“The Materiality of Everyday Life”: Commentary

Posted on April 29, 2012

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Back from the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, this year held in Memphis. I had been invited to be one of two discussants for a session organized by Cynthia Robin, professor anthropology at Northwestern University, and Lisa Overholtzer, finishing her PhD dissertation there.

For me, the pleasure of seeing these colleagues, and the really exceptional group they brought together for a session that drew a good crowd despite being on Sunday morning, was overshadowed by the missing presence of the other scheduled discussant, Elizabeth Brumfiel. Her absence left me with a real challenge, not that I could hope to address the papers as she would have.

I managed to come up with six single-spaced pages of comments. Most of that won’t be of great interest to readers of this blog, but I did want to post some of it, because the key terms in the title of the session– “materiality” and “everyday life”– share with the title of this blog a desire to say something that resonates with human existence, not just with topics that archaeologists think are interesting.

Rooted in archaeologies of the household, of commoners, of women and children, and of experience and embodiment, the papers in the session are witness to the maturing of archaeological analysis. They are the kind of work that news media should cover, because not only does it represent more of the human past than the temples and tombs that hit the news: it is about the places where social change actually begins.

So, here are a few highlights. Apologies to authors of papers that don’t make it into this precís; you know I love all of you… And for readers less familiar with my style at meetings: buckle up for a revival meeting.

Does everyone have everyday life? or do some people (rulers, the powerful, the self-conscious) have non-everyday life? I argue that we should reject powerful and long established pressure to dichotomize, to define everyday life in contrast to something else. I take everyday life to mean the day to day, small scale or intimate, repeated practices undertaken as much by kings as by commoners.

If we treat everyday life as if it were the counterpoint to something else, something grander that others might take as the engine of social reproduction and social change, we risk missing our greatest opportunity: to break down the dichotomy that lurks in the idea that an emphasis on everyday life is a counterpoint to an emphasis on– what? non-everydayness?

Even the tombs and temples of kings are part of everydayness.

Everydayness is not everymanness. What characterizes everydayness is that it is the texture that establishes continuity and conjures commonality out of what actually are differences in experience. Your everyday and my everyday, even in the same residence, are by definition not the same– and capturing that lack of sameness is in part what everyone in this session is committed to doing.

Lisa Overholtzer’s description of rebuilding of humble residential platforms at Xaltocan as like the rebuilding of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan is precisely the kind of erasure of this presumed boundary. Describing life at Classic Maya Chan, Belize, Cynthia Robin reminds us of the power in the everyday. Citing Michel de Certeau, she notes that everyday life is inherently political, the intersection of the micro and macro, a refutation of the idea that historical change comes from the macro to the micro.

In contrast with the implied dichotomy of everyday and not-everyday, the attention to scale Robin sketches out lets us ask the question of what the scope of action and its effects is for different actors. This point is also evident in Ann Stahl‘s demonstration of the co-implication of highly local actions in iron workshops in Ghana and global-scale political and economic engagements mediated by a variety of materialities, including the human body.

Drawing on a version of Marshall Sahlins’ classic Culture and Practical Reason– a book in which Sahlins rejected any dichotomy between cultural and practical logic, instead insisting that all pragmatic action is taken in ways that are always already structured by cultural understandings– Overholtzer considers the decisions of residents of Xaltocan to rebuild in place as having both pragmatic effects and cultural meanings: both avoiding flooding, and historicizing everyday life through repeated acts of building.

At both Chan and Xaltocan, attention to the small scale and everyday reveals evidence of what Robin calls resilience: what Sheptak, Blaisdell-Sloan and I recently described in colonial Honduras as persistence, the repetition of practices done in such a way as to promote continued dwelling in place under changing circumstances. What we need to explore are the repertoire of materially evident strategies through which communities endure, what Ann Stahl felicitously describes as “how people, through the course of their day-to-day activities, live the ‘big changes’ wrought by shifting global entanglements”.

Archaeologists are in a unique position to talk about how such material relations constitute subjects, including as embodied beings, a point made by Julie Wesp here and elsewhere. Julia Hendon proposes that we need to rethink how we talk about crafting, using textiles as her core focus. Her re-examination of crafting from the practitioner’s perspective insists on the importance of this site of engagement of persons and materials. She draws attention to the way that the specificities of craft production allow us to follow the skilled improvisation, knowledgeability, learning, and forming of personhood.

Scott Hutson and colleagues expend considerable attention on the specificity of materials used in Classic Maya Yucatan– some actually present (stone), others logically implied (gourds and basketry). Their discussion of the sensory differences that would arise from using one material rather than another is welcome, and long overdue, as is the attention they call to materials that were less enduring, but that archaeologists know or suspect were part of everyday life. Pointing to the volume of construction material required to build an 18 km long stone roadway linking two sites, they relate construction experiences to the practice of building house platforms out of large stone blocks for the modest perishable dwellings used by most people. They also point to the implication of cooperative work needed to set these stones in place. Their arguments echo Robin’s discussion of the large-scale works at Chan that created agricultural terraces and features for water control– an excellent example of the kind of discussion of technologies and their entailments called for by Hendon.

Also susceptible to understanding as roots of difference are not just raw materials, but technologies more broadly construed. So for example, Meredith Chesson argues that becoming urban in the Levant meant mastering technologies of storage, of both the ancestral dead and the commodities that promoted life. Drawing on the work of Susan Kus, she stresses the embedding of values in everyday material life, the moral dimension of storage. I want to underline the point made by Chesson, Kus, and also by others such as Julia Hendon, that doing practical engaged activities has sensory, even sensuous, aspects that cannot be decoupled from the materials through which we engage, or the contexts in which we learn to engage with materials and technologies and things.

Why does any of this matter?

Ann Stahl provides what may be the simplest and clearest characterization of what can come from considering the rooting of engagement with materiality that occurs in the course of everyday life, noting that “in the face of changing circumstances” people “faced the future and responded to reconfiguring networks through the familiar, responding to and incorporating the unfamiliar more or less fully in relation to routinized bodily regimes and habits”.

She calls this improvisation: improvisation seen, as de Certeau urges us to see it, as generative, productive, and politically engaged action in a world understood through culturally shaped perception in order to get on, coping with the world we encounter everyday, a world we seek to make intelligible and in which we attempt to create a narrative that leads from past to future, both as members of society and as members of a discipline.

(If you want to see the list of participants and the titles of all the papers, download the Sunday program here)