. Also, I needed to check my assumptions (as a Printmaker who had deeply pondered the meaning of mechanical reproduction for eight years as an undergraduate and then a graduate student —  and worked myself through the existentialist angst of deconstructed power and meaning) as I worked my way through his ideas. In my previous post, I fished out a few of Benjamin’s ideas that resonated with me, but not without complaint. Valuable lesson learned. I have many, many thoughts on the subject of mechanical reproduction, but focusing on ‘my thoughts’ misses the point of the assignment which is to understand Benjamin.

Readings in Material Culture for February 2, 2016

A unifying theme for these for articles this week is an examination through approaches to material culture studies of the idea of what it means to own a thing. “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts” is unabashedly about setting the price for a thing, selling it, buying it, and owning it.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” brings the age-old enemy of capitalistic systems — Karl Marx — and the idea of reproduciblity as a devaluation strategy into the conversation as a way to lift the dead hand of consumerism from objects of value. Unfortunately, we end up with dead hand of Marxism incompletely covering the first dead hand of capitalistic hegemony, and it’s not fun to contemplate.

Copley’s Cargo,” reads a painting and reveals the great existential angst of the 17th Century Atlantic world: the promises of commerce and conquest (new things to steal, buy, and own as a way to gain and prove your power) as opposed to the realities of moving these things from place to place on slow, leaking wooden ships, through the hands of thieves. The article uses an art historical consideration of an object (an oil painting) and breaks through to an Ulrich style revelation about an epoch.

Toward a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies,” returns to the quest of Mechanical Reproduction to this time lift the dead hand of consumerism from Art History by using the more agile and skilled hand of Material Culture. But the article falls back on the (to some) timeless or (to some) age old comparison of Plato and Aristotle, and the author falls just short of finding the revelation of Ingold, that things are in life and life in not in things.

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Charles Montgomery, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts“,in Material Culture Studies in America, edited by Thomas J. Schlereth (The American Association for State and Local History, Tennessee, 1982)

This is a straightforward read that provides a basic, “Antiques Roadshow” recipe for assessing the value of an object. For Material Culture study, this method is antiquated in that it represents the privileged male gaze of the so-called connoisseur, the collector, the buyer, the owner, and so on. This gaze reveals more about the looker than it does the object being looked at.

To arrive at a valuation, Montgomery’s approach isolates the object from its environment and its materials, and thus removes deeper cultural meaning that could threaten the marketability of the object. Previous ownership, beyond provenance, is not admitted. In other words, any discussion of people who owned or loved the object, or may have lived or died to make or possess the thing — a discussion of cultural history — is not permitted.

Tellingly, the final section of this article, “Appraisal or Evaluation,” focuses on how much money the object is worth, as revealed by Montgomery’s final sentences, “Is it worth of purchase? And, if so, at what price?” (Montgomery, p. 152)

Nonetheless, a student can still use this method to get at the basic characteristics of an object. So, Montgomery could represent the prosaic starting point for a the study of an object.

 

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Hannah Arendt, ed., Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1969)

Okay, Marx, capitalistic production, proletariats, “In principle a work or art has always been reproducable.” (Benjamin, p, 218) It feels like we are in for a Marxist Art manifesto of some sort or another. Or, was the writer just really inspired after seeing his first Warhol in person?

As an artist, I say this chapter reads like the ‘art critic’ telling the ‘artist’ all about what they are doing. It further brings to mind my assertion that manifestos are generally reductive, false, and thus boring. The one time I produced a manifesto, I wrote it as an Eno-esque inspired numbered list of lyrics, then I blacked out every third or forth word to make the document unintelligible. It’s stuffed in an old Freshman year sketchbook, somewhere.

I understand that Benjamin is defining the authenticity of an object, and stressing how this has an authority that when questioned, can jeopardize historical testimony that arises from the object. (Benjamin, p. 221)

In the case of Benjamin’s manifesto, a lengthy consideration of mechanical reproduction of ‘art’ is basically false. Simply put, if an artist makes an object and someone else comes along and copies it, either roughly by hand or finely with a laser printer, its a “mechanical reproduction,” and this has been happening — not at Benjamin asserts, in some “age of mechanical reproduction,” characterized as films, or photographs, or lithographs — but for as long as people have been picking up rocks and bashing them into spear heads. All art is essentially a form of communication technology. And all worthwhile technology is reproduced.

 

Jennifer L. Roberts, “Copley’s Cargo,” in Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2014)

Roberts ‘reads’ Copley’s painting and reveals the 18th century, empirical mind of the artist, as well as the empiricist ‘zeitgeist’ of his cultural world that straddled the Atlantic from Boston to London. Roberts moves beyond Barbara Novak’s standard picture of Copley as an American artist who’s “approach [has a] nativist bent, connecting it to an essentially American desire to get at the unvarnished truth of things … [to] … emphasize instead the status of empiricism as a quintessentially transatlantic project.” (Roberts, p. 35) When Robert’s considers the way Copley painted a table top, she reveals,  “Copley’s brand of empiricism … [that] mirrors the language of transatlantic commodity exchange and consumption in the colonial Atlantic world.” (Roberts 38)

Roberts further asserts that the 18th century emphasis on empiricism sought to solve  the problem of the great time and distance imposed by shipping cargoes and communicating across the Atlantic ocean on the Atlantic world. Roberts’s discussion begins here, with the idea that modern art historians ignore the great distances (space and time) of the Atlantic World, and instead create “spatiotemporal compressions … [that are] … external to all art-historical concerns,” and by implication, do not exist in this painting by Copley. (Roberts, p. 36) This is false according to Roberts, because Copley’s Boy with a Squirrel is an 18th century meditation on the the problem of traversing time and space in the Atlantic World.

Roberts’s immersion in this world of 18th century empiricism impressed me because she is also able to filter out our modern, probabilistic  Continue reading

Method for examining the Lower Swedish Log Cabin in Upper Darby, PA

In teaching business writing, I tell my students that when presented with a mass of information they must organize then present coherently, they must first ask the question, “How do I structure this.” Then I tell them the bad news: there is no ‘one way,’ no one format or formula they can reliably use to structure everything, although there are many ‘patterns readers expect’ to be gleaned from our media culture. The student’s final piece, hopefully, will shape the story inherent in the information with an expected pattern readers will recognize, to create an effective communication.

So, to read the Lower Swedish Cabin and then tell its story, I can rely on two effective structures and one non-structure, namely the methodology suggested by Montgomery in “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts” and Prown’s “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” as synthesized through Ingold’s position ‘things are in life – not life is in things’ position he presents in “Materials against Materiality.”

First, to diverge from Prown and Montgomery and embrace Ingold, my rubric has the shape of a color wheel, as opposed to a linear procedural list:

MethodMap

Method Map

This wheel takes me from synthesis of these three approaches to a synesthetic blending of colors that suggest intellectual moods (Prown’s invitation to emotion, Montgomery’s cataloguing and storing, Ingold’s challenge to materiality) and moods that suggest seasons and seasons that suggest the cabin in its environment.

Then there is the inventory of the material qualities of the object, suggested by both Prown and Montgomery. However these qualities can be placed anywhere on the wheel. Here, the basic nature of the object will dictate categories:

The cabin is a 350 year old shelter made of logs and stone that is situated in a wooded area next to a creek.

The cabin is a folk building, a utilitarian object that emerged from this landscape (through human agency) in response to a lifeway strongly characterized by subsistence.

People maintained this object according to changing physical and stylistic needs (enlarged to accommodate more people, whitewashed to make it attractive).

Finally, people restored this object according to modern physical need (material loss to decay) and emotional need (nostalgia for the past).

Categories for observation taken from Montgomery include:

Overall appearance; techniques employed by the craftsman; function; style; date; attribution; the history of the cabin and its ownership — over time; condition — over time.

However, Prown warns us that, to find the mind or belief of the object’s maker, “works of art are more direct sources of cultural evidence than are devices.” (Prown, Mind in Matter, p. 15) So, to be able to perceive the minds that built then maintained the cabin, I will observe and consider the style of the maintenance and then preservation of this object. A tiny, decaying, 350+- year old cabin was not permitted to exist because it was a great place to live. The people in the community that evolved around the vulnerable little thing at least recognized its age and more or less protected it from destruction.

I borrow this methodology from Prown to get at the minds of these builders, maintainers, and preservers:

Description of the cabin and its environment, as a substantial analysis (physical dimensions, inventory of the materials it is made of); deduction, the “empathetic linking of the material (actual) or represented world of the object with the perceiver’s world of existence and experience,” (Prown, p. 8) to include my sensory experience and emotional response to the cabin. Hopefully, I will gather sufficient ‘information’ to begin speculating about my theory of this cabin’s role as ‘shelter’ for the people who know of it, take care of it, or actually lived in it.

Through Prown, I arrive at Ingold, who challenges me to consider the cabin as an object wholly integrated with me and its environment, as something that is “born and [grew] within the current of materials, and participate[s] from within in [its] further transformation.” (Ingold, Materials against Materiality, p. 12) Ingold didn’t offer a clear methodology for considering the qualities of an object, but from his article I deduced this method:

Photograph the cabin from the same angles of previous documentary images to show changing styles of maintenance and preservation over time; image the cabin in isolation, to document its idealization, then image the cabin to include intrusions of the modern; image and note the environment of the woods, the nearby creek, the plants, the relative humidity, the soil, nearby structures, commemorative signs and structures; note the cabin’s materials and investigate their local origins; discern original and modern materials and speculate about their meaning to the people who used them.

What is this “preserved” cabin that once sheltered colonists from a harsh and uncertain existence, that now shelters our imaginings of the past.

(From: http://dtimeshistory.blogspot.com/2013/11/swedish-log-cabin-xmas.html)

(From: http://dtimeshistory.blogspot.com/2013/11/swedish-log-cabin-xmas.html)

1908 Postcard from the Keith Lockhart Post Card Collection of Chester County. Please visit his Delaware County PA history website at: http://www.delawarecountyhistory.com/

The black and white original image, photographed in 1900, can also be found at the Chester County Historical Society, Chester, PA.

References:

Ingold, Tim, “Materials Against Materiality” in Archaeological Dialogues 14, (United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Montgomery, Charles, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts,in Material Culture Studies in America, edited by Thomas J. Schlereth (The American Association for State and Local History, Tennessee, 1982)

Prown, Jules David, Mind in Matter: An Introduction to a Material Culture Theory and Method, in Winterthur Portfolio, Vol 17, No. 1 (Spring 1982) (The University of Chicago Press for the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum)