New book explores how objects support political power

From Bronze Age traditions of mortuary ritual and divination to current controversies over flag pins and Predator drones, a new book by anthropology professor Adam Smith sheds light on how material goods authorize and defend political order.

In “The Political Machine” (Princeton University Press), Smith demonstrates that beyond assemblies of people, polities are just as importantly assemblages of things – from ballots and bullets to crowns, regalia and licenses. Through an archaeological exploration of the Bronze Age Caucasus, Smith looks at the ways that these assemblages help to forge cohesive publics, separate sovereigns from a wider social mass and formalize governance – and he considers how these developments continue to shape politics today.

Smith, chair of Cornell’s Department of Anthropology, shows that the formation of polities is as much about the process of manufacturing assemblages as it is about disciplining subjects, and that these material objects or “machines” sustain communities, orders and institutions. The sensibilities, senses and sentiments connecting people to things enabled political authority during the Bronze Age and fortify political power even in the contemporary world. Smith provides a detailed account of the transformation of communities in the Caucasus, from small-scale early Bronze Age villages committed to egalitarianism, to Late Bronze Age polities predicated on radical inequality, organized violence and a centralized apparatus of rule.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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