The Invisible Essence of Mixed Matter: Envisioning a Material Culture Theory of Substance

Posted on May 3, 2017


If you like material culture then I have an interesting session we filmed at the TAG conference for you:

Session Abstract:

Material culture theory today envisions human life lived in a well-furnished set of meaningful, entangling things. We have developed lively conversations around the ways that making objects, using them, displaying and concealing them, and discarding or fragmenting them intertwines with social processes, from the scale of individual minds and bodies to that of continents and millennia.
Much has been said, of late, about entanglements and assemblages, too – the ways things interact with, depend upon and co-create each other, human beings, and landscapes. In these conversations, our examples and case-studies are almost always bounded objects with unified relational attributes: baskets and fetish-statues, wampum-beads and stone axes, microscopes and water-pumps. This session will explore the possibilities for a material culture theory starting from a different kind of type specimen: the unbounded, heterogeneous substance. Water, mud, soil, dung, compost, midden, cement, gravel, and ash invite a different kind of human engagement than more-bounded objects. Following Ingold (2008), Hahn (2010), Pauketat (2015) and Given’s (2016) impetus, this session aims to better theorize such engagement.

To this end, we invite papers:

  • Anatomising the particular constraints and affordances of substances for technical practice;
  • Exploring the manner in which substances, as heterogeneous composites, invite and embody certain forms of material entanglement;
  • Adapting phenomenological approaches to material culture to subject-substance (as opposed to subject-object) interactions;
  • Discussing the constraints and biases of archaeological methodologies when investigating substances, and entertaining the possibility for more suitable methods;
  • Investigating the material culture of substance and its relationship to object culture in past and present societies.

Ultimately, pursuing these lines of investigation will provide a necessary complement to ‘thing theory’ in material culture studies. Living as we do in the age of plastic, glass, and stainless steel, it is easy for our eyes to be caught by bounded objects with clear surfaces. This session will open for more considered analysis a new set of materials and a new perspective on material life: new aspects of a story only partially told by things.

Kevin Kay, University of Cambridge; and Laurence Ferland, Université Laval

Bodies that co-create: the residues and intimacies of vital materials Eloise Govier, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

At the Neolithic town Çatalhöyük in Turkey, carbon is often found in burial contexts. It is argued that carbon found on the ribs and vertebrae of human remains is a by-product of a lifetime of smoke inhalation (Andrews et al 2005: 277). The inhalation of carbon from the smokey hearth, settles in the lungs. But as the lungs decay, these carbon residues – intimately hosted by the lungs during life – remain embedded within the burial context. These substances are the residues and intimacies of material interactions, and I argue that their presence epitomises the futility of the “life-matter binary” (Bennett 2010: 20). To quote Jane Bennett: “[it is an] oxymoronic truism that the human is not exclusively human, that we are made up of its” (Bennett 2010: 113). The vital relationship between these materials manifest in, and on, the Neolithic body. This paper brings together data gathered from ethnographic research carried out in collaboration with performance artist Suze Adams, and the vital materials found in burial contexts at Çatalhöyük. Whilst thinking through these material interactions, I follow on from Karen Barad and reject the “Cartesian cut” (2003: 815), and offer an analysis that interrogates the vital materials that blur the “surfaces” and “horizons” of the body.

Dung to ash: the alchemy of prehistoric everyday substances Agni Prijatelj, University of Durham

This paper explores the material, sensual and cultural qualities of animal dung and ash in Mediterranean prehistory, by presenting a series of selected archaeological, geoarchaeological and ethnographic case studies on the use of caves and rockshelters as stables (grotte bergeries) or stable-and-dwelling places (habitat bergeries). Whilst previous studies used animal dung and ash as indicators for human agency in the form of distinct anthropogenic activities such as herding, penning and cleaning (e.g. Angelucci et al. 2009; Boschian 2006; Brochier et al. 1992), these thoroughly overlooked the agency of the substances themselves. As a critical response to the earlier approach, and in the light of dynamic new research on vibrant materials and the agency of matter (Boivin 2008; Bennett 2010; Conneller 2011; Jones 2012; Jones & Alberti 2013), this paper shifts the focus on to the agency and substance-power which stems from the material properties of the dung and ash. Furthermore, by rigorously focusing on process, change and material connections and interactions between people and materials within various underground settings, the paper explores distinct forms of entanglements between subjects and substances. In so doing, it argues that dung and ash had, in prehistory, an emotional, sensual and social impact through the corporeal force of their physicality and transformative potential.

Archaeology is the science of aggregates Philippe Boissinot, EHESS, Toulouse-Paris, France

The archaeological inquiry proceede to dismantle a singular entity, entirely spatial, and therefore viewable in many ways, with some cohesion, and structured from various material elements, which we call aggregate. As an aggregate, it could not be covered by any subject, even if it has at least a part, itself part of an artifact (and not only as constituent), suggesting intentionality in this location, that can be old or very recent. In contrast to other documents (picture, text), the aggregate reveals no point of view, nor imposed framework. From the disposition of these things (Ontology of substance) in it, the archaeologist deduces the existence of other things (“what?”), people (“who?”) and events (“why ?”), answering incompletely this question: “what happened here?” (Ontology of time). We consider in this paper all the epistemological consequences of the disassembly operation at several scales (from mesoscopic towards the infra and supra ones), which limits the use of certain concepts of Social Sciences, while providing unmistakable facts. This limitation, it is the decoupling between space and time, as well as the weakening of certain criteria of identity, in the absence of language and / or direct observation of the agents. For these reasons, it may not be the best discipline to handle the material culture in all its generality, neither “the discipline of things”.


Clay and the art of experimentation Marc Higgin, University of Aberdeen

My research focuses on clay and visual artists working with this material that is always on the move. Clay is better understood not as a single, homogenous substance but as a dynamic inter-relation of earth(s), water and air, changing again in relation to fire. This paper draws on my fieldwork with three artists. In labouring alongside them, I gradually got to know the rhythm and feel of their practice of making with clay, the tools, equipment and techniques they used as well as the experiential and aesthetic dimensions of this material experimentation. This focus on the relational dimensions of sculptural practice necessarily extended to the social and economic dimensions of production and exchange through which my collaborators sustain their practice (and livelihood) as artists. Rather than approach art through the lens of ‘already-thrown’ works through which social meaning, function and organisation can be read, this research works with materials, art and artists in-the-making, as relational achievements between many different logics of production, exchange and relation.
The paper engages with this panel’s turn to substances in two parts. The first engages with the work of the artist Alexandra Engelfriet, in which I discuss the role of imagination in learning to work with the exigencies of particular materials. My interest here is with the remarkable plasticity of clay and how it foregrounds not only the doing of skilful practice with this material but also its undergoing. This dimension of undergoing is interesting to the extent it unsettles the anthropocentrism implicit theories of human agency and the way they frame materials in terms of ‘affordances’. The second part follows the artist Douglas White during a residency at the European Keramich Workcentre in the Netherlands, exploring the difference the fire of the kiln makes to working with clay; in particular, the work of rendering productive (and reliable) then indeterminacy of clay’s transformation into ceramic. While the first part develops existing phenomenological approaches to making, the second tries to develop a metabolic sense of material experimentation and creativity that touches on the limits to these approaches.

Substance worlds: engaging matter beyond things Kevin Kay, University of Cambridge, and Laurence Ferland, Université Laval, Canada

We live in an age of plastic, glass, and stainless steel. Objects like smartphones, whiteware crockery, and Ikea furniture come to us fully formed, with definite, homogeneous surfaces, and when those surfaces are broken or tarnished we discard them. We internalize this way of engaging with the material world: it shows in our material culture theory, with its rich “object worlds” (Meskell 2004) of pots and handaxes, figurines and baskets, following “biographies” from the time their surface forms to the time they are discarded (Joyce and Gillespie 2015).
Without denying the sweeping advances in ‘thing theory’ in the past 20 years, we argue that material cultural concepts, terms and methods tailored to bounded objects struggle to comprehend that omnipresent category of material substance that is loose, aggregate, heterogeneous and unbounded. Substances like clay, dung, ash, compost, rubbish, and soil are not ‘things’. They behave differently in physical terms and invite different engagement from human bodies and
Drawing on examples from our fieldwork on tell sites of the Age of Clay, as well as contemporary material culture, we attempt to outline the particularities of a material culture theory of unbounded substance. We discuss implications of substances’ physical proclivities and the demands of working with substance; suggest common ways in which substance affords skill, thought, and discourse; and reflect upon the phenomenological foundations of ‘thing theory’ in light of this broadened horizon. In conclusion, we suggest that, although some of our modern material cultural habits shape archaeological thought to be partly-incongruous with the substance world, the intimate engagement with substances that archaeological practice demands and the sturdy roots of 21st century material culture theory provide ample resources for a revitalization of  unbounded substances in archaeological understanding in coming years.


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