Posted by: Johan Normark | May 12, 2011

Towards a speculative archaeology

Earlier this week I gave a short lecture on “neorealist” archaeology at Lund University. I focused on DeLanda and his version of Deleuze but I briefly brought up speculative realism and why this “movement” rejects “the linguistic turn”. The linguistic turn dominates in archaeology and other social and humanistic sciences today. DeLanda (1999:30) describes the linguistic turn as a transcendental idealism in that all “natural categories” are seen as social or mental constructions. In other words, linguistic categories transcend the objects. The core of the linguistic turn is found in neo-Kantian theory of perception. Here, every individual’s perception is structured by concepts and representations that are socially or mentally constructed.

Take any recent anthology in archaeology and you will see how this works among several different versions of archaeology. For example, Preucel and Meskell (2006:14) suggest that the fuzzy concept of materiality “takes as its remit the exploration of the situated experiences of material life, the constitution of the object world and concomitantly its shaping of human experience”. The human is still the main target and the object world is simply used to understand the human subject. This anthropocentric perspective is one of several aspects of correlationism which “consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another” (Meillassoux 2008:5). Thinking and being are always correlated and they are never considered apart from the other term. Most speculative realists therefore attempt to break with correlationism (not Meillassoux himself though since he wishes to radicalize correlationism from within). I am all in favour of diminishing the centrality of the human being in archaeology.

One concern that was brought up in Lund was the consequences of the decentralization of the human in the long run. Will the “value” of the human being be devaluated? What are the moral consequences? As far as I can tell, the kinds of ideologies that have devaluated the human beings in the past have always been anthropocentric or at least based in one form of transcendental idealism (Communism, Nazism, Fascism, Christianity, etc.). Here the human being has always been inferior to some greater fuzzy entity or cause (the Class struggle, the Race, the Nation, God, etc.). Speculative realism does not set up such hierarchies and therefore it is unlikely that it will lead to a devaluation of the human. It is rather the opposite.

Levi Bryant at Larval Subjects has a recent blog post that briefly describes how and why speculative realism emerged when it did.


DeLanda, M. 1999. Deleuze, diagrams, and the open-ended becoming of the world. In: Grosz, E. (ed.), Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, pp. 29-41.

Meillassoux, Q. 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. London: Continuum.

Preucel, R. W. & Meskell, L. 2006. Knowledges. In: Meskell, L. & Preucel, R. W. (eds.). A Companion to Social Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 3-22.


  1. All this is fine and well, but what does it tell us about the people of old times? How does all this touch upon the everyday reality of ancient people? Sometimes it seems that the theories of archaeoloogy have estranged themselves too much from the ancient reality.

  2. The main issue in my post is from where we should base our initial approach to the past. Should we, as is common today, begin with what we believe people believed (such as cosmology), what they intended with their actions that created the objects we see? Or should we begin without as few presuppositions of the objects as possible? In the first scenario archaeologists approach the artifacts, ruins, etc. with a past human agent or society in mind. This can only become a fairly generalized human agent or society. Or we could approach the artifacts as being part of a system/assemblage where humans participated but reduce the centrality of topics that we never will grasp anyway, that is, meaning and intention. In my view, this will give us a better grasp of ancient reality than beginning with generalized and idealized guesses of what people thought of their world.

    The so-called “common sense” approach to archaeology (that dislikes “theory”) is of course based on theory that now have become mainstream. Following that way of reasoning will only lead to the repetition of the same narrative again and again. We will never learn anything new about the ancient reality from a perspective that was formulated in the 19th century.


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