Bodies and Structures

Material Culture

Material Culture highlights the central role that "things" play in place and mobility. Things produce places and space: the production, circulation, and consumption of clothing, food, or any other good calls forth an organization of rooms, workplaces, stores, storehouses, catalogs, homes, markets, cities, and regions; they likewise call forth an infrastructure that facilitates their circulation. Material culture produces sensibilities that locate material practices in place, and enable connections across places. Fashionable clothing signals one’s belonging in particular spaces, such as the consumer space of Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood. Fashionable clothing might mark its wearer as equally out of place in other shitamachi or lower-class neighborhoods. Modern transportation networks are unworkable without coal, while the availability of coal for export produces spatial relationships and place-identities based around production and exchange. In this sense, things form the material foundation for many of the more mobile concepts that populate Vehicles (e.g., paper), Built Environments (e.g., steel, cement), and Flows (e.g., coal, oil, timber).

Material culture illuminates how certain things connect disparate narratives. For example, Mitsukoshi departments stores and Hoshi Pharmaceutical franchises sold markedly different products. Yet these products shared a particular space in that they were bound together by similar market forces and networks of knowledge exchange. In contrast, Mitsukoshi’s packaged consumables located the department store and its patrons in the space of consumer modernity, while the many heterodox uses of tin cans placed Okinawa outside of this space in Charles Gail’s representations of Okinawa. These crossings reveal how specific material objects create their own spatialities, which intersect with but are not reducible to those of the networks and structures that they power or otherwise enable.

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