Posted by: Johan Normark | December 8, 2010

Ethnographic analogies and neomaterialistic archaeology

One of the most popular non-2012 related blog posts here is “Ethnographic analogies in archaeology“. It was originally written on my former short-lived blog Posthumanocentric Archaeology but I decided to move it to the new blog. Most of what is written in that post derives from my dissertation thesis and the ideas are at least four years old by now. Things have changed since then. I have moved on from a largely Bergsonian framework to a Deleuzian/DeLandian one (which I am now beginning to slightly move away from…).  In two upcoming texts I will discuss the use of ethnological analogies. A shorter discussion will appear in my article “Archaeology beyond culture: assembling the Maya lowlands” which will be found in the anthology Revisiting Pandora’s Hope: Anthropological Perspectives on Technological Choice and Social Agency in an Irreducibly Complex World (edited by Stephanie Koerner and Diane Roege). A longer and more “specific” discussion will appear in my future book Holy Places, Holey Spaces, and Emergent Wholes: Caves and Climate Change in the Maya Lowlands. Perhaps I should clear up why I find direct historical/ethnographic analogies to be incompatible with the neomaterialistic agenda.

Ethnographic analogies rely on a hierarchical approach where we from specific artifacts seek more general patterns beyond the (arti)“fact” we do have. Hence, similarities are created from differences and the ethnographic analogy is a perfect “tool” here since the differences between the past and the present are being erased in favor of some essential property that remains the same. It is this essential property (we can call it “Maya culture”) that is my main problem, not the analogy itself. I do understand that some practices and even beliefs remain relatively unchanged through centuries but to sort out which ones is the problem. Therefore I try to turn the relations around. I have an article in press called “Maya chaosmos: 2,500 years on the cave’s path.” The title is obviously inspired by Freidel, Schele and Parker’s book Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path but rather than focusing on the shaman/ritual expert I emphasize the cave itself and the processes that may lead to chaos (disorder) or cosmos (order) (just remember Bergson’s position that chaos is simply an order that does not fulfill our expectations). The cave is what we can study whereas the shaman or any other past active human being is forever lost.

In my non-anthropocentric perspective the hierarchical dichotomy between nature and culture is gone, everything is on the same level (a flat ontology). The cave is the narrative (like Venice in the example emphasized by Stuart McLean in the recent blog post “Creativity in Anthropology”). In this perspective ethnographic analogies are not necessary. The “problem” is, of course, that the humans become decentralized, a critique that I have received many times. But that is only from an anthropocentric perspective. If we see the human as part of greater assemblages we may circumscribe this illusionary problem. Would the past Maya actually consider this a major problem considering their “animistic” worldview? The present Maya may consider it a problem since they have been affected by “Western” thinking for a couple of centuries (Church, State, Law, Science, etc.) that have “overcoded” presignifying regimes of expression. These overcodings make the analogies quite problematic since it is seldom a case of simple syncretism. William Hanks masterfully shows this in his book Converting Words. He basically says that the Yucatec Maya beliefs are Christian, not a mixture of Christian and Prehispanic beliefs. In Deleuzeoguattarian terminology this is simply an overcoding.

In my “neomaterialistic” perspective materials are active in themselves, not dead inert matter. This makes this approach quite in alignment with “indigenous” beliefs (something pointed out in McLean’s examples from Melanesia, Lucretius and Venice). What the ethnographic analogies attempt to show is that there is a “cultural construction” of the cave as animate. I argue that the cave is in fact “alive” or rather active. From that perspective I actually take the Maya narratives as they appear to describe them rather than transform them into specific anthropological narratives focusing on Culture.

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