Denim, Gibson, and Archaeology

Over the holidays I read William Gibson’s newest book, Zero History. One of the main plot elements was a search for the creator of a secret brand of denim called Gabriel Hounds.  Without going into too much detail and giving the story away, the search for clues as to who produced Gabriel Hounds leads the main character of the book – the former punk rocker Hollis Henry – to the edges of the underground fashion world and allows the Gibson to indulge in a few of his famously detail-laden discussions of global merchandise. Denim represented a global product and even the secret Gabriel Hounds brand left traces of its secret existence in Australia, Japan, France, Italy, Canada, and the US.  Denim was a global phenomenon.  At the same time, the brand itself was hyper-individualized and almost custom made. Just to purchase it, you had to know people who knew people, so every example of a Gabriel Hounds product marked you as someone with a place in a very small circle of people in the know.

This past weekend, I read over D. Miller and S. Woodward, “Manifesto for a study of denim,” Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 15 (2007), 335-351.  This article calls for a approach to denim as an globalized social artifact that, nevertheless, functioned in very distinct, even individualized ways, on the local or personal level.  To collect data for a project that both affirmed the global reach of a particular commodity and affirmed its unique place in highly localized social practices, the authors called for a network of scholars to investigate local practices around the world.  Some of the facets of this Global Denim Project appear on the project’s website.  Like denim itself, this network of related projects are at once a manifestation of the spread of modern anthropology (and modern, western ways of describing our society) and intensely local practices. The individual practices of the collaborating scholars fit local conditions, individualized scholarly predilections, and

To say that work on material culture finds neat parallels with archaeology is to point out the similarities between a puma and a house cat.  That being said, this manifesto does offer some nice observations on the relationship between the personal, local, and global. Archaeologists confront the tension between the local and global every time they contemplate methods to document, produce, and study such highly localized phenomena as settlement patterns, resistance, or economic integration. They confront this issue again when they try to compare their results with results gathered from elsewhere in the world. As I have documented in this blog (here), archaeology is a global brand brought together by only the slimmest of professional and disciplinary affinities.

To bring this back to Gibson, I’ve blogged on Gibson before in the context of Punk Archaeology.  He was one of the founding fathers of the cyberpunk genre and has a brilliant eye for landscapes and objects in his work.  Punk rock with its fetishized anti-comercialism and radical individuality presents an ideal – if ironic – complement to the tension between local and global in denim, social anthropology, and archaeology.  In some ways, we’re all doing the same thing as we wrestle with the age-old tensions between the unique and universal. Most of Gibson’s work, seem to include characters who constantly push against the undifferentiated void which he variously identifies as “the sprawl”, the net, or even our globalized, commodified existence.

By projecting the tension between the local and global into popular culture, we take a long standing philosophical distinction and consider it against the backdrop of the lived space.  In effect, we take the abstract notion of the “universal” and make it real by adhering it to the limits of our world.  These physical limits allow us to apply the universal to objects and bring archaeology and the study of material culture into a venerable conversation.

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