The last years have witnessed a renewed concern for tracing changes in and rethinking the relation between humans and objects. Growing out of a critique of the humanist Enlightenment conception of the subject as one centrally defined by language and rationality, affect theory, for instance, has emphasised people’s inherent permeability and openness to be impressed. Related work in the ‘new materialisms’ has pointed to the inherent vitality of matter, while actor-network-theory is generally identified with claims that objects have agency. Across a range of debates, then, there are attempts to capture and make sense of qualities, forces and dynamics that exceed human-centred practices of endowing objects and materialities with symbolic meaning, i.e. to think about objects and materialities beyond representation.
Within anthropology, thinking about the forcefulness of the object world goes back a long way. In fact, concepts such as mana or fetish are central to the early history of the discipline. Together with a range of other terms, including aura and mimesis, totem and animism, taboo and the sacred, these terms have been central to debates that have straddled different fields and disciplines: from anthropology and comparative religion, to arts and aesthetics, psychoanalysis and political economy. The course will focus on the conceptual work these terms have been made to do in the past and in the present. By force, this will make us jump between reading the works of key figures such as Benjamin, Freud and Adorno, early anthropological texts as well as more recent re-interpretations or re-adaptations. The point will be to gain an overview of the different histories and approaches towards thinking the power of objects and materials. By doing so, we will also open up the question of how useful these terms are (a) in thinking about how we relate to the objects and materials around us, whether in museum collections, as consumer items or as the waste and ruins of capitalist landscapes; and (b) for understanding dynamics of attraction, attachment and seduction that are central to contemporary political dynamics.
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