Weekly readings: objects as codes

In the discussion of blue jeans as post-semiotic (or post-semiotic with an asterisk), I was reminded of the exchange between soon-to-be-Chief-Justice Roberts and Senator Schumer during Roberts’s confirmation hearing:

It’s as if I asked you: What kind of movies do you like? Tell me two or three good movies. And you say, “I like movies with good acting. I like movies with good directing. I like movies with good cinematography.”

And I ask you, “No, give me an example of a good movie.” You don’t name one. I say, “Give me an example of a bad movie.”

You won’t name one. Then I ask you if you like Casablanca, and you respond by saying, “Lots of people like Casablanca.”

You tell me it’s widely settled that Casablanca is one of the great movies.

For that matter, Roberts’s answers—Doctor Zhivago and North by Northwest—fit pretty neatly into the post-semiotic bin, too. This is apropos of I’m not quite sure what…some sort of convergence between the linguistic and the material, a complication of exactly what is signified by signifiers. (I feel like there must be a body of work that puts its fingers on exactly the point I’m thinking around, but my exposure to meaty semiotics is pretty shallow.) Language is muddier than “Clothing as Language” allows, and maybe part of this is because we’re always talking about things, whether they’re physical objects like blue jeans or media like Casablanca.* Of course, if they’re “ordinary” things (in the affirmative sense of the word used by Miller and Woodward) then I suppose it follows that language is less specific because there are more implicit assumptions. (Anybody can quote—or misquote—Casablanca, and they all know what jeans look like. If you want to converse about, oh, Primer or S-curve corsets, there’s less likely to be a common frame of reference, and more explicit language required to communicate. So maybe post-semiotic is lack of infodumps?)

How does this relate to the quilt? The connection to blue jeans is tenuous; the mere fact that the quilt is constructed of what used to be apparel fabric has little implication for its use. The quilt wasn’t worn, wasn’t used to mediate social relationships and public interactions in the same way as a garment. But it was seen, it did play a role as a decorative object. More importantly, perhaps, is the period of its construction. Miller and Woodward point out that one’s relationship with blue jeans is not restricted to periods of wearing (or even ownership). The process of selection is vitally important to the psychological and wardrobe position of blue jeans; similarly, the process of quilt creation cannot be ignored. For a long time (I’m guessing at least five years) quilt production served as a marker of middle class respectability and femininity. For Margaret Heims, working on the quilt might have been the equivalent of slipping into blue jeans at the end of the day. Neither action necessarily denotes leisure, but does imply a familiar and comfortable routine, unremarkable but not at all impersonal.


* So ubiquitous that Ford Prefect got along perfectly well without ever watching it, even though he later regretted it. Until I was well into my twenties, I never actually got around to watching It’s a Wonderful Life, precisely because of its ubiquity during the ever-expanding Christmas season. I still haven’t watched Miracle on 64th Street, but Connie Willis’s “Miracle” remains perfectly explicable.

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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.