That our possessions encode and elicit our identities as persons seems both a commonplace and a fancy observation. For example: notions of ‘taste’ and ‘style,’ in the U.S., Japan, or wherever, reflexively link up practices of adornment and comportment with expressions of self. I love reading fashion blogs for the way they analyze self-presentation through clothing, often with refined understandings of cultural history. Slate compiles several excellent ‘street style’ blogs, many of which are urban micro-ethnographies of what people are up to in places like London or Helsinki. This on-going satire and serious critique of celebrity fashion contains some of the sharpest writing and analysis I have read, whilst also being super funny. Where contemporary usages of ‘style’ seem to me to emphasize creativity and individual expression, ‘taste’ points to perduring differences of a structural sort, most obviously those of class. Could you call these categories a metapragmatics of dress?
Clothing is easy. Here’s another easy one: pharmaceuticals. It’s not that hard to find examples of cultural projects that re-create materially what we human beings are. Pharmaceutical projects and products redefine the horizons of possible human being. Docility in body, docility in mind: fascinating new work is uncovering means through which mood is medicalized and controlled in consequential ways. And the corporate appetite for research subjects demands careful tracking and attention even as we read today that in the U.S. a federal panel is recommending a relaxation of regulations concerning the use of prisoners in pharmaceutical testing.
Accounts of the intermediation of the material and the symbolic or the corporeal and the social can include the lighthearted (tracking the category of ‘formal shorts’ over time) or something a bit more serious (noting disparities in access to life-changing drugs whilst criticizing a medical model that would reduce people to their molecular components). Current critical attention to ‘biopolitics,’ to the social processes and effects of science, to emergent digital worlds, and the like is exploding. We’ve grown accustomed to the claim that ‘nature’ has been superceded as either a symbolic construct grounding human affairs or the ‘world’ in itself ‘before’ our activity on it. Again, these notions can be given robust philosophical genealogies, or they can be illustrated with the rather obvious. Global warming grabs the headlines, but it’s worth remembering that the entire biosphere was also transformed by the atomic testing programs of states like the U.S. over the course of the twentieth century.
After all, we all inhabit worlds that contain and evince the traces of human activity in the past. And I don’t just mean the accumulated junk in my apartment. A visitor to highland New Guinea might be chagrined to learn that the grasslands of its valleys are largely anthropogenic. But once you realize that those valleys also contain traces of the radioactive activity of states on the other side of the planet, scaled observation (my apartment, a valley in New Guinea, the whole atmosphere) is rendered almost irrelevant because nature/culture encompasses all of them. Even Peter Day’s Global Business program today reflects on how people are nothing if not creatures who remake themselves via ‘the tool’ — whether the tool is a grass fire to clear land for gardening or a personal fabrication device.