History’s Silences

In his response for Blog #7, Chris remarks on how difficult it can be to discover an object’s history, even the history of an object produced during and for one of the most documented and studied events in U.S. history, the Civil War:

Why is it that the information I’ve found (and maybe you’ve found) about my (your) artifact so minimal? What does that say about these artifacts? In a way, doesn’t it make the fact that I (you) have artifacts so minimally researched that they should be prized? Ok, probably not. But, isn’t it pretty cool that in material culture there’s things that can’t be easily researched? Can’t be answered? And, maybe, even can’t be debated for sheer lack of information? When you think about it, it’s actually a pleasant departure from the items in modern material culture where the information is so plentiful it’s nearly suffocating

Commenting on Chris’s post, Elizabeth recounts her own similar experience with the trouble she has had finding specific information about her artifact:

It could be that we’re looking at research incorrectly, as much as I hate to say that. If I had anything to go on, I’d interview residents in the area of the excavation at the time or the families who might have owned the bottle. I WANT to have more information; unfortunately, this is such an odd position, since there’s just not a lot of information available.

One of the things we learn from doing this sort of work is how incomplete our historical record–material and documentary–actually often is. We realize how the narrative histories we’ve received in our textbooks, and popular sources such as movies and novels, all depend at least in part on some degree of speculation and inference. And as Prown points out in “The Truth of Material Culture,” all of our attempts to “understand another culture whose patterns of belief, whose mind, is different from our own,” are made more difficult by how “[o]ur own beliefs, our mindset, biases our view.” For Prown, the promise of material culture studies is how it helps us to cultivate a “mindless” approach to cultural studies, “at least while we gather our data”:

To identify with people from the past or from other places empathetically through the senses is clearly a different way of engaging them than abstractly through the reading of written words. Instead of our minds making intellectual contact with their minds, our senses make affective contact with their sensory experience.

The necessity of moving past our own cultural biases is also something Fitzgerald discusses in her essay, “The Cultural Work of a Mohegan Painted Basket”:

In her analysis of similar basket designs, Ann McMullen has suggested that the inscribed texts are political commentaries on the move to Brothertown by a faction of the Mohegan Tribe, spanning the years from the 1770s to the 1820s. “The message” she writes, “was that people would lose their Mohegan identity when they left the tribal lands.” Any text is open to multiple readings, but this particular analysis reflects a non-native bias. I offer here an alternative rooted in traditional Mohegan cosmology.

In some ways, reading Prown and Fitzgerald together, material culture studies asks us to do what Benjamin would describe as representing objects “in our space” rather than “represent[ing] ourselves in their space.” Maybe, as both Chris and Elizabeth seem to be suggesting here, the “silence” of the historical record for these objects we are studying encourages us to stop thinking about history as necessarily “our” history, and begin thinking of the histories we’re telling as the histories of the objects or artifacts themselves, and thus the cultures that produced them.

History’s Purposes

Why do we write history? What are we trying to explain? What do we hope to accomplish?

Pondering the image here, Breana points out material culture studies often uncovers the hidden meaning (or even the not-so-hidden meaning) of objects or artifacts, which is one of the fundamental aims of humanistic inquiry or literary study:

I came across this cartoon while doing research on my object and it made me think, what if we just took everything for face value? Surely if the world worked like that, classes like this would not have a purpose and a plethora of professions would be non-existent.

As Shademah points out in her post, our desire not just to understand but even to recreate history and historical artifacts can border on the obsessive. And, as Jennifer observes (echoing Fitzgerald), objects help us forge connections with members of our own communities, in our own present moment, as well as connecting us to other cultures and other historical moments:

Burning Man is a yearly gathering that takes place in Black Rock City in Nevada, thousands of people gather to experience a community like nothing else. There are art instillations, creative workshops and music to enjoy for about seven days while camping. Perhaps the most intriguing part about this gathering is that there are absolutely no vendors, you live on what you bring and others bring. It is encouraged to participate in a “gifting community”, which is highlighted in the article I have attached. This encourages connections and forming strong bonds through gift giving, whether it be small or large.

What does understanding the socio-cultural networks or–to borrow a term from Jane Bennett–the assemblages that form around and through objects give us?

Eddy suggests one possibility. Perhaps, by developing alternative habits of mind, by cultivating empathy and cultural and historical understanding, we can better foster human creativity, and an ability to think in new ways about old problems:

The public school curriculum was originally created to prepare people for industrial work, but now that the Industrial Age is over, why hasn’t the curriculum changed? We need to change the way we see the world, and our school curriculum needs to reflect that.
How can we use our imaginations to connect with our world?
How can we change the way we see things?
How do we cultivate our minds to be fearless of mistakes, to take chances, and to see things as they really are?

Phillip suggests another, that we might learn from past mistakes, that studying the past might help us to answer pressing questions about our future:

Questions arise as to when these scientists will copy Mother Nature to the point that their flying robots are indistinguishable from the living breathing animals themselves? Will these new robots replace the animals or harm them in their habits? How will privacy exist in the future with indistinguishable insect robots flying around recording and watching our every move? What’s to stop them from creating humans that walk amongst us, without our knowledge?

Or perhaps, as Elizabeth suggests, in connecting to our material context, we simply help ourselves to live fuller, more meaningful lives in which our individual experience becomes a valuable source of expertise and ethos:

While recently doing research for my object, I came across this review of an interesting new book, The White Road by Edmund De Waal. In this book, he describes the history and significance of porcelain, detailing how it’s made and how the best porcelain is the most pure, colored stark white. But what makes his account unique is not the well-rounded and thorough research, but the usage of his own travels and search for the perfect porcelain pieces as a part of the history.

Carefully read or re-read the responses to prompt seven. Take some time to peruse the resources identified in the posts. Consider the questions presented by your peers. Then, compose a post in which you offer your own thoughts on the purposes and value of material culture studies and the exposition of history more broadly.

Posting: Group 1

Commenting: Group 2

Category: Telling History

In your Blog #8 post, you should do more than offer a list of answers to these questions. Rather, you should frame your post around defining and justifying a definition of “value” that helps you to answer them. Please carefully read and follow the guidelines and posting information for this blog as they’ve been outlined in the Blog Project Description.

Featured Image Credit: “The Storyteller” by Eddi van W. on Flickr.