Thoughts on Identity through Objects

Reading two books from the anthropologists, Daniel Miller and Tim Ingold, called Stuff (2010) by Miller and Perception of the Environment (2000) by Ingold. They both approach the subject of human interactions with their environment though the development of objects, otherwise known as material culture. Ingold details the function of what is made, such as tools and art, but also how different cultures interpret the world, and how this is expressed through what they create. Miller focuses on how possessions shape the person, how the things that a person surrounds themselves with become how they themselves are interpreted, be it from outside perspectives or their own introspection.

In the first chapter of Miller’s book he describes how clothing is not superficial, using the people of Trinidad as an example of how important attire is to a person’s identity. He also observed that most other people tended to believe in an ‘inner self’, somehow separate from our outer selves so to speak. Miller references Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt (1876) by stating that “we are all onions. If you keep peeling off our layers you find – absolutely nothing left. There’s no true inner self. We are not Emperors represented by clothes, because if we remove the clothes there isn’t an inner core.” By clothing ourselves we give ourselves status and personality, or lack thereof in more formal attire. And so, clothes do have meaning, or at least have meaning attributed to it by a culture, therefor meaning that shapes the person wearing clothes. A lack of clothes has its own connotations, usually taboo and negative unless under the right circumstances. This is an example of meaning being attributed to made objects. Ultimately the meaning is established by people, with the culture is acting as a middleman, but nevertheless a level of regard is established.


Given that the objects we surround ourselves with reflect our identity, be it through clothing or cutlery, something I’m interested in demonstrating in my artwork, Ingold describes the nature of culture and thusly where these connotations stem from, as the constant improvement of created things:

“the history of culture has been marked by a cumulative increase in the scale and complexity of its technological component… The motor car is a modern invention, but the man behind the wheel remains a creature biologically equipped for life in the Stone Age”

A point that Ingold repeatedly makes is that the development of culture similar the evolution of organisms to better suit their environment. This is also a comparison that F.B. Skinner made regarding behaviourist psychology, and how a person develops who they are, in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).

So, we give meaning to things so that they in return give meaning to us. The meaning of clothes might be fashion, style or uniformity, and ultimately status. All of which has come from the developments of society and culture.

But if we consider objects as something that we react to, similar to how Skinner described the human organism as something that reacts to its environment in relation to its knowledge of it, we can see objects as signs to respond to. Miller describes this further when pointing out how the objects in question (stuff) are not inherently important, but rather, “It is precisely because we do not see them. The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations, by setting the scene and ensuring appropriate behaviour, without being open to challenge.”

The objects still have predetermined meaning from our prier experiences surrounding such an object. For example, Miller describes a village wedding, where the bride and groom walk around a fire in a square space surrounded by four towers of pots. It might sound odd to those unaffiliated with the culture, but denotes the event taking place. Similar to how a woman in a bride’s gown would indicate a wedding event without question, the pots would invite those familiar with the village’s wedding customs to assume a wedding is taking place, without question.

Miller described this idea as “the humility of things”. Referencing texts written by Erving Goffman, describing frames of social interaction, like the presence of a lecturer and their authority in a class but not outside it; and the writing of Ernst Gombrich, who wrote of how the physical frames for artworks altered the viewer’s perspective of importance. So, the objects were ‘framed’ by the culture that looked upon them, where something framed is an artwork, without question. One might see a wedding gown as significant, while another culture might just see it as a dress.

These ideas of framing and perspective remind me of the work of the surrealist artist/philosopher René Magritte. Such as his The Treachery of Images (1929), where he challenges the pictorial interpretation of a pipe by stating that it is ‘not a pipe’. He is challenging an interpretation, in this case that a 2-dimensional image that is somehow real. I can see this in the interpretation of objects, particularly how we interpret them to have meaning or some importance. Which is merely a fabrication by the surrounding culture and may indeed seem outlandish to outsiders.


René Magritte – The Treachery of Images – 1929

Or his piece The Human Condition, I (1934), which shows an unframed painting that apparently describes the scene that it conceals. However, this is ultimately merely an assumed scene, as the reality of the concealed space is unclear. With an almost literal reference to frames, Magritte demonstrates a perceived truth rather than the actual truth. I think of the (perspective one might hold on) identity, be their own or that of someone or something else, that a person holds on something and the constant uncertainty of truth.


René Magritte – The Human Condition, I – 1934

These perspectives of identity bring us back to Daniel Miller comments about clothing, how the surrounding circumstances, our ‘frame’ or reference, shines a light on the meaning behind what we are seeing. Or, like in Magritte’s Human Condition painting, the lack of what we are seeing and the supposition of what is visible.

Before I get too carried away, it is the objects, produced out of cultures, that define an individual’s sense of self. Without your culture (a.k.a. your surroundings) you would not have a ‘frame’ of reference for who you are. You are an onion, as you have no core, only the layers of culture and experiences, but the idea of identity is the frame you use to look at yourself, the layers that’s make you, and others as an attempt to understand everything else.