Posted by: Johan Normark | October 5, 2009

What matters when we end humanism?

The buzz word in archaeology today is materiality. In archaeology this is usually meant to be a notion of materials that is more than simple matter or material properties. It has a social twist since matter becomes materiality when it interacts with humans. Many people conflate materiality with the older term material culture.

I argue that archaeology actually has entered a road away from the material world. No clearer is this in an issue of Archaeological Dialogues. Tim Ingold (2007: 134) argues that archaeologists focus too much on the abstract idea of materiality instead of material properties (“brute materials” as Tilley calls them). The responses from Tilley (2007), Knappett (2007), and Miller (2007) show their belief in the centrality of the human being in the archaeological discourse. These responses are typical for the dominant trend in archaeology that wishes to give materiality a meaning, a narrative, or a contemporary relevance. Thus, despite, or perhaps due to, over twenty years of postprocessual theories in archaeology, the discipline is still mainly focusing on what is not available in the archaeological record. This non-available “what” is the human and its culture. Culture minded archaeologists set their focus on either past economy, social constructions, memories, subjectivities, cosmologies, etc. assumed to be reached from materialities or these categories are used a-priori while studying materialities.

Archaeologists claim to study past societies and humans through material remains. For this to be possible, the human or culture must have at least some essential property that is static, since how can we otherwise be sure that past people acted or thought in the way we believe they did? This means that archaeologists rely on essentialist ontologies that either are realist or idealist, following a traditional dualistic divide. The human-centeredness is therefore not just a problem for post-processual archaeology. In fact, the gap between empirical data and theory is widening in all forms of archaeology, no matter what prefix we use.

The past single human agent’s agency is too often reduced to a presently known stable and generalized agency to which we project changes. A major problem in the agency approaches is the lack of an evolutionary perspective which affects all uses of concepts such as discourse(s) and subjectivation. If a human is an agent, a human subject located in a living organism as Giddens (1984: 51) defines it, then a chimpanzee is not an agent subjectivated by some chimpanzee discourse(s). Agency must therefore have an evolutionary component that affects the way discourses have been formulated or other organisms and beings also have agency and subjectivity. Was an individual Homo habilis subjectivated from discourses? Will Homo sapiens always be subjectivated by discourses? We simply do not know. What the agency approaches must assume then, despite the claim that the subject is constantly changing, is that the subject retains something which other living beings do not have and therefore it must have been with us from the beginning, making the human being a unique creature. However, this essence is not only reduced to internal genes, subjectivity or rationality, but also to quasi-objects (Turner, 1994) or abstract classes (DeLanda, 2002), such as culture and practice assumed to have been materialized in materialities. This problem may not have any impact on the past thousand years or so, but there is a problem in agency theories in a “longer” temporal perspective. There simply is not a static presence of an essential human (and “society”) which we can fall back upon.


Urartian sphinx

Urartian sphinx

Thus, when human agency is used as basis for archaeological studies, there is reason to be cautious, as it cannot be known when agency first occurred in the form(s) known today. Similar critique has been put forward by Smith (2004) who argues that we should end the essential archaeological subject. By this is meant the end of an archaeology that assumes that there are stable classifications of difference that divide social formations, such as gender and class. Past identity is usually fixed from a universal sociology and the ancient subject is consumed by a social mass (ibid: 3-4). However, Smith never questions the idea of subject itself since in his text it appears to be something coherent. But a subject is composed of various interacting parts (DeLanda, 2006). More importantly, we can never know the past subject or subjectivity from material objects because if we claim that we can, we must rely on an essential human. Therefore, Smith reduces people to the social mass he criticizes others for doing. There are no single human agents in his examples of Urartian politics, just abstract masses (regimes, polities, traditions and people). Here the “human” acts as a presence, as an essence. The problem is therefore the anthropocentrism of archaeology, our search for something stable in human social formations or psyche. I would rather paraphrase Smith and claim that we need to see “the end of the essential humanism”.

We need to take a step back to matter itself and ground our basic models in the processes where materialities emerge: within assemblages where agents are being formed. The only way to end the essential archaeological subject is therefore to end a human-centered approach.



  1. Isn’t a written narrative by the ancient people the main thing missing? If we could ‘hear’ from them in their own words, we could assign those materialities. The ones we do hear from often sound suprisingly modern in their thoughts – maybe that’s why we can’t shake the feeling that they thought the way we do.

  2. Not from my perspective. We have written narratives from the Maya area and as much of social sciences we have had a strong linguistic turn. This is far from all that took place. As a colleague of mine once said: the positive thing with archaeology is that we do not need to bother what people thought or meant. We just should focus on what people did. Meaning is meaningless.

  3. Does it matter anyway? Nowadays, humans do not care for environment. They do not care if others will be hurt and be perished. They do not matter about the meaning of life. Yeah maybe it’s correct, that the meaning is meaningless. But is hope still there if everything is meaningless? It’s in our hearts.

  4. I am not arguing for an anti-human approach, only that humans should not be set apart from the rest of the world as a transcendent category.


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