Handbook of material culture
Christopher Tilley et al. (eds), London, Sage, 2006, 576pp.
ISBN: 9781412900393 (hbk), RRP: A$268.00

review by Linda Young
Handbook of material culture book cover

This is the kind of handbook that is more of a brick than a handy read; at 550 pages, it needs to be solidly propped on the desk. I found I needed first, a pencil to underline the main ideas, and second, a handy laptop to transcribe them immediately into meaningful summary. My reading was often adorned with jotted marginalia and muttered invocations: 'er...', 'ah!', 'what???' It's stimulating reading.

A hefty compendium of ideas about the study of material culture, the Handbook's framework is firmly anthropological, reflecting the discipline that invented material culture study. I suspect that many readers of this journal could find themselves daunted by the references to theorists they've always meant to read and awed by the references to authors they've never heard of. Australian historians' approaches to material culture tend to be informed by historical archaeology and art history more than anthropology, and are still lit by the sputtering candle of American material history efforts that flickered in the 1980s–90s but never quite went anywhere. The Handbook is therefore a refreshing and challenging source.

It's refreshing because material culture studies re-emerged as a modern field in the 1990s in Britain, nurtured into contemporary manifestations by anthropologists and archaeologists, many of whom contribute to the present volume. It's challenging because the new British school focuses on popular culture, ancient archaeology and the classical anthropology of the Other, but rarely the historic world. Meanwhile, historians' engagement with material culture has concentrated in the subset of the history of consumption, which has been fruitful in terms of knowledge production, but owing to large reliance on documentary lists, fails to grapple with the materiality of objects. Museum historians are therefore still without many direct models of material history — though the Handbook should assist anyone seeking a theoretical structure in which to think about historic objects.

If this sounds shallow, the comment is prompted by the smorgasbord structure of the book, which invites sampling. But it is a very substantial smorgasbord, laid out with purpose and intellect, in which I'm sure there is yet more for me to discover.

First-up, the theoretical and conceptual field of material culture studies is reviewed via a range of analytical tools: semiotics, post-structuralism, Marxism, phenomenology, post-colonialism, etc. Some of these contributions are more reader-friendly than others. I was engaged by Janet Hoskins' survey, 'Agency, biography and objects', in which she introduces the recent 'agentive turn' in social theory, comprising several forms of argument about the relative and interactive agency of objects and people, singular and mass-produced, exotic and familiar. In the manner of handbook-surveys, it's useful to read overview analyses such as the apparently oppositional perspectives on writing object biographies — ethnographically-rendered narratives or 'make-them-speak' interrogations via contextualisation. It's a useful distinction.

One of the boldest structures of the Handbook is the second section, 'The body, materiality and the senses'. It confronts textuality and visuality as our culture's dominant modes of understanding material culture, and suggests that the embodied subject and its multiple, concomitant ways of sensing, feeling, knowing, performing and experiencing, offer dynamic routes to different perceptions of the human relation to the material. Studies of food and eating feature here, and of synaesthesia, and of colour – the latter by Diana Young, drawing on her work in Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands, where seasonal change is sometimes experienced in wearing clothing the colour of the plant growth. Corporeality and sensuality open up to the concept of sense-scapes – an enticing notion.

The most familiar meat and potatoes of material culture studies comes in part 3, 'Subjects and objects', the most common frame of material culture studies. Within this field, Webb Keane identifies four perspectives on the relation of subject to object in social theory: 1. Production; 2. Representation; 3. Development; 4. Extension of subjects by objects. The first of these is probably the predominant context of the tradition of object studies: who made it, and how? Marxism offered a powerful political theme in which to analyse these findings, but it simultaneously introduced a moralistic implication that the other side of the act of production, viz, consumption, was exploitative and self-indulgent. This poisoned an otherwise strong tool until the cultural studies turn legitimated consumerism as a hot post-industrial topic in history, and archaeologist Daniel Miller liberated it as a function of subjective self-development. The former has taken off in a big way; the latter less so.

By contrast, Keane's second category of 'representation' continues to be the other dominant mode of object studies, showing how objects serve as representation of/for subjects in anthropology, archaeology and art history. It usually requires the analyst to 'see through' the object to grasp an abstract structure — the kind of heroically insightful scholarship that is not so easy to sustain these days.

Ways to move beyond the opposition object:subject are suggested by the concept of objects as extensions of subjects, eg soldier and weapon, where the object is a necessary element of the subject's agency. This shifts analysis away from objects in self-knowledge, towards objects' role in mediating actions, where the subject is not constituted via opposition to or encompassing of goods, but is amplified by merging with them. Context is clearly a critical element of such scenarios, and changing contexts open up further meanings in studying the extended object:subject pair.

That said, the case study chapters in this section exemplify the risks of multi-author, multi-topic encyclopedias. It begins with a wonderful survey of anthropological theories of cloth and clothing, by Jane Schneider — just the resource that curators of 'costume' need to jolt us out of the minute habits of textile and style chronology. Perhaps because it's my own speciality, I was less impressed by the chapter theorising home furnishing and domestic interiors. The chapter on vernacular architecture is a bibliographical gem, and those on architectural modernism and on 'primitivism' in anthropology and art present comprehensive reviews.

The last part of the Handbook carries material culture study into the realm of 'Presentation and politics', where the modern need for identities (individual and group) drives expressions in museums, heritage sites, memorials, etc. It posits the ownership of cultural goods as central to identity assertions, in order to control access — admittedly to authorised, structured manifestations that may contain as much amnesia as memory. The institutional and professional complicity necessary to present culture in an age of these legal and therapeutic rights to cultural differences generates much of the grist of daily museum business. This is discussed most interestingly in Beverley Butler's contribution, 'Heritage and the present past'. She wryly traces the shift in the past 30 years from museums as a 'whipping boy' of false consciousness to a favourite child of academe. As always, the frame is anthropological, but this is the field where theoretical anthropology has come closest to professional practice, where directors and curators have been compelled by Indigenous interests to crack open the museum as symbol of dispossession, with both successful and less successful outcomes.

Butler concludes with a theme present in several other contributions to the Handbook: the desirability of a humanistic frame of purpose in material culture study and its manifestations including museums and heritage. 'Heritage discourse is uniquely placed not only to address claims about identity, ancestry and cultural transmission but is equipped to take on the key moral-ethical issues of our times, and to fully engage with and assist the definition of emergent global futures.' (p. 476) Bravo, say I!

Linda Young is director of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Deakin University, Melbourne.