Agency and Object Biography

Last week I heard that a paper proposed by Scott Moore and myself had been accepted for a panel on object biography at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting. I posted the call-for-papers and our abstract here.

Since writing that abstract, I’ve read or re-read some of the seminal articles on object biography and some of the more recent critiques. As readers of this blog know, I’m sympathetic to the notion that objects can have agency in an archaeological context and that archaeologists are constantly confronted by incredibly resistant physical realities. For many archaeologists, these physical realities push back at our efforts to coerce them into tidy schemas suitable for the production of 21st century knowledge. Archaeologists have recognized in this contest many similarities with craft production. The experienced craftsperson (is this a real word?) has gained a deeply embodied understanding of a particular medium and specialized tools, has recognized the strengths and weaknesses of this medium and tools, and has come to appreciate the willingness of the medium and tools (the medium and tools have a will) to accommodate the needs of the craft, the community, and the production process. In other words (and in a very simplified way), the craftsperson’s intimacy with tools, material, and production has created a symmetrical bond between the knowledge of the craftsperson and the various tools, media, and social environments that result in the production of a completed object. The line between the craftsperson’s body, his or her personal agency, and the various tools and objects has disintegrated into a dense web of interdependencies.

This broad definition of agency is particularly compelling in our (post-)modern era where so many of us feel like the complexities of the contemporary society have deprived us of control over our environments. The limits of our ability to control our world is nowhere more evident than in our relationship with technology. Our everyday lives are filled with objects that perform functions according to rules that we cannot control. At the same time, the corporatized relationships that define our productive and social worlds limit the control over our own economic destiny. While I’ll acknowledge that there have always been limits on human freedom imposed through our engagement with technology, social and economic structures, and the physical reality of being human, the complexities of the 21st-century, Western world, has made many of us feel these limits more acutely. 

 By expanding the concept of agency to include objects, scholars have sought to reimagine agency in a way that both explains how objects limit human agency and – perhaps paradoxically – to suggest that these limits have always existed and the our 21st-century feeling of helplessness is more a product of expectations exaggerated by Enlightenment claims for human freedom than a genuine devolution of the power of the human will. In short, if objects can be agents, so can even the most constrained individual. At the same time, our sense of helplessness when confronted by a recalcitrant piece of technology reflects an authentic contest between two equally endowed tools committed to performing incompatible tasks. The square hole, round peg, and frustrated peg-pusher are all equally responsible for our 21st century frustrations.

To return to the paper that I’m writing for the ASOR meeting in November, I want to think about how our expanded notion of agency can follow an object through the tangled web of interactions that it encounters as it moves through what we  call (using Michael Schiffer’s terminology) “archaeological context” (that is the context in which an object functions after it has passed from its “systemic context”).  Almost as soon as the object emerges from the trench or the survey unit, it encounters other objects and other forms of agency that extend from the field walker or excavator to the various components of a digital camera, image processing programs, databases, the clustered existence of the web, and the old pulped-tree paper of final publication. During this time, the object itself is transformed, copied, we might even say “cloned” to facilitate insertion into an ever expanding web of new agents. At some point in this process the idea of an object biography takes on a tinge of science fiction as copies of the object circulate widely without any visible impact on the object itself. The ease with which this process takes place calls to question the continued utility of the biographic metaphor in our increasingly digital world.  

More on this paper over the next few months as I refine my ideas and take more time to comprehend the key scholarship on this topic!

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