The Object Cultures Project (OCP) intends to formulate and confront new questions about how people transform the physical object world, and about how that world, in turn, transforms them. In other words, at its most encompassing, the project concerns the mutual constitution of subject and object, the animate and inanimate, person and thing. We understand object culture as the system (material, economic, symbolic) through which objects become meaningful, registered by the lived experience of the nonhuman environment (natural and artefactual).

Such concerns become more local and particular when we address how people, individually and collectively, identify themselves through objects; how objects mediate social interaction; how different media mediate our apprehension of objects; and how material structures license and limit human possibility. Questions may range from the ontological (How has the human/nonhuman divide been designated and regulated?) and the phenomenological (How do subjects constitute an object of attention) to the anthropological, historical, and sociological (How have objects been deployed on behalf of cultural and subcultural formations? What psychic and social structures account for the value or significance of objects?). The project means to create an environment where different disciplines can learn from one another, and where the object relations from distinct cultures can shed new light on cultural distinction as such, as on cultural transactions, past and present. (What are the poetics and politics of collection, preservation, and exchange? More generally: How do we understand and describe the practices by which the inanimate object world becomes organized? What is the role of monuments and monumentality? What are the privileged modes of physical transgression, destruction and resuscitation?)

Unfolding under the auspices of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, and at the intersection of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the OCP shares the Center’s effort to pursue a “vigorous rethinking of the contemporary world,” not least by pursuing a perspective that addresses “the material and moral, social and semiotic dimensions of life in our times.” In our times, the global economy (and its effect on the distribution of production and consumption sites), the new threats to the nonhuman environment (both the natural world and built space), and the digitization of experience-each in its way calls for some unforeseen effort to re-engage the material world, and each points toward some as yet untheorized horizon. Whereas traditional Marxism and structuralism emphasized systems at the expense of material specificity, and whereas various poststructuralisms have emphasized the discursive and social constructedness of phenomena, the OCP is invested in locating the physical object world (and the physicality of that world) at the very center of analysis. This hardly means resorting to the dictates of empiricism. It does mean recognizing how critical thought too often risks compounding the abstracting forces of contemporary life, and recognizing how questions about the physicality of the everyday (past and present) have been foreclosed before they’ve been fully formed. It means pursuing a new materialism that indulges in what Arjun Appadurai terms “methodological fetishism” in order to determine what the dislocation, circulation, and transformation of objects can disclose about human subjects.

The OCP thus seeks to sustain, strengthen, and sharpen the attention to objects and the “social life of things” that has recently been generated within such fields as history and anthropology, literary studies and art history. Moreover, the project hopes to examine the ways this attention intersects with developments within museum studies, archaeology, the history of science, and material culture studies (traditionally understood).