In Defense of Posthumanism (but really Archaeological Theory)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying some of the recent articles on posthumanism in archaeology (and I’m looking forward to reading some of the recent edited volumes that take on similar issues in the areas of archaeology and heritage). To summarize (poorly) a broad and contentious range of approaches, posthumanist takes on archaeology emphasize the role that the materiality of objects and objects themselves play in the production of the archaeological record and past and present social relationships. 

To be honest, my single sentence definition isn’t very good. If you want a more sophisticated understanding of posthumanism in archaeology, go and read the recent forum in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. This forum is a pretty exciting (and in places amusing) debate between various advocates and critics of various (broadly construed) posthumanist approaches (including those that might be described as symmetrical archaeology, new materialism, the material turn, object-oriented (and flat) ontologies, and the like).

As I enjoyed this forum, I invariably received a few snide remarks from friends and colleagues about the recent material (or is it posthuman?) turn in our field. Many of my colleagues’ critiques of both posthumanism and the wider state of theory, are not only fair, but also well known. In fact, many of the critical contributors to the CAJ forum develop these objections substantively. Scholars working across various posthumanist traditions likewise found fault with both the conceptual framework offered by their critics and fellow travelers alike. It would appear that even among individuals invested in the debate, key terms and concepts remain disputed. Whatever one thinks of the potential merits of posthumanist approaches, recent conversations suggest that the state of the recent debate is unsettled, at best, and, to paraphrase a colleague, unhealthy at worst. 

To be clear, I’m sympathetic to archaeological theory in general and certain posthumanist approaches more specifically. The often uneven character of the debate doesn’t bother me much. In fact, I want to argue that the recent proliferation of work on posthumanism, new materialism, and archaeological theory more broadly is a good thing for our field even if it turns out to be an intellectual dead end. This doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticizing it, but that it perhaps deserves a more magnanimous reading even if we think this kind of theory work is bad.

First, I’d argue that writing on archaeological theory has the potential to be more inclusive than archaeological thinking anchored in field work. Any number of recent studies have demonstrated that field work even at a small scale involves access to a significant amount of practical and social resources. Someone has to have the money to run a field project (even if your project relies significantly on volunteers). More than that, however, someone has to have the social resources to bring together the specialists necessary to conduct most field work and the various specialists have to have the social resources necessary to receive invitations to do field work. These social resources in our field are often harder to come by than the practical resources, and despite recent efforts to make our field more inclusive, the costs of having access to fieldwork opportunities, archaeological “data,” and the experiences to analyze and interpret information from the field in a compelling way remain high.

In contrast, archaeological theorizing – especially of the type that the current posthumanism debate supports – is comparatively less expensive socially and practically. The material turn as characterized by many posthumanist archaeologists tends to rely less heavily on substantial bodies of empirical data. It’s casual alliance with archaeology of the contemporary world, for example, ensures that datasets are available virtually anywhere, from the beaches of Scandinavia to buildings on campus, discarded computer equipment, and the local park.

Moreover, theorizing doesn’t require the storage of finds, their ongoing curation and protection, and the social capital to negotiate often complex relationships with host communities and states. While navigating these challenges is part of doing ethically responsible archaeological work and often as fulfilling as excavation or intensive survey, they all have a cost and the resources to do this kind of ethical work are not evenly distributed in our field (especially as it continues to contract).

To write seriously about archaeological theory, you need do time, access to a decent library, and a certain critical facility in understanding sometimes abstract works, but this is true of most engaged academic archaeologists. It certainly doesn’t hurt to know key players in the debate and to receive invitations to contribute to various edited volumes and journal issues. But, again, this is true of most archaeology. What is not required to write about posthumanism and archaeological theory more broadly is systematic fieldwork at any scale. Considering the financial and social costs of field work, especially as we continue to endure the complexities of the COVID pandemic, there is real reason to support enthusiastically the ongoing resurgence of the theoretical-turn in archaeology.

Second, bad archaeological theory does comparatively little harm. In contrast bad field work is deeply problematic and to my mind, one of the worst things an archaeologist can do. First, bad field work often involves destroying archaeological knowledge or rendering information on contexts, relationships, sites, and objects irrecoverable. Bad field work also can involve driving people out of the discipline. Harassment, ponderous hierarchies, “performative informality,” colonialism, and many other practices common to our disciplinary past demonstrate that idea of bad field work extends well beyond the realm of poorly executed methods, sloppy record keeping, or careless procedures. Bad field work does damage both to sites and to the discipline.

[I suppose I should make clear that bad theory is not theory writing that fails to entertain or intrigue, but theory that doesn’t hold together for whatever reason. I can read an outdated, poorly argued, or careless article and enjoy it good a bit, but also not think that it’s good.]

Bad theory can do that too, of course, but since archaeological theory mostly takes place under the glaring light of formal publication (and the worst forms of bad field work are often known only through personal experiences, whispered critiques, and unpublished results), there are numerous opportunities – as the CAJ forum shows – to challenge, reject, revise, and resist the influence of bad theory. In fact, the ethical critiques leveled at posthumanist approaches demonstrate just one example of how published debates in our field can serve as a corrective and to blunt the impact of a poorly articulated concept, an impractical approach, or a problematic ontology or epistemology.

This isn’t to say that some bad theory hasn’t done great damage. If once considers “scientific racism” a bad theory in the same way that, say, posthumanism or the new materialism is a theory, one could argue that bad theory is every bit as destructive as bad field work. One might even go so far to argue that scientific racism contributed to the loss of irrecoverable knowledge from indigenous, Black, and other individuals considered a priori to be inferior. 

That said, most bad theory is bad because it isn’t compelling or influential and most good theory isn’t good because it’s ethically good, but because it is more or less consistent with larger trends in how we understand the world. Unlike with money, then, bad theory tends not to drive out good theory.

Finally, there is a professional economy that supports this kind of theoretical work. A perusal of recent work on posthumanist theory in archaeology soon reveals that writing on these ideas offers significant and consistent opportunities for publication. Among most academic archaeologists, publication is a key element in promotion and professional (and financial) advancement. Like moths to a flame, contentious and active debates draw contributors who in turn benefit from their participation. To my mind, participating in these conversations, whatever their intellectual merit, serves to support the career of scholars who contribute to the vitality of the field in ways far beyond their published research. These publications support the professional life of gifted teachers, powerful public advocates, sincere advisors, and dutiful administrators that make archaeology far more than the sum of its intellectual contributions.

I know this is a bit of a weak argument to end this blog post, but I’m coming to appreciate more and more the role of mediocre or even bad scholarship in my field. There was a time when I considered it an offense to our higher purpose, but I’m starting to understand it now as the byproduct of institutional systems that simultaneously undervalues much of the real work that scholars do to support our field and overvalues publications. This doesn’t mean that we have to always enjoy reading bad articles and books, but it does tend to make me more sympathetic to the sometimes uneven quality certain kinds of archaeological theory work.

To be clear, I am not implying that the articles in the CAJ are bad theory or uneven quality. What I’m trying to argue instead is that being bad or uneven doesn’t necessarily annoy me. In fact, continuing to support this kind of work, whatever the quality, seems to be one step toward building a more inclusive discipline with impacts far beyond the printed word.

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