Some objects, such as grails, relics, jewels, tulips, spices, and drugs, have been the focus of extraordinary desires and have transformed the political economies and cultural histories of the world, in ways not easily explained by their literal value. Such objects have determined lines of trade and travel, state boundaries and colonial expansion, aesthetic choices and scientific development. Other objects seem less to have generated history than to bear its traces. Objects such as postcards, household gadgets, streetlights, cereal boxes, souvenirs, and furniture, as well as collections in museums, expositions, and zoos, enable scholars to read the forces that have produced them. What is the relation between the world of material culture and the world of objects on which human passions play? What are the methods for the study of each, and in what ways do they intersect?
In taking the study of objects as its theme for 1992-93, the Society for the Humanities seeks to bring together scholars from various disciplines of the humanities, languages and literatures, history, philosophy, anthropology, and the history of art who are studying the role of objects in human passions or the social processes that can be inferred from the objects human societies leave behind them.