There are a few (and growing!) number of authors whose work I read religiously. It may not be that I read it the moment that it comes out, but I try to remain aware of what they are writing. Gavin Lucas is on that list and this weekend I read his new-ish book, Writing the Past.
Like many of Lucas’s other works, this relatively slim book starts a conversation that goes well beyond the books 150 some odd pages of text. Lucas seeks to understand the conditions that allow archaeological writing to produce knowledge. Shifting from his long-standing interest in fieldwork and approaches infused with variations in STS thought, Lucas turns his attention to texts. He argues that there are four main kinds of archaeological writing: narrative, description, exposition, and argument. Each of these are suitable for different epistemic strategies which range from the teleological character of narratives to the demonstration of conventions central to description, the articulating of warrants in argument, and the crafting of distinctions typical of exposition. The key to allowing these various forms of work together to produce archaeological knowledge is their shared commitment to detachment. Detachment, with its roots in 18th century science and the cult of objectivity, serves as a “condition for mobilization” in most forms of archaeological knowledge making.
The book is short and complex enough that I won’t even try to unpack its many supporting arguments. There are three, however, that intersect with stuff I’ve been working on lately and while it won’t send me back to the drawing board, it will push me to ground some of my more flamboyant statements in both Lucas’s work and scholarship that he has brought to my attention.
1. Publishing. Last spring, I made my first tentative steps toward articulating a “theory” or at least a plan behind my interest in publishing. I suggested that the publication process, which we often separated from the “real” scholarly work of fieldwork, analysis, and writing, was every bit as crucial to effort to produce truth. These arguments follows from a number of recent papers on the ways in which archaeological illustration, for example, supports claims to archaeological truth. A more deft writer and thinker may have expanded this to include the way in which the entire publishing process, from review and editing to book design and distribution served to bolster not only truth making claims, but to follow on Lucas’s larger point, claims to detachment.
In effect, my work on publishing will benefit immensely from Lucas’s heavier lifting. The division between writing and publishing in many ways extends from his argument that most archaeological writing produces knowledge through establishing detachment. The literal detachment that most publishing operations maintains from scholar work serves as a precondition for various forms of blind peer review, and, more broadly, the status of accepted truth within archaeology (as well as other fields) as information that has been “published.”
2. Facts and their Travels. One of the more interesting side notes in this book is the question of how the changing character of archaeological publishing (and presentation) will change knowledge making in our discipline. The emergence of digital practices, for example, and the ability to publish “born-digital” or digitized data in archaeology pushes us to think more critically about the role of data in our publishing practices. As Lucas notes, narratives play a key role in both situating data and re-situation (or in a Deleuzian sense de-territorializing (for dissemination) and re-territorializing archaeological information both figuratively and literally).
The interplay between data and narrative seems to me to be a particularly important challenge to anyone invested in digital practices. It may appear simple enough to fall back on “best practices” manifest in rigorous metadata schemes to situate even the most granular data. Indeed, this is often the response to anyone who suggests that data publication involves de-contextualizing archaeological knowledge.
At the same time, there is reason to wonder whether these practices will be enough to allow this data to be reused or translated from one project or state (that is data) to another (that is narrative or argument). The reluctance of archaeologists to re-use published data at any scale suggests that facts have not travelled as well in archaeology as the technology allows.
My effort to understand the challenges with the movement of facts has appeared in my recent paper on flow and legacy data. I think I’m trying to get at some of these ideas in some of my arguments for a slow archaeology. Lucas, obviously, is more subtle and articulate.
3. Detachment and Contemporaneity. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been interested in what an archaeology of the contemporary world means when we take the concept of contemporaneity literally (and seriously). Lucas does not deal too much with time in this book (after all, he’s written extensively on it elsewhere), but does not that detachment has a temporal character that informs how archaeologists think about narrative and description.
In the case of narrative, Lucas argues that detachment comes from our ability to emplot (in the sense of Hayden White) our work and, as a result, recognize a story with both a beginning and an ending. This establishes that we cannot be contemporary with the story that we’re telling because our position is temporally outside of the narrative.
In the case of description, we describe objects, building, and relationships with the authority of someone present, but the expectation that our readers are not able to witness or experience these things. In other words, we take on the position of our reader in our description making us both present (and contemporary) and absent. This negotiation of contemporaneity through the experience of presence requires us to acknowledge the current situation of absence both physically and temporally.
Both these cases provide a challenge to constructing an archaeological knowledge that is genuinely contemporary because it means that our narratives are both left open ended and our descriptions must insist on a kind of familiarity with the reader. The more experimental modes of archaeological writing, as shown in, say, the works published by Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir in their Ruin Memories, suggests that other forms of writing are possible and, indeed, necessary for understanding archaeology as a contemporary and of the contemporary.