Monday, December 17, 2012

Final Reflection

When I created my object methodology a number of weeks ago, I knew that, eventually, I would need to re-tweak my already tweaked Prownian approach. In conducting this final exercise, I found the manipulation to be helpful in further understanding about the waistcoat. I remember laughing to myself the first time I the line “Does [the object] sing to me?” To me, it boiled down to agency: can an object have agency, let alone sing, without its owner ? I did not think I would find the answer to that question or stumble into a larger conversation about it. However, as you can tell from my conclusion, there is a larger conversation to be had about both the potential for object agency and whether relationships between humans and objects are reciprocal or human-reliant.
This all said, there are obvious limits here: If someone else owned this waistcoat, would its story be any less interesting? Indeed, Captain Brown’s story is an incredible one and, perhaps, some of that incredible story transferred into the waistcoat’s own story. This limit requires future and further studies of objects like this waistcoat to see if the argument for a reciprocal relationship between object and human is an outlier more than a phenomenon. This phenomenon can be tested and further informed beyond the parameters of material culture. As we have seen in our class’ readings, material culture has roots in fields ranging from prosthesis and objects as postmodern texts to cultural anthropology and objects as clues about past communities.
In the end, I feel that conducting this exercise gave me a better sense of what I think material culture is for different people and where I think material culture studies can be applied. As a communicative technology student, I appreciate the connection between material studies and communication studies to the extent that the object, too, can communicate information about its history over time and space.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Potential Exhibit Plan

After staring at the exhibit plan and object list trying to find some agreement between the space and number of objects, I think I've come up with an arraignment that may work for space and the objects. As you can see in the attached screenshot, I've included the ideal route the exhibit visitor would take. Each of the objects (represented by "Floor Planner's" rainbow-colored circular rugs), safely arranged behind the protective glass wall, progress through the 19th century. On the wall opposite the glass case are seven circular tables corresponding with the items behind the case (e.g. The first table will contain information about the first object, the second table with the second object, and so on). Although this looks to be a dizzying, circular motion, guests are still free cross between the benches sitting in the middle of the room.

My goal in featuring the 19th century items in this exhibit is to have exhibit visitors get a better sense of Philadelphia society through time-specific objects. This way, as the guests progress through objects, they're also progressing through time. Further informing their visit are the corresponding information tables. Initially, I thought these tables would include the exhibit cards. But it seemed a little backward to not have the exhibit captions right near the object. So, I thought that including some passages or interesting information for our object history papers could best be used as a part of these tables. In a best case scenario, it would provide more information about the object to those who crave it, while not overwhelming the casual exhibit visitor at the glass case.

Ideally, the exhibit visitors will discover the amount of information appropriate to their interests and, even more ideally (it's probably a hoop dream, actually) talk with other guests about what they've seen and read. This way, guests can communicate their subjective impressions with one another. This exchange of ideas could promote a phenomenological exchange with the exhibit and its visitors.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sensing the Gaze: Conforming to an All-Seeing Society

This weeks reading brought about a couple of reactions centering on sensory experience. The first reaction, sight, has to do with my object: the 18th century wasitcoat. The second shifts toward another sense, touch, and how we can (or can't) make use of this when thinking about our exhibit.

To begin, while reading Mark M. Smith's Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History, I was immediately reminded of a reaction I posted a few weeks ago. Before moving further, it's important to note Smith's critique of Marshall McLuhan (and Walter Ong). The author (and others referenced in the introductory pages of the book) has an issue with McLuhan's implicit suggestion non-visual senses are lower, or inferior senses. To me, although Smith offers significant evidence of a sensory evolution in alternate histories rooted in various regions, I don't quite buy into critiquing implicit suggestions. I understand the importance of Smith's expansion into the other senses, but I didn't really find it helpful to critique sight in our visual culture. Then again, maybe I'm just being sensitive to another McLuhan critique. This all said, I want to get back to my post about structure and power from a few weeks ago. Smith's chapter on sight uses Foucault is wrestle with the panoptic gaze's power. In sum: feeling surveilled by another, a person can internalize a "managerial gaze" (p. 25). I attempted to apply this to fashion because it was a visual confirmation of one's social status. Smith seems to agree with this assessment, noting a person's "accept[ance of] social norms" as a microcosm of Foucault's musings. I've been interesting in thinking about power and surveillance in society because the more information I receive about Capt. Brown, the more it appears surveillance plays a role in his social performance. As I mentioned last week, sitting near more powerful community figures informed Capt. Brown's social status. A document I reviewed this week listed Capt. Brown's children. One child, George Washington Brown seems, to me, be a result of such surveillance--indicating Capt. Brown's awareness of his status in 18th century Philadelphia because of his affiliation with America's first president. Uncovering bits of information like this further suggest that his waistcoat embodied power within Philadelphia's culture and society.

Roughly transitioning, now, to touch in the limited (...more likely exhausted...) space I have remaining, I want to explore Smith's use of "seeing is believeing, but feeling's the truth" (p. 93). A few weeks ago, during our class discussion, a few of my peers discussed the benefit of having tangible supplementary material at the exhibit for the public to interact with. I think this is something worth exploring as it seems, according to Smith, the paradigm may be shifting in this direction. According to the author, some museums even encourage active participation via touch (p. 115). I guess I'm not sure if Smith views this as a good or bad thing. His mention of museum touch as a road to museum profit via increased attendance wreaks of skepticism. But, again, maybe I'm reading a bit too into things. My interest in talking more about this has more to do with a potential paradigm shift within museum exhibits than anything else. I'd be interested to hear if my Material Culture peers felt the same way.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Becoming More Human? Prosthetics and Normalizing Objects

My reading of The Prosthetic Impulse was a bit chaotic. To me, it seems prosthetics are a postmodern text for this collection. Although some may argue that the functional nature of a prosthetic limb reflects a ‘modern’ sentiment, the differentiated examples covered in this text and connection to language games makes a stronger case for prostheses as indicative of postmodernity. The editors’ introduction and use of the term “posthuman” suggest they, too, agree with this characterization. If we’re to read the ‘post’ in posthuman the same way we it in postmodern, then it seems Smith and Morra agree that there’s more than one way to define prosthetics’ role in defining human experiences. Willis, in his chapter focusing on speed and displacement, evokes Derrida’s philosophy of language games to discuss how quickly one moves from “normal” to “other” (p. 245).
Prosthetics serving a function.
The negotiation of “normal” appears as a frequent theme within the text. In this sense, prostheses provide normalcy. In one chapter, this characterization raises the issue of agency and whether prostheses limit human agency. In clearer terms: is a person still ‘normal’ or a ‘human’ without their prostheses? Does the normalizing effects of prosthetics inform what makes its more human? The difficulty in answering these questions lays in the chaos. Semiotics theory reminds us that there are many ways to read a text. Such is the case when considering prosthetics. One ‘reading’ of prosthetics that I find a bit more interesting than the rest is that of Vivian Sobchack. Sobchack, herself an amputee, weaves personal experience into her discussion of the prosthetic metaphor.
Still a prosthetic? More expressive than functional?
Now the interesting part: How does this apply to Capt. Brown’s waistcoat?

Immediately, this appears difficult and potentially impossible. If we read prosthetics as a vehicle by which it’s owner reaches a desired end (being more “human”), we see a connection to the waistcoat. An interesting piece of information I discovered about Capt. Brown was documents about owned pew space in his church. Essentially, parishioners would lease pew space to reserve a spot for crowded services. Repeatedly we see Capt. Brown sharing pew space with other high-ranking Philadelphia officials (e.g. other military officials, future political leaders, etc.). In sum: Capt. Brown was a symbol of high society in Philadelphia. The waistcoat, to me, was a vehicle for maintaining this status.
Robert Rodriguez's take on prosthetics in Planet Terror.
Beyond this relationship, I find myself thinking more about “class” or “success” inherently placed in an object like the waistcoat. This, on the other hand, week’s reading has me thinking more philosophically about objects, like prostheses, being more “human.” Class or prominence is one thing because you can perform a specific classes or successes… but can you perform humanity? I guess this is where the discussion of agency comes back into the fold. But, I guess that’s the nature of reading a postmodern (or even hypermodern) text: it’s thought provoking because of multiple and fractured meanings. Because this collection is so different from the articles we've read so far this semester, I think it'll add a different element to what objects philosophically are and what they do.
Prosthetics: More 'human' than human?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dramaturgic Denim: Jeans and Narrative Identity

I found the first half of Miller and Woodward’s Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary particularly interesting based on our last class meeting. A majority of my notes center on performance. Last class, when discussing potential exhibit themes/theses, we narrowed our options to several strong contenders. One such contender was how each object served as a vehicle for performance. That is to say, the object owners used the objects as an indicator of their public or private selves.

Miller and Woodward, too, discuss the role of performance during their ethnography of their “silent community” (p. 10). These performances vary from informant to informant, as the authors describe the role of jeans for a diverse collection of people. Whether it be divorcees attempting to reclaim youth (p. 25), a woman publicly displaying/feigning their relationship status via “boyfriend jeans” (p. 51), or a mother’s displaying her too-busy-to-bother narrative (p. 17), the authors provide a number of examples of jeans informing one’s narrative identity.

Katie Holmes in (maybe?) an example of "boyfriend" jeans.
The second half of the book steps leaps from how people use jeans to explore what jeans do for people. Specifically, Miller and Woodward wrestle with the “ordinary” quality of jeans and how such a characterization helps to eliminate self-consciousness in people—particularly The Other (re: immigrants to the examined area). The authors argue that jeans are “a medium that is genuinely transcendent and poses no possibility of inequality” (p. 119). To this end, the Miller and Woodward point out that, in public, jeans give The Other a chance to feel normal by being ‘ordinary’—something members of the domestic majority take for granted. This isn’t to say throwing on a pair of stone-washed, low-rise, boot-cut jeans immediately serves as an equalizing force. Miller and Woodward acknowledge that jeans are certainly limited as an equalizing medium in the process of identity development.

To me, the second half of this book is certainly interesting, but the first half lends itself to the discussion of public/private performance using objects to narrate the story of your self. In the case of Captain William Brown’s waistcoat, the satin material and button craftsmanship both serve to communicate something about the wearer’s public identity as affluent society member. The object, in this case, supports the societal narrative of its owner, William Brown.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Capt. William Brown Breakthrough: Visiting the Old Pine Churchyard

During our last class meeting, everyone had an opportunity to present a blurb of information about their objects to Claire Sauro, who, in turn, provided some initial feedback and guidance for our research going forward. My initial research focused on my waistcoat's owner: Captain William Brown. My first examination of a collection of the last names of Philadelphia's colonial families resulted in little to no indication of who this man was, let alone his societal standing. As I mentioned in class, most of my information about Capt. Brown's existence in Philadelphia during colonial and revolutionary America came by way of advertisements in early-American newspapers (see image below for an example of The Pennsylvania General Advertiser, published April 13, 1779).
The Pennsylvania General Advertiser outs Capt. Brown as a tardy letter collector.
Because I was having just a difficult time finding information about Captain Brown, I made plans to travel into Philadelphia to visit Brown's grave and surrounding neighborhood to get a sense of where Brown lived. On Monday, October 22, I visited the Old Pine Street Church Yard located near Philadelphia's Society Hill. Admittedly an outsider, it became readily apparent that the houses (some still houses, others converted apartments) had a colonial vibe about them. A majority, if not all, of the streets and sidewalks were cobblestone. Lining these streets were row houses mainly constructed of brick (see below for example on Pine Street between 5th and 6th Street). 
According to a few web sources, Society Hill initially housed a number of local officials and wealthier families. Once local companies and industry spread westward (in the 19th century), so too did local elites and wealthier families looking to live closer to the migrating city-center. This all said, this migration occurred nearly 100 years after William Brown's death in 1808. This helps confirm Claire's initial deduction that this particular waistcoat, due mainly to the craftsmanship on the steel cut buttons, was owned by someone entrenched in the upper class. As Brown's grave lays in this area, it leads me to guess that he lived his days around this location. 

Upon arriving at the Old Pine Church Yard, I entered the empty grounds and began weaving in and out of the rows of colonial headstones. Weathering made it rather difficult to determine the occupant of each grave. Below are a number of photos I took while visiting the cemetery: 
Beyond the headstones is the Old Pine Presbyterian Church. 

This is a photo with my back to the church, facing 4th Street.

Any revolutionary soldier's grave is decorated with one of these colonial flags.

These headstone provide an example of the effects of weathering.
Although I was able to find headstones belonging to some people who died on or around 1808, I was not able to successfully locate William Brown's headstone. The trip to Society Hill and Old Pine Church Yard was informative because it confirmed Claire's suspicions about the societal status of the person who owned a waistcoat like this one. However, it was a little frustrating to not find any specific  information about Captain Brown. Before leaving, I left some contact information with the rectory in hopes of connecting with someone who knows a little more about Williams Brown then his propensity to be late in picking up his mail from the Post Office.

Not an hour later, Ronn Shaffer, a historian working with the Old Pine Church Yard cemetery connected with me and offered a lot of information about who Capt. Brown is what hand he had in a number of historical events. According to Shaffer's notes, Capt. Brown was a revolutionary service member and Captain in the colonial marines. Capt. Brown served under Gen. Washington during the General's famed crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night. According to Shaffer, Capt. Brown's task was to defend the Pennsylvania boarder should Washington's campaign be unsuccessful. After its success, Capt. Brown and his men joined Washington in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.

Needless to say, my trip to Old Pine Church Yard and subsequent conversation with Ronn Shaffer was beyond helpful in not only discovering the societal place of someone wearing a waistcoat similar to that of Capt. Brown, but also painted a clearer portrait of the extraordinary life of the waistcoat's owner. I plan to further discuss Capt. Brown with Shaffer this Friday and look forward to discovering more information about his life and documented role in Philadelphia history.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fashion and Structure: Is there 'power' in the waistcoat?

In Fashioning the Bourgeoisie, Perrot navigates the class-infused (and enforced) fashion of France to its contemporary ancestors in our current closets and drawers. During this journey, Perrot ‘s discussion touches on the struggles of negotiating what fashion is for the bourgeoisie (or general upper class) and whether or not this fashion is attainable for the middle and working classes. At times it’s not; as the upper class was, by law, privy to the fashions most effectively able to display an elite cultural status. For example, in 18th century France we see restrictions against middle or working class members adorning lavish threading or ornamentation associated with upper class fashion   Early in the reading, Perrot points out that these laws existed because clothing gave “meaning” to its wearer. This commentary harkens back to last week’s reading, when Kirsh-Gimblett links dramaturgy and exhibitions. Although Kirsh-Gimblett focuses more on displaying findings in a museum, one notes the link between museum exhibit performance and societal performance as the participants in each attempt to act in a desired way. For the purposes of Perrot's discussion, this performance is, at times, a struggle for those lacking in means.
In repealing the fashion laws in France during the 18th century, Perrot notes a turning point in the upper class’ stranglehold on dictating high end fashion. After this point, popular clothing was determined by availability via department store and the rise in fashion journalism. These two addition appear to have worked in tandem to promote “short-term fashion,” a term that Perrot gives little value to in his discussion of fashion’s evolution. The author does, however, seem to devote more attention to social structure and technological advances as determinants of material fashion. For instance, in discussing a post-freedom of dress 18th century France, the author notes an “elaborat[e] … complex system of dress including aesthetics, hygiene, fashion, and propriety” enacted to keep the power of fashion in the upper class’ hands (p. 20). Although the author considers “short-term fashion” a myth, it seems that, despite not assisting fashion's evolution, the constant shuffling best served to assist the bourgeoisie simply because they could afford the constant changing. To this end, the structure of power remained in the upper class, as its members seemingly dictated what was (and was not) fashionable.

(Above is an example of Baudrillard's 
"absense of morality" through brightly 
colored material, p. 32.)
Although not French, my late 18th century waistcoat existed during this same period. The reading forces me to consider whether or not power was infused in colonial American dress during this same time. For instance, while I know the owner of my waistcoat was a “captain,” I wonder if wearing an ivory, satin waistcoat inherently displayed the status of a captain—if a captain in colonial America held any status at all. Additionally, while I know Captain Brown died at the age of 74, I wonder if the waistcoat was connotative of an older or more established individual in his Philadelphia community. In short, Fashioning the Bourgeoisie forced me to think beyond the man and the material and think about the structure of the individual’s community and what role the object served in satisfying a specific need.
Perrot’s detailed assessment of fashion’s evolution is helpful in identifying questions to add to the growing number in attaché case as I attempt to find information about the waistcoat in late 18th century Philadelphia.