Posted by: Johan Normark | May 17, 2009

PA 6 – Some microarchaeological stuff, Sartre and serial action

Posthumanocentric archaeology (PA) was in its initial stage influenced by the so-called microarchaeology, developed by Fredrik Fahlander and my thesis advisor Per Cornell. I still have much in common with them, apart from a very important aspect: I do not reject macro perspectives anymore (since I make use of DeLanda’s assemblage theory). However, in my view the most important aspect of microarchaeology that I still use is seriality and serial action which is inspired by the writings of Jean Paul Sartre.

According to Sartre, most social collectives should be regarded as series and not as groups. A series is the result of different activities and is not a socially defined group or category (such as ethnicity or lineage). To be part of a group, one needs to act consciously and both adhere to and share a common cause. What we generally call social groups does not fit this description. Women, for example, do not necessarily share and adhere to the same cause. Some are wealthy, others are oppressed, some have children, and so on. Women could rather be seen as a serial category than as a group (Young 1997). Serial categories are formed from temporary series. These are constituted by common circumstances among some individuals in a particular situation (Sartre 1991: 258). Thus, serial action comes from individual habits.

A useful analogy of how this works is a bus queue which consists of people with different “gender”, “ethnicity”, “ages”, “status”, “occupation”, etc. The individuals in the queue probably do not see themselves as a group and they do not share a common social milieu or identity. The people in the bus queue have acted according to different agendas before they end up in the queue (Fahlander 2003). This is more closely related to the archaeological situation since we find places, locations, and objects that were used in serial action.

Serial categories (such as women) are defined from set, repetitive, serial acts, instead of simple, temporary series, as in the bus-queue example (Fahlander 2003: 34). Such categories form around nodes for repetitive activity. Such a node can, for example, be a cenote where rituals or water collecting would be done on repetitive occasions. Around such a feature, different people would gather but they would not necessarily form a group, but they would always form a series.

Most individuals participate in several serial collectives through their daily activities. After the bus queue, some individuals form other types of series at work, or at supermarkets, etc. If we focus on such a performed action-perspective, serial situations may be analyzed instead of past subject roles, status roles, or ethnic identities which we will never know in any sufficient way (Fahlander 2001).

The serial approach thus emphasizes the local level. Most agents act in a local setting for most of their lives. Thus, the local environment affects people’s life more than an assumed regional “tradition” or “culture”. Most important here is that people form temporary or repetitive series through their action and these series relate to materiality. The focus is therefore local materialities, and not on a fuzzy and regional royal ideology/cosmology as is the most common approach in Mayanist studies that emphasize epigraphic and iconographic remains. All too often Mayanists search for the “Big Picture”, and leave the micro-level and local level fairly unproblematized. A typical example of the latter approach can be seen in the recent revival of the may cycle to explain long-term socio-political and economical changes (Rice 2004).

The strength of focusing on serial action is that the series is not defined by the subjects’ intentions, or cosmology, but by their activities. What people do and what they think they do are different things. For example, garbological studies have shown that what people think they consume and what is actually found in their garbage tend to be very different (Rathje & Murphy 1992).

Basically, in posthumanocentric archaeology, serial action is used in studying how encounters between actual entities on the level of human agents (materialities, organisms, immaterialities, etc) form assemblages called “encounters”. But as I argue there are assemblages both below and above this level (usually called the micro-level). As DeLanda argues there are several micro and macro structures on different levels. The microarchaeological concepts cannot explain the emergence of organizations, polities and empires (and that is not in their interest to do so).

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