Material Minds, Material Angels

Our sense of self, our memories, and even our morals are not generated solely by our bodies. Landscapes and material things reach deep into the psyche and configure our lives.

Glimmering Space (the murder site of Matthew Shepard), 2017, oil on wood, 25" x 25"

As Bruno Latour (2012) puts it, modern humanists are reductionist because they attribute agency to a small number of powers, “leaving the rest of the world with nothing but simple mute forces.” We make memories, we make decisions, and we make religions, while the rest of the world provides props, stages, and backdrops.

But this humanist assumption is easy to disrupt. In Death, Memory and Material Culture (2001), we read about the role of the body and its material environment in the making of all mental images and meanings. We read specifically how objects and the rituals around them shape the memory of dead friends, lovers, and even entire generations. Likewise, in The Memory of Clothes (2015), Robyn Gibson points out the ways in which memories and traces of the past are woven or stitched into the fabrics of our clothes. What we wear, and when we wear it, can be a determining factor in our subjective, mental state.

When my nephew was four, he fell and got a concussion, and at the hospital, he didn’t know his name, age, where he was, nothing. He did know, however, all about his favorite stuffed animal, calling for it by name. My sister raced home to get the toy, and as soon as my nephew touched, smelled, and tasted its fake fur, all his memories came flooding back. He returned home; he returned to his… self?

Toys can “speak” to us, in-form us, as can food. La petite madeleine, from Proust’s mega-novel In Search Of Lost Time, is a popular example of the way material things evoke memories of place and speak to us via synesthesia/cross-sensory perception. When Proust sees the madeleine, nothing happens, but when he tastes the moist cake a whole ocean of lost memories floods his consciousness. Not the sight, but the taste of the cake brings him back.

Proust’s cookie-memory connection foresaw what neuroscientists would only recently discover: smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory (Lehrer 2007). Historians of the senses also speak of how memories evoked by olfactory cues are sometimes the most powerful and the most meaningful. Sight puts everything at a distance, whereas smell and taste bring the material world into the body. They can trigger an ‘excavation’ of consciousness that recovers a primary connection to origin, to spirit, to self, and to our shared materiality.

Ian Hodder (2012) takes this idea into the excavated site of Catalhoyuk, where 9000-year-old balls of clay were found with children’s teeth marks in them. He insists that the taste of the clay, like the madeleine, must have linked a Neolithic person to a particular site of memories. Smell and taste are ‘archaic senses’ that can even take us back to the mysteries of hominization, and to the shift from estrus to menses, to the pheromonal environment that surrounds the birth of the human species itself– “the evolutionary reorchestration of the sensorium in the shift from olfaction in the leaf-darkened forest of the primates to sight in the open and sun-drenched savanna of the hominids.” The other senses (hearing, sight, touch) are much less efficient in conjuring up our past.


If a little cookie can facilitate such a profound communication with our past, just imagine what an entire landscape can facilitate! Place, memory, ethnicity, and subjectivity all intersect. The great anthropologist Frances Pine (2001), for example, after researching a town in Poland, concludes that, “more than anything else, I would argue, it is land — the named fields, pastures, and forests of the village and the slopes and peaks of the mountains beyond — which holds memory in this region.”

Without landscapes, it’s hard to transmit a culture across time. Stories take place. For example, we often see gardens, pastures, parks, and peaks direct and organize major religious narratives. The story of the ministry of Jesus is often divided up into a series of places where he taught, and this mental map helps believers remember and retell the stories. Likewise, one of the six requirements of a Buddhist sutra is that it must first describe the place where the Buddha gave the teaching. We especially find this narrative trend in indigenous American oral spiritual traditions. For example, the White Mountain Apache, according to anthropologist Keith Basso, experience landscape and the story of themselves simultaneously: “You cannot live in that land without asking or looking at or noticing a boulder or rock. And there’s always a story.” The phenomenologist Christopher Tilley (1994) elaborates: “In narratives, geographical features of the landscape act as mnemonic pegs on which moral teachings hang…Through the use of historical tales, events are located at named points, and the tales themselves are about correct codes of moral conduct.”

Landscapes and material things reach deep into the psyche because they reach it not through abstract knowledge, but through sensorimotor experience. Nicole Boivin, in Material Cultures, Material Minds (2008), puts it this way: “These items of the material world […] their very power may lie in the fact that they are part of the realm of the sensual, of experience, and of emotion, rather than a world of concepts, codes, and meaning.” Nicholas Humphrey (1984) describes this point bluntly: “Let a celibate monk just once make love to a woman and he would be surprised how much better he would understand the Song of Solomon; but let him, like an academic psychologist, observe twenty people in the park and he would not be that much wiser.” Rosemary Joyce, in her essay Bodies Moving in Space: Ancient Mesoamerican Human Sculpture and Embodiment, points out ways material things reinforce class, dictate human movement, regulate social and private behaviors, boundaries, and inspire bodily displays. We see it every day: Life imitating Art imitating Life imitating Art…a feedback loop between sculpture and identity, between material “objects” and immaterial “subjectivity.” Joyce concludes: “We need theories of personhood in which the person may have many parts, not all of them unique, not all of them bounded by the skin.”

Selfhood extends into the mineral realm, too, just as the mineral realm extends into our selfhood. Just consider the iron core of the planet. Without its magnetosphere, we wouldn’t have an atmosphere of oxygen to breathe and to convert into consciousness. This is another way the mineral realm supports the mental. William Thompson and Michael Garfield talk about the mythical jinn/elemental beings, “who inhabit the sacred mountain or the volcano,” and who are now moving into the minerals and crystals of our computers and cell phones. We forget that even our seemingly etherial wifi is supported by a network of mineral servers and satellites — there are stones in the cloud.

We offload/upload/store unimaginable amounts of memory and attention into our phones. They are an umbilical cord to the extended placental cyber libraries of our minds. We feel anxiety and even “nomophobia” whenever we are cut off from our phones. It is as Marshall McLuhan professed: Every new ‘extension’ requires an ‘amputation.’ Philosopher of mind and professor at New York University, David Chalmers, argues that our phones are now literal extensions of our brains. We hold them so close to our bodies they may as well be inserted into our skulls. Right now they remain in our pockets and palms, which works really well, but our science-fiction stories consistently point to brain implants and contact lenses.


Computer chips are not the only things that contain ‘memory.’ The idea of material cultural transmitters, as well as material organizers of the mind and mental worlds, relates to how humans offload memory into special objects. In his Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Merlin Donald calls these magnificent objects “exograms.” This memory technology goes all the way back to the caves and stone artifacts, and neuroscientist Terrence Deacons (1997) argues that paleolithic rock art is “the first irrefutable expressions of a symbolic process that is capable of conveying a rich cultural heritage of images and probably stories from generation to generation.” They are the first concrete evidence of the storage of such symbolic information outside of a human brain. Things become mnemonic devices, aka ‘messengers,’ delivering cultural information through time. Philosopher of science, Michel Serres, calls these message-bearers “Angels” (1995), “because our universe is organized around message-bearing systems, and because, as message-bearers, they are more numerous, complex and sophisticated than Hermes, who was only one person, and a cheat and a thief to boot…Each Angel is a bearer of one or more relationships; today they exist in myriad forms, and every day we invent billions of new ones.” With the use of these non-human things, thoughts and memories become more durable and more easily transmissible and reformattable across media and contexts, and then we can get plugged into vastly larger databases of inherited knowledge. Our skilled use of such objects or message-bearers gives us our ‘extended brain,’ which means we can create and support ideas and memories beyond those of creatures restricted to the brain’s biological memories or ‘engrams’ alone (Donald 1991).

Jean-Pierre Warnier (2001) notes this is because material objects have the advantage of being fairly permanent: they help the psyche in its work of establishing duration, memory and a sense of continuity. Serres says our relationships would have been “airy as clouds” were there only contracts between subjects. In fact, objects stabilize our relationships… and slow them down (1995). Philosophers and archeologists point out that even the mundane things in our lives, like those tiny, shiny objects that litter a dining-room table, are products of technoscience instrumental in shaping the culture. It’s again just like McLuhan said: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” This has also been emphasized by M. Kwint et all (1999) in Material Memories, which examines the way that objects ‘speak’ to us through the memories that we associate with them. Kwint observes that objects serve memory in three main ways: they constitute our picture of the past, they stimulate remembering, and objects form records: analogs to living memory, storing information beyond individual experience. McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message” takes on an almost animistic meaning in this context. Do things really ‘speak” to us, or through us? Can they move us? Do they have this ability, this agency? Should we call certain things ‘non-human persons’?

The point is that non-human entities, whatever they are, configure our lives, our minds, our morals, and our memories. If memory is a performance of the past in the present, it is essential to account for the material world as a medium through which performances of memory take place. Although many people still adhere to the idea that mind, body, and world are separate and distinct, there is an increasing recognition that this metaphysics can no longer be maintained. When we step back and look at our minds and, more specifically, our memories, we see that the distinctions between inside awareness and outside stimulus is only an assumption. We see that things continually tell us who we are, and help us remember why we matter.

Selected References

Boivin, N. (2010) Material Culture, Material Minds (Cambridge Univerity Press)

Gibson, R. (2015) The Memory of Clothes (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers).

Halbwachs, M. (1992) On Collective Memory (Trans. L. A. Coser) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Hallan, E., and J. Hockey (2001) Death, Memory and Material Culture (Oxford: Berg).

Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell).

Knappett, C., and L. Malafouris (eds) (2008) Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach (New York: Springer).

Kwint, M, et al. (1999) Material Memories: Design and Evocation (Oxford: Berg). 1–16.

Latour, B. (2012) We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press)

Lehrer, J. (2007) Proust Was A Neuroscientist

Olsen, B. (2013) In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield).

Pine, J. (2007) Ghosts of Memory: Essays on Remembrance and Relatedness

Saltzman, L. (2006) Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Samuel, R. (2012) Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso).

Serres, M. (1995) Angels, A Modern Myth (Random House)

Thompson, W. (1998) Coming Into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness

Warnier, J. (2001) A praxeological approach to subjectivation in a material world. Journal of Material Culture

Painter and Professor of Art