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Updated 11:00 AM April 5, 2004
 

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Faculty Perspective

Madonna was right: Why we need material culture studies


A delightful editorial cartoon by Mike Luckovich published by The New York Times several weeks ago showed an electronic sign displaying up-to-the-minute information under three crucial indicators: Time, Temperature and "Today's War Rationale." The readout under the last of these headings was, "Invaded Iraq to Prevent Gay Marriage."

As a parody of the resourcefulness of the Bush administration in coming up with fresh rationalizations for and distractions from an enterprise whose ostensible grounds appear increasingly without foundation, the unexpected pairing of these two issues makes for a strikingly effective commentary on current events.

But the seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of the military battlegrounds of Baghdad and Kirkuk with the cultural battlegrounds of Massachusetts and San Francisco is provocative on another, perhaps unintended, level. The administration position with respect to both these conflicts can be viewed in both cases as a defense of a dominant value system against a perceived threat. Gay marriage, it is feared, will fundamentally transform the nature of a social institution which is, after all, central to the identity and world view of a vast number of Americans.

The licensing of gay marriages in San Francisco not only sanctions, from this perspective, an objectionable lifestyle, but also, and perhaps more importantly, forces straight people to confront the possibility that their own sexual proclivities and domestic arrangements are no more "right" and "natural" than their supposedly "deviant" alternatives.

Uncooperative dictators in the Middle East threaten our fundamental values in equally distressing ways. Not so much because they torture dissenters—the U.S. government typically turns a blind eye to such behavior among our "friends"—but because they stand in the way of our unfettered access to oil. The freedom to drive and to fill the tanks of gas guzzlers at a price less than that of bottled water is every bit as essential to American identity of a certain mainstream variety as the belief that marriage can only happen between a man and a woman.

For our society seriously to entertain the possibility that heterosexual couples need not have a monopoly on marriage is a remarkable historical development. Fifteen years ago, the prospect of a state supreme court declaring this monopoly unconstitutional or the mayor of a major city defying state law to put this principle into practice would have seemed highly implausible. Fifty years ago it would have been quite literally unthinkable. The fact that we can now actively countenance this possibility is owing to our collective ability now to call into question sexual norms and conventions that earlier generations took nearly entirely for granted.

The emergence of this critical perspective and of the widespread possibility of imagining alternatives to the status quo is the product of both sustained political activism and the concomitant development of new conceptual paradigms. The women's movement and the gay liberation movement brought trenchant critiques of sexual norms to the forefront of public consciousness. The extraordinarily wide-ranging body of writings that form the core of the relatively new disciplines of women's and lesbian & gay studies have, at the same time, provided the analytic frameworks and critical vocabularies that have enabled us to think creatively beyond the status quo and to imagine and embrace such new possibilities as those enacted of late on the steps of a San Francisco courthouse.

If one were to imagine a corollary to these scenes in the realm of petroleum politics, it might be the passage of a law, in a state like Massachusetts or California, instituting an additional $1 per gallon tax on gasoline. One might argue that any number of serious problems currently facing our society are, in no small measure, the consequence of our consuming addiction to cheap gasoline: the obesity epidemic, urban air pollution, global warming, suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, massive state deficits and terrorism, to name but a few.

We could debate any of these claims, of course, but the fact is that we don't. For any politician even to broach the possibility of a significant hike in the gasoline tax would be, in the current environment, tantamount to political suicide. We take for granted that Americans' love for their cars and for the freedom of the open road is sacrosanct and inviolable. The seeming "naturalness" of this status quo makes it difficult to imagine alternatives, which remain every bit as unthinkable, as a result, as gay marriage must have been to an earlier generation.

Given the absence of any large constituency in this country that considers itself either oppressed or exploited by our love affairs with our cars, we won't be seeing protest marches calling for gas tax hikes any time soon. There are unmistakable signs, however, of an increasing interest in the more general phenomenon of how we find and create meanings in things and construct our identities through our relationships with the objects around us.

That The New York Times has just inaugurated a new weekly column on consumer culture in its Sunday magazine section is no coincidence: the past decade has seen rapid growth in the field now known as material culture studies, with books and articles in recent years bearing such titles as "Learning from Things," "The Meaning of Things," "History from Things," "The Social Life of Things," "Thing Theory" and "Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter." The things that matter, within this new paradigm, are many and varied. Recent studies have presented elaborate cultural histories of "things" as varied as cars, razors, martinis, cigarettes, Barbie dolls, zippers, avocados and vibrators, to name just a few.

The underlying premise of most of these studies is that the objects of our everyday lives do matter in that they serve as repositories and vehicles for a wide range of personal and cultural meanings. The consumption of things, whether for use or display, is an act of creative expression by means of which personal identities and social histories emerge through the continual re-articulation of values such as taste, fashion, status and individuality. It is clear to anyone who has ever received a gift, admired a colleague's good taste in dress or arranged knickknacks on a mantlepiece that we do, indeed, communicate through things, and that these things, in turn, can structure our perception of the world in fundamental ways. By investing things with meanings and responding to the meanings others have invested in them, we gain access to a realm of signification that, like verbal language, provides us with the conceptual categories and cognitive tools by which we organize our mental lives.

For all of the energy generated by the emergent discipline of material culture studies, it has received scant institutional legitimation. Although there are dozens of anthropology and museum studies departments that offer occasional courses in material culture studies, I am aware of only two American universities that recognize it as a distinct field of study: the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Delaware.

There are several reasons humanists, in particular, may tend to underestimate the potential importance of work in this area. First, the study of the humanities has, for centuries, been emphatically text-centered, resulting in research methodologies that are largely blind to forms of cultural meaning that are not readily reducible to the dominant paradigms of textuality. A corollary to the textualist bias of the humanities is a traditional privileging of the transcendent over the material, the formal over the substantive, the spiritual over the coarsely corporeal, which typically leads us to regard with some measure of disdain the pretensions to ordinary things to any kind of redeeming cultural significance. And finally, try as we might to fold neglected margins into the center, our canons continue (rightly and inevitably, I believe) to articulate and reproduce hierarchies of aesthetic and intellectual value that tend to obscure from view the more ordinary forms of meaning production that, both as consumers and as judges and interpreters of others' consumption, we participate in every day.

We prefer to turn our critical lenses on the more exalted achievements of culture in part, I assume, because we would much rather identify with these achievements than with the banality, vanity, materialism and/or false consciousness that many academics tend to ascribe to mass consumer culture. The consequence of this neglect, however, is an impoverished conceptual framework for making sense of phenomena that are and always have been central to human existence.

As Madonna most memorably reminds us, we live in a material world, a world in which our identities, aspirations, life opportunities, social ties, health and even ethical frameworks are largely shaped by and through the meanings we find in and ascribe to the objects that surround us. This is not merely an intellectual abstraction. Our love affairs with our cars have, quite demonstrably, brought us global warming and suburban sprawl. Our attitudes toward foodstuffs, water, sneakers and the consumption of countless other seemingly trivial "things" are not unrelated to third-world poverty or even the vast inequities that continue to plague our own society.

It is time for our response to this insight to move beyond moralizing about the wasteful extravagance of the wealthy while fastidiously recycling our empty bottles of Bordeaux. In order for us as a society to think creatively beyond the box of deeply engrained consumer habits, we need to develop a richly nuanced, self-reflective framework for understanding the complex meanings and purposes of consumption that will enable us to achieve the same kind of critical and fruitfully imaginative distance from our consumer identities that we are now achieving, thanks to Freud, Friedan, Stonewall, AIDS and the pill, from our sexual selves. Yes, Madonna, we do live in a material world, and it's time for more humanists to step down from the ivory tower, roll up their sleeves and figure out how it works.

The Faculty Perspectives page is an outlet for faculty expression provided by the Senate Assembly. The opinions expressed in Faculty Perspectives are the views of individual faculty members and do not represent the official position of U-M nor the faculty governance system. Prospective contributors are invited to contact the Faculty Perspectives Page Committee at faculty.perspectives.page@umich.edu. Submissions are accepted in electronic form and are subject to review by the committee. Essay lengths are restricted to one full printed page in The University Record, or about 1,500 words.

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