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An essay on material objects, senses of belonging and commoditisation

Places and communities are two kinds of processes that are at the heart of globalisation for the reason that in an increasingly interconnected world people are more likely to experience a multiplicity of attachments or senses of belonging. Material objects are crucial in the way world citizens attach themselves to places and to communities. In this essay I focus on two case-studies based on the places of Stoke-on-Trent in England and Grasse in France which owe their sense of identity to objects in order to examine how the natural and industrial products traded from these areas function as a kind of glue that ties places and communities together. My evaluation leads to the idea that objects are not only crucial in defining transnational exchanges but that they also have the capacity to reify people, places and communities by turning them into tradable commodities.

My use of the term material objects refers to anything that represents the non-human world. This includes things such as pieces of pottery and perfume bottles but also the industrial and natural infrastructure from which these objects derive, such as factories, flower fields and all the machinery necessary for the production and export of commodities. Infrastructures are part of a wider web of elements that create meaning-invested spaces or places. This implies that places are a form of territory ‘associated with feeling, emotion or affect’ (Jones, 2008, p. 215) whereas they are often inhabited by another type of territory, the community, which may be defined as ‘a dense weave of social relations’ (Mohan, 2008, p. 279). Inhabitation may occur in physical or mental terms, in the sense that communities bound to specific places do not necessarily live there. Material objects function in this case as facilitators in the so-called process of affective territorialisation which creates a sense of belonging or identification with particular spaces or groups of people.

My case-studies of Stoke and Grasse are based on two articles published this year in the financial section of The Guardian and N, the Norwegian Airlines magazine respectively. Both places are known world-wide for their ceramics and perfume making industries that date back hundreds of years. This means that the size of the communities based in Stoke and Grasse have fluctuated wildly over time as the industries have undergone periods of growth and demise associated with the challenges presented by globalisation. However, it is suggested that both industries are currently experiencing a period of revival.

In The Guardian article, a range of interviewees such as tableware company representatives, local politicians and academics applaud the government’s decision to exempt ceramics from the climate change levy which is an energy tax on industry in order to subsidise renewable power (Rankin, 2013). Of particular interest is a comment by Labour MP Tristram Hunt who suggests that the worst of globalisation is over: ‘[You] see production regained from China, from Indonesia, because of rising energy costs. The wheel of globalisation is turning… and we are becoming more and more competitive’ (Rankin, 2013). All comments are characterised by topophilia as they demonstrate the strong bond that exists between the local communities and the industry of Stoke in which they take great pride and hope to see thriving in the future. An interesting characteristic of this particular example of topophilia is that it overrides environmental concerns and the government’s own green policy which privileges certain types of objects and places over others, both within its national territory and internationally. The purpose of this is understood to be a strengthening of the British brand abroad. It is reported that Steelite, the UK’s biggest producer of tableware sends about 80% of its products to foreign markets and that demand from America, Russia and Asia is rising. “Customers in these overseas markets truly value ‘Made in Britain’” says Kevin Oakes, Steelite’s chief executive (Rankin, 2013).

In the case of Grasse, ‘the perfume capital of the world’, the local industry has also been challenged by globalisation and advancements in technology. Toby Skinner reports that ‘[the] fields of rose, jasmine, tuberose and mimosa that annually blanket the hills around the town are no longer the precious resource they once were’. (Skinner, 2013). This is because the rise of synthetic production in the 20th century democratised perfume whereas global economics has also played its part in that flowers from Grasse cost several times more than equivalent amounts imported for example from Bulgaria (Skinner, 2013). However, the local industry figures interviewed in the article are optimistic about the size of their businesses which continue to thrive as they do not solely rely on perfume making but also on organised tours which draw in one million people a year (Skinner, 2013).  The interplay between the local and the global is multi-layered in Grasse, whose perfumers, as much as they have suffered from the import of essential oils from different parts of the world, still rely on them for their survival. This is made explicit in an interview with boutique perfumer Didier Gaglewski who imports cedarwood essence from the US, vetiver oil from Haiti and ylang-ylang essential oils from the Comoros Islands. On the other hand, the big companies that were built on synthetics are now coming to Grasse which is taking advantage of the global organic movement in which all things natural are favoured over the synthetic. This global trend is benefiting the local small-scale organic flower producers who have formed a collective supplying directly the big companies (Skinner, 2013).

These cases highlight the central importance of material objects in reinforcing a sense of belonging to the communities that have formed around their trade, consisting of native populations as well as newcomers who all rely upon global supply and demand in order to form personal and communal identities. Furthermore, the role of material objects can have such power that it often enables a reverse process to take place whereby individuals, places and communities become tradable commodities themselves such as the ‘Made in Britain’ brand.

As a first example, the British-Japanese designer Reiko Kaneko who operates in Stoke, combines the use of modern technology and the centuries-old local expertise in order to create Japanese inspired tableware and vases. This fusion of the designer’s work practices and identities which become embodied in material objects could be considered to be an example of embedded cosmopolitanism in that it represents a negotiation of the global and local and of Kaneko’s multiple attachments. Furthermore, the name of the designer is a trademark associated closely with a very specific type of product – and by consequence the name itself, as the designer’s home page reikokaneko.co.uk indicates, is the saleable object.

On the other hand, the very appearance of an article on Grasse in an airline magazine signals the commodification of the place itself precisely due to its local character and the value of its material objects which are used in order to attract tourists. Airline magazines typically commission this type of articles in order to promote their routes – every article is accompanied by information about how to travel to a particular destination. This practice reinforces the sense of embedded cosmopolitanism as the magazines juxtapose destination tips aimed at the ever-increasing number of international travellers thanks to a boom in the low-cost airline sector.

Finally, nations themselves increasingly become branded goods as they compete in the international arena for investment and influence. Big national spectacles and events organised by national and diasporic communities such as the Ghanafest (Mohan, 2008, pp. 301-303) do not only use material objects such as Kente cloth or traditional foods in order to reinforce community attachments but also as an exercise in nation branding, which aims to promote the national identity for trade reasons both at home and abroad. On a similar note, an interesting paper by sociologist Laurence Wai-Teng Leong discusses the phenomenon of national day parades in Singapore as an example of how the very idea of nation is commoditised and consumed. A variety of objects which range from the khaki military uniforms to the parade kits full of miscellaneous paraphernalia that are delivered to the spectators serve to reinforce a sense of identity and community to all Singaporeans whether they live in the country or watch the spectacle from abroad. As Wai-Teng Leong explains, it is consumption that generates common bonds and collective identities and calls the nation ‘an imagined community of consumption’ which anchors the collectivity into a sense of nationhood (Wai-Teng Leong, 2001, p. 11).

At the age of globalisation and social media, the relationship between material objects, places and communities and how these are used in order to develop a sense of belonging are becoming ever more complex. Ceramics, perfumes and military uniforms serve both as symbols for community identification and catalysts for the objectification and commodification of individuals, places and communities. One can ‘like’ on Facebook a jar of Nutella in exactly the same way as one can ‘like’ a football team or a country or a country’s president. The online presence of any material object, person or group enables all sorts of identifications and affective territorialisations regardless of proximity or distance whilst at the same time turning everything into a tradable commodity.

References:

Jones, O. (2008) ‘Of trees and trails: place in a globalised world’ in Clark, N. et al. (eds.) Material Geographies: A World in the Making, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Mohan, G. (2008) ‘Community, cloth and other travelling objects’ in Clark, N. et al. (eds.) Material Geographies: A World in the Making, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Rankin, J. (2013) ‘After years of decline, ceramics firms get fired up over budget tax break’ in The Guardian, March 23, 2013, p. 46 [Print edition]

Reiko Kaneko. Website URL http://www.reikokaneko.co.uk/ (last accessed on 5 August 2013)

Skinner, T. (2013) ‘A nose in front’ in N, Issue 7, July 2013, pp. 56-66

Wai-Teng Leong, L. (2001) ‘Consuming the nation: National day parades in Singapore’ in New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 3, 2 (December, 2001) pp. 5-16 [Online] Available at http://www.nzasia.org.nz/downloads/NZJAS-Dec01/Leong.pdf (last accessed 5 August 2013)

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Posted by on October 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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My notes from the public event Climate Change – the State of the Science (Stockholm, 28 September)

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–       Hans Rosling of the Karolinska Institute who is not a climate change expert noted that the hard work of the IPCC embodies the scientific function at its best. However, predicting the future is even harder. There is a strong element of unpredictability in the conclusions because even though the question of human influence on climate is settled, we do not know how humans are going to act from now on. Also, the phenomena caused by climate change do not affect all countries equally. For example sea rises would have no impact in Sweden but would be catastrophic in Bangladesh. Rosling put the blame squarely on rich countries not only in terms of their emission levels (China still has not reached the US levels of 1900) but also for patronising poorer countries in terms of population control and accusing them of not doing what they themselves fail to do. We haven’t even started tapping into the sustainable energy potential. In other words, there is a huge inequality problem.

–       Professor Thomas Stocker of IPCC Working Group I emphasised the length of the process, the number of authors involved and the scrutiny to which the findings have been subjected. He presented 7 out of the 19 headlines that have been endorsed by all world governments (these are widely available online).

Things to note:

–       In terms of cooperation with governments, there were requests for more information and therefore there are more additions than omissions in the report (no hiding or watering down of facts). No key messages or figures have been left out. Even though this report was hard to produce, there has been better cooperation with governments this time round. The aim of the IPCC is not to influence governments but to provide information.

–       Even though human activities as well as non-human variabilities are measured (fingerprinting of solar, volcanic power etc.), some factors are very difficult and expensive to assess, for example the role of deep oceans. We know about the effect on coral reefs and that the impact on organisms is a ticking bomb. However, we don’t know whether the large amount of emissions that have been stored by the Earth (30% residing in the oceans) would come out again. There is also uncertainty around the possible release of methane which is currently stored in permafrost and the circulation in the Atlantic which warms Northern Europe. This is really difficult science and there are very few models available. The sea rise levels discussion attracts fierce positions and there is no scientific consensus about the validity of different approaches.

–       The Antarctic remains a territory of extremely large variability and thus difficult to assess. It is much more complicated than the Arctic and that is why Greenland features more prominently in the report.

–       The scenario of least temperature change requires huge efforts in terms of offsetting emission programmes (carbon sequestration and reforestation).

–       The scientists appeared concerned about media representations of the assessment report. The issue of climate sensitivity is bound to be raised. There is new evidence in this report but change is very small in comparison to the last report. The IPCC was able to convince governments on this front. Questions are also likely to be raised about pre-industrial times measurements. The reference period in the new report starts in 1850 as opposed to 1750 in previous reports. According to the scientists this difference in baseline is negligible and doesn’t make any difference. Finally, the range of temperature projections needs to be communicated very well. Cumulative emissions are important. There is a danger that things are picked out of context when there is a whole range of scenarios that should be looked at. The issue of  responsibility on the part of the media in reporting things correctly was raised by everyone on the panel.

–       The question of inequalities between scientists from different parts of the world was also discussed. Because the IPCC work is done on a voluntary basis, scientists who lack institutional support may be left out of the process even though the IPCC emphasises its global character. All of the panel scientists reported stories of inequality (70 scientists in every million of population in Africa, 4,000 in every million in North America). IPCC scientists try to help colleagues from poorer countries with training and publishing so that their findings become part of the wider scientific understanding.

–       Finally, concerns were raised about the burden on scientists. This has become too high and we should start thinking about other ways to inform the public. There was some discussion around the effectiveness of the special reports that are released periodically as on one hand more attention should be brought to them but on the other it has been shown that assessment is the most powerful tool.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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