Weekly readings: history of things

Kenneth Ames’s “Meaning in Artifacts” is a thorough consideration of a small slice of everyday material life. The appeal is voyeuristic as well as intellectual. Let us reconstruct the environment and behavior of those exotic Victorians! But thanks to the wealth of sources, and temporal and cultural proximity, it’s comparatively easy to slip into the skins of those exotic creatures. The rendition of hallstead elements (31) conjured images of my grandparents’ entryway, a tiny protuberance more airlock than hall, but with enough room for a closet, mirror, and table. The spatial challenges (36) called to mind my last trip to Ikea.

Ames made a number of observations I’m evaluating in light of the crazy quilt. The placement of objects on the hallstead brings to mind ikebana, probably because the influence of Asian design aesthetics upon American sensibilities is something that directly bears upon the quilt. The importance of symmetry, the assertion of control in the production of the objects Ames describes (see 34 and 37 in particular for symmetry and placement), is superficially quite at odds with an asymmetrical or naturalistic aesthetic, and yet I wonder how principles of precision and order may have been shared and endured and morphed by culture. It is also well worth considering how gender plays into those aesthetics and spaces.

Where Ames rendered the era familiar, Sheumaker was evocative of the alien. The hair art of Love Entwined is simply not on my radar. I do not automatically think of hair as a monetized resource. Despite the prevalence of Victoriana in popular culture, hair art has not been prominently represented. Hairwork is a case of rapid cultural change that can be mapped quantitatively, and thus examined using the tools of the social scientist as well as the humanist.

To indulge in understatement, the scope of the class project is smaller than Sheumaker’s. However, the utility of a “count advertisements” approach should not be underestimated. I had originally planned to be more selective and qualitative in my examination of contemporary literature, to ask what was specifically written about crazy quilting in a few instances. I still think that will be valuable, but that approach doesn’t preclude my including a raw number of search results, does it?

Karin Dannehl’s “Object Biographies” involves some conscious anthropomorphism, to good effect and nicely in line with a project where we “met” our objects. The life cycle of the quilt is potentially quite interesting and complicated: each component had a life, and the finished quilt can be viewed as Frankenstein’s monster or a community of objects. Those are quite different things, with the whole transcending the individual components to form a single unique thing, or individuality persisting (and offering commentary upon adjacent individual components) despite a drastic change of physical form. Exploring each metaphor is potentially fruitful, particularly when considering how the quiltmaker saw her work. Did she primarily focus on the overall object to be displayed? Or did an enduring sentimental attachment to individual components drive her work? Was she more likely to show visitors “the quilt,” or point out a particular piece of fabric?

Tags, not categories

Reading “Object Biographies,” I just hit Dannehl’s paragraph about the utility and constraints of categories. After about a sentence and a half, I started skimming, because it’s such a standard discussion. I wonder if that will be the case in ten or twenty years. Right now, I think the dominant metaphor is still one of physical ordering. Where is this thing shelved? Which pigeon-hole should it be stuffed into? The choice of one category precludes (or at least complicates/depricates) the choice of another.

Now that so much of our information is virtual, I wonder how strong that metaphor remains. Gmail got rid of folders—a metaphor with a long history in computing, but easily comprehended by someone who’s never seen a command line—and everyone seems to’ve adapted just fine. It’s not a matter of putting things somewhere, it’s a matter of creating a trail of breadcrumbs. Sometimes, it’s important that those breadcrumbs are useful to others, but in other contexts personalized codes are cromulent. Librarians are paying a lot of attention to metadata (Christine DeZelar-Tiedman’s article about folksonomies versus formal cataloging schemes leaps to mind). As the materiality of data disappears, will the perceived permanence of “categories” also erode? Will Prown’s encouragement to place objects in multiple categories someday seem quaint and unnecessary? Or is there something hardwired into our brains, which will always insist that a thing has a place…and only truly one?