2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Material Culture Beyond the East/West Binary

Craig Clunas

Department of Art and Archaeology,
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

This article provides a brief overview of the progress and shortcomings of the academic discipline of design history, also called material culture studies. One of the most severe shortcomings of design history is that scholars in the past have often used the crude and simplistic East/West binary for analyzing the production and consumption of material culture. This article shows how the East/West binary model has often determined what historians and curators consider as legitimate topics for inclusion into histories and exhibitions of material culture and design.  In fact, the consumption of artwork is better described with the concept of hybridity—as for example ‘Westerners’ consume and influence the design of works produced in the ‘East’—even while we recognize that “hybridity” rests on a false essentialism that denies the heterogeneity of all cultures.  Furthermore, inter-Asian exchanges have long been just as important as any set of “East-West” exchanges.  The second part of the articles discusses the generally neglected importance of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the development of consumer culture, which must also take into account questions of production.  Modern material culture (1800-1950 and beyond) is particularly resistant to categorization as ‘eastern’ or ‘western’.  In the final analysis, we must abandon the binary ‘East/West’ to understand the workings of material culture in the modern world.


Keywords: material culture, design history, orientalism, orientalist, hybrid, the other, exotic, consumption