A Translation of “Essays in Material Culture” In Part


The essays collected in this volume, intended for both scholars and students, exemplify a method that both groups share, Prownian analysis, the history and theoretical foundation which are explained by Jules Prown in the Preface and opening part of this volume. These essays involve a sense of imagination in the study of history. They make up a sort of educational collection, a collection of essays concerning the origin of words and the development of their meanings: experiments of a meticulous, yet practical way of understanding things. At the core of this book, underlying each contribution and the informing of the collective group, lies a shared concern with the expression of historical significance and its production. What questions are most constructive to ask in one’s work with an object and what might be the best way that one might go about asking them? Where scholars will find value in particular historical interpretations proposed by contributors concerning objects such as a teapot, a quilt, or a locket. Students will find a principle of value in learning from the models that these texts offer and how these interpretations can be carried out.

While only some parts of culture take form in objects, the parts that do, record the shape and imprint an otherwise abstract and conceptual aspects of the culture that they embody. These are the objects that we historians in the field of Material Culture seek to understand. Our investigations-analysis followed by interpretation begin with the material aspect of the object where we begin the analysis and interpretation through a considerable amount of attention, beyond their state of being, to the objects’ cultural significance; attention not just to what they  might be said to signify but more importantly, to how they might be said to signify; to their grammatical form, to they way they mean, in both a metaphorical and phenomenological way. This method of investigation may be arranged in the form of an annotated course assignment.

All objects signify something, but some are more expressive than others. As the list of objects studied over the course of time in a single university seminar supports, the possibilities are virtually limitless, especially considering that no two individuals will read a given object in the same way. How do you choose? In an unpublished essay written a decade ago, Prown offered the following reflection on this subject: The reader may wonder, as I still do, how objects may be measured for potential cultural expressiveness before subjecting them to analysis. Students in my seminar are asked to select the object on which they wish to work with, the thought being that they will experience some a sort of urge to uncover the potential meanings in that particular object. I approve of the selection, preferably after seeing the object, if I perceive or am persuaded of that potential. I have tried to define, with only partial success, just what it is that tells me–often quite clearly–that an object is culturally potent. It seems to depend on a linkage-formal, iconographic, functional-between the object and some basic human experience, whether engagement with the physical world, interaction with other individuals, sense of self, common human emotion, or significant life events.

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