Imprint as punctuations of material itineraries
Carl Knappett in Hahn Hans Peter & Weiss Hadas (eds), Mobility, Meaning and Transformations of Things. Shifting Context of Material Culture through Time and Space (Oxford 2013), 36-49.
From the introduction
In the film Alps, by avant-garde Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, a small circle of acquaintances (who call themselves Alps) decide to help those grieving the loss of a loved one by substituting for the deceased. One couple has lost their tennis-playing daughter to a car accident. The nurse who tends to her in her last days is a member of Alps and persuades the couple to let her fill in for their daughter, at least for a time, to ease their grief. She dresses in a tennis skirt, wears the dead girl’s wristband, they lend her their daughter’s tennis shoes, and she fills the role. One message the audience can take from this is that death leaves an absence that all we wish to do is fill with a presence, and we may go to extremes to do so. Rarely do we find another individual to fill the role quite so unconventionally, and material objects may do the job of providing at least some level of contact amidst the loss – the girl’s favourite wristband she wore playing tennis, for example. Whatever precise form the substitution may take, there is a profound need to create continuity and stability, and substitution is one means to this end.
At one level, this desire for persistence over time seems to run counter to the message we often hear from material culture theory that materials are forever in motion through time and space, following itineraries and acquiring biographies. Both itinerary and biography appear to suggest a linear, historicist trajectory for motion, with a beginning, middle and end. However, the editors of this volume counsel caution about the linear evolution of things. They want instead to highlight the complexity of changing contexts. Still, there remains the danger of assuming constant movement, even if not in straight lines. Addressing the temporal dimension more explicitly, they allude to the work of Edward Shils, highlighting the longevity of objects, and how things appear, disappear, are forgotten and come back. With the potential complexity of material identity over long periods, they suggest that the biography metaphor is imprecise. This I would agree with, though I wonder if its replacement by the metaphor of an itinerary is an improvement. It still seems to indicate movement, from one point to the next – it is difficult to imagine a non-linear itinerary.