On material culture and legibility

As I write about material culture – the study of the things that people make and what it can tell us about our cultures – in my thesis, I’m conscious that I’m trying to balance two different aspects of material culture at once.

One is material culture as a thing that academics write about – abstracting the things that people make so that we can advance a set of arguments about the world we live in. The other is material culture as a thing that humans experience – the sights and sounds and smells and general senses we have when we interact with objects, or with groups of objects together. I find it very difficult to translate these experiences into words, let alone use them to advance an argument.

In his book Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott develops the concept of legibility – the ways in which powerful institutions forcibly simplify and abstract the complexity of the world around us, often in ways that are ultimately detrimental.

As academics, I think much of what we do is about making the illegible experiences of material culture into something legible – not just legible on the page, but legible in terms of entrenching and reinforcing our prestige, of reinforcing that the experiences with objects that matter most are the ones that can be published in journals.

I would like to embrace the complexity and illegibility of material culture, the ways in which it is context-rich and context-dependent and cannot be abstracted into a set of symbols on a page. I would like to embrace the very real, physical sensations of material culture, with all their informality and delightful mess. I think our studies would look very different. I think they would look better.

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