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2007-08 Humanities Research Groups

"Material Worlds "

Sponsor: Cogut Center for the Humanities

Primary Coordinator: Ian Straughn, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University

Research Group Participants: Susan Alcock, Professor, Classics, and Director of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University

Sheila Bonde, Dean of the Graduate School, Brown University

John Cherry, Professor, Classics and Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University

Deborah Cohen, Associate Professor, History, Brown University

Elliott Colla, Associate Professor, Comparative Literature, Brown University

Robert Emlen, Senior Lecturer, American Civilization, and University Curator, Brown University

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor, Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry, and Director, Science Studies, Brown University

Katharina Galor, Visiting Assistant Professor, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University

Susan Harvey, Professor, Religious Studies, Brown University

Steven Houston, Professor, Anthropology, Brown University

Hsin-Mei Agnes Hsu, Postdoctoral Fellow, History of Art and Architecture, Brown University

Steven Lubar, Professor, American Civilization, Brown University

Patrick Malone, Associate Professor, American Civilization, Brown University

Seth Rockman, Assistant Professor, History, Brown University

Christopher Witmore, Postdoctoral Fellow, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University

Archaeology has long considered itself the discipline for the study of material culture. However, more recently the ability of those scholars steeped in the artifacts of past and present to maintain an authoritative voice over the role of things in social life has been challenged by the interest in material objects that crosses numerous disciplinary lines ranging from biomedicine to comparative literature, from environmental science to religious studies. This fascination with things is strikingly represented by the research interests of Brown faculty and graduate students. This research group will offer a forum in which those scholars can collaborate and challenge each other's understandings of the material worlds in which we live. Whether it is Marx's vision of the fetish of the commodity, Plato's conception of ideal forms, or more recently Latour's discussions of the agency of non-human actors, the theoretical and practical stakes of how material objects shape social worlds has emerged as a critical issue for the humanities. Our relations with these things, variously categorized as commodities, relics, symbols, antiquities, garbage or more simply stuff, constitute a fundamental problem for the project of analyzing the structures of human societies and their diverse expressions across time, space and culture.

The enormous scope of material culture studies has served as a major factor in hindering interdisciplinary dialogue on the topic. The diverse ways in which things participate in the social and intellectual lives of peoples past and present has allowed various disciplines and sub-disciplines to carve out niches that often fail to speak to broader issues. Nevertheless, one common thread in much of material culture studies is the concern over subject-object relations that are so foundational to the intellectual work of the humanities. Through the exposure and interrogation of this shared conceptual framework of "subject-object relations" the work of this research group will consider how the study of material culture may actually work to obscure the distinctive differences between projects informed by phenomenology, psychology and critical theory. At the same time we hope to address the fragmentation of research on material culture by exploring the diverse methodological tools and analytical lenses through which various disciplines examine things and our relationships with them.

The group will hold regular meetings during the fall semester 2007. In general the meetings will focus on three topics: the genealogy of the thing, stages in the social biography of things, and methodologies of the disciplines.

In the spring semester 2008 the group will organize a two-day symposium in which participants will share their own research on topics relating to the study of material culture.

To link to the Material Worlds website, click here.