Slovakiet – University of Copenhagen

Material Moralities: Craft, Networks and Family Cosmology in Central Slovakia

Phd-phesis by Nicolette Makovicky, Department of Anthropology, University College London in December, 2006

The project is financed by the Danish Research Agency and the Pasold Research Fund, United Kingdom

Supervisers: Dr. Susanne Küchler, Dr. Victor Buchli, both at University College London, and dr.phil. Esther Fihl, Centre for Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen

My research combined material culture studies with economic anthropology and the anthropology of work, looking at the intersection of morality and subjectivity through a study of small scale entrepreneurial craft work in post-socialist society. Fieldwork amongst 3 communities of lace makers in urban and rural Central Slovakia revealed that subjectivity was related to culturally specific notions of labour. Practices perceived as productive carried high social value, productivity being defined as the relative contribution of an activity to the wellbeing of the family, household and/or community. Furthermore, such productivity was understood as materially manifest, in that it resulted in the creation and accumulation of material value, and could be apprehended aesthetically in any given product. In the case of bobbin lace, the character traits of the craftswoman who produced a piece were seen as ‘visible’ in the very materiality of the lace. In this way, materiality and the moral economy of practice were linked in everyday conversation, forming a particular moral aesthetic. Thus, lace makers used comments on the products of others to deliver judgements of character, and evaluations of the execution and aesthetic merit of a piece were a hidden moral commentary upon the actions and behaviour of the producer.

Analyzing the manner in which moral subjectivities emerged through the delivery of such commentaries in everyday life, my thesis explored competing claims to craft knowledge as local cultural heritage, issues of gender and kinship in contemporary society, and the relation between commercial production, networking and domestic economy. The ethnography uncovered a continuous tension between the workings of the market economy to which lace makers were bound as producers and consumers, and the obligations of a moral economy to which they belonged by virtue of kin and social relations. These tensions played out in relations between individuals and interest groups, resurfacing as difficulties in reconciling entrepreneurial activities with notions of egalitarianism, and individual desires with those of the perceived collective authority of the household or community. By recasting issues of ethics into matters of aesthetic judgement, men and women in Slovakia were thus able to speak about matters of social and moral contention in a subterranean way.

While the majority of current studies of material culture in post-socialist and EU-accession states have focused on patterns of consumption, my research underlined the continuing importance of the notion of production and productive labour for the creation of culturally meaningful narratives of the self. It questions the assumption that with the rise of consumer society, subjectivity and agency can best be understood as reflected in consumer choice, uncovering a disjuncture between the efforts of the neo-liberal Slovak state to cast the citizen as consumer and an alternative modes of socialization which are characterized by a high degree of historical continuity. Secondly, it demonstrates how objects can become discursive props not only for the creation of biographical narratives, but also the discussion of political, economic and social change.