Panic Writing: Things and Consumer Culture

One of the wonderful things about revising book chapters is something that I call “panic writing.” For me, it comes from the overwhelming sense that I’ve left something crucial out of a chapter. It’s usually vaguely defined absence or gap and it triggers an avalanche of ideas, supplemental reading, and self doubt.

It usually results in a new section in a chapter and a call to my writing buddy David Pettegrew before I can return to the work of revising. 

While revising Chapter 3 (which you can locate and in the table of contents that I provide in this post), I decided that I needed to write a section contextualizing the archaeology of contemporary things within the context of archaeology. This is a vast and complicated topic, but I did a quick summary of it with some representative, but not exhaustive citations. Enjoy and, as always, feel free to offer feedback!

Things and Consumer Culture

American historical archaeology has had a long and complex engagement with things and the emergence of modern consumer culture. As any number of scholars have observed, all historical archaeology is inevitably about material culture (Mullins 2011, 2-3). Starting in the mid-1980s, historical archaeologists started to take cues from Deetz, Miller, Appadurai as well as others (e.g. Campbell 1987) and have explored the archaeology of consumer culture through concepts such as “consumer-choice” (Spencer-Woods 1987; Gibb 1996), Louis Althusser’s concepts of ideology (Leone 1984; 2010), and world-systems theory (Hall 2000). This has produced dynamic body of work that is too large to survey in a meaningful or even representative way in a volume such as this (for a recent survey see Mullins 2011; Heath et al. 2017). In general, however, much of this work has kept at arm’s length the many of the more complex theoretical debates that have shaped the field of material culture studies and anchored their analysis in carefully contextualized excavations. They have nevertheless recognized the global context for modern artifacts, the utility of telling stories through and about individual objects, and a growing interest in the materiality of things (Martin 2017). In general, this extensive body of work has sought to explore how things defined social roles and American culture in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As one would expect, historical archaeologists have largely focused on material dating to before the 1950s and derived from archaeological rather than systemic contexts (Schiffer 1972). As we noted in Chapter 2, however, broadly ethnographic comparisons grounded in critical attention to the systemic context of objects have often helped to archaeologists understand the practical, symbolic, and economic function of artifacts in the past. For example, Paul Mullins in his survey of the archaeology of consumer culture introduced the book with a discussion of the Hummer SUV as a way to demonstrate the complex way that an object produces status in contemporary society (Mullins 2011). Elsewhere, Marlys Pearson and Mullins (1999) studied the development of outfits and accessories for Mattel’s Barbie from its introduction in the 1950s to the 1990s and demonstrated that the doll neither reflected a specific image of femininity nor a set notion of domesticity. Instead, the changes in Barbie’s accessories revealed the instability of those notions in contemporary society and the changing realities of Mattel’s financial situation. The Hummer and Barbie’s accessories situated these objects within consumer culture and offered ways to understand both contemporary and historic social, political, and economic relationships.

The use of objects to negotiate racial identities has emerged as a particular staple of studies of consumer culture in historical archaeology. Archaeologists have recognized the wide range of objects associated with various 19th- and 20th-century ethnic communities: Chinese laborers (Voss and Allan 2008), Japanese-Americans (Ross 2011; Camp 2020), Greek immigrants (Kourelis 200x), and Italian railroad workers (Wegnar 1991). Maria Franklin’s recent study of buttons from a 19th-century African-American cemetery in Houston demonstrates how even the simplest of every day objects, clothing fasteners and buttons, can shed light on strategies of self-presentation and the negotiation of identity in the segregated south. The individuals interred in the Freedmen’s town cemetery revealed a community who wore many of the same clothing as white Houstonians despite rise of Jim Crowe laws at the same time. Mullins 2002 work, Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America and Consumer Culture, examined how African Americans in Annapolis acquired, used, and discarded consumer objects. Mullins unpacked the complex negotiations that marked out the desire both for affluence, social standing, and political power through access to goods associated with White respectability which they could use to undermine and resist the racist character of the same White consumer culture (Mullins 2002). Efforts to at resisting racist policies manifest themselves distinctly in gardens built by interned Japanese-Americans revealed the distinctive ways in which these communities sought to preserve memories of their previous homes, provide recreation for their fellow prisoners, and grow vegetables common to Japanese cooking (summarized in Camp 2020). Adrian and Mary Praetzellis (2001) have demonstrated that 19th-century Mexican-Americans and Chinese-Americans in California likewise used both imported and local objects to negotiate identities that allowed them to conform to expectations of Victorian gentility while continuing to preserve aspects of distinctive ethnic identities and practices. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s villa from 1852 features traditional Mexican adobe architecture behind a Gothic facade; contemporary boarding houses for Chinese laborers destroyed by a fire preserved both imported Chinese ceramics and Victorian vessels common to White tables.

Archaeological consumer culture provided a framework for understanding how objects contributed to status, ethnicity, race, and citizenship in the 19th and early 20th century. It located the negotiation of identity within the context of the emerging market economy and the construction of a notion of consumer citizenship established by shared material aspirations. The development of a taste for new goods and the latest fashion, “novelty” in the words of Lorinda Goodwin (1999) in the 18th century infused older more durable artifacts with a “patina” of age that reinforced the traditional standing of the owners as members of a long-standing elite. The place of the North American colonies as important commercial ports and the access of a rising merchant elite to the latest goods from England and Europe marginalized goods with patina as a significant source of status. Recently, this notion of patina has been revisited, complicated, and significantly revised by Shannon Lee Dawdy. Dawdy has recognized in the patina on objects prized by some contemporary residents of New Orleans a way to critique contemporary attitudes and archaeological approaches to consumer culture.

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