The Comfort of Things, by Daniel Miller

The objects of our affection

Reviewed,Laurie Taylor
Friday 27 June 2008 00:00 BST

In common, I suspect, with others whose house is now less a home than an ill-equipped office, I have developed a range of domestic distractions to fend off the demands of work. My current favourites include re-cleaning the bathroom mirror, watering the already well-irrigated plants, and checking that my CDs are still in strict alphabetical order. I'm also capable of more elaborate self-deceptions. Only a few weeks ago, when faced by a particularly dense PhD, I found I'd wandered without any trace of volition into the bedroom where I successfully occupied myself for the best part of an hour with colour-coding my ties.

Now I am able to blame Daniel Miller for an even more enticing distraction. Instead of merely attending to the needs of brute things, I have an anthropological licence to consider what such objects might say about myself. This is much more than a trivial suggestion that my possessions are an adjunct to my identity, elements that accord with my lifestyle. Things, according to Miller, are constitutive of identity. "Material culture matters," he insists, "because objects create subjects more than the other way round". Even more strongly: "the closer our relationships with objects, the closer our relationships with people".

With this hypothesis in hand, Miller and his co-researcher Fiona Parrott set off on a 17-month investigation into the lives and loves and domestic interiors of 30 households in a randomly chosen London street. That word "household" is important. For although Miller's research has all the trappings of an ethnographic community study, he is quick to emphasise that there is no community to be found in the street he studied. Only 23 per cent of the people who answered the door to him were born in London. "People came from everywhere and anywhere, and they were old, young, very gendered and sort of gendered, well off, badly off, and mainly sort of OK off". Neither did they have much to do with each other. "This was not a culture, a neighbourhood or a community".

Rather than this recognition leading Miller into a predictable jeremiad about the fragmentation, alienation and anomie of contemporary urban society, it nicely reinforces his contention that if we wish to look for modern relationships, then we need to look within the confines of single homes, and treat each household "as a tribe". When we do that we find not only that there is a great deal of "connectivity"; we also discover how material things function as a vehicle for all kinds of social interaction.

Consider the Clarke household. "In the bay window is the most perfect Christmas tree, topped by a fairy whose clear features and hand-made white net costume provides the apex to the array of silver and gold baubles and delicately crafted ornaments that adorn every branch and indent the tree offers for decoration". From each ceiling "hangs an elaborate contrivance of circles and spokes from which are suspended a hundred tiny little parcels, wrapped up in green and red crepe". As Miller soon realised, this scene was "the product of a century of devotion to the cultivation of Christmas itself". It is a piece of material culture which is not merely a labour of love but love itself.

When successive generations of children collect their hanging presents and take their place around the tree, they lay at its foot their own experiences and achievements of the year in the form of conversation, listening and appreciation. The Clarkes are as meticulous and devoted to people as to things. And the connection between the two is "nothing obvious or intrusive; rather it flows so naturally that it may take a certain academic, critical distance just to come to an awareness of it being there".

In case this looks too easy a way to make the connection between relationships and things, Miller neatly juxtaposes the Clarke household with George's flat. This was disorienting not because of anything in it, "but precisely because it contained nothing at all, beyond the most basic carpet and furniture". George was not, however, a self-conscious minimalist but someone whose entire life had been characterised by powerlessness, by dependence upon authority, teachers, employers and the state. He had never felt able to take responsibility for anything, let alone the decoration of his own home. "The flat was empty, completely empty, because its occupant had no independent capacity to place something decorative or ornamental within it".

Miller adds that he often encountered horror and tragedy in the interior of people's lives during his time on the street, but "it was particularly after meeting George that we found ourselves in tears outside his flat". Unlike other residents of the street, he could not even find relief from his sadness in the comfort of things.

There are several lorry-loads of other comforting things behind the doors in Miller's London street: collections of plastic ducks and McDonald's Happy Meal toys, mementoes of Franz Ferdinand, bottles of whisky from the Queen's Jubilee, religious images, photographs of reality TV babes, and miniature bottles of foreign liquors. In every case, Miller endeavours to show the parts these material objects play in constituting and organising his subjects' lives.

Not all the connections work. There are times when one almost wishes that Miller would stick with his insightful analysis of the character before him and not keep turning way so assiduously to check what's hanging on their wall. But this is still an outstanding piece of work: a fine example of modern anthropological fieldwork, a powerful corrective to the banal notion that materialism is synonymous with excessive individualism and, perhaps above all, an informed, sensitive, and wholly sympathetic guide to the human diversity to be found through the keyholes of our capital city.

Laurie Taylor presents 'Thinking Allowed' on Radio 4

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