Thursday, March 29, 2012

Theoretical Archaeology is a Foreign Country

In her recent Pomegranate article, Researching the Past is a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions (link), archaeology graduate student Caroline Tully presents a cartoonishly simplistic vision of academia as a noble sodality of high-minded truth-seekers whose selfless devotion to the furtherance of human knowledge is only matched by the refinement of their table manners. Such naïveté is perhaps excusable (and, in fact, probably inevitable) in a graduate student such as Tully, but eventually she is going to have to grow up and discover that the Academy, and her chosen field of archaeology in particular, is very different from this fairy tale. And when that happens, she will be able to learn first hand just what "cognitive dissonance" is really all about.

In the real world, modern archaeology is a faction-riddled theatre of ideological struggle. But the reality of scholars heatedly disagreeing with each other on every point of theory and interpretation (and often even the facts), with competing camps taking turns as the dominant party which must constantly fight off both old rivals and newcomers, rather deflates Tully's fictional narrative in which scholars serenely and univocally instruct the untutored in How Things Really Are.

Below is a very nice overview of the current state of affairs in the field of Archaeology, from Professor John Bintliff of Leiden University. Bintliff's observations concerning "post-processualism" are especially relevant, because one of the major proponents of that theory is Ian Hodder, who makes a brief but very illuminating appearance in Caroline Tully's aforementioned paper. (Fair warning: this is rather heavy on the "inside baseball", but that is unavoidable.)

"To the present day the discourse in archaeological theory has been one of competing dominance. Just as New Archaeologists dismissed the formerly dominant culture history version of the romantic tradition, so in turn the revival of romanticism in the guise of post-processualism proclaimed the misguidedness of the New Archaeology. Thus Matthew Johnson's Archaeological Theory: An Introduction (1999), for all its stimulating content, is primarily a propaganda vehicle for the virtues of post-processualism and the inadequacies of processualism.

"As someone who has experienced all these traditions from the inside--as a university student taught by and encouraged to study the leading exponents of culture history, at the same time as young lecturers were distracting us with the first publications of the New Archaeology, then in later years to observe how these young rebels were consigned to old fogey status by post-processualists--any balance seems sorely lacking. When David Clarke (1973) in a heavily cited paper entitled Archaeology: The Loss of Innocence claimed that processualism was about to achieve an absolute purity of method and theory, free of previous ideology and bias, he was as far from the truth as other intellectual gurus within processualism and post-processualism who offered their borrowed finery from Continental traditions to garner serious recognition from other disciplines. The reality has been a succession of ideologies, driven by a desire of each generation of new scholars in Western society to assume the high status of their predecessors through the simplest method--replace the previous orthodoxies with others and remove the latter from serious consideration (the strategies of bibliographic exclusion and scholasticism) . . . .

The fact that (as in geography) whole sectors of archaeology have settled into divergent philosophies, with Paleolithic specialists by and large remaining positivist and Darwinian, Classical, and Near Eastern archaeologists remaining attached to Cultural Historical aims, while later Prehistory and European post-Roman archaeology are the playgrounds of postmodernism, highlights a practical need to re-create a unified discipline without the demand for [ideological] victory or surrender. Nonetheless, the attraction to each generation of displacing their teachers by moving the intellectual goalposts is a good deal easier than building on the past work to sharpen and improve it, which offers less easy fame and an uneasy dependence on older scholars. One source of motivation is the potential for integrating the works of stimulus and skill by generations older than the recent schools with the knowledge of the important achievements of culture history, processual and post-processual scholarship."
[John Bintliff, "History and Continental Approaches", in Handbook of Archaeological Theories, Alta Mira, 2007, pp. 154-155]

This is just a sampling of Bintliff's wide ranging survey of Theoretical Archaeological. If you read the whole thing you'll find he has much more to say about post-processualism, Wittgenstein, Marx, Nietzsche, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, etc. Also highly recommended is the Introductory chapter, in the same volume, by R. Alexander Bentley and Herbert D. G. Maschner.

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