Container-Assemblages

Here are some quotes and notes from an article titled “Contained within history” (Robb, 2018):

Let us not reify containers. As material culture, they have one unique  and defining characteristic: they cannot be understood on their own,  apart from their contents. This is not to get sucked into the Platonic ideal of form and matter, the Biblical parable of new wine in old wineskins, in which one half of the dualism is incomplete without the other half.  Rather, containers change with their contents. To take a simple but  non-trivial example, an empty  amphora [a tall ancient Greek or Roman jar with two handles and a narrow neck] might  weigh five  kilos. A full  one not only is valued  differently;  it might weigh 5 or 10 times this,  changing  who can lift and carry it, how one sails a boat  piled  high with  amphorae, and how likely it is to break if it  shifts or falls.  In functional  terms, it is a different object.  And this is even more so when we move  on to bags, wrappings or rooms, which  morph around their contents.  Then there are containers of the mind,  such as social groups, which are  neither transparent accumulations of  their  members nor immutable  containers for the people who happen  to be within them. The container  and the thing contained? They relate as intimately and problematically  as body and  soul.

Containers, in fact, are the prepositions of the thing world. They connect things. They have been largely overlooked in the history of technology,  which has focused upon the active verbs (above all cutting edges, such as stone tools and metal blades), the nouns (which provide content: we see the grain without noticing the bag it is in) and perhaps the adjectives of material qualities. Like prepositions, containers are a relational or enabling technology. They are omnipresent but self-effacing.  They rarely  act  directly.  Proteanly,  they transform how other objects can act. 

Robb, J. (2018). Contained within history. History and Anthropology, 29(1), 32-36.

To say that social groups are not merely the transparent containers of their members recalls the fallacy of composition. A system is not simply the sum of its parts. If a few people meet in a social group, the group is not just the sum of the individuals; new qualities emerge that didn’t exist in the individuals.

I also find the idea of containers as prepositions very interesting. They connect or relate things. A hangman’s rope connects a person to a scaffold, making a person-rope-scaffold assemblage. Robb states that the history of technology overlooks connectors in favor of objects like cutting edges. The scaffold is given more attention than the rope.

Categories are a kind of container.

Containers separate and organize their contents, imposing order and countering entropy. They are fundamental instruments of categorization; they maintain boundaries between pure and impure, special and ordinary, sacred and profane, and so on. A wrapping keeps food and dust apart, a wallet segregates objects of value, a photo album organizes chronologies and memories, a tomb contains the dead. On the larger scale, from the Neolithic onwards, one major task of buildings as containers has been sorting people into categories and relations of inclusion and exclusion, equality and hierarchy.

All quotes are from Robb (2018).

From a systems-theoretical perspective, the bit about countering entropy is interesting. Autopoietic systems resist entropy; they are negentropic. An autopoietic system is a selectively permeable container. Containers create order.

Perhaps the best phylogeny of containers as a means of creating order is how people have contained the dead. The Palaeolithic dead seem mostly to have been dispersed in the landscape, as far as we can tell, providing us with an intriguing example of a refusal to contain; in modern times, at least, such a refusal to contain the dead evidences the desire to terminate an assemblage definitely (for instance, so as not to provide a shrine for extremists). Since then, tombs have mostly been about creating order in relations between the living, the dead and places, with some element of creating secure spaces to keep the dead safe from us and vice versa.  Both prehistoric burials and medieval burials, for instance, may have had pretensions to eternity, but effectively they contained the dead for a generation or two, until memory lapsed and/or the space became disturbed; the role of the cemetery as a whole was to create a general social collectivity of the dead mirroring that of the living.

So we have cities of the living and cities of the dead (e.g. Cairo’s Necropolis). But containers can also be a memory technology. Consider the transparent containers that display the embalmed bodies of Mao, Stalin, Lenin, etc.

But in periods in which the dead are a social or political resource, burial containers often become a memory technology which retains the dead visibly for future use; this is the case in different ways for both prehistoric collective tombs and monumental historical tombs. 

In prison, putting an inmate in solitary confinement is meant to terminate or at least suspend an assemblage–the assemblage being the inmate and other inmates.

Containers are used to create distinct spaces and to manipulate time.

From its beginnings in the Neolithic, pottery already took specialized forms which created assemblages for manipulating time (the storage jar), creating restricted microenvironments (the cooking vessel) and creating social order (serving vessels, whether ornate or governed by other social logics such as standardized bowls for rations). 

Specialized containers for wealth provide another example. By definition, these are a temporal technology; they dam the flow of value to create reservoirs for the future.

Container-assemblages gain emergent properties.

Thinking in concrete terms about exactly how these object define and relate substances and create assemblages with new emergent properties focuses attention on more complex issues. One is how containers act back upon people to enforce ways of thinking. From the first container, the human body, onwards, containers and containing have provided key metaphors for understanding the world.

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