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Concept

Portrait of Sophie von La Roche (1730-1807) by Georg Oswald May, dated 1778 today in Gleimhaus Halberstadt.

When Sophie de la Roche visited the newly created British Museum in 1786, her response to the exhibits she saw was explicitly tactile. Her efforts to draw out their individual stories included touching a Roman helmet, picking up a mirror that had once belonged to a Greek noblewoman, fingering the ashes of an urn on which a female figure was being mourned. While sight is held to be central to authenticating the real, the materiality of things is far from being a static attribute. Sophie de la Roche’s haptic engagement with what she saw fuelled in turn her desire and ability to empathize with the past. Practices and discourses of the modern museum have however ended up in suppressing tactility, as has linguistic closure or the photo-technologies of contemporary art. The recent years have seen a remarkable growth of scholarly interest in the materiality of specific things and the power it exercises in cultural processes. Not only does studying things no longer easily invite the accusation of fetishism, most of us would agree today that social worlds are as much constituted by materiality as the other way round. The field of material culture studies is rapidly emerging as a vanguard area and has infused a new dynamism into a range of disciplines from archaeology and epigraphy to anthropology, histories of consumption, curatorial and museum studies, aesthetics and art history. This brings us back to the British Museum which took a successful step in this direction when it collaborated with BBC Radio-4 in 2010 to broadcast A History of the World in 100 objects, now published as a book authored by its Director Neil McGregor. By releasing museum exhibits from an abstract space of display and by suspending classificatory hierarchies – art, ethnographic object, artifact – the book defines its project as that of telling the history of the world through its material things. The museum of things, no longer “our” way of ordering the world, restores to “them”, the things, their agency in shaping our lives.


One train of thought in material culture studies, exemplified by the work of Arjun Appadurai, Alfred Gell, Richard Davis or Nicholas Thomas, concedes to objects a “life”, and multiple careers, entangled in cultural webs, which reaffirm a culture’s ability to translate things into signs. A challenge to this position has come from Bruno Latour’s move to dissolve the human/non-human distinction in favor of the notion of the “actant”, defined as an entity whose “competence is deduced from [its] performance” rather than posited in advance of the action. The post-Cartesian description of materiality and nature in modernity as inert has been critiqued from different disciplinary positions: the philosopher Jane Bennett describes a “vibrant matter” which operates beyond and within human beings, whereas the cultural anthropologist Christopher Pinney envisages materiality as a zone of “affective intensity” where new identities are forged. In short, a view of “subjects” as ontologically distinct from the “objects” they create, use and circulate has come to be increasingly contested within studies of materiality. With the intent of bypassing the controversial subject/object binary which implies an opposition between vital life and passive matter, this conference speaks of “things” which encompass a vast diversity of material forms and remains, whose narratives cannot be reduced to or confined within the concerns and boundaries of one single discipline.


A particularly exciting dimension of things and their relationship to human culture, a concern central to the research perspective of our cluster, is the question of their location and, as a logical further step, their dislocation from their original settings, their mobile trajectories and their realignment in new contexts and changed relational categories. By focusing on the pathways of material things and their reconfigured identities and practices as they are appropriated by new agents with a different set of readings, symbolic attributions and agendas, we intend to highlight the enormous constitutive potential of migrating things – the potential to connect, to innovate, to transform lives, to bring to light hidden tracks and to make as rethink our understandings of culture as an attribute of human societies formed by transcultural relationships. All these relationships are mediated by the materiality of things: a manuscript that traveled from the possession of a north Indian prince to an auction house in Europe was more than a text, rather an object whose materiality was laden with cultural meaning as it was exhibited, coveted, auctioned, cut apart, copied and reassembled. What is the story told by the sword with the tiger-headed hilt, seized by the troops of the English East India Company during the dramatic siege of Seringapatnam in 1799 and discovered in a Tuscan villa on the outskirts of Florence? The recovery of lost narratives confronts the researcher with the challenge of a two-fold alterity – that which comes from the cultural alienness of a migrant thing and alterity as something resistant to easy capture by a discourse of classification or bounded cultures. Narratives of material things are both embedded in social transactions and can exist in disjunction from or be disruptive of stories told by other sources. Each of the stories told by things on the move may be seen as a miniscule mirror which gives us a glimpse from an unknown angle into a larger story and in the process suggests new ways of thinking about space, cultural geographies and the complex and often contradictory association of power and culture.

The enquiry into the power of things was initiated in the Cluster by a lecture series organized under the aegis of the Research Area D in the winter of 2009-10, the proceedings of which have been published in the book The Power of Things and the Flow of Cultural Transformations, (eds) Lieselotte E. Saurma-Jeltsch and Anja Eisenbeiß (Deutscher Kunstverlag 2010). We hope to carry forward and deepen those insights through engaged discussions among researchers of the cluster and experts from across the world. At the same time we hope to open up fresh themes and questions, also through interaction with our colleagues in the newly created collaborative research centre (SFB 933) Material Text Cultures.

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Keynote I

October 10, 2012

18.30-20.00 "Trajectories of meaning: the shifting power of things." by Neil MacGregor (London), Alte Aula, Heidelberg University

Abstract and Podcast

Keynote II

October 11, 2012

18.30-20.00 "From Materiality to Entanglement" by Ian Hodder (Stanford), Karl Jaspers Centre, Room 212

Abstract and Podcast