Archaeology and anthropology news


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Christmas in England: Part Fire; Part Water.

Yesterday was the day-long "Bridges over troubled waters" symposium at TAG 2014 in Manchester. I was there not to present a paper, but to be the discussant, which is a role usually reserved for experts in the matters under consideration. Unfortunately the 'expert' discussion proved to be hesitant, tentative, and generally scatter-brained. The less said about it, the better. [O' course, if you're the kind o' person who checks out the police band on the radio for in-progress crimes in your neighbourhood, or who gets a kick out of watching old film of the Hindenburg Disaster in slow motion, you could, if you wanted, scroll down to the bottom for a kind of "You were there" experience. Be my guest. It isn't pretty. And, frankly, if you knew me the way I know me, I'm the only person whose opinion counts on this occasion.]

After nearly 20 hours of reflection [minus the, oh, 13 hours of avoidant sleep], a bus trip to and from the venue during which I decided that I couldn't face the sea of participants and attendees again and so returned to the hotel to hide, I can say this much about the experience: I ask too much of myself in my self-proclaimed subversive persona. And I know that I asked too much of myself yesterday when I hoped to mend fences in a decades long dispute between two kinds of archaeologists.

That dispute is, I believe, based on incommensurable world-views, each grounded in philosophically untenable presumptions about our 'project.' I'm talking about the Processual/Post-Processual, Science vs Anti-Science, Objectivist/Relativist [you name it] schism that has, I'm saddened to learn, persisted unabated since the late 1970s. "Bridges Over Troubled Waters," as I've previously written, was aimed at finding a way past this schism.

The other day I wrote, "It's cold out here" in reference to the feelings of anomy that accrue to me as I try, again and again—with limited success—to put my finger in the dike of bad archeological inference, especially when it comes to my area of interest—the so-called modern human origins debate. Mine is an almost utterly thankless metier [excepting, of course, for the thanks and encouragement that I get from a very few old and mostly new 'friends' that I hear from on Facebook or Twitter, whose support I sincerely appreciate,, and which is the reason that I was invited to be present at TAG 2014].

Back to asking too much of myself. The 'work' that I do, and about which I feel alternately buoyed and desperate, calls on my wide, but often shallow, expertise in a number of scientific disciplines, my brush with Realist philosophy of science and, broadly speaking, epistemology—how we know what we know. I'm not patting myself on the back, but I think that I'm perhaps uniquely qualified to do the 'work' that I do precisely because of the breadth of my experiences in archaeology and out—both as a student and in practice. That experience allows me to spot a bad geoscience-based inference as easily as a fallacious argument, a wildly unempirical assumption as easily as an inferential house of cards.

I'm certain that most of the people of whose work I'm critical would consider my efforts to be in vain, and they'd be right, but not for the right reasons. I've managed, I think, to point out numerous failures in reasoning in many, very high profile, paleoanthropological research publications. I believe that I've correctly identified crucial flaws in long-standing presumptions. And yet, zombie-like, those presumptions still infest the views that underpin archaeological inference. It doesn't matter if I'm right or if I'm wrong; but it would be a great encouragement if I didn't feel—constantly—as if I was fighting a futile rear-guard action, with no hope of reinforcement.

And so, there I was yesterday—after an entire day of research presentations that ranged from the almost totally 'data-based' to the almost entirely heuristic—thinking that I could possibly achieve, in that small forum, what Alison Wylie's work has, evidently, been unable to achieve in 30 years. I couldn't help but fail. And I did so—royally. Hell, even Alison would've been unable, in 15 or 20 minutes, to persuade the attendees to shed their empiricist world view and instead adopt a realist philosophy of science, which, if I have read Wylie's works correctly, has the potential—the ability, in fact—to heal the divide of which I've spoken, between, on the one hand radical, contextual, anti-science post-modern anthropology and archaeology, and the equally radical 'I don't do theory' cadre of [sometimes] smug, 'hard-science,' types who thumb their noses at efforts to get at the human beings [or bipedal apes] that left the traces they observe and record, distill and interpret.

I'm actually the lucky one, because I'm not bound by either extreme and, albeit in the way of an accolyte, see Wylie's work as, if not "the" way through, at least "a" way through the schism, and which, at one and the same time promises to leave the proponents of both extremes with their dignity, at move archaeology forward, with a unified purpose—the task of squeezing the most out of the meagre traces of past actions in the aid of learning as much as we possibly can about the individuals and societies that left the traces behind when they passed from the animate to the inanimate state of being As I see it, all that's needed is for the others to pay attention. But then, world views are such that they don't readily accept a different way of 'seeing.' So, perhaps it is a pipe dream.

Many thanks to Paul R. Preston, Katie Davenport-Mackey, Seosaimhin Bradley, and Tom Elliot for inviting me to be present at their symposium. Even if they're too polite to voice the truth, I at least can: I believe that my effort was an embarrassment that they neither expected or deserved  for the confidence they placed in me.

I had tried to come up with a prepared statement, since, having known myself all my life I knew that I'd lose the plot were I to have attempted an extempore presentation. Unfortunately the thoughts that I'd jotted down mysteriously evaporated at about 08:30 as I was adding a couple of new thoughts to the text in an iPad app hat I use, called Evernote. Poof! There it was . . . gone! As I was constrained to pay attention to the papers throughout the day, there was no opportunity to recoup my lost thoughts. So, when the time came, I attempted to 'wing it.' Disaster ensued. There might have been but twenty people in the overly large lecture theatre. It may as well have been twenty thousand. Each half-baked thought was accompanied by a half-dozen different feelings--most were kith and kin to terror. Not, for me, a great emotion, nor one conducive to remembering or articulating anything complex than a telephone number.

The organizers were polite, and one or two members of the audience said that my spell in front of them had given them cause to reconsider their presuppositions about the nexus of 'data' and 'theory,' which most of the presenters seemed to think were separate entities.

I should definitely stick to writing and 'publishing' unrefereed criticisms of other peoples' work, and leave the task of overcoming the philosophical schisms to the grown-ups.