Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Interesting or Interested?

Ann Brower Stahl's discussion or African archaeology revolves around a central issue of why pursue archaeology in a particular region. There is a dominance of western research taking place in the African continent. Although Western researchers might portray themselves as merely having an innocent region in this place, Stahl presents an account of a more biased interest to further Western interests. Is archaeology conducted because it is simply interesting, or rather, is Western researchers produce a data set that is interested for a particular purpose?

This discussion revolves around the notion of epistemology. Considering Ian Hodder's discussions of the development of archaeology in Archaeological Theory in Europe, "As we have seen, European archaeology has long been dominated by ethnogenetic questions which required little theoretical discussions beyond the methodologies of culture-historical reconstruction" (9). Apparently, archaeology can be viewed as a rather teleological endeavor--not one in which there is a disinterested pursuit for increasing humanity's knowledge of its past, but a task of proving particular hypothesis for the substantiation of contemporary societal norms and standpoints. This is exactly why Stahl lingers on the question of "For whom is knowledge of Africa's pasts relevant?" (2). Archaeology as a process of gathering information is always theoretical insofar as the researcher has inherent biases of a contemporary standpoint.

Stemming from Edward Said's account of Orientalism as an us-and-them dialectic, Stahl similarly portrays African archaeology in a similar light. Archaeological research in Africa are inherently engaged in a similar rhetoric. In the search for 'us,' there might be an idea that excavating is a means to uncover our genetic 'Eve.' Beside this term in itself being an extraordinarily gendered one, there is implicitly always going to be strain of interest by way of using archaeological evidence to further a contemporary philosophic standpoint. Again, to quote Stahl, "...the universal emerges NOT from widely documented shared features, as we might at first imagine, but rather from the elevation of a specific instance or example to stand for the universal" (6). Perhaps this is at the core of archaeology's anxiety of being viewed as scientific, since science is incontestable, as is the Western mantra. If archaeology is viewed as scientific, then it too is incontestable, and thereby the results of the Western archaeological endeavor in Africa as portraying a teleology of humanity from savage to civilized is likewise incontestable. It is for this reason that Stahl insists on a self-conscious sort of archaeological research in one's biases are made explicit. If we can avoid an insistence on accuracy and make way for intellectual empathy, then perhaps archaeology can show itself as an apt field of its own, not as the little brother needlessly trying to live up to Science's example.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the Stahl quote you incorporated into your last paragraph about using specific examples and elevating them to stand for the universal. I see this playing out in the UNESCO selection process. A predominantly Western body picks and chooses a smattering of individual sites from various parts of the world, "elevating" them by using them to constitute their own idea of "global history." The assumption that including a site within a larger scale of history (global rather than national or local) is inherently elevating implicitly denigrates national and local histories, which is the problem, as it preferences the Western narrative of globalism over other equally valid ideologies.