Secular materialism: a critique of earthly theory

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Over the last 20 years, studies of material culture have increasingly come to rely on the assumption that cultural and material forms are co-constitutive. Indeed, it is thought that the co-constitutive nature of culture and materiality guarantees the significance of materiality in the constitution of social relations. This article illustrates the limitations of the co-constitutive relation by characterizing it as overly secular. Specifically, it argues that the co-constitutive relation grounds the significance of material culture in a set of earthly dynamics that rob materiality of its privileged position. The article develops this position through two manoeuvres: (1) it describes a particular conception of absence as it is developed in current debates in continental theory; and (2) it demonstrates how a blindness to absence provides a limited understanding of the significance of material objects within social relations. In conclusion, the author argues that the recognition of absence re-orients the way we understand the significance of material objects by attuning us to how materiality marks that which is necessarily beyond the social.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)107-29
JournalJournal of Material Culture
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2011


  • absence
  • Christopher Tilley
  • Daniel Miller
  • Material Culture Studies
  • mystery


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