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ACTOR-NETWORK THEORY AND PHENOMENOLOGY IN APPLICATION:
AN ARCHAEOGRAPHY OF EARLY AMERICAN GRAVESTONES
Cornelia Hopkins gravestone and the author
Old North Burying Ground, Providence, RI
Gravestones seem to be what they are: “Voices of American culture” (Meyer 1989). Don’t they, after all, speak for themselves? They bear a name, a few dates, an age, some figurative carving, and perhaps a witty epitaph. We take them to stand for the deceased in a one-to-one relationship. But this thoroughgoing assumption misapprehends their stake in reality—what they are and how we know what they are. Consider this concluding remark written by J. Joseph Edgette (1989):
Even in death, it seems, the personality of the loved one can be immortalized when incorporated through the epitaph into the other, more essentially utilitarian purposes of the gravemarker.
It is not difficult to pick apart conclusions of this kind. If a gravestone has something funny written on it, someone can come along later—or, more likely, happen upon a photograph of the gravestone—and say, “He must have been a funny guy.” But was he actually funny? Did he think he was funny? Did others find him funny? What does it mean to be funny? Is a sense of humor the summation of a personality? What is personality? What does it mean to be immortal?
These questions arise because Edgette does not delve into what he understands gravestones to be, and by what process he comes to this understanding. Admittedly, such metaphysical concerns are outside the scope of his study and outside his purview as a folklorist. Nevertheless, his conclusion takes for granted a subject-object divide, which is actually of his own making. By this, I mean that he objectifies gravestone epitaphs and creates subjective inferences about what they mean to him. In other words, he carries “a final signified to be disclosed through the act of interpretation” (Olsen 2005: 90). Other gravestone scholars—as well as those of “material culture” more widely—commonly fall into this trap by failing to recognize the inferential nature of their studies. Coming from widely divergent perspectives, from folkloric to art historical to religious (e.g., respectively, Meyer 1989; Luti 2005; Benes 1977), they tend to reify those certain objective properties of gravestones with which they are interested. As a result, gravestones have been variously considered as evidence of folk art, utilitarian grave markers, stand-ins for religious rituals, and religious icons.
“Modern material culture studies,” an outgrowth of anthropological archaeology rather than art history or connoisseurship, have challenged many assumptions made about people-thing interactions, including what we mean by “things” and how we come to understand them. Stretched across the social sciences, archaeology is properly situated to investigate the nature of these two questions by borrowing theory from the disparate realms of science and philosophy. Courtesy of the emergent sub-disciplines of “philosophy of science” and “science and technology studies,” two different ways of understanding things and their interactions have been proposed: actor-network theory and “post-”phenomenology. Each theoretical approach has its strengths and its weaknesses, but both are committed to a scientific understanding of things by remaining relativistic and objective. Gravestones, as a group of undeniably strange artifacts that have been largely under-theorized, provide ample material evidence on which to test the viability of these theories in archaeological application. And through the critical use of these two different approaches, archaeologists may begin to move away from a vague notion of “thing theory” to the better-suited realm of “archaeography.”
Machine-carved text on a marble gravestone
Old North Burial Ground, Providence, RI
ACTOR-NETWORK THEORY, IN THEORY
“We start in the middle of things,” writes Bruno Latour, “pressed by our colleagues, pushed by fellowships, starved for money, strangled by deadlines” (2005: 123). Agreed. And yet we take these things for granted. Only when we feel the pressure of stress do we become aware of the relationships—even immaterial ones—that threaten to rend us at the seams. Likewise, we are inescapably wrapped up in material things: people, objects, and nature, all intermixed. From birth the world is prepared for us humans. Biologically speaking, we are born with the necessary tools—“gesture and speech,” the call goes (Leroi-Gourhan 1993). Nonetheless, courtesy of millennia of inquisitive minds and dexterous hands, we are born into a world of technologies, from the mundane to the complex, from the paperclip to the computer. In Michael Schiffer’s words (1999: 4), “What is singular about Homo sapiens is the constant intimacy of people with countless kinds of things – our immersion in the material medium.” Through these things, we extend ourselves and carve our way through the world. Throughout our lives we produce, consume, identify, represent, and regulate the things around us (du Gay et al. 1997: 3). And in due course, we leave traces of our articulations, as they do upon us.
We humans tend to forget that things affect us, too, that our relationship with them is not unidirectional. Try to get to a graveyard, for example. Only after setting about it, does you realize the layered nature of the task. There are, of course, the usual logistics; one must first find a graveyard, then map out directions, and finally travel there. It is never just an idyllic stroll through the countryside, but involves a car, highways, maps, and other modern conveniences. And once you’re out there, alone, things, like a cell phone or a car battery, can come to mean a way home. As Bjornar Olsen has rhetorically proposed (2005: 97),
If things were vested with the ability to use ordinary language they would on the one hand talk to us in ways very banal, but also very imperative and effective: walk here, sit there, eat there, use that entrance…
Straddling the conceptual divide between artifact and document, gravestone epitaphs can be read; they do speak, in a sense. But when we see a stone that reads, “remember me as you pass by” (Deetz 1996: 89), we must remember that it is the gravestone that is demanding this internal reflection, not the memory of the interred. Gravestones, then, speak quite differently than J. Joseph Edgette has assumed.
Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, RI
Martin Heidegger first proposed that things are taken for granted and that they exist outside of human intentionality. On the subject of “thingly” things, he proposed (1971: 165), “Even the empty jug retains its nature by virtue of the poured gift, even though the empty jug does not admit of a giving out.” From this theoretical perspective, the performative ability of things reflects not a human intention, but a virtue of their ontology. This ontology, or “Tool Being,” as it has been called (Harman 2002), can never be fully realized, just as Man can only struggle to realize an existential consciousness. Things are gathered together wholes, gifts of the heaven and earth, from gods to mortals—a product of the Fourfold. When humans enter into a relationship with things, they are only acting on the present attributes of their gathered together nature, which, in turn, is a product of the properties of the world in which we live. What, then, is the nature of the “gift” of gravestones?
Like all other things, we take gravestones for granted. Most people rarely visit burial grounds except for funerals or perhaps to walk a dog. But when gravestones do confront us on the rare occasion, how are they present to us? The answer is not really a matter of use, as gravestones make clear, for they don’t really do anything at all. They are merely there—present. As an inheritor of Heideggerian metaphysics, actor-network theory suggests that instead of looking to sum up the nature of gravestones with finality, one would do better to start by analyzing the immaterial relations that are gathered together in their physical whole. These relations, in turn, are signified by the traces of interactions, which all share a stake in the physical presence of the gravestone. When thusly “de-centered,” the theory goes, gravestones are made to yield their nature in a holistic fashion (e.g. Law 2002).
This approach has its merits. By placing humans and things as symmetrical, one can glean a sense of how a gravestone came to its current state. In Swan Point Cemetery, for example, one can look at an eroded marble sculpture of two sleeping girls atop a granite monument and see the effect of acid rain. In turn, this acid rain was produced, for centuries, by the factories of the Blackstone River Valley, an early venue for industrialization thanks to its easy access to waterpower. The river valley, with its own network of streams, creeks, and rivers, is a natural formation, carved from millennia of erosion and deposited elsewhere. Thus, in this admittedly rough example of relation tracing, a single gravestone is caught up in a complex network that is a mixture of people and things, that dates back, if one were to trace it far enough, to the origins of the world and beyond. Things, like humans, are in medias res. We need not consider their materiality just as it relates to human intentionality, and in the process, we might come to a better understanding of the nature of gravestones. But the approach has its critics.
Minerals in a granite gravestone
Old North Burial Ground, Providence, RI
What are traces and how do we get at them? Rock. Stone. Minerals. Symbols. Signs. Art. Ad infinitum. It is easy to regard a gravestone and see some of the constituent parts that allow it to be present to us. Yet even when gathered together, these relations do not seem capable of summing up the ontological whole of a gravestone. The material presence of a gravestone seems greater than the sum of its immaterial relations. Are we to believe that gravestones can be de-materialized in this way? Are physical objects so unstable, barely retaining their “thingly” gathering? If they are already gathered, why do we seek to de-center them so as to reconstruct them? The outcome of this endeavor can only be a perverse, altered version of reality. Moreover, we have not begun to answer the question of the present-to-hand nature of gravestones as they are to us before the processes of deconstructing and reassembling.
The false promise of actor-network theory is that by eschewing a theoretical framework regarding materiality and by remaining eternally grounded in the traces left by various relations, we may construct an objective understanding of things that is independent of time and human intentionality (Latour 2005). Yet the actor-network approach is a framework. Heidegger attempted to do away with metaphysics, but in doing so—by bifurcating the world into objects and relations—he created a new metaphysics (Harman 2002: 5). Insofar as actor-network theory relies on the metaphysical relationship between things and relations, it too falls into this trap. As likely as Heidegger would have denied the inauguration of a new metaphysics, he would have criticized actor-network theorists for misappropriating his Fourfold; the realm of gods is fundamentally not accessible to mortals. As he wrote (1971: 163), “the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness.” We are no nearer to understanding “thingly” things than they are accessible to us.
The practice of actor-network theory amounts to what phenomenologists would consider “a sort of disbelief in things, an underestimation of the coherence of things” (Lefort 1968: xli). It leads us to believe that things seen are different from those unseen. Regardless, we humans are forever incapable of gleaning this unseen reality. We are hopelessly condemned to dwell among objects. Nonetheless, we must keep the uncertainties about the nature of the world proposed by actor-network theorists. Thus, we can believe in a world comprised of mixtures and still see categories of subject and object arise from it. Indeed, recognition of the intermixed and referential nature of material things is a significant concern, but it cannot be the foremost concern when dealing with things in the world.
INFORMED (“POST-”) PHENOMENOLOGY
Books about gravestones begin like this: there is a photograph, whether on the cover, in the preface, or on those few scattered leaves between the title page and the introduction. This photograph is the starting place, the way in, the material object transposed that anchors the forthcoming textual argument. Authors studying death and dying use a photograph of a broken gravestone (Stannard 1977); those concerned with medieval iconography use anthropomorphic carving magnified to a monumental scale (Ludwig 1966); editors of essays about gravestone carving transform the photograph into a graphic motif (Benes 1976); and so on. Through this technique, gravestones—by which I mean the physical things in the ground outside—are made something else. They become printed representations of black-and-white photographs (potentially even graphic renditions of prints of photographs of charcoal rubbings of gravestones) that are successively removed from reality, from a place in the soil outside.
This process of photographic translation is not so different from how most people experience gravestones, and it is very much how scholars view them. Light rays bounce off of the gravestone and its surroundings, travel through the apparatus of a camera, and produce an image on some sort of photosensitive plate. Likewise, things impress their thingliness upon us, although via all of our senses. Or, put more vividly by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (quoted in Olsen 2004: 92),
The bursting forth of the mass of the body towards the things… makes me follow with my eyes the movements and the contours of the things themselves, the magical relations, this pact between them and me according to which I lend them my body in order that they inscribe upon it and lend me their resemblance.
From these incriptions we create meaning. “Each part arouses the expectation of more than it contains, and this elementary perception is therefore already charged with a meaning,” Merleau-Ponty continues (1964: 2). Humans communicate through signs and symbols, in mixtures of gesture, speech, and things. Hence, we know things to bear the traces of agency, whose traces are likewise impressed upon us.
Old North Burial Ground, Providence, RI
Classic phenomenology, the philosophy of perception, explicates that things are comprised of relations, but it privileges human consciousness as the processor of the objective data. This asymmetry between people and things has caused actor-network theorists, such as Latour (2005: 244-5), to deride the approach on the grounds that,
It’s not that purposeful humans, intentional persons, and individual souls are the only interpretive agents in a world of matters of fact devoid of any meaning by itself… Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself. The world is not a solid continent of facts sprinkled by a few lakes of uncertainties, but a vast ocean of uncertainties speckled by a few islands of stabilized forms.
Understood. Heidegger already said as much: “the empty jug does not admit of a giving out.” But we can’t get at the world as it might be, only as it is present to us. This is the only certainty, which we know through experiential interaction with the world.
Latour’s critique overlooks more recent advances to the field of phenomenology that better incorporate an understanding of how humans experience the world through the material medium. “Post-”phenomenology can no longer be seen as an idealist “philosophy of consciousness” that eschews the mediating influence of things (Latour, quoted in Ihde 2003: 134). By contrast, contemporary, informed phenomenologists, coming from the field of Science and Technology Studies propose a philosophy of embodied experience, which understands people to be human-thing mixtures and seeks to “take into account the situatedness and positionality of the observer plus the observed” (Ihde 2003: 133).
What post-phenomenology can add to conversations about human-thing relations is a realistic, relativistic, and reflexive foundation: “a perspectival, situated knowledge which lacks the god’s eye view either from overhead or into the interior” (Ihde 2003: 142). In other words, the goal is neither to see the gravestone as a network of relations in its entirety, nor is it to become the gravestone, to feel it touching back, so to speak (cf. Tilley 2004: 3). It is to remain in the middle ground between subject and object, understanding both the artificial divide from which the categories are created and the possibilities that they allow in forging meaning through experience.
Narcissa Snow Monument, looking over Swan Point
Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, RI
This perspective abandons an effort at maintaining symmetry between humans, things and relations between the two, because it is aimed at understanding things as they are present to us. Yet this is not to give up symmetry all together. Rather, post-phenomenology pushes relativism in human-thing relations, suggesting symmetry on a sliding scale rather than a strict one (Ihde 2003). Indeed, it is not about following all traces to their ontological summation—to pursue transcendent things with hackneyed metaphysical tools—but to investigate those that are relevant and available. In the case of gravestone scholarship, this asymmetry means being allowed to continue to delve into issues like acid-rain and their effect to marble sculpture without being required to scrutinize each chemical reaction through time required to assemble a gathered whole. We understand the effect of acid-rain by virtue of our experience in the world, of our understanding of physics, chemistry, and environmental science. And we can make an ethical decision to stop probing into a certain network of relations when the return of meaning can no longer justify the expense of time and energy. We are, after all, in medias res.
Despite claims to the contrary, actor-network theory and phenomenology are ripe for pairing, at least for those who seek to satisfactorily understand what the material medium means to humans. Actor-network theory provides uncertainty about the ontology of things, and proposes a useful—however, impossible—scheme for making sense of their “thingly” being. Accordingly, it expresses the limitations of what we know and the possibilities of what we might come to know, given enough time and saintly patience. Phenomenology, on the other hand, proposes how we come to know what we know. Despite our possible misunderstanding of the ontology of things, as Heidegger proposes, an approach grounded in embodied experience proposes certainty about the way things are to us, and how we might expand our understanding of what they are. Archaeologists consistently strive to gain greater insight into material things through the use of new tools and theories, just like scientists who first used microscopes and learned the objective truth of microbes. It is through “material hermeneutics” that we expand the range of objective facts (Ihde 1999, 2005). Thus, we can forge ahead adding to what we know and always questioning how we know it; each theory is a foil for the other.
ARCHAEOGRAPHY AS MEANING-MAKING
Heretofore, in this reconciliation of actor-network theory and phenomenology for archaeological practice, I have attempted to give a satisfactory answer for the two underlying questions I posed to the work of J. Joseph Edgette. First, how do we understand things? And second, how do we come to this understanding? The answer to both of these questions, as I have proposed, is an approach grounded in phenomenology and informed by actor-network theory’s uncertainties. And yet, I have only alluded to the creation of meaning, or “knowledge production,” from collected observable data. I would argue, however, that theoretical problems with an approach to data collection supersede problems with the conclusions that come from the collected data. Or, to tie this relationship back to Edgette’s work, a basic theoretical approach to materiality must be created before he can be productively inquire about the immortalization of personality in stone. Nonetheless, the production of persuasive meaning regarding human-thing interactions should be outcome of “material culture studies,” not merely the positing of a priori theory.
Forging meaning from objective material evidence results from the “thick description” of things (Geertz 1973). The idea of “thick description” emerges from anthropology as a methodological framework by which to interpret cultures. Material culture has maintained an obvious, but conflicting relationship with anthropology—“a troubled engagement,” as Olsen would put it (2005). The process of writing “material culture” is suggestive of ethnography, and has spawned a variety of anthropomorphic names: “the social lives of things” (Appadurai 1986), “life histories of things” (Shanks 1998; Holtorf 1998, 2002), “object biographies” (Kopytoff 1986; Gosden and Marshall 1999; Brooks 2004), and “object ethnographies” (Fowles 2006, 2007). The analogy of material culture studies to cultural studies is a good one, but it is overly simplistic. First, neither actor-network theory nor phenomenology considers objects as objects, per se, but as relational. Second, things cannot be anthropomorphized; they do not “behave” in a human fashion (cf. Tilley 2004). Thus, I suggest the “thick description of things” as the process of interpreting material evidence and producing meaning, which are very much based on a “public” experience with the material medium (cf. Geertz 1973: 12).
Anthropomorph, on broken, unknown gravestone
Old North Burial Ground, Providence, RI
This process of knowledge production informed by the archaeological approach to materiality that I have described, I propose, should be described as “archaeography,” instead of “material culture studies.” Archaeography comes from Greek and means, when literally transcribed, “the writing of old things.” It was used to describe the study of artifacts under a paradigm of art historical connoisseurship and was subsequently replaced by “archaeology,” or “the study of old things,” as the discipline became more theoretically and methodologically refined. Now that the use of archaeography has faded, it can be updated to describe the process of communicating about materiality and human interactions with the material medium. Neither “writing” nor “old things” need be taken in their literal sense. The weblog, Archaeography (archaeography.com), despite having a slightly different aim, has demonstrated that communication about materiality is often better accomplished through the medium of photography. Likewise, things present to us are always old, no matter the date of their production, for they combine elements that were thousands if not millions of years in the making. In the context of archaeography, one need only see traces of natural relations or human articulation. A tentative definition for archaeography might proceed as an attempt to translate meaning gleaned from objective traces of relations ascertained through embodied experience.
Amidst all this, “thing theory” has been proposed as an alternative term (Brown 2001), but to my ears this conflates the role of the philosopher with the archaeologist, things with “thingly” things, a priori with a posteriori, causes with effects. As I proposed in the introduction, archaeologists are stretched between the humanities and the natural sciences—forever destined to be overextended between—but are uniquely positioned to reconcile the two realms when analyzing people-thing interactions. Archaeography, by its reflexive nature, contains room for ethical and political concerns, where “thing theory” can have none because of its explicit reference to Heideggerian metaphysics and symmetry between people and things (Latour 2005). Issues of conservation, preservation, and cultural heritage, which are, to my conscience, moral enterprises, can nonetheless be reduced to baseless enterprises. Gravestones are important and worth saving so that generations of individuals can have the resemblance of gravestones impressed upon their bodies, so that they can enter into new, meaningful relations.
AN ARCHAEOGRAPHY OF GRAVESTONES IN NEW ENGLAND
Out there among the stones: sky above, ground below—gray and green, respectively. The stones contrast nicely, speckling the space between the earth and sky with gray-blue to white tones. But they are hard to read in the diffuse sunlight. Gravestones around here all look similar, shockingly similar. Put a few icons into a bag; throw in marble, slate, or granite as a building material; and carve the piece up. Add a name, a few dates—sculpture if you’re rich—and there you go. I know that they are gravestones because we people have made a place for them, surrounded by a wrought iron fence. They are, to be sure, a holistic group of artifacts. I take photos of this and that, but nothing in particular strikes my fancy. The light isn’t right for any artistic shots. I pace back and forth waiting for something to catch my eye. And certain things do: a phonetic misspelling, masterly technique, an ode to a White heaven for Blacks.
There are lots of gravestones here, in the North Burial Ground in Providence, Rhode Island. They would qualify as antique in an art historical on the auction block (indeed, they have) and yet they litter the landscape like garbage. A dump. Many, if not most, are broken in some respect. Slabs of marble piled high. Empty tombs. They are detritus rather than artifacts, having long since passed from their original mode of articulation. Nonetheless, I am still unsure of that articulation as well as their current representation. Equipped, as I am, with pen and paper and a penchant for phenomenology, I am quick to identify the ruins as sad and forgotten remnants of past lives. The anthropologist in me counters: these people probably deserved to be forgotten; some of them, after all, were rampant slave traders. Memorials to enslaved Africans sit here, too. How exceptional that those bones, born inside several human beings in Western Africa, to lie beneath slate in coastal New England. My dog is barking through the rear window of my car. Time to go, there’s a funeral coming. It’s getting cold, anyway. In medias res.
America: when people die, their family buries them and then marks the spot where the interred remains will decay. Maybe they pay to have a few lines carved into the stone: a birth date, a death date, the name of a husband or a wife, a biblical passage. It is what they do. But it is not always what they have done here, in America, and it is certainly not an efficient thing to do. But it is what they do. Where no extra-somatic variable will approach the explanation that material evidence demands, anthropologists know that we are well into the ideational realm (Gould, Gould and Watson 1982: 367; Lemonnier 1992: 51-75).
Everyone dies. What traces are left behind of those vanished lives? There is no question that cognition is out there—“in the wild,” so to speak (Hutchins 1995). And that we leave it there, waiting to be found: the traces of human articulation. Just as acid rain erodes marble sculpture, telling us of two centuries of carbon emissions. But to recognize these traces as evidence of human articulation, those traces must be searched for, a process that is already meaning-laden. Thus, when they are found, “if the illusion contains a particle of truth,” we are really finding a piece of ourselves (Lévi-Strauss 1962: 104). An artifacts impresses its being into our experience, whether a Wedgwood gravy boat tucked away in a Korean War footlocker that spurs the vanished scent of Thanksgiving dinner, or a three-trunked tree in a swampy corner of the backyard that prompts the sound of a child’s fort-building. These are not objective properties of the things, per se, but they are nonetheless a part of their experience. They are the outcomes of those traces, found.
Memory. It exists not in things, but in the minds of people. If artifacts spur memories—whether—it is through experience of them: the conscious perception of the object, the inscription of the presence on the consciousness. But gravestones cannot be included among these sentimental things in reference to the deceased because they are almost always created posthumously. Their “voice” is not that of the interred and their “memory” is not that of a vanished consciousness. Those who study them are destined to be forever at least one step removed from memorialized personhood. We can only study the later articulation of the artifact. But we are not alone in this fruitless endeavor. The people who visit gravestones may find a sanctuary that prompts reflection, but cannot transcend the reality of cold, hard stone that stands-in-for the vanished consciousness (Gell 1998). And yet, we articulate them. Indeed, we Americans go to great lengths, in some cases, to visit and decorate them, only to be confronted with absence.
Old North Burial Ground, Providence, RI
Should the metaphysical question, “Are people things?” ever arise, after the world has been dematerialized into objects and relations under Heideggerian metaphysics, gravestones provide objective evidence to the contrary. They are so acutely terrible at reproducing humanity, at assuaging grief with the loss of a loved one, that one wonders why they were ever created. On the death of his father, Paul Auster (1982) wrote,
There is nothing more terrible, I learned, than having to face the objects of a dead man. Things are inert: they have meaning only in function of the life that makes use of them. When that life ends, the things change, even though they remain the same. They are there and yet not there: tangible ghosts, condemned to survive in a world they no longer belong to.
Gravestones are likewise liminal things, created from eternal stone in a moment of duress, referring to the immediate grief of the living and the permanent absence of the deceased.
We can never get at the “thingliness” of gravestones because to do so would be to get at that vanished consciousness. These categories of thing and human are inconsonant—an impossible relation across the Fourfold. We are only left with their outcomes in the world.
And yet gravestones are present. We can depend on them to be there, waiting beyond the veil of perception, fully gathered. This is their “gift”: presence amidst absence.