Katy Barrett

In the recent riots looters made off with some of the items that have come to symbolise our materialistic society - trainers, track suits and flat screen televisions. Katy Barrett, who is doing a PhD in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, is co-convening a series of seminars which will look at the powerful role that possessions play in society, past and present.

The TV is a complex cultural object which we almost all know and use. But, again it became, in the riots, an icon of the exclusive and excluding force of capitalism, rather than a beacon of wealth and liberty.

Katy Barrett

We all care about our ‘things'. Asked what they would save in a fire, if not a loved one, most people would choose a cherished possession – family photo, wedding ring, soft toy – or a more prosaic technical one – laptop, camera, mobile phone. Saving things from the fire took on a more cultural and political aspect recently in the riots in London and other cities. Whether you see these events as a political protest, mindless looting, dispossessed youth, or a moment of summer madness they undoubtedly represent an important cultural moment, at the core of which were objects. It was questions of consumption which were at the centre of these events, as TVs and trainers became symbols of the economic changes taking place in British society.

Let’s think about the trainer for a minute. At base, it is an object made from various natural and man-made fibres (rubber, leather, plastic), but it is also an item of sportswear, something of increasing significance for us as 2012 approaches, bringing the Olympic games to London. The trainer is a designer label, denoting the wealth and style of the wearer; an icon of commercial imperialism, made by underpaid workers in the third world for capitalist consumers in the first. It can be a bargain item, a gift, a treasured piece of equipment, or fashion. But the trainer has also become an icon of ‘broken Britain’, of the impact of government funding cuts on city societies, of the erosion of family values, of youth protest against a lack of police respect.

And what of the television? This is an object constructed of man-made materials, a triumph of industrial, technological and media development. It has changed from a status symbol, the focus of neighbourhood envy, to being considered effectively as a human right. One need only look at the letters sent by TV licensing to understand that there is a basic cultural assumption that we all own and watch a television. It has replaced the hearth as the centre of British family life; it is a source of news, entertainment, education; a sign of cultural or social engagement, or a sign of isolation and loss of independent creativity. The TV is a complex cultural object which we almost all know and use. But, again it became, in the riots, an icon of the exclusive and excluding force of capitalism, rather than a beacon of wealth and liberty.

Objects, then, are complicated, they are politicised, emotionalised parts of life which both connect and separate, aid and limit us in society. We consume objects both physically and emotionally, generating tons of waste, desiring the latest trends and technological innovations (do you have an iPad yet?), and judging others by what they do and do not have. Trainers, televisions and the London riots show us that they can also mean different things to different people. A simple item of sportswear in one household, in another is an item of social disengagement and political protest.

A seminar series at Cambridge’s CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) in 2011-2012 will consider the complicated nature of objects. Things: Material Cultures of the long eighteenth century will bring together scholars from a wide range of disciplines (including history of science, anthropology, history of art, numismatics, botany, textile history, from both academic and museological perspectives) to think about the different meanings attached to objects: coins, vases, textiles, ships, advertisement labels, telescopes, food, and even the human body. This will allow us to think not only about how objects intersect with both the ordinary and extraordinary in human life, but also how we can use such objects to see these stories. If trainers are focus of such political, economic and cultural emotions in 2011, what items had this potency in 1711 or 1811? Both were also periods of economic and political upheaval, when riots shook London, and social groups were marked out by conspicuous consumption, or lack thereof.

One person acutely aware of these problems was the artist William Hogarth. In his ‘Modern Moral Series’ he commented on the power that conspicuous consumption was gaining over the lives of Londoners and on how such lives could spiral out of control. The Harlot's Progress (1731), The Rake's Progress (1733-4), and Marriage A-la-Mode (1743-5) all detailed the objects owned and used by the protagonists. Each was ruined by their immersion in a society which prioritised consumption over morality. The objects which Hogarth gave them served to emphasise how such objects both presented and formed their characters. In fact, one such object was the print itself, and Hogarth’s own prints more than any other. We might see the explosion of print culture, both pictorial and textual, in early 18th-century London as an equivalent to the rise of social networking which played a part in the recent riots.

In The Harlot’s Progress, the heroine Moll Hackabout is lured into prostitution by the rich furniture and paintings offered by her first lover. Subsequently cast off, she creates her own equivalent in a simple brothel bedroom with a series of cheap prints on the wall. One features Henry Sacheverell, a Tory Anglican bishop who was tried for sedition in 1710 for arguing against toleration. The trial stirred mass riots on both the Whig/Nonconformist and Tory/Anglican sides. Moll’s display of this print in her bedroom makes her part of the disenfranchised group that participated in these riots for and against their church and government, and used their print culture and their possessions to make their voices heard.

Questions of materialism, consumerism and the power of objects are not new to the 21st century. The 18th-century rioters might not have known what a television or a trainer was, but they would have understood why these items would be so important in the summer of 2011.


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