The following discussion is associated with Chris Witmore’s presentation: “A Past No Longer Past: Some Implications for Archaeology at Large.”‘
Posted at Oct 05/2006 02:46PM:
Steve Houston: Goteborg is at the forefront of this kind of “decultured” or polyagentive archaeology, to which I was exposed because of my colleague/quondam student Johan Normark. Yes, obviously, late vintage Latour. In my view, its proponents don’t ever quite produce what their revolution promises (much like many intellectual sans culottes?).
I also see, on direct evidence from Normark, two things that wrap up in one, untidy package:
(1) a strong reaction to Americanist archaeology, with an internal trajectory of interest in objects that goes back to Montelius and later typologists of things, esp. Muller-Karpe. There’s a decided feeling that “culture” is a flimsy, normative, ill-defined concept, that, perhaps, gringos have highjacked intellectual trends in the field, that those trends need thorough review in Eurothought. It’s hard not to interpret this sociologically, as a form of intellectual disquiet with the prominence that US universities have had in setting global research agenda.
(2) their perspective is firmly *prehistoric*, in part, I think, because they do not have the ethnographic richness that informs archaeology in other parts of the world. A cultural, semantically rich vantage on TRB or LBK is always going to be thin, miserable stuff; hallristingnar in Halland remain cryptic. The Scandinavians tried to achieve a more ethnographic vantage through the early folkloric movements and in museums like Nordiska Museet in Stockholm, full of vanishing, late 19th-century evidence of village life. (This is where Skansen comes from, too, if you’ve ever been to that great hymn to Swedenism and bionationalism.) The arguments for continuities could not hold up, so their own ethnographic “project” capsized. The big Swedish dig in the Americas is in a remote valley in Argentina, about which little to nothing is known historically or ethnographically. This must comfort them, given their overall disposition.
The trouble is, as I mentioned, someone like Normark both uses our (Meso) work widely and then attempts, on theoretical grounds, to eschew it as “old-fashioned” and “misguided.” He uses labels and concepts that he says are wrong. And, predictably, in the future he wants to drop Maya archaeology for research in less known regions.
There’s always the need to show that these perspectives substantially improve and refine our understanding of the past. I probably can’t agree with Chris that the past comes into the present in a process of topological folding, as this is literal impossibility — that “past” is simply an input actualized and received in now-time. Aside from the personal experience of time, there is its analysis, its cutting up and segregation for a variety of aims. For us, I think, “chronology” is an act of classification, done for a reason, for sundry convenience.
- Gillberg, Daniel: Samtid i dåtid – en diskussion kring arkeologins relation till antropologin.
- Andresen, Anneli: Tiden i teorien – ei analyse av tre oversiktsverk.
- Bjarne, Erland: Gropberättelser. Om närhet och distans till förhistorien.
- Vallin, Patrik: En dåtida dåtid. Reflexioner kring ett arkeologiskt problemområde utifrån ett röseområde med järnåldersgravar och medeltida odlingslämningar i utkanten av Örebro.
You probably don’t read Swedish, so the first is: “Current Time and Then Time,” then, “Time in Theory,” then “On closeness and distance in Prehistory,” then, “A Then-Time Then-Time.” John Normark has also done an MA thesis on time-concepts, “Somewhere in Time.”
And the volumes:
- No 61. Fredrik Fahlander & Terje Oestigaard (red): Material Culture and other things. Post-disciplinary studies in 21 st century. ISBN 91-85245-12-7. Göteborg 2004. SEK150.
- No 23: Fahlander, Fredrik: The materiality of serial practice. A microarchaeology of burial. Göteborg 2003. ISBN 91-85952-83-4. SEK150.
Per Cornell is also part of this movement, as are many of the grad students at Goteborg.
Posted at Oct 06/2006 08:47AM:
chris witmore: Dear Steve,
Many thanks for these references and your excellent comments more generally. I am extremely grateful. I know a few because Michael Shanks is a docent at Göteborg. There is a lot of fantastic work occurring at Göteborg.
As far as centers for what might be called a symmetrical movement there are a few. In fact Michael Shanks has been working on this since 1993! Most of the Stanford group work centers on the Metamedia Lab. http://traumwerk.stanford.edu:3455/Symmetry/Home
There are also Bjornar Olsen, Carl Knappet, and others.
There are others, of course, who do not subscribe.
My work differs in major ways from what you are describing. Foremost it refuses to treat other scholarship as outmoded or outdated. This revolutionary (dialectical) gesture leads us to run the risk of repetition, which was Ian’s warning.
Second, I could not do the work that I do without chronology. It is very necessary. Here, I have much more detailed topological studies which I am happy to share with you.
Third, I simply do not begin with a bifurcation between the past and present. So the past can not come into the present in the way you describe because it is already, always there and thoroughly blended in a bewildering variety of ways. It is with this mixture that I begin.
Perhaps my examples were poorly chosen. In the least, it might be worthwhile to keep the verdict out with regard to topology, because here we have only just begun!
Many thanks for a wonderful and engaging message Steve.
Posted at Oct 06/2006 09:29AM:
Steve Houston: Great, Chris.
I suppose one could make the philosophical point that such past events and processes have continuing (but, as you say, variably persistent) input in present reception. The initial impetus or motions behind that input or those signals is not “present,” however. The Big Bang — to use an extreme, uttermost example — happened long, long ago and has continuing effects, such as patchy distributions of matter. It is not happening now, though. I really do not believe that this is a sustainable argument. That massive, explosion beyond human experience is not now ripping me to shreds, as its force is in part spent. Its “ripples” are be affecting me, to use Omur’s analogy. (Mind you, all the analogies we’re using are from physical processes, so one has to invoke the whole package of cause and effect.) If the Past were truly present in the Present, if the underlying notion is not one of the first affecting the present, the two should be reciprocally connected, correct? That is, past states should be similarly affected by present ones. The topological analogy, which is spatial, would suggest true contact and merger, with the reciprocal effects required by the notion of true contact. The same for the river with eddy analogy — the water actually does pass backwards; it does have contact with molecules upstream. But we are not able to reach back and talk to Alexander. Again, a counter-suggestion is very hard for me to believe.
You’ll need to make the case, also, why this is a point of archaeological usefulness rather than a philosophical one. It has to result, not only in a philosophical disposition or orientation, but something that is usable for interpretation, that is clear, that changes substantially how we practice and interpret archaeology.
I have no doubt that discussion of such things is good, however! So keep at it, and amaze us.
Posted at Oct 06/2006 10:30AM:
Ian Straughn:Dear All, As I have probably already made some of my skepticism clear I whole heartedly agree that such discussions are fruitful. In particular I will be interested to see the response to the notion of reciprocity and whether the present must effect the past. One thought is certainly to consider the imagination of the present or the future. We are (at times) future oriented beings – except for those of us who are perpetual procrastinators or grad students living hand to mouth not even able to think where the next meal comes from only the one in front of their face. Hence those future presents are part of the past. But they are imagined, or at least imagined to be real. This returns to my skepticism that the thesis that chris has proposed has not pulled us out of the post-modern trap that negates the possibility of a real past, of the reality of Ruwandan genocide.
That said I do think that the point about classification is at the heart of this matter. We need to constantly ask ourselves not only “How useful are our tools?” but also “Where the hell did I get this from in the first place?” For me that kind of genealogical inquiry is essential in thinking about what kind of damage I might be doing to the study of Muslim societies with categories emergent from a legacy of Western social theory. This again may be my Chicago training but it is also where I argue that we must ground the legitimacy of seeing not only the discourses but the things as cultural. Chris, there is a reason why your philosophical underpinnings are located in the thought of post-enlightenment white male Christian thinkers and not say the Sufi mystics of the 11th century or native American visions of social memory ala Keith Basso.
Two cents, Ian
Posted at Oct 07/2006 09:31AM:
chris witmore: To return to Steve’s point concerning the eddies and counter currents in time. Part of the problem is that when I use the term the ‘past’ or the ‘pasts’ I evoke a particular frame of reference related to the past-as-it-was. I am simply not speaking of the past-as-it-was to begin with because the past as it was is the outcome of our practices. This is of fundamental importance for a discipline that deals with the material world. I am urging us not to bifurcate the material world into past and present to begin with. The world is always simultaneously archaic, modern and futuristic to begin with. We build from this complexity.
By past, I am referring to how achievements which occurred at a distance are present as a bewildering variety of media, materials, things, buildings, memories, practices, etc. While the person in history known as Alexander is dead and not to return, something of his practices or something of his persona (the latter: what others wrote of him or presented of him) can nevertheless have an impact now so long as they have been translated into the things we can engage with as archaeologists. These ‘traces’ (a term that has itself been blackboxed) of Alexander can be a model for others to emulate. ‘His’ image can continue to circulate. As such something of the past can have an impact.
But your responses are perfectly valid and they are what I would expect from more historically oriented archaeologists and I do not mean that in a negative way. I am speaking from different frames of reference. This is why I couldn’t simply call my project ‘cultural’ because that would reinforce a frame that either situates humans in a bifurcated, dualistic relationship with nature or it treats the full realm of human possibility as cultural. Those who would argue that it it all natural would not subscribe to this. This is a problem of the ‘science wars.’ I do not to begin with either of these frames and would not do so unless we radically repackage the notions of nature (which some have now done), culture, or likewise the social (which has also begun), to begin with. The way around this postmodern problem is not to overcome it as dialectical thinkers would have us believe is possible, but to excavate underneath it altogether.
Posted at Oct 07/2006 03:57PM:
Steve Houston: Well, Chris, I’m afraid — if I understand the subtleties, which may be part of the problem with these formulations — you are boxed in by issues of cause and effect that arise inevitably from your perspective. You also simultaneously describe and conflate time-sense from experiential and analytical perspectives. This is unwise, as the first concerns subjectivities, the second — as I said before — calibrations and classifications of time as an act of working through specific problems or needing handy orientations. The first is about experience, historically and culturally siutated, the second about a set of tools for sundry aims. The fusion you propose simply does’t make much sense to me. What is achieved by it? If the thoughts are so subtle that only a handful of practitioners can access them, that itself is not a good sign. I did take some moments to look over the various Shanksian web-sites out at Stanford. Is it perhaps best summed up when our friend and your mentor describes the movement as a certain “atittude”? It’s going to have to be more than that for the rest of us to make the leap. A lot of what you say resonates with Ingold’s perspectival views as well. The same problem applies: how to make it persuasive analytically, rather than as “attitude” or posture? You have to show that this creates a better and more persuasive archaeology. If that isn’t the goal, then I’m in the wrong field.
We await your empirical work that will compell us, we hope, to hitch a ride on this bandwagon.
Posted at Oct 08/2006 05:59PM:
chris witmore: Hi Steve. I have plenty of material to share with you here and much of it, you will be happy to hear, has anticipated and addressed some of your concerns.
Posted at Nov 13/2006 04:55AM:
Johan Normark I want to clarify some things that Steve Houston mentions regarding my work. I am not particularly arguing against Americanist archaeology, but rather what I call “humanocentric” archaeology (which includes European/Scandinavian archaeology). This is basically any archaeological perspective that sets as its main purpose to explain the past by projecting a contemporary human and/or culture into the past. In short, this creates a static human being and culture. There is some sort of essential human to be found and the materialities are believed to carry these essential properties with them. Artefacts are believed to carry transcendental structures that can be explained by ethnographic data (this is the same for culture history, processualism and postprocessualism). Therefore I am not at all connected with Montelius, far from it. I argue that the only continuous we have from the past is the artefact as a “virtual multiplicity”, a process of becoming, rather than an essential human being or a culture. Therefore my main inspirations are Bergson and Deleuze rather than Latour.
What I share with my colleagues Cornell and Fahlander is that we have an optimistic view of archaeology. Many archaeologists believe that their data set is not enough, and therefore they fill the past with ethnographical analogies, which are at best qualified guesses (even in the Maya area). I am not against texts or iconography, but I believe that these sources are less likely to tell us the “truth”. Rathje has shown in his garbological project that what people say they throw in the garbage and what actually is in the garbage tends to be quite different. Iconography and epigraphy surely give us important information but I believe there is information to be obtained that does not follow the “royal” or “elite” perspectives shown in the iconography and epigraphy.
The reason why I use the Mesoamerican sources widely (at least in my dissertation) is to show the greater context of earlier research, but when I discuss my own theoretical issues, I tend to narrow it down to my own case studies which are two medium-sized centres in southern Mexico; Ichmul and Yo’okop.
I agree with Steve’s claim that I think Mayanists use “old-fashioned” models. However, I do not claim that concepts are wrong, they are just not very well discussed, and they are never questioned (such as culture, culture area, ideology, evolution, etc.). People take them for granted, and as such they become old-fashioned since other research moves ahead and develop other views which do not seem to come to archaeologists’ attention. If one just takes a quick look through the reference lists of some well-known Mayanists, one can see a fairly narrow scope of literature. Some may include literature from other areas of Mesoamerica, but I hate to say it, Mayanists are not very well equipped with current social theory. Steve is one of the few exceptions. I hope that more Mayanists could take part of the overall archaeological discussion.
My main overall purpose is to find tools to interpret material remains that do not rely upon presently known social organizations (such as lineages), political units (chiefdoms or states), etc. I believe that the world is changing and therefore we cannot rely on static concepts such as culture. Central to any archaeological discussion should be time, the dimension of change. Time is always represented in a cinematographic view, of an endless series of static frames. This is not how time really is, but that is another discussion.
In any case, I will defend my dissertation on the 15th of December. My opponent will be Scott Hutson (co-author of Hodder’s recent version of “Reading the Past”). I can also recommend a forthcoming book, edited by Cornell and Fahlander (probably in 2007), that deals with many topics and areas of the world that shows the variety of approaches to materialities.
2006 The Roads In-Between: Causeways and Polyagentive Networks at Ichmul and Yo’okop, Cochuah Region, Mexico. Institutionen för arkeologi, Göteborgs universitet, Göteborg.
2007 Lethal encounters: warfare and virtual ideologies in the Maya area. In: Cornell, P. & Fahlander, F. Encounters/Materialities/Confrontations: Archaeologies of Social Space and Interaction. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge.