Objects and Conviviality

This weekend I finally got to read Michael Given’s latest article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal titled “Conviviality and Life of the Soil.” In this article, Given applies the Ivan Illich’s idea of conviviality (which I’ve blogged about before) to the life of the soil and the delicate balance between caring for the soil and agriculture on Cyprus. 

Given uses the concept of conviviality to explore the relationship between humans and non-humans and soil, rain, wind, and the myriad bacteria, animals, and plants that produce the soil that allows human agriculture to thrive. As with so much recent scholarship in archaeology – particularly scholarship in a conceptual vein – Given uses the complex relationship between humans and the soil to explore the concept of agency. In keeping with recent work in both anthropology and archaeology, Given recognizes that hybridized form of agency that includes both humans and the non-human agents in a convivial relationship that allows for mutual survival. 

Last week, I started to put together a proposal for a book on the archaeology of the contemporary world. I divided the book into two section, one on objects and agency and the other on landscapes and situations (thanks to a blog commentator for the suggestion of “situations”). These two section will both frame certain approaches and case studies (foregrounded by the Alamogordo Atari Expedition in the first part and the North Dakota Man Camp Project in the second part), but also form an arc that introduces the reader first to objects and “thing theory” and then push the reader to consider this expanded view of things as actant or agents in the work of archaeologists trying to come to terms with pressing contemporary concerns. Issues like climate change, in particular, demand a much more sophisticated set of tools to understand the relationship between human and non-human actors in shaping the web of relationships that makes human life possible on the Earth. Consumerism, forced migrations, and even the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, all rely in more subtle understandings of the relationship between humans and non-humans. Archaeologist have come to recognize both the long-standing views of human agency as meditated by things and the agency of things in shaping human potential. As Ian Hodder and Gavin Lucas just debated, taking things seriously is not a step away from pressing human problems, a retreat into the abject fetishization of materialism, or even an effort to somehow absolve humans from their role in global crisis, but a way to locate human actions in the past and present within bustling world filled with counterclaims, shared and hybrid authority, and ultimately persistent and compelling forces that human agency cannot counter or shape.

Graham Harman’s Immaterialism reminds us that objects exist without acting and the denser and stronger the ties of an object to other object (including human agents), the more fragile and precarious the existence or that object is. Strong and multiple ties binding objects to other objects create dependencies that ultimately compromise the ability of any single object to exist. These processes (or we might even suggest realities) force objects – even humans –  into increasingly asymmetrical relationships with other objects which either culminate the formation of symbiosis or failure. In either case, the fundamental character of the object changes.   

As Bruno Latour has recently noted in a series of lectures titled Facing Gaia, the messy experience of global climate change involves recognizing both the the significant epistemological challenges facing any effort to understand the densely entangled existence of objects (including ourselves) as well as the desperate, existential, need for humans to embrace their own place within the contingent Gaia. For Latour, the Anthropocene acknowledges the explicit role of humans in shaping Gaia and hints, rather dramatically, that the seeming stability of the Holocene, during which human society arose, no longer guaranteed. 

Archaeology of the Contemporary World, then, is as much about facing the social, political, and economic challenges facing a society drowning in kipple, but also about recognizing human society as a product of a wide “multiverse” of agents and objects that share both our fate and our future. Contemporaneity as a concept involves making explicit our situatedness in a contingent, precarious existence. Whatever social good we can do, the crisis is ultimately existential.     

One Comment

  1. Hi Bill, glad you have kept blogging. Have enjoyed the last several posts. From my own experience, having left archaeology 22 years ago and then returned, the most surprising turn the discipline took was into the things-have-agency realm. I have not read Michael’s latest piece and imagine it is good, but I cannot help but feel that down the alley of thing-agency is a whole lot of publications and tenure petitions but not a lot of disciplinary clarity. More worrying is that fuzzy thinking about agency, ascribing too much in the wrong direction, denies agency where it sits and where, in the future with AI, it will arise. If we get too fuzzy on this point, when indeed “things of our creation” develop agency we may not have readied ourselves appropriately.


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