Net Gains: Applying Theory and Interpretation

Material Culture: The LESLEY Documentation Project

I made the acquaintance of my gill net and floats one week ago, and it is time to begin situating how I will apply some of the theory readings in its interpretation and analysis.

I found this week’s reading of Martin Ames’ “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America” particularly compelling in relation to my objects. I’ve read this article before, but in the context of Progressive Era housing reform debates. To approach it with tangible (not to mention portable) objects in mind is equally fascinating, but in a different way. Ames argues that artifacts used together form “artifact constellations,” which in turn can reveal values and patterns of behavior inherent in microscopic moments. The encounters a Victorian might have in an entry hallway- hanging a hat, leaving a calling card, standing awkwardly waiting to be permitted (or not) into the private areas of the house- might have taken mere seconds, but the setup of the hall furniture illuminates the layers of meaning inscribed into this brief cultural action.

My net and gill floats are parts of a whole; they were used together, probably stored together, and certainly compose an artifact constellation. Without one piece of the collection, the others would be useless or at the very least would not communicate the same meaning. The accession record also specifies a hook that came with the other stuff- this, too, would be a part of the artifact constellation- but it wasn’t set up there in the archives.

The concept of a collection of objects brings me back to last week’s reading of Bruno LaTour’s “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans.” Admittedly, most of this article went over my head, but I was able to get the gist of LaTour’s theory that objects are actants just like humans are agents. The collective of humans and nonhumans- in this case, the net, the floats, and the user act as one entity. Therefore the sturgeon net and the sturgeon net floats and the person in the boat all compose the sturgeon fisherman. One of the questions that I have about these objects is how such simple tools managed to survive such a long time, eventually ending up in the collection of a museum.
I’m not able to observe the net being used in its original context, but I was able to find a video that illustrates the act of sturgeon fishing is one of a collective of humans and nonhumans. Thanks to the U.S. Navy for facilitating this!

I can only assume that this close, intimate association with the tools of the fishing trade would in turn increase the value of the artifacts to their creator/users, making them more likely to hold onto the objects because they directly helped to define the net’s user as a fisherman, with all the meaning that comes with that distinction.

This then leads me, in turn, to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “An Unfinished Stocking,” an examination of the valuation of thrift and perseverance, and the formation of feminine identity in early New England, through the lens of various unfinished knitting projects and their creators’ reflections on them. The titular unfinished stocking, still attached to needles and yarn, was kept long after it had been robbed of its role as “actant” in a physical sense. Still, the useless artifact probably continued to provide psychological meaning for its owner- a reminder of identity, an encapsulation of unrealistic aspirations, or a devotion to thrift as a cultural value manifested in an inability to throw anything away. The net and floats similarly became disused at some point- but why? Why hold onto it and the floats and the hook? These things aren’t small; they would take up a lot of storage space, space which could be used for other things- so it must have been important to somebody to keep it around.

As I dig further into my objects’ life stories, I’m pleased to be able to make some connections with the theoretical ideas that have come before, because they make me feel like I’m on track even while trying to do something completely new to me. I’m certain that I’ll continue to glean insights from the readings to come that will inform my research strategy, and I’ll be sure to write about them here.

Kenneth Ames, Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America,
Journal of Interdisciplinary History 9 (1978): 19-46.

Bruno LaTour, A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans: Following Daedalus s Labyrinth, in Pandora s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 174-215.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, An Unfinished Stocking, New England, 1837, in The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 374-412.