ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 8

Material Culture and Cosmopolitanism – Emma Tarlo

Room: CBA 0.007x40

Panel abstract

The relationship between material culture and cosmopolitanism is a long and complex one, traceable through the production, circulation and consumption of material forms caught up in extra-local relations and trajectories which defy local and national boundaries but not necessarily local and national attitudes or interests. Through the study of international art worlds, patterns of consumption, museum displays, debates about cultural property and the material culture of every day life anthropologists have long been engaging with cosmopolitan aspects of “the social life of things.” Yet far from clarifying the nature of cosmopolitanism, such studies often highlight the tensions, transformations and ambivalences that seem to characterise the production and reception of cosmopolitan material forms.

This panel will explore some of these tensions by asking: What does the study of material culture bring to the interrogation of the notion of cosmopolitanism? Do objects become cosmopolitan by dint of their heterogeneous ingredients or by dint of the social relations and ideas surrounding their creation and circulation? How effective are material forms as agents of cosmopolitanism? Are the consumers of cosmopolitan material forms necessarily cosmopolitan? Or can we distinguish between self conscious and unwitting cosmopolitanisms? How are tensions between cosmopolitanism and parochialism played out through material forms? How might a focus on material forms help us to untangle the relationship between cosmopolitan idealism and forms of economic exploitation, cultural imperialism and cultural appropriation?

These questions will be explored through case studies relating to particular material forms and their entanglement and engagement with cosmopolitanism.


Emma Tarlo, Ferguson Centre of African and Asian Studies, The Open University:


Questions of Cosmopolitanism and Power: Ghanaian art at home and abroad

Maruska Svasek, Queens University, Belfast

This paper will critically discuss the experiences of a number of Ghanaian artists who regard themselves as cosmopolitans, but at the same time claim that globalization in art has become a new form of colonialism. In a reaction to the aesthetic preferences of curators who have recently organised large exhibitions of contemporary art, they have accused them of narrow-minded postmodern exoticism.

The analysis will explore the theme from a processual relativist perspective, which stresses that art is always an exclusive domain, which is given shape in contexts of power. This means that the metaphor of ‘global flow’, which suggests an unproblematic movement of artists and art through space and time, is not suitable if we want to understand the workings of global art markets – fields of authority in which aesthetic values are actively created.

The colours of clothes; being rikina in and out of the western desert

Dr Diana Young, Centre for Cross Cultural Research, Australian National University, Canberra 

Aboriginal people in the Western Desert, both women and men, are connoisseurs of clothes and utilize them for many layered reasons; articulation of identity, mimesis of transformations in the land, for emotive expression, looking rikina/ sexy/flash and hoarding of wealth, since clothing is a valuable exchange item.

The effectiveness of all of these relates almost exclusively to the colours and patterns of the cloth; contrast is most important. Stripes, Rastafarian colours, English football, US basket ball and Australian football league strips are all highly desirable. Such dressing does not meld into cosmopolitan contexts whether in Australia or elsewhere in Western Europe and the US, places that Anangu often visit. Nor did it meet with the approval of Mission staff.

This paper examines the creation of clothing regimes among Anangu on the Pitjantjatjara Lands in South Australia and then questions colonial and post colonial assumptions about material colour and cosmopolitanism.

Mutability and mutilation: subversive material flows in the Indian city

Dr. Lucy Norris, University College London

Hidden away in overflowing wholesale markets, container loads towering in piles on factory floors and sackfuls spilling from suburban workrooms, cast-off clothes from both Indian households and the West are torn apart and recycled into innovative material forms. Cities such as Delhi suck in unwanted garments both from their rural hinterland and through the international market in used Western clothing where they are transformed through complex processes of cultural translation into desirable products for the market. Old unwanted saris become fashionable new ensembles promoting Indian sophistication at international fashion shows, while cast-off brand label woollens from the West are utterly transformed into blankets and cloths decorated with iconic Indian designs. The paper will address the tensions between the city a network of backstage anonymous, concealed pockets of entrepreneurial activity and the exploitation of immigrant labour and the cosmopolitanism of the city as a centre stage for innovation, reinvention and the marketing of image and fashion at a global level. Through a consideration of the mutability of the cloth as a material form, and the means through which cultural perceptions of materiality are  manipulated during their transformation and recycling, the paper seeks to question the notion of value and the role of cosmopolitanism in its construction.

Strange People But They Sure Can Cook! Indonesian migrants and 'ethnic food' in Sydney

Nicola Frost, Goldsmiths College

Australian multicultural rhetoric lays heavy emphasis on food and cooking as points of cross-cultural engagement. In a multi-ethnic city like Sydney, 'ethnic food' is a visible presence on the multicultural cityscape, in the form of restaurants and supermarkets specialising in non-British cuisine. Critics dismiss the encounters between Anglo-Australians and non-white migrants facilitated by such establishments as superficial and under-informed 'gastrotourism', and label the phenomenon 'multiculturalism without migrants'. This paper follows an Indonesian women's group in Sydney as they plan and run a cookery course for Australian students. It shows how an apparentlypassive and marginalized group have developed a sense of belonging to the city through their experience of sourcing and preparing food for their families, and how they translate this private knowledge of family food into 'ethnic food' in the public sphere. The paper suggests that the cookery course does indeed indicate some possibilities for the women's participation in mainstream urban society, but that space is circumscribed by multiculturalism's enthusiasm for authenticity and exotica, and frequently exists in spite of policies and programmes intended to promote integration.

The Orientalist’s Cookbook: Interrogating Cosmopolitanism Through Cuisine In The Post Postcolonial

Dr Kaori O’Connor, Department of Anthropology, UCL

This paper uses the material culture of food to challenge the postmodern, postcolonial critique of anthropology as a hegemonising discipline. The special ability of food to carry cultural symbolism, meaning and identity noted by Goody, Appadurai and Douglas has been seized on by critics such as Watson who uses McDonalds as a metaphor for un-nuanced Western cultural imperialism. Far less attention has been paid to the way, recognised by the same anthropologists and others, in which food can also act as a cultural tabula rasa, a natural cosmopolitanism that crosses boundaries of time and space, creates cosmopolitan enclaves and facilitates dialogic encounters in which material culture is recontextualised and endowed with new meanings (Werbner). The broad culture/culinary area I use is the one glossed as ‘Asian’ or ‘Oriental’. By unpacking the genre of ‘Orientalist cookbooks’ dating from the colonial and post colonial periods, following the flow of traditional foods and describing the development of new hybrid cuisines and cosmopolitan eating cultures in Britain and America, the paper seeks to critique the critique of anthropology and reinvigorate anthropological cosmopolitanism as a way of understanding the practices and processes at work in what must now be seen as a post postcolonial world.

Mixed Memories; the material culture of confluence

Fiona Parrott, University College London 

This paper is based upon 15 months of fieldwork in households on a London street, a place whose cosmopolitan character defies simple categorisation (Hall 2000; Wallman 1984; Eade 2005). The 100 participants in this study of the material culture of memory ranged from those with origins in Sri-Lankan, Pakistani, Indian, Irish, Spanish, Cypriot, French, North American, West Indian and West African descent. Of the 'indigenous British' participants less than 25% grew up in London. The city as a 'space of collectivities' often translates into the study of ethnic communities. By contrast this classic open-ended ethnography approached householders living on an ordinary street with a cross section of housing types, avoiding the categorisation of participants in advance of the direct encounter with the actual diversity of circumstance and life trajectory.

Ways of being 'at home' or inhabiting multiple places at once are not straightforward, whether Jamaica and London or Manchester and intersect with life stages such as youth or retirement. Case studies range from the elderly West Indian woman who keeps photographs of her 'returnee' house built on family land but does not return, who lives next door to a man whose paella pans and posters of Madrid allow him to enact 'Spanishness' in London but not in Spain, to their neighbours, a gay couple who share records of their youths from the 80s Manchester scene though one grew up French on the Ivory Coast and the other an Evangelist in Manchester. The advantage of a material culture approach is that the contradictions of gain and loss, dissolving of identity, retaining and indeed gaining of identity, become evident in the genres of object through which they are differentially expressed. This is of considerable benefit to anthropologists trying to grasp the complexity of these processes of confluence and dissolution.

Irish-Romanian Houses and Homes

Dr Adam Drazin, IRCHSS Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin 

I argue that the physical home is a key site for social engagement within contemporary Europe. The situation of people who have moved from Romania to Ireland in recent years, often given form by a characteristically Romanian drive to build or own a home, somewhere, presents an extreme case of European socio- political issues. While only some parts of Europe are post- socialist, all of Europe is in a sense living after a Socialist past. Meanwhile, Ireland's social and economic renaissance is sometimes deployed to visualise European futures. Images of Romanians in Irish public discourse have been at the centre of local debates about what it means to move from a monocultural self-image to a pluralistic, cosmopolitan self-image, in terms of the pragmatics of homes, citizenship, employment and

childbirth. In this context, fresh ethnographic research among people from Romania in Ireland in 2005 illustrates how people use material houses and domestic goods to bridge their politically stressful relationships. The emotional difficulty of materialising and talking about a home in Ireland, compared with houses and apartments being bought and built outside Ireland, provides for new interpretations (drawing from Bourdieu) about how materialised agency is reforming identity in a European context.

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