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Essay question: Can the notion of biography be applied to things?
The recognition of the contextual, cultural, temporal and spatial characteristics of things is crucial to this ethnographic re-assessment of modernity’s universalizing and homogenizing influences on notions of history.
Material culture considers the methodological consequences of realizing an object’s agency, its response capacities and its abilities to carry information; for example Gell’s anthropological theory of art is; ‘the social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency’ (1998:7).
Objectification considers the construction and translation of social relations, culture and value systems through artefacts, and has three primary concerns.
First of all the concept of knowledge and identity is possible through objects.
The way individuals and groups objectify their identities allows an understanding of culturally specific social practices.
This approach aims to go beyond physiognomic analysis to question the artifice of Enlightenment categorizations of the cultural and natural world which subjects and objects inhabit.The consideration of biographical objects challenges dominant, Western and Enlightenment narratives that create a dualism between subjects and objects, whereby the object is always seen as mute in relation to the subject as absolute agent of action.As Heidegger discusses in his essay Age of the World Picture, the Enlightenment man of reason made a picture of the world, and separated it off from himself in order to understand and exploit it.This dialectical understanding can also be linked to tactual and muscular philosophy’s of the act such as that of George Herbert Mead (1972) as adopted in post-processual archeology (Hodder, 1995), and phenomenological methodologies (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Tilley, 2004; Pinney, 2004) in which the distinction between man (culture) and the world (nature) is reexamined to instead posit a mutually intertwined ‘fleshy’ relation to one another: Phenomenology involves the attempt to describe the objects of consciousness in the manner in which they are presented to consciousness.It attempts to reveal the world as it is actually experienced directly by a subject as opposed to how we might theoretically assume it to be.(Tilley, 2004:1) A further ethnographically based approach is to problematize the dualism between gift (as inalienable and non-Western) and commodity (as alienable and Western) as discussed by Mauss (2001)  in relation to gift giving, and Marx (1976)  in relation to commodity in systems of exchange (Miller, 2001).For Miller ethnography is the absolute fulcrum of anthropological study, and it is this which teases out the limitations of universalizing theory such as that of Bourdieu and Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist method.Discussions concerning things which have ‘biographies’ highlight many issues and cover many disciplines such as art history (Baxandall, 1974) and economics and consumption (Miller, 1995; Fine, 2002) – all of which are far too numerous to mention within the space of this essay.My focus on what biographies of objects bring to light will be on objectification (Miller, 1987), the metaphorical materiality of text and image (Tilley, 2004, 1999, 1991), and recontextualization (Thomas, 2001, 1991) and the artefact as event (Strathern, 1990).One of the most fundamental theories to the study of material culture, and by extension biographical objects, is that of objectification.As Miller argues, ‘…social worlds are as much constituted by materiality as the other way around…’ (1998: 8).