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Daniel Miller


Oscar Wilde begins his story `The Canterville Ghost' as follows: `When Hiram B. Otis, the American minister, bought Canterville Chase, every one told him he was doing a very foolish thing, as there was no doubt at all that the place was haunted' (1977: 193). Wilde then provides through an extended parody an outline of what may be regarded as the quintessential haunted house story and perhaps also much of its explanation. The two key factors I want to draw attention to are a) that what was being purchased was an old house with its own name and history and b) that the purchaser was an American with little disposition to mind such things. I wish to argue, in emulation of Levi-Strauss (1972), that the haunted house as a genre is a mythic form that constructs - at the level of myth - a resolution to a problem of social and material relations. The problem in this case is the discrepancy between the longevity of homes and the relative transience of their occupants. In consequence feelings of alienation may arise between the occupants and both their homes and their possessions.

Within a few lines we learn that Canterville Chase was owned by Lord Canterville and last inhabited by the Dowager Duchess of Bolton. We are also shown the response of Hiram B Otis, who proclaims that he comes from a modern country where money can reduce both ghost and furniture to a valuation, such that even ghosts can be turned into commodities to be exhibited at some museum or road show. The opposition is thus very firmly established within the first page. The first action by the new mistress is to attempt to remove (with the assistance of Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover) the bloodstain of Lady Eleanore de Canterville murdered there by her husband in 1575. In subsequent pages the distinguished ghost becomes horrified by the materialism of Otis and the lack of respect of his children for a pedigree such as he possesses and his many past achievements in the honourable act of haunting.

But what the ghost most desires is the final repose which is to be had at the garden of death, and it is the love of Virginia the heroine, and daughter of Otis, that may gain it for him. To cut a short story even shorter, she of course achieves just this aim and the ghost is finally laid to rest in the garden of death. As a result she obtains a treasure chest of jewels, clearly heirlooms, which despite her father’s desire for her to give them up, she must retain. Indeed the further result is that she marries the Duke of Cheshire and joins the British aristocracy. It appears then that it is only possible for her to remove one form of possession - that by a ghost - is she accepts in its place another sort of possession that is a set of objects that have comparable lineage. So the tale begins in an apparently unbridgeable gulf between the house as an abode of history and a set of occupants for whom that history has no meaning. By the end of the tale, the ghost is laid to rest, but only because there is one individual amongst the occupants who can overcome this gulf, coming to appreciate and finally become part of that historical tradition. She give the respect that the house and its possessions are due, and thereby she becomes appropriate to both take the heirlooms of the aristocracy and marry into its scions.

The association of ghosts with stately homes is hardly an invention of Wilde. In a book called Stately Ghosts of England, Norman (1963: 17) states quite simply that `It seems that the longer the history of a place, the greater its chance of possessing a ghost...In Stately homes, ghost are a tradition, almost an inheritance, bequeathed from generation to generation'. What the author wishes to impress upon the reader is that such ghosts are merely (but also literally) a matter of fact. The reader is led through a hunt for ghosts at such well known stately homes as Longleat, Woburn Abbey and Beuilieu. It is made clear that ghosts also tend to be associated with particular details of space and possessions within the home. Often particular rooms are known to be haunted or particular corridors become the route of ghosts. It is often important that the original objects are extant. In one case we are told a room would not be haunted since `the original bed went to America, and those are most certainly not the original drapes' (ibid: 46). But things are not always so material in their relations, rather a room gradually absorbs its own history. For example `the room has been soaked in unhappiness so much that it has accumulated over many lifetimes and distilled into one over-powering sense of general misery' (ibid: 57). Very commonly the ghost gives evidence for aspects of the history of the house that were otherwise unknown, for example, a priests hiding hole, or a lost hall or room (ibid: 74-5). A ghost `plods on blindly through walls and into passages apparently unaware of how the geography of the home has changed in the meantime'. She concludes that ghosts are the dead who cling to their old homes (or as one might say - their old haunts).

Peter Underwood then president of the Ghost Club attempts in his book No Common Task; The autobiography of a Ghost-hunter (1983) to provide a fairly typical sense of the ghost phenomena more generally. As one might expect other older buildings such as Churches are also favoured, and again certain objects become subject to the agency of the ghosts, such as bell ringing, doors being knocked upon, objects moving from their proper place. A typical example is a ghost who appears always from one deep cupboard and taps along the wall to disappear into another corner cupboard (ibid: 96). A particularly well know British haunting was that of Borley Rectory which was haunted through four tenancies and subject to intensive investigation by a psychic Harry Price and others until it burnt down in 1939 (for a sceptical account see Dingwall, Goldney and Hall 1956). A distinction is usually made between ghosts and poltergeists which seem lesser forms, but where the materiality of their presence is more important, since it is the moving around of material objects, upsetting of furniture and the breaking of china that seems most to signify a poltergeist.

The idea of the haunted house story as a myth in Levi-Strausses sense of objectifying social contradictions is given greater credence by a recent analysis by Marcus[1] (1999: 116-127) of a genre of such stories as they arose in London during the 1850s-1870s. Here again it is a contradiction of relationships that is objectified in the stories, but rather than the mere individual house it is the larger movement of housing that is of concern. The place of Otis is taken by the general rise of suburbia and the desire by Londoners to establish a sense of modernity for the metropolis. The problem was that London was evidently a historical city saturated with an older form of housing associated by these modernisers with all sorts of vices, promiscuity and disease that they saw as having flourished in conditions of overcrowding and poverty. This returned as an issues when some of these elements that modernisers saw themselves as having escaped from started to crop up again within the modern semi-detached housing. So the ghosts that featured prominently within the new genre of haunted house stories appear `as representatives of superceded eras and modes of thought, ghosts were seen by some an antithetical to a metropolis conceived of as a modern seat of rational enlightenment’ (ibid:117). In short they were both a drag on modernity but also testimony to the antiquity of London itself. To summarise then the ghost may be said to be a partial anthropomorphism of the longer history of the house and of housing relative to its present inhabitants.


I too would claim to be haunted by my house, but I am afraid in a much more mundane sense than that described by Wilde. I live in an Edwardian semi-detached house, in many ways typical of North London suburbs. I am particularly fond of it, since even within the very limited claims I would make to any kind of aesthetic preference, I have a particular liking for the Arts and Crafts movement, and this house, which was built in 1906, retains most of the original features such as fireplaces and stained glass that are characteristic of the period. I gain a great deal of satisfaction from living within an aesthetic I admire and would wish to acknowledge that this is a rare privilege. But there are some aspects of this possession that are slightly problematic. The first is that one of the many things I lack confidence in is precisely aesthetic judgement and matters of taste[2]. I personally, at least, have great difficulty in creating any kind of decorative order or aesthetic judgements which would produce results that I find I am able to admire. It is simply a skill I do not see myself as possessing. Two things follow. Firstly I admit that the house intimidates me. It represents precisely an aesthetic ability that I might aspire to but cannot achieve. So when it comes to choosing furniture or placing decorations I feel that I am most likely to detract from the prior qualities that the house possesses by virtue of the creativity and style that went into its initial construction. Should I really have placed an artificial coal `living flame’ fire into one of the original fireplaces? This then is the source of one part of the fear that `haunts' me.

The second haunting is a result of quite the opposite problem. While the house itself is to me an admirable aesthetic object, the prior owner of this house was by profession a builder. He sold us the house (yes - I admit it was a bargain) having gone bankrupt, partly because of the money he spent trying to do up the house for `renting to the Japanese' as he saw it. Some of the results of his work I could not live with. The high metal railings placed outside with a video-phone that had turned the house into something of a fortress, simply had to go. But there is also the basic colour scheme of the house, the carpets and the paintwork. Since we have quite a few people to stay (a common result of periods of overseas fieldwork as an anthropologist combined with living in a place as central as London) our house is on the large side, and the carpeting and painting would be expensive to redo until this is required by wear and tear. So although I do not particularly like (in some cases detest) the colour schemes, I will live with them for several more years. This poses a problem when visitors arrive. I hope I am not particularly vain but I will share my appreciation of the house as a courtesy and most visitors (especially anthropologists) are as nosy as I am and like to be shown around. As such I suppose I hope that the aesthetics of the house to some degree rebound on the self-expression of my identity and preferences. On the other hand the person being shown around will assume the basic decorative scheme reflects our choices, and even if they share my dislike of it, they would usually be too polite to say so. I find that I am not so vain as to deliberately bring into conversation the fact that this is the result of someone else’s tastes and not mine, but vain enough to care about the consequent misapprehension. I can't say that either of these matters is a haunting that exactly keeps me awake at nights, but in a minor and mundane key it brings us down to a level that most people can relate to in some degree within their own experience. On the one hand being intimidated and on the other hand somehow being let down by the material environment within which one presents oneself to oneself and to the world at large. In either case they show that the simple idea that one’s home is a direct expression of ones taste is false.

To generalise from my own experience: in 1992 a series of excellent programmes called Signs of the Times were shown on BBC television. These were concerned with peoples’ relationship to the material culture of their homes. Produced by Nicholas Baker (who was originally trained in anthropology) they were astonishingly remote from the speeded up `realism’ of most television documentaries. In these programmes the camera dwells lovingly and patiently on particular objects in the home and those who dwell with them while we listen to the accounts of how people established their relationships with the material culture of the home and with each other. Particular programmes focused on topics such as how couples, or parents and children, reconciled or failed to reconcile their preferences. The programmes were extremely successful as a series with a considerable following especially amongst female viewers.

One of these programmes was devoted entirely to the way in which occupants determine their relationship to the temporality of the house. One couple shown owned a stately home but felt the need at times to express the sense that it is was a living home and that they were not just curators of a museum. They therefore introduced some contemporary elements. Another couple only wanted genuine antiques and treasured the sense that `someone has loved it, treasured it, polished it from old. That’s the difference from buying something new’. Similarly another couple wanted an old house but couldn’t afford it, so they furnished the house they actually purchased with antique looking objects to make it more similar to the house they would have bought if they had had the money. By contrast an elderly person failed to understand any of this since for her identification could only come from the longevity of the actual association an individual person had with individual objects to create `things that matter’ `things that have lives in themselves’ so that merely possession of the old through purchasing antiques was for her inauthentic.

Central to the program become the conflict between those occupants who would buy only reproductions and those who purchase actual antiques. For the former true antiques were seen as `coffins’ of furniture, and the idea that people had died in that particular bed which is why the antique buyers wanted that bed made it for them something to be avoided at all costs. For the buyer of antiques, the purchase of reproduction furniture is viewed is fundamentally dishonest. Those people are called `tremendous cheats’ and a betrayal of the proper search for authenticity. By contrast, for people who buy reproduction furniture it is the purchasers of antiques who are dishonest since it is reproduction furniture that is being clear about the necessary relationship of taste to the present. The debates go beyond mere purchase. Does the inglenook fireplace have to be where it would originally have been or can it be made from a conversion of a space under the stairs? Or as with another couple do you make the house itself with antiquated methods such as oak beams with oak pegs? What emerges from this range of views and practices is that in coming to terms with the agency expressed in the temporality of the home and the temporality of its associated material culture, one is also developing a larger cosmology of authenticity, truth, negotiation and identity that in many cases may have consequences for ones view of the world in a much wider political and moral sphere. Collecting and matching can become quite obsessive such that once again the individual is not so much choosing, but become increasing possessed by what they see as the fundamental morality involved in establishing their relationship to the history of material culture.

What each of these three examples; the tradition of the English haunted house; my minor concerns with the decoration and aesthetics of my own house; and a more general concern with establishing ones relationship to the temporality of things highlight, is a major theme of this volume as a whole. If this book is part of an argument that the material culture of the home has consequences, then this particular chapter is intended to focus on the degree to which these consequences are often the result of the very materiality of things and as such they may not be an expression of our agency and they may have been unintended. So while other chapters examine the use of the home as a means of agency and the expression of social relations, my concern is to remind ourselves of the other side to this coin: which is that quite often we are not the agents that create the material environment that becomes the medium of representation. Furthermore there is the point that it is an intrinsic quality of materiality that makes objects transcend any such relationship to persons. In the ghost story we mythologise this problem by positing the agency as belonging to the house itself and its possessions, where these objectify those people who have previously lived within it. It is after all the house and its possessions that are possessed, we merely observe these ghosts and poltergeists to our terror or as in Wilde's story to our amusement.


The degree to which homes and their material culture may be regarded as possessing agency has been established by reference to their history, or representation of history. But it does not actually have to be limited to that case. Even where one has little interest or concern with history, the prior presence of material culture may have a constraining impact upon what one feels one can do with them in such a manner that they may appear to possess their own agency which must needs to be taken into account. For example in the face of houses built according to the ideological canons of reforming modernisers it has been their modernity rather than their history that comes to oppress their inhabitants, and the response has often been one of resistance and the re-introduction of older domestic routines and spatial orders (see Attfield 1989 and several contributions to Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zúñiga 1999). To make this wider point I turn to the ethnographic evidence that emerged from the study of provisioning by myself and Alison Clarke. This chapter is intended thereby to complement that of Clarke’s in this volume and our other publications of material from our fieldwork (Clarke 1998, Miller 1998 and in press, Miller et. al. 1998).

The street where this ethnography took place was chosen partly because it lacked any outstanding features. One side is mainly occupied by council estates. Although clearly working-class they are not the most impoverished of such estates. Most of the other side of the street is owner-occupied but although more likely to be middle-class it is not especially wealthy. There are many people in the area who were born in places other than Britain, but there is no single alternative place of origin that is conspicuous. In short the street is typical of North London in being cosmopolitan but manifestly ordinary. In all we have worked with seventy-six households, but as with most ethnographies there is a smaller core of households that we would claim to know much better than the others. As well as participation in shopping and other acts of provisioning, one of our techniques (which we undertook together), was to ask people stories about how objects in the living room and kitchen were obtained and came to be in the place they now occupy. This provided us with narratives not only of how people came to own these goods but the subsequent issues over how these goods should be consumed in the longer term.

I will start with the case of Judith to illustrate how social relations can de developed through the transformation of the home, and then contrast this with Berenice who demonstrates how social relations can constrain this transformation. I will end with a council estate where the impotence people feel about changing their material environment creates a feeling of alienation can lead to a projection of their frustration: transforming this into the agency of others in a manner analogous to the ghost story. The way social relations can be developed through the active transformation of the home has been the subject of several previous studies (e.g. Attfield and Kirkham 1989, Chevalier 1998, Putnam and Newton 1990), and is considered elsewhere in this book. This chapter is intended to complement rather than contradict such work.

In Miller (1988) I argued on the basis on an analysis of kitchens on a different North London council estate that gender roles had become re-constructed as a relationship between the practice of Do-it-Yourself technology, which providing a male role in the house, contrasted with females who took exclusive responsibility for aesthetic decisions. Although that article does not talk about ghosts, it included examples of people who felt haunted by the sense that their apartments belong to the council i.e. the state and not to themselves. The council was clearly felt by some to be an unwelcome presence objectified in the very apartment itself that haunted and depressed them. The exchange between male labour and female aesthetics had become the means by which people in transforming their environment exorcise this alien presence of the council and in effect take possession of the place in which they live.

The relationship of Judith and her son certainly followed that generalisation. They lived on the Lark estate which is an extremely dull and in many cases highly depressed block of council housing, somewhat less attractive and closer to the stereotype of the grey concrete council blocks than is the case with Sparrow Court the estate that is discussed in Clarke’s chapter. Judith's flat stands out as a clear expression of aesthetic transformation. Even from the outside the front door and ornamentation tells the passer by that this is a conspicuous household that has been engaged in a continual act of appropriation from the state. Plant hangers, mock-Tudor hinges and elaborate door-knockers contrast sharply with the uniform dull green doors of the surrounding neighbours. The entrance hall, panelled from floor to ceiling in dark varnished wood to match a stunning full parquet floor creates an impressive spatial transformation. When inside it is impossible to separate out the aesthetic of decoration from the multitude of actual physical changes in the layout of the rooms.

Judith is quite explicit about this schema being an expression of the relationship between herself (`I was on a pink and grey theme at the time and that's what we went for') and her son, a professional plumber. The result was that both the infrastructure and the decoration of their flat was more radically changed than any other we encountered. It had flouted all the state rules against such changes including the removal of several partitioning walls. Although Judith remarked that `99% of the time we agreed'. she also took pride in that one degree of their difference in order to assert her respect for his individuality. Some further insight into this relationship is gained later on as the mother refers to the extent to which she felt she had neglected her older female children because she was working such long hours during their upbringing. It was only with this son (where circumstances had changed and allowed her to be much more involved) that she felt she had been able to develop and mature the sensitive relationship that could be observed today. Specifically she notes how much she enjoys shopping with him, and later how much she regrets that she never had time to go shopping with her daughters when they were living at home.

Judith's aesthetic as expressed in the room is a combination of many factors. She is herself confident and experienced in creating her own aesthetic order but all new objects have to be integrated into the order created by those already established. Some have a patina of affinity because of how long she has had them, or who she obtained them came from, or because of the gift relationship they expressed at that time. As McCracken (1988: 118-129) argued in his discussion of the `Diderot Effect' it is often the consequences of one choice of object for others that renders that choice most significant, for example, the first object in a new style that suddenly makes all the objects around it look old-fashioned. The key aesthetic unit is not often a single object any more than it is a single person. Mostly it is the `wardrobe' or the `room' within which are found a whole configuration of objects that together constitute a relationship to taste as a social phenomenon. The interplay between these two kinds of agency becomes very clear in her statements for example:-

`Well my paintings, those were done by my father and I wouldn't part from them for all the tea in China, they been everywhere with me since I was 21'.

`My children bought me that last Xmas because I left that space there available in case one brought a Xmas present for me.'

`It was very very artful. Actually I wanted something with the grey to match you see and John and I were shopping one day and I happened to see it and I said `You know I quite like that', so I said `You could tell Daniel (her ex-husband) actually, he wants to find me something for Xmas'. That's how I obtained that one. Yes I'm like that'

What Judith demonstrates is how in the right circumstance the use of the previous decorative order as a constraint may move from being an alien constraint that haunts the occupant, and become instead a positive expression of the close relationships and self-sacrifice that constitute the love within families. This positive blending of social and material relations can also include the house itself as we can see if we cross the road to the private housing sector. Berenice and her husband would have been unable to purchase their house but for the assistance of the Friendly Society of Ancient Foresters. In gratitude the husband served as secretary for that society for 25 years which in turn produced a series of ornaments given on the occasion of his retirement. Almost without exception each object we discussed had become part of her history of relationships. Some even predated the purchase of the house in 1951 as inherited furniture. A clock was inherited by her mother from an uncle and in turn passed down to her. Others such as a lamp represent presents from her daughter. As with Judith she has a problem accommodating the many Christmas presents she tends to receive within her decorative schema. Her close friends and relatives are conscious of this and will tend to buy objects that create such schemas around what become known as her decorative preferences. This is why there are so many ornaments and objects with flower motifs. Or, as in another case:- ` I love it very much, because it has got green in it, and I love green, it is my favourite colour, actually I adore green'. In yet another case she regrets that her daughter started to give her an array of plates that represented the seasons but lost the relationship (connected to her employment) through which she obtained the plates before the sequence had been completed.

The close association between objects and relationships creates problems of various kinds. For example with her kitchen scales `Yes, but they are very old. I had them as a wedding present. And, it is itself just falling into pieces. But I have got a brand new set that my older daughter bought for me, and they are a kind of digital ones, and I can't get used to them (laugh), so I go back to my old ones'. While in another case `They bought in a lovely chair, it was when he was ill, it was one of these Parker Knoll, it was a beautiful chair, but, when he died I had to get rid of it, I couldn't go in the room and look at it. So, that is a bit sad.' Even objects they had bought themselves had become socialised because of their longevity. For example when she remembers how an armchair was obtained by hire purchase over forty years before and in remembering this she evokes the conditions they lived under at that time. So Judith and Berenice are not haunted precisely because they see little separation between persons and things and they recognise the `familiar spirits' of objects and live with them, or when these might be too intense as in the Parker Knoll chair, they get rid of them.

In both cases objects come to stand for people and relationships, they take on a fetish quality thereby. But what anthropologists once denigrated in other societies as a primitive cognitive mistake can here be recognised as a sophisticated acknowledgement of the nature of objectification. What both Marx and Mauss understood was that objects and persons have values which are interchangeable, and should possess a considerable degree of interpenetration. In their attack on materialism it was not things standing for people that was the problem. It was when a highly abstracting force such as capitalism prevented things standing for people and radically separated them off that we develop the problem of materialism (see Spyer 1998 and especially Stallybrass 1998).

There were, however, many instances within the ethnography of a more negative relationship between the order of persons and things, which prevent agency from being expressed in this way. Georgina is part of a nuclear family with a secure middle class income and without any overt problems. Nevertheless as in many such families there are tensions and unresolved aspects of relationships that emerge on closer acquaintance. The problem for Georgina is that her husband is a professional artist with strong views on art and many other aesthetic matters As a result Georgina finds considerable difficulties in dealing with the aesthetics of the home, or trying to make it a medium for expressing their relationship. She is well aware that this activity of decoration could and should include far more compromise and shared forms than are likely to emerge within a sphere where his opinions are so clear and strong. She would have liked to include some romantic pictures, but she is aware that he is tending towards minimalism. As a result, there are simply no decorations on the wall at all. Instead Georgina creates decorative spaces which have much in common with Judith and Berenice in that most of the objects represent the fortuitous results of relationships such as gifts and souvenirs, which thereby speak to a different logic of inclusion. But unlike the previous two cases this is not the kind of decorative schema that Georgina would have preferred. She would see this kind of bric-a- brac of memory as a failure of aesthetic intervention and Georgina feels a sense in which the house has not evolved as a mirror of the social relationships she aspired to. In other cases this often leads to a sense of recrimination and blame as the fault of their partners or their own parents (especially their mothers). For example a woman who feels depressed and unable to even envisage a decorative order she would like, blames a man who is too lazy to do the DIY work that would transform her home, or a man who contributes very little in the home claims he could do the work but his wife doesn't come up with the new design that he could put into practice.

Another of the Signs of the Times programs brought out a basic contradiction that I did not appreciate but is compatible with our ethnographic material. Quite often couples originally form on the basis of the attraction between highly genred and gendered individuals. A macho man being attracted to an conspicuously feminine woman and vice-versa. When they become a couple living together the opposition which was once a source of mutual attraction may or may not be reconciled in their development of their joint home. Working class men constantly refer to their pictures of cars, football and nudes, while their stripped down fires and furnishing is justified as a natural and masculine functionalism. Within the middle class male aesthetics may be legitimated by modernist minimalism that eschews the signs of life represented by, for example, the children. Such men see the introduction of an aesthetic where sofas are covered in cushions, blinds replaced by curtains, and surfaces covered by teddy bears and family pictures as intrusive feminising. Women who identify themselves as conspicuously feminine may regard the same process as civilizing maturity. They may see their role as transcending the individualism of each. This may be accepted or they may find a negotiated compromise. So in one case a woman `gets’ the bedroom as her `nest’ where `she wants an important bed (with a teddy bear in the middle) that would symbolize the act of marriage’ - as long as the man can control the living room.

While decorative order may become a positive expression of relationships, or a sign of negotiation between couples, there remain many cases where differences remain unreconciled and constraints remain oppressive. The architecture of the estates was itself a sign of the alienation of the built environment from the people who lived in them. Mostly they were created according to the canons of modernism with a strong emphasis on functionalism and lack of ornament. When these estates failed as social environments as happened with many of the 1960's tower blocks, this was seen as a failure of left-wing principles of collectivist housing. The irony was that the estates never reflected the people that had to live in them. Quite the contrary, they were designed and built by people who lived in quite different environments. Most of those who were forced to live within them had an entirely different aesthetic that positively valued ornament, and the modernism they were forced to live within was therefore largely the material expression of ideology in the Marxist sense. That is the architecture represented the dominant class but become the only form in which the dominated class were allowed to see themselves as a collective. The Lark estate, was typical of such cases and even where individuals such as Judith were allowed to alter their interiors (or did so anyway), there were still marked constraints on any alterations to the common space of the estate. It is in such circumstances that tenants became haunted by this abstract sense of power they simply call `the council’.

In our ethnography discussions with the occupants of the Lark Estate tended to be dominated by a sense of constant tension between the two main categories of occupant. One group were single mothers with children, and the other were the elderly. Each blamed the other for their dislike of the place. In many ways this represents the objective conditions they found themselves in: the failure of a housing policy that led to most other groups moving off the estate and leaving it occupied by these two highly incompatible populations. One shopkeeper on the street who served both communities put it as follows:-

`there's a lot of resentment there and you have your people who wash their front doors down and their patch and they used to keep it all together all looking good all of them doing their bit. Now you get the older ones, and you get the kids sitting on their doors so you've got all that to deal with so there's a lot of resentment and sometimes I think it's a time bomb waiting to go off there really.'

Another who had young children on the estate complained:-

`Here everybody thinks that your business is their business. Yeah. Especially there's a lot of old people mixed in with a lot of young families so I don't think it's working. Because if the children are playing, obviously children are children. There's no grass area as such for them to play on so they'll play wherever they can. And the old people actually come out and get quite frustrated with the noise, which I can appreciate as well because they want peace and quiet. But it's not the young people's fault either. The lady opposite, any time our door opens, if she knows my son's in and if our door opens she's opening her door just to see what he's doing. So that's - she's very - it's more nosy'.

An elderly resident, one of those who had lived in the flats since they were built, produced a prodigious litany of the recent crimes that she claimed had been committed by the children on the estate including direct persecution of the elderly. The elderly felt they could not leave their rooms or they would be pounced upon by the out of control youth. For their part the single mothers felt they would be constantly criticised by these nearly dead neighbours, who clearly gave them `the creeps'. Arguments were particularly intense around areas of common use such as corridors or places which were supposed to be common but had in some cases been appropriated by youths for personal storage.

In conclusion the situation on the council estates is one in which there is a marked tendency to feel that one is `haunted’ by ones own home. In a political climate where the stress is on the positive benefits of home ownership, people who cannot afford to own their home feel stigmatised and accept an ideology which tells them that this is a poor substitute for ownership. The `ghost’ becomes the figure of the council itself: an apparently uncaring and distant presence that possesses what the occupant cannot possess. In some circumstance this feeling can be overcome. Most often this occurs when, as in the case of Judith, the relationship between occupants develops positively through the act of appropriating the home: often through its physical transformation as home refurbishment and redecoration. But for most of the occupants divided into incompatible populations of single parents with children as against the elderly, quite the opposite has occurred. A sense of bitterness about their own lack of agency exacerbates the sense that one is oppressed by a home that is anything but an expression of ones agency. Rather it is a constant reminded that power lies elsewhere. I do not think it is too much to claim that most of the people on this estate feel haunted, although they do not need to anthropomorphise a ghost since the figure of the council provides a clear repository for their fears and frustrations.


This chapter began with the evidence that the very longevity of homes and material culture may create a sense that agency lies in these things rather than in the relatively transient persons who occupy or own them. Having thereby established the idea that material culture and homes can be viewed as agents, the point was generalised using ethnographic material which highlighted the issues raised by other factors which prevent people from feeling that their homes are an expression of their own agency. At this point the argument may be broadened into a more general anthropological observation as to the nature and consequences of material culture. At least four current discussions within anthropological theory seem relevant here. The first which has already been mentioned is the concept of the fetish where we are coming to recognise that the attribution of power or agency to things may be a profound appreciation of a state of affairs and not simply some kind of cognitive or category mistake (e.g. Spyer 1998). Secondly the evidence is quite compatible with the recent work of Latour much of which has been concerned to transcend a simple dualism in which agency is seen as the possession of persons or society, and objects merely that which is passively worked upon. Latour (1993) has promoted instead an approach based on networks of agents that include both animate and inanimate forms. I would see this as an extension (though he would not) of approaches to objectification that arise out of dialectical theory (see Miller 1987). Thirdly (as also noted by Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zúñiga 1999: 8-9) the recent work of Gell (1998) on the agency of artworks and artifacts, which concludes on the example of the Maori house as the distributed bodies, minds and histories of the persons connected with them (251-8), provides an alternative route to this larger sense of objectification rooted in the study of material culture.

Finally I feel we are indebted to the recent book Signs of Recognition by Webb Keane (1997). Much of that book is concerned with the properties of material culture that make them far more than merely that which the people who employ them intend them to signify. The very durability and physicality of things make them liable to represent attributes which were not those that an individual desired them to convey, for example, that they are actually torn rather than whole, or not quite the same as the object they were supposed to replace. What he argues for exchange in Eastern Indonesia is still more true for consumer culture. A culture in which the day after we have spent an exorbitant amount on a new dress, we discover to our horror that the dress is being heavily publicised as on sale at a third of the price we paid for it, and worse still it is then seen being worn by someone whose judgement we detest. Or in which fashion means that the pine kitchen has lost the positive connections we bought it for but we can’t afford the pseudo-Shaker kitchen we would have had if we could now afford it. Or where we have very little choice or power to determine our material conditions, either from poverty or because of the unsatisfactory nature of the relationships we are part of: the unyielding and unappreciative demands of spouses, parents and children. In more extreme circumstance the objects around us can embody an agency that makes them oppressive and alienating and may in turn be projected in a personified form as the ghost that haunts us. In short - where we cannot possess we are in danger of becoming possessed.


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[1] Thanks to Inge Daniels for drawing this reference to my attention.

[2] I speak here of course for myself alone, and not for any other members of my family.

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