Posted by: Johan Normark | October 17, 2013

The sorites paradox, evolution and the archaeological record

I recently ecountered the sorites paradox in a book and I realized that I have used this in my licentiate thesis without knowing that it had a name. The paradox is that if you have a heap of sand and gradually remove one grain there is no point at which the heap disappears. The opposite is also the case. If you add one grain to another grain that is not a heap and there is no magic number when the additional grains become a heap. This paradox is also known in evolution; where shall we draw the line between species in time and space? Darwin knew this problem all too well and therefore there is no real “origin of the species”. It is the evolutionary perspective that I used in my licentiate thesis. Here is a quote from this thesis (Normark 2004:46f). Note that I no longer use the term “materiality”:

“The use of chronology has associated the archaeological record with the fossil record (Binford 1983; Schiffer 1976; Thomas 1996). I will use the analogy of the fossil record for another reason. In the fossil record, palaeontologists can distinguish different individuals as examples of species of animals or plants and categorize them into larger group such as classes (mammals, reptiles, etc.). This is similar to the typological approach in archaeology. The slightly skewed picture palaeontologists get as being short-lived beings who study a small and random sample of past species (or rather individuals) can thus be applied to archaeologists as well. We do not experience the slow process of biological evolution itself (neither the Lamarckian, Darwinian, nor Bergsonian). Our parents are not of another species. Two thousand years ago we were the same species, but maybe not two hundred thousand years ago. The genetic changes are usually slow (even if they are “fast” geologically speaking). Species can only be distinguished if we cut out a sequence or a point of time of the past. Even at certain points in time there are species which can mate with each other and produce sterile offspring (such as when a horse and a donkey produce a mule). There is always some variation within every species and form. If we had the opportunity to travel in time and follow each “individual” from the “origin” of life to now, we would not be able to see when one species turned into another. There would not be any species in a continuum. Only an isolated event, an instant, as when an individual dies and is covered by sediment makes it possible to generalize fossilized individuals into species.

Although animals are entities quite unlike artifacts who are manufactured by humans, I believe I can make a brief analogy between them (but not in a social-evolutionary sense) if we relate the artifacts to the events associated with them. Applied to archaeology, this means that what we are seeing in the archaeological records are only events as “points in time” (only literally, not in reality), made possible to distinguish and categorize because of their instantaneous endings. For Bachelard (2000b:66-68), evolution is punctuated by creative instants. This is how the archaeological record appears for us. It consists of “snapshots”, and not of a continuum. These snapshots are separated from what went on before and what went on after by the instant moment when an action ended. We can not see beyond this event horizon. Thus, a building with a long construction history has “isolated points” or “segments” of materiality (our archaeological reference points) in which the past acts or practices are deprived of their temporality and spatiality since for me only the present exist, and the past is non-existent. Some other social practice(s) took place before and after the formation of the materialities we study, but the event itself is isolated as far as the material remains are concerned. The causes for the artifactual effects are not there directly to see.”

In my licentiate thesis I relied primarily on Bachelard’s discontinuous view of time whereas I moved on to Bergsonian and Deleuzian continuous duration in my dissertation thesis and in my various post-doctoral articles (influenced by DeLanda). Since I am now more influenced by object-oriented perspectives, my old view on time as discontinuous is much more suitable to this direction (with some major revisions). I will bring this up at TAG.

Posted by: Johan Normark | October 10, 2013

Maya chaosmos

I finally got around to scan an older article of mine since one of the funds wanted a copy of the text.  I just posted it on my Academia.edu page. It deals with my cave and climate change project. A note to the reader: I am currently doing the final editing of another article on the Chicxulub impact which will use a more updated map of the hydrogeological effects of the region. The map shown on page 96 was based on the idea that four rings formed after the impact. That idea has now been dropped by geologists. However, the idea of a geological (and hydrogeological) difference between the northern and southern part of the Cochuah region stands.

Update: The first version I uploaded came directly from the scanner. Cameron Griffith was kind to send me a cleaned up version which I have uploaded instead of the former one. Thanks Cam.

Posted by: Johan Normark | October 9, 2013

Brief comment on the female hand-prints in caves

Yesterday National Geographic launched the news of a new study of Palaeolithic cave art. It has often been assumed to be made by men. The new study, or at least NG’s coverage of it, indicates that women did the paintings (at least most of them). However, if you read the article it is the hand-prints that have been analyzed, i.e. not the paintings themselves. How sure can we be that the person behind the hand-print also did the paintings? Not sure at all is my non-specialist conclusion or there is some more evidence that was not mentioned in NG.

Posted by: Johan Normark | October 9, 2013

Books have arrived

When I came back to my apartment fifteen minutes ago I found my book package from Amazon.com jammed into the door. Apparently the mail man/woman is unaware or do not care  that thieves may walk into the building. However, if a thief stole this package he/she would have been disappointed of its contents. I highly doubt that he/she would enjoy the books Realist Magic and Maya Ideologies of the Sacred. Hopefully I will although I am more interested in the book that was not sent with them but which will arrive next week or so, and that is Hyperobjects

Safely delivered

Safely delivered

Posted by: Johan Normark | October 8, 2013

Hail archaeology

No, I am not hailing archaeology. I am rather referring to an interesting blog post that opened my eyes for a new aspect of my “water as an archaeological object” project. A hailstorm seems to have killed at least 200 pilgrims in Himalaya more than 1000 years ago. I had not included hail in my coverage before but googling “hail” and associated terms a few minutes ago shows the disastrous effects hailstorms can have

Posted by: Johan Normark | October 5, 2013

Gunung Padang

One of the most intriguing archaeological sites I have visited is called Gunung Padang in West Java. I went there on July 7 during my vacation in Malaysia and Java. Although the site has been known since at least 1914 it is not very well known among people interested in ancient history. Unfortunately the available English information about the site is confusing and sometimes riddled with pseudoarchaeological speculations. If you check out Wikipedia you will get the impression that this site is at least 13,000 years old and possibly the “cradle of civilization” (if you see such claims you can be sure that it is not an archaeologist doing the writing). Fortunately I ran into the archaeologist (Dr. Ali Akbar) who is in charge of the survey and excavation of the site. He could inform me that this megalithic site dates to around 500 BC.

There is a series of terraces that leads up to the top. This form of construction (“step pyramid”) can be found in later Hindu architecture as well. It seems that the site is aligned towards the volcano Gunung Gede. The surface of the site and the walls of some of the terraces are filled with andesite columns. Since little information is available I will simply post some images without information. Go and visit this site NOW!

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Posted by: Johan Normark | September 29, 2013

Pixar’s Planes and Mayanesque imagery

Earlier today my son, wife and I saw Pixar’s/Disney’s animated movie Planes (a spin off of Cars). Towards the end of the movie the planes arrive in Mexico and the airport at Mexico City had some interesting Mayanesque/Teotihuacanesque architectural features (I guess Teotihuacan’s Avenue of the Dead provided some inspiration). There are some views of modified historical monuments as well, such as Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.

El Chupacabra

El Chupacabra

Posted by: Johan Normark | September 4, 2013

2027: Proof that 2027 is the year of armageddon

My “new” interest in the 2011/2012 phenomenon was sparked by relating two completely separate studies to what 2012ers and others have been saying for quite some time. I took the opportunity to look what  the “2011-prophet” is doing right now. Calleman is apparently planning to release a series of books regarding the emergence of human civilization (which he seems to trace back to roughly 3100 BC…). Now, since I am currently into a more nihilistic perspective where I sense no meaning with existence (quite the opposite of Calleman) I may recall my previous posts regarding the advent of the fourth world and the virtual God. They all revolved around the date of October 2, 2027, a Gregorian date, whose Aztec equivalent indicates something may happen (or not). The nihilistic approach indicates that extinction of existence is the ultimate condition. There is no meaning behind this  so is October 2, 2027, the ex nihilo advent of the final extinction then rather than a fourth world?

I looked around to see what information there already is about the year of 2027. A solar eclipse will occur on August 2, only two months before the “end”. Luxor in Egypt will be the place to be to observe this.  Jesus will also return. Need I say more? A connection with an ancient capital of Egypt cannot be a coincidence? Only five days later, on August 7, an asteroid will pass near the earth (or will it hit the earth and “move” it. I may be onto something here.

Posted by: Johan Normark | September 4, 2013

2012: Mass extinction and ancient Egypt

Two recent archaeological news indirectly relate to the 2012-phenomenon. A couple of days ago a new study concerning the mass extinction of the megafauna caused by a comet/asteroid impact  12,900 years ago made it into my feed. I remember having discussed this topic a couple of times on a 2012-forum.

Today a new timeline for pre-dynastic Egypt has also been presented. The emergence of the Egyptian polity went quicker than earlier believed. The first ruler, king Aha, is believed to have reigned for 50 years around 3100 BC (that date has been around before).

Just wait and see how long it takes for the “alternative” fringes to make the connection between the mass extinction (alien intervention?), the almost simultaneous event of the first dynasty of Egypt and the beginning of the Maya Long Count (this connection has been done before) and the wars USA and its allies are fighting in the near east

Posted by: Johan Normark | September 3, 2013

Postdoctoral position in archaeology

You can now apply for a postdoctoral position in archaeology at the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Gothenburg.

Posted by: Johan Normark | September 2, 2013

Nihilistic archaeology

If there is one part of the object-oriented perspectives that I have problem with it is the panpsychic tendencies used to break the correlationist circle. In panpsychism mind is intrinsic to being and therefore exists in and for itself. It need not be correlated with anything else. Such a perspective makes it easier to suggest that consciousness emerge from something already existing (i.e. experience). The alternative is to state that consciousness emerges from something non-conscious which is undoubtedly a more complicated argument. However, I find it hard to accept notions, like that found in “neoanimism”, that even stones have personhood, experience, etc. In the end this implies that meaning is inherent in the objects themselves.

I am beginning to look into Brassier’s eliminitavist nihilism since he wishes to eliminate anything that falsely makes humans feel secure. The destruction of meaning is its goal. Extinction is, in fact, the ultimate fate of all existences. Existence is therefore meaningless. Archaeology studies past extinctions, of what has ceased to be, only traceable in scattered pieces here and there. Connections between various material traces are made in order to form an anthropocentric meaning, both for the past humans but also for the people of today. As such, a nihilistic archaeology could study extinctions on many different levels; the breaking of a ceramic vessel, the burning of a house, settlement abandonment, etc. Past and present humans have invested these events with meaning but it is important to first see them all as something free of any meaning whatsoever. Meaning is secondary.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 30, 2013

EMC abstracts

Here are the abstracts for the European Maya Conference in Brussels in early November.

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 29, 2013

Reviewing reviewers

Receiving reviews is often good as it helps one to see what part(s) of a manuscript needs to be clarified. A reviewer is seldom an expert on all parts of the text he/she reads. I have recently received two reviews of an article of mine that show just that. The article in question is an attempt at applying an object-oriented perspective on water in various archaeological contexts. However, I also include some Deleuzean ideas in my theoretical tool kit. Harman’s object-oriented philosophy sees Deleuzean virtuality as an example of undermining objects. Thus, Harman and Deleuze propose quite different ontologies. Hence, I contribute to the theoretical issues I appropriate. Still, this “appears” to reviewer #1 as a mechanical application but it is all too obvious that the reviewer has never read any of the object-oriented philosophers I use. 

The same reviewer also finds a “wonderful irony” regarding the issue of meaning (most of the comment is clearly about that). This statement is based on what I would call a correlationist misunderstanding. What caused this remark is that I am saying, at the end of the article, that reality is not meaningful. However, the reviewer argues that I still try to convey meaning with my theoretical approach. What I am basically referring to is the withdrawal of reality/real objects that I have talked about in the article. The world is always an interpretation, only meaningful to the observer as a sensual object. Hence, meaning is only dependent on the interpreter, it is nothing preexisting. But this is not only a human condition (the common correlationist fallacy), it is an ontological condition of all objects. This is an article attempting to see things from a hydrocentric perspective, rather than the normal anthropocentric perspective that preoccupy the two reviewers. Therefore, the text is ordered in another way. It is only poorly organized, as the second reviewer remarks, from his/her preconceived anthropocentric understanding.

Reviewer #1 also argues that I basically re-label things. That is only partially true. I re-label things from one coherent ontology instead of using the multitude of disparate “ontologies” that one finds in archaeological texts. Hydrology and kingship, two critical concepts for the article, are usually not treated from the same set of categories. The first is “nature” and the latter is “culture” and “constructed” but in my perspective they are all part of the same reality. I clearly should have begun the article with a description of the correlationist circle. It will take some time to break this circle in archaeology and particularly in Mayanist studies… 

Posted by: Johan Normark | August 24, 2013

Posthumanism and new materialism in Munich

This week I attended the ESEH conference in Munich. “My” session (organized by Martin Hultman, thanks for the invitation) and one other session dealt with posthuman ideas and new materialism (which can be seen as related fields). In various presentations one could hear the now common claims that everything flows, matter is energy, matter matters, trees are agents, animals (read geese) have culture, anthropocentrism is bad, etc. A term like materiality was used quite often but I agree with Ingold when he wonders what “academic perversion” has introduced this concept. To me it is a concept lingering from social constructionism. Materiality and even matter itself are terms that say very little. Where is this matter located? Has it to do with particles (rather than waves)? To Harman, materialism is simply an idealism with a realist alibi. Some of the presentations made that very clear.

In one presentation geese, that unfortunately landed in a polluted lake, were described as creatures with culture. There we find one of the main problems with these ideas. Anthropocentrism is seen to be wrong but the animals are being anthropomorphized. Instead of getting rid of the concepts of nature and culture once and for all, formerly “natural” animals are forced into the cultural sphere instead. They are just like us rather than we being like them. Animals are seen as persons and subjects, etc. Correlationism seems to hold a strong grip on posthumanism and new materialism since they still discuss the dichotomy between subject and object, culture and nature, etc. Hence, the suggestion that animism may provide a new way to interact with other entities (seeing animals, plants, stones, etc. as entities with personhood, not just from a social constructionist perspective but rather from a realist perspective) needs some more elaboration. Are “non-western” views really that different from western views? They are still anthropocentric. The Maya tethers such persons to turkeys, plants, stones, etc. but that perspective tells us nothing of what a turkey (or goose) feel. For that we must perform an alien phenomenology and become “turkeycentric”. Animism is, in my view, simply a sensual profile made of real objects. It is nothing revolutionary, not a new paradigm.

To quote Bogost: “posthumanism is not posthuman enough”. I am reluctant to the use of any concept that begins with the prefix “post” (yes, I know that I once used the term “posthumanocentrism”). Ideas that claims that they are not “post” anything else always seem more promising. So, instead of “animating” or “anthropomorphizing” every entity with personhood we must, as Harman says, morph “the human realm into a variant of the inanimate.” There we find the similarity between entities, they are not all subjects or persons. Instead they are all objects (or units). We should not reduce them to some underlying process (undermining) or being part of a greater network (overmining). We should definitely not reduce “matter” to being transformations of energy and refer to Einstein’s famous equation. The only field of thought that I have seen this to be a common ingredient is in “New Age” (quite common in the “2012-phenomenon”). We do not want to tread on that slippery slope that may drag us down into muddy waters.

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Posted by: Johan Normark | August 14, 2013

Still being productive

I am continuing to be productive. Before the end of September I plan to send off four new articles for review. These are the preliminary titles:

Managing water, time and identity in the Prehispanic Maya lowlands (journal)

Settlement topology: The rotted town and the congregated town in Yucatan, Mexico (anthology)

Caves as indicators of settlement fluctuations related to climate change in the Cochuah region, Mexico (journal)

A nomadology of Maya causeways (journal)

However, today I laid out the structure of three articles that will not be ready until next year. These are the preliminary titles:

Water in artifacts and architecture

Water and smoothing processes

Agrarian practice, encounters and social logics: Europe and the Americas 1500-1800 (co-author is Per Cornell)

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