Daniel Miller’s point of departure for considering materiality addresses the often-overlooked (yet intimate) connection between humanity’s own self-understanding––whether expressed in religious, economic, political, technological, or aesthetic terms––and its (often antagonistic) stance towards the various crude material forms that make up the external, physical world. Rather than assuming an historical and cultural indifference to materiality, Miller argues that, “in a given time and place there will be a link between the practical engagement with materiality and the beliefs or philosophy that emerged at that time” (15).
Theorizing materiality involves two explorative moves: “the first, a vulgar theory of mere things as artifacts; the second, a theory that claims to entirely transcend the dualism of subjects and objects” (3). For the first, Miller draws on the work of Pierre Bourdieu to explain that everyday material things, and their temporal and spatial ordering, are central to processes of socialization and normalization. “Material Culture” thus forms a powerful, foundational structure for any given society (7). Miller’s second theoretical move was harder for me to follow. Here he evokes first the tradition of dialectics in German philosophy from Hegel to Marx and on to 20th century Marxist thinkers. Miller’s main interest in dialectical theory is its alleged ability to integrate subject and object, humanity and materiality. Latour he understands to reach similar ends, though by very different means. I can’t address Miller’s reading of Latour until I become a bit more familiar with his work, however I think we should be more than a little uncomfortable with how Miller leans on Hegel’s teleological arguments to give philosophical weight to his project.
Much more to say, especially considering C. Pinney’s substantial critique of Miller. But I’m sure we’ll address that in class.
For now, let me admit that I’ve been shamefully unable to live up to Mitchell’s challenge: to determine what (particular) pictures want. But in the prevailing spirit of sharing outside material, I do have a short literary excerpt that forced itself upon me while reading Miller. In discussing Michael Rowlands’ article, which considers the material power and material extensions of the Cameroon chief or Fon’s bodily presence, Miller goes on to describe personhood under capitalism, which grows and expands with greater material production and consumption. With Miller’s stress on material consumption, I couldn’t help but think of Don DeLillo’s Hitler Studies professor, Jack Gladney, and his uninhibited, family shopping spree in White Noise:
“I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me. We crossed from furniture to men’s wear, walking through cosmetics. Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit. I felt expansive, inclined to be sweepingly generous, and told the kids to pick out their Christmas gifts here and now. I gestured in what I felt was an expansive manner. I could tell they were impressed.”
– Don DeLillo, White Noise (Penguin: New York, 1985), p. 84.