This colloquium brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to consider the relationship between two constructs that have gained increasing prominence in the humanities and social sciences in recent years: materiality and cultural translation. The participants are trained in history, art history, anthropology, archaeology, and translation studies, and their areas of interest represent a wide range of cultures and time periods. They are invited to present case studies taken from past or current work in which in which material and visual culture figure as factors in historical and cultural process. They are also asked to reflect on the translation processes that intervene in communicating the meanings of these processes to different publics, both past and present. Some participants may want to explore these issues amongst different groups of people in the same time period and/or location, while others may want to analyse the translational work of disciplinary practices as interpretative discourses. (Historians, for example, acknowledge this kind of bridging activity when they speak of “the past as a foreign country.”)
The material and visual turn that marks recent scholarship in the humanities and social sciences is proving to be remarkably fertile. On one level this development has been understood as a reaction against the limitations of the ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1980s and early 90s and its privileging of language and text as the irreducible ground for the mediation of experience and the communication of knowledge. For students of visuality and materiality, these modes of expressive culture have Aspects of autonomous agency, and can play directly formative roles in shaping human experience, actions and social relations.
In exploring these problems, scholars in different disciplines draw on a shared theoretical repertoire that addresses perception, exchange, psychoanalysis, globalization, modernity, the gift, agency, and cultural biography. The impacts and opportunities offered by the material and visual turn vary, however, in relation to each discipline. For historians, interests in consumer culture, colonial systems of exchange, and the histories of marginalized groups have been stimuli for the study of material objects and visual images. These sources add in turn to the range of available evidence and lead to the development of new methods and practices. For art historians, the frameworks of material and visual culture not only enlarge the field of objects but also disrupt long-standing hierarchies of fine and applied arts and bring renewed attention to the material properties of works of art. For anthropologists, the renewal of interest in material culture has led to new theorizations of the anthropology of art and visual anthropology, and supports work on consumption in contemporary societies and critical analyses of museum representation. For archaeologists—and others—the material turn can bring new attention to non-visual sensory experiences and their synaesthetic interconnections.
The notion of translation has achieved a similar currency in many disciplines, reflecting the intensified pressures of globalization, the re-emphasis of cosmopolitan values, and the revival of comparative and “world” frameworks of study.