Posted by: Johan Normark | October 26, 2011

Rivers as artifacts

Matt Edgeworth has posted his manifesto for an archaeology of flow at Archaeolog. It is an extract from his new book on the archaeology of rivers and other flows of materials. It is from that perspective it is of interest to my “water as an archaeological object” project. He makes the same observation as I have done regarding the primary role solid materials have in archaeology vs fluid ones. Edgeworth states that rivers and streams are the dark matters of landscape archaeology.

Our basic difference is also clear enough. Edgeworth ultimately makes a cultural analysis because earlier researchers have set flowing water as a natural background. There is a fundamental distinction between nature and culture in this study even though he suggests we should overcome this divide. The best strategy is, however, not to make use of this divide to begin with. Rivers are seen as cultural artifacts that not only have been artificially shaped but also that their flow shapes other things through the help of watermills. Rivers are also partially wild no matter how much they are modified. Human involvement with rivers is like “a wrestle, an intertwining, a confluence, an enmeshment, an assemblage or an entanglement”. Floodplain formation is also affected by human activity and rivers are “part of the human story”.

Perhaps of most interest to me is the discussion of how humans have affected the hydrological cycle directly through “damming, diversion, dredging, embanking, draining, irrigation, etc.” and indirectly through “deforestation, agricultural practices, etc.”

Yet another part where we differ is that Edgeworth suggests that it is good to think in terms of flows since it has its own logic. To think “in terms of flow leads to a greater emphasis on continuities – less on discontinuities”. This is indeed the common way to view fluidity, that it is continuous in time and space. From a metaphysical perspective that is a problematic statement. Edgeworth does refer to Latour but Latour focuses on actuals with no continuity. There is a becoming without continuity as Whitehead would have phrased it. In my view, fluidity gives a misleading sense of temporal continuity.

Nowadays I am hesitant to see people, goods, money, paths, fibre-optic cables, etc. as flows or channels of material flows. I have worked with such a model of flow in my earlier works based on Bergson, Deleuze, and DeLanda but I now have problem with this fluidity. Movement is not the same as fluidity and I actually think that the archaeological record itself reveals the “chunkier” reality of the world. The past was not just a flow of events and activity. It involves “chunks” and “voids” and that is not well captured by a model of fluidity. That is why I see the hydrological cycle as an object, or a hyperobject, rather than a flow.


  1. Dear Johan,

    Many thanks for your comments on my recent article on Archaeolog. I’m fascinated by your perspective on water and the differences in our respective approaches. I’m sure you won’t mind if I probe those differences a bit with a few responses.

    Looking at rivers as artifacts is the position I started from when I wrote the article ‘Rivers as Artifacts’ back in 2008. I still think there is value in taking up that stance, to counter-balance the prevailing view of rivers as essentially natural entities. You’re right that in doing so one inevitably ends up reproducing the opposition between culture and nature, and I think I came to realise that too. So the new book I’ve written does actually try to move on from that position to take a less anthropocentric and more materialist approach, along the lines of the ‘symmetrical archaeology’ proposed by Webmoor and Witmore and others – a perspective derived in part from that of Latour.

    Where I think I disagree with all these authors, however (and maybe you too), is the view that the nature/culture divide can be overcome simply by changing one’s perspective or by switching philosophies. Such ideological divisions are much more engrained in the world, much more materially embedded, than actor network theorists acknowledge. As part of the structure of ideas at the heart of western philosophy for hundreds of years, the opposition between nature and culture itself became part of the very socio-technical collectives or assemblages of materials and ideas, human and non-human forces, discussed by Latour.

    In the case of rivers, for example, the idea that ‘nature’ (in the form of rivers) could be conquered by ‘culture’ (in the form of science and technology) was extremely influential in late 18th and 19th century Europe. Rivers were radically re-shaped – their courses straightened, their flows diverted and embanked in numerous ways – in accordance with such ideas. The form that rivers take today and the way that water flows bears the unmistakeable stamp of those ideological currents (and science and technology were also radically changed by entanglements with rivers and their flow). In a sense the river itself has become a material manifestation of the nature/ culture divide, as illustrated in a number of examples in my book. The opposition between nature and culture is thus as much ‘out there’ in the world as it is ‘in here’ in our minds, or anywhere between. It is part of that entanglement we call reality. It cannot be avoided or dodged simply by switching philosophies, which you seem to suggest.

    Like you I am interested in trying to overcome the culture/nature divide, but it’s not so simple. Even in the act of attempting to transcend it, one finds oneself reproducing it in one form or another. A question I would ask you is, given the extent to which such entrenched dualisms structure our thoughts and the world about us, is it really that easy, or indeed possible, as you put it, ‘not to make use of this divide to begin with’?

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking comments and a great blog

    All best wishes, Matt

    Matt Edgeworth (author of ‘Fluid Pasts: Archaeology of Flow’)

    • Thanks for the comment. I will of course read your book even though I am not targeting rivers as such. After that I can get a better grasp of your whole argument.

      As for terminology I am moving towards a realist but not a materialist perspective (I called myself neomaterialist for a while, but not anymore). Graham Harman sees materialism as a form of idealism with a realist alibi and I believe he is correct. Materialism is too reductionist.

      Latour replaces substance with actants which partially solves the old problem of separating “natural substances” from human artifacts. There is no ontological difference between a stone and a stone axe, they are on the same level (a flat ontology as DeLanda would call it).

      When I want to differentiate between a “natural cave” (formed through erosion, etc.) and an “artificial cave” (formed through human excavation) I include the cave in question within a larger assemblage/object where all changes occur between it’s parts and the parts may differ in the two different assemblages/objects. The larger object is neither nature or culture but just an assemblage of smaller components that occur at a particular moment and time itself only unfolds within that assemblage (hence time does not flow and surround the assemblage).

      I do agree that it is easier said than done to overcome the n/c split but I am confident that it is just a matter of training. Will that give us a whole new view of the past? Probably not in the short run but who knows what former ignored aspects will be brought to light when we look more into the properties of objects?


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