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Inside the Blue Book
The Meaning of Things

ANTH 376b
Anthropology of the Object
Faculty: Eric Worby, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Students unpack their teddy bears and security blanketsin order to write their first assignment in Eric Worby’s course, “Anthropology of the Object.” They each choose a meaningful object, write its biography, and quickly realize how personal history gets involved. “This is my favorite course to teach,” says Worby, “because it gives students a way of talking about key ideas in anthropology in relation to experiences they’ve all had.”


What is it about a gift that compels one to give a gift in return?

For example, many students have collections—from coins to Star Trek memorabilia. What they may not have known is that the concept of collecting can be traced back to totemism, when people used animals and other entities to stand for human groups. This tradition is simply an attempt to create an orderly world—and is still found within the world of sports teams, where people identify strongly with both the team and its mascot.

Worby wants students to learn how all things great and small exist within a system of meaning and then to think about ways power is expressed through objects. For example, what is it about a gift that compels a gift in return? And how do fetish objects elicit feelings of desire and attachment?

Worby plans to add to his syllabus the loss of the tremendously symbolic Twin Towers. Even the World Trade Center’s powerful name made those buildings sound as if they constituted the center of the world. “Since September 11, we have experienced destruction as well as deconstruction,” says Worby. The “center of the world” is now “ground zero.”

The towers will also tie into the topic of objectification of the body, as insurance claims begin to be processed for those left behind. “The idea that everything can be attributed a value is what runs a capitalist culture,” Worby says. “And now people must decide: Is one life actually worth more than another?”  the end


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