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Uzma Z. Rizvi is Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Pratt Institute where she teaches archaeology, ancient urbanism, complex societies, and heritage politics in the contemporary world. In addition, her current research interests include ancient South Asia, political economy, social aspects of metallurgy, and the postcolonial critique. Since receiving her doctorate from the Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania in 2007, Rizvi has been Faculty Fellow and Chair for the Initiative on Art, Community Development and Social Change at the Pratt Center (2007-2008) and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford University (2008-2009).
Rizvi's research strives to expand the theoretical scope of archaeological practice. In 2005 she organized (with Matthew Liebmann) one of the first sessions at the Society for American Archaeology to explore the applications of postcolonial theory to archaeological practice. The edited volume, Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique (Altamira Press, 2008) emerged out of the ideas articulated in that session. Rizvi has also edited (with Jane Lydon) World Archaeological Congress Research Handbook on Postcolonialism and Archaeology (Left Coast Press, forthcoming). Rizvi's research has been supported by grants received from Fulbright Hayes DDRA (2003), George Dales Foundation (2004), and the Mellon Foundation (2006-2007). Her research work in India on community based archaeology and public interest projects can be read about in "Accounting for Multiple Desires: Decolonizing Methodologies, Archaeology and the Public Interest" (India Review, 2006) and an upcoming manuscript based on her archaeological survey of Northeastern Rajasthan. She is currently completing a catalogue for British Archaeological Reports, Crafting Capital: Third Millennium BC Copper Arrowheads from Ganeshwar, Rajasthan. Rizvi served on the Committee on the Status of Women in Archaeology (2005-2008), and directed the documentary Telling Stories, Constructing Narratives: Gender Equity in Archaeology (2007). She also serves in an advisory board capacity to various academic and cultural institutions, including the journal Dialectical Anthropology, the Queens Museum of Art, South Asian Women's Creative Collective (SAWCC) and South Asian Theater Arts Movement (SATAM).
Ingesting the Material from Ganeshwar to Karbala: Reconstituting the Analytic and Recognizing Centrifugality in Archaeological Theory
Uzma Z. Rizvi (Pratt Institute)
Theory is not located. Theory is transient, nomadic, flexible, mutable, and controllable only in the past tense. It is an anxiety on the part of archaeology to demand the location of theory. As archaeologists, one of the main ways we control our knowledge of the past is by situating it within a context, a provenience, a geo-coordinate, a location. Even if we do not know what it is, we know where it is. Often following or followed by the modus operandi, what is it? There is a materiality to the theory that we produce– at the core of the theory is that which serves as our case study, as our muse, as our sounding board, as our immutable object, as our embodied social subject. The center of gravity of our theory pulsates outward from that empirical materiality and as we move around the physical, studying it, poking and prodding it for neutron activation analysis or electron mass spectrometry, a certain inertia is produced from the dialectical relationship between the science and the social, which keeps us as a discipline in rotation around the object. It is in those orbits of this centrifugal force that theory emerges. As rotational and unconventionally grounded in fluid space but not in location, it seems always marginal, always shifting, and difficult to identify, understand and/or capture. This movement that theory is allowed keeps our analysis growing, changing, and allows us to accommodate our new politics, our new commitments, and our new frameworks. Simultaneously, that movement creates an anxiety that expresses itself, either as a disdain for theory in totality, jargon specifically, or as a need to constantly improve, constantly revise, constantly critique, because theory cannot stop unless the object is removed. And theory in archaeology cannot exist without the object.
Without moving into the critique of subject/object relationships, my focus today is on the ability to recognize that in the position of each framework are situational rationalities and epistemic realities which utilize these critiques as tools through which to understand our subjects of study. Some may argue for this to be in line with ideations of vernacular cosmopolitanisms (Bhabha 1996; Werbner 2006), with its local specificity and global responsibility (see also Meskell 2009), but, I will ask us to regard it in relation to reconstituting the analytics through a deep desire on the part of many archaeologists to embody some form of progressive politics which determine the encounter with the object-material (Butler et al 2000).
Theoretical innovation thus may be activated and regarded as a political intervention. The intersection, overlapping, or juxtaposition of the two, theory and politics, locates and situates the possibility of theory formation, particularly in relation to the encounter with the material (see Ingold 2007; Pels 1998; Tilley 2007). In archaeology, this juxtaposition is fraught with tensions as the concept of post-object has yet to really make a major appearance on the theoretical stage – and I do not intend to introduce it here as a viable option for archaeology either. I think one aspect that makes archaeology unique is its ability to contextualize materiality and its semiotic relationships with tangible/intangible and whatever is in between. I want to focus our attention on the crisis that occurs in our relationship to tangible material and thus would like to shift the object of study to a subject of inquiry in a manner that moves beyond basic scientific aspirations by reconstituting analytical frameworks. The object-material is constructed in the present as indexing the past and in between possible forms of reality. This, labeled as quantifiable and empirical research, is the interpellation between us and the object-material that gives us the layers of meaning and agency entwined through the material.
In our initial approach to the object, through our gaze, which has been disciplined to annotate vision in particular manners, based on our pedagogical lineage – which in my case, is constructed Western – the social agency of the material does not emanate from the material itself, but emerges through the ways in which we see and understand embodied meaning and semiotic signage. The location of the material then is relational to the standpoint of the analytic – and questions the occurrence and reoccurrence of the colonial desire for the object as an object d’art – the creation of the object as prime status in the mastery of the other. In the initial formulation that documents colonial desire for the object to be nothing but an object, one that we imbue with meaning and interpretation, we find that the rotations of theory spin in accordance with systems of physicality and our ability to control the material, its representations, and its ability to interact with humanity.
In this new formulation, can we imagine that the material itself might engage the human body in a social and cultural relationship? Our standpoint is not only a philosophical, epistemological issue; it is, in a very material way, one of physicality and of visceral connections between the subject-object relationships we constantly negotiate. I would like to reopen this question of the visceral – that is, the manner in which we frame our “empirical” research, our descriptions, our soil sample charts, our little red flags indicating survey points. Each of these create and shape our gaze, enabling it to capture particular forms of information; we find ourselves in regimes of social complicity that can make possible particular types of dominant theory formation. In order to consider some alternatives to how we interact with materials I will provide two examples; in both instances, I ingested and digested the materials. Literally. I was taught the meaning of the object by eating or drinking it, in situ. And through that relationship, I was, corporeally, transformed.
For our first example, let me take you to a community meeting in Ganeshwar, Neem ka thana, in Northeastern Rajasthan, India. I am present with four students from the University of Rajasthan, one representative from the State Department of Archaeology and Museums, , over fifteen men from the community, mostly business owners in the village, a few farmers, and a former Member of Parliament (MP) and we are all discussing the over 1000 copper artifacts documented from 3rd millennium BC context. In a discussion related to the social aspects of metallurgy and the value of copper, the older MP gently said to me, “copper has always been important for religious reasons – it purifies water and our bodies.” Later on that day, he called for some water to be brought out to me in a copper vessel – a vessel that had been in his family for many generations. The water he gave me was to purify me, something that was enacted on my body, that transformed it in some manner. In 2008, during a conversation about that moment, I was told that everyone was very uncomfortable because they were all trying not to talk about religion and purity because I was a Muslim and by giving me the water in the historically and locally significant vessel, the MP purified me to the best of his abilities, making it permissible for people to talk/invite me into inner sections of their households, etc. My relationship to this copper object was decidedly outside the framework of my training as an archaeologist, it was a visceral relationship mediated not by my Western expectations, but rather by other culturally specific relationships within which I found myself.
Without getting into purity taboos, let me now take you to Karbala, Iraq. In January of 2009, I found myself in locations specifically relevant to Shia Muslim narratives. One afternoon, I was feeling unwell, and looked for some medical help. As I was talking to an older female doctor, she told me to open my mouth – what is it? I asked. It’s khaak-e-shifa. Which translates to, the sand/dust/soil of healing; khaak being sand/dust/soil and healing, shifa. I opened my mouth to suggest Tylenol, and in response had a pinch of brown/yellowbrown/greybrown soil placed in my mouth. It was dry and granular on my tongue, not really salty, as I had imagined. The location of this action is significant because it locates the material specifically, as indexed by its title; the only material that has the power to cure anything and everything in a Shia household is, most usually, the khaak that comes from Karbala, Iraq. By ingesting that khaak, I was transformed once again – it was not I controlling the material with my obsessive categorizations, but rather, it was the material coming into me, changing me.
This is not to suggest that we should all go around popping archaeological artifacts in our mouths and ingesting them. This is about altering where and how we stand when we encounter the object, and recognizing the object as having epistemic bearings even before it is “discovered” at the trowel’s edge. Of course, the reality is that I cannot always break out of my training – I have been disciplined in my subjectivity to such a degree that, especially under laboratory conditions, I will not take some khaak and eat it in order to study it. I will not take a historic vessel out of its museum display case and drink from it. And that precisely is the point – in this intimacy of ingestion I recognized for a brief moment that not every aspect of material can be captured for study, it resists objectification by claiming its own subjectivity. For that moment, I was intimate with these objects. For a moment I thought of the object as having characteristics integral to its own social and tangible/intangible make-up, that had different meanings outside of me and my interpretations, and that changed me by being placed inside of me.
In my limited 10 minute time-frame, I hope I have been able to inspire you to reconsider the questions we ask, to allow us to encounter the objects we study in a more intimate and visceral manner, providing them with properties that go beyond the social lives that we reconstruct for them. I think there is some merit to reintroducing yourself to the materials you study, if for no other reason than to contend with the anxiety of locating theory.