The Main Contributions of Archaeology to Culture

X: “Since the beginning of time, people have….”
Archaeologist: “Um, actually, you’re wrong.”

X: “There aren’t any good places to drink around here.”
Archaeologist: “Um, actually, you’re wrong.”

I function as this kind of contrarian in the new media research seminar I’m in this semester. I don’t actually have to take any more classes after advancing to candidacy, but I just can’t resist the opportunity to wade in with the rhetoric and performance studies kids, continental philosophy flying. Last night we were discussing Pandora’s Hope, and Latour’s characterization of the “primitive” was driving me crazy, as usual.

“there is an extraordinary continuity, which historians and philosophers of technology have increasingly made legible, between nuclear plants, missile-guidance systems, computer-chip design, or subway automation and the ancient mixture of society, symbols, and matter that ethnographers and archaeologists have studied for generations in the cultures of New Guinea, Old England, or sixteenth-century Burgundy.  Unlike what is held by the traditional distinction, the difference between an ancient or “primitive” collective and a modern or “advanced” one is not that the former manifests a rich mixture of social and technical culture while the latter exhibits of technology devoid of ties with the social order”

Okay, I’m with you, Bruno.

“The difference, rather, is that the latter translates, crosses over, enrolls, and mobilizes more elements which are more intimately connected, with a more finely woven social fabric, than the former does (…) The adjective modern does not describe an increased distance between society and technology or their alienation, but a deepened intimacy, a more intricate mesh between the two.”

Wait, a deepened intimacy?  How does that show up in the archaeological record?  We are more intimate with our technology/actants these days?  (ad nasuem)  They haven’t kicked me out of the class yet, but maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

2 responses to “The Main Contributions of Archaeology to Culture

  1. Bruno is on crack, ignore him.

    But I share your pain on the archaeological end. Historians also are basically the spoil-sports of the narratives that people tell themselves to make sense of their own and their communities lives. If you think about it for two minutes, it is a shitty job.

    The problem for historians at least is epistemological; the only thing we can ever do is use evidence to make specific narratives increasingly unlikely. We can rarely offer better or more likely narratives.

    In addition, as you seem to hint yourself, meaning, that wonderful substrate of interpretation, is neither in the historical evidence or in archaeological record, but squarely (like beauty) in the eye of the beholder.

    Still, better not wrong than mistakenly meaningful.

  2. I remember when we used picks and shovels…I even have a trowel – somewhere…

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