Material things not only exist in our lives but they also help us to live in the world as we know it. In the world where every object has not only the attached meaning but also very detailed description, people tend to forget their instincts and senses and believe in what is embodied by others. It is very much apparent in the supermarkets where every product has an expiration date written on the package. It is ironic that these expiration dates are decided by humans even though the freshness of food products depends on more variables, such as temperature, humidity, light, that do not involve humans directly. A similar process is happening with other material objects. Every object in the supermarket has a long and detailed description, that informs potential buyer how to use and how not to use it. How did we end up in the world where every hairdryer has a huge and bright label attached to it, that says ‘keep away from water’? Do we really see an object only by imposed meaning and are we not aware of its materiality at all?
Following Emile Durkheim approach his key proponent Mary Douglas suggests that consumer objects help people to make sense of the world. She claims that we should forget the usefulness of commodities and treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty (Douglas and Isherwood, 1996:40). To rephrase it, this cultural approach to material culture argues that imposed meanings and symbolic capacity of objects are more important than the material essence of it. The popularity of online shopping proves this notion very well. Instead of touching, weighting, trying, exploring commodities we limit our decision making by only judging goods from their pictures and descriptions. What is really important for online shoppers, in particular, is not the material objects themselves but rather their capacity to signify the idea behind it. Nowadays people tend to care about clothing brand names more than their fabrics or quality. Through online shopping, consumers make a contact not with the object but with its symbol. To come back to the Douglas and Isherwood idea of ‘commodities as nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty’ it seems that instead of fostering creativity classifications and cultural meanings actually do opposite as they limit human capacity to think about the true essence of the object, its functionality and the relationship between the object and the subject.
For quite a long period of time, the idea of thinking outside the box was highly celebrated. When people have started to think outside the box they engaged with a number of abstract ideas and stopped paying attention to the box itself. The same happened between people’s relation to material objects. We have got obsessed with continuously emerging new categories and meanings that we started to fail to acknowledge the materiality and the thingness in objects. Tim Ingold (2008) argues that objects are more than their social meanings, by interacting with the human and nonhuman actors they become things that are able to act. But how do we notice the real nature of things? According to Bill Brown (2001), we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us. In Jane’s Bennett’s (2010) sense it could be said that we become aware of the thingness when we notice the force of things. To put it in the very simple manner, when objects somehow lose their culturally imposed meanings they become things and then their true capacity and function can be exploited by analyzing it from its materiality. To think of materials, not about them is to find “the consciousness or thought of the matter-flow” (Deleuze & Guattari 2004: 454). This could really help us to rethink our life and understand the world around us and our place and role in it.
The process of waste management very well illustrates our attitude towards objects. Goods are worth keeping as long as they serve their symbolic value and cultural function. When an object gets broken or simply goes out of style it is then thrown away. Gay Hawkins (2006) argues that what we want to get rid of tells us who we are. The growing amount of rubbish generated by people proves that we do not really care about the afterlife of objects as we fail to acknowledge that when an object loses its symbolic meaning the physical material essence of it remains. In order to draw attention to this issue, Lithuanian artist Jolita Vaitkute collaborated with famous Lithuanians and created their portraits from their own waste. The idea of these portraits is to draw attention that by not taking responsibility for our waste we are leaving our trace (‘a portrait’) on the environment that will affect Earth for hundreds of years. If we would begin to think from materiality, about the life cycle of an object and not only about artificial meanings, we would probably reconsider our consumption habits and would become more responsible towards our attitudes to material culture.
As argued by Latour: “We shall never know whether scientists translate or betray. We shall never know whether representatives betray or translate” (Latour, 191:143). We live in the world of categories, meanings, values, and symbols and fail to acknowledge what stands behind it. To understand the world is to engage and explore and not just blindly believe in what is being said about it. Things can be a helpful resource for creating and shaping our lives and identities though they have to be acknowledged and respected as things, not as objects. To make sense of the world, one should trust his/her own mind and create his/her own meanings and categories and to notice a true capacity of things.
Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001): 1-22.
Bruno Latour, “The Parliament of Things” in We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Havard UP, 1993), pp. 142-145.
Gay Hawkins, Introduction, The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish (Roman and Littlefield, 2006).
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “A thousand plateaus” trans. B. Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004).
Jane Bennett, Preface, “The Force of Things” in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke UP, 2010)
Mary Douglas and Christopher Isherwood, “The World of Goods” in Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (New York: Basic Books, 1996).
Tim Ingold, “Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials”