Mundane Objects: Materiality and Non-Verbal Communication. UCL Institute of Archaeology Critical Cultural Heritage Series 10. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. By Pierre Lemonnier, 2012. Hardback, 205pp. ISBN: 9781611320565.
Long before the materiality fever in archaeology and the social sciences in general, there was a group of researchers taking things very seriously: the French school of techniques et culture, whose intellectual roots can be traced back to Marcel Mauss. Of all the members of the group, Pierre Lemonnier has had widest international impact, thanks to three key publications (Lemonnier 1986; 1992; 1993). The present book follows the path opened in those works, but goes further and in new directions. In a sense, it is the book that some of us have been expecting to read for a long time: no longer just thought-provoking theory, but theory put to work in a series of complex and thoroughly researched case studies.
In contrast to his previous works, here the author focuses his attention on just a few artefacts. If Lemonnier managed to convince us in his classic writings that something important was going on with the making and using of traps or fences, but one had the impression of being left on the threshold of an intricate world, we know now exactly what is going on, as every technical aspect and its manifold connections and implications are unpacked in detail. The idea of selecting a few artefacts is not meaningless: it involves a change of perspective. Whereas in Lemmonier’s earlier work it was more or less implicitly assumed that every artefact was important within a system, it is obvious in the present volume that some objects matter more than others. He labels these objects in different ways (“strategic artefacts” is one), but the term that he uses most frequently is the somewhat awkward “perissological resonator”. This is more than a fancy label: it actually reveals the special nature of the artefact.
A perissological resonator is different from a mundane object, even if it can be formally identical: a magical bundle can be just that – a packet with elements ordinarily used in hunting magic – or a sacred ritual object. The difference lies in what a perissological resonator makes possible. As the name implies, it “resonates” with other phenomena and it does so redundantly: perissology is “a figure of style that consists in emphasizing an idea by repeating it in different terms”, (128). Through their making and manipulation, perissological resonators tie together different domains of social life, whose relations are often hidden even if they are pervasive. The relevance of these strategic artefacts, which are irreplaceable, is made clear in the fact that their disappearance can bring to an end important social and ritual practices. And vice versa: when a Melanesian group abandoned sister-exchange marriage and discontinued male rituals, large garden fences and beehive-shaped houses disappeared as well. It is not surprising, then, that resonators are resistant to change in a way ordinary objects are not. The concept of perissological resonator is very close to the idea of the “core object” developed by cultural psychologist Ernst Boesch, which refers to an artefact “which, by its usages and ritual connectedness, appears to be vital for the definition of a culture” (Boesch 1991: 333).
The resonators that Lemonnier examines in more detail are fences (Chapter 1), eel traps (Chapter 2), drums (Chapter 3), sacred bundles (Chapter 4) and model cars (Chapter 5). Fences resonate with moral principles of male solidarity and cooperation; eel traps with sex and ancestors, as they materialize a story about men’s penises; drums bring together, among other things, human-eating spirits, moral obligations to share and the ambiguity of maternal kin; and sacred bundles unite the bones and blood of the primordial ancestor, male and female powers, hunting, trapping, initiation and war. When Lemonnier speaks about these resonances he does so in a very material way: it is not ideas only that are involved, but very tangible things, technical actions and bodily gestures. This is perhaps why the fifth example (cars) is not as powerful as the others. While cars resonate with memories and images, and certainly bring people together, the symbolic richness of the drum or the bundle (and therefore its ritual and supernatural consequences, as the author concedes ) is absent. While the fence and the trap could be accurately named core objects, in Boesch’s parlance, it would be harder to make sports cars fit into this term. In fact, Lemonnier reminds us that what makes artefacts effective is not their being mere objects of contemplation, but that people “produce them, manipulate them and perform material actions with them” (98). The range of technical actions within reach of amateurs in relation to either real sport cars or model cars is limited. The chapter, however, is interesting, offers an intriguing counterpoint to the preindustrial examples and will delight contemporary archaeologists.
Pierre Lemonnier fights many enemies in his book. One is an old classic: the untenable distinction between technique and ritual, with the second being supposedly uninterested in material causality. The author shows how wrong this is: material action is as important in ritual as in any other sphere of social life. Other enemies, closer to archaeological concerns, are materiality and material agency. In fact, he is not against materiality or agency per se, what he is against is their use as mere buzzwords that do not specify anything, serve all purposes and do not allow us to understand how things work in practice (mechanically, socially, symbolically). He is equally inimical of easily reading meaning in things (a theme that was already present in his earlier works): the relevance of an object cannot be reduced to deciphering symbols, discussing identity, gender, power, colonialism, etc. (138). His research strives to do the opposite: it is a thick ethnographic description that exposes the intricate relations of things through their actual production and use, but without turning them into a vague entanglement or network (more buzzwords he avoids); there is a clear solidity in individual artefacts. It is their sturdiness (a term he uses several times) that actually explains their usefulness, because it allows things to be mechanically effective and because it gives solidity to representations and social interactions. This emphasis on the physicality of objects brings to mind again Boesch’s theories (1991) and, more recently, Olsen’s (2010). Lemonnier’s critical take on materiality, then, is something from which archaeologists – and contemporary archaeologists in particular –have much to learn.
The emphasis on “non-verbal communication”, however, is somewhat confusing. It is not clear to me that communication is the key to perissological resonators. The communication role is easier to defend in the context of ritual activities, where artefacts and technical activities can play the role of explicit, conscious statements (words recited, sung or told), but it is not so clear in other contexts, such as in the case of fences. Are they really fulfilling a communicative role? In a general sense, probably yes, if by communication we refer to the semiotic content of objects which can be apprehended by others. Yet it seems that the key purpose of resonators is not so much to communicate as to think phenomena (the cosmos, religion, social relations) that are, if not unthinkable, at least much more difficult to conceive without artefacts. That something beyond communication is at stake is clear in Lemonnier’s statements, as when he says that “objects, gestures, or physical activity participate in human relations in a way that nothing else but material actions and artefacts can achieve” or that “some things and thoughts and hierarchies and histories and gestures have to be thought together” (77, author’s emphasis).
Ultimately, however, it does not really matter much how we deem this central role of artefacts in making social systems and giving them stability; what is important is to detect and acknowledge this role: Lemonnier does that extremely well and with a style that is at the same time sophisticated, clear and witty. The book is therefore a must for anybody interested in material culture studies and archaeology, and contemporary archaeology in particular.
Boesch, E. 1991. Symbolic Action Theory and Cultural Psychology. Berlin: Springer.
Lemonnier, P. 1986. “The Study of Material Culture Today: Toward an Anthropology of Technical System”. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 5(2): 147–186.
____. 1992. Elements for an Anthropology of Technology. Ann Arbor, MI: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.
____., ed. 1993. Technological Choices: Transformation in Material Cultures since the Neolithic. London: Routledge.
Olsen, B. 2010. In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. Lanham, MD: Altamira.
Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas-Spanish National Research Council