I'm ambivalent to post this under the current seminar. I guess I don't want to be off-topic or to sound obnoxious. After the Facebook seminar, I've tried reading what I've gotten hold of that will re-educate me on material culture. Whoever started material culture studies was a visionary indeed. The vast published manifestos, books, and papers on material culture are obvious to me that material culture theories will soon dislodge postmodern theories in terms of prominence in academe, value in critical analysis, and commercialization of scholarship.
Postmodern theories came out when human consciousness was bombarded with strict structures and rigid forms of modernism. They offered blueprints for change, chaos, fluidity, and flexibility as responses to modernism's suffocating excesses. Material culture theories now come to us to re-visit and re-embrace formalism and functionalism (found in modernism) in a different way. They are, it seems to me, post-postmodern theories, the syntheses of structuralist and poststructuralist elements in systems analyses.
For example, the dualism between a "thing" and a "person" is obviously structuralist. That there is a person or a trace of a person in a thing and vice-versa is somewhat poststructuralist. In material culture studies, as a post-postmodern intellectual endeavor, a thing is an element by itself that can be understood meaningfully through its network composed of persons and other things. Situating a thing in a web of structures and relationships and network of forms and functions is neither structuralist nor poststructuralist, but a synthesis of both. It is post-poststructuralist.
I started my reading of material culture with the Americans-- Prown's "Mind in Matter," Deetz's "In Small Things Forgotten," and St. Georges' "Material Life In America." Maybe when I have saved enough, I will start collecting the works of the Europeans, but that would be after filling my book stand with Asian, especially Japanese, works on forms, designs, functions, and values. I think Asian designers and technologists practice the kind of material culture studies that I espouse. The one that does not separate a thing from its network, web, or system. An example of which is the sustainability of function and form in a certain product, tool, or technology.
I also like the stuff forwarded by the American material culture scholars because they are not really too radical for me. A thing is still a creation of a person, and a person is still represented by a thing in itself. Both incidences happen in community or society, which is a web, network, or system. In "Material Culture Studies in America, 1876-1976," my current read, Thomas Schlereth (1981) wrote:
Material culture study is, therefore, the study through artefacts (and other pertinent historical evidence) of the belief systems--the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions--of a particular community or society, usually across time.
I like his definition/description. Prown (2000) has the same view of material culture studies. I see a different kind of sociality that is not symbolic or interpretive in their definitions/descriptions. Even in my culture, I'm used to view everything as a symbol or representation of something. I view a deer skin drum, for instance, as related to power, economy, religion, kinship, etc. but not as an element that can tell me different stuff about the community, society, web, or network where it belongs. A flag to politicians is loyalty, power, domination, etc., but to homeless persons, it can be a clothing, a blanket, a cover for their makeshift boxes.
Network analysis and systems theory, I think, are important in material culture studies. A spoon beside a fork and a knife on a table in a family dining room in a house is a spoon, but beside a rusting iron, a crumpled aluminum, and a bent steel bar in a blacksmith's workshop, it is a scrap metal. Forms and Functions of things do change and evolve as they move on from network to network or person to person.
Ethnographically speaking, I observed such change and evolution of a material culture or cultural material in the creation, adoration, and collection of statues of saints. They started as pieces of wood in the hands of sculptors. When the priests blessed them, they became holy icons and gods and saints they represented. When they got old, antique collectors put value on them and the icons became collectible antique pieces. It is possible to study everything there is to study in these statues if we situate them in the networks where they once and last belonged.