Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Primary Theme: Materiality
Secondary Theme: The Political
In his seminal essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1969), Walter Benjamin traces how industrialized modernity has led to a withering away of the aura of the material object. Within this modernity, this reproduced object is “detached” from its originary “domain of tradition,” thereby diminishing the object’s cultural utility and consigning it to a receding past. At the same time, however, Benjamin also asserts that the industrialized reproduction “reactivates” the aura in the simultaneous service of alienation as well as liberation. The aura thus becomes a crucial sensory domain through which individuals as well as collectivities gain access to political and economic life. In Peircian semiotics, qualia are lived. They are iconic, as resembling some quality, and indexical, having contiguity with some quality (Harkness 2013). Thus, qualia are more than just abstract qualities. Much like the aura, they are qualitative experiences that can be traced across multiple material and sensory modalities.
This panel is interested in putting Benjamin’s reactivation of the aura in conversation with Peirce’s qualia. It attends to the multiplicity of sensorial forms—optic, sonic, tactile, temporal and toxic—through which such reactivations transpire. While scholarship on sense and affect is often dismissed as apolitical and ahistorical, this panel foregrounds a political and historical approach to the senses. It is in the interplay of sensory regimes and material objects that we locate these reactivations as political, economic, social, and historical phenomena. Paying attention to the relationship between sense and materiality illuminates the ways in which socio-historical contexts diverge and converge across space and time. By focusing on the intimate connections between sense and materiality, we aim to explore how social, political, and economic life are produced and experienced. What kinds of sensory forms does the aura of the material object take? What kinds of qualic values do reactivations of the aura generate? How do the senses become entangled in global flows of ideology, iconicity, commodity, and technology? How and why do certain bodies get marked by sensory forms? What kinds of lifeworlds and deathworlds inhere in sensorial regimes across socio-historical contexts? How can we recuperate the plenitude of sensory experience in trying to produce empirically grounded and historical materialist anthropology?
With these questions in mind, our panel attempts to address the dialectical relationship between sense and materiality through its multiple (re)activations. The sensory, we contend, is always already materially articulated, and vice versa. By examining scrap metal recycling facilities by the Aegean Sea, the social affordances of radio in the Kurdish Caucasus, and circulating images of blackness in an Indian Ocean port town, the ruined built environment of an oil company town in southwestern Iran, and the interplay of voice and voting in North Carolina, we show how culture, power, and economy are constituted through this dialectical relationship.