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Haystacks: two of the classic typologies
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Lettice Slugg
Field Studies

Sarah Foster & Hildi Hawkins
While the Sun Shines - A Comparative Typology of Haystacks
in the Zakopane Region of Southern Poland

London: Hypothetical Press, 1994, 540 pages, illustrated. £25

things 1
winter 1994

The question of whether design history is a ‘discipline’ in its own right is perhaps of more interest to department heads in search of funding than to practitioners and amateurs of the subject; the experience of the latter is often that design history derives its strengths not so much from separate concerns of interest or enquiry as from its very contiguity with a number of different disciplines.

Essential, if one dare use so Aristotelian a term, to design history has nevertheless been a concern with an analysis of the modern experience: even when dealing with the 17th century, which is about as far back as design historians have ventured to date, their concern has been to trace the emergence of essentially modern phenomena such as the spread of good manufactured for exchange in a money economy. The result has been that the condition from which these modern phenomena emerged has been regarded as a given, a ‘folk’ culture whose traditionality consigns it, as an object of study, to the realms of anthropology or social history.

And yet, as Eric Hobsbawm has argued, traditions themselves are invented. Extending his argument form the ‘high’ traditions of national self-definition with which he concerns himself, it is clear that the ‘traditional’ artefacts of the pre-industrial countryside are no less invented: although they may sometimes be so ubiquitous as to appear almost as type-objects, in the Corbusian sense, it is far from true to suppose that they emerge somehow spontaneously from the ‘folk’ cultures of which they are an expression. The authors of While the Sun Shines are to be congratulated on their attempts to press into service disciplines ranging from anthropology and archaeology to cultural geography and social history in applying a ‘design historical’ analysis of a subject that is at once ‘traditional’ and contemporary: the haystacks of the Zakopane region of southern Poland.

Foster and Hawkins’s study rests on the detailed cataloguing and measurement of some 2,000 haystacks, the results of which are presented in an extensive appendix that includes plentiful photographic evidence along with a statistical analysis. In stressing the subjectivity that must always underlie the spirit of historical enquiry, they cite the origins of the project in a field trip conducted by post-graduate students at the Victoria & Albert Museum and Royal College of Art to the national romantic centre of Zakopane in the summer of 1993: they were first struck, as they write in their foreword, by the dimensional gradations of the haystacks that flashed past the window on the long coach trip through the mountains from Cracow. Their studies broadly confirmed their first impressions: that haystack diameter was inversely proportional to distance from Zakopane (although the appendix includes among its mass of tables and graphs substantial deliberations on the limitations of the field method, the difficulty of drawing lines of best fit and the precise value of the index); further investigations, however, have revealed additional dependencies on fertility of soil, altitude, number of persons in the farming household, alcohol consumption and ups and downs in marital relations.

This positivist approach, however, merely lays the ground-work for further theorising and research, including a valuable foray into oral history. The difficulties of gaining the confidence of subjects in such work is well-known, and has often led researchers to select people personally known to them (see the Victoria & Albert Museum’s own ‘Household Choices’ project). Some may feel, however, that Foster and Hawkins have gone a little far in selecting, as sources for their parallel case studies of haymaking in Ireland and Finland, their own (respective) father and mother, whose reminiscences, as well as details of a haymaking competition between them, illustrated with stills from home videos, fill another appendix. Ireland, Finland and Poland do, however, have more in common than haystacks; as the old saw has it, they also share the presence of a sometimes baleful eastern neighbour, and although the authors are not able to suggest any links between this factor and haystack shape and size, this is clearly fertile ground for investigation.

Encouraged by the success of their ground-breaking study, the authors’ intention is, indeed, to extent their project to the haystacks of Europe (and there is nothing, as they say, to prevent them, in time, from ploughing their furrow beyond the limits of that continent). The theory they wish to test - that conspicuous production of agricultural haystacks, in a setting far removed from either the conspicuous consumption of Thorstein Veblen’s American ‘gilded age’ or the conspicuous production excoriated by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the post-war American film industry, nevertheless shares many of the characteristics of both - will no doubt be modified by a closer reading of the later literature concerning consumption and, equally importantly, the body, both human and animal. The social and political implications of the production of haystacks and other traditional agrarian artefacts remains a field ripe for further investigation.


things 1, winter 1994

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