Material Culture: Crossing Disciplines and Analysing Things

13 October 2015, 13:30 - 15:30

S2, Alison Richard Building

A Mellon Teaching Seminar

Tuesdays in term starting on 13 October 2015

Convenors:
Melissa Calaresu (Department of History)
John Robb (Department of Archaeology and Anthropology)

If you are interested in applying to attend the series  please click on the tab "How to Apply" above.

There has been growing interest in material culture across many disciplines over the last decade. Out of this ‘material turn’ has emerged new and innovative perspectives on the study of things, people and the relations between them. This work, however, exists in parallel disciplinary universes with little cross-over. Archaeology and art history have been directly concerned with material culture from their origins. Archaeology and anthropology possess an extensive theoretical arsenal through which to explore and discuss the meaning of things, ranging from symbolic approaches to phenomenology and ANT. Art history has an impressive mastery of techniques of close reading of objects, but often works within unstated parameters of recent Western history. For their part, historians and literary scholars have been inspired by the theoretical work of contemporary social anthropologists such as Tim Ingold and Daniel Miller. However, while they have amassed an impressive number of case studies, their reliance on theoretical work is sometimes under-elaborated. Critically, different disciplines not only rely upon different concepts; they also constitute the problem through strikingly different background assumptions about how people and things interact, assumptions about what the goals and research questions are, and strategies for actually analysing things.

This seminar proposes to bridge and explore these disciplinary divides by bringing together an archaeologist and a historian who have both been actively involved in the growing community of material culture studies in Cambridge.It will explore this disciplinary variety by combining close readings of theoretical works on material culture and materiality with discussions of specific case-studies. The first three classes will present a grounding of basic ideas and approaches. Moving on from this, four sessions will examine how these are used to interpret specific materials and issues which are analysed in several fields in different ways – fashion, taste, food, buildings, memory technologies, and other themes. Seminar  participants will then have a chance to discuss a number of concrete cases with invited guest speakers from different fields. A final session broaches the related questions of how material culture achieves a cumulative systematicity, and what the historical and political consequences of this are.

Sessions will begin with a brief stage-setting presentation by one of the two course leaders. Student participants will then lead the seminar discussion, bringing in examples as needed. Supplementing the seminars, there will also be two practicals in which participants work materials such as clay, flint, wood or bread. These are intended simply to remind us what is involved with the experience of making things and working with materials; besides affording an occasion for informal discussion, these may help explore relevant concepts such as embodied knowledge and gesture, the nature of ongoing interaction with materials, implicit knowledge and the transmission of knowledge, and the chaîne opératoire.

At the end of the term, participants will be asked be asked to do a short presentation on an object from their own research or from one of the Cambridge collections in a one-day seminar, in this way, incorporating new perspectives from the seminar into their research.

 

The first meeting will be on Tuesday 13 October 2015 from 1.30-3.30 in the Alison Richard Bulding at 7 West Road. This will be the regular venue for our seminar, though later on in the term we shall be organizing some practical sessions elsewhere.

Please submit an application to attend the seminar via email to Drs Melissa Calaresu (History) and John Robb (Archaeology), with a few sentences addressing the following points:

■          a brief statement of your research and interests. In the case of doctoral students the statement should include the topic of the PhD dissertation and the name of the supervisor.

■          a brief statement of what you hope to get out of the seminar, including an indication of what the likely benefits to your research may be.

■          a brief statement of what you hope to be able to contribute to the seminar.

The deadline for applications is 1 October 2015.

Numbers will be limited to 15; therefore early registration for this course is highly recommended.  M.Phil. students will not be accepted except under exceptional circumstances. Unsuccessful applicants will be placed on a waiting list. Please contact Melissa Calaresu and John Robb with any queries about the course.