Miller, Materiality (and DeLillo, too.)

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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.         

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9 Responses to “Miller, Materiality (and DeLillo, too.)”

  1. Easton Says:

    ***Once again, the most stimulating part is the last 3 paragraphs.***
    I found myself absolutely enthralled with Pinney’s article this week. He argues that the traditional portrayal of the “smooth relationship” between object and subject obscures a complex disjuncture that is essential for material studies (256). To be specific, there is a Western historical trend of “purification” in which objects are continuously further removed from subjects. The problem arises in that the more objective we make objects the more subjective we become as subjects and thereby reinforce our hegemony and “the world turns into a doctrine of man, anthropology” (258). Amazingly, Pinney even takes Gell and Thomas to task as their concern with objects’ and images’ social lives shows further colonization by the subject.
    My reaction here was once of puzzlement as I took Gell and Thomas to be quite sincere materialists, but Pinney demonstrates through explication of what he calls the Ginzburg problem, succinctly: “We claim to find evidence in the visual that we have actually found elsewhere” (260). In other words, there is a link between culture, history, locality, and time and we tend to believe that objects and images can be linked through and explicated in terms of these. The result is a national time-space in which objects speak out and say “my space, my time” in relation to static political temporalities.
    But Pinney argues this is too simple an explanation. He shows that images can be deceptive and that knowledge of the moment of an image does not give reason for its occurrence (263-264). Instead he emphasizes an object or images place within a sequence utilizing the metaphor of cataracts in which time is uncontemporaneous and nonhomogenous. Therefore, cultural phenomena may inhabit same epoch but not be contemporaneous. He points to the recursive nature of images which resist particular moments and instead make up their own aesthetic, figural domain that can constitute history but whose temporality may not match a political one (266). He concludes that materiality has a figural excess or supplementarity which can never be encompassed by linguistic-philosophical closure. As a result, they have a tension which resists periodization (hence “ahead of its time?”). Therefore we need to create narratives that use setting to illuminate objects instead of objects to illuminate settings.
    Wow. Here is the stream of consciousness that came out of my head. First, I understand Pinney’s criticism of Gell and Thomas, but how would Mitchell fit in? Is his question of what pictures want still guilty of purification or does it begin to illuminate the object as a resistant entity that transcends the cultures of which it is a part? I see Mitchell as still guilty of utilizing information found elsewhere in his analysis, especially of the four photos led by Uncle Sam. I wonder if pictures constitute a special case due to their inherent iconicity and indexicality?
    Ginney discusses that materiality has a figural excess that makes them more than mere illuminations of historical fact. We have seen this previously in Brown’s definition of thingness. What is it that materiality has that we cannot seem to fully comprehend? Is there a mystery in that things seem to be immortal? We do not give them the power of life and thereby deny them the power of death. Things outlast us, they have a life, as Ginney points out, that defies our concept of temporality. Is this what makes them such an enigma?
    I am still a little lost here as to a method. It came up last week and I will reiterate, How is this to be done without history? Pinney notes that in his own study he creates a separate, pictorial history that he compares with the traditional political one. Could this be done in a prehistorical context? Isn’t his contrast with the political history just as dependent on this source as an analysis that sought to confirm one? Is this truly materiality in a pure form or just another way of approaching the social beliefs and interpretations of the author? Does this create a comparable or repeatable analysis and is that important?

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