Posted by: Johan Normark | February 11, 2011

The end of the socially constructed human being

One thing that I should have learnt by now is that I should always make notes from a book or an article as soon as I have read it. It should not be put aside. Several years of studied but unprocessed material awaits me now (they all lie in a large box collecting dust). I am currently going through my comments on Adam T. Smith’s book Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities (2003). It is an excellent book but it reminds me of an article that Smith published in Archaeological Dialogues in 2004 that I criticized in my dissertation thesis (2006). I am currently beginning to revive my old focus on materials again (I have made some detours into the human world in recent years and a few more will come in the future). The catalyst for this revival has been my current readings of Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. It seems that I was on the right track four or five years ago and in my “water” project I see a great opportunity to explore the Speculative Turn more. If I just can take the fact that Harman proposes a form of essentialism (something which I have been a strong opponent of until now).

Why did I criticize Smith’s article (I have discussed his article once before on this blog)? After all, he argued that we should end the essential archaeological subject, something that I sympathize with. I just thought that he did not go far enough since he stayed within a social constructionist perspective. What he meant was the end of an archaeology that assumes that there are stable classifications of difference that divide social formations, such as gender and class. The archaeological subject tends to be seen as constituted by an essential materialism. Identity is fixed from a universal sociology and the ancient subject is consumed by a social mass. In archaeology, the subject has been founded in its material needs that affect all relations. Smith’s main critique is that by using contemporary classifications of identity as a-priori starting points, archaeological analyzes are directed by burdensome concepts and create essential subjects.

However, Smith never questions the idea of subject itself, which is a modern construction. In his examples from Urartu (a kingdom/empire in southern Caucasia), he claims that since the fortresses near Mount Aragat rose from a large necropolis this evoked “a sense of mediation between the living and the dead, the immediate and the cosmic, providing a sensuous account of political authority that was strongly rooted in place yet most profoundly about transcendence” (p 16). This is a generalizing argument that actually argues for an essential subject because how could he otherwise claim these things that are so general and non-specified, as they could just as well be used in any past or contemporary social formation?

 We can never know the past subjectivity from within itself. All Smith’s examples reduce people to the social mass he criticizes others for doing. There are no single human agents in his examples, just a mass (regimes, polity, traditions and people). It is assumed that the actions affected the subjects in the same way, and if so, it was also the same essential subject. We can continue to forever deconstruct and fragmentize words and concepts and explain them as social or political constructions. This is not a particularly “constructive” way. Is there no other way? Yes, if we go beyond the human agent.

Adam T. Smith (2004). The end of the essential archaeological subject. Archaeological Dialogues 11(1):1-20.



  1. The name ‘social construction’ gives clues to what it is about. The term ‘construction’ relates to the ways in which we understand the world. According to a social constructionist, the ways in which we understand the world are constructed between people as they interact with each other. A good way to look at this is to take the example of housework.

  2. I should perhaps have emphasized that Smith’s perspective is anthropoentric. Although he discusses materials, buildings, etc. it is always with the intention how these affect human conditions. He does not give these other entities enough importance.


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