Materials Against Materiality

In 2013, I taught Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Tim Ingold as a First Year Seminar. Ingold’s ideas about the strengths of local knowledge and engagement were an inspirational back-text for my former blog Local is Possible. In 2013, I hoped to make those ideas much more explicit. I also hoped the blog and course became a way to extend into the Hartwick College campus, pursuing the idea of a Grounded Campus, as well as into Oneonta and the region.

The first section of Being Alive is appropriately titled “Clearing the Ground.” Ingold begins with a general introduction emphasizing the involved experimentation inherent (though often hidden and denied) in anthropology:

Anthropological experiments . . . place the investigator, in person, right in the midst of things. In terms of scientific protocols, these experiments break all the rules. That, perhaps, is why anthropologists are so shy about owning up to the experimentality of their discipline, and why they shelter behind the pretence that far from joining with the people among whom they work in a search for answers to the fundamental questions of life, all they are doing in the field is collecting ethnographic data–on what these people say and do–for subsequent analysis.
I believe that the experimental nature of anthropology is something to be celebrated rather than covered up. (2011:15-16)

The first chapter in this section is “Materials against materiality.” Ingold begins with the wonderful idea, which I hope my students do, of reading with rocks:

Before you begin to read this chapter, please go outside and find a largish stone, though not so big that it cannot be easily lifted and carried indoors. Bring it in, and immerse it in a pail of water or under a running tap. Then place it before you on your desk–perhaps on a tray or plate so as not to spoil your desktop. Take a good look at it. If you like, you can look at it again from time to time as you read the chapter. (2011:19)

Ingold is trying to get us to reconsider materials. Following an ongoing theme, he disputes the separations that have been made between mind and matter, and the idea that what distinguishes human activity in the world is the imposition of a mental image onto a material reality:

Thus the artefact is characteristically defined–as it is by Godelier–as an object formed through the imposition of mental realities upon material ones (1986:4). The artisan, it is argued, begins work with an image or design already in mind of the object he plans to make, and ends when the image is realised in the material. (2011:22)

In contrast, Ingold is arguing that artefacts are always in process, and that it is in fact impossible to neatly distinguish the natural from the artefact:

In an experiment, I asked a group of undergraduate students to sort a motley collection of objects that they had found lying around outside into two piles, one of natural objects, the other of artefacts. It turned out that not a single thing could be unequivocally attributed to one pile or the other. If they seemed to vary on a scale of artificiality, it was only because for some more than others, and at different times in their histories, human beings had played a part in the processes that led to their being where they were, and taking the forms they did, at the moment when they were picked up. (21-22)

Against Materiality

In many ways, the chapter is an extended argument against certain academic approaches to materiality, especially as promoted by Daniel Miller, among others. “What academic perversion leads us to speak not of materials and their properties but of the materiality of objects?” (2011:20). Ingold would rather return us to studies like Henry Hodges Artifacts.

This return to the materials and accounting of how things are made reminds me very much of the anthropology of Sidney W. Mintz. Mintz always begged us to examine materials carefully, to talk to people about how they made things, to work with people and participate in what they were doing. After I returned from fieldwork in Colombia, Mintz asked me to write something up that would critique Daniel Miller’s Material Culture and Mass Consumption (1987). How could anyone write a whole book about material culture, Mintz mused, without ever once mentioning domesticated animals?

My critique of Miller wasn’t very good. Years later, Ingold’s section on “the stuff of animals and plants” is what I wished I would have written:

As they swim in this ocean of materials, human beings do of course play a part in their transformations. So, too, do creatures of every other kind. Very often, humans take over from where non-humans have left off, as when they extract the wax secreted by bees to make the cell walls of the honey-comb for further use in the manufacture of candles, as an ingredient of paint (alongside linseed oil, egg-yolk and a host of other concoctions), as a means of waterproofing and as a hardener in leatherwork. (2011:24)

A Journey to Table Rock – Hartwick College

In class, we could do the wet stone thing, or the artefact sorting thing, but my idea is to take a hike up to Hartwick’s Table Rock. Here we have an example of the earth itself, stones with histories, incorporated into human projects and imbued with meaning, but also forming a context for those human projects–and the activities of plants and non-human animals besides. This place, this hill, this Rock becomes part of a college, the name for the college cafe.

A couple online searches–after scrolling through the cafe results–lead me to Walk Score, an online place about walking in neighborhoods and gathering “local insight.” And to some Youtube video of Table Rock mountain biking on a frosty morning in March.

Our walk, in contrast, will probably be on the very hottest day in September. And it may start thunderstorming, which will give a whole new insight into the wet stone thing:

What we can conclude, however, is that since the substance of the stone must be bathed in a medium of some kind, there is no way in which its stoniness can be understood apart from the ways it is caught up in the interchanges across its surface, between medium and substance. (Ingold 2011:32)

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

Living Anthropologically is part of the Amazon Associates program and earns a commission from qualifying purchases, including ads and Amazon text links. There are also Google ads and Google Analytics which may use cookies and possibly other tracking information. See the Privacy Policy.