Rocks, Cars, Skyscrapers

Graduate Seminar: Materiality

by _______________________

We are surrounded by things: rocks, cars, skyscrapers, fabric, weapons, computers, paintings, trees, shoes, fences. We are ourselves made of things: clothing, cells, DNA, atoms, organs, food, eyeglasses. From the sublime (Michelangelo’s David) to the ridiculous (dentures); from the technologically cutting edge (the iphone) to the folkloric (quilts); from repositories of identity and memory, both private (souvenirs) and collective (monuments), to entities that make new worlds for better (wind turbines) or worse (barbed wire); from the desirable (diamonds) to the barely noticed substructure of everyday life (subflooring), the world in which we live is resolutely material.

Yet our relation to the material world is vexed. Much philosophical and religious reflection has insisted on the primary importance of immaterial forces at the expense of things. Things have been despised as inferior to spirit or mind, even as some reduce mind entirely to biochemical reactions. While some insist that things are inert, with no power or agency in and of themselves, for others, some things have the capacity to determine human behavior or history. We mark the difference between backward and advanced societies by things produced and consumed; at the same time, we are increasingly anxious about the impact of so much stuff on the planet itself.

Materiality, however, is gaining increasing interdisciplinary attention: from science and technology studies to literary criticism, from anthropology (both cultural and archaeological) to art history, there is a new attraction to what some call “thing theory” which is blurring analytic divisions between subjects and objects, bodies and souls, science and the humanities.

This seminar will introduce both classic and novel approaches and topics, ranging from the fetish to the souvenir, from consumption to objectification, from the scientific to the art object, from the social life of things to the “thingly” nature of the social. Our ultimate concern is with questions like these: Do things have agency? If people make things, are they also made by them? How is a thing a gathering? Have we in fact not only never been modern but always been cyborgs?

Readings will include work by Arjun Appadurai, Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour (lots!), Lorraine Daston, Bill Brown, Bill Pietz, Karl Marx, Michel Serres, Tim Ingold, and Lynn Meskell.

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