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...Excavating the Social

Gordon Fletcher
Paper presented to "Rethinking the Social" conference, Griffith University, July 1997 and subsequently in the proceedings of the conference.

Between the idea,
And the reality.
Between the motion,
and the act,
Falls the Shadow. (Eliot 1969, 85)

...since knowledge of reality is based upon the distinction between real images and unreal images, and since this distinction does not at the first moment exist, these intuitions would in truth not be intuitions either of the real or unreal, not perceptions, but pure intuitions. Where all is real nothing is real. (Croce 1922, 4).

Excavating the social is the process of attempting to identify the artefact on an interpretative plain, within shifting versions of 'reality' and in relation to the social. This implies a usage of the term, 'artefact', that could be seen to extend beyond the conventionally received description as 'the product of human action' (Richardson 1974, 4-5). However, what requires re-examination are the acts considered to produce the artefact. What is of particular interest for an excavation of the social are the acts of ascription which 'make' an artefact. 'Artefact' is employed in preference to 'object' to indicate a social constitution which is not necessarily bound to the physical. The interpretative plain presents itself as a conceptual terrain on which the qualities of artefacts inter-relate to define the artefact. This inter-relationship provides a sense of the artefact - an artefactuality. The interpretative plain, also, disentangles the conflation of the physical qualities of the artefact with the artefact itself as the product of a specific cultural perspective and not an axiom of universal understanding.

The artefact has an intimate inter-relationship with the 'social'. The indefinite, problematic and variously defined 'social' assumes a 'reality' when it is constituted through artefacts (Soja 1989, 79). Conceptualisations of geographic position, economic worth, kinship and social status, for example, can all be signified by an artefact, which in turn binds a social relationship to relative hierarchies of power and reality. Soja presents a similar claim for spatiality: 'as simultaneously a social product and a shaping force in social life' (Soja 1989,7). The certainty of these artefactual realities, however, is tied to the shifting framework of socially constructed meanings and interpretations (Hides 1997, 11). This fluidity suggests that the artefact without meaning is not an artefact at all.

Artefacts individually orbit within varying relationships of intensity to the constantly dynamic cycles of social interpretation and misinterpretation. Artefacts of minimal interpretation equally include the rare and distant with the present and mundane. Such a collection of artefacts includes, at its extremes, icons of national identity with kitchen utensils. The taxonomy of artefacts found in this interpretation is grounded in a relationship with the social and its constructions and contestations of power. This framework of interpretation shifts methodological emphasis from those classificatory schemes orientated around utility or style (Baudrillard 1996, 4).

The physical presence of an artefact, however, is not necessarily a requisite for its interpretation (cf. Buchli 1997, 189). Disentangling a physical presence from the interpretation of the artefact, particularly in the presence of multiple artefactual, or otherwise, realities, emphasises the importance of the 'sense' of the artefact over any single quality of the artefact, including a material presence. Artefactuality is the collection of various qualities that operate in amalgam as a signifier, not towards some ultimate physical revelation, but rather, to an arrangment of social relationships (Miller 1991, 13). Hawkes' description of English cultural identity is a useful, if somewhat poetic, comparison: 'It is like putting many metals into a crucible and pouring out, not just a mixture, but a new alloy with its own properties.' (Hawkes 1945, 24). Artefactuality is the sense that the accumulation of artefactual qualities are more than the sum of these parts. Physical qualities do become the significant elements for interpreting the artefact in particular forms of analysis. Most significantly, archaeology deals initially with the physical qualities of the artefact in order to proceed to an interpretation of the social and cultural conditions in which that artefact had ascribed meanings (Tilley 1989, 191; Buchli 1997, 189). This systematic practice is described as a process of scientific enquiry in recognition of archaeology's concern for the materiality, and particular reality, of artefacts. Archaeology, however, generally has little access to any other readily articulated artefactual qualities beyond this physical persistence (Tilley 1989, 192). Understanding of the specific artefact is developed from a series of inter-related assertions and comparisons built out of knowledges surrounding the artefact's provenance and previous interpretations of similar artefacts. In this sense, archaeology is also an exercise in logic.

Post-material Environments

The experiences of the post-material are increasingly articulated through the technological artefacts of computer systems as 'cyberspace'. This is not a unique expression of the post-material although it may, contemporarily, be the most common. Many social cosmologies hint at post-material, and pre-material, environments (Chagnon 1983, 90-2). These environments preclude the archaeologist's trowel, yet there is a sense that these environments possess artefactuality through an accumulation of artefactual qualities other than that of material presence. The artefactuality of these spaces is an aggregation of, potentially conflicting, qualities and meanings which are expressed and interpreted as identifiable artefacts. These artefacts are products of human manufacture which have a persistence beyond individual subjectivity and are not bound directly or permanently to the subject's immediate experience (Richardson 1974, 4). These artefacts, also, hold 'fixed' qualities that allow, at least, minimal interpretation through extended periods of time, irrespective of spatial separation. Miller, through Munn, identifies a similar spatialising effect with the canoes of the Kula:

What is being portrayed here is a concern with the creation of an object in which social relations are implicated, but which will ultimately be delivered up for the use of other people, by being launched into the kula ring. This is an example of the problem of alienation: certain conditions serve to separate the creators from the object of their creative processes.(Miller 1991, 61-2)

It is worth considering the extreme positions in these discussions of the artefact. For the realist, the artefact is 'there' telling 'us' about the cultural lifepaths of 'others' (Hides 1997, 13). A postmodern position, in contrast, suggests that the artefact tells 'us' about 'ourselves' as 'our' interpretation of the artefact is an act of autobiography revealed by our imparting of particular meanings on to its 'presence' (Baudrillard 1996, 105). The distinction between the interpretations of the anthropologist from the generally more casual observations of the non-anthropologist is, also, related to these positions. To interpret cultural lifepaths from an artefact requires a range of knowledges that cannot simply be inferred from the examination of an artefact's physical elements. To achieve this form of artefactual interpretation requires the privilege, legitimacy and, probably, training of an anthropologist. In contrast, interpreting the artefact as an act of autobiography, in relation to one's own subjectivity, imitates more anticipated, everyday, processes of interpretation and ascription towards the artefact. The artefact is considered by various qualities, such as utility, aesthetic appeal, the social status it imparts, its value or comparative rarity in relation to the social experiences and motivations of the subject (Buchli 1997, 190). This position reflects the relationship of the artefact to a post-material world or, at least, a world in which the 'material' orbits in apogee to the experiences of the subject by emphasising the artefactual qualities which are appropriate for the social provenance in which the artefact is found (Miller 1991, 104).

The artefact is a social meaning-laden 'thing'. However, discussion of the artefact, particularly in the archaeological context, inevitably conflates the artefact itself with its physical qualities as an apparently coherent and synonymous relationship (Miller 1991, 31). A physical 'thing' that is 'meaningful' is an artefact (cf. Shanks & Hodder 1997, 17). However, discussions which commence with artefactual meanings and qualities are not necessarily bound to a particular, or any, material form. This consequently defers debate regarding the existence or otherwise of an objective and knowable 'reality' in preference to positioning the artefact on an interpretative plain and in relation to the social.

Research Position

This position towards artefacts commences from an anthropological position. However, it is a position which is informed by the concerns and criticisms that have been levelled in this era of 'posts' in other spaces of the academy. Disciplines and research fields such as gender studies, sociology, architecture, social informatics, media studies and cultural studies 'fill out' the position in which artefacts are considered. This wider range of concerns produces a position which is sensitive to the concerns of ethnographic 'others' who have traditionally been exploited under the focus of the anthropologist's gaze (e.g. Chagnon 1983, x;xiii) However, the exploited who fulfil the role of ethnographic 'other' are a varied and heterogeneous group who are not necessarily or singularly delineated by cultural boundaries. In its place, it could be argued that claims made in the name of ethnographic 'others' are claims for a power relationship between the Anthropologist and non-Anthropologist. Nonetheless, the non-Anthropologist has increasingly gained power in determining the actions and activities of the Anthropologist. This introduces understandings of artefacts that are not necessarily accounted for in current methodological concerns. Adopting the concerns of the non-Anthropologist, the subjects of the Anthropologist's theory, makes the 'doing' of anthropology a more fraught, and probably more complex, task. It does, however, reassert a concern for the 'social'. This awareness for concerns of a problematised 'other', also strengthens the critical and theoretical foundations of anthropology. A consequence of incorporating these concerns has also been a preparedness, by some researchers at least, to break from anthropology's traditional concerns to consider industrial (and post-industrial) societies as equally legitimate venues for research.

Utilising this wider framework for Anthropological concern provides the opportunity for contemplating the artefact in a post-material world. Defining the post-material is as fraught a task as attempting to position the artefact within the 'real' world. These are not, however, uncoincidentally related complexities. The anthropological treatment of the artefact, following the methods of archaeology, has often pre-supposed an inherent or knowable reality in its use and interpretation of artefacts (Gellner 1997, 48). In contrast, the postmodern turn in anthropology questions the solidity or certainty of reality by citing the necessarily mediatory, interpretative and subjective role of the anthropologist (cf. Shanks & Hodder 1997, 5). This 'turn' however has generally not articulated any 'way forward' for the treatment of the artefacts in social environments which sustain a plurality of meanings, interlocking webs of power and, the widening distanciation of 'manufacture' from consequent interpretation (Gottdiener 1995, 65) . These, and other concerns, are parameters that require navigation to gain a sense of the artefact in the post-material world.

Some Artefacts

Within the material world, the shifting meanings associated with artefacts are an indication of the tenuous relationship that can exist between the physical and other qualities of the artefact. While meaning is generally perceived to shift around the anchorage of an artefact's physical qualities, other qualities provide different forms of anchorage (Miller 1991, 116). However, none of these anchorage points are stable entities, they are all, as with the artefact itself, a product of shifting social forces. Similarly, these points rarely, if ever, completely anchor the meaning of an artefact (cf. Miller 1991, 126-7). For example, the physical form of tea cups shift, in part, around an anchorage of style. The form of aircraft manufacture is anchored to changes in technology (and the priorities of research and development that emphasis particular social concerns for technological innovation) while the changing form of domestic motor vehicles is tied to a range of qualities including prestige, economic imperatives and style.

The tendency to anchor the artefact to physical qualities emphasises its original manufacture as the point at which meaning was conceived (Miller 1991, 3). However, some qualities of the artefact must precede the physical in order to enable its manufacture. Tools that aid manual labour are an indication of the need for these 'preceding' qualities. The very specific utility of woodworking tools, such as planes, shapers and chisels, indicates that the physical does not simply arise without an identification of future provenance or utility of the physical qualities of the artefact. In these tools, qualities, such as utility and the relationship to the material that will be worked, are qualities of the tool which are as significant as its manufactured physical form. Similarly, after manufacture, the relationship of physical qualities to an 'intended' meaning can be a fleeting association and one that does not necessarily persist through space or time. The further the material object is separated from its original manufacture the wider the range of artefactual meanings that are available. Distance, acquire through time or space, increases the polysemous qualities of the artefact (Shanks & Hodder 1997, 9). The ABC antiques program, For Love, or Money, regularly features a section in which the extent of this range is revealed when a panel of experts are given an artefact and asked to append their interpretation of other artefactual qualities to those that are immediately apparent. The primary expectation, of the program's host (and one assumes the intended audience), is for ascriptions of utility and scarcity. Interestingly, some of the hardest and most divergent guesses of these experts are examples of Victorian high technology or kitchen accessories. This provides some indication of the taxonomy of interpretation that positions the rare and mundane at the extremes of a relationship with power and the social. However, the process of locating the original manufacture of these antiques veils their common qualities as artefacts of prestige which is defined in their ascription as antiques. Shanks and Hodder's observation regarding taxonomy-making should be treated as the cautionary remark to this process of taxonomy-making, as:

Taxa are characterised by relative homogeneity. This is a legitimate strategy for coping with the immense empirical variety and particularity that archaeologists have to deal with. However, we should be clear that classification does not give the general picture; it gives the average (Shanks & Hodder 1997, 9).

The labour and social conditions of those who crushed grapes for wine or cut the wood for furniture are far removed from the separately and distantly ascribed qualities of prestige and implied social status that the artefacts of vintage wine and antique furniture are understood to possess. An example of the manner in which time and distance extends the possibilities for the ascription of meaning to an artefact can be found in the markets of Papua New Guinea. Tourists returning from the Trobriand Islands would sometimes clutch a flat wooden 'sword' with an ornately carved handle. The 'sword', however, is a meaning crafted by a culture which is not the producer of the artefact. These 'swords' are the distorted utensils of betel nut and lime use and, for Trobrianders, are used to add the lime to the betel. The artefact's physical qualities have progressively changed to increasingly reflect the meaning it possesses within a 'Western' culture. The shift in form better aligns the artefact to a meaning readily understood by the power-holders in the tourist-souvenir exchange. These changes absolve the need for the tourist to understand, or attempt to understand, the practices of ethnographic 'others' by transforming the 'exotic' lime scraper into a 'normal' weapon. The increasing power of the Tourist over non-Tourist within their own Trobriand Islands is charted in the mutating form of the lime scraper and the manner in which cultural meanings, as an anchoring quality of this artefact, have gradually shifted.

The artefact of 'Elvis' is another example of the persistence of artefactual qualities beyond the supposed whereabouts of any 'body'. The massive variety and range of artefacts that surround the central originating artefact provides a legitimacy and strength to the subject-less and body-less Elvis. The distanciation of the Elvis subject and Elvis artefact by increasing amounts of time provides an increasingly flexible set of meanings that are attached to the (now) non-existent originating artefact. However, no explosion of meaning has occurred around the artefact of Elvis as it is moderated by other Elvis artefacts that stand as proxy both physically and meaningfully to the original. The Mojo Nixon song of the late 80s may summarise the state of Elvisia, and of all artefacts: "Elvis is everywhere".

Post-industrial Artefacts

These examples stress the tenuous and uncertain relationship of particular artefactual qualities to the amalgam artefact. The increased fluidity that is found within these combinations can be claimed as a hallmark of post-industrial societies. The dissolution of archaeological certainty may also be the harbinger for the post-material by unbinding the artefact from a perceived necessity for physical qualities. The necessity of physicality as an essential quality of artefacts can be considered as a culturally specific formulation which can, as a consequence, be meaningfully disentangled. An obverse example of this cultural particularity can be found with 'laws'. These are an abstract network of concepts within European cultures but are considered within parts of Japanese culture to possess distinct colours. The fascination with the physical within European anthropology makes this cultural practice appear unusual as the colour of an artefact is generally considered a physical quality. This, then, raises the possibility that the Japanese consider their 'laws' as artefacts rather than texts. However, despite the argument that the physical is but one particular realm of qualities held by an artefact, the Japanese example forces the consideration of whether one artefactual quality is sufficient to derive a sense of an artefact. Conjoined to this is also the need to assess whether possessing colour is a quality of artefacts in Japanese culture (cf. Baudrillard 1996, 30-6).

A more recent example within post-industrial society which has entirely removed the need for physciality within an artefactual space is found in the formations of cyberspace. The most 'visible' artefactual quality of cyberspace is its architecture, a none-to-surprising connection considering the computer-mediated nature of this space. Visitors to web-based chat pages, a particularly narrow formulation of cyberspace, speak and apparently conceptualise of 'rooms' and wonder who is 'listening' to their conversations. Some web sites have taken the simulation further with users passing through 'doors' and 'climbing stairs' to reach further 'rooms'. One site, perhaps as an indication of its claimed quality, or size, dubs itself The Palace. The relative ease in which these ascription are assumed and accepted in the post-materiality of cyberspace reflects a movement in post-industrial society and consumer culture away from the need for physical presence towards an identity and meaning orientated presence.

Real Artefacts

The possibility for an artefactual, post-material space problematises the assumption that artefacts are constituted within a 'real' and knowable world. The relationship between the ideational and physical in the post-material world is, as it is in other social spaces, a negotiated position. Baudrillard takes this 'negotiation' to an absolute solution in his claim that:

The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible (Baudrillard 1994, 19).

The negotiation is extended in the post-material to make the physical an unnecessary artefactual quality. Another example which also suggests that artefacts are not the consequence of a fixed or measured amount of particular qualities comes, perhaps ironically, from archaeology. The material extracted from archaeological 'digs' again becomes artefactual through the ascriptions offered of them by, admittedly theoried, archaeologists ostensibly gazing through the crystal ball of cultural and temporal distance (Hodder 1989, 67). The interpreted artefacts of archaeology possesses a complex provenance. A complexity revealed, in part, by the range of claims that can be proposed regarding their origin and one which reveals the difference between the claims of realists and those who emphasise the ideational aspects of the social.

These distinctions and assertions approach the greatest density within a museum. However, the museum, as an artefact which is itself produced as a consequence of a series of cultural and social conditions which are literally 'set in concrete', imparts a coherence and logic on to the encased artefacts for the assumed audience. The museum presents an environment of tightly bound and inter-related artefactual meanings that reflect and reproduce systems of power and authority. Bourdieu even describes the museum as a 'consecrated building' (Bourdieu 1986, 273). The artefacts found within this space become part of a series of power relationships that substitute, and have little connection to, the relations of power found in their original provenance. This is possible through the privilege that the space of museums ascribes to the physical qualities of the displayed artefacts. Museums that adopt a diorama approach to the presentation of their artefactual holdings fix particular sets of cultural and social meaning to artefacts in a reflection of the 'solidity' of the artefact of the museum itself. Dioramas frame artefacts in a vision of an 'other' culture. The Ripley's Believe it or Not 'museums' take the privileges imparted by the space of the museum and the emphasis on physical qualities to its apogee. This museum presents wax replicas of various oddities for the amusement of an audience. The privilege of a museum is stressed through authoritative signs, exhibition halls and a structured pathway through the exhibits. The veracity of claims made in this space rely upon the privilege of 'being' a museum. Similarly, the traditional display methods that visually present taxonomies of 'like' artefacts fix particular cultural meanings. However, these meanings were products of the same culture as the artefact of the museum itself (Baudrillard 1996, 98). This taxonomic approach, while it provides less entertainment, could be claimed as the more 'ethical' of the two approaches in its presentation of artefactual meanings.

It is not coincidental that both archaeological and post-material artefacts should exhibit similar qualities by not possessing a 'complete' accumulation of artefactual qualities. These two examples are the extremes of a continuum that regards the specifically physical set of qualities that contribute to the sense of the artefacts. Artefacts can be considered in relation to other specific qualities, however, physical qualities are those that are most regularly considered. It is the interlocking and interrelated network of continuums of artefactual qualities that builds the interpretative plain upon which artefacts can be considered and compared.

The combination of artefactual qualities, which positions the artefact on the interpretative plain, produces particular understandings of the social. Although a realist position may argue otherwise, the artefact can never be, in itself, a fully articulated system. An artefact may be understood by the presence or absence of certain qualities, however, it only approaches full articulation by being considered in its 'space' and in relation to the other artefacts of that space (Miller 1991, 109-11; Shanks & Hodder 1997, 11). This articulation constructs an expectation for the artefact and, in turn, the artefact crafts an expectation for the space. This social expectation also strongly associates particular artefacts to specific meanings. This is found with many artefacts, but particularly with those that have a minimal intensity of interpretation applied to them. These are the artefacts of rarity and mundanity. The forms of bureaucracy, the utensils of the kitchen and the tools of literacy, as a near random series of examples, are all artefacts which are expected to exhibit certain qualities or applications - a 'normality'. This claim shares a kinship with Bourdieu's notion of the habitus and his flexible structuralism (Miller 1991, 103). An expectation of normality provides a key anchorage for the meaning of the artefact in this association with a particular quality or set of qualities. Institutions associated with bureaucracy implies consequent action with the accurate completion of forms (as artefacts) and this is a source of power for these artefacts. There is an apparently singular rationale for bureaucratic forms and this is a reflection of the power that they represent. The normalcy of this artefact, is, however, an albeit powerful social construction which is bound by its artefactual qualities to a specific space. The difficulty in imagining the bureaucratic form as anything other than a form is a reflection of the power of the relationship found between the subject and the artefact.

Inter-related systems of artefacts also support and maintain power relations through the production of transgressive artefacts which appear to work in opposition to dominant social relations. In a mechanical sense, a transgressive artefact is produced when artefactual qualities differ from those that are implied by knowledge of the space and the other artefacts that are juxtaposed with the transgressive artefact. To varying degrees this creates 'strangeness'. The mutation of the 'sword' in the Trobriand Islands has created a transgressive artefact for Trobrianders who interpret a lime scraper from the artefactual qualities of a flattened and carved piece of wood. Similarly the current 'Western' trend for 'new tribalism' and early 80s punk produce transgressive body/artefacts through various practices of body modification. Curiously, these examples both reveal the utilisation of cross-cultural, or supposedly cross-cultural, practices in order to construct a trangressive artefact within an 'other' culture.

Artefacts, the Self and Social Power

Social power is obtained and lost through the manipulation of the relationship between artefacts, the artefactual qualities themselves and, the social relationships which are bound with those artefacts. The power of artefacts is inherited from the social relations that produce and define the artefact. Power is also related to the extent, range and forms of interpretation that are applied to the artefact (Gottdiener 1995, 68). Artefacts that are representative of absolute political power, in forms such as totalitarianism, occupy a smaller interpretative plain and possess different artefactual qualities than more mundane items. Artefacts such as the British Crown Jewels and monumental architecture provide less opportunity for 'misinterpretation'. The difficulty in providing a 'misinterpretation' for these artefacts of absolute political power defines any misinterpretation as an act of resistance to the present regime. The questioning of political authority, similarly, increases the intensity of interpretations that are applied to these artefacts. This intensity is inversely related to the power that they can represent and reproduce (Baudrillard 1996, 56).

'Everyday' artefacts are also positioned on a small interpretative plain. The paucity in the range of interpretations that are available is apparently a consequence of their persistence within the mundane. However, a narrowed plain of interpretation is a consequence of the strength of particular power relations that act upon the artefact. Our belief that there is a limited range of interpretations that can be applied to a fork is closely related to the extent that the fork is bound into a dense system of artefactual relationships. In the case of the fork, it is bound into a range of other apparently mundane items with such a density that it is hard to conceptualise the fork without the supporting artefactual qualities brought by a knife. This small system frames larger networks and wider parameters of power.

Obversely, just as social relations bind and restrict the interpretations of an artefact, social interpretations limit the artefact. The conflation of physical qualities of the fork with the artefact of fork restricts which artefacts possess an artefactuality of 'forkness'. These limits to the artefact of the 'fork' are limitations imposed through individual artefactual qualities. The limitations that are introduced onto an artefact from its artefactual qualities are shifting and changing measures for the 'borders' of an artefact (Miller 1991, 116). The artefact is temporarily restricted by these shifting but in continually different ways. These limitations are not inherent in the artefact itself but appear to be through the mediation of contemporary social relations and the manner by which artefacts are perceived. Tilley, similarly, says: "An object, any object, has no ultimate or unitary meaning that can be held to exhaust it." (Tiller 1989, 191).

The fork also indicates the deceptiveness of understanding an artefact primarily from its physical qualities. The fork's functional simplicity, as a fork, is a manufactured simplicity and reflects the lengthy heritage that has contributed to the current physical forms of the artefact. None of this heritage is reflected in its direct and uncritical observation.


Distinguishing the artefact as a social product and as an amalgam of various qualities provides the opportunity for a reflexive and postmodern 'material culture studies'. The possibility for immaterial artefacts is very much a product of its time. Without the influence of debates surrounding, and the fascination with, cyberspace, the suggestion that the immaterial can equally be considered artefactually would probably be considered esoteric. However, in seeing cyberspace as artefactual it becomes apparent that this is not an original claim but rather one that has been hinted at through theology, literature, mythology and the social sciences. The insistence that artefacts must possess physical qualities is possibly a culturally specific one. Adopting the argument that artefacts are those 'things' that are experienced as phenomena beyond one's self provides for a wider ranging, but more workable, understanding of material culture. This argument, however, blurs the distinction, if any does exist, between 'reality' and ideational phenomena. Hodder's observation that: "...some artists are convinced that the only truth left is to reach beyond image to find reality, while at the same time accepting that reality is itself only an image" (Hodder 1989, 66) indicates some of the complexity present in these states.

Distinctions such as these, if they need to be made, may be be found in arguing for the significance of the sense of the artefact. This sense of the artefact - artefactuality - can be recognised as another method of constituting power but more basically as a method for conveying meaning. The post-material, then, is found in a sense of the artefact which is unconnected from, or in a deferred connection with, physical qualities. The persistence, meaning and coherence of the artefact resides in its social construction and maintanence, and its relationship to other, similarly constructed, artefacts.


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