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Titelbild TransHumanities 2020

Summer School 2021 – Abstracts Morning Lectures

Materiality is the Name of a Problem

Prof. Dr. Caroline van Eck

Two major developments have shaped the humanities since the 1980s: the material turn and the renewal of interest in human-thing entanglement. The latter had been a central issue, under the various headings of persuasion, fetishism or Einfühlung, in many disciplines that study human culture, from rhetoric to anthropology, and from aesthetics to psychology, but the emergence of formalism and iconography as dominating paradigms in art history, and behaviourism in psychology, in the early 20th century had driven human-thing entanglement out of academia and into popular culture or psychopathology. In the context of the material turn human-thing entanglement is now often considered a feature of the materiality of objects: of their power to act on humans, their capacity to exercise agency.

These developments have led to a complete rethinking of the study of human culture, both artefactual and visual. But they also raise at least two pressing questions: how to theorize what happens between humans and objects in situations of human-thing entanglement; and how to contextualize it, historically and culturally?

Coming to these questions as an art historian makes it possible on one side to draw on a very old and rich tradition of thought on what makes human viewers become entangled with art works as if they are the living beings they represent, both in terms of design or style and by way of theorizing: the complex tradition of Einfühlung/empathy is a case in point. On the other side, one of the challenges posed by the arrival of the material turn, with its concepts and methods taken largely from the social sciences and archaeology, is how to calibrate historical views and theories with the insights of present-day anthropology or psychology; and conversely, how to historicize these present-day theories and concepts of agency, materiality, or human-thing entanglement.

In my lecture I will consider, starting from Alfred’s Gell’s Art and Agency, various historical theories developed to account for what we now call human-thing entanglement, to investigate the historical and methodological challenges outlined here. The historical focus will be on the rich source material provided by accounts of sculpture-viewing and restoration in Paris and Rome c. 1800.


Mandatory reading (available here):

  • Gell, Alfred. “The Problem Defined: The Need For an Anthropology of Art.” In Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, 1–11. Oxford/New York: Clarendon Press, 1998.
  • Eck, Caroline van, Miguel John Versluys, and Pieter ter Keurs. “The Biography of Cultures: Style, Objects and Agency: Proposal for an Interdisciplinary Approach.” Les Cahiers de l’École Du Louvre, no. 7 (October 1, 2015).
  • Eck, Caroline van. “‘Du lebst und thust mir nichts’!: Fear, Empathy and Protection.” In Aby Warburg und die Natur Epistemik, Ästhetik, Kulturtheorie, edited by Frank Fehrenbach and Cornelia Zumbusch, 91–102. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2018.
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