- On Southern Things
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Material culture is best understood as the history and philosophy of objects. It proceeds from the idea that objects, tangible and imagined, locate the entirety of human experience and understanding. We are simply creatures that know and make sense of the world and our places within it through things. Southern things superintend the vast and diffuse array of objects that ground the many, often conflicted, sometimes nostalgic ideologies of a regional identity that is at once singular and plural. The question that emerges at the heart of this collection of essays, images, and poems is not what are southern things, but rather how are things southern. Each of the contributions that follow provides a fragment of an answer. Southern things are not necessarily objects with regional pedigrees discovered through metrics of makers, locales, collections, and consumers. Southern things are those objects that are shaped, molded, and presented to the world as an amalgam of many deeply conflicted identities forged in a crucible of race and class and connected to a region and its diaspora. How else can you reconcile the nascar circuit in California or the blues in Chicago or red velvet cupcakes served with claret at Selfridges in London or the unending reinvention of poverty foods (for example, shrimp and grits) as haute cuisine? To grasp how southern things do this work invites some thoughts on how we might go about the critical practices of engaging things through interpretive acts.
At the outset, it is useful to draw a distinction between object-centered and object-driven approaches. An object-centered approach seeks to represent the artifact in all of its materiality. In the narrowest sense, an object-centered approach has as its first imperative something of a connoisseurial or curatorial gesture. We want to understand why an object looks the way it does, where it fits into a larger array of objects, and then where and how that array intersects with larger constellations. Among the core questions of an object-centered approach are those of maker(s), media, craft, manufacture, category, antecedents, function, and more. In essence, we want to know why the object looks the way it does. Thus, Emily Hilliard's interview and photographic essay with West Virginia broom maker Jim Shaffer epitomizes an object as a made thing via the close documentation of process through photographs and recorded interview. Handmade brooms conform neatly within long-held genres of southern handicraft. The same cannot be said for a set of bejeweled false teeth from McComb, Mississippi. Recuperating the origin story for the Rhinestone Cowboy's dentures, Jennifer Joy Jameson interviewed the dentist who fabricated the dazzling chompers. What links Jameson's and Hilliard's contributions is their common goal of documenting skill, process, and product.
An object-driven approach originates from a different but parallel set of concerns about what and how things convey meaning. The core assumption is that objects operate as signs, communicating meaning and structuring social relationships [End Page 8] in ways that are infinitely variable and always contingent on contexts of circumstance and shared ideologies of everyday life. A key distinction in object-driven approaches is the recognition that things offer wellsprings of questions. Too often, material culture studies relegate objects to the role of illustration or as subjects on which imported meanings are inscribed. But, objects ask questions—and the kinds of questions they pose offer unexpected avenues of inquiry and insight. Dale Rosengarten's recitation of the fate of two silver bowls, Shana Klein's reprise of Harriet Beecher Stowe's orange grove, and Rebecca Sharpless's recounting of the place of "Dutch" ovens held in southern kitchens all begin with objects that speak to larger historical currents. Their entries in this collection remind us that...