Friday, 6 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part seventeen: Maslow's hammer

A diagram depicting the cognitive functions of each
Myers-Briggs personality type. A type's background
color represents its dominant function, and its text
color represents its auxiliary function.

"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
Abraham Maslow, 1966
Anything that you read about the past whether it comes from history (texts) or archaeology (material remains) has two embedded viewpoints: there is the voice of the past, itself as expressed by what was written in that past and the thoughts which created the objects of that time, and there is the viewpoint of the author whose importances determine not only what is included in any current work, but how such things might be treated. The author might have originated or subscribed to a particular theory or method but the text does not always make the author's philosophical leanings very clear. An uninformed reader, buying a book because of its subject matter might believe that history "is what happened" and while, say, a certain war happened and is thus a fact, the causes of that war could be framed in different ways according to one's political and cultural views. If the author does not make his viewpoint very clear at the outset, some readers will take everything not just as fact but all of the facts.

Obviously, history is not everything that happened. I can find very little information about my great grandfathers other than the basic records of residences, profession, birth, baptism, marriage and death. One great grandfather was a glass painter and another was a bookbinder, but beyond that there are just family stories which might or might not be true: My paternal grandfather ran away from home at the age of ten and he claimed that his father was a music-hall ventriloquist and a drunk. However, the records clearly show that his father (the glass painter) had a fairly big family and they all lived in a large house in north London. Rather incongruous with the ventriloquist story, but explainable if my grandfather was looking for a story to justify his abandonment of his family. Another family story has this ventriloquist as the inventor of the pigment called Hooker's Green, but I think this (if there is any truth in it) refers to an earlier Hooker who was a botanical illustrator noted for his use of very bright and clear colours. Even modern accounts of the pigment vary considerably. The most reliable, I believe, coming from an old Winsor and Newton publication said that the pigment was organic and replaced a a mixture of gamboge and Prussian blue. A mixture of any two pigments causes a certain amount of "muddiness, and the brightest colours always contain a pure single pigment. It was a watercolour pigment (nowadays just a synthetic) and would be in keeping with the descriptions of Hooker's botanical illustrations. A story on the other side of my family about the bookbinder was that he bound a bible in snakeskin for Queen Victoria and the Queen subsequently presented the family with gold watches by way of thanks. I have no idea if this is completely true, partly true, or false. Often, family stories get embellished over the generations.

Even if we can get past conflicting stories, a history is also strongly influenced by its authors interests, theories, and most importantly of all, the author's personality type. But instead of treating these influences as impediments to objectivity, I think that it would be far more valuable to create circumstances by which some of these problems could be avoided in the first place. We do see balanced views already: we might read that Smith claims that.... while Jones claims... with both reasons being given, and this is about as far as a single author can go. We cannot easily assume a different personality for different aspects of history.

A university department can be populated with people of very different backgrounds and philosophies and this is the way that the more objective think-tanks are constructed, but even if two people share the same background and methodologies, there can be differences in personalities that would make essays on the same subject quite different for both of these people. Field archaeology is teamwork and it presents an opportunity to follow the method for think tanks so that the various views can enrich the task of interpretation by showing how the same evidence can mean different things to different people. As far as I know, this has never been attempted.

The Myers-Briggs personality analyses are based on and expanded from the work of Carl Jung. Although certain personality types might be more drawn to particular professions that express that personality, to find a balanced view requires several different personalities. Business uses the Myers-Briggs tests to find staff well suited to the work, but any business is a creative endeavor. This is the very thing we try (hopefully) to avoid with history and archaeology, and for this reason, we would do better with the sort of cross-section of personality types that would be expressed with historical events. We would want as many different viewpoints as possible, and we would also be mindful of the "personality" of the society and time that we are studying.

The individual viewpoint is very important in postmodern thought. I think that if Jung had lived in these times, he would be firmly in the postmodern camp. The Jungian analyst Christopher Hauke is of the same mind. Explore the links I give here in the text and caption and imagine how the past might look quite different if we could expand our viewpoints and be mindful of what influence our own personalities will bring to our work.

No comments:

Post a Comment