The Material Culture of Failure

The Material Culture of Failure

Aaron Parkhurst

What happens when objects behave unexpectedly or fail to do what they ‘should’? Even when materials, and the institutions in which they are embedded, perform mechanically in the way in which they were designed, they may fail to ‘socially’ do what is expected of them. Who defines failure? Is failure always bad? Rather than viewing concepts such as failure, incoherence or incompetence as antithetical to social life, this innovative new book examines the unexpected and surprising ways in which failure, for better or for worse, can lead to productive and creative results.

As the editors of the Material Culture of Failure, we are proud to announce the coming release of the edited volume on May 12, at UCL. The book, published by Bloomsbury, is a collaborative project with UCL anthropology, intersecting with Material Culture Studies, Social Anthropology and Medical Anthropology. Combining both theoretical and ethnographic approaches to failure, The Material Culture of Failure explores how failure manifests itself and operates in a variety of contexts. We present ten ethnographic encounters of failure – from areas as diverse as design, textiles, religion, beauty, and physical failure – covering Europe, North America, Asia, Africa, and the Arabian Gulf. Identifying common themes such as interpersonal, national and religious articulations of power and identity, the book shows some of the underlying assumptions that are revealed when materials fail, designs crumble, or things develop unexpectedly.

Two chapters specifically borrow from themes in Medical Anthropology to highlight the productivity of failure in different contexts. My own chapter draws upon ethnography in the United Arab Emirates to show how the human body, and specifically the surface of the skin, ‘misbehaves’ in light of complex understandings of modernity. Skin whitening products are utilised as a material form of adaptation and resistance, yet they often fail to produce the sociality that motivates their use.

Contrast in Dubai.jpg

(Black and white cultures in Dubai. Migrant workers watch European expats tanning at a free ‘public’ beach from which they are excluded. Photo by author)

Ben Kasstan’s chapter highlights healing institutions and health infrustructures among the “hard to reach” Haredi Jewish communities in Manchester, UK. His ethnography demonstrates how these institutions are cultural responses to the failures of the governing state, and how they emerge from a powerful clash of expectations and ideologies between British health governance and Haredi communities. This failure of coherence between Haredi agency and state expectations result in the creation of sophisticated material cultures of Bodily care.

Failure, as a concept, is difficult to write about in ethnography. It is, in its fashion, always a moral accusation, whether it is invoked by us as anthropologists, or by our informants. However, we find these moral accusations and assumptions meaningful, embedded deeply in the concerns of the people with whom we engage, and always in the making. We hope the ethnographies presented in the volume contribute to larger debate and discussion within the field.

Leave a Reply