Posted by: Johan Normark | April 15, 2011

The linguistic turn vs the speculative turn (in archaeology)

Today I sent away an edited version of an article about gender relations in the Late Classic Southern Lowlands of the Maya area. I deliberately chose to cut the ties with social constructionist perspectives that dominate in gender studies and the “linguistic turn” of which constructionism is part. Although I primarily still make use of DeLanda and Protevi in this article I am slowly moving towards the “speculative realists” and I plan to utilize Graham Harman’s objective oriented perspective for my next project on “water as an archaeological object” (note that I have ditched material in favor of object since materialism is an “idealism with a realist alibi” (Harman 2010:785)). I just have to get over the fact that I have to embrace a form of essentialism in order to do so. I am working on it…

Gustaf Kossinna

Last night I attended a microarchaeological seminar that can be seen as thoroughly embraced in the linguistic turn: Derrida, Levinas, Freud and “his” Wolf Man, Hegel, Marx’s ghost, etc. were brought up in order to show that the German archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna’s (1858-1931) view of settlement was based on burials rather than on settlement itself. The reason for this was traced back to Hegel’s ideas that burials stand for cultural continuity and identity. Hegelian ideas acted as a ghost in the early 20th century German archaeology and Kossinna’s ideas of the origins of the Germanic people were incorporated into Nazi ideology.

These are undoubtedly interesting observations but to me they seemed far away from my own stand points in a number of ways. Derrida questions presentism/actualism and suggests that there is a historical trajectory behind the constructed concepts that we must understand through deconstruction. There is always a trace of the past in the concepts that we use and the present is always related to the past. Construction and Derridean deconstruction go hand in hand although they are quite different. It is easy to deconstruct that which has been difficult to construct. Latour says “If X is constructed, then I can easily ‘deconstruct’ it to dust” (Latour 2003:41). I am therefore not sure that a Hegelian ghost affected Kossinna’s archaeological methods and theory.

Derrida is a relationist since the present always is tied to the past, to various ghosts. However, objects (in the sense that Kossinna’s terminology became an object in itself) loose most of its history in the present. We do not need to account for Barack Obama’s whole life trajectory in order to understand his position as the President of the USA. The object “President of the USA” is an object with no a priori relation to the person currently in its position. The problem with deconstructing the terminology used by Kossinna and projecting it to Hegel is that Hegel’s ideas in themselves were ghosts of other ghosts. We will soon end up in an endless regression. There is no stable “essence” to be found.

The solution to this problem is therefore to focus on the present, on the actual, and cut the ties with relationism (including the past and contemporary “networks”). Harman argues that we should focus on the actual without the relational, a standpoint completely the opposite of Derrida’s position. Hence, Kossinna’s terminology should rather be criticized and analysed from its present. Even if Kossinna used terms that also Hegel used they themselves and the terminology they used interacted with other objects in very different manners. I doubt that Hegel even put a shovel into a burial mound and he never lived in a united Germany. That is not the case for Kossinna. The objects are therefore largely gone in the Derridean perspective.

Harman, G. 2010. I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28:772-790.

Latour, B. 2003. The promises of constructivism. In: Ihde, D. & Selinger, E. (eds.), Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 27-46.


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