Comps Reading 5: Wild Things

Attfield, Judy. Wild Things: the Material Culture of Everyday Life. Oxford: Berg, 2000. Print.

Attfield, Judy. Wild Things: the Material Culture of Everyday Life. Oxford: Berg, 2000. Print.

“Once objects escape the boundaries of categorization they become wild, and like the wild cards in a pack of cards, can be used to take on different value according to the state of play of the game” (74)

So I’ve emailed with my supervisor— while I’m shockingly behind where I need to be, from now on I’ll be reading the books in chronological order. Which is exciting. Lots of Foucault and Heidegger coming your way. But first, you'll get a few more books out of order. 

A nice book to close my hodge-podge-esq style of approaching my comps is Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life, by Judy Attfield. Writing from a design perspective, Attfield uses the material culture of everyday life to “suggest someways of theorizing design to include the less well-ordered things that inhabit the material world” (6). As such, she hopes to “locate design within a social context as a meaningful part of people’s lives [by] integrating objects and practices within a culture of everyday life, where things don’t always do as they’re told” (6).   As such, she aims, by bringing together material culture and design, Attfield aims to “make design a thing” (4).  What follows is a brief summary Attfield’s book, along with a summary of how her study speaks to my research on textiles and the body in performance. 

The first part of Wild Things concerns itself with definitions: of material culture, ‘things,’ everyday life, and design itself. While embracing, as if form mirrors content, the postmodern ethos of embracing difference rather than attempting to develop catch-all definitions, we still spend the majority of Part 1 delving into the history and knitty gritty of the words that make up the title of the book. She defines ‘things’ as the “basic unit that makes up the totality of the material world”  (9). Recognizing the trend in material culture around consumption, she attempts to reclaim the ‘thing’ not as something to be discarded, but rather made up of things with personal, social meaning (39-40). Her’s is a material culture that exceeds the semiotic, imagining the reality, ontological thing, and as such, one that lives outside the realm of ‘representation’. He dismisiveness of what she terms “representational theory” is curious to me; I’m not clear on how she imagines things to exist outside of ideological culture codes. That said, her focus on matter is unique, and in many ways what material culture is all about: 

    “A material culture perspective de-emphasizes the importance given b the theory of         representation that prioritizes meaning over matter through the interpretation and             exploration of ideological culture codes that are seen to reside behind the false front of         appearance conceived as a ‘system of signs’… Representation theory is concern primarily with deconstructinf images and does not account for visual encounters that take place outside the critical frame. In the context of the ‘everyday’  the casual visual encounter may very well evade or distort the intended sign-value in an insignificant and direct act of  consumption” (42). 

While Attfield seems to be operating on a few problematic value assumptions about appearance/reality, and takes no effort to define those ‘false front[s] of appearance’, nonetheless, her statement here strikes a chord: what are implications of mixing meaning and matter in a system which ideally confronts the hierarchy of human./non-human.

The meat of the book lies in the second section, where Attfield provides terminology and theory with which to arm the designer or anthropologist interested in the material mess of everyday life. Here, she puts forward 3 characteristics as “representative ideational features of modern and contemporary everyday life”: Authenticity, Ephemerality and Containment (order)” (76). Authenticity as the “materialization of memory” (76), becomes a way to theorize an objects relationship to the past; this is explored using antique furniture as a case study. Ephemerality acts as the antithesis to authenticity, being unstable and transitory, in all the same way that authenticity is lasting and concrete (77). Textiles and fashion as a case study offer interesting ways to explore the concept of ephemerality as objects of time, specifically in relation to ages and the stages of life (121). Winnicott’s transitional object acts as an exemplar here of how objects can represent a persons relationship to the external world, and their experience of time (121, 123). Finally, containment, as explored through the case study of house and home, exploxes the way objects are ordered or categorized. “Just as authenticity and ephemerality can be said to materialize the relation between thanks and change in ordinary things like houses and garments, so cantonment relates to soace both geographical and intellectual, that locates where such changes and continuities ‘take place’ “ (88). 

These three methods of characteristics of everyday objects give theoretical relevance to the objects we might otherwise ignore. In the final section of the book, Attfield uses these three case studies to ask lager questions on objects and their relation to space, time and the body. 



For my research, Attfeild is most applicable with her writing on ephemerality and textiles, as well as some of her conclusion on objects and the body and their work in identity formation. While she never uses the word performance— these theories are echoed in much of her talk on ephemerality and the body, despite her rejection of representational theories (semiotics for instance). I’m on a plane right now, and left my notes on the body at home accidentally; I’m trying to find a way to theorize this in some applicable way, so that I can look smart… but I’ve been up since 4am, and no one is going to read this anyways. So Thea from the future: sorry I don’t have the notes on the body. But check the first workbook, and you’ll find them at the end. 

However, I do have my notes on textiles and ephemerality however, and will summarize the main points now. Attfield suggest includes in her history of design, a good history of the arts and crafts movement. She concludes, however, that one of the most neglected areas of study— apart from a few feminist historians— is “craft production which takes place in the home” (72). She outlines this neglect through history suggesting that “just as Veblen observed that it was women of the middle-class house-hold whose duty it was to represent leisure, so craft has, for many, been feminized and tranformed for a working-class skilled occupation to a subsidized middle-class (leisure) activity” (69). Trying to differentiate design, craft and things, Attfield attempts to reclaim, somewhat, ‘banal’ textile products. Drawing on Winnicott’s transitional object, she reads cloths as primary in identity formation. “Cloth demonstrates the materialization and unfolding of different human life stages of identity formation within specific historical and cultural contexts. The social construction of subjectivity can be observed objectified via garments in relation to the body and via interior decor of the image intimate domestic environment” (124). The transitional object, she explains, is most often a blanket or tactile object that helps a baby transition away from their mother. The mother being the first ‘other’, or the ‘not-me’ object that acts as an object in identity formation, is replaced by the blanket or doll. “To this end, the Winnicott ‘not-me’ object is recruited to illustrate the specificity of textiles in negotiating social relations as one of the many different types of objects inhabiting the material culture of everyday life” (125). In other words, the way that an infant negotiates their body as “I”, as self in time and space is through their relationship to the transitional object. The transitional object is more often than not cloth-like due to its similarities with skin, and it’s tactile nature.