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Tim Ingold: An Ecology of Materials
An Ecology of Materials
(p. 59 – 65)

A rock is a rock is a rock.

Tim Ingold

An Ecology of Materials

PDF, 7 pages

As an anthropologist and an academic, I am incapable of doing anything with my hands except write and play my cello. Having carried out ethnographic fieldwork in Lapland, however, I used to be able to manage a herd of reindeer – though maybe not any more. Because of the nature of this fieldwork, I became steeped in the traditions of ecological anthropology – that is, in the study of the relationships between human beings and their environments, including everything that makes life possible. But I was also interested in the study of what is nowadays called material culture. At one time, ecological anthropology and the study of material culture were so closely joined as to be virtually indistinguishable. But not any more. Indeed it seems that in recent years, students of ecological anthropology and students of material culture have been talking increasingly past one another. This is very odd, given that both ecological anthropologists and students of material culture are broadly concerned with the material conditions of life – how life is materially possible. Ecologists say that we are embedded in a web of life comprising our relationships with all kinds of non-human organisms. Students of material culture say that we humans are embedded in complicated networks of relationships between persons and things. So we are all talking about relationships, webs of life, networks of persons and things, and yet we are speaking different languages.

It has become popular, these days, to introduce non-humans into the stories we tell about ourselves. Both ecological anthropologists and students of material culture have a lot to say about relations between humans and non-humans. But it turns out that they are referring to quite different non-humans. For ecological anthropologists, the non-human includes other animals, plants, the soil, weather and climate, sunlight, and so on. But students of material culture leave out all of these, and refer instead to artefacts, pure and simple. Indeed they claim that any study of human beings must include all the artefacts with which we surround ourselves, since it is the very fact that we concern ourselves so much with artefacts that makes us distinctively human. Actually, that is not entirely true, because many human societies are not particularly bothered about artefacts, and a lot of non-humans are very much concerned with things like landscape and place. So the distinctions often made between humans and non-humans are not as reliable as they are commonly assumed to be.

To my mind, however, this is a symptom of a deeper problem, which lies in the appeal to the concept of materiality. It seems to me that the emphasis on materiality, in studies of material culture, is getting in the way of a properly ecological understanding of the fields of force and the circulations of materials that make up the web of life. In talking about networks of relationships between people and objects, the materials, the forces, the circulations, the energy – all of that which makes life possible – have somehow been left out. This is the problem I have been trying to address. Immediately we hit up against a difficulty. What do scholars, philosophers, even practitioners, actually mean when they talk about materiality, about the material world? Looking in the literature for definitions of materiality, I found that writers who use the word – though they tend to talk in learned ways, as if everyone already knew what it means – actually have no idea. They remind me of Saint Augustine who remarked, in his Confessions, that if you ask him what the time is, he can tell you, but if you were to ask him “what is time?”, he cannot. It’s a bit the same with ‘materiality’. Suppose I have some stuff about me: it could be stone, metal, brick, or whatever. Ask me “what material do you have there?”, and I can tell you. But ask me “what is material?” or “what is the materiality of that stuff?”, and I am confounded. If you ask an archaeologist, for example, what they mean by materiality, you are likely to get two quite different answers. They will say, on the one hand, that the materiality of a thing lies in its brute physicality. A rock is a rock is a rock. That’s it! That’s what the geologist studies: it’s hard; it’s solid; it’s physical. But then, on the other hand, they will say: “yes, but the reason why we need a concept like materiality is so that we can understand how things like rocks, or pieces of wood, are appropriated by human beings within particular social and historical contexts”. So materiality means at once the hard stuff, in itself, and the way that stuff is turned to account as means to various kinds of human ends. There is thus a kind of duplicity in the notion of materiality: in the way it refers at one moment to the stuff of nature and at the next moment to the way that stuff is appropriated by people, in society. And in this duplicity, the concept of materiality seems to reproduce the division between nature and society – a division which has proved extremely problematic in the social sciences recently and that many of us have been trying to dismantle. In the notion of materiality, the world is presented to us both as a physical bedrock of existence and as an externality – a world ‘out there’ – open to comprehension and appropriation by a transcendent humanity. The notion of material culture is problematic for very much the same reason: here’s the material, here’s the culture, put them together and we get material culture.

This logic of making – of taking a bit of material and taking a bit of culture, some substance here and some form there, and putting them together to create an artefact – goes back, of course, to Aristotle. Long ago, Aristotle argued that if, for example, a sculptor wants to create a sculpture, then they begin with a lump of marble and, in their head, an idea of the form they want to create – be it the image of a god or a of famous character – and then they chip away at the marble until the form of the marble comes to match the idea in their head. So it was Aristotle who argued that in making a thing, you take a formless lump of material and an immaterial form and you put the two together. As the classical Greek word for matter was hyle, and for form was morphe, the idea that in making you combine matter and form came to be known as the hylomorphic model. This notion of making – of imposing form on substance – has been around in the western tradition of thought ever since, and has become in many ways increasingly dominant.

So I felt that the first thing we have to do is to deconstruct this hylomorphic model. In this, I found inspiration in philosophical writings of Gilbert Simondon. Since they are written in French and are still largely untranslated, Simondon’s works remain little known outside his native France, and have not had the impact they deserve. Writing in the 1960s, Simondon was already arguing strongly against hylomorphism. He introduced a concept which he called individuation: by this he meant that one should understand the generation of things – such as artefacts, objects, pieces of furniture – as a process of growth, as an ontogenetic process.When we talk about organisms, including human beings, we say they grow; that is, they undergo a process of biological development, and the technical term for that is ontogenesis. All living organisms undergo ontogenetic development as they grow from the embryo or unborn foetus to maturity. Simondon was arguing that we really need to understand the generation of the forms of artefacts in the same way, as an ontogenetic process, in which form emerges out of that process. In order to demonstrate his point, he chose as an example a kind of making that, on the face of it, would seem to confirm everything that Aristotle had said about hylomorphism – about making things by imposing form on matter. His example was brick-making. Traditionally, in making bricks you would cast lumps of wet clay into a rectangular wooden box. Now you would think that this is a simple process of moulding: you have the mould which is a geometrically regular, rectangular form, you have the formless raw material (the clay), you stick the clay into the mould, and the form is thereby imposed on the material. But Simondon shows that this is not really what happens at all. For one thing, you have to prepare the clay: you have to dig it out from the soil, remove the impurities, and pound it and knead it until it is sufficiently soft and supple to take to the mould. And for another thing, you have to build the mould, which is carpentered from a hard wood, usually beech (it has to be hard to take the pressure). So, Simondon argued, far from impressing form on material, what is happening is that two different processes – of making the mould and of preparing the clay – are brought together at a certain point. Instead of an imposition of form onto matter, what we actually have is a contraposition of equal and opposed forces immanent in the clay and the mould, such that the form of the brick emerges as a kind of transitory equilibration, which is then held in place because the brick is subsequently fired. One could carry out exactly the same kind of Simondonian analysis of Max Lamb’s sand-casting process: he is not simply imposing a form which he has created in the sand onto the liquid material of the metal but actually two separate processes are involved: first the preparation and shaping of the sand, and second all the business of heating up and liquefying the metal. Then there’s the complicated bodily movement involved in pouring the metal into the mould so that it doesn’t go all over the place. So it’s far from a simple imposition of form on matter, and Max’s different projects show this very well.

Now, although Simondon’s work is little known internationally, it has been taken up very enthusiastically by philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari in their book Mille Plateaux (in English, A Thousand Plateaus). Here they argue against the hylomorphic model precisely on the grounds that it starts off from the idea of a fixed form (that’s the form you allegedly have in your mind) and an entirely homogeneous raw material. Making, say Deleuze and Guattari, is not like that. For one thing, the form is not fixed but varies in all kinds of ways; for another thing, no material that anybody ever works with is homogeneous. One of the examples they use – again exemplified by Max in the case of his wooden stool – is splitting wood. When you take an axe (or a wedge if you are using greenwood techniques) to split a log, you are not imposing a form on the log. What you are doing is finding the grain; and then the axe or the wedge will follow it. The line it follows is one that has already grown into the wood when it was part of a living tree, as part of its process of growth. Thus the material you are working with is not formless, nor is it homogeneous. It already has lines of growth, it has a grain, and the maker is not someone who is posing form on material but is rather one who finds the grain and then bends it to an evolving purpose. This, I think, is what making is all about: it’s not imposing form on material but finding the grain of the way the world is becoming and then turning it this way or that in order to make it match what your own evolving purpose, as a designer or maker, might be. So Deleuze and Guattari argue – and I agree – that the artisan, the maker, the craftsperson is a person who has to follow the material, to follow the way it goes. And in following it, they are guided by an intuition in action.

But this leads us to another question. What is a material? How can we say what a material is? That’s a very difficult question to answer. It is easy to say, “That’s wood, that’s metal, that’s pewter, that’s tin”. But what are we talking about? What is wood, what is tin, what is copper? What do we mean when we speak of materials? The scientific chemist, of course, will think of matter in terms of its invariant atomic or molecular constitution: water is two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, salt is a sodium atom linked to a chlorine atom: wherever you have water, or wherever you have salt, you have these atomic combinations. Water is an interesting case in point, however. The molecular structure could not be simpler, and yet the properties of water – what water does under different conditions – are still so complex as to defy full understanding. For example, nobody yet knows why ice is slippery. There’s a lot we don’t understand about chemically the simplest materials. They remain beyond our comprehension in terms of what they actually do. So the maker is less like a scientific chemist than an alchemist.

I have noticed, both in my own work and in the work of many colleagues, that as we become more interested in materials themselves and in what they do, we are also beginning to think more like alchemists, and to have greater respect for what the alchemists achieved. They were not so interested in what a material is. They wanted to know what it does, what happens to a material when you mix it with other materials, or heat it up, or cool it, or treat it in particular ways. This is also what a cook wants to know. A cook, experimenting in the kitchen, puts different ingredients together and looks to see what happens to them if you heat them or boil them, freeze them or cool them down. So the maker, working with materials, is like an alchemist: he’s interested not in what the materials are but what they do. In short, materials are what they do. So to define or specify a material is, in a way, to tell a story, about what happens to it when it is treated in particular ways. For example, gold is an element in the periodic table, and the chemist or the scientist would define it as such. But if you were an alchemist you might say that gold yellows and gleams, that it shines ever more brightly under running water, and can be hammered into thin leaf.

In the 1960s the craftsman and furniture designer David Pye proposed a distinction between what he called the properties and the qualities of materials. He argued that the properties of materials are given in what they are: they have a particular density, weight or tensile strength, which can be established through careful scientific testing or experiment. The qualities of materials, by contrast, are ideas in people’s heads: we ascribe certain qualities to things, but these are merely products of our imagination. But this only reproduces the division between mind and matter, which we want to try and get away from. I think it is better, if we are concerned with the properties of materials, to think of these properties as belonging to the knowledge of practitioners that comes from a lifetime of experience of working with them. And this means that when we talk about the properties of materials, they are really stories of what happens to them.

In a sense, we could say that materials don’t really exist; rather they carry on, or perdure, through time. Every material, in a way, is a becoming – it’s not an object in itself but a potential to become something. So to describe a material, I think, is to pose a riddle: it is a riddle that gives the material its voice, and then the answer is discovered by observation and engagement with what is there. Medieval texts are full of riddles of this kind. I could make one up for you, and it would go like this: “I yellow and gleam; I shine ever more brightly under running water. Hammer me, and I will get thin. What am I?” The answer can be found simply by observing – by looking around in the world and finding what answers to that description. We call it “gold”. But we don’t need to have that word at all. We know what we are talking about through observation, through engagement in the world.

So the artisan, the craftsman, the maker, is someone who has to be ever-observant of the movements of stuff around him, and has to bring the movement of his or her own conscious awareness into line with the movements of the surrounding materials. Thus making something is a mode of questioning and response, in which the maker puts a question to the material, and the material answers to it; the maker puts another question, the material answers again, and so on. Each answers to the other. I use the term correspondence to capture this mutual responsiveness. In making, the maker follows the material and that process of following the material is a correspondence between the flow of the material and the movement and flow of the maker’s consciousness. One could draw the flow of material as one wavy line, and the flow of consciousness as another, running roughly parallel. Correspondence, then, is a matter of bringing these two lines into agreement. To adopt a musical analogy, it is like two lines of melody responding to one another in counterpoint.

What I am against is the “freezing” of the flow of materials in the form of an object, and the freezing of the flow of consciousness in the form of an image, leading to the idea that making is an interaction between image and object. For me, making is not about images and objects at all, but about the coupling of awareness, and of movements and gestures, with the forces and flows of materials that bring any work to fruition. The important thing to recognise about these flows is that they don’t connect things up. To adopt a helpful metaphor from Deleuze and Guattari, imagine a river flowing between its banks. You can imagine one place A on one side of the river, and another place B on the other side. And you could build a bridge and cross from A to B. The flowing water of the river, however, does not go from anywhere to anywhere else. It just keeps flowing along, between its banks, at 90 degrees to the line between A and B. It goes along, not across. It is to these flows that we need to attend if we are to understand making. Whereas the lines we might draw between objects, or between objects and persons, are lines that connect – like the line across the bridge from A to B – the flow-lines of materials and awareness do not connect but entangle. They comprise not a network but a meshwork. And to shift from talking about objects and their relations to materials and their entanglements is equivalent to a shift from a network view to a meshwork view. I think this meshwork view corresponds very closely to the ecologists’ idea of the web of life. And it means that we have to distinguish not only between objects and materials but also between objects and things.

This word “object” is very problematic: it’s a word that many of us would like to be able to put to one side. It’s a problem firstly because you think: “where there are objects there must be subjects”, and the subject/object dichotomy has raised a host of difficult issues, not least that of the Cartesian split between mind and body. Most philosophers are agreed that the dichotomy has to go. But there are many rival philosophical camps, and each camp, while claiming to have solved the problem of how to get rid of the dichotomy, accuses its rivals of merely reproducing it in its discourse. For the onlooker to these arcane debates, it is all very tiresome. To my mind, however, the problem with the object, as indeed with the subject, lies not with the ob- or the sub- but with the -ject. It implies an entity that is already thrown, already cast, in a fixed and final form. It confronts us, face-to-face, as a fait accompli. When we talk about materials, on the other hand, they are always becoming. Everything is something, but being something is always on the way to becoming something else. Materials, if you will, are substances in becoming.

Thus the move from a focus on objects to a focus on materials is equivalent to a shift from a philosophy of being to a philosophy of becoming. Gatherings of materials in movement are what we call things. The distinction between objects and things goes back to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. For Heidegger, the object is “out there”, a fait accompli: you are “over against” it.The thing, by contrast, is to be understood as a gathering of materials in movement. So to touch or observe a thing is to bring the movements of our own being (or rather, becoming) into correspondence with the movements of the materials.

The final point I want to make is that if we think of things in that way – as gatherings of materials in movement – then we are things too.

People – we – are living organisms, and as organisms, we too are gatherings of materials in movement. In fact, we are entire ecosystems. I believe that according to the latest studies, 90 per cent of the cells in the human body belong to various kinds of bacteria – but that’s another story. As gatherings of materials, people are a bit like compost heaps. If you were to take the lid off a human being you would see a writhing mass of activity going on beneath, like the writhing worms in a healthy heap of compost. And the thing about living bodies, human or non-human, is that they are sustained because they are continually taking in materials from their surroundings and discharging into them, in the processes of respiration and metabolism. Quite simply, to live we have to breathe; we also have to eat, and to defecate. The organism can only keep on going because of this continual interchange of substance across its outer membrane or skin. Quite generally, things perdure – that is they can carry on – because they leak, because of the interchange of materials across the ever-emergent surfaces by which they differentiate themselves from the surrounding medium. The bodies of organisms and indeed of other things leak continually; indeed their lives depend on it. And in my view this shift of perspective, from stopped-up objects to leaky things, is what ultimately distinguishes what I want to call an ecology of materials from mainstream studies of material culture.

  • materiality
  • material aesthetics
  • speculative realism
  • Gilbert Simondon
  • materialist turn
  • ecology
  • anthropology
  • thing/thingness
  • Gilles Deleuze

My language

Selected content

Tim Ingold

is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen since 1999. He has carried out ethnographic fieldwork in Lapland, and has written on environment, technology and social organisation in the circumpolar North, on evolutionary theory, human–animal relations, language and tool use, environmental perception and skilled practice. He is currently exploring issues on the interface between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture and pleads for a reunification of theory and praxis.
Other texts by Tim Ingold for DIAPHANES
Kerstin Stakemeier (ed.), Susanne Witzgall (ed.): Power of Material – Politics of Materiality

In the last years a new focus on material phenomena has become increasingly oberservable in the arts and sciences. Most diverse disciplines are stressing the momentum and the agency of matter, material and things and underline their status as agents within the web of relationships of culture and nature. The book "Power of Material / Politics of Materiality“ deepens this current discourse and for the time brings materialist tendencies within the arts, design and architecture into a direct dialogue with a range of scientific approaches from a "New Materialism“ within the humanities and social sciences.


This publication is the result of the first year of program at the newly established cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.