Laying Up Treasures

(Co-PI, with Andrew Shryock). This working group, consisting of a team of scholars drawn from many disciplines, seeks to explore patterns of storage and accumulation in human societies. It is motivated by this simple question: If we are a species of givers and takers, what explains those moments when things stop flowing through human groups and instead pool? Things can pool in many ways, in forms ranging from collections and libraries to compulsive hoards and the junk that gathers in basements and drawers. Where the storage and accumulation of wealth is concerned, the question is one of great urgency today, given how inequality is increasingly treated as a matter of differential access to things. The deep history of things suggests the unusual nature of human hoarding today. Things have proliferated in stages over the last 50,000 years, just as human populations have, with a noteworthy velocity in the last five to ten thousand years and an even faster pace during the last two centuries. At the same time, a diverse array of human institutions that prevent the circulation of things also began to emerge. This alternative development is epitomized by the fact that the movement of things, when it is constrained, is often constrained by a special kind of thing: a container. Humans did not always have containers. Containers external to our bodies evolved as we began to co-opt old materials, like fibers and bone, for new purposes, such as clothing, baskets, and flutes, the latter of which contain sound in their chambers. Today, we inhabit a world filled with vast assemblages of finished goods and commodities, but we also inhabit a world of multiform containers, which now include houses, cities, entire ecosystems, and the information technologies that enable us to make and manage them. As containers have multiplied, so have patterns of containment, necessarily putting a brake on the circulation of things, channeling them into stockpiles, collections, and storehouses, thereby transforming logics of circulation and movement into logics of keeping.

We welcome letters of inquiry from interested scholars and potential collaborators; please write to Smail at the email address listed above.