Some Thoughts on Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity

I read Andrew Martin’s relatively new book, Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity with great excitement! His book promised to provide “a stout defense of an archaeology based on the ideas of Bruno Latour.” Since I have been particularly interested in Latour’s work lately and, particularly, his positions as an alternative to the turn of the (21st) century fascination with Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens. As readers of my blog know, I’ve been curious about Latour eagerness to look at the way in which the tools we use in our research – as well as the complex network of social relations and the objects of scientific study – collude to produce scientific knowledge. Latour seemed extraordinarily attuned to the interplay between various actors (both human and otherwise) and this seemed ideally suited for both archaeology as a discipline and the archaeology of the discipline.

On a more practical level, I’m reading this book along with a few others for a multi-book review article on recent trends in archaeology. Last winter, I posted on Bjørnar Olsen’s and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s Ruin Memories for an individual review, but, now, this review will be rolled into this larger project.

The first half of Martin’s book is a relatively careful examination of Latour’s important early works – Science in Action (1987) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993) – oddly missing is any discussion of his slightly later work Aramis, or the Love of Technology (1996). For Martin, the key contribution of Latour is his critique of the division between nature and culture. Latour’s careful study of scientific procedures in a Nobel prize winner’s laboratory led him to argue that the division between nature and culture obscured the real work of science by reducing scientific arguments to descriptions of a natural “fact” rather than arguments based on expansive, but ultimately defined observations. Science works through the continual adjustment of definitions serving to define expansive bodies of observations rather than the testing of some pre-conceived hypothesis as suggested by Karl Popper.

If Latour’s science is the work of description, rather than hypothesis testing, then the reality of nature is not subjected to a “thought up” theory, but rather the product of a set of objects arranged according to shared characteristics. This understanding of science removed culture as an organizing principle, and, instead, relied upon empirical characteristics to define relationships. Objects, in other words, can object to groupings that do not produce compatibility. As a result, objects form an active nexus in the relationship between the scientist, other objects, and whatever tools the scientist uses to document, describe, or measure the object. The mutual compatibility of all these objects, persons, tools, spaces, and relationships is necessary for a coherent network of knowledge to exist. For Latour, the hypothesis, then, is description of mutual compatibility between all parts of the experiment which is periodically – and artificially – published in scientific papers.

For Martin (and Latour) this approach is radically different from what social scientists do in the production of knowledge. Instead of patiently gathering observations and arranging groups of similar objects, events, and combinations to create large complex, but compatible datasets, social scientists attempt to reduce natural complexity by explaining objects, events, or relationships through preconceived theories which they associate with culture. By maintaining a divisions between the conceptual and abstract world of culture and the natural world of objects, social sciences not only rendered objects passive, but also departed from the practices fundamental to scientific work. When Latour famously claims that “we have never been modern” he refers directly to the premodern failure to separate the cultural from the natural that persists in modern science. The difference between “modern” science and its premodern predecessor for Latour is simply the vast scale and number of observations possible in modern science, but not in the basic operation. The myth of a modernity made up of passive objects understood only through universal theories applies only in the social sciences which, then, falsely grant their work authority through appeals to the scientific method. So far, this is great stuff. Anyone interested in how and why Latour constructed his symmetrical view of scientific knowledge production should spend a day reading the first 100 pages or so of this book.

In the second 100 pages or so witness the application of these theories to two archaeological data sets: burials in the Wessex culture of Early Bronze Age England and in North American Hopewell Indians. Both of these contexts have certain “controversies” or inconsistencies in the material culture that defy traditional efforts at analysis. For Martin, “controversies” (which is a Latourian term) appear in archaeology when objects resist being reduced to patterns established by existing systems of explanation or, in the case of the social sciences, structures.  

This part of the book was less convincing in large part because, as Martin admitted, there was no room really to develop the observations and objects that he intended to present as case-studies for applying Latour to archaeology. As a result, Martin does very little with the process of archaeology and more with the objects themselves and their archaeological “context.” The main point that he attempts to make is that the “entire context” for archaeological objects must be considered by the Latourian archaeologist: not just typology or sub-groups of artifacts selected according to pre-existing notions of kinship, ethnicity, or social structure. Order comes to these assemblages not through an existing theory but through statistical combinations which produce patterns that suggest social, political, and economic relationships. As he presents this in practice, there is little new here or exciting. Archaeologists are always looking for new ways to understand objects and assemblages and while we often approach sites with preconceived ideas of the processes that create artifact assemblages, I question whether we are as enslaved to “cultural” explanations as Martin supposes. 

What I will admit, however, is that we tend to see objects and relationships as the object of study and very much separate from the tools, people, and organization of archaeological work. Martin’s book replicates this separation by presenting the archaeological material with very little commentary on how it was produced. As a result, objects associated with the archaeological method were not given space “to object” to the arguments and relationships formed by the artifactual assemblage. This is consistent with the arbitrary break between the publication of scientific knowledge and the methods used to produce it, but this arbitrary split does little to break down the division between nature and culture that Latour and Martin regard as so problematic for social scientific knowledge. If the book’s goal was to produce a genuinely Latourian approach to archaeological knowledge production, then Martin needed to unpack both the social and the physical objects in archaeology. Objects in archaeology fit into both ancient (or, in Martin’s terms “original”) context which reflect their production, their distribution, and their use in a primary context, but also through their place in the context of archaeological practice. For objects to “object” to archaeological interpretation they have to intersect with the work of archaeological practice in a meaningful way.  

What is required to produce a Latourian archaeology, then, is not just a published study of an archaeological assemblage (which suggests Latourian practice, but does not really demonstrate it), but a new ethnography of archaeological work. 

3 Comments

  1. I’m sorry to say (I like your blog and thoughts and am curious where your slow archaeology will end up) but I have to disagree with reducing Latour in this way, to his relevance for ethnography of archaeological work (not so new, a lot of work has already been done within archaeology).

    Reply

    1. Erik,

      Maybe I overstated my position and I probably should not have suggested that a Latourian study of archaeological practices is ethnographic. In fact, without an awareness of the social, economic, technological, and political processes in disciplinary archaeology, a Latourian understanding of archaeological objects is not possible. So all archaeology, to my mind, needs to be more methodologically transparent because the objects that we excavate are not the only archaeological objects capable of objecting.

      Does that make more sense?

      Bill

      Reply

      1. Yes, thank you, that is a welcome addition. I should have been more precise myself. I think Latour can do more for archaeology, including archaeological interpretation. We are more addicted to preconceived ideas than I would like. I’m struggling to be more precise in phrasing the potential of Latour for scrutinising archaeological categorisation as thoroughly as his critique of “the social” in sociology/social sciences. For instance, Astrid Van Oyen’s work adopting ANT on (the work done by) categorisation in archaeology comes close, but not close enough.

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