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Thinking Through Material Culture

Thinking Through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

Carl Knappett
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Thinking Through Material Culture
    Book Description:

    Material culture surrounds us and yet is habitually overlooked. So integral is it to our everyday lives that we take it for granted. This attitude has also afflicted the academic analysis of material culture, although this is now beginning to change, with material culture recently emerging as a topic in its own right within the social sciences. Carl Knappett seeks to contribute to this emergent field by adopting a wide-ranging interdisciplinary approach that is rooted in archaeology and integrates anthropology, sociology, art history, semiotics, psychology, and cognitive science. His thesis is that humans both act and think through material culture; ways of knowing and ways of doing are ingrained within even the most mundane of objects. This requires that we adopt a relational perspective on material artifacts and human agents, as a means of characterizing their complex interdependencies. In order to illustrate the networks of meaning that result, Knappett discusses examples ranging from prehistoric Aegean ceramics to Zande hunting nets and contemporary art. Thinking Through Material Culture argues that, although material culture forms the bedrock of archaeology, the discipline has barely begun to address how fundamental artifacts are to human cognition and perception. This idea of codependency among mind, action, and matter opens the way for a novel and dynamic approach to all of material culture, both past and present.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0249-6
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Chapter 1 Introduction: Thinking Through Material Culture
    (pp. 1-10)

    This book advocates a full theoretical reappraisal of material culture and offers some initial steps toward this larger goal. Evidently it is written by an archaeologist and uses archaeological case studies. Indeed, of all disciplines it is archaeology that needs material culture most. It is perhaps surprising then that archaeology, while developing ever more sophisticated methodologies for artifact study, has not yet constructed similarly sophisticated theoretical models for understanding the roles of artifacts in human societies. So complex and daunting is such a task that it must inevitably be interdisciplinary in its scope, drawing upon cognitive science, psychology, sociology, anthropology,...

  5. Chapter 2 Animacy, Agency, and Personhood
    (pp. 11-34)

    The piecing together of a theoretical framework for understanding material culture is a precarious process, as a number of key conceptual relationships are in need of review and adaptation. Here then we begin with a consideration of the status of objects in relation to the various guises taken by the human subject. Humans are organisms, like any another animal species, with biological animacy and corporeality. Yet humans also possess agency and personhood, which can be considered from psychological and social perspectives respectively. Durkheim saw the biological and the psychological together forming “the individual,” a level of existence separated from “the...

  6. Chapter 3 Cognition, Perception, and Action
    (pp. 35-63)

    It was apparent in the last chapter that biologists have tended to focus on individual organisms independently of their physical environment; much the same can be said of cognitive scientists, in their propensity for isolating internal mental states in explaining cognitive phenomena (Clark 1997, 46). The upshot is that “mind” is still very commonly treated as a domain separate from the body and the world, not only in cognitive science but also in much psychology and in cognitive anthropology. In the pages that follow we shall critique this tendency, and propose an alternative perspective that links together cognition, perception and...

  7. Chapter 4 The Dynamics of Networks
    (pp. 64-84)

    In the previous two chapters we have seen how different phenomena come to be distributed through space and time. The phenomena we discussed were cognition, agency and meaning. Cognition is distributed in that it is not confined to the brain, but is invariably drawn into the body and the external world.¹ Agency, although conventionally deemed to be in the hands of human agents, is distributed among both humans and nonhumans in complex webs of interconnection. As for meaning, it is distributed along both a “vertical” and a “horizontal” axis. The former refers to the “vertical” connections that exist among brain,...

  8. Chapter 5 Networks of Meaning: A Sociosemiotics of Material Culture
    (pp. 85-106)

    Previously, I have proposed that, since mind, agency, and matter are codependent and come together in the nexus of the object, neither materialist nor mentalist approaches to material culture are adequate. Minds, agents, and objects may appear to be bounded entities, but they are in fact rarely isolated, each spilling over into the other across ‘‘fuzzy’’ boundaries (as explored through a number of examples). This notion of mutualism was developed in Chapter 3 through the concept of affordances, which also allowed us to tackle the issue of meaning and how it comes to be distributed between object and subject. However,...

  9. Chapter 6 Thinking Through: Meaning in Modern Material Culture
    (pp. 107-132)

    In Perec’s novel Life, a User’s Manual there are many passages like the one above in which the human and nonhuman inhabitants of a Paris apartment block are described in infinite detail. This example is appropriate here both for its French authorship and for its minute focus on everyday objects in a Western industrial setting. Other French authors, admittedly in a somewhat different guise, have also recently been writing about the role of mundane artifacts in the contemporary Western world. These authors are, however, sociologists and anthropologists such as Latour, Lemonnier, Warnier, Kaufmann, Chevalier, Semprini, and Bonnot, to name but...

  10. Chapter 7 Archaeological Case Study: Drinking Vessels in Minoan Crete
    (pp. 133-166)

    We now follow through on the ideas developed in previous chapters and apply them to bodies of archaeological material. The aim, course, is to reveal some of the ways in which meanings in past material culture may be accessible to us. There are obvious challenges and problems that the prehistoric archaeologist in particular faces when seeking to situate certain categories of artifact or activity in networks that are distributed across matter, body, and mind. But despite the lacunae that exist when dealing with only the material traces of past societies, it is nonetheless possible to undertake impressive reconstructions of cultural...

  11. Chapter 8 Conclusions
    (pp. 167-170)

    Nearly fifty years ago Gilbert Simondon reacted in these forceful terms against the general tendency in Western culture to dichotomize society and technology, mind and matter, human and machine. Simondon was something of a rare breed, a philosopher with an almost archaeological concern for objects and techniques. Yet, falling in the cracks between academic disciplines, he has gone largely unnoticed. His critique is of course somewhat unfair to anti-Cartesian philosophers such as Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, hardly unaware of the problems of dichotomizing mind and matter. Yet, as powerful as their contributions are, none devoted very much attention to material...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 171-182)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-198)
  14. Index
    (pp. 199-202)