Companionable Objects, Companionable Conscience: Ethics and the Predicaments of Dwelling with Things
Kenneth M. George


My paper explores crafted things and the ethical and affective ties we form with them in our everyday lifeworlds and contemporary public spheres. A simple idea leads to me write about “companionable objects” and “companionable conscience:” Things, too, are social beings—though not human beings—and as we dwell together with them we become vulnerable to them, and they to us. In that mutuality of influence between people and things there is both care and violence. An ethical realm stretches between us. And so I pose a question: Will we see ethics differently, will we see conscience in a new light, if we look to things as a fulcrum or as partners in ethical relationships? Using materials from ethnographic fieldwork and art historical research in South and Southeast Asia, I suggest that we will.

My “materialist” approach springs from the phenomenological and pragmatist perspectives that have led anthropologists such as Tim Ingold (2006), Michael Jackson (1998), Bruno Latour (1996, 2005), Yael Navarro-Yashin (2009), and Elizabeth Povinelli (1995) to insist on our need to recognize our intersubjective relations with material and natural things. A resurgent interest in the murky boundary between persons and things has come to preoccupy many of us in anthropology (e.g.,
Appadurai 1986; Gell 1998; George 1999; Keane 2003; Myers 2001; and Pels et al 2002). The “material turn” in anthropology fits congenially, meanwhile, with the rise of “thing theory” in literary and cultural studies (e.g., Ahmed 2006; Brown 2001, 2006; Felski 2007; Mondzain 2009; Plotz 2005; Schwenger 2006; Stern 2001), and in visual cultural studies, where W. J. T. Mitchell (2005) has asked, “What do pictures want?” The material turn, I argue, should shed light on the way our relationships with things also mark the public horizons and communal distribution of our ethicopolitical sensibilities. As Susan Gal (2002) and Jacques Rancière (2004) suggest, communal formations may rest on the distribution of such sensibilities.

Put another way, communities are what Miguel Tamen (2001) calls “friends of interpretable objects”—groups of people who have recognizable ways for dealing with things, and for identifying those things that will be recognized and made companionable and those that will be destroyed or expelled in iconoclastic purge.
Taking cue from these writers, and my decade of work with contemporary artists in Muslim Asia, I aim to understand how materiality plays a crucial role in constituting our conscience and ethical sensibilities.


Will we see ethics differently, if we look to things as the fulcrum for ethics?

Communities are "friends of interpretable objects"; recognizable ways for dealing with things. Strangers do not share our ethics, emotional regard or rules of conduct toward things. Strange things offend, pose dangers, make us anxious.

We may attribute this to narrow-mindedness, but its an affect.

Ranciere: the distribution of the sensible.

Translocale social formations (Christianity, tourism, etC)

Iconoclash: Moments when one does not know, is troubled by a thing without knowing whether its constructive or destructive.

Tau-Tau under house arrest; carved men and women, kept far from their graves. Not everyone who dies receives a carved statue; only those of high social standing receive a durable, jackfruit-wood carving.

The effigies are sacralized through sacrifices of chickens, pigs, etc.

Concealing the Tau-Tau in caves prevents the ancestral figures from watching over the community, but also prevents their capture (through antiquities/culture theft).

They're starting to refill galleries with "fake" Tau Tau. The nameless fakes take over.

The photograph is taking over for the Tau Tau, presiding, watching over; the photos return the dead to a perfect moment of arrested life.

A plundered funeral effigy is created to art (much like Marx's table becomes a commodity)

Did photorealism have sufficient force to rid the Tau Tau of its idolatrous appeal?

The extended hand was an ethical comportment between the living and the dead; the hands at rest shut down this ethical comportment.
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