Editorial / Éditorial - The Appropriation and Disappropriation of Objects

Editorial / Éditorial

The Appropriation and Disappropriation of Objects

Laurier Turgeon
Université Laval

The Appropriation and Disappropriation of Objects

1 The articles in this issue contribute to updating studies in material culture by examining the phenomena of object appropriation and disappropriation. The authors make the assumption that material culture is an exceptional arena to observe appropriation mechanisms, because material objects permit the effective expression of these mechanisms, precisely because of their materiality.1 Appropriation is an abstract concept that needs material support to be articulated. The material object allows the fundamental operations of marking property, objectifying memory, giving effect to identity and physically mediating personality. In one way or another, all of these operations underlie appropriation. It would be impossible to express individual property without a house or a vehicle, memory without a place or a monument, identity without clothing and personality without a body.

2 Any reflection about appropriation necessarily entails the concept of exchange and of the effects it produces both on the object and the social link. We propose to start with the pioneering work of Marcel Mauss on the gift2 and the numerous adjustments and additions to which it gave rise.3 More recent work has led to a reappraisal of the principle of the reciprocity of exchanges and the difference between archaic societies and capitalist (modern) societies, and between gift and merchandise. Exchange is not always reciprocal, even in the most archaic societies, and it often conceals more than it reveals about the complex interplay of social and power relationships. Far from being neutral, the exchange itself structures and focusses these relationships, and can modify them, even reverse or pervert them. The exchanged objects are subject to cultural recontextualizations: they take other forms, acquire new uses and change meanings. The transformation or modification of their form of use becomes a way of signalling an appropriation or disappropriation. The exchanged objects change even those who manipulate them. Therefore, the act of taking possession of new objects or their loss of ownership brings about not only cultural reconfigurations, but also results in reclassifications and redefinitions of individuals and groups within society.

3 We propose to reflect on the rituals of exchange, on the objects themselves, on their shifts in time and space, as well as on the social players who manipulate them during their different social undertakings. More than "giving," "receiving" or "giving back," to use expressions preferred by Marcel Mauss, we intend to ponder the notions of "taking," "retaking" and "rejecting." The mechanisms of appropriation have been the subject of several studies, but the mechanisms of reappropriation and disappropriation are not as well known. However, reappropriation and disappropriation are common cultural phenomena, currently observed in the numerous demands made by aboriginal peoples for the return of sacred objects kept in ethnographical museums around the world.4 Why do aboriginal peoples want to take back objects manipulated by non-aboriginals and, more surprisingly, why do non-aboriginals agree to return them? Do they feel a moral malaise? Is restitution of objects previously owned by ancestors only a way of compensating for past injustices? How can a feeling of dispossession or loss be compensated? Why are some objects appropriated to such a point that their origin is erased or forgotten?

4 Because the processes of appropriation, reappropriation and disappropriation often extend over long periods, it is necessary to take this into account when studying them. History offers a vast ethnological landscape that allows the tracing of movements and cultural recontextualizations of objects over long periods of time. It is these movements of the object overtime, with the corresponding rootings and unrootings, that shed light on the multiple uses that have been assigned to it.5 As well, the object constitutes a memory support for history. Its durability enables it to extend, materialize and transport the memory of persons and events, whether in monuments or talismans.6 Material remnants speak of perennial practices or structures that characterized the process of appropriation, reappropriation and disappropriation. It is because of its remarkable durability that the memory object has the power to resurrect the memory of people and events, to commemorate and evoke them, to charge them with emotion, then transform them into subjects.7

5 Drawing up the genealogy of the arrowhead sash from its appearance in the eighteenth century to this day, François Simard and Louis-Pascal Rousseau show how this object of French-Canadian origin was exchanged by French-speaking fur traders with aboriginal groups in the west and was appropriated by aboriginal peoples and, later, by the Métis. Through appropriation and disappropriation strategies and complex identification effects, the arrowhead sash has become a powerful national identity marker for French-Canadians, Métis and aboriginal peoples. It is the main item of the costume worn for many French-Canadian events: la Journée nationale des Patriotes du Québec, the Quebec winter carnival and the Franco-Manitoban Festival du Voyageur. As well, several aboriginal groups claim the sash as an identity symbol because of the aboriginal characteristics of the sash's braiding. It is also an integral part of the national Métis costume and is hung as a banner at political meetings. The example of the arrowhead sash clearly shows that the same object can be simultaneously appropriated by several groups. Far from lessening its singularity and identification power, such multiple appropriations increase its identification value.

6 If several groups can appropriate the same object, it can also be appropriated, disappropriated and reappropriated within the same group. This is the case, for example, of the Catholic convents in Quebec, as astutely explained by Tania Martin. After embodying ecclesiastical power — mainly that of the feminine religious orders — and having been totally integrated with the material culture of French-Canadians, convents were progressively abandoned by the population, even by religious figures, after the Quiet Revolution. As they were associated with the paternalism of the Church, the convents fell into ruin and were sold to developers. However, in the past several years, Quebeckers have begun to reappropriate these religious buildings, in an effort to patrimonialize Church property. Tania Martin ponders whether this patrimonialization movement expresses the desire of Quebeckers and French-Canadians to reconcile with their religious past or, conversely, if it manifests the paternalism of a national state wishing to make Quebec stand out from the other Canadian provinces. Nonetheless, convents now tend to be places of memory with a positive connotation after a long period of negative undertones (due to the mistreatment of orphans or the underprivileged, for example). Tania Martin reminds us that it is one thing to desire patrimonialization, but that it is necessary to be able to render these buildings functional and economically viable again, otherwise the patrimonial conversion will eventually fail.

7 To instill meaning, appropriation or disappropriation agents must be ritualized. The rite serves to construct or deconstruct the object and its belongingness. Texts by Van Troi Tran and Marie-Blanche Fourcade underscore the major role played by exposition as an appropriation rite. In his study of the Algerian Palace at the 1889 World Fair in Paris, Van Troi Tran shows how exposition makes possible the reduction in scale of representation, the presentation in miniature of the country, its transportation to one's home and the possibility to put it in direct contact with French visitors. The exposition is not a simple representation — a reproduction of an absent thing — rather, it is a re-presentation, which means taking an object and "replacing it in a new context subordinated to a different rationality." In other words, it is an appropriation rite. Here, the new context is one of colonization and rationality, that of the French State. The exposition delivers the colony to French "travellers" — its peoples, its customs, its merchandise, its history — and allows them to remain in Paris. Private expositions also function in a representation mode. Fourcade studied Séta, an Armenian emigrant who has lived in Quebec City for several years. Séta converted the basement family room into a little museum, filled with objects from her country of origin, whose function is to tell the family history. During each of Fourcarde's visits, Séta narrated the hardships endured by her family during their long journey from Armenia through Syria and Lebanon, before arriving in Canada. The exposition of objects serves to reappropriate the past, to remember it and commemorate it, in order to maintain ties with the country of origin and to remember the Armenian genocide.

8 An object as simple as a curtain can be used to reveal and to conceal, to expose and to depose, in short, to produce rites of appropriation and disappropriation. Véronique Klauber studied the use of curtains in the small community of Roms (Gypsies) in the Hungarian city of Ôzd. Klauber demonstrates how the very poor subtly use curtains to build their social relationships. This mobile object — drawn and undrawn, placed in front of doors, behind windows or on furniture — allows the execution of many acts of performance: erecting barriers or removing them, concealing poverty or bringing it into focus, exposing luxury or abating it, distinguishing between private and public spaces, marking rites of passage or prohibiting them. The opaque or translucent nature of the curtains is used to reveal, to underscore, to hide or to mask relations between individuals, between individuals and the community, between social groups, and between professional and ethnic identities. The curtains also vividly evoke the ambivalent nature of the appropriation, disappropriation and reappropriation mechanisms. The way curtains are used is, in a way, the material embodiment of the play of social relationships.

9 The article by Paul van der Grijp reveals that even the smallest of material objects, such as a postage stamp, goes through several rites of appropriation, disappropriation and reappropriation before becoming an object to be collected. This little piece of paper with a design printed on its surface and glue applied to its back has only its market value when it is purchased. Only through a series of appropriation and reappropriation steps does it become an artifact. Upon affixing the stamp to an envelope, the owner relinquishes its property to the post office, which marks the place of origin and date of mailing. This second operation consigns the object in space and time and ensures its journey to its destination. At that time, the stamp has a possibility of becoming an artifact—a collection item — but it does not necessarily become one. It is only when the recipient decides to keep it that it acquires this qualification. This third step promotes the stamp to the rank of stamp collection object and gives it another life, which is characterized by exchange and reappropriation mechanisms between stamp collectors. Van der Grijp points out that through this activity, the philatelist participates in the appropriation of time and space. Philatelists generally begin their collection with stamps from their own country, including stamps dating back to the country's origins, thus reconstructing its territory and past. They then move on to neighbouring countries and former colonies and, eventually, to the rest of the world. An object used for conveyance, the stamp itself transports the world by bringing it into the collector's cabinet.

10 Each of the articles in this volume of Material History Review demonstrates an aspect of how rites of appropriation, disappropriation and reappropriation, as operators of meaning, serve to construct or deconstruct the object and its ownership. The authors are all aware of the ambiguity and multiple meanings of this ritual activity. What is interpreted by the receiving group as dispossession can be considered as a voluntary release or a simple change in fashion by the originating group. Only the analysis of each ritual context will lead to the identification of the intricacies of negotiation, objection and emulation between the individuals and groups involved. We also see that it is the rites of appropriation, disappropriation and reappropriation that lead to the enhancement or lessening of the value of objects and, by extension, to the value system they instill.

Laurier Turgeon,
Associate Editor
1 We are inspired here by the work of Daniel Miller, "Why Some Things Matter," in Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, ed. Daniel Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 3-21. See also Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982).
2 Marcel Mauss, "Essai sur le don," with an introduction by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Sociologie et Anthropologie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1978 [reprint of 1950]), 145-279.
3 Jean Bazin, "Des clous dans la Joconde," in Détours de l'objet, ed. Franck Chaumon (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1996); Jean Bazin and Alban Bensa, "Des objets à la chose,"Genèses 17 (1994): 4-7; Maurice Godelier, The Enigma of the Gift (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999); Fred R. Meyers, The Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2001); Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991); and, Annette Weiner, Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
4 Devon A. Mihesuah, Repatriation Reader. Who Owns American Indian Remains? (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000); Trudy Nicks and Tom Hill, Turning the Page: Forging New Partnerships Retween Museums and First Peoples (Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums Association, 1992).
5 Arjun Appadurai, "Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value," in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3-63.
6 Pierre Nora, ed., Realms of Memory. Rethinking the French Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
7 Anne-Marie Losonczy, "Le patrimoine de l'oubli: le 'parc-musée des Statues' de Budapest," Ethnologie française 29, no. 3 (1999): 445^452; and, Serge Tisseron, Comment l'esprit vient aux objets (Paris: Aubier, 1999).