Ian Hodder


On his book Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things

Cover Interview of September 25, 2019

A close-up

I think that Chapter 4 on ‘humans and things’ would be the best starting place. This is because it is here that I explore the ways in which it is difficult to define or describe ‘things in themselves’. Rather, I argue that the very concept of ‘thingness’ leads to notions of networks, webs, and entanglements. For example, you might try to define a ‘wheel’, but you very quickly run into the problem that a wheel cannot function as a wheel without an axle, and the axle only works if held in place on a vehicle of some sort, and the vehicle can only function if it is on a road, and roads require institutions or groups to make and maintain them, and so on. So, things always involve dependencies on other things, even if we prefer to think of them as separate objects. It is this thingness that entraps humans into managing and coping with systems of things.

And I also like this chapter because it uses a telling example: cotton. As a species we don’t really need cotton. In most parts of the world we managed fine with skin, linen, wool, silk, felt, and so on for millennia before cotton became widely used. It was a particular set of historical circumstances that led to the global trade. The ability of the Dutch and British East India Companies to use force to control trade between Europe, India, Africa and the New World led to the massive expansion of cotton production and use, as well as to many entrapments for humans, including slavery and appalling workhouse conditions in the factories of early industrial Britain. In the book I show how problems in this international system led to innovation in cotton spinning that further entangled humans in greater dependencies on things. Cotton factory owners were caught in a double bind – they depended on cotton for the livelihood, but that drew them into slavery, political change, and into further dependence on spinning technologies and all the demands of water and steam power. The more they used things the more they used things.