What is material culture?

What is material culture?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about material culture with help from the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, scholars Judith Farquhar and Simon Bronner, The Joy of Vegan Baking, and the 2005 science fiction film Serenity. I'm also discussing the use of material culture in storycraft and providing you with an exercise on the topic.

Folkloric Discussion of Material Culture

Folkloric studies of material culture address the design, manufacture, use, and meaning of things; folk art, food, monuments and tombstones, textiles, tools, toys, vehicles, vernacular architecture, and so on. Folklorists also care about variations in makers and groups, variations over time and place, and issues of agency, conflict, and power as they relate to these things. Above all else, we care about the human context in which an item of material culture is situated, and we strive to understand the item and context together (‘Material Culture’ 2010).

Cast-Iron Pan of Cornbread on Stove

For example, this photograph of a stovetop, teapot, and cast-iron pan of cornbread is merely a collection of objects until I tell you the cast-iron pan belonged to my Appalachian grandmother, who often made cornbread in it. I might further contextualize the pan and its contents by telling you that my grandmother didn't care for sweet cornbread and had no palate for spicy foods, but my cornbread contains a product I buy from a local family called "Cowboy Candy," which is made by preserving jalapeño peppers in simple syrup and other ingredients. I might conclude by telling you that while my grandmother used buttermilk in her cornbread recipe, I'm vegan and use a combination of oat milk and apple cider vinegar instead.

If you were a folklorist, you might recall that objects often have an emotional presence beyond their physical presence (Bronner 1986, 12) and conclude that the cast-iron pan is just such an object, since the act of baking cornbread in it reminds me of my grandmother. You might also use something like Judith Farquhar's list of questions about foodways to evaluate the cast-iron pan, cornbread and context together. In particular, you might wonder what difference it makes that food knowledge, practices, and preferences differ by time and place (Farquhar 2006, 145) and point to the shift from buttermilk to oat milk and apple cider vinegar as evidence of a shift in ethical value systems between grandmother and granddaughter. Finally, you might ask for my recipe. Here it is, adapted from the cornbread recipe in Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's The Joy of Vegan Baking:

Ingredients

Note: This recipe is for a big cast-iron pan, but you can halve the ingredients if your pan is smaller.

  • 3 cups oat milk
  • 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup whole corn kernels
  • 1/2 cup cowboy candy, chopped

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 425°F.
  • Lightly oil a large cast-iron pan and put it in the oven while you mix the ingredients.
  • In a small bowl, combine the oat milk and apple cider vinegar, and set it aside.
  • Mix the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.
  • Add the milk mixture, oil, corn kernels, and cowboy candy to the dry ingredients.
  • Pull the cast-iron pan out of the oven and fill it with the mixture.
  • Bake 25-30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and a fork inserted in the middle of the bread comes out clean.

Now that you know a bit more about foodways (and have a great recipe for cornbread), let's watch a short, fictional food commercial and see what sort of folkloric information we might glean from it.

How Material Culture Has Been Used in Fiction Writing

Keeping in mind that folklorists analyze material culture objects and their contexts together, take a look at this Fruity Oaty Bars commercial from the 2005 film Serenity. There are a couple of layers to unpack here. First, there is the commercial itself, which advertises a snack to a multi-cultural audience comprised primarily of consumers descended from Chinese and North American people. It's clear from the outlandish nature of the piece that its target audience is accustomed to bold audio-visual statements in advertising; the jingle is catchy, and the animation is extreme. This is the context in which the Fruity Oaty Bar is advertised. We also see several claims made about the food; that it "makes a man out of a mouse," that it "makes you bust out of your blouse," and that in general, it facilitates fun among friends. Judith Farquhar might ask what role is played by Fruity Oaty Bars in the production and reproduction of social life, and I would answer that Blue Sun (the makers of the snack) want consumers to believe it will help them achieve positive social goals by making men stronger, making women full-breasted, and bringing friends together. The second layer is more sinister. The Fruity Oaty Bars commercial is used as a subliminal trigger to activate River Tam, who becomes violent after watching it. So the snack is a corporate tool of control here as well, which goes to Farquhar's interest in the agency ascribed to food and eating (Farquhar 2006, 145).

How Material Culture Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Material culture is everywhere in fiction; the mockingjay pin in The Hunger Games, the Centauri delicacy spoo in Babylon 5, and Thor's hammer Mjölnir in the Marvel movies are three good examples of objects with specific human or alien contexts that elevate them above other items in the books, television shows, and films where they appear. Because of this context, audiences and readers connect these objects to the narratives they support, which makes material culture a powerful tool for writers.

With that in mind, your material culture world-building might include:

  • Notes on the manufacture, use, and meaning of a fictional object.
  • Variations in the above created by different makers and groups.
  • Variations in the above over time and place.
  • Issues of agency, conflict, and power as they relate to the object.

You might also consider questions like these as they relate to the object of material culture you're inventing:

Folk Art: Who is the artist? In what human or alien context is the art made? Are there similar artists in the community, and what do they produce? Have there been similar artists in the past, and what is the difference between their art and that of contemporary artists? Does this artist teach others, and what are her methods? Is the art political or religious, and how is it received, if so?

Monuments and Tombstones: Whose monument or tombstone is it, what does it look like, and what is written on it? What is the human or alien context of the object? What purpose does it serve culturally? Is the meaning of the object contested? If so, by whom, and why? Is the object still intact? Has it been defaced or taken down? If so, why?

I'll leave you to develop similar questions for textiles, tools, toys, and other material culture objects and their contexts, but I hope the ones I've offered here will help spark your creative thought process.

An Exercise in Writing with Material Culture

Using the above:

  • Write a scene that contextualizes one of your own family recipes in a holiday celebration among people who are not related but who have emotional connections to the dish (Example: A theatre troupe shares a homemade pumpkin pie while members of the troupe tell stories about previous holidays when pumpkin pie was served.)
  • Write a scene in which a piece of folk art becomes a symbol of some kind. (Example: A painted sunrise becomes a symbol of resistance, as it did in the recent television series The Man in the High Castle.)
  • Write a scene in which the emotional importance of a toolkit is contested among the people who have owned and used it. (Example: A grandfather, father, and son argue about a set of carpentry tools the son treats like a family heirloom but the father detests because it reminds him of the difficult relationship he has with the grandfather, who is nearing death.)

Or:

  • Write about the Tardis as an object of material culture in Doctor Who.
  • Write about the Iron Throne as an object of material culture in Game of Thrones.
  • Write about the importance of cake to the first Portal game.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of language and verbal lore.

Bibliography

  • Bronner, Simon J. 1986. Grasping Things: Folk Material Culture and Mass Society in America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
  • Farquhar, Judith. 2006. ‘Food, Eating, and the Good Life’. In Handbook of Material Culture, edited by Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Kuechler-Fogden, Mike Rowlands, and Patricia Spyer. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Patrick-Goudreau, Colleen. 2017. The Joy of Vegan Baking, Revised and Updated Edition: More than 150 Traditional Treats and Sinful Sweets. Revised Edition. Beverly: Fair Winds Press.
  • ‘Material Culture’. 2010. Library of Congress American Folklife Center. 29 October 2010. https://www.loc.gov/folklife/guide/materialculture.html.
  • Whedon, Joss. 2005. Serenity. Universal Pictures, Barry Mendel Productions.

My name is Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. I'm a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I'm also a speculative fiction writer under the pseudonym C.S. MacCath. The Folklore & Fiction newsletter synthesizes these passions with a focus on folkloric scholarship aimed at writers. You'll find the newsletter archive (and the rest of my work) online at csmaccath.com.