Review: Tangible Things

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter, with photographs by Samantha S.B. Van Gerbig. Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

A common refrain heard in history departments across the country today is that historians fetishize the written text. The authors of Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter—take it upon themselves to defetishize the text by focusing attention on physical objects, or things. They are also interested in showing how material things shape the past and how they can be used to understand and reconstruct it. Specifically, they are interested in answering four basic questions, which they lay out in the very opening paragraph of the book:

how can we approach aspects of the past that written words do not record? How can we mobilize not just a few kinds of things that have survived from earlier times, but many, to create history? If we acknowledge that material things of many kinds are traces of the past, how can we make use of them to understand the past? What are the circumstances that shape our encounters with them, and how do those circumstances affect—perhaps even determine—how we might use them? (1)

In other words, the authors want to show that objects are more than just static bits of history or artifacts representative of a time period, mediated and understood by written sources. Objects, in their minds, can give texture to history, in the way, for example, nuts give texture to a bowl of oatmeal or produce gives life to an otherwise one-dimensional sandwich. “We believe,” affirm the authors, “that the mobilization of material things can enhance any comprehensive historical inquiry and that the procedures we advocate will enhance knowledge of the past that is too often constrained by reliance on written texts” (3). Like nuts in oatmeal or produce in sandwiches, material things don’t just add to the historical experience, they complete the experience—that is, they allow it to reach its full potential. Written sources can only take history so far, but written sources along with material things can unleash innumerable possibilities.

The authors don’t stop there, however, for they further argue that material things can do more than simply play a secondary role in driving and writing history: objects can be lead actors. They can tell a story on their own terms, without the need or help of their more-favored written siblings. And this, it turns out, is the thesis of the book. As the authors state, “we want to argue here that just about any tangible thing can be pressed into service as primary historical evidence. Our purpose is not to offer comprehensive accounts of each field to which these sources might relate, but to demonstrate that attention to singular, physical things can reveal connections among people, processes, and forms of inquiry that might otherwise remain unnoticed” (2). The fact that any object can be a primary source is precisely what allows the authors to argue that objects themselves can be actors in history. It is also what makes it possible for objects to “reveal connections” that may be hidden by a reliance on written sources alone. Objects at once reveal unnoticed connections within history as well as between academic disciplines. This, uncoincidentally, leads to the book’s purpose, which is to show that taking material things seriously and interrogating them innovatively establishes connections between academic disciplines and challenges their established ways of thinking about and organizing human culture, society, and history.

Back to that refrain, or the book’s raison d’être. For whatever the claims to establishing the plausibility of material things as primary sources, the central assumption of the book is that written sources are fetishized. It is hard to deny the concern undergirding the refrain, given that written sources exclude as much as (if not more than) they include. “Only a minority of human societies has used writing systems,” explain the authors. “Even within those that have, many people left few traces, if any, in written form” (4). Written sources, in other words, favor certain societies and certain groups within those societies. And oral sources unavoidably favor memory, which is exclusionary in its own way. Thus, conclude the authors, an attention to other sources is necessary. All in all, “with appropriate skills to exploit a wider range of sources—material and visual, as well as word-based culture—historians may uncover what would otherwise be undetectable lives, often of the socially disadvantaged; they will also enrich knowledge of those who have been known to a greater or lesser extent solely from written texts” (4). As necessary as this may be, the authors would benefit from asking themselves a few questions before patting themselves on the back too much. First, does the introduction of more types of sources defetishize the written word in historical scholarship? Or does it actually refetishize it? After all, any desire to defetishize ironically fixates attention on the fetish only more intensely. Second, is it actually possible to escape the centrality of the written word in any form of scholarship? Regardless of the source type—written, oral, material, or visual—academia requires written analysis of all objects of study. Why are scholars so critical and suspicious of writing when it is the object of analysis but not when it is doing the analysis? Is it possible to make history through objects when, in the end, that history is told in writing? Are the objects making history, or are they still just puppets of the written word? Ulrich, Gaskell, Schechner, and Carter make a commendable effort, but they fail to show that objects can tell their own story. The written word must do it for them, and, as such, the written word remains king.

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