Distributed Objects

Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell

Liana Chua
Mark Elliott
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Distributed Objects
    Book Description:

    One of the most influential anthropological works of the last two decades, Alfred Gell'sArt and Agencyis a provocative and ambitious work that both challenged and reshaped anthropological understandings of art, agency, creativity and the social. It has become a touchstone in contemporary artifact-based scholarship. This volume brings together leading anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians and other scholars into an interdisciplinary dialogue withArt and Agency, generating a timely re-engagement with the themes, issues and arguments at the heart of Gell's work, which remains salient, and controversial, in the social sciences and humanities. Extending his theory into new territory - from music to literary technology and ontology to technological change - the contributors do not simply take stock, but also provoke, critically reassessing this important work while using it to challenge conceptual and disciplinary boundaries.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-743-1
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
    Liana Chua and Mark Elliott
  5. Introduction: Adventures in the Art Nexus
    (pp. 1-24)
    Liana Chua and Mark Elliott

    Participants at the symposium, ‘Art and Agency: Ten Years On’, held in Cambridge at the end of 2008, will remember one of the succession of animated debates that took place during the proceedings. Towards the end of the day, a prominent anthropologist sitting in the audience rose in excitement in response to the final paper. ‘I’m sorry,’ she began, ‘but I’m having a visceral reaction to what you’ve just said!’ Minutes later she was joined by another colleague who professed to feel the same, and there ensued a robust exchange between them and the speaker at the front of the...

  6. Chapter 1 Threads of Thought: Reflections on Art and Agency
    (pp. 25-38)
    Susanne Küchler

    There can be no doubt thatArt and Agencyhas paved a new direction for anthropological theory by challenging the assumed primacy of the social over the material and cultural. The book presents us with the framework for a theory of the work things do as exponents of thought and as catalysts for imagination and intuition. Rather than merely mirroring how to ‘be in relation’, Alfred Gell shows how things make thinking about thinking possible and shape the way we see connections in the world spontaneously and effortlessly.

    In a move that reminds us of Alfred Gell’s work as ethnographer...

  7. Chapter 2 Technologies of Routine and of Enchantment
    (pp. 39-57)
    Chris Gosden

    Art and Agencycan be seen as an exploration of the manner in which the qualities of people are brought out by objects and how objects are given power and salience by people. The key questions asked in the latter part of the book concern both the problem of order and of intelligibility: how are artefacts ordered through evolving styles, how do such styles link to the broader ordering of culture, and in what ways do both the ordering of material things and of culture provide the grounds for the intelligibility of the world? Gell critically discusses Hanson’s (1983) work...

  8. Chapter 3 Figuring out Death: Sculpture and Agency at the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the Tomb of the First Emperor of China
    (pp. 58-87)
    Jeremy Tanner

    This paper explores the potential of Alfred Gell’s theory of agency for studies in comparative art, by means of an examination of the role of figurative representation in the tombs of an early Greek and an early Chinese monarch. Comparative art is a field of enquiry which periodically seems on the point of breaking through to equivalent disciplinary significance to that of comparative religion or comparative literature. But it seems never quite to cross the threshold. As a gross generalization, one might say there are two broad approaches, neither very satisfactory. One would be cross-cultural aesthetics, exemplified by Richard Anderson’s...

  9. Chapter 4 The Network of Standard Stoppages (c.1985)
    (pp. 88-113)
    Alfred Gell

    The topic I intend to discuss in this paper is the representation of duration and the problem of continuity in the visual arts, specifically the works of Marcel Duchamp. But before I enlarge on my theme, it may be as well for me to explain why I think it is one which has a certain anthropological relevance, quite apart from general cultural interest.

    I have two main arguments to put forward on this score. First of all, the formative period of twentieth-century art (i.e. 1890–1925) coincides exactly with the formative period of our own subject. The intellectual currents which...

  10. Chapter 5 Gell’s Duchamp/Duchamp’s Gell
    (pp. 114-129)
    Simon Dell

    That Marcel Duchamp should have been of interest to Alfred Gell is unsurprising. Artist and anthropologist shared a measure of contempt for the European tradition of aesthetics, and both opposed this tradition through sometimes abstract and indeed sometimes abstruse theorizing. Gell’s engagement is evident in his account of Duchamp’s work in the conclusion ofArt and Agencyand is nicely indicated by the choice ofNetwork of Stoppagesas the illustration for the book’s cover. Yet this work by Duchamp was also the subject of another essay by Gell, published in the present volume for the first time; this text...

  11. Chapter 6 Music: Ontology, Agency, Creativity
    (pp. 130-154)
    Georgina Born

    It seems that we all have our own Alfred Gell – that he is a multiplicity; and thatArt and Agencyis a multiplicity, as well as being a technology of enchantment (Gell 1992). From the evidence of the conference that forms the basis for the present volume, Gell left a trail of dyadic relations of attentive intellectual engagement, of honest and kind exchange. What is striking – from the diverse readings and indebted critiques manifest at the conference – is the extraordinarily fertile nature of his work. Cultural objects and artisticoeuvres,as he said, ‘have indeed no essences, only an indefinite...

  12. Chapter 7 Literary Art and Agency?: Gell and the Magic of the Early Modern Book
    (pp. 155-175)
    Warren Boutcher

    Let me start with a confession. Before Liana Chua spoke on the first morning of the ‘Art and Agency: Ten Years On’ symposium, I did not know how to pronounce Alfred Gell’s surname.¹ I had never talked in person to anyone who knew him or his work, either before or after his death, besides one or two friends to whom I had recommended the name. Yet I had had a relationship with him for about ten years. One day in 1998 I entered Heffers bookstore in Cambridge to scan, as usual, the various sections for interesting new publications. I pulled...

  13. Chapter 8 Art, Performance and Time’s Presence: Reflections on Temporality in Art and Agency
    (pp. 176-200)
    Eric Hirsch

    Comparisons between Aboriginal Australian societies and the societies of Melanesia are long standing in anthropology. An example is the volume on ‘emplaced myth’, comparing and analysing the mythic narratives and ritual forms of the contiguous regions of Australia and New Guinea (Rumsey and Weiner 2001; cf. Wagner 1972). The comparisons in this case suggest a considerable period of spatial connection between areas where myths or ritual forms in Australia, for example, are the transformation of myths and ritual forms in New Guinea. For three-quarters of their period of human habitation they were a single landmass: ‘even in the postglacial period...

  14. Chapter 9 Epilogue
    (pp. 201-206)
    Nicholas Thomas

    No one could go from the stimulating arguments of this book with a sense that anything in or around the anthropology of art is settled. The field is certainly fertile, but also confused by disagreement that starts from the most basic questions of definition. Is ‘art’ a class of things or a cultural domain available for study, or is it merely a problematic rubric that offers a route into the investigation of something different? Can or should the anthropology of art be different to the study of material culture? Is the anthropology that might be brought to bear upon this...

  15. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 207-210)
  16. Index
    (pp. 211-222)