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"Worlds Otherwise": Archaeology, Theory, and Ontological Difference

Saturday, May 1st:
9:00 am-12:30 pm

Session Organizers: Benjamin Alberti (Framingham State College - and Yvonne Marshall (University of Southampton -

Discussant: Martin Holbraad (UCL)

Imagining other worlds drives archaeology’s theory production. If we accept the critique of authors such as Arturo Escobar that modern epistemologies “eat up” local knowledge, obscuring from view or negating alternative worlds, then locating theory is not only about being more inclusive epistemologically but also about being open to the effect on theory of accepting diverse ontologies. This session explores how we incorporate this ontological insight into our theories and how we, as archaeologists, manage the impact of “the coloniality of knowledge” when different knowledge can imply different ontological foundations and hence different worlds. Taking ontological questions seriously poses a fundamental challenge to archaeological theory. Can an archaeology that focuses on questions of ontology perhaps avoid archaeology’s role in the “globalizing tendency to control the political economy of knowledge production”, as stated in the plenary session abstract, by producing materially specific, local archaeological theories?

Papers in the session will confront the impact and challenges of an ontological approach to archaeological theory. We’re interested in how relational ontologies affect archaeological theory from any perspective, including research that incorporates the work of theorists in feminism (Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Marilyn Strathern) the hard sciences (e.g. Karen Barad, Donna Haraway), political ecology (e.g. Arturo Escobar), philosophy (e.g. Graham Harman, Elizabeth Grosz, Bruno Latour, Manuel DeLanda), and anthropology (e.g. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Martin Holbraad, Tim Ingold, Marilyn Strathern). Interrogating our theoretical lexicon, methodologies and techniques for the role they play in reproducing particular ontologies is crucial. What shape do key concepts such as “matter” and “materiality”, “theory”, “nature/culture”, “body”, “sex/gender”, begin to take if we accept their ontological specificity in Western thought? Moreover, how do we manage and imagine the interface between various, possibly incommensurable, ontologies – modern scientific, alternative modern, and nonmodern – when producing archaeological theory?

9:00: Yvonne Marshall (University of Southampton) and Benjamin Alberti (Framingham State College): Themes for the Session
9:10: Christopher Witmore (Texas Tech University): Archaeology and the Speculative Turn
9:20: Yvonne Marshall (University of Southampton) and Benjamin Alberti (Framingham State College): Exploring the Ontological Possibilities of Barad, Strathern and New Zealand Maori Whakapapa
9:30: Sandy Budden (University of Southampton): Alchemy in Prehistory: Revisiting Notions of Skeuomorphism
9:40: Visa Immonen (University of Turku): The Mess Before the Modern – Ontological Entanglements in Nordic Medieval Archaeology
9:50: Benjamin Manktelow (University of Sheffield): Distributed Disciplines: Archaeology, Disunity and the Quest Against Integration
10:00: Severin Fowles (Barnard College, Columbia University): The Maddening Inescapability of Avatar: Archaeology and the World Tree
10:10: Eleanor Harrison-Buck (University of New Hampshire): Theorizing Power in the Mesoamerican World
10:20: Alejandro F. Haber (Universidad Nacional de Catamarca – Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Catamarca, Argentina): Carnival Time: Writing on the Move
10:30: Coffee break
11:00: Oliver Harris (University of Newcastle) and John Robb (University of Cambridge): Multimodal Ontologies: The Problem of the Body in History
11:10: Benjamin Alberti (Framingham State College): Body-pots, Intuition, and Ontological Inquiry in Archaeology
11:20: Martin Holbraad (UCL): Discussion

Archaeology and the Speculative Turn

Christopher Witmore (Texas Tech University)

The speculative turn refers to a renewed concern with realism and materialism in continental philosophy. However, its implications are much broader. Prefigured in the work Alfred North Whitehead, Gilles Deleuze, and Actor-Network-Theory, the speculative turn signals radical challenges to the ontological grounding of archaeology. This paper will explore the implications of the speculative turn for archaeology by focusing in on two fundamental principles of speculative realism: the ‘ontic principle’ and the ‘democratic principle’. With the former, “there is no difference that does not make a difference” (Bryant 2009)—in other words, neither do things exist apart from their relations nor can they ever be fully translated into something else. With the latter, human/nonhuman relations are no more privileged than relations between inanimate objects (Harman 2009). These two principles will be explored through two case studies. The first will enter into the work of an archaeological survey in Greece. The second will follow the movement of a black-figure amphora from the laboratory to storage at the Rhode Island School of Design museum. While the consequences of the speculative turn are radical indeed for archaeology, the things we regard as of the past arguably become even more interesting, even more dynamic, lively, and relevant—to get there, archaeologists too must boldly return to metaphysics and ontologies in the plural.

References Bryant, L. 2009: The Ontic Principle: The Fundamental Principle of Any Future Object-Oriented Philosophy. Larval Subjects. Available at: Harman, G. 2009: Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne: Re.Press.

Exploring the Ontological Possibilities of Barad, Strathern and New Zealand Maori Whakapapa

Yvonne Marshall (University of Southampton) Benjamin Alberti (Framingham State College)

In this paper we take up the question of how might we manage and imagine the interface between various, possibly incommensurable, ontologies – modern scientific, alternative modern, and non-modern – when producing archaeological theory. The perspective we explore is informed by the ideas of feminist theorists Karen Barad and Marilyn Strathern. Barad’s agential realism envisages a world of fully open-ended ontology/s – a world where all things are open relative to all others and it is only in the fleeting moment of an “intra-action” that ontological specificity occurs. Thus, Barad overcomes the “pop-bead” problem inherent in the notion of multiple ontologies, which, like 3rd-gender theories, simply adds another, and another example without transforming the “ground” from which each example arises. However, for archaeology Barad’s agential realism is perhaps better positioned as a goal to aim for rather than a place to start. Strathern’s diffractive reading of gender and gifting in Western European and New Guinean societies is less “ambitious” in the sense that it focuses its attention on “only” two specific social and ontological worlds, rather than attempting a global theory. It therefore offers a more concrete starting point from which to imagine some possible interfaces between our own western, academic and disciplinary specific ontology and the world we attempt to engage through material remains. Like Strathern, our focus, at least in the first instance, is generally on the mutual connectedness, perhaps intra-action, of two specific ontological worlds.

We will conduct our explorations through the worlds of archaeology and New Zealand Maori. In particular, we take up the Maori concept of whakapapa (pronounced faa-ka-paa-pa), commonly translated to mean genealogy, as an ontological framework for thinking through Maori material worlds.

Alchemy in Prehistory: Revisiting Notions of Skeuomorphism

Sandy Budden (University of Southampton)

Skeuomorphism is a term that is very particular to archaeology and anthropology but one that has received little theoretical scrutiny. The general notion of skeumorphs is that an artefact made in a new material mimics the technological characteristics of an earlier material even though these original characteristics no longer serve a useful purpose. Basalla (1989) for example describes skeumorphs thus, "... new materials are handled and worked in imitation of displaced, older ones”. A simple, but well known, example is that of British Neolithic pots which have not only been argued to mimic basketry, a technology which supposedly preceded pottery, but to actually stem from using ‘basketry moulds’ to form the earliest pots (c.f. Hawkes 1940).

Another continuing perspective is that skeumorphs seek to borrow kudos from a more prestigious material that is unavailable to the maker. Knappet (2005:145) draws attention to this in reference to Minoan drinking vessels from Knossos; but it is a perspective common across all of Europe in reference to later Bronze Age and Iron Age pottery much of which is highly burnished, covered in graphite and so morphologically exaggerated that mimicking metalwork appears to be a key objective.

Both perspectives are argued to be of limited value. The first echoes outdated ideas related to a ‘Childean’ notion of inevitable linear technological progression while the second reduces the concept of skeumorphs to one of simple emulation. Drawing on recent theoretical perspectives I suggest that skeumorphs represent an opportunity to explore a deeply social mechanism that works at both an individual and community level to create and reinforce ideas of ontological reality.

The Mess Before the Modern – Ontological Entanglements in Nordic Medieval Archaeology

Visa Immonen (University of Turku)

The archaeology of modernity has made modernity and modernisation conceptual motors energizing theoretical debate. A parallel analysis of premodernity and its relation to medievality in medieval archaeology is still largely underdeveloped, at least it has not become a point of departure for organizing the research and its questions. If fact, a certain reductive strategy is apparent in medieval archaeology, where the notion of modernity has been gradually extended into the realm of the premodern, ultimately erasing the latter. The roots of the capitalist market system and other modern features are traced further and further back to the Middle Ages, which subsequently, for example, affects conceptions of the impact of German Hanseatic material culture in the Nordic countries. Premodern or nonmodern is thus the receding other of the modern. Although the concept of otherness has typically belonged to the arsenal of postmodernist approaches, the frictions it implies are crucially not merely epistemological: medievality is a material-discursive phenomenon iteratively produced in the entanglements of the past and the boundary-drawing practices of medieval archaeology. Medievality and its alternative material ontologies are created in the intra-action, to apply Karen Barad’s concept, of modern and premodern. Sensitivity to the ontologically nonmodern is possible with entangled or diffractive methodology which criss-crosses disciplinary discourses and material realms. It both reshapes the objectives of medieval archaeological inquiry and provides possibilities of other kinds of ontologies to emerge.

Distributed Disciplines: Archaeology, Disunity and the Quest Against Integration

Benjamin Manktelow (University Of Sheffield)

This paper will argue that the multi-vocal, multi-faceted character of archaeology cannot be fully realised while the aim of philosophical archaeologists is integrating the differences inherent in the archaeological discourse. The strength of archaeology, and disciplines in general, are their differences.

Archaeology is currently in it's post-processual, post-modern, or post-structural phase, depending on which label you prefer to use. The question is where does archaeology go next, and how does it deal with the bricolage, or fragmentation, currently affecting the discipline. Archaeology, like any mature discipline, does not have one path, it has many. The question is how to deal with them. One answer lies in a disunity of archaeology in which the discipline does not need a cohesive, integrated whole. Instead, each ontology, espistmology, mode, or approach to archaeology is taken as a localised equally real field of endeavour. Each way of doing archaeology need not be in agreement with one another. What is instead at stake is open, critical, communication and presentation.

This paper will highlight the “trading zone" or !clearing house" qualities that underpin the archaeological project, through the claim that !true" knowledge, especially archaeological or historical, is complex and multifaceted because each approach to archaeology whether it be osteology, phenomenology or materials science, or even isotope analysis of hair only open one door of understanding to humanity"s history, they only paint one part of a picture of the world. This argument will be brought to the fore through a treatment of the landscape surrounding the West Kennet Longbarrow in south West England.

The Maddening Inescapability of Avatar: Archaeology and the World Tree

Severin Fowles (Barnard College, Columbia University)

I would like to ignore the movie Avatar, but like so many others I find it impossible to do so, particularly when the question of Native American ontologies is on the table for discussion. Perhaps this is because the archaeological imagination of alterative worlds (either in the sense of being ancient or non-Western or both) has already become deeply infected by the contemporary experience of hyperreal computer-generated virtualism. Perhaps it is because the archaeological imagination of specifically Native American ontologies has already become deeply infected by New Age spirituality and its fresh crop of noble savage myths. Or perhaps it is because Cameron draws virtual reality and noble savage mythology into such a seamless union that Avatar’s imagery has an especially insidious pull. Regardless, this paper aims to work through rather than around the movie in an effort to sketch the outlines of an archaeology of the Pueblo World Tree.

Theorizing Power in the Mesoamerican World

Eleanor Harrison-Buck (University of New Hampshire)

Frequently, models of social power in archaeology are defined in terms of authority structures where political dominance is a conscious “strategy” on the part of elites. Most studies of power in Mesoamerican archaeology focus on large-scale, institutional forms of power, such as the development of the political state and its material expressions (e.g., public architecture and ostentatious displays of prestige goods in the context of regal- ritual performance). This hierarchical, dominance-oriented approach is grounded in Western epistemologies and obscures the Mesoamerican ontological view of power as relational and guided by a heterarchical sense of moral order. Ethnoarchaeological studies suggest a shared ideology and solidarity among subordinates is a necessary component for conferring power, status and wealth and legitimizing social distinctions. In this way, power is negotiated and sanctioned by a larger social network, as opposed to the coercive nature of a single individual or a dominant cultural institution. This theory of power has its roots in feminist and critical thinking, and builds on Miller and Tilley’s (1984) model of agency-based power in archaeology. I present several case studies that materially express these concepts of relational power, specifically in the ancient Maya offertory tradition. Patterns in dedicatory and termination deposits reveal how human agents produce power relations through shared metaphorical concepts, beliefs in the numinous, and figurative forms of communication that are embedded in the structure and materiality of ritual practice. This study exemplifies how diverse ontologies and modern epistemologies impact how we theorize power in the Mesoamerican world.

Carnival Time: Writing on the Move

Alejandro F. Haber (Universidad Nacional de Catamarca – Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Catamarca, Argentina)

This piece mines the ontologically intricate history of my involvement with an archaeological mining site, where one of the earliest anti-colonial uprisings started during the Carnival of 1775. Starting with the usual involvement of an archaeologist with previous research, and identifying and expanding the inclusion of diverse agencies in history, it rapidly diversifies to include not just my intellectual consideration of agenciality, but also both my being as political agent and as living creature. This means that the place from where archaeology is conducted is moved when its very foundations are put into the conversation, as it is transformed from a knowledge searching enterprise to an interculturally related scenario. But even accepting the impact on me of being dweller in the scenarios where I am knower, the latter role is not ruled out but transformed. In this sense, this paper explores the interrelated semio-praxis in the course of the story told here. These only sometimes include writing down, and only sometimes my authorship as performance and orality, and collective and heterogeneous subjectivities, as in carnival time, become actors in the conversation. What is said, with words or without them, is said in conversations across ontologies, just as in carnival time, where places and characters can be surprisingly inverted. Implied in this piece of writing is the place of theory within a broader conversation about and from a place on the move.

Multimodal Ontologies: The Problem of the Body in History

Oliver Harris (University of Newcastle) John Robb (University of Cambridge)

Current discussions of alternative ontologies are productive in that they help us envision difference in the past and present. But virtually without exception they work in heuristic, incommensurate ideal types: animists are animists, Westerners are Westerners and never the twain shall meet. This dichotomising prevents us from understanding how ontologies work in practice and how to investigate them archaeologically.

Our study of past bodies, which we draw on in this paper, provides a good example. If we assume that each culture has a unique understanding of "the human body", then the question becomes: how are these understandings different from our own? At the same time, we have to assume a common referent (some bottom line definition of what "the human body" is) in order to make our comparisons. This reduces the problem to a constructivist/ naturalist debate in which the analyst is forced to decide what level of essentialism he/she is comfortable with. It also implicitly asserts the ultimate reality of both the naturalist body and the particular ontology that lies behind this.

What we have found in investigating the human body cross-culturally is that this is based upon an erroneous background assumption that ontologies are singular, in other words that any group has only one, exclusive and consistent way of understanding the body. In fact, every group has multiple simultaneous ways of understanding the body, which they alternate between, drawing on practical logics of various kinds. In some contexts, we understand the human body as a purely mechanical and functional material structure; in others we believe it is a social being. In some contexts the shaman genuinely transforms into a jaguar and the rock genuinely contains an immanent spirit; in others the shaman retains a human body and secretes foreign objects about his/her person as pragmatic aids to a dramatic performance and the rock is stone and not a person.

In this paper we explore the implications this has not only for how we understand other people's bodies and our own, but also for methodological problems such as identifying ontological categories archaeologically, the translation of ontological categories (as some of our ontological views will overlap with those held by the groups we study and others will not), and for processes of embodiment in situations of cultural contact (whether colonialism or archaeological study of past others), where these ontologies encounter each other.

Body-pots, Intuition, and Ontological Inquiry in Archaeology

Benjamin Alberti (Framingham State College)

It is easy to confuse a focus on ontologies in archaeology with a new version of cultural relativism, where what is relative are realities rather than beliefs. In such a view, reified ontologies would appear to be incommensurable in a similar way to conventional cultures, when these are conceived of as homogenous, self-identical units. Thus, each group has its reality; the question becomes that of comparing such realities. The problem then becomes deciding what forms the common ground for comparison.

In this paper I argue that such an approach to ontology misconstrues the nature of an ontological inquiry and its potential value to archaeology. Just as the concept of culture has been reconceived to incorporate complexity of cultural interactions, the nature of the incommensurability among different ontologies is not that of fixed types. Instead of attempting to access ontologies or ontological categories in a relation of exteriority, where these are conceived of as singular, multiple, or overlapping, our methodologies are more fruitfully aimed at intuitively grasping the possibilities for ontological alterity inherent in our material. The type of understanding gained is not that of another ontology that can stand shoulder to shoulder with “our” own. Rather, alternative ontologies, I argue, are the interior product of the relationship formed among researcher and material and not an external act of understanding. The analytic component should ultimately give way to an intuitive or speculative approach. I discuss these questions in relation to anthropomorphic ceramic vessels and other bodies from first Millennium AD northwest Argentina.

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