How Savage is Your Savagery?

After receiving some rather chilling feedback regarding the name of my blog, you know, Middle Savagery, I took a step back to think about it a little bit more. I thought it was obvious to everyone, that it was reclaiming an arcane, racist category for classifying ancient societies in a reflexive, anthropological way. I shouldn’t have assumed.

While I had been blogging since 2001, I started my archaeology-based blog in 2004, after taking Sam Wilson’s excellent The Archaeology of Complex Societies class, wherein we had to directly address what complexity means. It was one of those game-changing classes for me, a rigorous exploration of archaeological literature on complexity that revealed my own assumptions about social organization a moment before blowing them completely away. In it, we learned about the history of categorizing ancient societies, including Lewis H. Morgan’s system of progression through savagery, barbarism and civilization, with gradations of Upper, Middle and Lower for each category.

So when I heard that the name was not well received, I was taken aback. By now Middle Savagery feels worn-in, well-used, easy–perhaps lacking the sharpness of critique, an archaeological in-joke on a blog that has grown far beyond the original intended audience of friends and the handful of archaeologists communicating online at the time. I thought about transitioning to a new blog, but I’m torn. I might still. Lacking that, I re-wrote my rather glib About page to include the following:

The name of this blog is from Ancient Society written in 1877 by Lewis H. Morgan. In a very racist, colonialist way, he categorized all societies within an arcane hierarchy, ranging from Savagery to Civilization. In a fit of reflexive angst brought on by sharing the last name Morgan, in 2004 I named this blog after one of these categories, “Middle Savagery,” to highlight the ludicrous nature of ranking ancient and modern societies along such lines. It is not meant to perpetuate or codify these categories in any way, but for us to highlight the suspect history of anthropological and archaeological thought.

Even as archaeological blogging has grown vast and somewhat mundane, I hope that I can keep up a little outpost here at Middle Savagery. That, and we’re finally publishing the papers from my 2011 SAA Session on blogging in the excellent, Open Access Internet Archaeology–look for it in the coming months.

7 responses to “How Savage is Your Savagery?

  1. If you have had one “chilling” bit of feedback in 10 years of blogging, seemingly that might reflect a rather nuanced and minority opinion. I always kind of got your title from the Morgan sense of the term. If we wuz to eliminate all terminology that is judged today to have origins in a racist/ethnocentric use then we would pretty much eliminate a good bit of the “classics” in anthropology.

  2. Thank you for your comment–I have been very lucky in all these years of blogging to not attract too much trolling (crossed fingers, knock wood). As I said on the Facebook discussion of the post, I think the comments are more of an artifact of a transnational career, with very different disciplinary backgrounds and boundaries. I’m trying to prevent future misunderstandings, especially as I’m going for jobs in countries that may not be familiar with dusty ol’ Lewis Morgan.

  3. I only discovered your blog yesterday so I have a mountain of past blogs to check out. And I come from a ‘History’ background rather than an ‘Archaeological’ one so bear with me.
    You should definitely NOT change your blog name – if the reader(s) can’t understand the meaning in your blog name then they shouldn’t be reading it. Ignore the fools.

  4. Having agonised over the name of my own blog, open to similarly ambivalent interpretations, I sympathise. However, I often think that there is a positive aspect to being reminded of the borderline acceptability of the pun – it should serve as a reminder of the problematic, uncritical thinking that underpins the original. It’s important to live with that unease, and to use it to inspire more incisive reflexivity – rather than to discard it for something more ‘vanilla’, less thought-provoking…

  5. Just ran across your blog, suggested to my by WordPress Reader (ha, i always ignore those, but not this time) – don’t change the name, it’s f-ing brilliant.

  6. Since the old LiveJournal days, I have followed your blogging and enjoyed your insights. The roots of modern archaeology have deeply racist and colonial underpinnings. I’ve always appreciated your grabbing that other Morgan’s racist taxonomy and turning it on it’s head. I still do. Keep up the great work and btw I like your disclaimer for keeping the uninformed or the trolls (or both) at bay.

  7. Definitely, keep the name.

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