(P009)
Art and Personhood in the Historical Moment: Rethinking Gell and Strathern.
Location Senate House South Block - Room G4
Date and Start Time 01 Jun, 2018 at 11:30
Sessions 3

Convenor

  • David Lipset (University of Minnesota) email

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Short abstract

The panel seeks to fuse and revise Alfred Gell and Marilyn Strathern's respective theories of the person by exploring their concepts of agency and gender in relationship to art created in the historical moment.

Long abstract

The most provocative and influential theory of aesthetics in anthropology over the last few decades is Alfred Gell's Art & Agency. Indeed, it is the only anthropological paradigm of art to have captivated scholars in other disciplines. But Gell's formulation, while useful, suffers from several significant flaws, in particular, a concept of the person lacking in gender and uninformed by history. This dual omission becomes especially problematic in regard to the analysis of art in post-colonial settings whereby men, women, and other genders have undergone significant transformation in and against the globalizing ideologies and institutions with which they live. Gell's ungendered notion of the person is all the more pronounced when juxtaposed with Marilyn Strathern's magisterial 1988 opus, The Gender of the Gift, whose influence in the discipline and beyond remains enormous. Yet Strathern's paradigm, focusing on the partible or divisible person and the interaction between same-sexed and cross-sexed relations, also elides history. Neither she nor Gell, for example, situate persons or material objects in colonial or post-colonial eras; and thus they do not recognize modernity, either in singular or plural formations. In this panel, we seek to fuse and revise Gell and Strathern's respective theories of the person by exploring their concepts of agency and gender in relationship to art created in the historical moment.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Unexplored Agencies - On the ritual life of objects

Author: Carlo Severi (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris) email

Short abstract

I shall raise two questions about the use that Gell makes of the concept of agency. The first concerns the network of social relationships in which an agency may be attributed to an object. The second concerns the morphology of the relationship between the object and the being it represents.

Long abstract

Thanks to Alfred Gell's work on the "agency" attributed to artifacts, we can now study « primitive artworks » not only as expressions of an aesthetic thought, but also as ways to establish specific social relations among human and non-human beings.

In my paper, I shall raise two questions about the use that Gell makes of the concept of agency. The first concerns the context, and the network of social relationships in which agency may be attributed to an object. Gell often places this attribution against the background of a spontaneous and unstable "anthropomorphism" that we constantly experience in every day life. How can we conceive of the functioning of "agencies" in more structured contexts, for instance in ritual action? My second question concerns the morphology of the relationship between the object and the being it represents. Gell constantly refers to it as an unproblematic, mirror-like relationship. Is this relationship always as simple as that ?

Using ethnographic material, I will try to answer these two questions, arguing that, in ritual situations, the abduction of agency is doubly transformed. On the one hand, the "living artifact" generates, in these contexts, a stable, strongly structured belief. On the other hand, the artifact ceases to function as a mirror. It functions more like a crystal, which, by refraction, organizes in a single being different aspects of a plural identity.

Plates: Gender, Person and Modernity in the Lower Sepik

Author: David Lipset (University of Minnesota) email

Short abstract

Both Gell and Strathern have helped us to theorize the dividual or distributed person in Papua New Guinea and Pacific cultures. But neither of their frameworks incorporates history. This paper works on this gap in their useful project in a Lower Sepik case study that focuses on dishware.

Long abstract

Both Gell and Strathern have helped us immeasurably to theorize the dividual or distributed person in the material cultures of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. But neither of their conceptual frameworks incorporates history. Neither incorporates the contrapuntal problematics of the violence and racism but also the Western forms of biosocial identity offered by modernity's colonial and postcolonial avatars. This paper seeks to work on this gap in their useful project in a Lower Sepik case study whose focus shall be on dishes. In the pre-modern past, Murik girls received wooden plates from their classificatory fathers' sisters when they were initiated into the Female Cult. These plates were adorned with totemic imagery with which their ritual identities were associated. Motifs such as the moon, the stars, turtles and spiders, among many others, appear on the underside of the plates. These plates were then used in daily and ritual meals of seafoods and sago pudding or pancakes that women prepared and served to kin in domestic and cult houses respectively. Today, Murik women go on with their daily cooking chores for the same two social venues, domestic and ritual. Murik cuisine has altered but little except to the extent that rice is now frequently substituted for sago puddings. Their enchanted dishware has been replaced by store-bought bowls and plates made of porcelain, plastic and metal and it may be supposed that this substitution has had consequence on the material shape of their modern femininity.

The Gender of God's Gifts - dividual personhood, spirits and the statue of Mother Mary in a Sepik society (Papua New Guinea)

Author: Christiane Falck (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen) email

Short abstract

I analyze practices surrounding the statue of Mother Mary in a Sepik village. I argue that personhood is central for understanding the agency of objects in religious practices as well as the appropriation of Christianity that is currently changing gender relations in the village.

Long abstract

A Sepik myth tells the story of two sisters, who, while fishing for shrimps, caught powerful spirits in their nets. From then on, women guarded ancestral spirits, met in ceremonial houses and took care of important business, while men looked after children and cooked food in family houses. Jealous of women's power, men gained access to spirits by force and reversed gender relations. However, today the men of Timbunmeli village (Nyaura, West Iatmul) have lost control over spirits who have started to act through female bodies. During a catholic charismatic movement in the 1990s villagers received gifts from God enabling them to heal, prophecy, speak in and interpret tongues. Today, predominantly women are the recipients of God's gifts. In Christian rituals villagers are reminded that women have originally been the custodians of ancestral spirits that are now understood as being spirits of God. During the celebration of the month of Mother Mary, women catch her statue with nets, carry it around in the village influenced by Her spirit, or are possessed by spirits of God and Mother Mary herself. Analyzing current religious practices in relation to the local concept of personhood, I show that dividuality has not only informed the way the Nyaura have made Christianity their own but that it is also crucial for understanding current events impacting on gender relations in the Sepik village. Furthermore, I argue that the concept of personhood is crucial for understanding the agency and effects of objects in religious practices in Timbunmeli.

The Agencies and Aesthetics of the Divine Dividual: Transcending the Limitations of Strathern and Gell.

Author: Mark Mosko (Australian National University) email

Short abstract

This paper addresses the perceived limitations of Strathern's and Gell's formulations of the "partible" or "distributed person" with the introduction of a new historical actor, the "divine dividual" in the context of Christian conversion among Trobriand Islanders.

Long abstract

In this paper I outline the aesthetic and agentive capacities of a new historical actor, the Divine Dividual. This elaboration of Marilyn Strathern's and Alfred Gell's classic formulations of the partible/dividual and distributed persons consists in a) an expansion of the gender-specific (i.e. same- and cross-sex) characterizations of personhood and sociality to encompass religious criteria of relative sanctity and profanity; and accordingly b) an enhancement of the scope of gift exchange to incorporate the forms and aesthetics of ritual qua artistic performance, specifically reciprocal sacrificial co-participations relating living humans to ancestral and other spirits. Ethnographically, the paper focuses upon the ritual dynamics and potentials for change which link several categories of divine dividuals in contemporary Trobriand sociality - those between living humans and indigenous and Christian spirits in processes of religious conversion.

Woven textiles and gendered identities within a cosmopolitan Micronesia (1820s-1920s)

Author: Helen Alderson (University of Cambridge) email

Short abstract

From the 1820s, women in Kosrae and Pohnpei, Micronesia, met globalising forces. Women's artisan identities ranged from traditional knowledge holders to innovative capitalists. This paper considers Gell and Strathern's ideas on agency, art, and gender alongside this turbulent historical moment.

Long abstract

At the start of the 19th century, various Micronesian societies used textiles to demarcate people's occupations, statuses and genders. On the islands Kosrae and Pohnpei, women wove such textiles using backstrap looms. Through their weaving, women also materialised their own artisan identities, which are this paper's foci.

From the 1820s onwards, Pohnpeian and Kosraean women interacted with myriad foreigners. Often, outsiders were captivated by the women's textiles, and collected keepsakes. Consequently, Kosraean and Pohnpeian textiles are now curated in museums worldwide.

In this paper, I present a design analysis of over 400 of these textiles in order to examine how Pohnpeian and Kosraean women maintained and developed their artisan identities in an increasingly cosmopolitan and globalising world (1820s-1920s). I illustrate that women maintained their collective identities as traditional knowledge holders, by tracing the conservative styles of conventional textiles. However, I also demonstrate how women developed new identities as individualistic capitalist traders, by examining the designs that women used to create innovative textiles for the curio market.

Gell's "Art and Agency" and Strathern's "The Gender of the Gift" have been pivotal to the theoretical underpinnings of this study. In particular, the paper considers how women navigated communal, dividual and individual artisan identities during social upheaval. It also considers how women used geometric designs to display complex and contradictory relationships in an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

Art and Personhood in American Fire Spinning

Author: Susannah Crockford (Gent University) email

Short abstract

An analysis of the concepts of personhood in the works of Gell and Strathern through a consideration of American fire spinning. The historical production of this form of performance art is presented leading to a discussion of how agency and gender are co-produced.

Long abstract

Fire spinning is a form of performance art created out of a fusion of colonial and postcolonial encounters. The performer spins an implement, called a toy, with Kevlar wicks that are set on fire. This practice incorporates elements from Polynesian, Native American, East Asian, and European art traditions. Originating in the mid-20th century, it is now a popular practice in the American West, particularly in the countercultural festival and rave scenes. This paper examines the specific history and diverse cultural roots of fire spinning, based on two years' ethnographic research in Northern Arizona, including learning to spin fire with several different implements. Fire spinning is analysed in terms of both Gell and Stathern's notions of personhood. The art object in Gell's sense is the interplay of bodily movement, fire, and the toy. The performer uses their skill to 'enchant' the three and create art. The art object so constituted is granted varying understandings of agency by performers and audiences. A Gellian analysis of personhood is then juxtaposed with Strathern's concept of divisible personhood through outlining how fire spinning is gendered. Different toys and styles of movement have different gendered associations, and this links with their cultural histories in varying ways. This paper situates the theories of Gell and Strathern in a specific historically produced form of performance art. It also raises provocative questions about personhood and art. Does personhood change in the process of performing 'art'? Can a notion of divisible personhood apply in a hyperindividualised cultural context?

The Savage Media: A Korean Traditional Pop's Club as a Musical Trap

Author: Sung-Hoon Hong (Seoul National University) email

Short abstract

Applying Gell's idea of "Vogel's Net: traps as artworks and artworks as traps", I analyze the operational principle of A Korean Traditional Pop's Club in Hongdae, one of the most hippest areas in Seoul, Korea.

Long abstract

A Korean Traditional Pop's Club named as "곱창전골" is an exciting heavy drinking place. It is noted for playing only Korean vinyl records professionally by DJs via request papers from musical drinkers. At the corner of the street in Hongdae, one of the most hippest areas in Seoul, Korea, it has long been in business for more than ten years and yet still struggling to abide from day to day. The floating image of "곱창전골" is improvised by a number of diverse people such as young hipsters, troublesome drunkards, curious foreign tourists, and so on. In other words, this musical image does not stay in one fixed tone as if the floating signifier were continually inscribed and erased then eventually delayed for the definitive signified. Actually, the definite tone is not there, but the colourful tone is always there potentially. No matter what the tone is or is not, a private owner of that place exists in reality. He subsists on the materiality rooted from his huge collection of Korean vinyl records, and DJs add the intentionality on the materiality by their skilled musical techniques. Consequently, the synthesis of these qualities construct a Korean musical trap which lures anonymous people on the street into the place. Some of them, the trapped people, get their names in the process of drunken participation reconstructing a improvising trap in the improvised trap.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.