Material Engagement Theory


A few weeks ago in class, the discussants raised the question of how much of thing theory was reconciling our own animism. While I think animism and/or posthumanism is one extreme of the spectrum of object agency and objects as inanimate, agency-less things having absolutely no affect on humans exists as the other pole, I still find agency to be a difficult topic. Although this may be a naïve/poor reading of the texts which we have worked with to this point, I feel like the agency which the authors speak of is almost always secondary in nature. Viewed through the lens of Renfrew’s material engagement theory, objects seem to take on a more primary form of agency since, through daily social interaction, children learn about the world in which they exist. Perhaps, since I work in a children’s museum and see children learning through social engagement with objects regularly I am particularly influenced by this discussion. Unlike Gell, Renfrew does not focus on the distributed personhood of the object’s “maker” as giving the object agency, but bypasses this by recognizing that objects were made; however, it isn’t their creation that gives them agency, but their engagement in a social network. While it could be construed then that Renfrew’s recognizing objects as symbols of culture, I think that this is not the case when you consider learning from the object alone, learning because it’s thingness is efficacious. Furthermore, I think Renfrew is on to something in terms of adjusting the way that we identify agency in material things. Yet, I would like to take this one step further to see if it would be possible to extend material engagement theory to social engagement between an object and another object, instead of solely between an object and a person.


One Response to “Material Engagement Theory”

  1. Jan Kratky Says:

    I think that the last remark you made replies a lot to your questions before before.
    And yes, It seems to me that all the buzz around “things” is to certain extent to change our deeply rooted expectations about surrounding world.
    Not sure if you read during your lectures something by Andy Clark and John Sutton, these guys were very illuminative for me, maybe also partly since they work in possibly more strict framework defined cognitive science.

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