Weekly readings: objects as commodities

These readings sat down and had a conversation with prior readings. Or perhaps not a conversation: as McCracken points out, language, codes, and communication are not entirely synonymous.

I found a lot to like in Grant McCracken’s “Clothing as Language.” Generally speaking, I approve of reflexivity, and if the “language of clothing” has become a rote phrase, then it deserves to be rigorously examined before being utilized in scholarship. I think it is good to avoid too much reliance upon metaphors and similes: they can be powerful means of expressing concepts, but can easily become crutches. Metaphor as a means to study contrasts as well as comparisons (68) seems like a fruitful approach. (If there is meaning in what the girl was given and ate in the dark, then isn’t there also meaning in what she didn’t eat?)

There were also some problematic bits, minimally requiring expansion (and maybe that’s there; we only read one chapter). One valuable point (69) was the way in which clothing is “read” differently by different groups; McCracken cites age groups and classes, and Stallybrass notes a specific example of the class-based meaning assigned to clothing in the example of Fergus O’Connor’s fustian (193-4). But I can’t help thinking that this particular point is a bit of a double-edged sword when wielded in support of the differences between clothing and language. Language isn’t read the same; encoded meanings shift wildly depending on context, time period, age, class, race, etc., etc. Nor am I convinced that language—spoken or written—is invariably read as closely as McCracken describes (65). A host of other cues (body language, tone, capitalization, letter shape, paragraph structure) impact the way in which we process words. I wonder if McCracken’s privileging text unreasonably.

Peter Stallybrass’s discussion of gender in “Marx’s Coat” resonated with aspects of The Age of Homespun. Ulrich devoted much space (particularly chapter three) to the question of movables: the textiles and furniture that were women’s material inheritance. Stallybrass (198) presents the actual practice of pawning as a woman’s domestic duty, part of the management of household funds or (quoting Ellen Ross) “a stage of meal production.” Did this, perhaps, influence the impulse to assign pawnbrokers family monikers? (195) Women were not, in that case, operating quite so far in the public sphere.

Regarding the crazy quilt, gender is an issue I am thinking about, as is class. I don’t know who created the quilt or its full history. I am cobbling together an imagined (but hopefully plausible) history, in which it was made by the donor’s mother in a middle class household, passed on to a daughter who was professionally unconventionally and married into a higher tax bracket, and then given to a university rather than another family member. The interplay of gender with public and private spheres is part of that story, as is the means by which such relationships are expressed. A woman who listed no employment on the 1900 census had become the proprietor of a boarding house in 1910. It is unlikely that the type of work she performed changed very much (caring for four children, a husband, a niece, and two boarders in 1900, versus a household consisting of her sister, two daughters, and three lodgers in 1910, probably still necessitated a lot of cleaning and cooking) but the language used to describe that work changed significantly.

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