[ ]: Hey!
Ingie: Who's that?
[ ]: It's me – a thing!
Ingie: Oh, sorry. I didn’t notice you there, thing.
Thing: You anthropologists of Christianity usually don’t.
Ingie: Now wait, that’s not fair. Several prominent anthropologists of Christianity write about things. Webb Keane instantly comes to mind, for instance.
Thing: Oh, Webb Keane. You know what Webb Keane loves?
Thing: Words and selves.
Ingie: And things.
Thing: As conceptualized by words and selves.
Ingie: Well, how else would he write about you, thing?
Ingie: Oh come now. I’m sorry. I see you feel a little snubbed in general. Look, I’ll study you for a moment. What kind of thing are you?
Thing: I am a handmade bandage.
Handmade bandage: Go right ahead.
Ingie: I see you are a long, knitted strip. You are white. You feel soft. When I look more closely I notice the yarn looping around and around, row after row, with all the little holes between the loops. And ordinarily you are rolled up.
Handmade bandage: That’s right.
Ingie: Halvorson says that at the time of her research there were an astounding number of crocheted and knitted bandages just like you stacked up in a warehouse in suburban Minneapolis – over 14,500.
Handmade bandage: And next to us were the 250,000 cut-sheet bandages.
Ingie: Wow! And you were all made by the supporters of IHM, “International Health Mission,” an American Lutheran development agency.
Handmade bandage: Yes, they make us so that IHM can send us to Lutheran clinics in Cameroon, Tanzania and Madagascar. During Halvorson’s research in 2005-06, the two bandage projects were among IHM’s best supported initiatives.
Ingie: And Halvorson uses you as an example of how people think through things, which made me think about things. Let me ask: Who were you made by, thing?
Handmade bandage: I was made by Ms. Faith-Knitter-World-Connector in Chicago.
Ingie: Ms. Faith-Knitter-World-Connector?
Handmade bandage: I’m using a pseudonym.
Ingie: Faith-Knitter-World-Connector sounds more like an interpretation to me.
Concept generator: Look, I’ve also thought a lot about things and people lately, and I think I’m entitled to use my materiality to generate concepts related to the practices in which I’m involved, okay?
Ingie: Wait, what? You suddenly changed, and you said… oh… you’ve been reading Martin Holbraad, haven’t you?
Ingie: Are you embarrassed to admit that you’ve read Martin Holbraad?
Thing: Well, you know… He’s considered a bit of a self-help author amongst us things, to be honest. I didn’t need any help with my self-esteem, though.
Ingie: Hmn. You just read his work for the theoretical horizon-stretching?
Thing: Horizon-stretching to you, I presume! You must be very attached to your Western modern late-capitalist anthropocentric world, human being!
Ingie: Probably so. But look, I’m glad you’ve read Martin Holbraad, because so have I, and I have a few questions. As I’m sure you know, there has been some talk about the ontological turn in anthropology recently, and Thinking Through Things (eds Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad & Sari Wastell) is one version of that turn. It had been on my “to read” list for a while, and Britt Halvorson’s article prompted me to pick it up since she refers to that book as part of her theoretical framework. And that led me to Holbraad’s paper “Can the thing speak?”. I found that I enjoy reading Holbraad, whether on his own or with his co-authors Amiria Henare (now Salmond) and Sari Wastell. And at the same time I’m never fully convinced. Perhaps you could help me, thing, to think through some things.
Thing: Fine. Anything in particular?
Ingie: Well, first of all, I’m grappling with what exactly it means to say that people “think through things.” And then I’m wondering how to apply the injunction “concept = thing,” from the introduction in Thinking Through Things, which implies that people’s conceptualization of a thing should be taken (by the anthropologist) as a definition of that thing. And finally, can the thing speak? Can things, in their material properties, generate concepts, as Holbraad suggests with his reversed clause “thing = concept”? Or must people always speak of and for things?
Thing: Okay. Let’s start with “thinking through things.” As Halvorson says, “I take as a foundational axiom the notion that people ‘think through things’ and that things take center stage in social practice” (p. 124). I couldn’t agree more. Many Christians think through things all the time. Faith-Knitter-World-Connector thought a lot through me.
Ingie: Like what?
Thing (Jesus): Like Jesus.
Ingie: You just changed again! And – I don’t think Halvorson says that, specifically.
Thing (Jesus): I’m extrapolating. I assume Jesus must have been important to the woman who knitted me. Perhaps he had helped her in her life. And he wanted her to help her neighbor. So she thought Jesus through me, as she knitted me. She thought a relationship between Christians on different sides of the globe, she thought a sea of helping hands, to use Halvorson’s phrase, just like Jesus’ hands.
Ingie: So when you say she “thought through” you, it sounds like you were a type of material holder for her Lutheran faith. She invested meaning in you, because you were a concrete way in which she could express her Lutheran emphasis on caregiving. Perhaps a more fitting pseudonym would be “Lutheran-Who-Has-Faith-And-Also-Knits.”
Thing (faith): No. You’re wrongly assuming that you can distinguish between my material form and my meaning. As Halvorson says, material things are not simply functional ideological tools. We’re not just receptacles or transmitters (p. 134). Rather, Faith-Knitter-World-Connector thought through me as she made and handled me, and in this way she knitted her faith and connected her world.
Ingie: She knitted her faith? Are you speaking figuratively, or are you implying that her faith was somehow materializing in you? I don’t think Halvorson quite says that.
Thing: Again, I’m extrapolating.
Ingie: To be accurate, Halvorson says that at this point you were a “prayer form” (p. 131). Were any words attached to you?
Prayer form: Oh, words! The Protestant darling favorite. Yes, Faith-Knitter-World-Connector did attach words – on a material form, I might add. She put a handwritten note on top of me that said: “You are in my thoughts and prayers” (cf. p. 130).
Ingie: So you were also a gift to someone.
Gift: Yes. I was a gift in her world, a gift that wove together humans and the divine. I was a tangible connection between people – children of God – who otherwise didn’t know one another. And I was a medical prop that would extend and actualize the healing ministry of Jesus on earth.
Ingie: And you were meant to carry your maker with you, in the fact that you were handmade, which implies effort and time commitment. Along with her handwriting. How far did you carry her with you?
Token of justice: She gave me to Ms. Things-Are-Important in her Lutheran congregation in Chicago, who collected bandages for IHM. I was placed in a bag next to a bandage knitted by Ms. Global-Solidarity, who for a moment convinced me that I was actually a small contribution in the broader effort to address global health inequality. Not a gift, exactly, but more an expression of solidarity between American and Malagasy Lutherans.
Ingie: And then?
Relationship marker: Ms. Things-Are-Important’s parents visited her in Chicago and picked up the bandages that she had collected. On their way home they stopped at the house of their niece, Ms. Used-To-Work-In -Madagascar, and delivered the bandages to her. The next time she visited Minneapolis, she brought them with her to the IHM warehouse. During that journey I was part of a long-standing relationship between this American family, a former mission site and hospital in southeastern Madagascar, and memories of former Malagasy colleagues and the need for medical supplies.
Ingie: A type of gift again, though with a different inflection. Or more accurately, as Halvorson puts it, part of an “exchange circuit” (p. 129). What happened at the warehouse?
Imperfect object: I was inspected by a volunteer, Ms. Boxes-of-Quality-Christian-Supplies. She threw away the handwritten note from Faith-Knitter-World-Connector, since the volunteer had been instructed to think Christian aid through me, and Christian aid must meet quality standards, and quality standards are based on impersonal, identical forms, not personal, handmade gifts. She sighed over the fact that I was a little bit wider than prescribed in the IHM regulations, but managed to poke and squeeze and package me in a box full of almost identical rolled bandages.
Ingie: And then I assume you became part of a shipment of medical supplies.
Aid form: Yes, we had all been entered into the IHM bureaucratic system as numbers, and we were sent across the Atlantic. That was the peak of our professional aid form, in that trans-Atlantic moment.
Ingie: And then you reached a Lutheran clinic. This falls outside the scope of Halvorson’s article, but perhaps we might speculate that you became something else again in the hands of a Malagasy Lutheran nurse, on the shin of a woman, in the pot you were put in to be boiled and sterilized and used again.
Thing (future): I like to think that when I became too tattered for the grown-ups I ended up as ragdoll stuffing.
Ingie: A little too hopeful, perhaps. But let’s get back to Halvorson. By focusing on the contested trajectory of you and your fellow handmade bandages, Halvorson paints a convincing picture of how IHM is trying to deal with shifting American Lutheran models of what it means to care for one’s neighbor on the other side of the world.
Handmade bandage: And in doing so, she sketches a broader argument, namely that material forms play a central role in ideologies of humanitarian engagement in general – including Christian aid practices. And then she adds a twist to that argument by demonstrating how those material forms are problematic: we persistently evoke alternative histories, ambiguity and tensions in those Christian ideologies.
Ingie: In general, I think IHM is in many ways typical of contemporary Western Christian aid organizations. Many of them draw on networks and support groups established through mission work, while actively positioning themselves as professional agencies in today’s aid world, which implies a different set of concerns with bureaucratization, efficiency, impact, etc.
Thing: Yes, yes. You’ll forgive me if I draw your attention back to the theme of this blog post, namely things. I’m ready to review your questions.
Ingie: Okay. I’ll insert a heading.
“Thinking through things”
Thing: So have you understood “thinking through things” yet?
Ingie: Not quite.
Thing: Let me summarize for you. Halvorson says that bandage making does not simply evoke particular visions of worldly engagement, or lead to the “outcome” of a certain frame of engagement. Instead, “[t]he material practices of making and handling bandages and other goods quite directly enable believers to imaginatively configure and mediate lived-in worlds and frames of engagement […] of self and other, of the disparate sites composing global Lutheranism” (p. 134). In other words, when Ms. Faith-Knitter-World-Connector was knitting me, or Ms. Used-To-Work-In-Madagascar was handling me, they were “thinking through" me in the sense of “imaginatively configuring and mediating their worlds thanks to me.” And when an anthropologist like Britt Halvorson “thinks through" me, she understands something more about the broader picture of their Lutheranism, and how it’s changing.
Ingie: When you put it like that, I agree with everything you say. Though, you know, when “thinking through” is applied in this broad sense, it is presumably equally true of persons and words and bodies and so on too – i.e. we think through other people and our (non-)relationships with them, we think through words, we think through our bodies, etc. I’m not sure how central of a role that leaves you with, thing.
Thing: Let’s just be specific: I was central in the Lutheran space of the IHM warehouse. Moving on. Your second question concerned how to apply the formula “concept = thing.”
“Concept = thing”
Ingie: Yes, Thinking Through Things proposes that we take people’s concept of a thing as its definition – i.e. “concept = thing.” Let’s say, for example, that some Lutheran IHM supporters seem to conceptualize you handmade bandages as extensions of prayer, or extensions of Jesus’ hands, or personal gifts that are in some sense watched over by God. If we were to take those concepts seriously as definitions we would say, in an anthropological text, that the bandages are indeed extensions of prayer, or of Jesus’ hands, or a divinely guided gift. This would necessarily lead to a certain amount of analytical work on our part in order to understand this radically different ontology. The anthropologist’s task becomes, then, not to figure out what people think they’re doing (as they supposedly impart meanings onto mute objects), but instead to figure out how the anthropologist would have to change her own thinking in order to understand how these things work in this other, Lutheran world.
Thing: I’m quite fond of that part, actually.
Ingie: I also find it enticing. It touches on long-standing debates around issues that I’m curious about, such as the implications of studying the truth of a religious other, what it means to take informants seriously, and what kind of cultural translation the anthropologist performs.
Thing: And you know, in your case, if you were to try and actually take me seriously as an extension of Jesus’ hands, you would at the very least have to shrink the globe a bit. And you would have to dial up your hope.
Ingie: True. You read me well. But here’s the problem – in IHM, you are not just conceptualized as an extension of Jesus’ hands. You are several, partially contradictory, things. You are contested. And this is precisely Halvorson’s point: she argues that the bandages help us to understand the different frames of worldly engagement that operate in IHM. Thinking Through Things leaves me at a bit of a loss here. How should I work with the proposition “concept = thing” when there are multiple concepts in play in relation to the same thing? Should I say that the bandages are, simultaneously, all these different things – to different people? Wouldn’t this just circle back to saying that the bandages mean different things to different people, which is what Thinking Through Things so emphatically avoids?
Thing: So in the end you’re saying that you’re not sure if you can quite force the formula “concept = thing” onto me, or onto Halvorson’s project.
Ingie: Right. Halvorson also says you are “open” (p. 125), and I think her framework is actually more in line with Daniel Miller or Webb Keane – both of whom she also cites. Daniel Miller, for example, in a post on the Material World blog, criticizes the Thinking Through Things program for what he sees as a deficient emphasis on people; he would prefer more discussion of how different people set up the relationship between “things” and “concepts” differently. His own approach focuses more on the inter-relationship between things and people as they form and depend on each other. Even more concisely, in his introduction to Materiality he suggests that an aspect of strong ethnographic work is "to show how the things people make, make people” (2005, p. 38), which is quite close, I think, to Halvorson’s position that “material forms inflect and produce diverse kinds of situated knowledge, subjectivity, relations, and human connection” (p. 134). Perhaps we should light-heartedly invent a formula: “things&concepts <---> people.”
Thing: Well, of course I make people. I believe that’s what I’ve been telling you all along with my masterful use of pseudonyms. But as Holbraad points out in his reply to Miller, my effect on people is not a central concern. The central concern is how to take people’s things-cum-concepts seriously.
Ingie: Well, how about Webb Keane’s approach then?
Thing: Oh, Webb Keane.
Ingie: You’re repeating yourself. Look, this is what Keane says about Thinking Through Things in his post on the Material World blog: a thing is more than a concept. Here’s my invented formula: “concept < thing.” He argues there is always something unnoticed about a thing. And in its materiality it exceeds its particular present time. And this in turn means that things – like you, bandage – can extend across times, concepts and projects. Also, this is why you can surprise people and open up new avenues of thought and experience. Keane writes: “the importance of things for people lies, in part, in the ways they may contribute to new futures.”
Thing: And did you notice that in Holbraad’s response to Keane he says that a thing-cum-concept can change and, as I read him, that a thing can be different things? It’s a question of how the anthropologist relates to other people and their definitions. Does she say, as with you and Halvorson and Keane and Miller, “Here is a thing, and we recognize it in this instance as a handmade bandage, and its conceptualization and use are contested within IHM, and let me now explain how and why different people in this Lutheran group imagine and use it differently and how it shapes them,” or does the anthropologist say, as per my reading of Holbraad, “Here is a thing (an actual prayer form) and here is a thing (an actual gift) and here is a thing (an actual extension of Jesus) and here is a thing (an actual medical prop) and here is a thing (an actual aid form), and let me now explain the analytic work I had to do to be able to understand these things in this Lutheran ontology.” As Holbraad would put it, in the former example the anthropologist is continuing the anthropological tradition of explaining the natives’ “apparently irrational beliefs,” with all the baggage that brings, while in the latter she is acknowledging that other people inhabit different ontological worlds, and taking this seriously.
Ingie: I certainly find the rationale behind this general program appealing, but I still hesitate on many points, especially the point about radically different ontologies. Is it not possible to discuss people’s conceptualizations of things without taking these concepts as definitions, but still take the people seriously?
Thing: I think not. This brings us to your final question.
“Thing = concept”
Ingie: Okay. In his paper "Can the thing speak?" Holbraad argues that it can. But can we really apply Holbraad’s reversed formula “thing = concept”? Can you speak in your language, “thingese,” from your substantive, material properties?
Thing: The answer to this one should be simple.
Ingie: Your role in IHM does initially seem to suggest that you speak a little in that context. As Halvorson puts it, “Bandages draw attention reflexively to connective practices through the literal act of weaving or stitching cloth together” (p. 134).
Thing: That’s right. My material being helps to generate concepts about the work that I accomplish in that Lutheran setting – my rows and rows of connected yarn loops, my long form that can be rolled out and extended, even my pure whiteness.
Ingie: So you do some conceptual lifting. But I must admit I’m wary of stretching you too far. If the IHM supporters sent off handmade axes instead, or handmade dresses, or handmade candles, their conceptualized world might perhaps be slightly different. But would there really be a significant shift in their Lutheranism? In fact, if we take the “thing = concept” proposition to its logical conclusion, then the IHM supporters who cut up sheets into strips of bandages would be configuring a different world than those who knitted or crocheted bandages, since the material properties of the two kinds of bandages are different: cut-sheet bandages are composed of thin, flat fabric and require a straight, cutting motion to make; knitted and crocheted bandages are thicker and softer, and require a looping, back-and-forth motion. Yet Halvorson does not indicate an ethnographic difference in the worlds constructed by cut-sheet bandages versus knitted bandages. So – can the Christian thing speak? I won’t rule out the possibility that one day I may be convinced. But for now I would have to say: definitely no.
Thing: Definitely so!
Ingie: People speak for things.
Thing: Things speak to people.
Ingie: I fully agree with you that it would be profitable to have more studies of things in the anthropology of Christianity, and Britt Halvorson’s article is a great example to follow. And if somebody manages to apply Martin Holbraad’s framework to a contested Christian thing so we can hear it speak, I’ll be very interested. But I think I will think through Webb Keane for now.
Thing: Oh, Webb Keane!
Ingie: You’re very important to us, you know, thing.
Thing: You say that, but you don’t leave me any room for self-conceptualization!
Ingie: I’m really sorry we weren’t able to think it through… If it’s any consolation, it’s not you – it’s me.
Thing: It certainly is you, since in your world every thing is about you, human being! I’m going to go read some more Martin Holbraad.