Tuesday, 3 June 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 9 ― Blind men and an elephant

Blind Men Appraising an Elephant

Ohara Donshu (
大原呑舟) d.1857
brush drawing, Japan, Edo period
early 19th century

Brooklyn Museum

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
John W. Gardner 1912-2002

There are many versions of the story of the blind men and an elephant but this one is the most appropriate for this post. There are many overriding philosophical theories in archaeology but I will focus on the two mainstream theories: processualism and post-processualism.

Processualism and the New Archaeology is essentially modernist in its views and its proponents stress a scientific approach. Some of them go so far as to call archaeology a science. It's heyday was the sixties and seventies and its voices include Lewis Binford (USA) and Colin Renfrew (UK).

In the mid-eighties, however, and continuing to the present, post-processualism emerged as a theory from postmodern thinking and criticized the scientism posing as science in the New Archaeology. As Alison Wylie writes (Thinking from Things, 2002, p.16): "With these arguments postprocessualists renew the the case for humanistic and historical approaches to archaeology that had been displaced by the New Archaeologists." Ian Hodder, and Michael Shanks are among its dominant voices. Both are from the UK but then moved to Stanford University. I like to think (hope) that this move was in order to bring more balance to the processualist leanings of American archaeology which was dominated by Lewis Binford.

Two of my major interests are largely neglected in archaeology: transdisciplinarity, while given credit by Michael Shanks, finds no practical applications that I can find, but Jungian psychology gets virtually no mention at all in archaeological theory. Personally, I think that this is a huge mistake. It is far different when it comes to mythology and the dominant Jungian mythologists are Joseph Campbell and Carl Kerényi. The former taking the wide view of world mythologies of all times and the latter focusing on Greek mythology. Another of my interests, of course, is the Celts but Jung, purposely, did not study the Celts as this was an interest of his wife. She, however, concentrated on the Arthurian legends so that the La Tène Celts were left out of the Jungian picture altogether, and even Campbell focused more on Medieval and later expressions of Celtic culture, most notably in his work on James Joyce, but including earlier Irish and Welsh texts as well. Unlike archaeology -- even post-processualism, postmodernism has included its debt to Jung with Christopher Hauk's Jung and the Postmodern and you might be able (depending on your location) to read a good part of it here.

Joseph Campbell came to prominence at about the same time as the New Archaeology and being rather counter to the idea of thinking that science will save us all from everything, was not taken up by most archaeologists, so another route to Jungian thought was closed.  The New Archaeology and processualism was decidedly materialistic and extravert in Jungian terms, while post-processualism was more psychic and introverted by these same terms.

The biggest mistake of all in archaeological theory was its reliance on theories, in some cases almost approaching a religious belief in their value. It has not been noticed at all that theories, to take a strong hold in anyone's psyche, must reflect the basic drives of the person who embraces such. As such, we must question just how much of the processualist/post-processualist archaeological writing is more dependent on the personality type of the writer. It would be truly absurd to say that archaeology would be exempt from such consideration. So read what Jung had to see about the extraverted and the introverted and decide for yourself.

My own interests are more catholic than mainstream archaeology, so it is always amusing to me to see my archaeological critics trying to pigeonhole me into one of their warring camps (usually the one opposite to their own views, of course). Even more amusing is when they get it completely wrong because of their own confusions about archaeology theory. Recently, one who had condemned my postmodern outlook thought I was being old fashioned for following Binford while giving that date as the eighties. Perhaps it was slip and he had intended to write Hodder -- who knows?

When a Zeitgeist has passed, its dyed-in-the-wool proponents can start exhibiting enantiodromia. What started out as a way in order to understand the past (albeit misguided at times) then takes on a fanatical quality and enantiodromia begins to manifest itself: Saving archaeological objects turns into breaking pots so that collectors will not be interested and while purporting to be saving archaeology, itself, for the people, it is manifested by nationalisms and the designation of archaeologists as the only fitting stewards for this past. Alison Wylie mentions foxes guarding the hen-house.

The vast majority of standard numismatic texts have been written by non-academic collectors, yet the US seems to be listening to those archaeologists exhibiting such enantiodromia by restricting the importation of ancient coins even though a good proportion of serious numismatic study is done by American collectors with no strong academic affiliations. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has studied Jung as governments, especially those of countries in decline and suffering from enantiodromia themselves, see Authority as their guiding light and democracy under enantiodromia becomes authoritarian in its decline into dictatorship. Of course, it is most likely that the US government is really using archaeological authoritarianism and nationalisms against the individual, generally, and against collectors, specifically, in order to get agreements from foreign countries for actions that the average member of its public might find distasteful. The other side of the deal of these Memoranda of Understanding are kept secret from the people and this secrecy is even defended by the courts (so far). Very few people on either side realize that they are just pawns in some unknown game and actually think that their voices will have an impact in that venue. This will only really occur when the government realizes that it is not fooling anyone and starts to look for different pawns.

So what is my own philosophy? I take from whatever I find most useful and do not get fanatical about either processualism or post-processualism. I suppose that makes me a pragmatist and I certainly like much of Charles Sanders Peirce's writing, especially about cable, rather than chain reasoning. My postmodern ideas, however, have not turned me into a complete Neopragmatist probably on account of my Introverted personality (INFJ).

I suppose that I believe in studying not only all parts of the elephant but even that which people think are elephants but are not.

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