Book note on ‘Reading Material Culture: Structuralism, Hermeneutics and Post-Structuralism’ edited by Christopher Tilley

09th January 2014

Review by Bruno David

David Book Note Review Cover 1995‘Reading Material Culture: Structuralism, Hermeneutics and Post-Structuralism’ edited by Christopher Tilley, 1990, Oxfird: Basil Blackwell, x – 354 pp. ISBN 0-631-17285-8 (pbk)

This is an excellent book. Reading Material Culture is a series of review papers on the works of five influential writers dealing with such things as meaning, language and reading the material record. It begins with an excellent chapter on Claude Levis-Strauss by C. Tilley, emphasising the importance and influence of structural analysis to the study of people, both of the present and of the past. This is followed by chapters on Paul Ricoeur by H. Moore, and on Clifford Geertz by E. Silverman, emphasising the hermeneutics of social practice. Next comes a chapter on Roland Barthes by B. Olsen focusing on post-structuralism and on Jacques Derrida by T. Yates on deconstruction. The book then finishes with a chapter on Michel Foucault by C. Tilley.

Each chapter is, by itself, an excellent review of the work of the author discussed. But the book is more than the sum of each chapter, for the chapters are organised in a way that encourages the reader to go beyond each author. Each chapter emphasises the social construction of reading and writing texts, documents and the material record, while at the same time searching for underlying forces that guide such constructions (e.g. for Levis-Strauss, principles of structuration; for Derrida hegemonic practices, especially of language). An important part of each chapter is a final summary that addresses its importance to archaeology and to a reading of the material record.

This is a book that I would recommend to many archaeologists. It is ideal for third or honours year students to read, discuss and for review (either as separate chapters or treating the book as a totality). One may perhaps quibble about the choice of thinkers discussed in this book – Levis-Strauss, Ricoeur, Geertz, Barthes, Derrida and Foucault – but such choices are the prerogatives of the editor/writers who give direction to the book in the first place. Personally, I would have liked to see Sartre and Bourdieu, and Marx to set the scene (and I am not a fan of Derrida), but again this a personal choice that by no way detracts from the book.

All in all, one of the best discussions of the above authors, their ideas, on the relevance of ‘theory’ and on reading (and writing) ‘material culture’ that I have yet read. I fully recommend Reading Material Culture to all students (in its broadest sense) of the material record.

David, B.
Book note on 'Reading Material Culture: Structuralism, Hermeneutics and Post-Structuralism’ edited by Christopher Tilley
June 1995
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