Stuff. By Daniel Miller. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010. Pp. vi + 169, notes, index.
Daniel Miller's Stuff is a call to anthropologists and the everyday man alike to open their eyes and to look closely at the "stuff" that has piled up and disappeared around them. Throughout his chapters on clothing, houses, media and mobile phones, and matters of life and death, Miller tries to get us to see the stuff around us for the agency and influence it has, not just over us, but over culture as well. Why does stuff matter to Miller? Stuff creates us in the first place, he claims, and in today's globalizing, modernizing world, where material goods are a source of cross-cultural connection, it is the particular use, meanings, and relationships between an individual and stuff that ultimately keeps cultural diversity alive.
In his first chapter on "Why Clothing is Not Superficial," Miller sets out to prove that anthropology and its role in mapping out the particulars of humanity has not been reduced by modernity, the capitalist market, and the material homogenization across the globe as some scholars feared. Through examples from India, England, and Trinidad, Miller highlights the layers of meaning behind clothing, emphasizing that clothing is not just a three-dimensional means of style or superficial representation. Material stuff isn't important to us just because of its functionalism. If we made things, bought things and owned things just because of their functional qualities, then humans would be rather homogenous in their use of things, with variation occurring only across an environmental spec trum, claims Miller. Rather, clothing carries with it the feelings and emotions of the person it covers, along with their societal experiences: all the particulars that anthropologists identify among today's mass-produced and widely-distributed t-shirts and blue jeans.
The meat of Stuff that ties all Miller's anecdotes and case studies together is his chapter on "Theories of Things," where Miller looks through past theories in anthropology and sociology in search of a theory of stuff that doesn't reduce it to material representations of social relations. In this chapter, Miller takes the reader on a trek from the base of a mountain--where he introduces his own early attempts at theorizing about stuff based upon the structuralist ideas of Levi-Strauss--up the cliffs to a Marxist perspective centered around self-alienation and oppression under the power of...