The Cult of Things
In Peter Hahn’s introduction to The Obstinacy of Things (2015), the ethnologist from Frankfurt criticizes current research on things, claiming that the field has split into two extremes: one the end, those who overestimate the value of things and, on the other, those who underestimate it. Overestimating has grown massively in numbers as of late, as can be seen at numerous conferences on »Things of Knowledge«, »Moral Things« and »Working on Things«, at exhibits on »Object Lessons«, or at festivals for »The Theater of Things«. Things have assumed a prominent place in all kinds of disciplines and media, comfortably at home wherever they might be. Even historians are excited about things with hopes of revising text-based history thanks to new findings based on the study of things. While some disciplines have obviously been dealing with things for quite a while (for example, archeology, ethnology, art history, the history of science, as well as religious studies), the embrace of things in textual fields is somewhat surprising. Are readable texts also things? Can they be regarded as things? And if yes, then to what ends? Or is this just a manifestation of the cult of things?
Hahn argues for a careful and sensitive treatment of things, which remain not just significant but also marginal, hybrid, vague, changeable, and sometimes even invisible. Instead of making claims about how important or unimportant things are, Hahn suggests concentrating on the meaninglessness of objects and exploring their obstinacy. The ZfL’s working group began studying the discursive basis for the growing interest in things in summer semester 2016. The group is interested in how people study the obstinacy of things and when their study crosses over into a cult of things. The results of the group’s work will appear on the ZfL Blog.