Book Reviews

“Lines: a brief history” by Tim Ingold

Reviewed by Dr Andrew Jones

Ingold, T. 2007 “Lines: a brief history” Routledge: London. ISBN 978-0-415-42427-1. Reviewed by Andrew Jones, Archaeology, University of Southampton

Lines: a brief history

Ingold, T. 2007 “Lines: a brief history”

I vividly remember receiving the pamphlet from the Society of Antiquaries advertising the series of lectures from which this book was composed, and desperately trying to imaginatively reconstruct their contents from the brief abstract of each lecture, while wishing (not for the first time) that I lived nearer Scotland so that I could attend the lectures. This was not to be. For this reason I am especially pleased the volume is now in print, and it is therefore a special privilege to review it.

However, if the primary purpose of a review is to persuade the potential reader to purchase or read the reviewed volume then, in many ways, this review is redundant. I believe it is an uncontentious statement to say that Tim Ingold is the leading scholar in the field of archaeology and anthropology in the UK today. Therefore any archaeologist or anthropologist worth their intellectual salt ought to be reading Ingold’s work as a matter of course.

The title of the book appears cryptic “Lines: a brief history”, what is this book about? Isn’t Ingold an anthropologist, why is he writing about lines, what significance are they to the field of anthropology? Of tremendous significance it turns out. By focusing on the human practice of line creation Ingold is able to focus upon a diverse series of activities, from song and musical notation, to writing, walking, travelling, journey making, place formation, weaving, artistic design, printing, calligraphy. The list of activities conjoined by the practice of line production is almost endless.

To read a book or article by Tim Ingold is to take an intellectual journey; one is presented with an intellectual problem and via the medium of Ingold’s intellect, one is taken upon a route with many twists and turns, until that problem, if not resolved, is illuminated from a completely different perspective. Journeying and wayfaring have been dominant motifs in Ingold’s work, and in this book one senses that, more than ever, we are taking an intellectual amble through undiscovered terrain, terra incognita.

The book begins with a pleasingly archaeological approach – the construction of a typology or taxonomy. Lines are described as being composed of one of a series of forms: threads; traces; cuts, cracks and creases; imaginary lines (those of geometry, or lines of force in engineering), and ‘lines that don’t fit’! In creating this taxonomy Ingold acknowledges that it cannot be exhaustive, and in fact much of the rest of the book hinges on the relationship between traces (lines upon a surface) and threads (lines in a medium). By limiting himself in this way Ingold is able to put these classes of lines to work in a multitude of contexts. Thus, we discover in chapter’s 1 and 5 that speech, song and music are inter-related species of line made material in the traces of musical notation and writing; while in chapter 3 we discover that movement through landscapes, and stopping in place are forms of threading our individual biographies with the landscape. The theme of threading biographies is continued in chapter 4 where Ingold discusses the linearity inherent to that classic anthropological framework, the kinship diagram. In this way then the subject of lines draws together a series of important themes in Ingolds work: the relationship between speech and song; temporality and the construction of genealogies; landscape, movement and perception; weaving as a metaphor for making. A quick glance at his collected essays ‘ The Perception of the environment’ (Routledge, 2000) will indicate that all these topics are covered. The line lay in the background in this earlier work, here it comes to the fore and traces (or threads?) a path between these differing topics. At first sight this book appears utterly barmy, while in actual fact it emerges as a clear and coherent statement. By the end of the book, being convinced by the force of the argument, one wonders why this approach had not been taken before.

The real significance of the book is not immediately obvious, on first reading the book it appeared to offer a prehistorian such as myself little intellectual purchase, the discussion of writing and notation appeared of greater significance to the historian. However, this is to take the argument too literally. In fact we might argue that Ingold’s argument is essentially methodological as he reorients us to the significance of the practice of line creation in a series of material practices. He is unlikely to thank me for the comparison, however I was reminded in his discussion of threading pathways and tying knots with the methodology of Actor-Network Theory, or ANT, which attempts to examine the interlocking nature of people and technology by taking just such an approach; indeed in a recent work Bruno Latour, one of the main exponents of ANT he exhorts scholars to proceed like an ant (Latour 2007), tunnelling from one place to the next to examine the way technology is humanised, or humans are technologised. This approach seems to be echoed in Ingold’s treatment of threads.

This is a book which examines material culture and the ever present question of materiality. The importance of Ingold’s approach is that it does not simply reiterate another philosophically complex (and theoretically sterile) analysis of materiality (see Ingold 2007 for a critique of such an approach); rather it offers us a completely fresh view of materiality from an utterly original perspective. In some ways then this book fits comfortably within a growing body of literature in archaeology, anthropology and material culture studies which is beginning to unpack the philosophical distinctions (and connections) between the human and the material. However in his discussion of the material qualities of the line, Ingold throws down an important theoretical gauntlet as he asks us to consider the qualities and human entanglements of particular kinds of material forms. We now ought to be considering projects, which investigate the anthropological and archaeological significance of other material forms, for example surfaces or containers, or other geometric forms. This places the study of materiality on a completely different plane, and in fact returns us to the core significance of materiality – as the study of material forms and properties and their interaction with humans. In this sense, I would hope then that this book will offer a profound new direction for the archaeology and anthropology of the future.

Dr Andrew Jones
Archaeology, School of Humanities, University of Southampton

Latour, B. 2007 “Re-assembling the social” Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Ingold, T. 2000 “The Perception of the Environment” Routledge: London.
Ingold, T. 2007 “Materials against materiality” Archaeological Dialogues 14 (1), 1-18

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