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On the Study of Shreds and Patches

Yesterday my work with the William C. Sturtevant collection focused on the material culture side of his efforts to document the history, practice, and significance of the unique Florida Seminole art form known as “patchwork.” Basically, I organized and quickly looked at a couple of hundred patchwork samples such as those arrayed in the image presented here.

I have done little work yet with documents, but a large folder of notes associated with Dr. Sturtevant’s patchwork studies were handy and I took a quick peak. There is a lot there. I hold off on talking about that and describe a single note that is very relevant to this website.

For its early years, this website was just associated with my name. A while back though, it started to seem clear (to me, at least) that it needed a more blog-like name. The name the I chose was Shreds and Patches. I should have explained the source of this name at the time, but didn’t. It was a soft re-launch, I guess. Anyway, the first thing that my eye fell on when peaking into Dr. Sturtevant’s patchwork notes folder was a single slip of paper that explains the source of my name.

It is a medium sized slip of paper in his own hand and it is a quotation–the very quotation from which the title of this blog comes. The source is a famous, oft debated passage from the conclusion of a book by Robert Lowie. I have not gone back to the source to check Sturtevant’s note, but here it is as he has it.

“Nor are the facts of culture history without bearing on the judgement of our own future. To that planless hodgepodge, that thing of shreds and patches called civilization, its historian can no longer yield superstitious reverence. He will realize better than others the obstacles to infusing design into the amorphous product; but in thought at least he will not grovel before it in fatalistic acquiescence but dream of a rational scheme to supplant the chaotic jumble.”–p 441 (concluding paragraph of Lowie’s Primitive Society (1947, N.Y., Liveright; 1st ed. 1920; on pp ix-x of the new preface to the ’47 ed, RHL [Lowie] complains that this famous passage has been misinterpreted)

Lowie was one of Bill Sturtevant’s undergraduate teachers at Berkeley. I can talk some other time about the significance and history of this passage from Lowie. Here it is interesting to think what it is doing in Bill’s patchwork notes. Two possibilities have occurred to me.

If he meant it to be there, it was clever because it suggested that he was going to draw upon anthropology’s most famous theoretical discussion of “patches” in his empirical project on patches (of the Seminole sort). Alternatively, and amusingly, it could have been filed in this place by someone else because a quick scan of the text could suggest that because it is about patches it needed to go with the patchwork notes. I’ll get to the bottom of it someday, perhaps. In any case, it provides the answer to the question of why I named the blog as I did. (Lowie was not the original source of the phrase Shreds and Patches, just the one who gave it anthropological resonance in theorizing the nature of culture and so-called “civilization.”

Note.  The patchwork samples shown above are not yet numbered, but they are part of the William C. Sturtevant Collection at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great name for a blog!

    May 17, 2012
  2. Thanks Michael.

    May 18, 2012
  3. That’s for the wonderful quote. Most of all, however, I am enjoying the pictures and background of the collection. So beautiful!

    May 19, 2012
  4. I am glad that you are enjoying the pictures and background. I took 815 pictures this week!

    May 19, 2012

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