Sunday, May 15, 2011

Towards a non-anthropocentric and non-anthropological archaeology

Archaeology is a highly differentiated field that often crosses disciplinary boundaries. However, from one standpoint most archaeological perspectives are the same. In the multiplicity of archaeological studies focusing on the search for our earliest ancestors, cultural heritage, contemporary landfills, material culture, palaeoclimate, indigenous values vs. archaeological values, etc. there is still, in 99% of the cases, an anthropocentric focus. The human being and that of human manufacture (“Culture” or “Aggregate”) are singled out as completely different from that unaffected by human intervention (“Nature” or “Substance”). This sets up a traditional “modernist” dichotomy, which has been part of our discipline since it emerged.

A rock is believed to be of greater importance if it contains traces of human usage. Since most archaeologists actually are more interested in the human being or “society” that used the rock, explanations to what the rock was used for are always sought from causes that transcend the rock itself. It is here it starts to get problematic. We automatically fall back upon a hylomorphic model of the objects. This means that an aggregated form is imposed on inert substance from external causes. The external cause for any object that is labeled “material culture” is always the single human being or the culture of which it is part. The object is passive in this view. However, properties of the objects always affect the end result. One cannot chip a flint axe in any way one wants to since the morphology of the rock sets limits, clay needs to be wet in order to form a vessel shape, etc.

Another problem with the anthropocentrism in archaeology, particularly regarding those focusing on past meanings (“contemporary archaeology” does exist as a sub-discipline, apart from the fact that all archaeologists work in the present), is that there is a sort of “event horizon” that we cannot really cross with any great accuracy. This is the moment when the “systemic context” becomes an “archaeological context” to use Michael Schiffer’s classic terms. The moment an object ceased to interact with the ancient human being(s) we will have a problem knowing what the object meant for that particular human or culture in any interesting detail. Hence, most studies focusing on past meaning settle for a human being with fairly generalized cognitive capabilities, a sort of frozen moment of time (our present), and then project these capabilities across the past event horizon into the systemic context. I call this “an archaeology of fullness”. Archaeologists want to erase every void of the past (the void that is assumed to exist before the event horizon of every object). In doing so we fill the past with anthropocentric narratives (gender, ethnicity, cosmology, etc.) usually removed from the physical objects of our study (artifacts, ruins, bones, etc.). The tiresome desire for a “holistic” view is impossible. Let us instead settle for creating an archaeology that is independent of anthropology. The fragments are the strength of archaeology.

Archaeologists following the “archaeology of fullness” perspective have a fairly pessimistic view of their discipline. The archaeological objects are not deemed to be enough to establish knowledge of the past. Instead, one often sees analogies with present ethnographical studies in order to fill the voids of the past. When objects are reduced to “material culture” or “materiality” they are simply being reduced to an anthropocentric perspective. It is often believed that we cannot think of object and subject apart from each other. They are always correlated with one and another—something called correlationism.

Objects are more than their “cultural” parts. The archaeological record is fragmented but it does not get less fragmented by imposing “Culture” to fill out the voids before and between objects. We need to cut objects from their relations to humans and to what went on before the event horizon. Only by removing relationism, correlationism, and anthropocentrism from the objects/artifacts can a truly independent archaeological discipline emerge. We will be liberated from nature and culture and we will escape the chains of anthropology.

Johan Normark
Archaeological Haecceities


Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that the whole idea of archaeology is to understand the people who made the things. It is by its very premise, which is to study ancient societies through their material culture, anthropocentric. This is how its defined. What use is it to say that clay must be wet to be made into a vase, except to say that someone must have wet the clay to make it into a vase? What point is there in saying that there is a vase and it is colored, except to say something about what it was for or what the color may have meant? We are humans, what ancient people may or may not have been thinking is not entirely elusive because we share the same brains.

The object is not the point of archaeology, and maybe the study of how things limit their possible uses should be its own field altogether rather than a 'new' archaeology. In fact, such a study is what very boring art history books are like. If archaeology loses its anthropocentrism, as you call it, and forgets that what we want to know is who the people making X were or what they were thinking, then it will be a fairly dull, fairly pointless field.

Johan said...

I usually get this reaction. Anyway, here are some responses:

(1) I am not suggesting a non-human archaeology. I am simply arguing for an initial decentralizing of the human being since humans are not in the center of the universe. It is to level all entities to the same ontological level. The generalized human mind or culture have for too long been the “master-signifiers” in archaeology.

(2) Objects may be manufactured by humans but their very existence after that is not necessary dependent on human relations. Humans are also objects and together with other objects they form greater objects/assemblages and it is those assemblages that interest me rather than the human part.

(3) Objects are not boring. Such a standpoint simply reflects an anthropocentric bias. I find it boring to always read the same story that an artifact meant this or that when objects never are exhausted by their relations (to humans or other objects). There is always more to the object than the anthropocentric interpretations. I find that far from boring. The art history books you mention are quite far from non-anthropocentric though. If you find them boring it is because they focus on objects but still claim to be a human-oriented discipline. Hence their appearance is different from what they claim to be. Being a Mayanist I find the endless ethnographic analogies used to give the objects more “interesting” perspectives to be boring in themselves. They are usually educated guesses at best.

(4) To what extent do humans share the same brain? Evolutionary speaking our brain has never been the same (if you study early Palaeolithic conditions and you assume the same kind of brain you are simply projecting contemporary human brains into the past). Speciation is always a problem, there are no closed boundaries between species seen in duration, only from spatial snapshots. Take Lambros Malafouris study on how representational thinking emerged. He believes it emerged after images (such as cave paintings during the Palaeolithic) had been created rather than the opposite way. A representational mind was not necessary to create images according to him. Hence, the external environment affects our brain in very different ways. Even in our present the brain is very “plastic” and many researchers suggest that our mind is extended. It is not all part of a Cartesian mind anymore. The blind man’s stick is a classic example. Where does the blind man’s mind end? In his organic body or at the end of the stick? Objects are therefore crucial for our mind as well.

In the future I plan to create a project entitled “Non-anthropocentric perspectives of humans”. In short, a non-anthropocentric perspective must be able to study humans from the same perspective as other entities.

Rex said...

It's funny that you should argue both 1) against anthropology and 2) in favor of objects since anthropological work in the past 10 years has increasingly focused on activity as a process that occurs across nodes in a network which include both human and nonhuman actors. Maybe the best means of examining "non-anthropocentric perspectives of humans" is more sociocultulal anthropology, not less.

Anonymous said...

The anthropological studies you probably refer to are still anthropocentric and relationist. Network studies (such as those inspired by Latour) implies that objects from the very start are part of relations (in most cases they are relations to humans although that is not always the case with Latour). We also make the basic distinction between humans and nonhumans. Nonhumans is a pretty broad category and based on negation. Whatever is not human is nonhuman. The human being maintains its central focus in these perspectives. I prefer affirmation before negation. An object should primarily be seen from its own properties, not for what it can be in relation to another object (and the object we call human).