Tag Archives: material culture

The object between oblivion/illustration and fetishism

Brian Beaton (University of Pittsburgh) gave a stimulating talk on “Unrooting the Rules: The Social Life of Plants in Libraries and Archives”

Ten days ago, I organised with Elissa Mailänder a two-day workshop on material culture in closed spaces. As “kick-off”, I presented the following text.


In the notion of confinement, the idea of the object that “contains” is often implicit. Several verbs, which we use to describe this confinement contain the object: to barricade, to wall, to cloister, in French encelluler, in German einkerkern, einbunkern, einlochen… Thinking about confinement seems to lead automatically to the object that encloses. But until now historians have remained fairly distant from the material question. This is not only true for the history of confinement but also for the general historical writing.


When historians are interested in the materiality of objects, they often use an approach similar to that which characterises their uses of images. The objects serves to illustrate a thesis, it is integrated into the narrative at times when it suits the argument. The watchtower illustrates the concentration camp, the uniform the standardization of society, the desk the disciplinarisation in the school. Sometimes the iconic character of these objects are taken into account but the materiality is rarely worth any notice.


Opposite to this position, one sometimes encounters a cult of  of the object, particularly observable in museums. Three weeks ago this became very evident for me: for the first time I participated at a conference, Hidden Stories, organised by people working in museums. Museums live around their objects: it is around them that they organise exhibitions, it is on objects that the different crafts work: a new museum is often created around a collection1 ; certainly recently some museums dared to “appear” without developing their very own collections. But their expositions continue to be built by placing objects in a room, the narratives continue to be organised around these objects, despite the growing number of opportunities one has to tell the story other than through the (original) object.

A paradox characterises this obsession of the object. On the one side, the “original” object confers a strong legitimacy, but at the same time an experience of its materiality is most of the time forbidden.

Veto of the object

Parallel to this cult of the object in the museum, one can observe a certain revival of interest in material culture. In a world profoundly touched by the linguistic turn, in a world were even processes and practices are nothing more than discourses, the materiality seems to be a solution, seems to produce a “veto of the object”2, bringing back a certain reality.

I want to break free“, says the object

If I have to choose between the two extremes, the second seems to me now the least bad choice because it helps to break out of the “illustrative prison” in which the object is still often confined. This choice forces us to build the story from the object, an object that is given a certain autonomy. Based on the object, at least a triple life unfolds before us:

Biography of the object

  • the imagined object. At the beginning is the idea of an object. To stay in the area we are interested in – the closed spaces – there is a doctor, a teacher, a soldier, an architect who, confronted with a problem, think of an object. In considering the question, in being inspired by other models, he or she imagines several “possibles”;
  • the produced object. The imagined object is in a second step transformed into a manufactured object. The craftsman – be it an artisan, an industrial engineer, an architect – brings its own expertise. These broadens the range of possibilities – it brings new solutions, offers other practices – but at the same time reduces the possibilities by the process inherent to the production be it on a technical or economic level.
  • the used object. Finally, the object arrives in a particular context . This new context will define a space of possibilities that is often beyond the imagined and produced object. The multiplicity of actors, intended or not, acting with the object, the interaction with other objects which is rarely imagined, the heterogeneous contexts of use open unimagined worlds.3

Materiality through print?

Even the historian who takes the object seriously, limits himself often to the third part of the “biography of the object”4. Most of the time there still is a great distance between him and the object: in fact most of us have access to the object only through printed sources: the materiality of the object stays inaccessible to us, remains foreign. Claiming that historians working on confinement have to be imprisoned so that they know what the bars feel like, how to manipulate a lock or how to move a bed makes you laugh but nevertheless raises the question how the material is accessible to us through writing or images.

The toilet door of an asylum

For me, everything started three years ago with an imagined toilet, a door imagined for an asylum, which I “met” in the archive. Starting with this object and adding the bed and the bath, I tried to construct a narrative parallel to the more classic one that I was writing about psychiatry in the 20th century. Focusing on the object helped me at three levels.

  • Condensation of my argument. The object seems particularly adapted to focus the argumentation. I have the feeling that an object can sometimes replace several pages of text as if its materiality shortened the discussion
  • Slow science. At the same time, and this may seem paradoxical, the subject requires me to slow down. As a historian of contemporary history, I am confronted with an enormous quantity of archives and so I finally spent not so much time at analysing the documents. The object, which I am unable to “read” immediately – false impression that I have before written document – forces me to slow down, to spend time with this object. Instead of writing my story with 1000 documents which I flipped through, I wrote it with three things that I have studied in detail
  • Scale of everyday life. Finally, for the history of psychiatry that I am interested in – which pays attention to the daily interaction between patients, caregivers and medical personnel – the object allows me to “ground” my narrative, to give it a thickness which is suitable to the scale.
  1. The Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux who opened in 2011 has been build around the collection of Jean-Pierre Verney. The future musée de la photograpie in Brussels has been launched after the death of Astrid Ullens. []
  2. König Gudrun M., « Das Veto der Dinge. Zur Analyse materieller Kultur », Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 58, août 2012, p. 14-31. []
  3. Majerus Benoît, « La baignoire, le lit et la porte. La vie sociale des objets de la psychiatrie », Genèses, 82-1, 2011, p. 95-119. To get the text, click here. []
  4. Igor Kopytoff, « The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process », in Arjun Appadurai (éd.), In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge, CUP, 1986, p. 64-91. []

Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as an historian at the University of Luxembourg. I have written my PhD on the occupation of Belgium during World War One and World Two. In 2013 I published a social history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

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Call for paper – Material culture in closed spaces

Plan for a bed in a Belgium asylum in the 1930s

Interest for closed spaces played an important part in the critical renewal of the humanities from the 1960s on, as demonstrated in particular the work of Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault. For the past ten years, the spatial turn has provided new impetus for a greater consideration of space as a place of socialisation. These approaches, devoted to the empirical study of institutions such as the mental hospital and prison, have put the actors and social dynamics at the center of their interest. In keeping with this line of research, we propose to shift the gaze to the material cultures of these spaces.
Be it the prison, the convent, the boarding school, the nursing home, the (psychiatric) hospital or the camp, the material culture of these institutions has gained little consideration till now. Objects, however, configure the experience of closed spaces as well for those who can leave them as for those who are locked up. They allow for a detailed classification of the different populations who constitute these places. How does the staff working in confined spaces appropriate these workplaces? How do the inmates arrange this enclosing physical framework, a framework which among other things, prevents any intimacy of the daily rituals, which are open to the gaze of others. How do these two groups of actors interpret, confirm, deny and/or transform this reality?
These spaces are commonly perceived as hermetically closed. On closer inspection, it appears that they constantly open themselves up to the outside: in particular, the maintenance of buildings and of the infrastructure requires the intervention of people (artisans, gardeners, surveyors, architects…), which are commonly not associated with these spaces. But there are also objects (letters, cigarettes, combs …) that make these enclosed spaces porous. People use objects to occupy the space and to manage the time in those places. These material items provide the framework of the social construction of space. They shape the possibilities for acting of the multiple actors.
The biography of an object – the imagined object, the produced object and the acting object – allows us to rethink spatiality. Its materiality opens but also limits the actors’ scope for manoeuvre. Professional items (medical devices, weapons, handcuffs …) as well as the infrastructure (toilets, tables, beds …) must be examined in relation with the people who use them. We would like to direct the attention at the techniques applied by the actors in order to use this arsenal of objects. The unspectacular objects and the daily rituals in using them are our main interest. The interaction between actor and the materiality of the objects produces focal moments where power relations become visible and that allow us to examine the material and bodily aspects of experiences and human practices.
This workshop is aimed at social scientists and hopes to bring together two methodological trends: on one hand the interest for the analysis of social practices at the micro level and of the different meanings that actors give to their experiences and on the other hand the attention given to objects by assigning them a certain agency, an approach advocated currently by the science studies.
The workshop will be held from 11 to 12 October 2012 at the University of Luxembourg. Proposals for papers (1 page) and a brief CV should be sent by 1 March 2012 to the following address: culturematerielle@yahoo.com. The working language will be English.

Elissa Mailänder (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales / CIERA Paris)
Benoît Majerus (University of Luxembourg)

Benoit Majerus

Since January 2011, I am working as an historian at the University of Luxembourg. I have written my PhD on the occupation of Belgium during World War One and World Two. In 2013 I published a social history of psychiatry in the 20th century from below. I am also co-editor of h-madness.

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