More Slow Archaeology

This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to talk about E.P. Thompson and Antonio Gramsci some with my graduate historiography class. The discussion was engaging and revealing and pulled me back to thinking about my pair of “Slow Archaeology” posts from last week (here and here)

In particular, I got to thinking about my reading of E.P. Thompson especially in light of my rereading of excerpts from Gramsci’s work on ideology and his adaptation of Sorel’s concept of the historical bloc. In my first post on Slow Archaeology, I associate the interest in efficiency and speed in contemporary archaeology with the rise of New Archaeology in the late 1950s and 1960s. In hindsight, I wonder whether New Archaeology simply manifest a change in the discipline that was already far advanced. 

1. The Impossibility of Slow Disciplines. Earlier this semester I reread Louis Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas. His work provides a short history of disciplines and has emphasized the long presence of credentialing as part of higher education in the U.S. In fact, when I teach our required course for undergraduates, cleverly titled The Historians’ Craft, I typically locate the development of the discipline of history amidst the growing needs of the industrial national economy. So academic disciplines and industrialization have a longstanding relationship. If we follow Thompson’s lead and see the history of industrialization as a process deeply concerned with the manipulation of time (pdf), then perhaps I was misguided to assign such significance to New Archaeology. Maybe it is the entire process of discipline building that has fueled the quickening and deskilling of archaeological practice. (I’ve flirted with an understanding of history as craft for some years now and most recently here.)

2. Gramsci. In my new formulation, the growing interest in technology and the increasingly granular and atomistic methods for collecting archaeological data are inseparable from the roots of contemporary practice and disciplinary structure within the university. In fact, the coincident development of industrialization and capitalism and the basic institutions of contemporary society ensured that the very terrain of disciplinary knowledge is inseparable from alternate modes of production grounded in craft or other forms of embodied knowledge. For Gramsci, changes in the base (in our case, changes in technologies that directly impact field practices) and the superstructure (the larger disciplinary project of archaeology) are inseparable.    

3. Pre-Disciplinary Archaeology. If we accept, then, that the process of discipline creation created a particular terrain on which the expansion of technology and deskilling could take place, then there may be little within the discipline of archaeology to subvert these trends. In fact, it has taken me a good bit of time to understand that work of scholars like Michael Shanks to ground the archaeological imagination in pre-disciplinary practices is an effort to argue for the existence of archaeological knowledge outside of its disciplinary development. Reflections on embodied knowledge, experience, and encounters with the landscape for example, propose ways of knowing that resist the methodological pressures associated with diciplinarity. Following E.P. Thompson’s lead, Shanks reminds us that humans understood their physical world, landscapes, and objects prior to the hegemonic authority of disciplinary archaeology. There is another way.

4. Kundera and Forgetting. This weekend, I read through Milan Kundera’s novella Slowness. It is a quick, elegant read (I couldn’t resist!), and he makes this point:

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting… In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”

The book is archaeological at its core interweaving the reflections of the narrator (and author) with three stories arranged stratigraphically throughout the novel. The stories occur in the same place as the narrator and his wife (presumable in the present) but on takes place slightly earlier and the other much earlier (in the 18th century). Despite the temporal displacement, the stories intersect so freely that by the end time collapses and a character from the 18th century story and from the slightly earlier 20th century story appear to the narrator. The deliberate pace of the novel preserves the stories within it, but not in their neat stratigraphic levels. The intensity of memory allows the neatly partitioned fabric of the stories to collapse defying the speed induced divisions between the past and the now. 

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