Thursday, July 24, 2008

Considering the Culture in Objects

I loved all the discussion of dialects, and I'm planning to revisit the topic, but today I thought I'd take a little turn into the Anthropology area and talk about representing culture through the use of objects. Or "props," in drama terms. You really can't have a story without them, but this is a place where it's good to do some thinking, so as to use the opportunity to its fullest.

You can really deepen a sense of culture in a story just by paying attention to the stuff you find when you look around a room. In "Let the Word Take Me" I gave David Linden a chance to look at a Gariniki artifact called "sun armor," a perforated leather coat covered with white feathers, that had been repaired several times. This single object let me expand on several ideas. It linked to the idea of the Gariniki as a cold-blooded species, who would need to protect themselves on a journey through the desert. It established that their economy would not support the easy creation of sun armor, and also allowed me to hint that the gecko-girl Allayo was engaged in a special mission where she would possess a ceremonial, highly valued object. It also fleshed out the fauna of the planet Garini by indicating the presence of birds (feathers) and grazing beasts (leather). The sun armor did not have buckles or other complex closures - an indicator of their technology level.

In that story I gave the sun armor quite a bit of attention, but objects that surround the main actors and their actions can be just as revealing. Here are some examples.

Example 1: Sources of light. Do you have natural light, a fire, torches, candles, oil-lamps, kerosene lamps, gas or electric lights, glowing rods, etc? How (and if) people make light for themselves can be a great way to evoke a larger technological context, even with just one or two words.

Example 2: Food and drink. There are so many possibilities here I'll just touch on a few. What do people eat and how is it cooked (or is it?)? What kinds of tools do they use to eat it? Where do they eat, and in what kind of social situation (many people, or few, or alone)? What manners are called for? Take for example a glass of beer: when an American is finished, he or she will leave the glass empty. But in Japan an empty glass is effectively considered an invitation for a refill - so when you're satisfied, you actually have to leave the drink unfinished or you'll get more than you bargained for.

Example 3: Literacy-related objects. Captain Kirk's little etch-a-sketch pad would fall into this category. So would inkstones, brushes, and mulberry paper (ancient Japan). Or typewriters, or a printing press with moveable type. Pencils, or mechanical pencils, or possibly charcoal. Ditto sheets. Computers (yay!). Or clay and stylus. I also remember clearly the sand tables that were used for recording music in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger.

Example 4: Incidental objects. I remember being very impressed with the variety of objects in Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman, including but not limited to fans, lacquer boxes, and folding screens. When I look at my own desk I can see American and Australian flags (we're a mixed nationality household), and a container of bubble solution (we have kids). Clocks could fall into this category as well.

As a final note, I would also like to say that the absence of objects can speak as clearly as their presence. This of course has something to do with the expectations of the observer, and as a writer you can decide whether the absence of the object is remarkable to the story character, or simply to the reader. In my Varin world the absence of wooden tables is considered completely unremarkable by characters, but I've had several critiquers point this out as something they found intriguing.


  1. Ah, material culture. I pretty much agree with you.

    I'd just like to add, to a certain extent, much like Clifford Geertz's (I love his paper on the Balinese cockfight) idea that anthropology should be about "getting inside the native's head," I think the role of a science fiction writer is at least in part to get inside the head of an alien or person from another culture. Objects can go a long way towards those ends.

    I think there's primarily two broad approaches to take with objects from a cultural anthropological perspective. There's the more scientific side of anthropology which focuses more on the relationship between culture and environment and biology. That a culture has many people brandishing rawhide whips tells you that cows are a part of the culture. It also may indicate that the environment is such that having whips may be beneficial (keeping cows out of the road? a way to get back out if you fall in a pit -- i.e, there's pits in the environment that it's a danger to fall in). Or the whip may be primarily a status symbol which brings us to my next point.

    On the more humanities-based side of cultural anthropology comes the question of what the object means to the culture. For example, is the hearth considered a place of grime and heat, a hell on Earth? Or is it considered a warm, fuzzy place, nurturing and comforting? Or maybe it's considered a woman's kingdom, the place where no man better thwart her because she is the law there? Or maybe it's all three depending on the the gender and social status of the individuals within that culture. This thinking about what the object means (I learned a lot about thinking this way from Geertz's Balinese Cockfight) fascinates me.

    Also, there's a third way, the way the individual may think about the object differently from the culture as a whole( for example, a personal phobia of rivers, or a hatred of coffee because you were drinking coffee when your mother died) but I think that's just basic characterization rather than anthropology.

  2. Thanks for coming, Byron.
    You're obviously already involved in a lot of these topics. I totally agree with you about the idea of the significance of objects to the members of the culture. I hinted at that a bit, I think, and I'll talk about it again in the future, but I have to keep my posts to a manageable size!

  3. Yeah, I admit to a strong interest in these areas and have thought a lot on how to apply anthropology and linguistics to SF writing. I don't have any degrees in any of the above although I have taken a handful of applied linguistics classes at the undergraduate level and a few at the graduate level. I also read whatever I can find on biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology, sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics.

    For fun reading, I would love to get a hold of the entire _Language in Society_ series by Blackwell Publishing, but so far only have _Anthropological Linguistics_ and _Sociolinguistic Theory_.

    Must get _Pidgin and Creole Linguistics_. Must get _An Introduction to Contact Linguistics_. Must get them all! Mwahahahahahaha!