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Socialness of things: essays on the sociosemiotics of objects: approaches to semiotics 115.

Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994, viii + 482 pp.

Appropriately dedicated to Paul Bouissac, the well-known University of Toronto (Victoria College) semiotician, this volume acknowledges his recognition of "the theoretical potential of the socialness of things" (p. v). In fact, several of the papers included in this volume were first presented at the international conference "The Socio-Semiotics of Objects: The Role of Artifacts in Social Symbolic Processes" held at the University of Toronto June 22-24, 1990.

The term "socialness," as editor Riggins points out in his introduction, seeks to call attention to "the integration of objects in the social fabric of everyday life" (p. ix). Material culture experts have recognized that "societies consist of both people and artifacts" (p. 1). Furthermore, Riggins astutely observes that "[i]t is not only with people and animals that we interact but also with objects. Objects are a cause, a medium, and a consequence of social relationships" (p. 1).

Contemporary research in material culture, selectively represented by Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981), Douglas (1980), and Miller (1987), has dispelled two prevalent North American beliefs about objects. First, the opposition of objects to people has created the erroneous impression that the latter are active and the former are passive. This unfaltering dichotomy of object stativity and human activity has engendered a false reality of objectivity and subjectivity. Second, the interpretation of objects is no longer viewed as monolithic, unchanging, and timeless. Within material culture studies, scholars now consider "objects as features of social transactions [which have] resulted in a conceptualization of artifacts as agencies or quasi-agencies" (p. 2). Such a deliberate blurring of the human-object border permits researchers to refer to objects as "agents of socialization" (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981: 50-52). Consequently, it is possible to speak of people engaging in dialogue with objects since the absence of material culture makes it virtually impossible for humans to present themselves and to "symbolize achieved and desired statuses" (p. 2).

Finally, in his introductory statement, Riggins observes that "[j]ust as language is polysemic, open to multiple interpretations, so are material artifacts" (p. 3). The meanings of objects derive from at least four sources, one of which is their inherent physical properties. The other three include "the information conveyed by objects (and space) which surround an artifact; the observer's life-long experience with similar types of artifacts, few of which will be present in a given situation; and texts about artifacts (museum labels, advertisements, newspaper articles, etc.)" (p. 3). Ultimately, objects are intertextual because their multiple significations derive from linguistic statements about them. At this juncture, a brief account of the seventeen chapters included in this anthology are in order.

The six chapters of Part I ("The Dialogic Object: Artifacts as Agents and Processes") deal with objects as manipulable artifacts that establish social ties and convey various messages. In the opening chapter, Mary Douglas provides an informative overview of objects in "The Genuine Article." Next, Brenda Danet and Tamar Katriel offer insightful commentary about the multiplicity of meanings inherent in collecting in "Glorious Obsessions, Passionate Lovers, and Hidden Treasures: Collecting, Metaphor, and the Romantic Ethic." Vera Mark presents an unusual case history of Pierre Sentat ("Objects and Their Maker: Bricolage of the Self"), a World War II French man convicted of collaboration who encoded political messages in his craftwork. The editor himself includes a chapter ("Fieldwork in the Living Room: An Autoethnographic Essay") on the meaning of the objects located in his own family home in Loogootee, Indiana. The fifth chapter in this section ("Bridewealth Revisited") by George Park addresses the replacement of certain traditional artifacts related to bridewealths by industrial products during the final decade of British rule in southwestern Tanzania. In the last chapter of section I ("Melanesian Artifacts as Cultural Markers: A Micro-Anthropological Study"), Nick Stanley uncovers for the reader some remarkable hidden meanings contained in museum displays of Micronesian objects including certain Romantic preconceptions about indigenous peoples.

Part II ("The Built Environment and the Political Ecology of Artifacts") contains five chapters about architecture, souvenirs, and monuments. The first chapter ("The Logic of the Mall") by Rob Shields discusses the deliberate and meaningful design built into the ubiquitous structure of late twentieth-century consumerism. Adolf Ehrentraut subsequently discusses the hidden significance of heritage preservation in contemporary Japan in "The Ideological Commodification of Culture: Architectural Heritage and Domestic Tourism in Japan." Next, Vera Blundell describes how mass marketing and production of tourist objects that imitate indigenous art in Canada, has had a decidedly negative impact on the aboriginal populations in her study "'Take Home Canada': Representations of Aboriginal Peoples as Tourist Souvenirs." In his discussion of advertisements for refrigerators during the 1920s and 1930s ("Objects, Texts, and Practices: The Refrigerator in Consumer Discourses Between the Wars"), Peter R. Grahame reveals through carefully selected advertisements of the period, how the refrigerator was marketed to fulfill certain created consumer needs. Finally, Eugene Halton ("Communicating Democracy: Or Shine, Perishing Republic") discusses the symbolic meanings of two very diverse aspects of U.S. culture -- The Viet Nam Veterans Memorial and the phenomenon of the Airstream travel trailer and the subculture associated with this object of leisure culture.

In the first chapter ("Are Artifacts Texts? Lithuanian Woven Sashes as Social and Cosmic Transactions") of the six in Part III ("Clothing and Adornment: The Skin of Culture"), Joan M. Vastokas questions the preeminence of language in the interpretation of material culture, i.e., what is written about entities becomes more important than the object "as it is actually made, used, and interpreted within the complexities of its full sociocultural and environmental context" (p. 339). Next, Michele Kerisit ("Feathers and Fringes: A Semiotic Approach to Powwow Dancers' Regalia") shows the evolution of the powwow from its nineteenth century meanings to its contemporary significations. Kathy M'Closkey ("Navajo Weaving as Sacred Metaphor") argues that Navajo textiles possess metaphoric rather than symbolic meanings. Betsy Cullum-Swan and Peter K. Manning ("What Is a T-shirt? Codes, Chronotypes and Everyday Objects") provides a detailed account of the projections of meaning in the omnipresent and popular t-shirt. In the penultimate chapter ("Interpreted, Circulating, Interpreting: The Three Dimensions of the Clothing Object"), Peter Corrigan discusses three dimensions of the clothing object, namely, as public object, as political economy, and as interpreter. In the final chapter ("Psychoanalytic Jewels: The Domestic Drama of Dora and Freud"), John O'Neill suggests a novel interpretation of the famous Dora case chronicled by Freud.

The publication of this anthology by the prestigious European scholarly publishing house Mouton de Gruyter testifies to the quality of the papers. The studies in this volume provide insights into the human-object relationship by referring to manifestations of material culture cross-culturally. This anthology, which adds significantly to our knowledge of material culture, belongs in all major research libraries. A useful Subject Index and Name Index complement this excellent work.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Eugene Rochberg-Halton

1981 The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Douglas, Mary

1980 The World of Goods. New York: Basic Books.

Miller, Daniel

1987 Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

University of Louisville Frank Nuessel
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Publication:Canadian Journal of Sociology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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