The field of material culture studies is booming, as evidenced by the publication of the two books under review. The growing literature in this area is being followed by scholars in many disciplines, including semiotics. It is also being monitored by product designers and marketers, eager to pick up any clues about how to enhance the social aura of the commodity, and thus increase sales (see Sherry 1995).
In this review essay, I would like to trace the emergence of the "socio-semiotics of objects," as this new field of study is sometimes called. I shall start by invoking Marx's seminal critique of the commodity in Capital, and then proceed to chart the multiple critiques and successive revisions of Marx's understanding of "things" which have appeared in recent years.
Marx's goal in Capital was to demystify that "very queer thing" - the commodity - by disclosing the exploitative character of the social relations which went into its making (Marx 1954). His penetrating analysis of the capitalist mode of production seriously challenged conventional economic theory, which tended to occult suchrelations and "fetishize" commodities. As we have lately come to realize, however, there are more relations embedded in a commodity than are dreamt of in Marx's philosophy. For while commodities may indeed conceal various social relations insofar as their production is concerned, they are also designed to express or symbolize social relations, social categories - a function which could be called their sign-value.
The sign-value of the commodity (as distinct from its use - or exchange-value) is comprised of all the messages which it is capable of communicating about its owner. For example, a designer label sewn on the exterior of a garment supposedly enables all the world to make inferences about the wearer's social standing and judgement or taste, etc... The designer label is a symbolic expression characteristic of the consumer culture of late modernism, but the principle that commodities embody social meanings is a general one.
Marx's failure to theorize the sign-value of the commodity, or pay adequate attention to the social relations of consumption, is easy to comprehend: he lived at the height of industrial capitalism (when the emphasis was on production, or work discipline) and the free market system (which foregrounded exchange). The transition to consumer capitalism came afterwards. The "consumer revolution" which has taken place since Marx's time helps explain why there is so much more attention paid to the forces of consumption in the writings of late twentieth century social theorists (as we shall see in a moment), compared to their nineteenth century predecessors. Consumption now appears to drive production, and consumerismreigns supreme - having superseded both communism and capitalism, as Marx knew it (see Howes 1996).
Another reason for Marx's oversight is that he lived prior to the revolution in our understanding of the life of signs in society that was brought specifically to the economic sphere by the sociologist Jean Baudrillard in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981), and the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in Culture and Practical Reason (1976). These two theorists may be credited with inventing the field of the socio-semiotics of objects: they showed the world of goods to be structured like a language. In the process, Baudrillard and Sahlins - and one should not forget Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1972 ) - cast serious doubt on the Marxian notion of production as a natural-pragmatic process of need satisfaction; the production of objects is rather, first and foremost, the "objectification" or substantiation of a given society's symbolic scheme or "code."
In Culture and Practical Reason, Sahlins goes so far as to accuse the Marxist understanding of things of being complicit with the ideology (or self-awareness) of bourgeois society: "The two would join in concealing the meaningful system in the praxis by the practical explanation of the system" (Sahlins 1976: 166). This point can be illustrated by briefly considering Marx's speculations on the origin of the commodity, a tale which is actually the Origin Myth of Economic Man, as Sahlins might say.
According to Marx, the exchange of commodities must have begun "on the boundaries" of autonomous communities, since within every "primitive society"all property is held in common, and hence there would be nothing to exchange.
So soon, however, as products once become commodities in the external relations of a community, they also, by reaction, become so in its internal intercourse. The proportions in which they are exchangeable are at first quite a matter of chance. What makes them exchangeable is the mutual desire of their owners to alienate them. Meantime the need for foreign objects of utility gradually establishes itself. The constant repetition of exchange makes it a normal social act (Marx 1954: 91).
As Sahlins (1976) makes clear, there are serious difficulties with the unsocialized conception of human needs, the narrow view of human rationality (reasoning =calculating), and the complete abstraction made of the social context and relations of consumption in the Marxian understanding of things. What is needed to understand commodity exchange in its original and subsequent forms is a socially and semiotically inspired framework - one that treats consumer behaviour as meaningful social activity (in addition to whatever physical satisfactions it brings), and regards the material production of things as the "realization" of a given society's symbolic scheme. The fourth chapter of Culture and Practical Reason, "La pensée bourgeoise," which offers a semiotic analysis of the American food and clothing systems, fit that bill perfectly, whence its standing as a founding text of the socio-semiotics of objects.
With the publication of The Socialness of Things, the socio-semiotics of objects has taken another major step forward. The editor, Stephen Riggins, who was also the organizer of the 1990 conference at the University of Toronto where the papers in this volume were first presented, is to be congratulated - along with his contributors - for having pushed the study of material culture and sociology-anthropology of consumption in some radically new and productive directions.
Riggins' own contribution, "Fieldwork in the living room: An autoethnographic essay" is exemplary for its methodological rigour. In it, he proposes a series of analytical categories for eliciting the significances of the features of a room, both through observation of its contents and through conversation with its inhabitants. The categories include esteem objects, stigma objects, social facilitators, timeindicators, co-location, flavour (or "taste"), etc.. Riggins goes on to apply these categories to the analysis of the living room of his parents' house in Loogootee, Indiana. The result is a wonderfully "thick description" of the interior decor of a lower middle class home, which includes a record of some of the conflicts between the author and his mother over the purchase, placement and significance of certain objects.
Riggins' essay displays a different relationship to language from the one semioticians have traditionally espoused. Language, instead of providing the model for how objects signify, is treated simply as a medium of description, and the author, instead of insisting upon the arbitrariness of the signifier, stresses the politics (domestic and otherwise) thereof - a point we shall return to later.
Language also figures as a medium, rather than a model (albeit a constitutive medium, instead of a descriptive one) in Peter Grahame's fascinating study of the standardization of refrigeration in the 1920s and '30s, entitled "Objects, texts and practices." Rather than seeking to analyze the "system of objects" as a Baudrillard (1981) or Sahlins (1976) would do, Grahame takes a single object - the refrigerator - and explores the resources which three different and competing sorts of discourses made available to consumers for purposes of knowing and desiring this new material device - namely, advertisements, magazine articles, and consumer reports.
Refrigeration has, of course, revolutionized North American shopping and eating habits: for example, it has reduced dependence on the local grocer (diminishingsocial relations), heightened the taste for chilled beverages , etc.. Grahame acknowledges this, but seeks to show how:
this alteration was supported in quite complex ways through shifts in the discursive construction of refrigeration. It is a question not only of object-mediated changes, but also textually-mediated objects: the refrigerator as we know it is not just a manufactured thing but also emerged as a written presence, a design which evolved in response to the ways in which it could be demonstrated and promoted (p. 303, emphasis added).
One of the most provocative contributions to The Socialness of Things, as well as most amusing, is Eugene Halton's "Communicating democracy: Or shine, perishing republic." This chapter is one part semiotics, and nine parts rhetoric as Halton proceeds to idealize all aspects of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and denounce everything connected with the Wally Byam Caravan Club. The latter is made up of all the registered owners of Airstream Travel Trailers. Halton is particularly scornful of the huge conventions and Fourth of July parades which Airstreamers like to celebrate, for he sees the "Airstream cult" as symbolic of "an antidemocratic mass society in which rituals of consumption, mass media, and leisure have largely replaced the cultivation of local, regional, and national public life" (p. 331), putting America in a bad way.
Other contributors to The Socialness of Things reject the discourse-centredness of approaches like those of Grahame and Ehrentraut - and indeed any approach which confuses the way objects signify with the way language or texts signify. They insist that "object communication," as it might be called, is of a qualitatively different sort from linguistic communication, and needs to be analysed in its own right. Exemplary in this regard is Joan Vastokas' piece, "Are artifacts texts?" and Mary Douglas' chapter, "The genuine article".
Vastokas, in particular, presents a highly spirited critique of the artifact "as a discursive object," and culture "as text" epistemes, which have swept the social sciences - including her own discipline, archeology, curiously enough. (If any discipline has a claim to being pre-textual, archeology surely does, but such is thecontinuing appeal of de Saussure - and latterly Foucault - that even archeologists have become textual fetishists, it seems.) In place of the model of the text, Vastokas proposes that we use "our physical bodies" as the touchstone of analysis (p. 339), since bodies are something we share with prehistoric and other men and women, whereas texts we do not - or ar least not always. Furthermore, Vastokas argues, in the interests of a "more valid, more meaningful, and eventually more explanatory" semiotics of material culture (p. 341), we need to start thinking of artifacts as actors, and of cultures as performances. The following passage summarizes Vastokas' understanding of things:
Every manufactured object has a life and a life-history of its own. In the process of its production, whether by hand or machine, the artifact is born, stamped with the conscious intentions and unconscious expressions of its creator(s). Then the artifact lives out a life in time and space of greater or lesser duration, both as a meaningful and expressive object in itself, and as a ritual performer in social and cultural life. Finally, it dies, passes out of use, destroyed or deposited in the garbage dump or in a museum (p. 341).
Any theoretical qualms are quickly dispelled upon reading the case study Vastokaspresents, which is of textile production in Lithuanian folk culture. The spinning and weaving of sashes (along with other items), and their ritual and everyday use, is demonstrated by Vastokas to have contituted the "praxis for cognition," and to continue to provide the dominant metaphors and models for group identity and social interaction, in Lithuanian society. Women spin and then distribute the sashes throughout the social network, thus literally weaving the fabric of society. Vastokas also speculates on the origin of the textile complex, locating it in the Old Neolithic or "pre-Indo-European matristic-gylanic system wherein attachment, ties, relationships [i.e. continuities] are given positive, life-enhancing value" (p. 352) in contrast to the value placed on discontinuity (warfare, defense) in the patriarchal and hierarchical Indo-European cultural pattern that was superimposed on and merged with the former.
Vastokas' artifact "as actor" approach to the interpretation of the archeological record is controversial, certainly, but it is also capable of disclosing things that no amount of textual interpretation could reveal, such as that, in essence, Lithuanian sashes are transactions rather than things. This fundamental insight also helps us to discern the spurious nature of the charge of commodity fetishism that might otherwise be levelled against Vastokas' approach. Attributing agency to objects is not bourgeois mystification, a category-error, reification or false-consciousness, as Marx led us to believe, but rather a universal propensity of human beings, which simply reflects the interactive - or better, transactive - nature of our commerce with things: we shape them, but then they shape us, dialogically.
Of course, nowhere is the agency of things more prominently displayed than in the late capitalist consumer culture of the current conjuncture. Marx would have been amazed, were he alive today, to visit the Edmonton Mall or Ottawa's Rideau Centre, which brings us to the subject of "The logic of the mall," a chapter by Rob Shields. Shields uses the analytic categories introduced by Riggins in an earlier essay to describe the arrangement of things - or presentation of commodities and presentation of selves - in the everyday life of the mall.
According to Shields, the frame of the mall creates a space apart, "a privileged space of spontaneous purchase and consumption based not on use, usefulness, or applicability to everyday life 'outside' but based on appearance, aura and framed relevance to mall-reality" (p. 220). In the space of the mall, persons are also estranged from their "roots" - their position in the work force, or in the family. This estrangement is heightened by the fact that persons find themselves objectified in the cross-fire of consuming gazes which the mall environment fosters, so that each shopper comes to be interpellated as one object among all the others. This objectification is experienced not as alienation, but as liberation, according to Shields, since the emphasis on appearance:
opens up possibilities for "play" with self-identity ... The essentialist self is 'hollowed-out' just like the commodity [on display] is an object whose naturalized 'use-value' has been suppressed in favour of symbolic and indexical meanings. The way is opened for identity tobecome an allegorical mask, disrupting the naturalistic notion of an essential personal identity (p. 222).
It is important to recognize how Shields' analysis differs from, for example, Sahlins' analysis of the totemism of the marketplace. Whereas Sahlins would be concerned to show how a series of differences in the world of goods corresponds to a set of distinctions in the world of men, Shields' analysis treats goods on a par with persons, and traces their interpellation instead.
The interpellative approach, as it may be called, is also exemplified by George Park in "Bridewealth revisited," a penetrating analysis of how the Kinga of Tanzania were adjusting to a money economy in the 1960s. Park relates how the products of the industrial world to which the Kinga were introduced in the middle decades of this century were selectively appropriated by them and came to figure in bridewealth inventories. Bridewealths went into an inflationary spiral, effectively consuming all of the wages the young men earned as migrant labourers. The youths who went away to work would spend some money on luxury items for themselves, but for the most part invested their earnings in "bridewealth objects", which their fathers then controlled or "banked" against the day their sons would marry. In this way, a gift economy managed to survive in the face of a market economy, even as traditional bridewealth objects (cattle, hoes, etc.) were being replaced with commercial goods (printed cloths, sugar). As Park has not returned to Kingalandsince the 1960s, he is not able to recount how long this hybrid economic order lasted.
Park's analysis is of interest for the way it explicitly focuses on the presence of "foreign" objects in a given local economy. He breaks with the long-standing tendency to represent cultures as meaningful wholes existing in pristine isolation, and instead brings out their permeability and propensity to permutate. This move is consistent with the recent explosion of interest in the topic of "cross-cultural consumption" in anthropology - or, what happens to commodities when they cross cultural borders (see Howes 1996).
One of the most ambitious books to address this topic of late is the 580-page tome edited by Laurier Turgeon, Denys Delâge, and Réal Ouellet, Transferts culturels et métissages Amérique/Europe, XVIe-XXe siècle, or as the book is called in English, Cultural Transfer, America and Europe: 500 Years of Interculturation. The slight écart between the French and English titles nicely illustrates how what is transferred (in this instance, across languages) is not necessarily received. Equally eloquent of this fact is the intriguing pair of beaded sneakers pictured on the cover.
Laurier Turgeon sets out the aims of the book as being: "to envision a 'relational' history of North [and South] America centered on contact, cross-fertilization and syncretism rather than on ethnocultural groups as such" (p. 39) and to attempt to specify the "mechanisms governing cultural transfer in societies of origin as well as in societies of reception" (p. 37). The "mechanisms" or process in question may be called transculturation (in lieu of "acculturation") to emphasize the interactive or transdirectional - as opposed to unidirectional - and emergent aspects of the transmission of culture. The dynamics of transculturation are aptly summed up in the following quote from Turgeon:
Objects, once transferred, become culturally recon-textualized: they take on other shapes, acquire new uses and undergo changes in meaning. When an object is transformed, a form of appropriation is thereby signified; at the same time, it transforms those who are making use of it. Taking possession of new objects involves not only cultural reconfiguration but also the social reclassification and redefinition of individuals and groups (p. 38).
Many intriguing examples of cultural recontextualization or transculturation are presented and analyzed by the contributors to Transferts culturels. Turgeon himself, in "Echange d'objets et conquête de l'autre en Nouvelle-France," relates how copper pots were a favoured trade item, but rarely - if ever - used for cooking by theIndians. Many such pots have been found, preserved without a scratch, because they were buried with their owners - a sign of the latter's status (and perhaps of the pot's own transformation from utilitarian to sacred object). More commonly, the pots would be cut up and fashioned into earrings or bracelets: the Algonquins are said to have valued copper more highly than gold.
To take an object which moved in the opposite direction, beaver pelts, it is interesting to note that in the narratives of the explorers Cartier and Verrazano there is no mention of any Indian chief wearing beaver skin: their robes are always of deer, or bear or other large game. Beaver skin quickly became a sign of distinction in France, however, because of the fashion for beaver hats in the royal and noble courts of the sixteenth century, and by the beginning of the seventeenth century, it had become the dominant element in the attire of the noblesse d'épée and of the military élite, because of its associations with conquest. In this case, therefore, the transformation was from small game to haute couture.
In "Reactions to the Familiar and the Novel in Seventeenth-Century French-Amerindian Contact," Alexander von Gernet studies the differing fortunes, and cultural and social impact, of three different objects of exchange: European glass beads, which caught on well due to the existence of precedents in native culture; tobacco, which had no precedent in European experience, yet became the most "successful" cultural transfer of all time; and the Christian doctrine of the soul, which could not be reconciled with Amerindian notions of the divisibility and plurality of souls, and therefore did not "take."
The diffusion of smoking from the New World to the Old is a particularly interesting case, on account of its rapidity. Von Gernet suggests that this transfer was facilitated by the humoral theory, which was the central medical paradigm in Europe at the time. Smoking was valued because of its association with the "hot" and the "dry," and deemed useful for correcting imbalances of "cold" or "moisture" created by climate or diet. This "medicalization" of tobacco successfully insulated it from its association with shamanic (read: demonic) rituals, which could otherwise have troubled its users.
Numerous highly suggestive propositions about the "mechanisms" of transculturation are floated by the contributors to Transferts culturels, such as the proposition that the tangible aspects of a culture diffuse more readily than the purely ideological or behavioural aspects. According to von Gernet, this suggestion is confirmed by the acceptance of glass beads and rejection of Christian eschatology but complicated by the diffusion of smoking.
Serge Gruzinski, in a characteristically brilliant intervention, "Colonisation et guerre des images dans le Mexique colonial," brings out how certain features of the Baroque imaginary - polysemy, visuality, assumed sacrality of the world - played an essential role in the colonization of Mexico. Of special interest is his analysis of the cult of the Virgin of Guadulupe, which explains the extraordinary popularity of this cult in terms of the Virgin's mixity, her transcultural being.
Jean-Loup Amselle, in a theoretical piece entitled "La communication interculturelle," argues that cultural transfer would be impossible were it not for the fissures internal to each culture, and goes on to suggest that the whole question of identity and alterity needs to be rethought from a double angle: that of the internal Other and the external Self-same. This discussion is followed by a pointed critique of Marshall Sahlins' "holistic" approach to cultural analysis, which is (deservedly) faulted by Amselle for its totalizing character, or the way it occludes both internal diversity and external similarity.
The publication of Transferts culturels may be said to signal the return of Diffusionism as a central preoccupation of anthropology. But it is diffusionism with a differance, when compared with the Diffusionist thinking which prevailed at the end of the last century, in the Kulturkreis School, for example. The contributors to Transferts culturels do their thinking about diffusion - or rather, transculturation - with a far more nuanced understanding of exchange and of power. Significantly, they are also attuned to the transfers which tend to be passed over in silence, unremarked, as in the case of Donald Smith's provocative analysis, "Amerindians in Quebec and Canada, Half-a-Century Ago -- and Today," which concerns how the cultural contributions of First Nations peoples were written out of Canadian history - or in other words, elided - until recently.
In closing, I would like to go back to The Socialness of Things and comment on two chapters which continue certain themes introduced in the last section. The first is Valda Blundell's piece "'Take Home Canada': Representations of aboriginal peoples as tourist souvenirs." This chapter is about what happens when cultural transferbecomes appropriation. It seems that, not satisfied with appropriating Indian lands, the dominant culture in Canada is now actively engaged in manufacturing and selling images of Indian identity. These images are presented as "authentic" souvenirs of Canada's indigenous heritage despite the fact that many such items are made in Asia, and none of the proceeds from their sale benefit Canada's First Nations. What makes matters worse is that these "'native-type' forms," as Blundell calls them, are typically "stereotypic objects that reinforce distorting meanings about aboriginal peoples" (p. 266). Blundell provides a useful survey of some of the ways in which this traffic in images of aboriginal cultures is being challenged by First Nations peoples themselves, and could and should be regulated by the federal government (see further Howes 1996).
In "Feathers and fringes: A semiotic approach to powwow dancers' regalia," Michèle Kérisit exposes the powwow as "a place of constant questioning and reinterpretation" (p. 386), even though it may have the look of tradition. Whites and natives participate jointly in the audience, yet entertain radically different conceptions of the meanings on display. There is nothing arbitrary about any of the signifiers that circulate at a powwow: every feather, every fringe is suffused with politics - gender, racial, or otherwise.
Briefly, Kérisit traces how the feather bustle, which is a standard feature of the regalia of the male powwow dancer, originated in the nineteenth century as part of the military heraldry of the Sioux, being modelled after the tailfeathers of the eagle (as predator/warrior). In the 1920s, the bustle was disappropriated and became a signof sexual seductiveness in lieu of military prowess (this time on the analogy of the peacock or rooster) under the "insistent gaze" of the white colonizer/voyeur (p. 381). It was reappropriated in the 1950s, and reconfigured so that the Fancy Dancer's bustle, for example, remains clearly distinguishable from the Traditional Dancer's bustle. In its current form(s), the bustle parodies the stereotyped, "Hollywood" image of the feathered Indian, and at the same time protests the reduction of the Indian male to the status of "exotic dancer." In recent years, a new costume/gender position has emerged, that of the Grass Dancer, whose fringed (as opposed to feathered) outfit has female connotations. According to Kérisit, this outfit "bears the signs of a new mediation between genders", one which transcends the metaphor of the conquered and the conqueror, and acknowledges or reappropriates "the place of women in the legitimation of an Indian difference" (p. 386).
Kérisit's semiotic approach is resolutely historical, and acutely sensitive to the political, which is why I found hers to be one of the most instructive chapters in The Socialness of Things. Yet her chapter would have provided an equally fitting conclusion to Transferts culturels, due to the way it reveals the phenomenon of transculturation in all its complexity: as one of commodified forms crossing and re-crossing cultural borders, acquiring new or alternative meanings, contributing to the articulation of identities, and in the process solidifying differential relations of power.
Baudrillard, Jean (1981) For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, translated by C. Levin. St. Louis MO: Telos Press.
Howes, David, ed. (1996) Cross-Cultural Consumption: Global Markets, Local Realities. London: Routledge.
Marx, Karl (1954) Capital, edited by F. Engels. New York: International Publishers.
Sahlins, Marshall (1976) Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sherry, John F., ed. (1995) Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook. London: Sage.
David Howes is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University, Montreal. He is co-author, with Constance Classen and Anthony Synnott, of Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (Routledge, 1994), and editor of diverse volumes, including The Varieties of Sensory Experience (University of Toronto Press, 1991), Droit et culture populaire (Les Presses de l'UQAM, 1996), and Cross-Cultural Consumption: Global Markets, Local Realities (Routledge, 1996).