Atlantis, Expertise, and Utopia

I know that I’m a bit late to the conversation on this, but I wanted to think about things a bit more before I wrote anything (not that this has helped in the past). If you follow archaeology on social media, you’ll have undoubtedly witnessed the  dust up between Flint Dibble and the director of some documentary about Atlantis on the Discovery Channel. I haven’t seen the documentary and I’m also not a qualified as Flint to offer a critique of its premise and argument.

And, to be honest, I’m only a little interested in Atlantis, this documentary, and Dr. Dibble’s careful critique. Dr. Dibble does a masterful job unpacking the problems with this documentary and moreover argues that this kind of pseudo-archaeology is harmful to society. As my post yesterday demonstrated, my interest in the specifics of this conversation extend mostly to ways in which Black thinkers, artists, and visionaries have used the story of Atlantis both as a form of critique of their contemporary situation and as an avenue for a utopian visions that conjure an imagined (and imaginary?) past that offers hope for a better future.   

As I thought about this more, I wondered how our concern about pseudo-archaeology intersected with our anxieties about the out professional status and the larger conversations about expertise. A number of the interlocutors pointed out that Dr. Dibble is a eminently qualified archaeologist and by dint of that alone, his critique should carry significant weight. As someone who has thought almost never about Atlantis, I’m inclined to trust that Dr. Dibble knows his stuff and respect his tireless efforts to promote archaeology in the public sphere.

At the same time, I’m am growing a bit tired of the discourse of expertise among archaeologists in the public sphere. To be clear, Dr. Dibble does not explicitly tout his own expertise, but others certainly did on his behalf. First off, I want to be clear that I am not challenging Dr. Dibble’s qualifications as an archaeologist. I am certain that he is very good and at the risk of damning with faint praise, a better archaeologist than I could even hope to be.

[And do check out Neville Morley’s very thoughtful Twitter thread on authority in archaeology.]

I am suggesting, however, that assertions of expertise by professional, academic archaeologists is perhaps problematic or at least unconvincing especially in the context of this conversation. After all, most of us anchor our claims to expertise in our discipline (and disciplinary standards) and our institutions (and the degrees that they confer and the recognition (and employment!) that it affords). We also recognize that our discipline and our institutions have incredibly problematic pasts and that these pasts support our claims and our ability to claim expertise. The legacy of colonial practices (especially in field work), exclusion on the basis of class, race, and gender (when this was seen as a feature rather than a problem to be solved), and a history of systematic exploitation (including slavery, but also through unscrupulous investments, problematic labor practices, and various forms of structural violence) has allowed our institutions and our discipline to accumulate social, cultural, and economic capital. Our ability to think that our standards of expertise matter is one of the manifestations of this problematic legacy. Academic expertise has social capital that reinforces its claims to truth making. I recognize that this is reductionist, but I also tend to think it’s true.

Of course, many academic archaeologists know this! In fact, even a casual review of academic twitter sees an almost continuous critique of the discipline and its institutions. Most of this is genuine and reflects a real hope for reform. That said, many other people issue calls to burn it all down. In both cases, people know that our institutions and claims of expertise carry baggage. In fact, there’s been an effort over the past 20 or 30 years to make archaeology a more open and inclusive discipline by embracing the knowledge of individuals outside of the academic and professional discipline. This has opened the field up to indigenous forms of knowledge, local interlocutors, and other individuals who often lack social and disciplinary standing. We also have worked hard not to ghettoize this “non-expert” knowledge as inferior, but instead have worked to create a more multi- and poly-vocal discipline as much to escape the colonial legacy of our discipline (and its institutions) as to create more inclusive forms of knowledge for the future. In short, archaeology as a discipline is more bearish on expertise than it might appear on social media.

Programs like this Atlantis documentary leverage a broader skepticism toward institutions and experts among the general public. Instead of the plodding pace of professional knowledge-making, many similar programs prefer to tell heroic tales of individuals who discover the truth that experts have either overlooked or sought to suppress. These stories, of course, are compelling and evoke many of the same themes that characterize, say, Dan Brown’s novels, various dystopian science fiction fantasies (I just finished watching Loki) and, of course, the great churning mass of popular conspiracy theories. Most of us like these stories because even those of us indebted to institutions for our careers and social standing, harbor deep skepticism regarding their capacity to do good. 

Among the many weaknesses of the Atlantis program and other mass media documentaries is that they lack any institutional grounding for their claims (and this likely accounts for the flailing attacks made upon Dr. Dibble’s professional status and institutional affiliation. The documentary makers appeared intently aware that without institutional backing their own work lack standing.) Disciplinary archaeology’s claims to expertise rely upon practices that support and perpetuate institutional memory. This includes practices, such as footnoting, archiving, ethical standards, and methodologies, as well as organizational bulwarks such as departments and programs that ensure continuity in disciplinary knowledge. Television programs and other forms of popular media lack these bulwarks. This not only ensures that the claims that occur in this media tend to be ephemeral, but also de-emphasizes the need for originality (or even novelty). Anyone who has watched these programs even occasionally knows that the same tired stories of alien visitors, hidden temples, secret manuscripts, and suppressed wisdom appear again and again. To my knowledge, very few of these claims ever enter into academic discourse unless it is to be quickly debunked and dismissed. Of course, this doesn’t matter to peddlers of these claims because part of their claims to truth come from rejecting the traditional sources of institutional and disciplinary knowledge or even claims that their arguments are so dangerous that they require active suppression!

[As an aside, Dr. Dibble’s erudite refutation of the Atlantis documentary’s arguments may have done as much to reinforce the danger that these arguments represent to traditional archaeology, but they also have left me struggling a bit to care about traditional archaeology in this context. As with classic conspiracy theories, any negative attention from traditional experts serves to strengthen the documentary maker’s claims that they are onto something. Why would an expert otherwise go to such lengths to challenge it?]    

In the end, though, the claims made by these non-institutional sources of knowledge are ephemeral. Their recurrence, however, reflects certain persistent, albeit historical anxieties in our society.  

At the broadest level, our fascination with Atlantis in the popular imagination, particularly as an ancient, alternative, utopian space reinforces our fear that contemporary social institutions and ways of life have somehow compromised our ability to live a peaceful, prosperous, meaningful life. That this may have occurred in the distant past before it was lost, holds out a kind of promise that humans can inhabit a better world.

While Dr. Dibble points out that the myth and archaeology of Atlantis has become fodder for right wing racists, it’s important to note that not all fantasies of Atlantis resolve in this way. As I wrote yesterday, Atlantis enjoyed a certain position in the work of jazz musician Sun Ra and his influential exploration of Afrocentrism and Afrofuturism

Ayesha Hameed has argued across a series of interlinked essays, performances, samples and images that the myth of Atlantis also offers a perspective to critique and understand the role in the search for Black identity in the Atlantic world, the contemporary horrors of seaborne migration, and the musical and literary worlds of Afrofurturism. She highlights the work of the Detroit techno duo Drexciya’s who offer a particularly disturbing, mythical re-interpretation of Atlantis. For this duo, black Atlantis was founded by babies born from pregnant women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage and whose newborn children, in this horrific moment, adapted to life underwater. This is obviously pseudo-scientific, but as with Sun Ra, the connection between Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism has long drawn upon “pseudo-archaeology” to create utopian spaces where it becomes possible to imagine both new collective pasts for Black people and new futures. Unlike the buttoned down world of serious academic archaeology (where Black scholars have long been underrepresented and white institutions and disciplines have historically dismissed their narratives of the past), many of these re-readings of Atlantis have taken place in the much more ephemeral context of popular media (some of which is unpacked by Morgan Jerkins in this essay) where images of Black Atlantis appeared as album covers, in comic books (it is hard to avoid noticing the parallels between the Atlantis myths and Wakanda in the Black Panther), novels, and, of course, in the coded aspirations for a return to an Africa unscathed by slave trade, colonialism, exploitation, and corruption. 

In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the image of Atlantis as conjured in the imaginations of the Isley Brothers, Sun Ra, and Drexciya, and in the critical perspectives offered Ayesha Hameed or in the loosely autobiographical novels of Samual Delaney, with the abhorrent and racist arguments advanced by white supremacists, right wing extremists, and other peddlers of hate. That archaeologists are drawn to white supremacist visions of Atlantis rather than those circulating in the Black community is hardly surprising. 

It is also hardly surprising that Atlantis can mean different things to different groups. I’m aware that there is no reason to assume that a Black reading of the Atlantis myth should have precedence over a view anchored in white supremacy and racism. It does, however, feel like that the plurality of Atlantises finds parallels with growing calls for a more pluralistic and more inclusive discipline of archaeology. To be clear, this parallelism is not an effort to argue that for the moral equivalence of an Atlantis informed by right wing racism and the Atlantis that bears the utopic values of, say, the Black community. Instead, I wonder whether our energy might be better spent considering how both our contemporary and long standing interests in Atlantis have emerged as way to critique contemporary institutions. 

It is hardly an intellectual leap to understand that recent interest in Atlantis offers a platform for considering the fate of humanity as we face an Anthropocene shaped by dramatic climate change. The destruction of Atlantis beneath the sea is a scenario that all too readily evokes the specter of rising sea levels and the destruction of civilization at the very moment when humanity is coming to terms with the realization that man-made climate change and widespread ecological destruction has placed human existence on earth is in jeopardy. In these scenarios Atlantis can reflects both our realization that a peaceful and prosperous existence was once possible and our fear that our own institutional hubris will lead to our destruction  

To return to the issue of expertise, where this rather diffuse essay began, it makes sense that the search for Atlantis and the imagining of Atlantis have become icons for critiques of the establishment and institutions – including, I’d contend archaeology as a discipline – which claim to be working to create a better way of life. This critique is predicated on the idea that these institutions are corrupt and may even be suppressing our understanding of how humans achieved peace and prosperity in the past. It’s not hard to see the appeal of this kind of assumption. Not a week goes by without an academic on Twitter calling for us to “burn it all down.”  In a more positive vein, both farmers (and, indeed, researchers) have increasingly come to realize that ancient and indigenous farming practices, for example, might offer healthier and more sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture. In a less positive one, only the most naive individuals can deny the role that multinational corporations deliberately played in the opioid epidemic or in practices that are accelerating the approach of the coming climate catastrophe. Disaster capitalism is thriving mostly because the larger the disaster the greater the opportunity to sell short for a profit.

Our quest for Atlantis, then, is not simply one of “real archaeology” and pseudoarchaeology. Instead, it is bound up in a larger critique of contemporary institutions and society. It weaves a web that extends to both darkest corners of right wing totalitarian racism and narratives of hope and redemption that seek to bridge the painful gap produced by the Middle Passage, contemporary experiences of displacement, and our Athropocene anxieties. It also questions on a fundamental level the character of academic expertise and the institutions that support and promote it and forces us to enduring the fine line between “burning it all down,” building a better world, and acknowledging the complicity of our expertise in both past and contemporary catastrophes.  

It goes without saying that this rambling essay goes well beyond Dr. Dibble’s critique of the Discovery channel television program Atlantis. My essay also lacks his remarkable ability to reduce complicated archaeological issues into concisely crafted Tweets. Despite these liabilities, I hope my effort to complicate the conversations that arose surrounding the Atlantis dust up opens up some new avenues to consider without jeopardizing any of the incisive critiques offered by its participants.  

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