A Little Humility, Please

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“Things, not, mind you, individual things, but the whole system of things, with their internal order, make us the people we are.” Danny Miller, Stuff (p. 53)

The fall of Icarus—wax melting, loosed feathers eddying as he plunges from the sky into the Aegean— is a central image in western mythology. A metaphor for the risks of hubris, it is also a provocative figure through which to think about the value which ethnographic research claims and the range of reactions to those claims. In 14th and 15th century painting, the Fall of Icarus was a relatively common theme for artists (and their patrons). But it was commonly related with a different emphasis than the way we recount the myth today: in the great Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings, it is Daedalus, father to Icarus, who is the sympathetic center of the tale. As inventor of both the fabulous wings and the labyrinth from which they enabled father and son to escape, Daedalus the craftsman, architect and inventor was resourceful, competent, and –except for the moment which landed him in King Minos’ service—a man who blended great vision with endearing humility.

Daedalus was an inventor but also a close and skilled...

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