After reading the Introduction to Kenneth Haltman’s “Essays in Material Culture” I began to think about history and culture in a different way. Haltman mentions how peoples’ view of a culture may depend on the way a researcher writes about that culture. When a researcher writes a paper they are giving their own interpretation, which in turn influences the reader. Haltman points out the importance of this original interpretation from the researcher.
In the introduction Haltman offers a way for conducting research in the field of material culture, which is essentially the study of an object, from a particular place in time, in order to gain insight into the culture associated with that object. Haltman bases his method on the teachings of a man named Jules Prown. The method describes a step-by-step way of observing an object and creating an interpretation of the culture associated with that object.
I also read John Cline’s article in The Atlantic titled “What Is A Machete, Anyway?” to view a work that uses elements of Haltman’s method. Cline’s article addresses a legal case in which a man was arrested for carrying an unconcealed machete attached to his leg. Cline explores the machete and its symbolism as both an agricultural tool and a weapon in different cultures throughout history. While reading Cline’s article I was able to recognize several elements of Haltman’s method, which helped me gain a better understanding of the Haltman text and how to use it in my own writing.
First off, Cline’s object to study is the machete. This is the first step of Haltman’s method, choosing an important object to research. The machete has represented different aspects of culture throughout history, mainly farming and violence. These differing views of the machete recently led to the arrest of a citizen, making the machete a topical object to research. Referencing Jules Prown, Haltman states that the best objects to research are often attached to polarities, such as life/death or acceptance/rejection. Cline’s machete, if viewed as a weapon, could symbolize power/lack of control. Throughout history cultures, such as the Brazilians and Cubans, have used the machete as a weapon during revolutions. In a revolution two parties are fighting for power. Also, if seen as an agricultural tool, the machete could symbolize stasis/change. The invention of the machete helped to progress the agricultural industry in Europe.
Another important part of Haltman’s method is word choice. He states, “While we work “with” material objects, i.e. refer
“to” them, the medium in which we work as cultural historians is language.” A writer must carefully choose their words when describing an object or culture in order to successfully communicate their ideas to the reader. While reading Cline’s article I noticed his style of writing was lighthearted and, at times, comedic. This helped maintain the informative, as opposed to argumentative, purpose of the article. Cline wrote the article to explore the history of the machete’s symbolism in different cultures.
Overall, I believe that reading Cline’s article helped me to better understand the method of research presented by Haltman. The article showed me a practical application of some of the elements of Haltman’s method. In the future I will be able to apply the method in my own writings.
Haltman, Kenneth. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture. Michigan State University Press.
Cline, John. “What Is a Machete, Anyway?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Oct. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/what-is-a-machete-anyway/280705/.