Posted by: Johan Normark | August 23, 2011

DeLanda on chiefdoms and archaic states

In blog post # 500 I will just give a brief comment on a chapter in Manuel  DeLanda’s recent book Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason (2011). The book analyzes different genres of simulation in theoretical science that deals with the emergences of storms, life, intelligence, bird and mammal memory, primate strategies, stone age economics and language. As an archaeologist with a deep interest in palaeontology I find this philosophical book to be an excellent piece of work that should be of interest to other archaeologists as well. I just have one major critique of it and it is as follows:

One of the simulation genres DeLanda discusses is multi-agent systems and in his final chapter he takes on the task of explaining how multi-agent systems can be used to explain the emergence of archaic states. However, here he touches topics close to my own and we do work with different categories. This has to with his choice of literature. The concept of chiefdom has been popular in Processual archaeology but it is filled with problematic ethnographic generalizations that are based on evolutionary ladders. Although DeLanda do argue that there is no society as a whole that develops through stages the very concept of chiefdom in archaeology, as it has been used since the 1960s, works from that assumption. Basically, the idea was that societies needed to pass through certain stages in the development towards greater complexity and chiefdom is one of these stages (band and tribes being lower on the ladder) and archaic states above it.  To some people there is still important to know whether or not the Classic period Maya polities were chiefdoms or archaic states. To me at least, in my earlier writings, I have seen this as an orthogenetic evolutionary perspective based on the organismic metaphor. It is the same society or culture that goes through the same developments through relations of interiority. This is exactly the position DeLanda is against in other studies and in this as well. The concept of chiefdom is simply too infected with this history.

Further, throughout this chapter he relies on an unclear definition of culture. This culture concept is originally dependent on a master-signifier that sets up a dichotomy between Nature and Culture. I am sure that DeLanda uses the concept of culture in a more loose sense but the reader should note that an archaeological culture by definition works from relations of interiority, not exteriority. DeLanda is not an archaeologist so he does not use it that way.



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