Things, Material, and Agency

This week, I’m going to start writing the third chapter of my proposed book on archaeology of the contemporary American experience. This chapter is particularly intimidating because I have two deal with the complicated debates surrounding “things” and this will invariably involve addressing materiality and agency in how we both understand archaeological practices and every day life. To make this a bit easier, the last chapter which explored the archaeology of contemporary trash (or “Garbology), did some of the work to set up this chapter by arguing that trash exists within a network of relationships that extend through other things, individuals, as well complex (and composite) forces of weather, climate, and various material affordances that shape their presence in both human and material worlds.  

The other challenge is that archaeologists working in an American context have paid relatively little attention to the complex recent debates concerning things, materiality, and agency of such interest to our European colleagues. Instead, most of the interest in late 20th and early 21st century things in an American context has come from anthropologists, sociologists, historians, media theorists, and literary scholars. One of the goals of this chapter is to demonstrate that the current attention to things has the potential to inform the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. Moreover, I hope to argue that the current interest in things, materiality, and agency on a global scale has its roots in the distinct history of the U.S. and global society. Here’s a very rough first section of this chapter:

As always comments, criticisms, and any other input is always appreciated. 


The late 1970s represented a watershed moment for how archaeologists thought about things. In the U.S., the post-war prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s encountered its first challenges in the oil crises of the 1970s. First in 1973, the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries enacted an embargo of oil exports in response to Western support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War and again in 1979 when the Iranian revolution disrupted oil exports. The resulting shocks to the global oil market led to massive spikes in the price of gasoline as well as other petroleum based commodities. This, in turn, led to slower economic growth and “stagflation” characterized by high levels of inflation, high unemployment, and slow economic growth. Ultimately, the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, Paul Volker, decided to increase interest rates steeply in an effort to control inflation, while also realizing that this decision would increase unemployment and push the U.S. into the recession in early 1980s. At the onset of this crisis, President Jimmy Carter in a now well-known nationally televised reminded the country that “But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” (Jelfs 2018, 37-42). Carter’s failed re-election bid a year later, punctuated by Ronald Reagan’s famous statement that “we don’t have inflation because — as Mr. Carter says — we have lived too well,” may well serve as an invocation for the famously acquisitive and materialistic culture of the 1980s (Jelfs 2018, 42; Collins 2007).

The oil crisis of the 1970s and the associated recession triggered a national conversation about consumerism and the role of things in our everyday lives. The manifestations of this debate in the popular and literary culture of the “long 1980s” is well known (see Collins 2007). From the attention to things in the dirty realism of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) to Madonna’s “Material Girl,” (1984) the brand obsessed psychopath of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Pyscho (1991), artist Jeff Koons’ Luxury and Degradation (1986) and Banality (1988) series, the meticulous materialism of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine (1988), and the weight of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), a sustained conversation about things suffused American culture. Many of these works used things as a way to critique consumerist society. The video for Madonna’s “Material Girl” for example, concludes with Madonna rejecting by expensive gifts from suitors and departs the video in a beat-up pickup truck. The juxtaposition between materialism, poverty, and violence in contemporary rap and hip hop music, perhaps best seen in the early 1990s work of Notorious B.I.G., provided a constant reminder that the benefits of consumer were unevenly felt in society. The last chapter observed how the growing anxieties about trash became another outlet for the public anxieties about the role and importance of things in American life.

At around the the same time that materialism and consumer culture were becoming topics of conversation in American political and cultural life, a series of important works emphasizing the role of things, material culture, and consumer practices came to influence archaeological work. The publication of James Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (1977) not only stimulated the still-developing discipline of historical archaeology in the United States, but also influenced British scholars who were looking for an approach to objects that went beyond the processualism of New Archaeology (Hicks 2010, 66; Hicks 2006, 5). Deetz’s effort to locate objects, including ”small things“ within a broadly-construed cultural context presented a way to bridge the gap between the structuralist practices of New Archaeology and interests in objects as signs and symbols in the anthropology of Geetz (Hicks 2010, 46). In Deetz’s hands, things occupied a vivid place in the daily and ritual life of 18th century New England. His understanding of these object, however, did not emerge from the work of excavation, or other strictly defined archaeological practices, alone, but from the intersection of objects, texts, photographs and informants.

In his ability to offer rich contexts for things, Deetz’s work anticipated and another work from the same time that influenced a growing, global interest in things: Schiffer and Gould’s Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (1981). As I have discussed in the introduction, this work framed the study of modern material culture as ethnoarchaeological practice building on the work of Richard Gould over the course of the 1970s (get cites) and Schiffer’s interest in developing a middle range theory that bridges the gap between archaeological evidence and human behavior. As they acknowledge in their introduction, a ”direct” relationship between modern behavior and past behavior in archaeology was impossible; instead, the book offered the potential for indirect links between the contemporary and past that could inform the nature of archaeological reasoning.

These books found an eager audience in the U.K., where anthropologists and archaeologists alike had read Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood’s The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979) and recognized the appeal of an ethnoarchaeologial approach to understanding not just the archaeological past, but also behavior in the contemporary world. Ian Hodder, Daniel Miller, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Tilley took the ideas and methods presented in these books and over the course of the 1980s and 1990s applied them to a wide range of earlier and contemporary contexts. For an archaeology of the contemporary world, the relatively short analyses of punk fashion in Hodder’s Symbols in Action (1982) and of Swedish and British beer cans in Shanks and Tilley’s Re-Constructing Archaeology (1987) anticipated the more sustained critiques of modern material culture by archaeologists in the 21st century. It may be that Danny Miller’s work on contemporary consumer culture was more significant. In a series of books published from the mid-1980s, Miller argued that late 20th century consumer practices were more than just slavish responses to cleverly constituted marketing campaigns or the manifestation of an uncritical herd mentality, but the complex and often ritualized of identity formation and culture making. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1977), Miller (1987) demonstrates how consumer practices and the interaction between individuals, groups, and objects forms a habitus that shaped culture over time.

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