Ding, ding, ting: Objects as cultural mediators. German, Dutch and Nordic language areas
The conference will link two theoretical traditions: the theory of cultural transfer and Material Culture Studies. The former was elaborated by Michel Espagne and Michael Werner [Espagne/ Werner, 1988] in the 1980s, and has since been pursued in various directions (histoire croisée or ‘entangled history’, research on circulation, interculturality and hybridization) [Engel/ Gutjahr/ Braungart, 2003; Suppanz, 2003]. The latter is a heterogenic theoretical trend developed as a part of Culture Studies in the English speaking world from the 1970s on. Turning away from an approach consisting of an “accumulation of material” [Espagne, 1999: 7] which it considers as being empiricist, Cultural transfer studies concentrate on the analysis, in written sources, of the part played by the discourses and concepts borrowed from other cultures in the “formation of national cultural traditions” . Conversely, works belonging to Material Culture Studies focus more and more on the everyday history of a given culture, and often deal with the question of the role of the other in the formation of collective identities through the prism of research on colonized territories [Gustafsson Reinius, 2008]. As such, they are dependent on their original bonds with scientific disciplines such as ethnology or anthropology. Our intention is therefore to build a theory of cultural transfer through a “bottom-up” approach, starting from sources either of an essentially material nature, or in which the thematization of objects is of prime importance, and to apply the theories of Material Culture Studies to a transnational european field.
To what extent are material things borrowed? How does their appropriation influence the formation of national cultural traditions in the Nordic, Germanic and Dutch-speaking areas?
How do the mechanisms of appropriation, decontextualization and resemanticization which are specific to cultural transfers – and indeed to any form of cultural circulation – work when applied to various objects? The purpose of the conference is to draw the outlines of an intercultural history of Nordic, Germanic and Dutch-speaking areas based on concrete objects, much as Bénédicte Savoy has achieved in her work on France’s confiscation of German cultural goods around 1800 and its impact on the “patrimonial consciousness” of both countries [Savoy, 2003 : 392].
Material culture appears to be ideally suited to the study of cultural transfers in so far as it offers an “objectification” of individual and collective identities. The decision to choose or to refuse the appropriation of an object may thus be viewed as an assertion of identity and as the expression of a sense of belonging to – or differing from – a cultural norm or a social convention [Thomas, 1991: 25].
Furthermore, material stability precisely highlights the changes and reconfigurations that have occurred in the categorization of the object, along with the emotions and narratives it is associated with . Nicholas Thomas thus emphasises the fact that the circulation of objects involves not only a physical process, but also a movement and displacement of competing conceptions of things . Besides, objects are often the driving force of contacts between different cultures. Just as the quest for material goods generates relationships between different social or cultural groups [Bracher/ Hertweck/ Schröder, 2006 : 11], so are the goods a reflection of these relationships. Finally, in the etymological as well as symbolical sense, the object stands for the other of the subject. It thus embodies otherness and strangeness [Thomas, 1991: 184]. The foreign object that has been appropriated is therefore paradigmatic of how an identity is built on alterity.
We wish to avoid being deceived by the myth of the precedence of things, which may sometimes be considered as “coming before ideas, before theory, before the word” [Brown, 2001: 16]. In the same manner, we want to avoid analyzing objects apart from discourses. We aim at bringing to light the discourses and narratives that objects give rise to but we are also anxious not to bury the materiality of things under their symbolic or semiotic meaning.
We therefore aim to perceive how things resist the discourses, representations and fantasies we project on them [Thomas, 1991: 176], and to perceive how things “exceed the meaning to which they have been assigned” [Ecker/ Scholz, 2000: 11] and undermine complete assimilation, revealing the share otherness has in a given culture.
The papers may consider material things from a historical/ cultural/ ethnological/ anthropological/ literary/ linguistic/ philosophical/ aesthetic point of view and will analyze their concrete expressions and discursive, visual, plastic or textual representations, as long as these objects travel across several cultures, across two (or more) countries of the Dutch, Nordic or German language areas, from the Middle Ages to the present time.
From a European point of view, this geographical area might be perceived as a homogeneous entity, bearing a common Northern – or even Germanic – identity. But political and historical disruptions as well as cultural and linguistic diversity require to go further and to focus on its different and multiple identities. We are therefore interested in all the phenomena caused by the circulation of material goods – cultural integration, assimilation, exchanges or junctions – as long they discuss the identities and the relevance of the notion of cultural borders. Our approach concerns all historical periods, especially the ones which were the most favourable to international exchanges – like the Hanseatic period, the Industrial revolution(s), the Napoleonic wars, the two World Wars, the European construction during the XXth century or the experiences of exile. We will, moreover, focus on the contexts of circulation and the junction points such as market places, mercantile or industrial cities, universities or museums.
Things may be handmade or mass produced, movable or not. They may be examined in relation to texts, discourses and human beings, or in relation to geographic and historical contexts of circulation.
Therefore we will also take the circumstances of use and the object’s functionality (sacred, mercantile, illegal, repulsive,…) in consideration.
The deadline for submission of paper proposals for a 30-minute talk is June 30th, 2012. Your abstract should not exceed 300 words, working languages are French, English and any language of the Dutch, German and Nordic language areas. Please send your abstract in French or in English and a short CV (10 lines max.) to colloque.objetsmediateurs@
BRACHER, Philip/ HERTWECK, Florian/ SCHRÖDER, Stefan : Materialität auf Reisen : Zur kulturellen Transformation der Dinge. Berlin, Lit-Verlag, 2006.
BROWN, Bill : « Thing Theory », in Critical Inquiry 28 (Autumn 2001) 1 Things, p. 1-22
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