In 2004, Lorraine Daston invited readers to “imagine a world without things.” Even as a conceptual exercise, the experiment proved impossible, underscoring the importance of the material after years of scholarly preoccupation with discourse, representation, and the textual. Daston’s volume and many others went on to develop case studies and theories that brought the material to the fore, articulating a new imperative for scholarly practice and recruiting underexamined materialities to diagnose and displace persistent habits in Western thinking.
Nearly two decades after this “material turn” it is now difficult to imagine a world unattuned to the role of objects and materials in the formation of knowledge and the unfolding of daily life. However, this intellectual shift is largely without a historiography and continues to be characterized by a diversity of methods and concerns. Primary Materials revisits the motivations and impacts of this reorientation of our collective attention, but also looks forward to examine new possibilities for interdisciplinary dialogue and emergent concerns within the study of the material, from the digital to the environmental.
The forum grew out of our own conversations while fellows at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. A mix of anthropologists, art historians, historians of science, and legal historians ourselves, we set out to create a venue to mirror the interdisciplinary exchange and conceptual and methodological openness we found in our own discussions. Through conversations with scholars and practitioners, we plan to feature new empirical cases, theoretical interests, and methods for research, pedagogy, and public engagement.
For our first issue, we invited a group of thinkers from anthropology, the history of science, media studies, and political science to consider the place of materiality and material culture in their own work. Our conversations touched on glass flowers, digital teapots, design studios, and the variable materiality of carbon resources. In its topical and disciplinary diversity, this opening volume reflects an ecumenical approach that we intend to maintain as we speak with a range of scholars and practitioners about their engagements with the material.
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Tina Asmussen, Marius Buning, Robert J. Kett and Jaya Remond