Cultural Entropy

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 8:45 AM
Room: 302
Oral Presentation
Terence MCDONNELL , University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN
This paper 1) introduces the concept of cultural entropy, 2) sketches out the perspective it implies, and 3) discusses the centrality of materiality in such a perspective. Cultural entropy describes the process whereby the intended meanings and uses for a cultural object fracture into a chaos of alternative meanings, new practices, failed interactions and blatant disregard. If entropy broadly describes a tendency toward disorder, cultural entropy is the tendency toward disorder at the level of meaning. While objects are often thought of as stable, durable, finished things, I argue (by drawing on ideas from anthropology and ANT/STS) that objects are inherently unstable, contingent, and incomplete because of their materiality. As such, in the long run, entropy is inevitable. This is especially true for objects--drawing on Goffman (1959), I argue that disruptions are much more likely during object-to-person than person-to-person interactions because objects can’t engage in “impression management.” As such, it takes a great deal of cultural work to successfully communicate through objects and maintain a consistently clear resonant meaning over time. 
Although any cultural object faces entropy, I find that entropy is most visible in objects that people intend to affect belief and behavior. These instrumental uses of objects are commonplace: health pamphlets, commercial advertisements, protest placards, political speeches and more. As the intended meanings and uses for these objects are knowable, so too are the moments when these objects fail to work according to plan. I build upon my work on the materiality of AIDS campaigns (McDonnell 2010) by broadening the set of material mechanisms that encourage entropy beyond discordant settings, displacement and decay to practices of translation and juxtaposition. Ultimately this work contributes to the growing field of materiality by specifying how material qualities of objects have independent effects, beyond falling back on the symbol-driven work of material culture studies.