Andrew S. Tompkins

Introduction: The Material Culture of Politics

Introduction to the special issue of the International Journal of History, Culture and Modernity, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2018), pp.1–12.

Co-authored with Jan Hansen, Jochen Hung and Philip Wagner.

Excerpt: Objects became intrinsic to political communication in the societies of Cold War Europe. Consumer items became essential features in expressing, defending and challenging political meaning. By expanding the rules of political communication, things – and their associated practices – also contributed to altering the structure of political discourse. Objects are subject to the agency of those that would use them, but they can also obstinately resist any definitive meaning that their users might seek to impose. Attention to materiality thus reminds us of the work – practices, processes and performances – involved in imbuing the world with meaning. At the same time, things physically and symbolically structure political acts in ways that impede completely open-ended interpretations: objects themselves can generate unexpected (and unintended) dynamics. Material culture then forms a necessary part of political history, possessing the potential to disrupt the apparent certainties of ‘politics’. When we interpret the political solely in terms of seemingly clear discursive abstractions, we risk losing sight of the material rough edges that make it so contested, conflicting and problematic.