domingo, 18 de janeiro de 2009

The past in translation


Modernity brought to the Western world and later worldwide an increased need of history. That need is indeed old in our culture, but the general historicization of everything, of every detail of life back to its “origins”, is typically modern, and it accompanies the acceleration of history itself: the faster the reality appears and goes, the desire for memory, conservation, the archive and the heritage, grows.
That movement of the spirit is also an anxious quest for roots, for the very first anchors supposed able to sustain some chance of equilibrium within a fast speed world in permanent communication and exchange.
Any fixed identity is in question, and yet people (collectively and individually) is longing for it; the first aspect (identity as an ever changing goal and as a mistaken feeling) constantly feeds the second one (the fantasy and illusion as constitutive of the human condition), and vice-versa.
Thus the XIX century has invented the idea of prehistory (as in parallel it has created the notion of the primitive). The prehistoric and the primitive are synonyms of something which modernity has promised to liberate us from: the subjection to nature. Therefore the ideas of progress, of teleological history - in the sense of the domestication of the world and of the creation of overwhelming explanatory narratives - and the reality of industrial technology are inseparable.
The civilized (the common citizen of today’s world) wants to know (and of course to see, to experience from the inside, through the proliferation of memory machines like museums, cultural landscapes, etc, etc) his/her prehistoric roots in order to situate herself/himself vis-à-vis an unpredictable situation that is his/her own life and future. He/she is seeking for a lineal narrative that make comprehensible how, when and where we came from, and how did we arrive to the present situation.
Fortunately this overwhelming narrative is part of the illusion of life, i. e., the regime of common certitudes; there is no “past” that we can picture out as there is no “future” that we can anticipate – just remains of the past or some trends that seem to announce the future. Any educated person or scholar is used to live in the doubt; but – and this raises a problem - the community in general demands certitudes from the specialists.
Thus, how can we historians, archaeologists, heritage researchers and managers overcome this paradox, or contradiction, between knowledge and common desire, and reconcile the public with a plurality of possible pasts?
Is that plurality translatable into an open historical narrative, a narrative that raises doubts and questions, and not just function as a provider of “explained” pasts? That seems to be a crucial question, because plurality is the key word of democracy itself.
Is historical discourse able to produce a public narrative liberated itself from the illuminist teleology of progress - lineal evolution from the primitive to the civilized - , and to find a room to contradiction, discussion, doubt, loss and gain of translation?
To sum it up, is it possible a free access to a culture where dogmatic and standard versions of the past will be at least partly overcome? Where gaps may be as much important as finished conceptual products? Is it possible to overcome the process of the categorical, representative drive that has dominated Western (and now partly universalized) consciousness?
Is it possible to unfold the field of academic discussion and to make it accessible to the general public? This is a question of communication, of bridging different arenas of interest and action, of filling a gap that hopefully will never disappear.
But I am convinced that the very effort of “filling the gap” (an ever ending process) will have an interesting feedback in the very status of the research, implying a “continuous epistemological turn” of the historical narrative that we have been used to consume in everyday life, in common sense and practical action.
I actually believe that it is possible to present a positive alternative in that direction, using as examples case studies within the field of Western European archaeology and, in particular, of Iberian prehistory.
In particular, I will try in the next years to illustrate this different approach through avoiding the dichotomies between hunter/gatherers (Palaeolithic, “Eden times” or “ humans as predators”) and agriculturalists and herders (Neolithic, “post-innocence times” or “humans as producers”. i. e. in the good way to become modern).
Also, I will keep trying to overcome the mentalistic idea or presumption of human action as adding features to nature in order to store knowledge or to externalize ideas, like for instance in so called “architecture” (from shelters to monuments, etc).
Another aspect is to deconstruct the “social contract” notion supposed to explain the constitution of society, the social tie, as if individuals were previous to socialities, and if they were born in a vacuum or at a given moment they decided to put into action a certain template, etc. The very idea that there was a beginning for each thing must be reviewed, as long as the idea of a general direction or trend of change.
Humans are a particular kind of animals for whom the notion of “situation”, of position in a time/space narrative is fundamental. In dealing together with materials and affordances (Ingold, 2000) of the environment, they build and rebuild continuously their collective and individual identities, dealing with incertitude and within a constant flux of things and unpredictability.
Retrospectively, through memory and the so called mythical/historical narratives, they try to make sense “a posteriori” of the “past”, dividing it in periods and sub-periods, giving intentions to actions that actually were always in a constant state of improvisation and change, finding underpinned trends in general trajectories, etc.
This set of ideas intends to go in the opposite sense: to deconstruct narratives and to show how this deconstruction is not destructive, but creative, and that creativity is at the same time a gap, an opportunity, an entry to the imagination, to the possibility of presenting to the public a debatable past, and not an academic, dogmatic, imposed one.
In this line, prehistoric archaeology may still be a strategic move into a more democratic approach of what we humans are.

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