chapter  1
25 Pages

Forming Materials

The notion that things have both a material and a form is a compelling one, a concept neatly captured in the term ‘material culture’. As Simondon (1964, 27) argues ‘the logical force of this model is such that Aristotle could use it to support a universal system of classification’, encompassing both inorganic and organic entities. How is this material-form model conceived though, and, what is more, to what extent is this a faithful rendering of technological relationships? This chapter will outline various conceptualisations of the material/form relationship, and how it affects, and has been affected by, different understandings of technology and the general neglect of materials in archaeological and social science accounts. I will argue that opposing views which universally privilege form or materials are inadequate for understanding the complexities of the technical process. Archaeologists have consistently privileged the study of forms over mate-

rials. This is the product of a more general view which depends both on the relative importance accorded to cultural over natural forms and on a particular imagining of the nature of technology. This ‘standard view’ (Ingold 2000, 341) of the relationship between material and form posits form as a product of culture, existing in the human mind, imposed on formless, malleable, natural materials; technology is thus the human domination of nature. The preoccupation with culture has resulted in a neglect of materials and underplays their importance both in the technical process and the generation of forms. Thomas (2007, 15) suggests that this problem is reflected in the very phrase ‘material culture’ (see also Olsen 2003). The term indicates, he argues, that things represent a particular type of culture, with the remainder (the more important portion because it does not need a qualifier) being immaterial, existing in the mind. Culture is thus seen to exist in people’s heads before it is added to materials. Understandings of the relationship between material and form are inse-

parable from perceptions of the nature of technology (in the sense of manufacture or fabrication). As long as technology is viewed as the instrument of Man’s domination of nature, the imposition of cultural form is privileged and materials, lying on the side of nature, are viewed as the passive partner in the technical act. Such views of technology have slowly begun to change.

A closer attention to technological process in archaeology from the 1960s onwards led to a greater understanding of the role of materials in the technological process; however, mental representations still tended to be privileged (although framed in terms of technical procedural schema rather than mental templates of form). Structuralist influences in French accounts in particular led to the search for a ‘grammar’ of technological action that motivated the gestures employed (e.g. Pelegrin 1990; Karlin and Julien 1994). More recent work has attempted to break down these dualisms. Phe-

nomenological approaches have sought to overcome the mind/matter, material/ form dualisms of both the standard view and structuralist-influenced accounts of artefacts and technology. These draw on the Heideggerian view that technologies reveal the world, rather than result in the projection of mental representations on formless matter (Heidegger 1971, 1977). Ingold has argued, for example, that, rather than being imposed, form arises through the interaction of person and material, being generated through the movement of the technological act itself (Ingold 2000). In this chapter, I will review in greater detail some of the ways in which

the relationship between material and form – and thus the technological process – have been imagined, and will offer two case studies of my own. The explicit foregrounding of material, I will argue, allows us to reconceptualise the material/form debate. The traditional, technological and phenomenological theories that have so far dominated our understandings offer opposing views of the relationship between material and form: the two former seeing a mental image or template imposed on material; phenomenologists seeing form revealed through the process of human-material interaction. Both cast their view of this relationship as a universal, a product of the way the world works. However, can this really be the case for technical processes and materials which are so diverse? Events of fabrication involve a wide variety of materials (all with different potential), different individuals and groups with different levels of skill in different time-space settings. I will argue that both technologists and phenomenologists have neglected particular aspects of the material-form relationship. By contrast, a detailed investigation of materials and technologies can reveal the complexity of person-materialtechnological relationships. In the different case studies I discuss in this chapter, different emphases are given to particular aspects of the technical process, however this is always context dependent, rather than revealing more general truths about the nature of the material-form relationship.