Tuesday, 10 February 2015

50 Shades of Material Culture

No, not a Munsell chart.

Nor the hilarity that resulted in reading the said book during lunch break on site, with different diggers taking on the different voices.

A good few shades darker than that.

I was actually thinking about the material culture of verbal and emotional abuse. That's what the film is about, that's what the book is about. The lifestyle of the antihero is wrapped up in objects, and quite apart from the contents of the Red Room of Pain, it is through some unsuspecting things that the emotional abuse of the series plays out. The publicity surrounding the film's release on Friday, perhaps combined with the recent publication of a project focused on the prevalence of online abuse in archaeology led by Sara Perry, and being quizzed by the health visitor about my relationship ("do you feel safe?"), has had me thinking about about emotional abuse in the past.

Physical abuse can show up loud and clear in the archaeological record- fractured bones, violent death. Yet the pernicious removal of a person's agency and confidence is harder to spot, the grinding misery of manipulation, the panic and fear of being found wanting, the increasingly desperate attempts to please. These are experiences that can be mediated through the simplest of objects, including some that we find all the time.

Dropping a pot, it smashes on the floor. A sarcastic voice lashes out, ripping off yet another layer of self. You're clumsy, you're useless, you're a waste of space, why do they even put up with you?  Yet when we shove the fragments into a finds bag, there's no echo, no obvious sign of the context in which that vessel was broken- in which a person might have been broken too.

 It's not always the whips and handcuffs that have the most devastating effect. The pen used to sign the infamous 50 Shades contract by Anastasia Steele bears no trace of its use, signing away a woman's control over her body, her time and her self worth. I chose the image at the top of this post based on the shirts- their exact uniformity, their careful curation as a collection of costumes projecting a very particular and disturbing identity that thrives on the manipulation of other people, sexually and otherwise. The biographies of these objects, their life stories, can be tainted with deep and long-lasting pain just as surely as a fractured cheekbone speaks of a blackened eye and swollen face.

The problem, of course, is that these narratives are exactly that- stories. They are marooned in the use life of an artefact, trapped in the sticky mess of use and reuse, the long mist between the making of a thing and its disposal. How can we excavate the dark side of things, exposing hurt and humiliation?

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