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Archaeology and the New Pragmatism

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

Organizers: Bob Preucel and Steve Mrozowski

Session Abstract: Archaeology is engaging with a new spirit that pervades the social sciences. This spirit does not refer to the dominance of any one particular theory, but rather to the more explicit integration of archaeology and its social context in ways that serve contemporary needs. While it is true that archaeology has always had a social purpose, it is becoming clear that archaeology and the social are inextricably intertwined. It is no longer possible to hold that archaeology is an objective science first and a social practice second. Archaeology is irreducibly both at the same time. Archaeologists are increasingly asking: How can archaeology better contribute to broader dialogues concerning the myriad social challenges humanity faces at this point in our history? What is archaeology’s role in the development of social theory? What are the practical consequences of holding a particular theory? We see this engagement as the "new pragmatism."

9:00: Bob Preucel (University of Pennsylvania): The New Pragmatism
9:20: Matthew Johnson (University of Southampton): What is Theory For? A Pragmatist View
9:40: LuAnn Wurst (College at Brockport, State University of New York): Cheap Food 10:00: Carol McDavid (Community Archaeology Research Institute, Inc.): Being Practical about Pragmatism: Reflection, Critique, and Ongoing Experimentation
10:30: Coffee break
11:00: Dean Saitta (University of Denver): New Pragmatism and North American Archaeological Theory
11:20: Alexander Bauer (University of Pennsylvania): Competing Guesses at the Riddle: The Ethics of Multivocality in a Pragmatic Archaeology
11:40: Craig Cipolla (University of Pennsylvania): Synechism and the Archaeological Process
12:00: Steve Mrozowski (University of Massachusetts Boston): An Evolving Pragmatism and Indigenous Archaeology

The New Pragmatism

Bob Preucel

Abstract: In the past fifteen years, there has been a growing emphasis on the social and an interest more generally in establishing the relevance of social sciences to the modern world. In philosophy, this has meant the reemergence of pragmatism and the importance it places on self-referential knowledge and its practical application to contemporary social issues. In archaeology, this is perhaps exemplified by the emergence of postprocessual archaeologies and the gradual incorporation of questions of identity, meaning, agency and practice alongside those of system, process and structure. This development, of course, should not be interpreted to mean that process or structure have been superceded. The social must always be positioned within a long-term trajectory and linked to the cognitive. Rather, it means that in terms of the doing of archaeology there are increasingly more studies deploying social categories in pursuit of a past that holds relevance in today’s world. It is no longer possible to justify archaeology on its own terms; rather, the ethics of archaeology now require that we join diverse interest groups in the common project of understanding the multiple meanings of the past for the present.

What is Theory For? A Pragmatist View

Matthew Johnson

Abstract: In this paper, I explore the purpose and discontents of 'theory' as a distinct domain within the discipline of archaeology. It is easy to forget that, outside the heady confines of TAG conferences, 'archaeological theory' is still treated by many with ambivalence, as an object of suspicion, or (most damagingly) as an optional extra, an either/or option for archaeologists ('this research is very theoretical; a more empirical alternative is...'). Pragmatism as a guiding philosophy asks, as its first question, what the practical consequences are of belief in a specific proposition or thinking in a certain way. I will therefore ask the question: what are the practical consequences of a belief in the importance of theory? How, in practice, does such a development impact on the world?

Cheap Food

LuAnn Wurst

Abstract: A pragmatic archaeology alters the terrain from a Cartesian quest for truth, toward the idea that knowledge must be practical. A pragmatist would ask what we need to know, to understand, to engage in action for social justice in the modern world. In this paper, I explore how the archaeology of the modern world can play a role in this kind of knowledge production by focusing on a seemingly simple issue: cheap food. The history of access to cheap food is the history of capitalism: the drive for profit is implicated in the development of a global food supply, predicated on transformations in American agriculture, and linked at the core to the development of industrial capitalism itself. Archaeological research on the everyday lives of farmers on the Hector Backbone in New York provide a fulcrum to understand these transformations. This area, settled in the early 19th century, was farmed extensively until the early 20th century when the farms were purchased by the Resettlement Administration as part of the Submarginal Farms program. These families way of life was defined out of existence by federal programs designed to save some farms ultimately by sacrificing others. The farms that were sacrificed were those that could not produce the cheap food needed to drive capitalist production. Without this kind of historical grounding, modern critiques of the industrial food supply, “oily food,” and calls to eat local fail to understand the true cost of cheap food and unwittingly stymy our efforts to transform it.

Being Practical about Pragmatism: Reflection, Critique, and Ongoing Experimentation

Carol McDavid

Abstract: One of the many themes that characterize pragmatism, from James and Dewey to Rorty, West and others, is the idea of optimistic and critical experimentation. That is, common to most pragmatists is the idea that we should measure the value of our work – whether that work is scientific, social, theoretical, or philosophical – through the lens of our continuing experience. What are the practical consequences of our work? Why does it matter? As James put it, when we evaluate what we do in this light, our work then appears as “less of a solution…than as a programme for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. Theories become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest” (James, 1995:7). My own work in the public archaeology of African America has included ongoing experimentation with a number of theoretical and philosophical “instruments”, and over the past thirteen years has been most influenced by philosophical pragmatism. In this paper, I will reflect on some of the failures and successes of this approach, by sharing concrete examples which highlight both the limits of pragmatism and the opportunities it offers to an engaged social scholarship.

New Pragmatism and North American Archaeological Theory

Dean Saitta

Abstract: Among New Pragmatist intellectual commitments is an interest in experimenting with theory in hopes of producing new knowledge of the past as well as better engagement with the present. This includes formulating new, and re-imagining old, concepts for grasping the causal powers that activate change within social formations. Pragmatist theoretical commitments easily dovetail with those of alternative archaeologies (e.g., Postprocessualism, Historical Processualism, Processual-Plus) that seek to recast the way we think about such phenomena as history, complexity, and agency. Yet, at least in North American “prehistoric” archaeology, it’s been tough for some pragmatist accounts of the past—specifically, those concerned with reformulated notions of class and communalism—to gain much traction. This paper explores why that is and what might be done about it.

Competing Guesses at the Riddle: The Ethics of Multivocality in a Pragmatic Archaeology

Alexander Bauer

Abstract: A major contribution of the Postprocessual critique has been its advocacy of “multivocality” in archaeological practice, debate, and the construction of narratives about the past. The idea that archaeological inquiry and conclusions should not exclusively be the domain of Western academicians, but should involve local and descendent communities, artists, amateurs, and multiple potential “publics” may be seen as a way of developing a more democratic, and ultimately more responsible, archaeology. How to practice a truly multivocal archaeology, however, faces ongoing problems in both theory and implementation. How can archaeologists adequately account for and synthesize many disparate—and perhaps incompatible—views, and, more important, should all perspectives and approaches be considered equally valid? This paper suggests that the semiotic writings of the American pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce provide a productive way to deal with the issue of how multiple voices and perspectives may be brought together. As a metapragmatic framework, Peircean semiotics deprivileges specific knowledge claims and instead suggests that all claims and inferences are equally effective at advancing interpretation and understanding of the past. As an inclusive, non-foundational, and community-based approach to knowledge, pragmatics may thus provide a way to bring together multiple participants and perspectives to produce a democratic, multivocal archaeology.

Synechism and the Archaeological Process

Craig Cipolla

Abstract: In the late 19th-century, philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce formulated synechism, a theory that treated the world as a continuous whole, constantly increasing in complexity and connectedness via semiosis. Peirce predicted that his doctrine would eventually reconcile science and religion, the physical and the metaphysical. This paper considers synechism as an avenue for moving beyond the dichotomous tropes that haunt archaeology. In the spirit of a new pragmatism, the archaeological process is theorized in terms of the continuities between self and society, past and present, science and social life. I draw upon my experiences collaborating with- and working for- indigenous communities on issues of colonialism, identity, and tribal sovereignty in order to explore the dualities of archaeology (simultaneously a mode of scientific inquiry and a social practice). How do collaborative and indigenous approaches such as these make practical differences in the world, and, in light of synechism, what is the nature of the nodes forged in these processes?

An Evolving Pragmatism and Indigenous Archaeology

Steve Mrozowski

Abstract: This paper describes an evolving pragmatism that is well suited in pursuit of an indigenous archaeology. Unlike earlier forms of pragmatism that rejected critical approaches, this paper argues for a pragmatism that sees archaeology as a tool of social exploration and critique. With its emphasis on the importance of self-referential knowledge and its need to seek answers to socially relevant questions, pragmatism offers a powerful foundation for archaeological research. Case studies drawn from a program of collaborative research involving the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Nipmuc Tribal Nation provide examples of the way archaeological research can serve the political and educational needs of contemporary Tribal Nations.

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