Thursday, March 29, 2012

Silly, Ignorant Goddess Worshippers (More on Tully on Whitmore on Hutton)

In a recent opinion piece published in the Pagan Studies journal The Pomegranate (link), graduate student Caroline Tully contrasts two different views concerning how to interpret the archaeological finds at Çatalhöyük:

Position 1 On the one hand there are the silly, ignorant "Goddess worshippers" who foolishly "identify prehistoric figurines as 'aspects' of the 'Great Goddess'", and who romantically fantasize that these figurines "provide evidence for the existence of a utopian world in which women were not subject to oppression". Tully tells us that the "inspiration" for these imaginings "comes from the mid-twentieth century interpretation of the site by its first excavator, James Mellaart and later popularised by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas."

Position 2 In the other corner we have Tully's heroes, those plucky post-processualist archaeologists who have overthrown Error thereby firmly established the reign of Reason. The theories of Mellaart and Gimbutas have been consigned to the dustbin of history, and all clear thinking people now accept the new post-processualist explanations which are "more nuanced", leaving the silly, ignorant Goddess worshippers "confused".

With respect to Position 1, we are left wondering who these Goddess Worshippers are, and, consequently we must also wonder whether or not they (whoever they are) really espouse anything like the positions that Tully attributes to them? This is not the way serious scholarship is done. This is FOX News style propaganda, where straw-man positions are attributed to a vaguely defined group of people, and then this group is ridiculed and vilified on the basis of positions that are at best distorted versions of the group's actual beliefs, or just outright fabrications.

Let's take a look at two prominent Goddess Worshippers, and see what they actually have to say for themselves in their own words. In the case of both Starhawk and Max Dashu, the evidence is quite clear. Neither of these women takes on anything like the crude positions sloppily attributed to unnamed "Goddess worshippers" by Caroline Tully.

Here is what Starhawk wrote back in 2001

from: Religion From Nature, Not Archaeology:
"Goddess religion is not based on belief, in history, in archaeology, in any Great Goddess past or present. Our spirituality is based on experience, on a direct relationship with the cycles of birth, growth, death and regeneration in nature and in human lives. We see the complex interwoven web of life as sacred, which is to say, real and important, worth protecting, worth taking a stand for. At a time when every major ecosystem on the planet is under assault, calling nature sacred is a radical act because it threatens the overriding value of profit that allows us to despoil the basic life support systems of the earth. And at a time when women still live with the daily threat of violence and the realities of inequality and abuse, it is an equally radical act to envision deity as female and assert the sacred nature of female (and male) sexuality and bodies . . . .

"To us, Goddesses, Gods, and for that matter, archaeological theories are not something to believe in, nor are they merely metaphors. An image of deity, a symbol on a pot, a cave painting, a liturgy are more like portals to particular states of consciousness and constellations of energies. Meditate on them, contemplate them, and they take you someplace, generally into some aspect of those cycles of death and regeneration. The heart of my connection to the Goddess has less to do with what I believe happened five thousand years ago or five hundred years ago, and much more to do with what I notice when I step outside my door: that oak leaves fall to the ground, decay and make fertile soil. Calling that process sacred means that I approach this everyday miracle with a sense of awe and wonder and gratitude, and that in very practical terms, I compost my own garbage.

"The current discussion within the Goddess tradition about our history and scholarship is part of the healthy development of a vibrant tradition that tends not to attract true believers of any sort. We enjoy the debate, but we are sophisticated enough to know that scholars, too, have their biases and fashions."

And here is what Max Dashu has to say for herself in an essay she wrote about Marija Gimbutas back in 2000:

from: The Furor Over Gimbutas:
"All this polarization and oversimplification avoids the real issue, which is not female domination in a reverse of historical female oppression, but the existence of egalitarian human societies: cultures that did not enforce a patriarchal double standard around sexuality, property, public office and space; that did not make females legal minors under the control of fathers, brothers, and husbands, without protection from physical and sexual abuse by same. We know of many societies that did not confine, seclude, veil, or bind female bodies, nor amputate or deform parts of those bodies. We know, as well, that there have been cultures that accorded women public leadership roles and a range of arts and professions, as well as freedom of movement, speech, and rights to make personal decisions. Many have embraced female personifications of the Divine, neither subordinating them to a masculine god, nor debarring masculine deities.

"Evidence for such societies exists, though there's no agreement on what to call them. For many people, 'matriarchy' connotes a system of domination, the reverse and mirror-image of patriarchy. Identified with early anthropological theory and, during the 60s, with slams against African-American women, it has been overwhelmingly rejected by feminist researchers. 'Matrilineal' is inadequate, focusing on the single criterion of descent. 'Matrifocal' is too ambiguous, since it could be argued (and has been) that many patriarchal societies retain a strong emphasis on the mother. A variety of names have been proposed for egalitarian matrilineages, including 'matristic,' [Gimbutas, 1991] 'gynarchic' societies, [Gunn Allen, 1986] 'woman-centered' societies, or 'gylany.' [Eisler, 1987] My preferred term is 'matrix society,' which implies a social network based on the life support system as well as mother-right.

"Old-school academics as well as post-structuralist upstarts like to scold refractory feminists about evidence and certainties. The pretense of disinterested objectivity reminds me of what Gandhi said when asked what he thought about Western Civilization: 'I think it would be a very good idea.' The notion that mainstream academia is somehow value-free, but feminist perspective is necessarily ideological and agenda-driven, is still widely held. Covert agendas pass easily under the banner of objectivity.

The project of reevaluating history with a gender-sensitive eye is in its infancy, and necessarily allied to indigenous and anticolonial perspectives. An international feminist perspective views history as remedial - - because sexism and racism have obscured, distorted and omitted what information is available to us - - and provisional, because new information keeps pouring in. History has changed rapidly since the 60s, in every field: Africana, Celtic studies, West Asian studies, American Indian scholarship. Thousands of new books come out every year that look deeper into women's status and stories in a huge range of societies and periods, at a level of detail not possible before. Fresh interpretations are being advanced from voices not heard before. It's way too soon for sweeping dismissals . . . .

"So polarized has this debate become that, as Wendy Griffin has observed of Marija Gimbutas, 'Her theories tend to be judged as either absolutely true or absolutely false...' [Griffin, 2000] It is impossible to mention the work of Gimbutas in academia without being caught up in a heated dispute. A positive mention is immediately assumed to indicate total agreement with every interpretation she ever wrote, and to warrant heated attack. In this charged atmosphere, the content of her work invariably gets lost, and the documentation she provided is never evaluated. Those who dismiss her work as being about 'matriarchy' and a 'mother goddess,' terms she explicitly rejected, misrepresent her much more complex views. [See Joan Marler’s defense of Gimbutas’ contributions and historical narrative, 1999]

"By any account, Marija Gimbutas had a distinguished career as a 20th-century archaeologist and a primary founder of modern Indo-European studies. She excavated sites of the Vinca, Starcevo, Karanovo and Sesklo cultures. Her ability to read sixteen European languages enabled her to study virtually all the archaeological literature on both sides of the Cold War split, a crucial skill since most key publications in her study area were written in eastern European languages. It was Gimbutas who laid pivotal groundwork for integrating archaelogical data with linguistic studies of Indo-European origins. Her model for Indo-European origins is still the leading theory in the field. Its basic outlines are upheld -- minus the focus on women’s status and goddess interpretations -- by her former student J.P. Mallory, now one of the top authorities in IE Studies."

The take home lesson here is that both Starhawk and Max Dashu show themselves to be articulate, serious minded and well informed. One can agree or disagree with their views, but those views are substantial and reasoned. In brief, neither woman in any way resembles the hackneyed caricature of silly, ignorant Goddess worshippers being peddled by Caroline Tully.

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.