Dr Mathew Leonard is an anthropologist and archaeologist who focuses on modern conflict, in particular that of the First and Second World War. Taking a cohesive interdisciplinary approach to his work, he looks to understand the human senses in these landscapes and time period.
Evie: You do not label yourself as solely an anthropologist, your field has lots of strong archaeological ties. So, my first question would be quite simply be in your bookshelf, is it split between archaeology books and anthropology books or is there more of a mixture between the pair of them?
Matt: There is a mixture between the pair of them, but what I do is inherently interdisciplinary. It’s not just anthropology and archaeology, there’s a lot of history but also a great deal of philosophy and English literature. The archaeologist in me means I’m very interested in art and objects, so I have quite a few books on art for the time period that I study.
Evie: So, the way your bookshelves are ordered, is there an order?
Matt: *shakes head and laughs*
Evie: No, so there’s no order whatsoever? It’s just all together?
Matt: It’s just higglety. But I mean there’s a vague order to it where I try to keep the books on conflict together and the books on this and that together. Although I suppose like most people’s chaos, I vaguely know where to go to find something.
Evie: I looked at it and you have history and sociology at undergraduate, and then your Masters’ and PhD are in anthropology with archaeology. Can you see the progression through the disciplines? Is there a book that still stands out from your undergraduate, your masters and your PhD?
Matt: From each? Yeah there will be.
History wise, the standout one will be old school; ‘The experience of WW1’ by J.M Winter. It’s actually a bit of a coffee table book, it’s nothing like the books you would read at post grad level but its informative.
From my MA its definitely Daniel Millers ‘Stuff’, definitely, that book changed the way I look at things. In fact, that was the book that probably changed me to be an anthropologist, not an archaeologist.
Have you read that?
Evie: Yeah, I read it before I applied to anthropology undergraduate. I read it at college, and I loved it.
Matt: What were the bits in it that made you just stop?
Evie: I think it was recommended to me and followed by being told that once you learn to think like an anthropologist you can’t reverse it. There’s never a way to go back to thinking so black and white and up until that point through school it’s always just been facts and exams. It showed me how to start thinking rather than learning.
Matt: That’s a good way of putting it. That was hugely influential on me, the other one that probably went in tandem with it in the MA, was Alfred Gell’s ‘Art and Agency’.
Evie: I’ve done that at Goldsmiths.
Matt: The bits in there about the whole idea of the agency we give objects, that started me thinking I’ve been looking at objects wrong. I’ve been looking at them as the result of something, not a story.
When it got to the PhD though, without a doubt the person who influenced me more than anyone else was David Howes. ‘Empire of the Senses’; that is a book that is definitely on par with ‘Stuff’, where once you’ve read it you will not be able to anything the same way again.
It’s a typical edited volume with lots of different chapters in it and a lot of them are really good, but there is this one in it about a guy, who’s not even an anthropologists I don’t think, who went to Mexico on holiday and while he was there he keeps asking himself why Mexican food is so hot? It’s always full of chillies and he can’t work it out, but when he starts speaking to people, he realises that there’s all these bazar links between the heat of food and human sacrifice, and it just span me out.
I just read it and thought ‘how can anyone look at something like that?’ I realised it’s possible to just look at something through a completely bazar lens; that set me off.
Evie: So, your own work and the work you study is so embedded in being interdisciplinary, do you reckon your bookshelf looks different to a more typical socio-cultural anthropologist?
Matt: Vanilla anything to me is just myopic. I never thought that until is started interdisciplinary study, but the idea of having a bookshelf full of socio-cultural anthropology books is great if it wants to tell me about socio-cultural anthropology but it wouldn’t set it in any context, it wouldn’t give me any historical value and there’s this kind of falsifiability; every discipline has it faults.
I mean I’m sure you know now, but when you were getting your grounding in anthropology, books we looked at such as ‘Coming of Age in Soma’ by Margot Mead and ‘Yanomamo: the Fierce People’ by Napoleon Chagnon, these people were ground breaking fieldworkers who were fatally flawed and the only real way you find out how their flawed is years later through anthropology. But if you had Margot Mead go to Soma with historian, a local, a biological anthropologist and an archaeologist, I bet she would have come up with something different.
So I like to try and wheedle out the pit falls of a discipline by incorporating with others.
Evie: Do you think more interdisciplinary books need to be published, to help formulate more interdisciplinary bookshelves in the wider sense of academia.
Yes, absolutely. But the problem I’ve found in academia, is that academics have become so focused on their own subject to such a degree they shut themselves off from things that don’t ‘fit’.
‘The Senses and Society’ by David Howes is being realised in November and I’ve written a chapter entitled ‘A sensorial No Man’s Land: corporeality and the Western Front during the First World War’ my chapter starts with a story of a guy who in the First World War crawled out of the trench into a tree near the German trenches, and he draws this tree in meticulous detail in the dark, once he got it perfect he goes back to his lines and that drawing was sent back to the engineers in France somewhere and they construct a version of the fake tree, identical in every way but it’s made of metal. Then in the middle of the night once its ready they take that tree to the front line and drag it out to no man’s land, cut the tree down and put the fake one back up, so a man can sit in the tree and spy on the Germans- and the Germans never know. When the morning comes, they see no difference at all.
So I wrote this as my opening in David’s book, and he comes back to me – the open minded – and told me ‘you’ve got to get rid of this no one is going to believe it’, and I said ‘what do you mean no one is going to believe it? It’s what happened?’, and he said it’s ‘too unbelievable’, and I thought unbelievable? You’re the doyen of anthropology in my eyes, but you’re looking at something and just destroying it because you don’t understand it.
So I thought nope, this is going in…I went to Belgium to a museum where I knew they had one of these trees, so I took a photo and brought it back here and emailed him and said ‘look they do exist’, and the moment he saw it in a museum he said ‘right lets stick with it, lets go with it’ but originally he wouldn’t believe it, nor would his readers who are mostly doctors of anthropology. They wouldn’t believe it because it was looking too much at an object or landscape and that’s how sensorial anthropology fits in.
Evie: Do you have a book that is most precious to you out of all of them?
Matt: Um…Yeah I do, I probably have a few.
Stuff is one of them, my copy of ‘Stuff’ is so mothy and covered in scribbles and all sorts of stuff. That’s definitely one.
Another is ‘Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature’ by Santanu Das… this one I’ve used an awful lot, in part because it’s a perfect example of interdisciplinary study.
Santanu Das is a hugely respected guy who deals in English Literature, and he’s written this book, taking about what you can take from other books written around the time. Where one of the main things he talks about is idea of a slime scape, the idea you can look at the western front as a kind of place which isn’t just mud but it consists of something you can’t describe because not only does it consist of slime, and body, and mud but also consists of something a little bit more. I used that to try and talk about the thing called a mudscape; where you have exactly what he says but that make up of the ground is also politics, culture, greed, the last 100 years of European history and it’s all smashed into one thing and brutalised.
Such a fundamental aspect of my work, yet he is not an anthropologist, not an archaeologist, not a historian but he is working in my world.
Evie: If you could recommend a book in modern conflict to someone who wanted to get into that field, what would that book be?
Matt: The book I would recommend starting with is ‘Beyond the dead Horizon: Studies in Modern Conflict Archaeology’ which is a very good one.
But there is a better one, by professor Nick Saunders it’s called ‘Matter of Conflicts’ its arguably to me one of the first books of this interdisciplinary books which showed how you could look at things very differently; in there you have chapters on trench art, chapters on gas masks, god knows what else.
Another is ‘Killing Time: Archaeology and the First World War’ it’s a lot more accessible; ‘Matters of Conflict’ is a lot more academical, but Killing Time is more an easy to read…but those two probably.
Evie: I asked you at the beginning if there was a way you sectioned your book case off into different disciplines but it almost very much seems you can’t; it seems your work is very free flowing and that is reflected into your bookcase.
Matt: I think that’s a very eloquent way of putting it.
I think another thing that comes into it is that since I got my PhD I’ve found it impossible to come down on a side of nearly anything, whereas before I was a bit more like ‘yeah but that’s the way it is’ now I’m more like ‘well if you see it from that side’ and it’s impossible, it has caused arguments with friends, caused arguments with my wife. I just won’t come down, because I’m so aware I might have missed something.
I got shown a really good graph the other day, called the ‘the Dunning Kruger’ and what the graph shows is the more knowledge you know the less confident you are in your knowledge and that’s kind of where I am.
So, my bookshelf is probably a metaphor for the way I think of things, I never really thought of it like that, but yeah…nothing really had pride of place over anything else because its only worth something in context to something else.
Interviewed by Evie Holt