Posted by: Johan Normark | June 7, 2009

Mayanist quotes of the day: on Mayanist culture-historical conservatism

“…many of us still remain dedicated to the mundane, traditional task of ordering artifacts from different regions, dating them using a variety of methods, comparing them, and then attempting to construct culture-history consistent with those data sets and sequences. Our dedication to this task may simply be due to a lack of intellectual courage: that is, we are lackeys in the capitalist metanarrative construction system and this is our job! Alternatively, however, one could argue that despite of the efforts of…a host of French philosophers (and their British archaeological “translators,”…) some of us still cling to the seemingly outdated concepts of linear time, subject/object distinctions, and other credos of modern science.” (Rice et al. 2004:7)

In this passage three well known Mayanists dismiss the so-called “post-processual” (“postmodern”) archaeology that was prevalent in European archaeology during the 80s and 90s (and for some people it is still important although they do no longer use the term “postprocessual”). Indirectly Rice and others refer to Ian Hodder, Christopher Tilley, Michael Shanks and Julian Thomas. They attempt to borrow and ridicule some of this tradition’s jargon (“capitalist metanarrative construction”) by claiming that sorting artifacts and creating culture-historical sequences is an archaeologist’s job. Yes, this is indeed an outdated view of archaeology in my view. Outlining chronological sequences is, of course, important, but artifacts can be used to study a wide variety of aspects of the past and the present that I believe would have been impossible without breaking earlier ways of thinking. The older generation of Mayanists’ hostility against “postmodernism” has also to do with the philosophical nature of these writings. As Mayanists usually label themselves anthropologists they maintain an unnecessary divide between social sciences and humanist sciences.

I will not defend “post-processualism” since I am also against it, but on other grounds. It is true that Rice, Demarest and Rice cling to an outdated linear time, subject/object distinction, etc. However, linear time and subject/object distinctions are not just connected to postmodern relativism, but also to various forms of realism that focuses on emergence and becoming (rather than being). “Modern science” as Rice and others call it can actually show that time is not linear and that there is no longer a distinction between subject and object. The linear time these Mayanists use is a remnant from archaeology’s childhood. Subject and object distinctions are less obvious in contemporary neuroscience where the human self extends into artifacts, etc. Non-linear thermodynamics, complexity theory, chaos theory, and other “minor sciences” in Deleuze’s terminology show other ways of modelling the world than those by “Major Sciences.” Clearly the culture-historical tradition of Mayanist studies is the Major Science that striates thought into fairly rigid models, into metanarratives.

Thus when Rice and others (2004:6) claim that: “clearly, Maya civilization as a general cultural and ethnic tradition-a “great tradition”-did not experience any “collapse” or “decline”” they reveal their dependence on the Major metanarrative established in the 19th century (that of the “Maya Culture”). Of course the Maya civilization as a great tradition did not collapse, it has never existed. It has only existed as a metanarrative in the minds of the past generations of Mayanist researchers and within an archaeological discourse (jargon again).

What I see in the archaeological record is something different from past cultures and metanarratives. I see concrete assemblages of matter and ideas emerging and disappearing in non-linear fashion, sometimes they hook up with other assemblages, sometimes not. One does not need to cling to metanarratives that attempts to explain, for example, a collapse. Even if the edited book reveals many different scenarios of transformation in the Terminal Classic, they are all linked to this “Maya Culture”. All processes are therefore just differences of degree to the same metanarrative which already has been established.

Rice, Prudence M., Arthur A. Demarest, and Don S. Rice (2004). The Terminal Classic and the “Classic Maya collapse” in perspective. In The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands: Collapse, Transition, and Transformation. Arthur A. Demarest,  Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice (eds), pp. 1-11. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.



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