In a recent special issue of Archaeological Dialogues anthropologist Tim Ingold raises some very interesting issues about the recent theoretical emphasis on materiality. He takes as a starting point for his essay “Materials against materiality” the paradox that the ever-growing literature on materiality and material culture rarely has anything to say about materials, i.e. about the actual components of the material world. In fact, he notes that most materiality studies are more concerned with the ruminations of philosophers and theorists than they are with the tangible stuffs that craftsmen work with. He recounts with dismay a conference session on materiality, which were, as he writes:
Overflowing with references to the works of currently fashionable social and cultural theorists, and expounded in a language of grotesque impenetrability on the relations between materiality and a host of other, similarly unfathomable qualities, including agency, intentionality, functionality, sociality, spatiality, semiosis, spirituality and embodiment. Not one of the presenters, however, was able to say what materiality actually means, nor did any of them even mention materials or their properties.
Ingold touches on a sore point in materiality studies (I’m terrible guilty of this myself, having written an entire phd-thesis on theories of embodiment). Have vague, important-sounding, ill-defined concepts like materiality or embodiment become a real obstacle to inquiry into the world around us and our relationship to it? What are the historiographical developments that have led academia to focus on the material world in this particular round-about (or even upside-down) way?
Ingolds essay is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in materiality studies. Just remember to find a largish stone and have a pail of water ready before you start (Ingold has some unusual instructions for the reader).