Flaming the Dead – Alice Beck Kehoe vs. Lew Binford

Lewis Binford and His Moral Majority is an excoriating article that attacks the late Lewis Binford on a primarily professional but also a profoundly personal level. All of the inset quotes are Kehoe’s.

As a close contemporary (of Lewis Binford) I watched from the sidelines as he drew disciples into a cohesive little army, assaulted our elders, and claimed the mantle of genius theoretician. From the sidelines, I saw that this emperor was as naked as they come, and puny.

If you didn’t take Introduction to Archaeology in the USA, you might not know the legacy of Lewis Binford. He professed to bring a new era of science and method to Archaeology, and people generally believe him. He died  back in April and there have been many eulogies dedicated to him, extolling his influence on Americanist archaeology.

Lewis Binford turned to lithics. Lithics were called ‘projectile points,’ never mind that nearly every one excavated came from domestic contexts, plus were not sufficiently symmetrical to allow a projectile to fly straight. Being a housewife, I could see that practically all these points are kitchen knife blades, they are the size of my indispensable little kitch knife and like it, have one side of the tip thinned and sharp, the opposing side lightly ground so one can put one’s finger on it to press in cutting. Guys didn’t know kitchen knives.

Reductionist gendering aside, I think Alice Kehoe does know her knives, and has been sharpening them for a long time. She repeatedly cites many others who have done much more rigorous work than Binford, earlier, and better. She completely undermines his legacy and throws in a few extra punches for effect. Finally, she celebrates his death:

The field is free for an empirical archaeology that begins with the syntagm in the ground and moves along a careful chain of signification to a paradigm drawn from rich compendia of ethnographic and historical data, nuanced by firsthand experience with First Nations collaborators and postcolonial appreciation of their histories.

As a non-processual, non-Americanist, non-Great Basin, non-syntagm-seeking archaeologist, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I read Sally Binford’s account of her time with Lewis with great interest back in 2008, and remain enormously interested in individual archaeological practice. I have had my own experiences with idealizing archaeologists, and have subsequently encountered both great disappointment and incredible affirmation. Ultimately, they are flawed individuals and you can like or dislike someone on a personal level, but admire or abhor their work. To be completely cynical, it seems that people are published or cited because their peers like them or are afraid of them, or their peers are similarly trained and don’t know any better. Is it considered brave to call people out, as Kehoe has done, even before Binford died? Or is it just written off as academic in-fighting, or worse, ignored?

What has struck me as I’ve “leveled-up” in archaeology is how few controls there really are over veracity of data and field methodology. It used to terrify me–okay, it still does–but now it motivates me to be both as widely experienced and as meticulous as possible, in this most humanistic of sciences.

No gods, no masters…right?

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10 responses to “Flaming the Dead – Alice Beck Kehoe vs. Lew Binford

  1. The article is well argued and Kehoe makes some interesting points but I think this is deeply embarrassing for all parties involved. Why would a scholarly journal publish such a vicious personal attack thinly veiled as a disciplinary biography? And what does this article actually accomplish given that most people have moved on from Binford’s middle-range theory long ago?

    Binford may be (or have been) an asshole, but he all he did was work hard to carve out a name for himself and establish a career that would carry him into old age and enshrine a minor historical legacy. Is that so different than what we all do? Binford (who assuredly believed deeply in what he was doing) is probably reading this, crying into a bourbon feeling like people hate him after a lifetime of hard work. Kehoe, on the other hand, has just written an article that will have her career legacy likely defined as ‘that woman who attacked Binford so violently’ or something to that effect. Like I say, embarrassing for all parties involved.

  2. Colleen, thanks for the pointer, and Bradley, thanks for the insight. These stimulated a brief post on Publishing Archaeology:

    http://publishingarchaeology.blogspot.com/2011/07/dumping-on-binford.html

  3. Colleen, your intuition that “. . . it seems that people are published or cited because their peers like them or are afraid of them, or their peers are similarly trained and don’t know any better” is on point with respect to the wider business of scholarship in post-secondary academic institutions. In this regard, I sympathize with Alice’s slow/pressure-cooked — and, in my opinion, professionally common — despair. By the same token, it seems unfair to direct this despair at one scholar in particular. I think each of us — profs and grad students alike — are guilty of contributing to the undeniable lack of personal integrity that both supports and degrades our selfish projects. The absurdity of academia is thick and sticky. Unfortunately, it can be found in most professional contexts; at least, as I imagine them based on my limited non-academic work experiences.

  4. @anonymous — Hmmmmmmm, I’m not sure I understand the meaning of “the undeniable lack of personal integrity that both supports and degrades our selfish projects.” So was it Binford who lacked integrity, or Kehoe, or both? Or you and I? Sure, there are lots of negatives and “absurdities” in academia, but what is the alternative?

  5. @Mike — I am half-halfheartedly referring to each of us. This means Binford, Kehoe, me, (possibly) you (but, since I don’t know you, I can’t say for sure–or, at least–how far), many if not most of our peers, etc. The alternative to acting without integrity is, logically speaking, to act with integrity. Where is this possible? There are some serious structural problems with post-secondary education, but I don’t think the academy is the exclusive and exhaustive occupier not-integrity space. Instead, as I suggested, there is no alternative; which is why airing one’s dirty laundry squarely within the professional space doesn’t really address the problem. I think Binford too, was keen to this kind of behavior. But caught in a vicious circle, Kehoe takes the bait.

    On a Pollyann-ish note — when it comes to acting with integrity, I believe each of us makes choices in our professional lives that fall short of this elusive ideal — and often at that. Having said that, some apples fall farther from the tree than others. Unfortunately, I don’t have a measuring stick handy.

  6. @Anonymiss – There are lots of measuring sticks (professional codes of ethics; scientific and scholarly canons of evidence and professional behavior; gossip and hearsay; legal codes; basic human decency; etc.). But before judging the professional and personal behavior of, say, Lewis Binford, I’d want to see a more rigorous, scholarly, and dispassionate analysis. To me, her article has more the tone of bar conversations at an archaeology convention than a peer-reviewed journal article.

  7. Hi Colleen, nice post, as usual. Kehoe has been on a tear these last many years, publishing more than most do in a full career. I suspect she is on a late life purge, desiring to get it all out before she is unable to. Much of what she is writing about today is updates of earlier work.

    She pinged me pretty hard a few years back when she thought I had besmirched her beloved GI generation of WWII. She, being a member of the Silent, always defends the GI. Binford, also a Silent, is fair game for her grist mill. After all, the New Archaeology was mostly a male endeavor.

    The quotes you provided reminded me of an old essay in Plains Anthropologist

    Sellers, Mary
    1973 “The Secret Notebook for the Practicing Archeologist: with preliminary notes towards an ethnoscience of Archeology”. Plains Anthropologist 18-60: 140-148.

    The author is a pseudonym. I always suspected that Kehoe (or maybe Cynthia Irwin-William) wrote it. It has that wry tone about it found in other A Kehoe essays. Read it with the Golden Marshalltown essay and a vivid picture of high plains anthropology in the 1970s emerges. I know some considered Deetz to have been the role model for the Old Timer; I suspect Tom Kehoe could have as well.

    My own comment on the passing of Binford is

    http://ageofintuition.blogspot.com/2011/04/lewis-binford-james-deetz-per-galenson.html

  8. Larry Moore, just to set the record straight, I did not write the “Mary Sellers” 1973 Plains Anthropologist article you cite. It doesn’t seem the kind of thing Cynthia Irwin-Williams would have written.

  9. From Google: Mary Sellers, 1923-2011
    She graduated in 1945 from Mills College in Berkley, Calif. She also attended Chicago University and Cornell University. She taught cultural anthropology at the University of Missouri, the University of Nevada-Reno and North Hampton Community College.
    From Nancy Lurie, 7/14/11:
    I knew Mary very well. I think it was the summer of 1947 we shared a basement apartment in Hyde Park area of Chicago while attending summer school–I’d just finished my MA and planned to finish Ph.D. at Chicago. She was good company and very smart but, as far as I know, never finished a Ph.D. although she found employment in anthropology. She was from Missouri, as I recall, and that was her official residence when we were students. I’ve wondered about what became of her as she did not remain active in AAA. I think health problems kept her from fulfilling the promise of her career–maybe a form of osteoporosis. She broke bones very easily and had to be extemely careful. I also seem to recall she did some field work in SE Asia or Indonesia. I know she broke her ankle while in the field and concluded she would have to stay close to medical care. She was at the Chicago Conference of 1961 (not 1960) and did field work with the Basin tribes when working in Nevada.

  10. Thank you Alice.
    Interesting that the first statement in Sellers’ paper was “(Who ethically should remain anonymous…)” would throw some of us off into thinking the author’s name was a pseudonym. She left us a fine contribution in the ethnography of archaeology.

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