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Winter School 2014 – abstracts morning lectures

Transforming Objects – Being Transformed by Objects

Hans Peter Hahn

The material environment constitutes a frame for everyday action of people in societies worldwide. The relevance of material culture is obvious through the entanglements of people and things. As Ian Hodder has shown in his most recent book, such entanglements may become real traps, having disastrous effect on people.

However there are more narratives of what things do to people. One of the fundamental assumptions in history builds on the idea of the “civilizing mission of things”: The more people own, the less they are inclined to use violence in conflicts. Another one has been among the founding assumptions in anthropology: An ethnic group has a style and a objects with specific forms. While in anthropology in general the equation of object form or style with ethnic identity has come under criticism, in some sub-domains like a Africa Art this is still the dominant mode of explaining things. We could add here more of these narratives.


However the topic of my contribution will be a cautionary comment on these narratives: There is much less direct interaction between things and people than frequently assumed. Objects can be disregarded, they can be rejected they can just be neglected. In particular when things circulate between societies, there is an unpredictable shift in meanings and relevance: Foreign things can be highly appreciated, but also misused and redefined. The economist Rognar Nurkse mentions the intimidating effect of new appearing objects. The simple presence of particular new things can lead to the devaluation of one’s own material possessions.

Thus entanglements with things circulating between societies are more complex than just adoption and appraisal of the new. My contribution explores more into the wide range of relations between people and things, including such concept like distanciation and appropriation.

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