Posted by: Johan Normark | November 1, 2016

Objects as subjects

Yesterday I read an interesting article that pretty much falls into my current trajectory. The article is “The perfect subject (postcolonial object studies)” by Severin Fowles. Since it was published earlier this year in Journal of Material Culture I had missed it since I have strayed away from topics concerning both “material” and “culture” for the past decade or so. For a while I looked into object oriented ontologies (OOO) and tried to apply them on archaeological data with various successes. However, when I attempted to apply it on Maya caves I found that I had very little use of OOO other than in a general sense. This has pushed me in another direction which does not disqualify the previous position altogether (more on that another time). However, I have become more and more dissatisfied with the “Speculative turn’s” tendency to treat objects as oppressed subjects (particularly in archaeology). Fowles’s article explains how we have reached this point. Here is the abstract:

“This article argues that the late 20th-century tradition of material culture studies, as well as its more recent object-oriented offspring, emerged as a response to the 1980s crisis of representation and the deeper postcolonial critiques that accompanied this crisis. As it became more and more difficult to study and make claims about non-Western people, anthropologists and scholars in related disciplines began to explore the advantages of treating non-human objects as quasi-human subjects. Things proved safer to study than people and the popularity of ‘thing theory’ grew, at least in part, for this very reason. More importantly, the analytical shift of focus from people to things had the effect of salvaging – and, indeed, greatly amplifying – the representational authority of Western scholars at the precise moment when that authority seemed to be evaporating.”

Basically, then, “when the West lost its ability to write about non-Western people however it liked, non-humans surfaced as surrogate objects of study” (Fowles 2016:25).


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