We Have Never Been Material.
Andrew Cochrane 2007 - Page 1
I propose that objects are not merely the passive receptacles and
representations of social relations, set within dualist paradigms. Building on
this position, this paper uses as a case-study the varied objects that
accompany the images and structures in some Irish passage tombs (such as
and the Mound of the Hostages
, Co. Meath). By bringing together
both the content and context of the passage tombs discussed, I will attempt to
further understand some of the intimate ways in which the sites were seen,
considered, and engaged with. Although specific amalgamations of materials
regularly occur, there appear to be no universal imperatives that govern
precise combinations or placements.
This might suggest that although general
principles were at play, particular assemblages were mostly created, contrasted
and juxtaposed in more fluid, improvised and performative ways. I consider how
these notions are amplified when one removes a 'dialectical' perspective
that perpetuates modern dichotomies. The possible effects of these passage tomb
mixtures or performances will be discussed from a visual cultural perspective
that seeks to both illuminate the environmental aspects of the
evidence, and ask how it acts or acted. In doing so, I consider that there has
never truly been a material world distinct from people.
When I was six years old and was given my first lesson by my mother, I was expected
to believe that we were all made of earth and must therefore return to earth.
This did not suit me and I expressed doubts of the doctrine. My mother
thereupon rubbed the palms of her hands together – just as she did in making
dumplings, except there was no dough between them – and showed me the
blackish scales of epidermis produced by the friction as a proof that we were
made of earth.
In this paper I discuss the relationships between the
varied elements that were present in some Irish passage tombs. I argue that
these 'things' or assemblages are not the passive receptacles and
representations of social relations, set within dualist paradigms, but rather
mixtures and performances of essences that interrelate with each other. Modern
Western understandings of the world are generally based upon the dichotomy of
object:subject. These divisions can take on many forms, for instance,
nature:social or animate:inanimate.
In an attempt to overcome these divides,
some recent writers have employed dialectical approaches (e.g. DeMarrais, 2004,
12; Malafouris, 2004, 59; Meskell, 2004, 249; Robb, 2004, 135; see discussions
in Witmore, 2006), which seek to bring these polarisations closer together and
enmesh them in complex flows and networks. Yet in attempting to bring these
positions or oppositions closer together, these scholars are inadvertently
reinforcing an a priori
assumption that the elements are indeed separate
and pure forms in their own right. Dialectical approaches have also allowed some
to argue for hybrids, sublations, fragmentations, montages and networks (see
critiques in Shanks 1992; Witmore 2006; Ingold forthcoming).
The weaknesses of
these approaches, however, are that they assume that the webs of connections
between elements in the world are formed by pure forms (Latour 1993, 55; 1999,
193). Such an understanding allows one to construct the oxymoronic catch-phrase
'object agency' (Webmoor and Witmore forthcoming) which is as Russell (2007,
73) rightly suggests is a 'non-statement'. Instead, I suggest that after
Latour (1993), we think of the essences in the world as being mixtures of
mixtures. This means that there have never been any pure forms; I propose that
we should begin with mixtures, rather than end with them (see also Witmore
To demonstrate how this approach might work I will now consider
the mixtures of things that were deposited in some Irish passage tombs. The
passage tombs discussed here were constructed from fourth millennium BC through
to the third millennium BC, which is broadly the early Neolithic through to the
late Neolithic. The ones that I focus on are Newgrange
I, the Mound of the Hostages
, Sess Kilgreen, Co. Tyrone
and Knockroe, Co. Kilkenny (see Figure 1). I look at the mixtures of assemblages
deposited via a mixture of passage tombs in an attempt to move along
threads of Ingold's crisscrossed networks rather than remaining looking at
re-tied 'Gordian Knot' (see note
Figure 1. Map of Ireland demonstrating the location of the main sites
discussed in this paper (adapted from M. O'Sullivan 1993, 6).
So How Were Things?
Destiny enjoys repetitions, variants, symmetries.
Jorge Luis Borges
Standard passage tomb finds include mushroom-headed bone or antler pins,
small stone, clay or chalk balls, pendants, beads, stone axeheads and
Carrowkeel pottery. Although these specific amalgamations of materials
regularly occur, there appear to be no universal imperatives that govern
precise combinations or placements. For instance, in the eastern passage
tomb at Knowth
Site 1, material objects may not
have existed in the separate deposits, while at
I pottery was absent from some closed contexts, at the Mound
of the Hostages one pot contained cremated remains while another smaller one
did not, and at Newgrange Site 1 there was no pottery evident (O'Kelly
, 122-3; Eogan 1986, 139-40).
This might suggest that although
general principles were at play, particular assemblages were mostly created,
contrasted and juxtaposed in more fluid, improvised and performative ways
(Thomas 1999, 78-9). Such expressions, interactions and interpretations with
particular material objects may have facilitated further processes of
movement, understanding, transformation and intention. These notions are
amplified when one removes an animate:inanimate dichotomy and acknowledges
that these objects may not have been regarded as 'dead' or static (Hallowell
1975, 146; Cochrane forthcoming). The possible effects of these passage tomb
collections or performances will be discussed further below.
The pendant and bead finds are invariably burnt, suggesting that they were
possibly burnt with the bodies (Herity 1974, 124). Previously the occurrence
of these smaller assemblages has been interpreted as 'personal' objects that
were 'worn by the dead clothed and accoutred as in life' (Herity 1974,
126). Yet, instead of being just personal goods for a particular person,
these objects or technologies might have performed in alternative fashions.
This is not, however, to suggest that some people did not adorn themselves
in daily life, but rather that in the context of a passage tomb and
associated with cremated remains and engraved structural stones, these
objects may have operated in more complex ways. Very few of these objects
were left in passage tombs by chance, arriving instead through acts of
deliberate placement. What we therefore might be witnessing are episodes of
deposition that may have related to the construction or disruption of
identities of place and the delineation of personhood or being in the world
(Pollard 2001, 316).
This depictive image was created by Tim Ingold in his address to the
'Overcoming the Modern Invention of Material Culture' TAG 2006 session. <Back>
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