In what I've read about material culture,  the essence of "it" has not been studied thoroughly and properly.  In all cultures that have distinct pronouns for both humans and non-humans, breathing or otherwise, "it' is the marker for objects, materials, things, or stuff.  Not long ago, I carried on a  project in this area of material culture.  I wanted to find out how a material in my culture became one, and how it entered in our lexicon and how my people thought, valued, and assumed it.  I gave up because of its vastness and complexity.

 

We can produce countless manifestos, sell many books, and publish numerous papers, but if the very foundation of material culture is theoretically unclear and sloppily formulated, I don't think we are serious enough to go to the next level of propagating the idea that a thing is as important and powerful as a person.  I'm not even sure if we can possibly move on by ignoring the basics.  We know a lot about a person but not about a thing.  Why it is being called "it" is a complex issue anthropologists, linguists, philologists should work on. 

 

Sustainability, for example, is the current staple in most fields of scholarship, yet we do not really know enough about it.  Is it the form or the function that is sustainable? Or is it the people making and using it who regard, assume, and think of it as sustainable. If sustainability is a thing, walking, too, that is conserving energy is a thing.   I don't wonder why Americans say, "Do your own thing."  Doing, it seems, is a thing.  Such concept is only possible if we examine every material considering different angles as it is a thing of culture.

 

To most, maybe this is trivial, but if one includes culture in the study of materials, webs of concepts, relationships, and assumptions come out in language, belief, ritual, technology, and even through the physical, molecular, and material properties of a thing.  We cannot continue to ignore all these because they do not fit within our interpretations.  Is atom or molecule a thing?  If it is, we have a problem.  Elementary science is right, after all, that everything and everyone in the universe and the universe itself are things. 

 

Ethnographically speaking, there are cultures that name and treat the stars, the moon, mountains, rivers as if they are persons.  There are also persons, who do not follow the mainstream definitions and assumptions about sex and gender, who are condescendingly called "it" by their bullies because they are neither "he" nor "she."  One of the problems I've encountered in my project was whether spirits are things.  In rural Philippines, big rocks, old trees, enchanting rivers have and are spirits.  We do not fell trees without asking permission or saying sorry.

 

The foundational problem in material culture goes on and on.  My favorite one is whether a thing is a thing of things.  A house is a good example.  It is a thing with many things inside.  If it is inhabited by a person, it becomes a home, which is more of a concept than an object.  The problem now is whether a home or a concept is a thing.  Going back to the Greeks is important in clearing this up.  Whether ideas are forms or forms are ideas is an old philosophical question that, to me, is still unsolved and unfinished.

 

A graffiti, for example, illustrates the concept-object dichotomy.  Is the paint used in writing the text on the wall a thing?  Is it the text that is a thing?  Or is it the wall that is a thing of things?  A cross etched on a church's door is a cross not a door even though the cross has no distinct materiality.  On the other hand, an amulet is a charm or power not a stone or a metal, its physical form.  When ethnography is religiously followed in material culture, one will realize that material, like culture, has no universal definition and description.

 

If we know what we are talking about, we can meaningfully and correctly situate them in the midst of persons and things.  An amulet we call anting-anting will just be a metal or a stone to a simple-minded if he does not consider that a concept or idea can also be a thing.  We will also end up prioritizing the font, the color, and the style of a text not the text itself if our concept of materiality is literal based on tangibility and physicality.  Some may accuse me of making everything out of nothing or something.  Frankly, if you are talking about culture, the exercise should be on everything relevant and available, and that is a sound anthropology or ethnography.    

 

 

 

 

 

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