Material and Visual Worlds

Objects and images have an undeniable hold on us. We may take them for granted; yet they shape our behavior even as our desires and behavior shape them. As humans, the material and visual forms we create define us to a remarkable extent.

Increasingly, scholars recognize the fundamental role of materiality in shaping humanity. Ours is a material world, one that consists of ceaseless and varied interactions among people and their artifacts – including those artifacts we call images. Today we are called to think through things, to understand them as active players in our lives rather than as means to other ends. A well-established tradition has explored how the world has been represented; increasingly we are now asking how the material also makes the world. We depend upon this material and visual culture, and through it realize our grandest aspirations. Our challenge is to consider how objects and images have joined with human actions, emotions and relations to make and remake society and culture from ancient times to the present.

In this changing intellectual landscape, scholars from a wide variety of disciplines – the social sciences, the humanities and the fine arts – seek to analyze things and images as gatherings of technologies, materials, histories and interactions extending through space and time. The production and distribution of a commodity reshapes a vast global landscape. Gift exchange between cultures establishes diplomatic and economic ties. The physical expression of a border between nations both constrains and enables behavior on both sides. Our approaches to the material world challenge us to consider its impact on the most diverse realms of human life.