We’re all living in a material world, and I am a material…

Yes, Madonna, the pop-start, not the religious icon, is our point of departure today. No, we are not here to discuss has-beens, or people who were once great (and hot) and just simply lost it (and that, too…). We are here to use one of those rare times that pop music reflected a turn in academic thought.

It may have been delayed, but Madonna recognized in her song that we do, in fact, live in a material world. Now, while the song is about materialism and capitalism as a mode of thought and cultural driving force in on itself, I am focusing on the more general aspect of material things and nature.

Humanity lived in a world of things long before anyone thought of the word “capitalism”; it’s one of the things that separated humans from other, much cooler primates – our use of tools. Every human civilization, old, new, democratic, aristocratic, monarchic, theocratic, or whatever has had THINGS. These things tell anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians much about how the people of different eras lived. This, however is not restricted to the mere limits of their technology and how it effected everyday life. This include ideals of beauty (also of things and other people), ideas of success, ideas of peace, ideas of luxury, what values were important, what was considered “taboo”, and so on. This is what social sciences refer to as “material culture”, i.e. what do the objects circulating within a culture and the values attached to those object tell us about the culture.

To give a rather silly (but awesome) example, let me tell you about an example I gave in a presentation in a class on the works of the author J.R.R. Tolkien. In the book the Hobbit Bilbo and the gang stumble upon a group of goblins on their way to the Lonely Mountain and are captured by them. Upon a search of through the dwarves’ belongings, the goblins discover the sword Orcrist and are both enraged and terrified by it. Why? The sword was found in a troll cave far, far away. It has lain there for probably quiet some while, by which I mean a few millennia, and goblins aren’t really known to be scholars. Well, the answer is clear, the sword is legendary, even among them. Throughout the ages since the Goblin Wars (in the first age), stories of that sword were passed from goblin to goblin as they sat around the fire and ate some nasty dwarf, and so, the memory of the great losses they had suffered long ago remained in their cultural memory. It was thus, even by goblins who had never laid eye on it before, recognizable and terrifying. Values and stories and feelings were attached to a material object, which thus bears great significance for goblin culture in Tolkien’s universe.

This phenomenon is not limited to whole cultures, but can also be seen in small groups, or even individuals. We all know this instinctively, we associate certain clothes and accessories with a certain kind of person, we recognize Joe because he always wears a hat, or Sarah’s coffee mugs, even when entirely new, are always chipped in the same place and have just as many lipstick stains as they do coffee stains. We can learn a lot about a person or group by the object they keep or produce.

For a writer, this seems like a perfect tool to use for characterization. The reader will learn a lot about a character by reading about the objects they carry and use, especially since readers expect and anticipate the use of metaphors and parallelisms in their reading material.

Allow me to give an example:

The challenge was to describe a person by using their favorite coffee mug, either fictional or real (the mug, the person is definitely real):

“He had a cup, a permanent fixture on his desk in the teachers’ lounge. It was large, with a great capacity and was chipped in the rim and handle. It was host to an assortment of quotes by Einstein, Shakespeare and E.A. Poe, which were crossed out with a permanent marker, and he, with his chaotic, scribbled hand, attributed those pearls of wisdom to himself and his closest friends.”

Now, what do you think of this guy? Doesn’t this description tell you a lot about him even though it is, supposedly, only about his coffee cup?

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