Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

What is the spatio-temporal frame of a past act?

Posthumanocentric archaeology is critical to the use of practice- and structuration theory in archaeology for several reasons. The main reason is how a practice or an act is defined in space and time. The materialities we study tend to be seen as frozen moments in time representing the end point of a past activity. Hence the record looks like distributed points of activity in a void of emptiness. Thus, it appears that we have instantly finished acts, but not the continuous acts, unless we transform them into quasi-objects, such as practice. Every stratum in the temple would represent the last point or the very end of an act. How should we then find a link between these materialities, if they are seen as isolated or discontinuous from other acts? How do we decide a turning point or a node when one act was replaced by another? What is the frame of an act?

I believe that Torsten Hägerstrand’s time geography is a good way to describe how a set of social acts replace each other. Time-geography sees the human being as a “biographical project” in which human agents are situated along time-space paths. Whereas Hägerstrand shows time-space paths as a linear movement, Giddens and the microarchaeologists want to include a return of this path since it reflects the repetitive character of daily life. Agents use typified schemes or formulae in their daily activities to be able to negotiate their situations. Encounters come as sequences that give form to the seriality of everyday life. The duration of life is framed by encounters that open and close in time and space.

The trajectory is the structured movement agents or groups of people perform in space and time. There are some constraints, such as that a person cannot be at two places at the same time or perform causally incompatible acts at the same time. These temporal realities are the material axes of human existence. The physical environment where agents move around interact with the capabilities of human agents. The interaction between agents in time-space creates “bundles” or encounters at certain stations.

Hägerstrand also uses the concepts way station, project and domain. The project is the activity an agent or a group performs at a way station which is a unit of time and space (such as a mountain, a midden or a causeway). A movement between different stations is also a movement between different types of control called domains. The physical structuring of the trajectories or courses of the agents forms human agency, social interaction and discourse at various way stations of the courses. Our behaviour is associated with entities that emerge from where interaction takes place. Such entities are human agents, solid materiality, divisible materials and domains.

As an illustration I have drawn a red trajectory of a possible human agent living at Nohcacab. In the morning (bottom) the agent moves from the house to a nearby milpa (a way station and perform a project (weeding). After this the agent moves to San Andres and walk along the causeway to the possible cenote at central Ichmul. Here the agent moves between different domains of control (local household group to religious center). Before the evening the agent returns to the home and ends the daily cycle with sleeping.

Possible trajectory of a past human agent

Possible trajectory of a past human agent

However, setting aside enabling or constraining aspects; do we ever see this course in the archaeological record other than in a coarse trajectory of a collective quasi-object, such as culture? The archaeological record derives from many events and from many agents. A midden along the course is compiled from a multitude of acts, most likely not all derived from one single agent. Many agents have added to the midden at different times. The non-available agent who performed a set of acts at different way stations is the one who unified a certain temporal sequence, a trajectory, in Hägerstrand’s sense, but this sequence included events at several places, maybe not visible to us. If we only look at a set of acts performed by different agents, the gaps between the same acts at this particular midden would create a void as the agent’s physical relation to the midden is gone in an instant moment.

It is impossible to see an ancient person’s daily or life-long course, but we do have other objects to focus our study. We could just as well attribute a nonhuman object with an immobile course used by mobile human beings. Thus, we can study the midden as a course, a serial category or a “biography” to understand its whole “life” and not as part of the trajectory of one human agent. The presence of the midden would cause events to occur in its vicinity. Many different acts would have been initiated from this materiality and affected a multitude of other materialities. However, the result is that there is nothing that connects the different materialities if we remove the human agent, the social structure and the culture. There is no transcendent background to which we can attach materialities. This is not a problem for posthumanocentric archaeology, but it is for humanocentric archaeology.

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