Artefacts and affective archaeology

 

‘Too seldom do we try to read objects as we read books – to understand the people that created them, used them, and discarded them.’ (Lubar and Kingery, 1993) 

 

Our collective, as well as personal histories and cultures are partly driven and shaped by artefacts – objects made or modified by humans. Objects are and become part of our narratives and their meaning can be interpreted, or ‘read’ as the familiar metaphor suggests. According to Maquet (1993) this is a metaphor that could be considered misleading because it suggests that artefacts are texts and texts should be read analytically, unless it is poetry. But what if we read artefacts like poetry?

Meanings are not inherent to the object or assigned by the designer but created by the people or the person to whom the object is relevant (Maquet, 1993). Meaning cannot exist outside the body; meaning is produced by our interpretations (Chapman, 2014) and associations. Therefore meanings may change, and usually do, when audiences (Maquet, 1993), time, and context changes.

Prown (1993) suggests that similarly to dreams, artefacts are unconscious representations of our hidden mind and can thus unravel deeper cultural truth if ‘read’ as fiction rather than analysed as history. He bases this idea on the storytelling nature of the human mind; the fact that we subconsciously (and consciously) create fictions in form of dreams using the language of fiction – simile, metonymy, synecdoche, metaphor (Prown, 1993). Prown mainly refers to the way artefacts are shaped in relation to current cultural context; the way our environment unconsciously reflects our current worldview. However, the idea of reading objects as fiction opens up intriguing possibilities and dimensions when it comes to our understanding and interaction with the material world.

History can never fully retrieve the past because of its complex and layered nature (Prown, 1993). The past does not only consist of places and dates, it also includes emotions and sensations and spirit (Prown, 1993). However, we tend to focus on collecting tangible events and facts from the past and rarely retrieve the abstract, ‘the affective totality’ of what it was like in the past (Prown, 1993).

The study of artefacts in relation to past human behaviour can be considered a broad definition of archaeology and everything that fits under this could be described as one or another type of archaeology (Lubar and Kingery 1993). Building on this definition, could then a study of artefacts in relation to the emotional connections produced by past events be considered a type of affective archaeology? How do we extract the emotional narratives that have become part of an object when the memory does not exist within the object itself but is reflected in it through association by an individual?

Artefacts are an extension of the self. They act as tangible focus points in people’s narrative identities by linking to the present moment, past events, and future objectives; and they function as concrete evidence of cherished relationships (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993). Csikszentmihalyi (1993) discovered that in general people who have fewer affective connections to objects are more likely to be socially isolated. In other words, the depth of meaning in people’s relationships to others is reflected in the objects they surround themselves with.

The kind of selves people choose to build influences the way they interact with material culture and therefore also impacts the natural environment that is being exploited in order to create it (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993) and the overall . This links to my own thoughts on the value of appreciating the emotional properties of objects, in  particular the clothes we wear – this is something I even mention in my Applied Imagination application. Seeing beyond the intrinsic and materialistic value of objects and placing greater value on the emotional narratives can have a positive impact on the way we produce, use, and discard objects.

 

Chapman, J. (2014) 'Designing Meaningful and Lasting User Experiences', in Moran, A. and O'Brien, S. (ed.) Love Objects: emotion, design and material culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 138-148

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993) ‘Why we need things’ in Lubar, S. and Kingery, D. W. (ed.) History from things: essays on material culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 21-29 

Lubar, S. and Kingery, D. W. (ed.) (1993) History from things: essays on material culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press 

Maquet, J. (1993) ‘Objects as instruments, objects as signs’ in Lubar, S. and Kingery, D. W. (ed.) History from things: essays on material culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 31-40

Prown, J. D. (1993) ‘The truth about material culture’ in Lubar, S. and Kingery, D. W. (ed.) History from things: essays on material culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 1-19

Black dress and blue shirts

I have a black dress that has just been hanging in my wardrobe for the past 8 years (at least). It never fails to remind me of a specific moment with a specific person. At some point the essence of the dress shifted from that of an object to the recollection of a feeling; I no longer see the dress when I look at it, I feel. Reflecting on my emotional connection to the dress I realised that I have not worn it a single time after the person left. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the dress. In fact, I have always been very fond of it, it fits me perfectly, and it has a timeless style. Out of all the dresses I have ever owned it is one of my favourite. Yet it continues to simply hang in my wardrobe and I could also never bring myself to part with it.

Clothing is not simply a material object. It is closely linked to the body and ultimately does not exist unless there is a body; clothing is always designed for the body – even when it is not intended to be worn. Clothing is also closely linked to performance. The ritual of getting dressed is preparing for a performance by highlighting yourself, disguising yourself, or even trying to become someone else. There is always an element of performance in dress. Dress is transient and driven by the moment; it is linked to the user’s needs and feelings in the present (Medvedev 2007).

Clothing constructs a personal habitat (Abbot and Sapsford 2001 referencing Craik 1994), where the clothing and self become entangled with people and moments (Banim and Guy 2001). Banim and Guy (2001) have observed that sometimes the clothes themselves and the images they portray are much less important than the ways in which they represent a relationship with people who are (or have been) connected with the clothes.

So does throwing out clothes like these represent a decision to let go of part of yourself (Banim and Guy 2001)? Or vice versa, does holding onto them represent a desire to preserve a connection to the past or to a relationship?

Because of its close and intimate proximity to the body, clothing has the potential to carry deeper emotional meaning than many other objects. This becomes particularly apparent in the case of ‘a boyfriend’s T-shirt’ and the wardrobes of lost loved ones. The following quote illustrates the role of affective objects in our personal narratives and the intimate emotional connection to a lost loved one’s wardrobe.

‘…I have a recurring ritual as soon as I arrive at my parents’ home that helps me settle in and adjust to the Hungarian way of life faster. I open drawers and cupboards and examine their contents. I spend quite a bit of time looking through my father’s possessions, which are still the same and still as blue. When I stroke them or inhale their scent, I sense his presence: his smile, his slight stoop, his delicate hands. When I shut the wardrobe, his presence vanishes.’ (Medvedev 2007)

Similarly to my experience with the black dress, Medvedev is transferred back in time via her father’s shirts. Medvedev’s mother found it hard to discard her father’s blue shirts. She did not even want to give them to her brother because she did not think he was responsible enough to wear them and even though she gave him other objects such as his favourite watch. (Medvedev 2007)

Dress shapes our identity and vice versa, we choose our clothing based on our present state, we hold on to clothing that is no longer being worn, and we wear or do not wear items because of what we associate them with. But exactly how much do the relationships we have to our clothes, as well as other people’s clothes, shape our narrative identities? And how can the affective connections in our wardrobes be used for self-reflective and therapeutic purposes?

What are the affective, mnemonic, and therapeutic possibilities of dress?

 

Note: In the first paragraph of the text I mention dress as the style of garment that is traditionally worn by women in the Western world. In the second part of the text, dress mainly refers to the things we modify and adorn our bodies with, including but not limited to, clothes, shoes, jewellry, and body modifications.

 

Abbot, P. and Sapsford, F. (2001) ‘Young Women and Their Wardrobes’, in Guy, A., Green, E, and Banim, M. (ed.) Through the Wardrobe: women’s relationships with their clothes. New York: Berg, pp. 21-37 

Banim, M. and Guy, A. (2001) 'Discontinued Selves: why do women keep clothes they no longer wear?', in Guy, A., Green, E. and Banim, M. (ed.) Through the Wardrobe: women's relationships with their clothes. New York: Berg, pp. 203-219 

Medvedev, K. (2007) ‘Dress, Hungarian Socialism, and Resistance’, in Johnson, D. and Foster, H. (ed.) Dress Sense: emotional and sensory experiences of the body and clothes. Oxford: Berg

Connections

I have a meeting with an expert in psychology next week. I suggested we both dress in something we have an emotional connection to and share our stories when we meet. To which she replied:

‘Oh my gosh, I think dressing in our stories is a fabulous idea, I’ll enjoy thinking about that one.’

Without story, we’re nothing

To better outline and communicate the core findings of my research and identify tangible ideas, I decided to collect all my research into categories and write a structured text (which is what I should have done already). I am aware that my ideas can get a little confusing and chaotic – usually because they are fragmented and rarely very straight forward. This of course will reflect on the structure of my research and the way I communicate it and therefore, if I am not careful, it can make my ideas seem like they are lacking in content.

 

Throughout the process I have been researching empathy, magical thinking, rituals, affective connections, mental health, the art of craft and making, the psychology of dress, and art therapy, among other things. These things may seem like they are very different and scattered all over the place, but this is not the case. All these topics link to each other.

 

Emotional objects

We are surrounded by objects that hold meaning and memories; material things that are affectively connected to our narrative identities. Commodities can become powerful mnemonic devices that evoke feelings and memories of past relationships and thus embody added value for their owners (Moran, O’Brien 2014). We form emotional bonds between objects, people, and moments through association and ‘magical thinking’ that shifts through context, time, and space. In rituals objects and actions have rich layers of symbolic meaning, which is often created through magical associations or emotional attachment.

How then do affective connections, magical thinking, ritual, and mental well-being connect?

 

The stories we tell

Humans are obsessed with stories. As (Gottschall 2012) poetically puts it in his book The Storytelling Animal, ‘We are soaked to the bone in story.’ There are many theories as to why exactly we tell stories but most of them seem to suggest that it is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us experience our lives in a coherent and meaningful way (Gottschall 2012).

Our lives are so influenced by stories and a variety of story-like activities that scientific studies suggest we have about two thousand daydreams per day. That means we spend up to half of our waking life daydreaming – telling ourselves stories! If you start paying attention to your stream of consciousness you may discover that daydreaming is your brain’s default state. (Gottschall 2012)

We are essentially living breathing stories walking around sharing our personal narratives with each other. Your life story is a ‘personal myth’ about who you are, where you came from, and what made you you (Gottschall 2012). Your life story constructs your identity. However, the story that is your life is not fully objective. Life stories are carefully shaped narratives filled with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings (Gottschall 2012).

As an aspect of mind, magic is universal to human beings (Greenwood 2012) and has a close relationship to storytelling. Magical thinking is essentially a way to construct meaning and connect with the present moment through a heightened state of affective being. Magical analogy connects with an alternative mode of reality that is more than just the visible and tangible world and involves an evocative transference of meaning from one connection to another connection (Greenwood 2012). The magical thought is chiefly emotional because it is constructed from affective connections that develop over time (Greenwood 2012). Have you ever struggled to discard an item because it was linked to evocative memories or an important person in your life? Not wanting to part with an object because of your emotional connection with it is a type of magical thinking. You may feel that by losing your physical connection to the object you are also losing the emotional connection to the person or memory – by severing the physical connection you also let go of the emotional connection. This type of magical thinking also happens in reverse, where negative memories or feelings are let go of through physical transformation of symbolic objects representing the relationship, such as in grief rituals.

Rituals are also ubiquitous to human culture – we all have our daily rituals and all spiritual belief systems are built on ritual. Ritual emphasises human creativity and physicality; it is not ritual that molds people, rather it is people who fashion rituals that mold their world (Bell 1997). Creating and performing rituals is a form of active and physical storytelling that gives our life purpose and meaning through magical and affective connections.

According to a model by Romanoff (1998) successful grief rituals should support three complementary functions: continuation of the connection with the lost loved one, transition to a new social role, and transformation of sense of self to accommodate the new relationship with the lost loved one (Sas and Coman 2016). The grief ritual is created to help people adapt to a new story. It is a focused and time limited activity with a structure enables participants to exercise and experience control over the chaos associated with the process of loss and grief (Sas and Coman 2016).

 

A healthy story 

So how does story and magic link to emotional well-being and mental health?

First of all, it is important define the concepts and draw a distinction between emotional, or mental, well-being and mental health. Mental well-being refers to positive states of being, thinking, feeling, and behaving, whereas mental health includes negative and positive states ranging from severe mental illness to excellent mental health (Tennant et al. 2007, Bakolis et al. 2018). Mental well-being is considered to be a good indicator of how individuals are able to function and thrive in everyday life and is predictive of future risk of mental health issues (Keyes 2007, Bakolis et al. 2018).

If we tell ourselves stories to make our lives coherent and meaningful then could personal storytelling perhaps be considered a form of individual, everyday therapy? Without it our inner worlds would crumble completely. Our story is after all what shapes our lives and the reason we exist. If we fail to give our story meaning and embed it with a healthy amount of ignorance how will it affect our emotional well-being? A depressed mind is dealing with a broken story, as becomes apparent when Gottschall (2012) references psychologist Michele Crossley, who says that depression frequently stems from an ‘incoherent’ story, an ‘inadequate’ narrative, or a ‘life story gone awry’. If the mind doesn’t tell itself flattering lies, it is not healthy (Taylor, Gottschall 2012).

Although the latter statement seems a little problematic – what is a ‘healthy mind’, what is a ‘healthy lie’ and where do you draw the line between harmless lies and dangerous lies – there is perhaps something to it. Studies have suggested that depression is often linked to a highly realistic view of the world. In other words, a worldview lacking in flattering lies and optimism? This would indicate that storytelling with a healthy dose of ignorance is, at least to some extent, good for our emotional well-being.

 

The magical storytelling ritual

So how could affective connections and storytelling be used for a creative and self-reflective ritual to support mental well-being?

Could elements from grief rituals be applied to a personal storytelling ritual to connect with and externalise complex emotions? What would the structure and process look like when the connection is chiefly with yourself, as opposed to a lost loved one?

In grief rituals the process of holding on and letting go is done with objects which can be physical, manipulated, newly crafted, or even imaginary. What would this process look like if it was done mainly with clothing and by adding performative elements, such as self-portraits?

How would the process of transformation be documented? How does one not forget the value and the outcome of the transformation? Ritual mementos are physical objects used during the ritual and selected as future cues for recalling the ritual experience (Sas and Coman 2016). A memento creates a tangible link to the performed ritual and transformation. Could a self-portrait or series of self-portraits be the memento that represents the affective connection to the process?

How do the things we wear shape our personal narratives and what are the affective, mnemonic, and therapeutic properties and possibilities of dress?

 

Bakolis, I. et al. (2018) 'Urban Mind: Using Smartphone Technologies to Investigate the Impact of Nature on Mental Well-Being in Real Time', BioScience, 68(2), pp. 134–145, doi: 10.1093/biosci/bix149 

Bell, C. (1997) Ritual: perspectives and dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press 

Greenwood, S. (2009) The anthropology of magic. Oxford: Berg 

Moran, A. and O'Brien, S., (ed.) (2014) Love objects: emotion, design and material culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic 

Sas, C. and Coman, A. (2016) Designing personal grief rituals: ‘An analysis of symbolic objects and actions’, Death Studies 40(9), pp. 558-569. doi: 10.1080/07481187.2016.1188868

Sometimes things seem more confusing than they are

This week I had a casual meeting with Chris Meade, a creative writer who is exploring the future of the book through people’s ‘nearly’ stories; all those things that nearly happen to us. Although his PhD doesn’t directly link to my own research, his work does touch on the subject of personal narratives and is partly informed by affective stories people share with him, which is why I thought it could be useful to hear more about his process. He is using storytelling to convey a set of abstract ideas through different interventions, and what he is doing fits perfectly into the Applied Imagination philosophy and methods. He found my thoughts on how objects are linked to our narrative identities and emotions interesting and thought my ideas on exploring individual storytelling through dress has PhD potential. 

I also had a Skype call with my tutor and she thought I am still using too broad terms to describe my project. I believe there are a few different reasons for this, the main reason being that I am not communicating my ideas confidently enough. Part of the reason for this is that I have not assembled my literary research notes and thoughts in a cohesive and organised way. My research is fragmented, drawing on ideas from very different – perhaps a little unexpected – subject areas, which means that I have struggled to summarise them at this stage. There have been moments when my ideas do not even make sense to me. It should be noted though that this is not because of random assumptions, loose ideas, or a lack of rigorous research. However, it does mean that pulling these fragments together (in a short amount of time) is challenging and does require intense processing. In addition to this, I also need to assemble all the concrete ideas that have surfaced from my research in one document.

Another issue I am currently dealing with is not having done enough work on collecting information through an intervention. (And to whomever is thinking ‘well, just go out there and do it’, I am going to say: Perhaps, but it really is easier said than done, and I have decided not to do interventions just for the sake of doing interventions.) I have consciously been focusing more on refining my core idea than developing the intervention because I noticed that I was only going around in circles when I tried to focus on the intervention. I am now, however, working on turning my ‘intervention scores’ into an event where people are invited to share their emotional connections to items of clothing or accessories. Chris Meade thought this was a good idea, especially when I mentioned including the opportunity to have your photograph taken during the event. I have been in correspondence with The Poetry Café about using their space as a venue, but it has been slow and I am still waiting to schedule a meeting with them. It is possible that the time of the year and the heatwave has something to do with the absence of prompt responses.

Since a lot of my research relates to the way we experience and relate to our own existence and emotions, it is crucial I talk to people with expertise in how our minds work. I have been in correspondence with the psychologist I met at Bethlem last month and will be meeting her on the 15th to discuss my ideas. She was intrigued by my series of ‘intervention scores’ and the concept of self-reflective storytelling. My tutor also said she would introduce me to someone who works in mental health. Receiving feedback from people with experience in psychology should help me refine my ideas and identify potential target groups and collaborators.