sábado, 13 de dezembro de 2008

Archaeology’s Achilles heel: notes in order to overcome the concept of “material culture”

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Archaeology’s Achilles heel: notes in order to overcome the concept of “material culture”
Vítor Oliveira Jorge

This is a beginning in the reflection on the metaphysics of absence/presence.
What do I mean by that?
Logocentrism - calls Jacques Derrida to the logic of “presence” that dominates and structures our ideals, values and institutions - connected to this ambition of “memoires”, of the “the wild desire to preserve everything, to gather everything together” in the idiom of our (ultimately) autobiographical design of memory.”
On another hand, and quoting the words of Dooley & Cavanagh (2007, p. 8) about Derrida: “(...) it is the impossible act of endeavouring to infuse the past with life - to make it present, to bring it home to us - that makes us passionate about historical investigation. It is (...)unavoidable loss that drives us to mourn the past and, in so doing, attempt the impossible by resurrecting it.”

For Derrida, “identity is always haunted by the spectral traces of absence, loss and death.” (ib., p. 17). “PRESENCE IS ALWAYS INHABITED BY TRACES OF ABSENCE.” (ib., p. 34).
“We can never recollect the presence of a original intention, because there never was an original presence to begin with.
“All presence is marked by traces of absence. It is always marked by the no-longer of the past, and the not-yet of the future.And it is only on the basis of these traces that we can experience “presence” at all.”
“(...) we can have no experience of presence or anythinh else without difference, deferral and repetition.”
Mark Doodley and Liam Kavanagh, “The Philosophy of Derrida”, Stocksfield, Acumen, 2007, p. 38.
In this contest, I am very critical apropos of the concepts of material culture and materiality.
They are included in the logic of Western metaphysics: “ the telos of presence and full recollection” (to use words of Dooley and Cavanagh, p. 50)
In fact, to distinguish between a material world (objects) and a non-material one (ideas, etc.) is very much in the Western dichotomic tradition coming from the Greeks, and accentuated with Descartes cogito, etc.
That dichotomy has no meaning for the majority of cultures living or extinct. It is a peculiarity (we could call it exoticism) of our own.
(See for instance the anthropological works by the French social anthropologist Philippe Descola).
To quote Doley and Cavanagh (2007, pp. 64-65) apropos of Derrida’s thought:
“We can never completely recolect the past. Memory is always incomplete(...). And it is precisely this impossibility of teleological recollection that is the very possibility of speech, meaning, communication and intetionality.”
“While we passionately desire to recollect and resurrect the past, the most we can do is stitch together the traces and cinders of memory.”
In archaeology, the so called “material culture” has been always the focus of attention.
The idea is: material culture is a part (or, in more “modern” terms, a sub-system) of culture as a whole (the system in general).
The archaeologist has to deal with this part (the objectual or material sub-system, reduced to traces) in order to recover the entire system to whom it refers, of which it is a mere reflection or metonymy.
Underpinning assumption:
There is a possibility to recover the whole (or, at least, its “mechanism”, its way of functioning) from one of its parts, and in particular it is possible to departure from conserved material objects (traces, remains) existing in the present to the reality of “life” in the past.
Remains are documents and in a certain way mute witnesses of a lost, of a lack. This lack may be filled up again through our research effort. The object may speak to us in the name of a dead situation: it is a witness, a “representative”: something chosen to act and speak on behalf of a wider group.
But we may consider it otherwise.
According to the culture-historical viewpoint (first half of the XX century), those objects were the materialization of ideas, of norms transmitted from generation to generation. They were invented in particular places, and then they circulated and were diffused. This diffusionism was one of the main causes of change.
For some, archaeological cultures were only archaeological entities: strict associations of objects.
Bur for others, they tended to be the expression of (to be the “representatives” of) peoples. So, each culture, each people. Archaeological assemblages were so to speak ethnological entities, each one of them located in a sort of “ethnological present” projected into the past, i.e., out of time.
The past - in particular, the prehistoric past - was “filled up” and narrated as a series of discrete entities (cultures) displayed in time and space.
It was the projection of the notion of the nation-state in modern history, conceived at the image of the Western history, notion enlarged to embrace the entire planet, conceptually (etc.) colonized by Westerners.
Then, processual archaeology (from the 60’s on, in the Anglo-Saxon world) tried to focus on adaptation and later, in its more sophisticated, cognitive version, tended to follow the old mentalist tradition: material objects are results of a previous design (a mental template) conceived in a “mind” detached from concrete action and the individual body.
But now, with the help of the brain/computer sciences, we would build much more complex, rich, and “true” models of the functioning of old societies and persons. Modern technology would allow us to “see” the past, not only in the actions of people, from the outside, but also in their very motivations, intention (i.e., from the inside). A sort of Redemption of the Lack was possible.
Cognitive sciences pursue a overwhelming goal today in connection with Artificial Intelligence studies: to understand the brain and therefore all human action as the product of the funtion of a very sophisticated machine, the mind of the individual and its invariants and particularities. Ultimately, this is the ideology of modern entrepreneurship. An economy of parts (the autonomous individual) and wholes (the general system functioning and self-regulating.
It is obvious that right from the beginning of the discipline, every archaeologist was always interested in something more than collecting objects.
He or she was concerned with something else:“discovering” the so called “culture”, “system”, or “subject” behind the “artifact”. The intentions, the tacit rules, the “invisible”mode of constitution and reconstituion of society and of modes, regimes, of consciousness.
In sum, to unveil the metaphysical that stands behind, or underneath, the physical, to recover the event behind the trace if it, to look for appearance, presentation, instead of its image, its representation or simulacrum. This idea comes, at least, from Plato.
As I said before, the problem is the very status of those concepts, namely the artifact (whatever it may be, from a stone axe to an entire city), which archaeology has tended to look at as the product of a something previously “worked out” in the mind...a design... that is then materialized in the physical world.
That, I repeat, is the projection and the universalization of our modern ideology: the world is at our feet to be known, conquered, domesticated, possessed, colonized. The world is in a sense our pet and our playground.
Thus archaeologists have dreamed of reaching an “improvement of knowledge” by “ascending the river from the mouth to its source”, by making a movement that is in the reverse sense of common experience:
going from the material world of the so-called past (the remains of something, including people) to the building of an “interpretation” (narrative of that past, its meaning, i. e., an explanation, a re-presentation inspired by the very idea of God’s omniscience, etc.).
That narrative is a work of mourning (of loss of the Other) and on the other hand it is in connection with a construction of identity that is nostalgic of the presence of the Father, the subject who is supposed to know, the Protector, the Provider.
This is the foundational myth of archaeology. Its Achilles heel. Can we overcome it and build a post-positivistic archaeology, a “post-recontructivist” archaeology, located in the present, i.e. in a certain way free from the obsession of the representation? Assuming that the “meaning” of an object, of the so called material culture, is/was always contextual and contingent, although we desire to interpret it, to represent it in the most honest and “objective way?
Any object has/had a biography, and to trace it is in most cases not only difficult, impossible, mythical, but ultimately useless. Living we the undecidibilty of things is to accept our own capacity to imagine the future. Our past is our future ahead.
Archaeology and in general the fascination of dead things - in showcases or in the open air - is a consequence of a “death drive” and implies a work of mourning and often a sense of melancholia.
The attraction of the corpse, the face of death - our difficulty in letting the other (as a projection of our own death) go.
The attention on material culture and the consumer ‘s behavior go together: they are driven by desires that, by definition, are never fullfiled, precisely to be kept as desires.
To touch the object, the material thing, to possess something that “comes from the past”, or to buy, to acquire something that improves our image (for ourselves) - all that is a way of make a bet on the future, of reassuring ourselves of the happiness and meaning of life. In other words, to feel inscribed in the Order of things.
Actually the interest of knowledge, of science, stands in the very process of approaching (unknown or uncanny)materials and to try to give them a sense.
In a market society like ours, living surrounded by objects that are commodities answering to our supposed “needs” (= desire of signs, of images, of identification marks), we are in a good position to question the role of these so-called “materialities” as active social agents, with a spectral allure.
Of course, objects are not just things, or mirrors. They are active agents,
they are looking at us
and they are appealing for our attention. They are gazing at us, to use Lacan’s terms.
To conclude:
Given the ambiguity of the concept of culture;
Given the imprecision of the word “material” (too much general, when we speak of “material world” to oppose it to a living one, for instance; or too much reducing, when we contrast material with spiritual, for instance);
Given the dualism in which we fall when we keep using the dichotomy material/spiritual ot its variants...
Given the need to overcome the idea of a total recovery, of a complete archive, of an ideal museum, of a mystical image of science and knowledge that would be so complete that it would cover the world, stop life, and condemn us to death...
We shall keep doing our duty, working hard in order to dispute more room for a interdisciplinarity and for a transdisciplinarity field, the field of human diversity and experiential richness, having in mind that the field of dispute is a political one: each sector, each class, each individual struggles from a particular position and is longing to keep, reinforce or acquire that or another position in the social field.
Actually, as anybody knows,the possession and the curation of material “aural” objects is a signal of power and of a desire of totality that goes beyond the political power of the moment, and that reveals the character of sovereignty and the State: its tendency to enlarge, to go beyond its limits, its unlimited desire of totality, of embracing the archive and life, and replacing one by the other and vice-versa. Every power is imperial by vocation.
I would suggest that we use the word material mainly in the plural materials, and that we try to build a contextual interpretation of the relationship of people with materials (in each epoch, in each case or context) than to loose ourselves in a current discussion of abstractions that may be empty, mistaken, and useless, such as, for instance, “materialities”, among others of the same kind.
The relationship with materials, with affordances of their environment, and the way they built themselves together, in biunivocal sense - that makes sense, in my view. The archaeological look shall begin to watch around, the world of he small things forgotten.

This reflection is very much inspired in the works of Tim Ingold, Dep. of Anthropology, Univ. of Aberdeen, but also in my collaboration with Prof. Julian Thomas, Dep. of Archaeology, Univ. of Manchester.
What I want is to configure the discursive fields,metaphorical regimes, dispositives, formulations of consciousness (in the line of Foucaut and others, like Eric Dwonig, Fred Kersten, etc.) or “ implicit frames” that in a certain way allowed the “production” of the explicit, be it objectual or not.
This is not “culture history”, nor even the unveiling of stratified realities driving us towards a hidden focus or center or origin, but the very idea that every human production is at the same time aleatory and tied to others in a common “grammar”, that identity and memory would be impossible without the lack and the oblivion, the oblivion of something that never existed in the first place.
Actually, we need to try:
- to establish a common ground, or “center of meaning”, that may connect the “innovations” and discoursive productions of each epoch, in the line of Foucault and others. See for instance Fred Kersten (1997) when he shows that the opera (Monteverdi) and modern science (Galileo) were born at the same time, as symptoms of he same “consciousness”, in this case, the Baroque one;
- to think together techniques and subjectivities as being in a dialect situation of continuous feedback, in the line of Leroi-Gourhan and many others, including Marx’s inspiration;
- to complete the works of archaeologists and “material culture” scholars in general with a reflection on the contemporary tendency to fluidity and movement that characterizes our post-modernity (see J. Urry, for instance), from performance studies to a renewed psychoanalytic theory. Right from the beginning, the psychoanalytical inspiration dissolved boundaries. We need that it abandons its representational matrix.

Some bibliography

Barthes, Roland (1981 – Port. ed. 1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York, Hill & Wang.
Baudrillard, Jean (1972 – Port. ed. 1995). Pour Une Critique de l’ノconomie Politique du Signe, Paris, ノd. Gallimard.
Bennett, Tony (2004 – or. 1988). The exhibitory complex, Grasping the World. The Idea of the Museum (ed. Preziosi, D. & Farago, Claire), Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Company, pp. 413-441.
Berger, John (2004 – Spanish ed. 2005). Ways of Seeing, London, Penguin Books.
Buchli, Victor (ed.) (2005 – pb ed.). The Material Culture Reader, Oxford, Berg.
Crary, Jonathan (2001). Suspensions of Perception. Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, Cambridge/Mass, London, The MIT Press.
Dicks, Bella (2003). Culture on Display. The Production of Contemporary Visibility, Maidenhead, Open University Press.
Descola, Philippe (2006), Par-Delà Nature et Culture, Paris, Galimard.
Dooley, Mark & Kavanagh, Liam (2007), The Philosophy of Derrida, Stocksfield, Acumen.
Downing, Eric (2006), After Images. Photography, Archaeology and Psychoanalysis and the Tradition of Bildung, Detroit, Wayne State Univ. Press.
Ingold, Tim (2001). From complementarity to obviation: on dissolving the boundaries between social and biological anthropology, archaeology and psychology, Cycles of Contingency. Developmental Systems and Evolution (ed. Oyama, Susan et al), Cambridge/Mass., London, MIT Press, pp. 255-279.
Ingold, Tim (2004). Culture on the ground. The world perceived through the feet, Journal of Material Culture, vol. 9 (3), pp. 315-340.
Ingold, Tim (2007). Materials against materiality, Archaeological Dialogues.
Ingold, Tim (2000 – 2002- pb). The Perception of the Environment. Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London, Routledge.
Jorge, Vítor Oliveira & Thomas, Julian (2006/2007), Overcoming the Modern Concept of Material Culture, Porto, ADECAP.
Jorge, Viíor Oliveira Jorge & Thomas, Julian (2008 -under press), Archaeology and the Politics of Vision in a Post-Modern Context, Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Kersten, Fred (1997), Galileo and the “Invention” of Opera. A Study in the Phenomenology of Consciousness, Dordrecht/Boston/London, Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Pearson, Mike & Shanks, Michael (2001). Theatre/Archaeology, London, Routledge.
Schiffer, Michael B. (1999). The Material Life of Human Beings. Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication, London, Routledge.
Thomas, Julian (2004). Archaeology and Modernity, London, Routledge.
Tilley, Chris et al. (eds). Handbook of Material Culture, London, Sage Publications.
Zizzek, Slavoj (1992). Looking Awry. An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, Cambridge/Mass, London, The MIT Press.
Zizek, Slavoj (2006 – 2nd ed.). Interrogating the Real, London, Continuum.

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