Archaeological Dialogues, Tim Ingold (2007)

(my stone) 1 May 2015

(my stone) 1 May 2015


the ever-growing literature in anthropology and archaeology that deals explicitly with the subjects of materiality and material culture seems to have hardly anything to say about materials / might we not learn more about the material composition of the inhabited world by engaging quite directly with the stuff we want to understand: by sawing logs, building a wall, knapping a stone or rowing a boat? Could not such engagement – working practically with materials – offer a more powerful procedure of discovery than an approach bent on the abstract analysis of things already made?

Praxeology:  the deductive study of human action based on the notion that humans engage in purposeful behavior, as opposed to reflexive behavior, such as sneezing

What, then, is this material world?

landscape and artefacts?     :      does rain belong to the material world, or only the puddles that it leaves in ditches and potholes? / and where, in this division between landscape and artefacts, would we place all the diverse forms of animal, plant, fungal and bacterial life? Like artefacts, these things might be attributed formal properties of design, yet they have not been made but have grown.

the ecological approach to to visual perception - medium, substances and surfaces : 
     medium : affords movement and perception, ex. air
     substance : resistant to movement and perception, solids, ex. rock, gravel, wood, mud (not generally                   possible to see or move through them)
     surfaces :  the interface between medium and substances, surfaces have properties

It is all too easy, however, to slip from the physical separation of gaseous medium from solid substance to the metaphysical separation of mind from matter / Thus the artefact is characteristically defined – as it is by Godelier – as an object formed through the imposition of mental realities upon material ones

the slippage from materials to materiality :  interfaces between one kind of material and another – for example between rock and air – not between what is material and what is not /  I can touch the rock, whether of a cave wall or of the ground underfoot, and can thereby gain a feel for what rock is like as a material. But I cannot touch the materiality of the rock. The surface of materiality, in short, is an illusion. We cannot touch it because it is not there.

Like all other creatures, human beings do not exist on the ‘other side’ of materiality but swim in an ocean of materials. Once we acknowledge our immersion, what this ocean reveals to us is not the bland homogeneity of different shades of matter but a flux in which materials of the most diverse kinds – through processes of admixture and distillation, of coagulation and dispersal, and of evaporation and precipitation – undergo continual generation and transformation. The forms of things, far from having been imposed from without upon an inert substrate, arise and are borne along – as indeed we are too – within this current of materials. As with the Earth itself, the surface of every solid is but a crust, the more or less ephemeral congelate of a generative movement.

. . .

insects, animals and plants : providers of an endless source of materials for further processing and transformation

studies of material culture have focused much more heavily on consumption rather than production / it is the objects themselves that capture our attention, no longer the materials of which they are made - It is as though our material involvement begins only when the stucco has already hardened on the house front or the ink already dried on the page. We see the building and not the plaster of its walls, the words and not the ink with which they were written.

Despite the best efforts of curators and conservationists, no object lasts forever. Materials always and inevitably win out over materiality in the long term.

wood that has been made into a ladder rather than a ladder that has been made out of wood

Far from being the inanimate stuff typically envisioned by modern thought, materials in this original sense are the active constituents of a world-in-formation.

animism, understood at some times as additional to the material object on which it has been bestowed / but -we do not need to look beyond the material constitution of objects in order to discover what makes them tick; rather the power of agency lies with their materiality itself (fetishist) : On the one hand it acknowledges the active power of materials, their capacity to stand forth from the things made of them. Yet it remains trapped in a discourse that opposes the mental and the material, and that cannot therefore countenance the properties of materials save as aspects of the inherent materiality of objects ///\\\ Bringing things to life, then, is a matter not of adding to them a sprinkling of agency but of restoring them to the generative fluxes of the world of materials in which they came into being and continue to subsist. This view, that things are in life rather than that life is in things, is diametrically opposed to the conventional anthropological understanding of animism, invoked by Pels

It is, however, entirely consistent with the actual ontological commitments of peoples often credited in the literature with an animistic cosmology. In their world there are no objects as such. (a world without objects) / Stripped of the veneer of materiality they are revealed not as quiescent objects but as hives of activity, pulsing with the flows of materials that keep them alive.

what are the properties of materials?

every material has inherent properties that can be either expressed or suppressed in use : in relationship to art or craft,  it is not really the properties of materials that an artist or craftsperson seeks to express, but rather their qualities, ex.  the rounded form of a clay pot, formed while the material was damp and pliable, can hardly be said to bring out the brittleness of clay that has been baked in a kiln:

The properties of materials are objective and measurable. They are out there. The qualities on the other hand are subjective: they are in here: in our heads. They are ideas of ours. They are part of that private view of the world which artists each have within them. We each have our own view of what stoniness is

The assertion, then, that a sculpture is good because it brings out the stoniness of stone cannot be justified on the basis of any properties of the stone itself that can be objectively known. It merely reveals our own personal preferences concerning the qualities we like to see in it.

the properties of materials, regarded as constituents of an environment, cannot be identified as fixed, essential attributes of things, but are rather processual and relational/ they are neither objectively determined nor subjectively imagined but practically experienced. In that sense, every property is a condensed story. To describe the properties of materials is to tell the stories of what happens to them as they flow, mix and mutate.

The properties of materials, in short, are not attributes but histories.