Academic year 2007-08


Mind in material culture

Thursday 22 May, 14.30 - 16.30, Research Forum South Room

Texts: Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” in Art as Evidence: Writings on Art and Material Culture (London: Yale University Press, 2001), 69-95; Alfred Gell, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” in The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams, ed. E. Hirsch (London: Athlone Press, 1999), 159-186.

Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Katie Scott.

We began with KS and FL saying how much they disliked Prown. KS in particularly went on about how his claims to be studying works mindlessly —through the senses directly, without the mediation of culture—is completely bogus; how the work of art history is always about teaching yourself to distrust what your senses tell you. We went on from there mostly to discuss Gell on the enchantment of technology. Key points that came out of our discussion were about the supposed “homology” between material, technological process and social relations—where Gell claims that effectively what Bernini can mysteriously do to marble in sculpting a bust of Louis XIV, the “real” work of art as enchantment is to inform the viewer that Louis can do the same to you. We tried to get to the bottom of exactly what Gell means with this homology and “scheme transfer”, a concept he apparently borrows from Bourdieu in a pretty fast and loose way. The question that KS had was: is Gell positing a causal relation between process and social relations? That is, does the technological manipulation of materials formulate the actions of social collectivities (or vice versa)? Or, is it merely a parallel? Another key topic was that of asymmetry, and Gell’s claim that the more asymmetrical the relations between the object’s virtuosity and the beholder’s ability to reconstruct exactly how the thing was made constituted the degree of its enchantment. Yet, this is not entirely the full story as—so Gell’s thought experiment with a photograph that replicates Peto’s still life shows—there must be some shared basis of understanding of a technique between maker and audience for the work to have any power. So Gell claims, because no one understands the processes of photography (or because they are thought to be merely mechanical), the average viewer would accord the painting much higher status insofar as its is more clearly an instance of the transubstantiation of materials (pasty stuff into “things”) that we value. Therefore, as in Latour’s concept of the cascade, a work of technology (here, inclusive of science and art) is dazzling, overwhelming and therefore successful to the extent that the informed viewer (or member of the informed public) has to submit to it out of sheer mystification or inability to reckon with it. The question then came up: isn’t this a pretty one-note account of what makes art works powerful? Indeed, so few artists, as KS pointed out, have any real interest in virtuosity. And this creation of an imbalance between viewer and work—while arguably in the realm of the sublime, which we didn’t talk about at all—goes against so much of the principles of classical aesthetics where the emphasis is on harmony, balance and so on. MH asked about what happens when the secret of the technology is revealed; where the mechanism that creates the disjunction between the object’s dazzling power and the beholder’s dazed response is leveled. Gell himself makes allusion to this when he refers to how, like any cult, art has to conceal the means of its own production. But, MH brought an example of how the virtuosic object can readily become despicable: that trompe l’oeil painting in the basement of the British Library. So he explained: “I was fooled by it the first time and found myself marveling at how it produced the illusion of movement on a flat surface. Yet, now I just find the thing hateful; I internally shake my fist at it as I walk past, muttering something like: you fooled me once, but you won’t fool me again. Rather than being captivated by this technological contrivance and thus compelled to submit to its terms, I just find it irritating and am peeved by its material persistence.” Like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, these virtuosic objects in other words can only retain their interest so long as they are concealed in secrecy—or else they just become despicable. While iconoclasm seems to be the other side of this coin, it was discussed if/how Gell’s account should somehow reckon with the precariousness of what KS called the “white and black” faces of magic a little more. And along these lines, this led us back to the discussion of how cleverness always risks just being bad faith, as in the case of metis. As valued as it was in Greek culture, it also risked leaving people angry as in Menelaus in Antilochus’s race.