Tag Archives: academia

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?

Changing Archaeological Conferences 1/2

Deadeyes and Safety First, painting. Photo by Connor Rowe.

The Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting at UC Berkeley this past weekend assured that I would be screamingly busy. I was an organizer of the conference, participated in a photo session (which I will discuss in a subsequent post), read my friend Shanti’s paper, and organized a session on Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary.

The session faced issues from the start–a lot of people sent abstracts but ended up canceling, I was so busy with the Blogging and Archaeology session at the SAA that I neglected some finer points of organization, and I almost canceled the whole thing more than once. It was good that I didn’t.

There were four fantastic papers presented by people from four different places–England, Ireland, Australia, and the US. The papers were diverse in their content, but all grappled with the place of graffiti in archaeological research and in wider cultural heritage. The international scope of the research was impressive and the authors of the papers were obviously intensely engaged in the interpretation of graffiti. A traditional discussion session after the papers would have been lively, fun, and satisfying–you can tell by the abstracts that we were doing something right. But we did something different.

Two members of the Black Diamonds Shining Collective, Deadeyes and Safety First came up from Oakland to conduct a live painting session and discussion of the papers. I had given them the choice, they could just talk or just paint or do a mixture of both. The session was a bit chaotic and ran over time, but at the end of the last presentation, we cleared a big space in front and brought in the large, prepared scrap of wood that I salvaged from Berkeley’s art practice department (thanks, Nick!).

Deadeyes and Safety First started painting and the room was absolutely silent. Multinationalism aside, everyone in the room was academic & white, while the graffiti artists were black. Were they just performing? Was it a strange, silent, live, Othering-event? Afterwards, several people confessed their enormous discomfort at this intense scopophilic moment. The presumed silence of our research subject was made real, highlighting the epistemic injustice that underlies academic research.

Deadeyes and Safety First. Their faces have been intentionally omitted. Photo by Connor Rowe.

Deadeyes capped his pen, stood up and turned around. He spoke, outlining his decade-long interest in and documentation of Oakland graffiti art and the intensely personal and political nature of graffiti, emphasizing the sociality in their chosen form of expression.  Suddenly, the focus of the room shifted, and these academic archaeologists had the creator of their studied object pushing back, correcting assumptions, and throwing into question the entire enterprise. Safety First chimed in at times while still working on the painting.

I came away from the session humbled but also re-energized. This, to me, more than studying the ruins of theme parks or dismantling vans, was the archaeology of the contemporary. Having graffiti artists live-paint their reaction to the papers was dangerous–I actually had no idea how dangerous until I was in the room, watching the collision of these spheres. It was endangering our precious research, our preferred notions of how material culture was made, and how conferences should be run.

I still haven’t fully digested the whole experience, and I’ll be following up with the individual session participants and discussants. Changing archaeological conferences is hard, and risky, and most people resist, probably with good reason. That’s why we still sit in rooms, reading page after page, flicking through powerpoints. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I was deeply relieved to read a paper in such a session the very next day.

Tomorrow I’ll write about another risky and rewarding session I was in, Heather Law’s Opening Dialogs in Archaeological Photography.

Humanizing our Heroes

Please don’t ask the question about favorite cocktails and best hot-tub parties/worst hot-tub parties. The answers to those questions have no longevity. They have no bearing on what the contributions of these two women are to the discipline. A number of efforts recently have focused on recording interviews with major figures in anthropology. Do you think in 20 years anyone will find it informative that their favorite drink was a martini? It isn’t relevant. Please don’t do it.

I received this thought-provoking comment on the last blog post and I thought it was interesting enough to give a longer and more visible answer than a comment response would provide.  I completely understand this viewpoint, especially in terms of lending our strong, feminist leaders the amount of respect they are absolutely entitled to receive.  I think it is contextual, and I suppose the casual academic culture of UC Berkeley archaeology can be a little startling to outsiders.

I didn’t write the “questionable” questions, but they were authored by current and past students who adore Meg and Ruth. I will be conducting and editing the interview and they trust me to be respectful AND playful–they trained me, after all. I also find that questions such as “favorite cocktail” can loosen the subject of the interview up, making them more comfortable in front of the camera.

I think that Meg and Ruth are both too interesting to be kept contained in strictly defined boundaries of their legacies within the profession. I hope that this interview will reflect what we experience as students–their generosity in wisdom and spirit, not that good archaeology is Serious Business.  I spoke to Ruth about that very topic yesterday when I mentioned this comment and viewpoint.  Her reaction was sadness–many times throughout her career she’s had to fight against the perception that she was not doing “real” archaeology, when anyone who knows the history of her career can see how her work has always pushed the boundaries of practice.

But I’m biased, obviously.

And hell, I’d love to know what cocktail Mortimer Wheeler favored. Anyone know?

Superstitious

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I’m not a “spiritual” person and I don’t believe in ghosts or horoscopes (though finding out that my advisor is a metal dragon–mechagodzilla–in the Chinese system was pretty hilarious), but I really can’t resist a good fortune cookie.

I passed my orals!

The one piece of advice that I never got, but that I will now try to give to as many other graduate students as possible is: be happy, confident and excited about your work.  Passion and enthusiasm will be reflected back to you, just as fear and self-doubt will help them destroy you.

Well, that, and study your ass off.

Now I just have this little ol’ thing called a dissertation to write.  No sweat, right?  heh.

Skuldrudgery

Things are shaping up quite well as I head into the semester. I am working hard on my final field statements, have mostly finished (to my surprise!) my dissertation prospectus, and have been cooking up a Wenner Gren. On top of all of this, I finally got together the journal article that I want to submit to Archaeological Method & Theory, but I’m not sure it shouldn’t actually be two slightly different articles. Sorry to be opaque–I’ll post it all when it comes closer to actually happening.

I met with Ruth and the other GSIs on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming semester. It should be pretty interesting–heavy on the media literacy, light on mid-terms, which is nice, but can be difficult for the more rigid students who want to be lectured at, take notes, and regurgitate periodically.

I’ve been dealing with some Catalhoyuk material again though, which always makes me dream about the place. Browns and yellows and stressful politics, oh my!

More interesting than my academic dealings–the Library of Congress has partnered with Flickr to get public tagging for their archived photographs. I love it–academic/public institutions have long been building web-islands of information, and getting some of this primary data out into a more public sphere gives life to the database, ensures that it will be used and therefore valued. There’s already been a massive effort to tag these photos and I wonder if folksonomies would solve some of the problems that archaeologists have been having with assigning conceptual terminology we need for generating comparative data. Archaeologists should create their own archives, but should also update to social networking sites like Flickr not only in the public interest, but to get more perspectives on their data.

But, back to the LOC project, you can find the main page here:

http://flickr.com/commons

And the photos are completely gorgeous:

I wonder, as time goes on and I travel even more, if my love for the American West and its people and history will only deepen.