'The magical virtue of these sharp things': Colonialism, Mimesis and Knapped Bottle Glass Artefacts in Australia

Harrison, Rodney (2003). 'The magical virtue of these sharp things': Colonialism, Mimesis and Knapped Bottle Glass Artefacts in Australia. Journal of Material Culture, 8(3) pp. 311–336.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/13591835030083007

URL: http://mcu.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/8/3/311

Abstract

Items of transformed material culture, in particular knapped bottle glass artefacts, have formed a focus for the archaeology of Aboriginal-settler contact in Australia. This article considers the idea of glass artefacts as skeuomorphsthrough the lens of Gell’s and Taussig’s writings regarding mimesis and the construction of ‘Other’-ness in colonial relations. As in the case of Benjamin’s discussion of the photographic reproduction of artworks as a phase in the struggle between photography and painting associated with modernity, so in colonial contexts did the oscillations of mimesis and alterity begin to merge, so that the ‘West’ began to alter itself as viewed through the eyes of its ‘Others’, and Aboriginal people to mimic themselves as alters of the ‘West’. It is in this strange oscillation of mimesis and alterity, within Taussig’s ‘nervous system’ itself, that the meaning of knapped bottle glass artefacts can be found to lie. The continued manufacture of formal ‘traditional’ stone artefact types and the re-emergence of ‘archaic’ forms in glass represents on one level a humorous gesturewhich provides insights into the ways in which Aboriginal people understood colonialism in radically different terms to the colonial ‘West’. On another level, it can be seen as a political and practical decision with implications for how we understand the agency of Aboriginal people in Australian colonial encounters.

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