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 world of production and consumption. What Csikszentmihalyi (1993) expresses here links to my own thoughts on the value of appreciating the emotional properties of objects, in  particular the clothes we wear – this is even something I mentioned in my Applied Imagination application letter. 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

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