The mimetic and narrative capacities of artefacts
January 27, 2008 3:58 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in the mimetic and narrative capacities of artefacts, how cultural remnants transmit information through time and how meaning is translated once an artefact is re-appropriated or examined from a new perspective. I have several avenues of study at the moment (a list in extended explanation), but would like some more ideas. Areas of critical theory, linguistics, evolutionary psychology and poetics are all relevant.

I want to show that the narratives and metaphors which can be understood as the architecture of our brains are somehow mimetically present in the physical, cultural and linguistic artefacts which surround us.

Here are a few of the readings I have gathered so far:

- Anthropological and evolutionary studies into the nature and transmission of narrative by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama (in particular her essay 'Reverse-Engineering Narrative' from the book 'The Literary Animal').
- Mikhail Bakhtin's 'Discourse in the Novel' (where he talks about language as having 'genres' or 'tastes' which can transmit as much meaning as the words themselves).
- Michael Shanks and Lynn Hershman Leeson's conversation at Seed Magazine on 'Presence' in art and archaeology and how new technologies affect it.
- Susan A. Stewart's book 'On Longing'.
- Gaston Bachelard's book 'The Poetics of Space'

Thanks in advance!
posted by 0bvious to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You briefly mention archaeology in the Michael Shanks and Lynn Hershmann Leeson's article but I would urge you to consider it more strongly as a line of inquiry in and of itself. I think your focus on the transmission of information across time as an artifact is reappropriated would be particularly suited to an archaeological line of inquiry. Specifically, I think that examining how ancient artifacts were identified and considered by past historians and then by current individuals changes based on the understandings of the time periods of the researcher in question.

I think also that looking at current views of ancient art by lay people would give insight into how an understanding of all encompassing view of mental architecture versus a learned cultural trait among people.
posted by aetg at 5:46 PM on January 27, 2008

Another line of inquiry worthy of consideration concerns how travel and tourism influence the interpretation and appropriation of artifacts and cultures. See, for example, The Tourist Gaze (John Urry) and many others. Oh and The Tourist's Gaze, The Cretin's Glance (can't remember the author) deals with tourism and aechaeology (in the context aetg discusses above) on Crete.
posted by carmicha at 6:39 PM on January 27, 2008

Semiotics sounds like your thing. Here's a thorough and easy-to-understand introduction to semiotics.
Definitely Foucault, particularly "The Archaeology of Knowledge." Roland Barthes and Derrida, too.

Also, check out almost anything by Marshall McLuhan.
posted by landedjentry at 7:57 PM on January 27, 2008

I don't totally understand what you are getting at, but, at first blush it seems the following might be stimulating for you:

Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.ISBN 0898599598 (1986), especially the theory of "affordances".

The Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexkull, especially the concept of umwelt

The above have been quite influential in archaeology, where some of the most interesting thinking about artifacts and the social construction of space & time is happening.

Also, see the work of Arjun Appadurai, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Chris Tilley, Barbara Bender, Julian Thomas.

You're onto Shanks already, his blog is quite interesting

I also think the lifework of the social Anthropologist Tim Ingold is particularly interesting, especially his recent pieces and commentaries in the Journal of Material Culture and in the journal Archaeological Dialogues, and his book (2000) of collected essays:

The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, London.

For the archaeological literature, people recently seem to use the word "materiality" to encompass some of this theoretical approach.
posted by Rumple at 11:09 PM on January 27, 2008

Thanks for the input so far.

I am definitely interested in archaeology in its traditional form, but I am more concerned with the history and evolution of language and meaning, and how this can be studied using archaeological methods.

I know Barthes and Derrida pretty well, and have recently settled on some of the works of Merleau-Ponty and Foucault.

The various definitions of 'artefact' expound my study a little better. For instance, how words carry their evolution within them (in an etymological sense) as if the word acts as an artefact for previous cultural accumulations. Or more specifically, how history comes to us through the metaphors that make up the present.
posted by 0bvious at 2:10 AM on January 28, 2008

Oh yes, and I definitely think translation and transmission are crucial to this topic.
posted by 0bvious at 2:14 AM on January 28, 2008

For instance, how words carry their evolution within them (in an etymological sense) as if the word acts as an artefact for previous cultural accumulations. Or more specifically, how history comes to us through the metaphors that make up the present.

I would be very cautious about this line of approach; there's a tremendous amount of bullshit tossed around in that regard. While it's true that "words carry their evolution within them" (often, anyway), that is usually irrelevant to present usage, and it's a sure sign of intellectual sloppiness to treat etymology as in any way representing or affecting the "true" sense of a word. This is a frequent problem in discussions of Chinese, where some people find it irresistible to pretend that the "pictures" in the characters are somehow relevant to meaning. It's fine to analyze how "history comes to us through the metaphors that make up the present" as long as you realize that it is history and not current events, and that the metaphors are largely dead.
posted by languagehat at 8:16 AM on January 28, 2008

We are good mimics, though, and some remnants of old meanings probably do flow through when we as youths see the contexts and word choices of our elders.

Rambling nonsense filter: I can't remember the name of the book/study/theory, but the idea was that we see history as if through a prism because of imperfect temporal record-keeping. Stories are told and retold, written and re-written, they echo through the various cultures and times, and suddenly every religion has a flood story that happened at different times. This person took it a little far, saying that the dark ages are called that because we've got our calendars wrong and it didn't happen, and that Jesus was really born only 800 years ago or something. Because of it's extremism, it was pretty much excoriated.

But I like the concept, at least. It's not implausible. The telephone game works in the present, it has to be relevant through time as well. Heck, I've heard stories from my parents and grandparents that take on different patinas over the years, imagine if that's all there was. That's your so-called verbal tradition? It's slightly easier to maintain continuity with the invention of the printing press. But even still- look at the bible. It ain't even close to what it was. But themes and threads remain. Jesus=good, muslims=bad. Wait. How did that get in there?
posted by gjc at 8:45 PM on January 28, 2008

The bible was ostensibly written 700 years before Mohammed, of course.

That missing 1000 years of history idea is Florin Diacu, who teaches at my university - in Math. I don't take it seriously.

If the topic is now oral history, then there is a lot of foofarra surrounding that. But one voice I have consistently found to be sane is the classic work of Jan Vansina. There's been a lot of drivel come lately. Vansina gives the tools for thinking about orality.
posted by Rumple at 9:19 PM on January 28, 2008

I realised, upon reading some of the sources above, that the matter of technology is also relevant to my question. What exactly is technology? Can language be understood as a kind of technology? And how do technological applications to innate problems alter the perceptions we develop of ourselves (e.g. Guy Debord's point that mass production opened a chasm between the notions of 'production' and 'commodity').

Once again, thanks a lot for all your thought and input on this.
posted by 0bvious at 12:42 AM on January 29, 2008

Read Totemism by Levi-Strauss. This directly pertains to the usage of human-made objects as semiotic tokens in a cultural dialogue.

Also of note would be the works of Charles Pierce, a semiotician.

You might also be interested in Saussure's Course in General Linguistics.

The texts that will be most helpful for you are any in the vein of Anthropological Linguistics, Cultural Anthropology, and Semiotics. The French and Russian philosophers (continental philosophy in general) has privileged semiotics above their American peers, although Charles Pierce was an American.

Texts from these academic disciplines will likely be more helpful than those in the literary criticism tradition. Good luck! This is a fun topic to study.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 1:27 PM on February 6, 2008

*have privileged
posted by whimsicalnymph at 1:28 PM on February 6, 2008

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