The fiends of commerce smile

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Paul Graves-Brown. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.036


The fiends of commerce smile1

Paul GRAVES-BROWN, University College London

Comment on LEMONNIER, Pierre. 2012. Mundane objects: Materiality and non-verbal communication. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Pierre Lemonnier’s book elegantly demonstrates the role of material culture both in joint action (Shotter 1980) and in situated action (see, e.g., Costall and Leudar 1996); that physical things constitute a locus of tacit, embedded, or embodied knowledge around which the constellations of human action are structured (Adorno [1970] 2001; Dougherty and Keller 1985). However, here I want to discuss the apparent paradoxes that arise when we compare, as Lemonnier does, the handmade fence, fish trap, and drum with the industrial products of the motor industry. I say paradox because mass production has been construed from the start as the antithesis of embedded knowledge: “In opulent and commercial societies to think or to reason comes to be … carried on by a very few people, who furnish the public with all the thought and reason possessed by the vast multitudes that labour” (Adam Smith quoted in Williams 1959: 38). And yet, as Andy Warhol ([1975] 2007: 100–1) pointed out, there is also a democratizing aspect to such products which irresistibly draws people into joint action, whether they like it or not:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.… A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

If, as Lemonnier says in his introduction, mundane and unremarkable objects are the “pillars of social order” (2012: 13), what happens to this structure when society shifts from embedded handcraft production to the “alienated” products of industry?

Toy cars and atom bombs

To begin with, by way of a caveat, it has to be said that the binary opposition between embedded handcraft and alienated mechanization is something of an illusion. Whilst some seem to take the view that tacit knowledge is just know-how that hasn’t yet been made explicit (Collins 2001), I would argue that “knowing how” stands in an irreducible dialectical opposition to “knowing that” (Ryle 1949); that actions will always speak louder than words (Gatewood 1985). This, contra Ingold (this discussion), is the sense in which things are “nonpropositional” but nonetheless are “statements”; what they tell us about the world is in no sense hypothetical, what might be called the “hard” interpretation of tacit knowledge which was espoused by Wittgenstein (see Gill 1974) and Polanyi (1966). If we consider the motor-racing world which Lemonnier discusses, the original Mercedes, Ferraris, and Lotuses, though representing the cutting edge of high technology, were also the product of a handcraft tradition of engineering. Unlike production cars, I imagine that if we were to examine these vehicles, we would find that each was the unique product of the tacit knowledge of the racing team. Indeed, even in the ethereal world of physics, the making and maintaining of nuclear weapons also involves a body of tacit knowledge that can be lost if not rehearsed (Mackenzie and Spinardi 1995). Moreover, as Lemonnier discusses in Chapter 5, there is an entire culture that has grown up around the “afterlives” of racing and sports cars. It is a culture which actually moves further into the tacit world of situated practices as time draws inevitably away from the origin of these artifacts, such that knowledge becomes a mosaic of memory, inheritance, and reinvention.2

The slight irony here is that the toys or models based on these cars are, by and large, the very mass-produced products that seem to alienate us from embedded practice. Hornby-Meccano’s first racing car was Dinky Toys #23a, a model which, with some casting variations, continued in production from 1934 until 1954 as model #220. By the 1950s, Dinky were producing less generic racing cars, such as the gift set #4: “Five of the most popular Dinky Toys racing cars are now available as a set. The group consists of the Cooper-Bristol, Alfa Romeo, HWM, Maserati and Ferrari models. Here is a gift that will appeal to every young collector. Price 12/6 incl. Purchase tax” (Meccano Magazine, October 1953). Here, like the originals they replicate, the basic castings are all different, yet the drivers, wheels, tires, and axles remain generic. Industrial products are imitations, here doubly so since they imitate real cars and that they are supposedly the product of a rote, imitative process that lacks either thought or skill. A Coke is a Coke.

Perhaps the counter-irony is that as industrial production becomes ever more routinized, the very techniques of advanced manufacture, such as laser cutting or CNC machining, are being used by model makers to produce ever more accurate reproductions of craft-produced racing cars (see Lemonnier’s Figure 42).

Consumption as democracy

In the 1930s, when Meccano started making Dinky Toys, many people viewed the very homogeneity of industrial production as an engine of democracy (Ewen [1976] 2001; Meikle 1995: 67). Taking a lead from Henry Ford, influential writers such as Edward A. Filene (1931) argued that the potential for all members of society to possess the same products was a unifying social force—the vision of an affluent society which begins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with Bellamy (1889) and Patten (1907). This view is echoed by Warhol, and he is right. Yet we want to insist that there is an essential difference between making a fish trap and owning a Model T Ford. Granted that, in its early years, it was assumed that the user would have the tacit know-how to maintain the car, today even a reasonably competent amateur mechanic (such as me) cannot safely service a vehicle with air bags and other complex, computer-controlled systems.

Roughly speaking, consumption until the 1950s was largely about conformity. Indeed some authorities saw this as a means of ironing out the differences in the melting pot of US society (Ewen [1976] 2001). If everyone could live in the same Levittown and drive the same Buick or Chevrolet, there could be no basis for social or ethnic tension. Yet it had been the motor industry, in the shape of Alfred P. Sloan and Harley Earl at General Motors, who originated the idea of the annual model, and hence both obsolescence and diversification. By the end of the drab Eisenhower era, capitalism had begun to learn how to be “cool” (Pountain and Robbins 2000; McGuigan 2012); to both appeal to and manipulate a diversity of styles and aspirations. Whilst the period from then until now can be viewed as the age of the consumer, leading some to talk of consumer power (e.g. Miller 1995), it is more the case that advertisers, their agencies, and industrial designers have become ever more sophisticated in producing and packaging goods that seduce the consumer. Such products are still the mundane “pillars of social order,” but all the choices about their “physical properties, and their material implementation” (Lemonnier 2012: 13) seem to have been taken out of our hands.

The street finds its own uses for things3

So, was young Pierre the unwitting dupe of a cynical toy industry? Even in relatively self-reliant societies such as those of highland New Guinea, the introduction of industrial products like steel axes and firearms has been highly disruptive of the social order (Townsend 1969: John Muke, pers. comm.). So who has the power, the consumer or the producer? According to one view: “[T]he new regimes of leisure have allowed a massive democratisation of production.… Whether this labour is in car-care, cake decoration, do-it-yourself or hobbies, there has arisen a plethora of pursuits in which people buy small-scale production facilities” (Miller 1995: 26). Similar views have more recently been expressed in relation to the so-called Web 2.0 with respect to such things as Wikipedia, or in the role of Facebook and other social media in the “Arab Spring.” Yet it is tempting to argue that, in each of these cases, it is really those who control the production and distribution of goods and services who call the tune and that those who contribute their writing to social media, decorate cakes, or do DIY are just giving free labor to Mark Zuckerberg, Tesco, or Kingfisher PLC. If, as William Gibson (2012) has argued, we live in a period of atemporality, then consumption is not “the vanguard of history” (Miller 1995) but just “more stuff.”

Conversely, as noted above, the idea that mass production can be simply equated with deskilling and the disembedding of knowledge is clearly mistaken, and if we adopt the “hard” interpretation of tacit knowledge, it should be the case that skilled practice can never be eliminated from industry—unless, that is, we accept the as yet unproven claims of computer scientists that artificial intelligence can duplicate human expertise. In which case, as Henry Ford understood in another context, the problem will be that robots do not buy cars; the possessors of tacit knowledge and skill are also the customers for industrial products. What does seem to be the case is that as capital exploits new reserve armies of labor in India and China, embedded manufacturing and production skills are disappearing from the developed economies of the West. The open-air museum at Beamish, County Durham, recently had to close its drift mine for lack of qualified people to ensure the safety of visitors (Belford in press), whilst Detroit, the heartland of the US car industry, the very home of obsolescence, has become a wasteland haunted by urban explorers and the subject of what we have come to call “ruin porn” (Mullins 2013). Whilst artifacts in New Guinean society may, as Lemonnier (2012: 157) argues, anchor “resistance to change,” postindustrial societies, in virtue of the kinds of chaînes opératoires involved in manufacturing, are becoming increasingly estranged from the practices that underpin such resistance.

Democracy has bad taste4

In earlier attempts (Graves-Brown 1995) to analyze the embodied meaning of things, I used the terms congruence and coherence. By the latter I meant, broadly, that in order to have meaning, an artifact must function, it must have some practical (and/or ideological?) role in action. I say broadly because for me the only artifacts that have no function are found on waste dumps or archeological sites! Whether it’s fences to keep out pigs or the Mona Lisa, things serve a function, be it to “see according to” them (Merleau Ponty 1964), or to act according to their affordances (James J. Gibson 1979; Costall 1995; Costall and Richards 2013), and in virtue of their tacit, “perissological resonance,” objects can embody a multiplicity of social functions, which perhaps, contra Ingold, suggests that perissology can be more than mere redundancy. Conversely, congruence is the extent to which an artifact conforms to our sociocultural expectations or conventions. This is what Costall and Richards (2013) term their “canonical affordance”: the socially constructed choices that mean that in the United Kingdom we drive on the left, that US light switches go up for “on,” or that outside of South Asia, most knives are used by moving the cutting edge against the material to be cut, rather than the other way around (Sigaut 1991).

In effect, advertisers and industrial designers have learned to manipulate this sense of congruence or the canonical. Particularly since the Second World War, this process has often produced so-called functional design, where social congruence is underpinned by an impression of coherence, even though a sleek refrigerator may be no more efficient that one that looks like a product of the Baroque. Yet between these two terms lies the negative dialectic that is at the heart of tacit knowledge. As our technology becomes ever more complex, and our personal engagement with the practicalities of its manufacture more abstract and remote, our grasp of its actual coherence becomes increasingly tenuous—whilst a handmade fishtrap is patently both functional and congruent with traditional social practices, as a consumer of a car or a smartphone, I only have the vendor’s word that it possesses these qualities. Recent studies of personal computers (UNEP/Berne Convention Secretariat 2012) show that the average user utilizes only a small percentage of their potential. More generally, the need for industry to continually sell us more stuff means that both what is congruent and what is coherent become subject to manipulation of taste, rather than any particular need (be it practical or more defusedly social). According to the head of J. Walter Thompson, Stanley B. Resor (quoted in Kreshel 1990: 51): “The achievements of American mass production, would fail of their own weight without the mass marketing machinery which advertising supplies.” This is a view echoed by John Waller Hobson in 1956: “Consumers are seeking experiences, not things … advertising adds subjective qualities to a product, for example in giving a feeling of smartness, cheerfulness, tightness, well-being etc.… and thus increasing its ability to satisfy a yet more ramified, but just as real, complex of wants” (quoted in Fletcher 2008: 79). As Raymond Williams saw it: “It is impossible to look at modern advertising without realizing that the material object being sold is never enough: this indeed is the crucial cultural quality of its modern forms. If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance” (Williams 1980: 185).

In his concluding remarks, Lemonnier (2012: 165) argues that in spite of “supermodernity,” the embedding of classic car culture remains unchanged, but here I must demur. He begins by defining the mundane as things which “would not find their way into museum cases” (2012: 13). But in fact classic cars are not now to be found in “that part of our living in which we use things”; as Lemonnier himself mentions, they are now to be found in museums. Whilst material culture may pass through the hands of enthusiasts and hobbyists before it becomes fossilized as heritage, it is nonetheless already peripheral to the mainstream of cultural practice in that it is only valued for subjective qualities similar to those that advertisers attempt to inculcate.


One intriguing aspect of the fences described by Lemonnier is that they are, in a sense, over-engineered: they are more robust than necessary for their function, their coherence is over-specified. At one time this was also the characteristic of industrial products: the machines produced by Victorian engineers such as Joseph Whitworth were built to last and presumably conveyed a social message not dissimilar to that of New Guinea fences. Yet even in the first half of the nineteenth century this was changing. According to an American informant of Alexis de Tocqueville (author of Democracy in America, 1835): “There is a feeling among us about everything that prevents us aiming at permanence” (Rolt 1965: 153). In some contexts this makes perfect sense. If technologies are changing rapidly, there is little point in making a machine that will last twenty years if it will be obsolete in twenty months. But what has happened is that this entirely coherent sense of the obsolete has been overtaken by marketing. This suggests to me that there may be an essential tension between congruence and coherence that resembles Adorno’s negative dialectic. It is what industrial products appear to be, rather than what one can do with them, that has come to predominate, precisely to the extent that as users we are estranged from the tacit knowledge that underlies production.

This might seem the basis for a Luddite view of technology. But unlike most critics of modernity I enthusiastically embrace modern technology; the kind of “popular modernism” (Pountain and Robins 2000) that emerged in the 1950s has many virtues, despite its vices. In many respects, we now live in the future imagined by Bellamy in 1889 or by Bel Geddes and the other designers of the “World of Tomorrow” featured in the New York World’s Fair of 1939–40 (Mauro 2010). But somehow the increasing tension between congruence and coherence has created an era of what William Gibson (2012) calls atemporality, where we just get more stuff. The very disposability and mutability of our material culture prevents it from accumulating what Lemonnier terms “perissological resonance.” Hopefully, for us and for the planet, Gibson is right when he suggests that no such historical condition is ever permanent.


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Paul Graves-Brown
Institute of Archaeology
University College London
31–34 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PY, UK


1. From “Now Art has lost its mental charms” (William Blake).

2. In the uk a veteran or vintage vehicle remains “authentic” as long as 30 percent of it is original manufactured parts.

3. William Gibson 1986: 215.

4. Perry 2013.