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.

Weekly readings: the social life of things

Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun concentrates upon female space, labor, and relationships. Przybysz’s “Quilts, Old Kitchens, and the Social Geography of Nineteenth Century Sanitary Fairs” follows suit, albeit in a manner more narrow and reliant upon literature (specifically Stowe). In Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia” and Weyeneth’s “Architecture of Racial Segregation,” race is the all-important overlay.

But there is some sense in which stuff can mainly speak to class.* Class is a social construct, but even when a high degree of correlation is dictated, there are ways in which it feels like the class of the hands which made and used a thing is somehow closer to that thing than the race or gender identity of those hands. It’s complicated, obviously, because it’s not just the hands, it’s also the mind. (Thank you, unknown West African architects; I am quite fond of my front porch.) And everything is interconnected. Weyeneth’s discussion of segregated schools (14) reminded me of an article† that drew a straight line from desegregation to single sex schools: an inferior education was a small price to pay for keeping white girls away from scary black boys. So maybe, if I were to develop a hierarchy or linear process, placing stuff at the center—okay, I guess it’s radial, which seems moderately more palatable anyway—I’d put class as the next ring. Then race, sex, and a host of other aspects of personal identity and social roles: the things that shape the brain that controls the hands.‡

How does this affect my approach to the crazy quilt? I think the answer is “subtly.” I have been thinking of the quilt primarily in terms of gender: a thing created by a woman, in a woman’s space. I have not discounted the class issues, but have been thinking of the quilt primarily as fancywork: a decorative task that could be comfortably accomplished on a variety of budgets. Even if my finished products (the final paper and exhibit label) focus on gender (which is quite possible), I need to make sure my consideration of class is not an afterthought. The method of obtaining materials—purchasing scraps, repurposing clothing, investing time or upwards of $6 on pre-embroidered patches§—is fundamental to the creation of the quilt. Even if I can’t divine it with any degree of confidence, I can’t deprecate its importance.

* This is part of the reason I enjoyed reading Ames last week. It’s not that I am uninterested in race, gender, etc. But I guess I’m kind of Marxist at heart. (My heart is pretty good at avoiding inconvenient teleology when picking out stuff I like.)

† I can’t remember the citation at the moment, just that it was written by a female professor of history and/or law at Penn and posted online a few years ago.

‡ I have the sneaking suspicion that somebody—possibly more than one—has neatly articulated something I would read and go “Yes!” and quite possibly opened with the sort of “…nobody’s really talked about this…” line that recurred in the readings for object analysis methodology.

§ An option mentioned in Penny McMorris’s book. If my quilter took advantage of such products, my offhand statement that the quilt’s value was equal to labor, with materials an incidental consideration, would require serious revision. There are a lot of embroidered flowers on the quilt.

Not so much about material culture as the way in which culture persists (and kind of sucks)

In her afterword, Ulrich discusses the yeoman farmer, situated between the aristocrat and the savage. The comfortable pastoral ideal feels very current (albeit in a rather less pasture-centric manner) in political discourse, so focused upon the rhetorically idealized middle class. The line from Lazy Indians to Welfare Queens is pretty clear; the specific skin tone implied is irrelevant, except insofar as it is not white. One of Przybysz’s quotes (415) of privileged male discomfort as the object of a Gaze echoes some of the unfortunate sex/race/class undertones of “don’t touch my junk” outrage at TSA policies.