From Imitation to Invention

By Matthew Paskins, on 3 December 2010

The STS Department’s new History of Science reading group has had two meetings so far, and very lively discussions. In the first, we discussed Maxine Berg’s paper “From Imitation to Invention”. Berg’s paper takes the question of ‘imitation’ as part of a consumer-focused and global history of processes of industrialisation. It builds on De Vries’ notion of the ‘industrious revolution’, a reorientation of households towards newly intensified forms of production, and the connection of this to the consumption of new commodities. It is an account of the interrelations between consumerism and production. Berg rescues the idea of imitation as a creative process – not mere copying, but a translation and transformation of materials and processes which she traces across the world. Inventive imitation is an ancient and vital part of the trade of processes and ideas: from bronze age skeuomorphs – objects or features which copy the designs of similar artefact in different materials – described by archaeologists, to the attempt to develop a distinctively English style of luxury in imitation of Chinese and Japanese imports.

With no economists in the group we weren’t completely clear on the use of hedonic, another technical term which Berg employs. The way Berg seems to intend it is to describe the different pleasure-giving properties of commodities, and to analyze commodities as bundles of these proprties. We were taken with this emphasis on the experience of physical properties, and the central place this account gives to aesthetics.

Some of us felt parts of Berg’s argument were over-extended and too Eurocentric. For example, Berg argues that the changes in materials in Etruscan burial goods led to the spread of new luxury techniques. This is perhaps a partial and luxuriant way to analyze the burial goods themselves, which in their own cultural setting are ‘essential luxuries’, indispensable to the rites of mourning and the dead. The meaning and attraction of materials – and their transmission from one place to another – may have cultural meanings which are poorly captured by economic histories and a very sunnily aesthetic approach. We speculated on other ways in which you might capture other properties and relations between human bodies, cultures, and materials – this suggested some future reading, but we came to no conclusions.