Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Emperor's New Clothes: the heritage cult ― 3. Rhetoric

Rhetoricians at a windowoil on
canvas by Jan Steen (1625/6-1679)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Jan Steen's uncle had belonged to a guild of rhetoricians, or chamber of rhetoric (Rederijkers). These served as a PR instrument for the city and used entertainment to get the messages to the public. What they lacked in skill, they made up for with enthusiasm.

Today, rhetoricians do not usually label themselves as such and lacking the humour of their predecessors frequently use the techniques of yellow journalism against their opponents while giving the unsuspecting public the impression that they are expert in the subjects they discuss. Most often, this takes the form of personal attacks and ridicule and is used, primarily, for political or economic ends. Insidiously, their intended victims are not the people they attack but the audience to whom they appeal.

One of my biggest weaknesses has been my inability to easily distinguish disinformation from misinformation. Being an INFJ personality type with a very high intuition percentage, this has puzzled me. Thinking about what I might write in this episode, I spent a couple of hours yesterday pondering this problem. My first thought was that while many of these people are not so expert in the fields they discuss, they are certainly experts in pulling the wool over their readers eyes. However, quite a large percentage of those who use such rhetoric are obviously not professional PR people and they include very ordinary members of the public who exhibit no ulterior motives. It then dawned on me that that what I was observing were memes, which I see as as a mental analogy to a computer virus. An intuitive empath can accurately classify an attitude in a split second, but cannot detect any underlying cause that is not part of the awareness of the individual being observed. The ability is not absolute however: if the intuitive person has a strong emotional connection to the person being observed, its shadow can be too easily manifested. Thus all manner of misunderstandings can happen with an intuitive within a marriage that might well make their partner wonder if their husband or wife is really that intuitive after all! Happily, for me, being an introvert a few months shy of 65 and a widower with grandchildren I am now quite content with my relatively solitary life. If anyone asks me if I "date", I say "No, I have found that sort of thing can too easily lead to emotional entanglement".

I have seen and labelled the current archaeological take on "cultural heritage" as a cult so I really should have given the meme hypothesis a much earlier consideration. I can only think that my emotional attachment to the subject had prevented this observation much earlier. Fortunately, an emotional attachment to an interest rarely carries as much emotional charge as it does to another person, so it is a fault much easier to overcome. Years ago, I worked in PR and was actually taught its methods and that included negative PR (dark, or black PR). I could only tolerate it for a short time, however, and when doing some voluntary work for the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) to protect independent numismatic research, I found that it was easy to get my points across with complete honesty. I am virtually a "pathological" truth-teller and do not even engage in "white lies". Women, who know me well never ask things like "does this dress make me look fat?". Usually, though, if I feel that the truth is socially inappropriate, I say nothing at all.

When ACCG's director, Wayne Sayles, invited me to be part of their public campaign, I gave it serious consideration before I agreed. One of the clinchers was that as the ACCG is concerned with both the legal and practical problems of collecting and dealing in ancient coins in the U.S. because of unfair import restrictions, I could be seen not to have any ulterior motives because I no longer collected coins and was not American.

Most of my work was in encouraging people to respond to the public comments part of the Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) process of the State Department. Later, I took a paid role (at about 25% of the standard rate) in helping with their press releases. It is a demanding task, somewhat akin to writing for an encyclopaedia (which I have also done) in that one faces severe restrictions with word limits. The agencies who distribute press releases charge quite dearly for the job and thus non-profits have to be sparing in what they say. I resigned not long before I started this blog as I felt that such public comments were being studiously ignored by the State Department and that the public comment process was, itself, a PR move to give an impression of legitimacy where none really existed. I thought that ACCG's legal actions had a far better chance of being effective -- even though it might take many years and would have to experience many lost battles in order to, eventually, win the war.

The public, too, soon caught on to the DOS subterfuge and while the numbers of respondents started out very high and we were were experiencing overwhelming support, one can only bang one's head against a wall of official dismissal and neglect for only so long.  Collectors, dealers and even archaeologists are mere pawns in that game which, actually, has very little to do with "Cultural Heritage" and is instead, a way to effect certain quid pro quos from foreign governments that are withheld from the American people, and even the legal system  cannot penetrate this wall of silence as they are deemed "State Secrets". One of them, many years ago, did become public knowledge and guaranteed the continued return of cars stolen in the US and transported to Mexico. Speculations about more recent MoU's include, at the top of the list, concessions to Monsanto, followed by that "old chestnut" about military concessions. We might wonder, too, about the existence of certain American "private armies" such as Academi. The link goes to the Wikipedia entry. If you follow this to their official website, be sure to visit it only once as, if your computer's security systems are functioning properly, your second visit will get you a message that someone is trying to access your hard drive (not just a "cookie"). An ex RCMP friend actually worked for such an organization. He speaks very little of it saying only, as a job, it mixed long periods of boredom interspersed with extreme physical danger. After he saw some paid gunmen entering his building on the security monitor, and he managed to escape, he felt that it was time for a more ordinary job!

So how can you safeguard yourself from original disinformation or from disinformation spread through memes? For a long time I read much much of Phil Agre had to say about it. He was a professor of Information Studies at UCLA and very familiar with Internet culture. A few years ago he vanished and his sister reported him to the police as a missing person. Happily, the police found him in good health and "self sufficient". No further details have emerged, but I suspect that he just needed a new life. A person can only immerse themselves in such work for only so long before the need to escape becomes too strong!

One of his most popular quotes is:
"I finally comprehended the difference between critical thinking and its opposite.  Technical people are not dumb, quite the contrary, but technical curricula rarely include critical thinking in the sense I have in mind.  Critical thinking means that you can, so to speak, see your glasses.  You can look at the world, or you can back up and look at the framework of concepts and assumptions and practices through which you look at the world."
His Ph.D thesis at MIT was in the subject of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and you can (for free) download the thesis (The Dynamic Structure of Everyday Life) from MIT.

What is most important in this discussion, however, is his The New Jargon. I am having trouble accessing this site today, and if you have similar problems then use the Google cached copy. He starts:
"I'm writing this message, simply put, because the jargon I have been describing is everywhere. I do not want this jargon to succeed, and it can only succeed by taking over people's minds. When I read the newspaper today, I see dead people. I see vampires feeding on my country. I have no power to make them stop. What I can do, however, is to shine a light on them."
While Agre's topic is American politics, the methods he outlines are used in many other topics and can be easily understood in their light.

You will notice that he also labels these techniques as a cult. It is important to understand that "Cultural Heritage" while being utterly unscientific and anthropologically outdated in many of its claims, as well as being used for dubious motives by governments, is not, in itself, a cult. However, it is used as such by people who might have some personal issues, are being coerced, or who are infected by several memes. I am not going to name individuals as I have no way of being sure which of them are victims, themselves. but I can give you an organizational example which will be obvious to anyone uninfected concerning objects which lack excavation details:
"When people remove an artifact without recording its precise location the context is lost forever and the artifact has little or no scientific value" Society for American Archaeology
If  you want to see just one example of many which will totally negate this statement then take a look at a couple of my blog entries: first this one, then this, or you could read one of its referring sources:  NORTHOVER, P. 1992: Materials issues in the Celtic coinage. In M. Mays (ed.), Celtic coinage: Britain and beyond (Oxford, BAR 222), 235-299. In fact, because of the nature of the finds of most British examples of  Early Celtic Art and explained by the Megaws, Jope and others, excavation details rarely can tell us much as can be the case with Continental examples such as "princely graves".   A number of British finds come from "watery contexts" or stray finds where a brooch, part of a weapon, vehicle or horse harness was lost by accident. Pottery and such things as decorated mirrors in a late grave (excarnation might be an explanation to the shortage of earlier burials) or two can be an exception, but this does not make it a rule as the SAA quote implies.

Tomorrow, and for Phil Agre, wherever you are, something on Postmodern Critical Theory in archaeology and pertinent to the topic at hand. I am not sure if I will have time to post on Friday, as I will be meeting with a visiting British forensic scientist over two days about the design of a project related to Northover's subject and my previous work on Coriosolite coins and I wouldn't want to give up a moment of that valuable time!

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