Remarkable Things: The Agency of Objecthood and The Power of Materiality

Saturday 10th March 2018

Registration is now open

Keynote Speakers:

Apotropaic art, symbols or objects are those which have – or are reputed to have - the power of averting evil influence or ‘bad luck’.

The very idea of an apotropaic object stands at the centre of theory seeking to concretise objecthood and materiary power. Apotropaic things are, in their very nature, possessed of an agency that both transcends their status as a material object yet is also inextricably tied to it: their physicality enables them to be purposefully placed in liminal spaces or carried close on the body; the materials they are made from carefully chosen and frequently bizarre or rare; their form, shape and construction often highly specific and closely allied to tradition and ‘folklore’.

Therefore, the repellence of forces which are abstract and amorphous relies intrinsically upon the materiality and apparent ‘concreteness’ of specific objects. In turn, the ways in which society, throughout time and across culture, has attempted to reconcile the seemingly dialectical nature of such items stands at an interdisciplinary confluence.

Material of this kind is not confined to any one culture, time or place, thus necessitating interdisciplinary exploration as to the variety of theoretical and methodological frameworks that might assist in unpacking and articulating the status and significance of such objects and - perhaps more importantly - how we have come to classify them. Therefore, this conference is concerned with objects which have, or are perceived to have, inherent 'power' or 'mobility'. It will explore:

  • The sorts of objects that have been perceived in this way and how objecthood is tied to their interpretation and significance;
  • The way such objects operate/are believed to operate;
  • How these sorts of objects construct and convey their power/meaning;
  • The role these objects have played in different disciplines, both focally and epistemologically;
  • The ways in which such objects have shaped culture, custom, behaviour, thought and academic discourse;
  • The ways in which different disciplines have dealt with such objects and their ramifications;
  • Whether or not we continue to create ‘talismans’, 'fetishes', and ‘relics’, etc., or attribute these concepts to objects extraneously;
  • Finally, how seminal principles outlined by figures such as Gell, Mitchell and Pietz, who have authoritatively theorised on objecthood and agency, play out practically and contextually. [1]

Such objects might include religious iconsjewellerybiological specimensclothingfunerary equipmentmateria medicaportraiture or relics, and their perceived ‘power’ might be grounded in faithritualsuperstitionbiopoliticscultural memorymemorialisationconsumerism or even medical adherence.

In our modern era, the nature of ‘objecthood’ is undergoing great change; ‘virtual reality’ and the rise of virtual museums, online collections, 3D printing, and sensory simulation ensure that objecthood, and our [un]changing relationship with it, is as relevant as ever. Amidst the evolving status of objecthood, do we continue to create apotropaia? If so, where might we identify them? How might we extend this concept to scientific, medical or technological 'objects', if at all?

This conference will investigate how recent developments in the study of material religionneuroarchaeologysemiotics and phenomenology might help us better understand not only such objects themselves, but also their many guises and surprising pervasiveness, as well as our ongoing attempts to typologise and demystify them.

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