Posted by: Johan Normark | April 2, 2013

The distress of things: materiality, agency & ethics

During Easter I received an invitation to participate in a session at the 112th American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Chicago, IL, November 20-24 2013. The session is called The distress of things: materiality, agency & ethics. It is organized by Rui Gomes Coelho, Binghamton University (rgcoelho at He also participated in the Urban Variation conference in Göteborg earlier this year. Discussant will be Ruth Van Dyke, Binghamton University. Here is the abstract for the session in case you wish to participate (I need to take a look at some of the ethical issues with object-oriented perspectives, OOO ethics for the AAA):

Anthropologists, archaeologists and other social scientists have been discussing issues of materiality and agency for at least two decades. In fact, it has been a long time since the Cartesian dichotomies of human-object and culture-nature were challenged. More recently, some scholars have been preferring to look at material agency by assuming human intentionality as the edge of the discussion. Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency (1998) became a central piece in those contributions, offering the concept of “extended mind” to understand how objects are created and manipulated as conveyors of ideas. Others, however, defend more radical positions in terms of materials’ autonomy. For instance, Bruno Latour and his works on Actor-Network theory (ANT) have been quite influential among anthropologists. In a broad sense, researchers engaged with ANT appreciate the idea that the role of human actors in the world might be considered more equally along with non-humans. In this way, human intentionality is no longer decisive when it comes to determine who has the determinant role in a human-object relationship.

These discussions are also raising ethical issues. Following the fall of Socialism and the triumph of the neo-liberal economic models in most of the world over the 1990s, social sciences became hostages of the “end of history”. Thus, the increasing attention on the role of material culture in society’s lives can be regarded as part of an epistemological post-human turn, where things tend to be an intellectual escape from the political correctness of the hegemonic economic and social model. Social scientists start to fantasize about the dynamics of an apparently inert, material world as an alternative to the turmoil of engaging with their own societies. However, things themselves proved to be as inconvenient as people. We may ask ourselves how far the idea of an autonomous material world is leading us, and we should consider the ethical consequences that such approaches may carry to contemporary social problems that emerged out of late capitalism: social inequality, economic exploitation, political surveillance.

With this session we intend to bring people back to the discussion of materiality and agency with a set of papers that explore different historical and anthropological contexts.


  1. […] Here is a tentative article and abstract for the AAA session in Chicago. […]


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