Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The object of archaeology?

What does an archaeologist do? What, exactly, is it that one studies? More poignantly, why do we care? This is seemingly at the core of a self-reflective archaeology as alluded to by Ian Hodder in "Archaeological Theory in Contemporary European Societies; the Emergence of Competing Traditions" and Ann Brower Stahl's "Introduction: Changing Perspectives on Africa's Past."

Importantly, Hodder concludes that there is a certain level of objectivity whereby our understanding of the past in the present time is informed by the remains from the past: "...the experience of the archaeological data and the patterning observed in the past do more than resist our ideas; they help create them" (22). However, is this a satisfying response to his previous statement that "The past is undeniably social, as is the practice of archaeology" (20)? He seems to claim that there is indeed some middle ground between the objective presence of material remains from a past existence and the socially-affected discipline of archaeology. However, with considerations such as "...the history of theories used in archaeology cannot be separated from the concrete conditions of practical research or from the social functions of archaeology in society" (21), how in fact can this objective-subjective dichotomy be mediated? Hodder claims that "The continuities we claim with the past have in part been created by that past. Archaeological science involves a dialectical relationship between past and present. The hermeneutic circle is not a vicious one" (22). This seems to be a logical fallacy, however, if the continuities we claim to have with a given past are in fact up to an interpretation of that past. Where does the science come into archaeology? How is that dialectic any different than the discourse that Said discusses on the matter of Orientalism?

If the object of archaeology is a past that is uncovered and interpreted in the present, is not any continuity drawn between this present and that past merely a structure of rhetoric and interpretation? The process that Hodder seems to rectify as in some way objective is anything but. It is a reflexive discourse, as is Said's Orientalism. We are the present, they are the past. We observe and study them through our lens. As the speakers for the past, we describe it and analyze it. Where, exactly does the data come in? How is this any different than an Orientalist discourse?

To be fair to Hodder, he does acknowledge this to an extent by inscribing: "The attempt to embed material events within the whole framework of meaning in which they were once situated clearly involves the analyst in a double hermeneutic in which 'their' and 'our' understandings are gradually accommodated in a moving double circle. This process of double reading has to be critically aware" (18). Is this not a method of navigating the vicious hermeneutic circle that Hodder eventually rejects? Poignantly, the process of archaeology is, indeed, a moving, reflexive discourse. It seems that there is no mere moment of archaeological objectiveness, but more so an ongoing, reflexive, discursive, hermeneutic enterprise. Is this not the history that Hodder so sensitively describes of his account of European archaeology?

So, this does not give an answer to any question asked originally as to what and why archaeologists study. There is seemingly no object of archaeology. The only objective to be found here is that it is a discourse among as many interpreted evidences as possible, characterized as 'data,' and with that to define, redefine, and question a past that is interpreted in the present. Likewise, these are the sorts of systematic problems that Stahl faces in prefacing an account of African archaeology. She considers knowledge to be always interested; i.e., the object of an analysis is determined "... by the social, political, and economic contexts..." of the subject (2). The conclusions drawn from such analyses are presented as universal, objective conditions, or 'knowledge,' but really "...the universal emerges NOT from widely documented shared features, as we might at first imagine, but rather from the elevation of a shared instance or example to stand for the universal" (6).

As for a capacity for archaeologists to do some study of worth, as heretofore they have been perhaps unfairly treated in this reflection, they consider sources--or perhaps objects--of a past, some of which are privileged over others. The direct sources are those privileged over indirect ones, having been produced in the temporal realm of concern. These data points that Hodder perhaps designates too much of an objectivity for, are by no means such. However, their presence and usage in an archaeological endeavor is not to be unsubstantiated, but reconsidered. To reckon with these qualms, Stahl wisely places such archaeological 'data' in its rightful place by claiming, "Archaeological sources...provide valuable independent evidence against which to assess models of the past." The insistence here is on her use of the term models. To bring this discussion to a more hopeful end with regards to the place and function of archaeology, if we are to study 'the past' as models of such rather than an objective sort, and the evidence from which as artifacts to be questioned, analyzed, and interpreted for or against certain models, than in fact archaeology can have an exuberant worth insofar as it acquires and exploits data while questioning it and the meaning thereof.

With this in mind, Stahl puts it far better than I could attempt to here, and will therefore end as she does. Her considerations are universal, however. For archaeology to succeed and have relevancy, it must be a subjective study of the subjective. As one would advise the insecure and miserable pubescent boy, accept and pride in who you are. For archaeology to reach the level of adulthood, it must accept what it is and what it is not. It is an anarchical endeavor, no right or wrong, this or that, us or them. Archaeology is, indeed, the study of everything. It is only different insofar of its perspective. Thus, perhaps archaeology is more suited as a frame of mind than a discipline unto itself. Anyway, rather than belabor this point, Stahl has some words to comfort us all in the throes of archaeological existential crises:

"Africa's pasts speak to us--conceived as an encompassing 'circle of we'--not for what they tell us about teleologically conceived universal progress, or quintessential difference and diversity conceived as a departure from an ever-present phantom standard of 'us-ness.' Rather they offer insight into our humanness; to the struggles of humans as social actors to feed and care for family, to express commonalities and differences, to impose or resist power and hegemony, in short, to make our way in a world of entangled and changing natural and cultural circumstances" (16).

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