Posted by: Johan Normark | September 10, 2009

Towards a Bergsonian archaeology

Followers of this blog may by now know that I am primarily inspired by three philosophers: Bergson, Deleuze and DeLanda. Clearly, Deleuze’s philosophical agenda was greater than Bergson’s and DeLanda appears to skip the Bergsonian current in Deleuze’s writings. Hence it may be useful to summarize some of Bergson’s original ideas and their relevance for archaeology. Some of them have been described before on this blog.

Although Bergson was one of the most well read philosophers in the early 20th century and he received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1927, he largely fell into obscurity after his death in 1941. The post-war French philosophers, such as Sartre, sought inspiration in German philosophy. Bergson was brought back to philosophy, largely because of Gilles Deleuze’s interest in his ideas on consciousness, time, critique of dialectics and metaphysics. It is through Deleuze that we now can see a Bergsonian renaissance among philosophers such as Elizabeth Grosz and Keith Ansell-Pearson.

Representational thinking dominates the human understanding of the world. It is the way we describe the world, but it is still just a represented world, not the “real” world. From this represented world we create grand narratives, either endowed in idealism, with representations created in our mind, or in realism, with representations coming from the outside and in. Both idealism and realism are philosophical ways to try to explain the world beyond “common sense”. In Matter and Memory (1896), Bergson reacted against what he saw as the diminishing of matter in favour for the creation of abstract and mysterious powers attributed to representations. Bergson developed his view on consciousness into an evolutionary theory in Creative Evolution (1907), largely following the steps outlined in his doctoral dissertation on Time and the Free Will (1889).

His attempt to break with representational thinking depends on his notion of the image. An image exists in itself, it is not formed in our mind nor does it exist independently from its surroundings. Instead, like the view propelled by Hume and other empiricists, Bergson argues that our perception coincides with matter and there is only a difference of degree between the perception of matter and matter itself (Deleuze, 1991). We do not fill the world with meaning according to Bergson’s reasoning, we pick out and choose what we like in the images. We ignore what we dislike and by this we diminish the images. The image, or the materiality, is therefore more than its social construction and representation which are transcendent categories not derived from the image itself, but from our own needs. What is immanent in the image is ignored since it is seen as an empty and meaningless container if we do not fill it with human or social content, a position dominant in “postprocessual” archaeologies.

Bergson characterizes two different kinds of reality: one is heterogeneous (duration) and the other is homogeneous (space). Space makes it possible to do distinctions, to abstract, to count and to speak since spatial entities have a form that is isolated from other forms. The entities are given specific and “frozen” linguistic or numerical identities so that they can be juxtaposed and compared with each others. Only space allows entities to have this homogenous quality where everything can be split up and added. It is only in space that we can distinguish one causeway or a cave from other causeways or caves, they retain different immobile spatial locations. Bergson argues that time often is seen as homogeneous and time is therefore made into space. In such a view, time is believed to consist of instant moments that can be added, divided, extended and isolated since an instant is discontinuous within a homogeneous medium. An instant is therefore separated from the following instant by space/voids. When we represent time, we add these instants into a false continuity, giving time a flow of immobile frames. This is the cinematographic view of time (Bergson, 2001: 79-87). Such a spatialized time is “a sign, a symbol, absolutely distinct from true duration” (ibid: 90). A chronological table is a typical form of spatialized time which consists of a series of separated time periods. There is no true temporal flow between these isolated periods (Lucas, 2005; Normark, 2004c; 2006b; 2008b; Olivier, 2004).

Any archaeological theory or model that explains material objects, causeways, caves, events, states, systems, words, numbers or practices as clear cut from, or external to, later or earlier material objects, causeways, caves, events, states, systems, words, numbers or practices, sees them as spread out in a homogeneous time. These are always in an instantaneous present and have no connection to pure duration (Bergson, 1998: 22). In pure duration there cannot be any juxtaposed material objects, causeways, caves, events, states, systems, words, numbers or practices (Bergson, 2001: 73). There is only a continuous flow in pure duration. However, archaeologists see the past as filled with voids that needs to be filled with atemporal continuity and ontologically secure explanations. Archaeologists find these explanations in cosmology, economy, etc. These explanations become causes for the material effects, such as when a past cosmology becomes the causal agent for causeways, use of caves or warfare (Normark, 2007; 2008a).

Bergson is particularly critical of Hegelian dialectics. Dialectics set up contradictions on a scale with degrees. For example, man is located at one end of the scale and woman at the opposite end, being a difference of degree to man. Degrees are believed to be homogeneous (spatial) units of measurement. The dialectics therefore confuses difference in kind with difference of degree (Bergson, 1998). With this distinction, Bergson aims to grasp the immanent in the image and establish a notion of internal difference rather than the external differences in dialectics where the image is defined by what it is not (Ansell Pearson, 1999: 21). Thus, in dialectics, woman is defined by being a negation of man, not from woman itself. This implies an external/transcendent difference of degree and not an internal/immanent difference in kind. Archaeologists define their material forms from transcendent ideal typological categories not based in matter.  A real causeway or a cave are seen as deviations of ideal causeway and cave types. Further, causeways and caves are seen as tools for human activity, such as ceremonial avenues or cosmograms. These categories are not immanent to the causeway or the cave, but are transcendent diminutions of causeway and cave images.

In sum¸ a Bergsonian inspired archaeology would remove representational thinking, think more in terms of affirmation rather than negation, immanence and duration. It would be an archaeology quite different from current trends.


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