The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.
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The Cult of Things: Possession, Collection, and Representation

Reserch period: October 2009-March 2013 / The Cult of Things: Possession, Collection, and Representation Coordinator TAKEZAWA Shoichiro

Reserch Theme List

Our current ‘Core Research Project’ at Minpaku is entitled ‘Anthropological Studies of Materiality’. Within this, from October 2009 for three and a half years, we are conducting a sub project entitled‘The Cult of Things: Possession, Collection, and Representation’.
What does the title ‘Anthropological Studies of Materiality’ mean? It is well known that material culture has been one of the most favored subjects of ethnological museums. Such museums typically represent cultures in the world by showing articles of daily, ceremonial, and religious use. The museums have exerted great efforts to collect, classify and analyze artifacts made by peoples of the world.
Our general target with Studies of Materiality is more ambitious and more fundamental. We are not making comparative studies of artifacts. We wish to reconsider the relationships between materials and humans. The particular aims of our sub project are discussed next.
In the present age of Late Capitalism, cheap and mass-produced commodities are everywhere. This phenomenon is the dominant feature of the mass consumption society, and forms a striking contrast to another phenomenon that is also peculiar to our age. This phenomenon can be called ‘The Cult of Things’. In fact, a growing enthusiasm for material possession, collection and representation prevails in today’s world. Examples include the proliferation of museums as institutions specializing in material collection, the overvaluation of some art works, the global expansion of interest in cultural heritage, the extraordinary preference for brand items. This so-called cult of things seems also to affect human bodies. The increasing popularity of special physical modifications, such as cosmetic surgery, body piercings and tattoos can be considered as a form of the-body-is-the-cult-of-things. The human body is now regarded as an object or material for manipulation.
In anthropology, the cult of things has been denied or underestimated. Objects such as Buddha statues or Christian images that are based on elaborated belief systems are accepted. Nevertheless, when the objects themselves appear to be worshiped, this has been stigmatized with the label ‘fetishism’, and is considered an elementary form of religious thought. How should we approach the cult of things in today’s world?
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer known as an excellent gastronome, once said, “Tell me what you usually eat. And I can tell what kind of person you are.” Daniel Miller, a leading anthropologist in studies of materiality was probably thinking of these words when he said: “We cannot know who we are, or become what we are, except by looking in a material mirror” (Materiality, Routledge, 2009). More ambitious is Alfred Gell, who says that materials should not be viewed as passive, but as agents active in making our society what it is. Surely, it is not accidental that Gell presents this viewpoint in a discussion of the possibility of Anthropological Aesthetics (The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams, 1993). When we look at beautiful things, our usual conscious focus on utility and function stops working and we are enchanted by their irresistible attractiveness. This frees us from our usual preoccupation with the dichotomies of human-material, active-passive, subject-object and mental-material. As this example shows clearly, our existence and consciousness can be enriched and supported by materials.
Suppose we think about memory. Most of our consciousness is made up of memories, of interactions with materials. Everyday, we sleep, eat, drink, read newspapers and watch television. All these behaviors depend on materials. A slight change of materials can drastically change our daily lives. Bruno Latour, a French anthropologist, makes clear these deep interactions between humans and materials in his ‘actor-network theory’ (Nous n'avons jamais été moderns, La Découverte, 1991). Through elaboration of this theory, Latour is trying to alter our world-view based on dichotomies between subject-object, mental-material. He insists that our world has never been constituted of humans as active agents and materials as passive objects, but of two kinds of active agent that are human and material.
From this perspective, the cult of thing seems suffering a double alienation. Firstly, people have downgraded things to the level of mere objects that can be manipulated by human beings. This custom has been predominant in the modern world since Rene Descartes of the seventeenth century. Secondly, people have developed an excessive desire for certain things while abandoning others. Walter Benjamin has suggested a distinction between the ‘cult value’ and the ‘exhibiting value’ of the things: Many objects maintained cult value when they were made and used in special cultural contexts. But these contexts were lost when objects became exchangeable commodities free from cultural constraints as a result of mass production. In contrast, some objects equipped with an exhibiting value, the “aura”, are overestimates. Thus, the transformation from cult value to exhibiting value results from the victory of commodity economy as well as the spread of museums that decontextualize things.
In our “The Cult of Things” study, we wish to focus on the historical transformation of relationships between humans and materials, and the institutional changes that spurred the historical transformation. What kinds of institution and cognitive system lie behind the cult of things? How do people develop self-consciousness and memory, and with which kind of materials? If human physical conditions are now regarded as objects for manipulation, we ask if this also means materialization of the human body. And if the body is changed into a material, is the mind also materialized? Thus, three classes of questions have been identified as foci for our studies of ‘the Cult of Things’ studies: Museum, Memory, and Human Body.
In the museum, various things are carefully displayed and museum visitors are required to treat these things with special caution and attention. In this way, the museum represents a particularly characteristic modern form of the cult of things. The museum has been described in a variety of ways, as a ‘cult creating the nation’ (Krzysztof Pomian), as a place for ‘civilizing rituals’ (Carol Duncan), for example. Do these reasons for existence persist when nation states, civility, and civilization are already established? What power system maintains museums and how is this power related to the power system that constitutes society?
Late Capitalism can also be described as a time of large-scale destruction, through two world wars, ethnic conflicts and ‘racial cleansing’. This destruction claimed many lives and eliminated many things. How can those dead people, eliminated things and devastating actions be remembered? Material memory should involve many different narratives, by many different people, with many different backgrounds. How is a major narrative formed amidst numerous different narratives? How can the narratives countering the dominant narrative be handed down from generation to generation and what supports those narratives? Studies of material memory may help anthropology face major challenges such as the formation of group identity, the politicization of narratives, and the coexistence of multiple narratives.
By definition, materials are replaceable. The converse is our individual body and soul that has been considered as the one and only. Now this personal integrity is challenged: Medical development of organ transplants has enabled us to replace parts of the body with those of someone else, or more commonly with mechanical parts, and growing trends in cosmetic surgery, tattoos and body piercings indicate excessive public attention to physical appearance. If the body can be regarded as merely a thing to manipulate, does the human mind, or ego, that has been supported by the body, lose its identity? Can it also be considered replaceable? By studying extreme interest in the body as a material thing, and transformation of the relationship between mind and material, we should be able to reconsider concepts of ego and human identity in the late modern age.