Friday, 28 August 2009

We Were Modern: an explanation

[cite this page as: Hicks, D. 2009. We Were Modern: an explanation.]

image: An archaeological test pit at Coleford, Gloucestershire, 1999

We Were Modern is a new blog for drawing together my published writing, alongside fragments, reviews, excerpts, comments and other anthropological writing on the remains of the modern -- to complement my publications through other media, which are listed on my Faculty page here. The blog will mainly collect together material already published in books, journals and other places - making accessible, in outline form and under a Creative Commons license, what is already published, with links to where to read the full versions with full references, page numbers, etc.

The title for this blog turns upside-down
Bruno Latour's contention that We Have Never Been Modern (1993). Latour's idea in that book is that 'modernity' was never straightforwardly enacted, or fully realised. Modernity was rather, for Latour, an ideal of 'purification', and we must distance ourselves from it if we are to comprehend it. To support the argument, Latour puts forward evidence of the intervention of 'nonhuman' agents, and human-nonhuman 'hybrids', in the supposedly purely human modern world. Global warming is his clearest example: the temperature outside intrudes upon the lives of the moderns.

Latour's powerful idea is one that troubles me as an anthropological archaeologist studying the early modern, modern and contemporary period: from the 17th to the 20th century and into the present. This is because environments entail not only human debates about ozone and sunlight, but the complex, fragmented materials that are received from the past and reworked in the present. These environments are a good deal messier than the 'actor-networks' represented by what Latour calls his 'symmetrical anthropology'. For the archaeologist, it is useful to suggest that the modern did exist, as a period - just like the Neolithic, or the Bronze Age. And like those periods it is best understood through its material remains. We cannot look past resistant materials to define the modern as simply an idea: this division between ideas and materials is simply impossible. But it did happen. In other words, the modern only ever existed insofar as it was materially enacted. We see this in its remains. And so, we have to turn Latour's argument inside-out.

Reworking Latour's title provides a way for me to frame writing about the afterlives of the modern. If we think through Latour's argument in relation to the passage of time, for example as expressed in his discussion of TJ Clark's Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, we find the recycling of old oppositions between nostalgia and futurism.

For archaeologists, unpicking the past from the future in the contemporary lived environment is a good deal less straightforward. Environments and ecologies are always involved in politics: but those environments always include those mundane, everyday, material things that survive from the past, not just environmentalist narratives and nonhuman readymades. We make the future with the resources of the past, and an archaeological eye reveals how rich, and yet how messy, those resources are. This gives quite a different sense of how environments can be implicated in politics. We live every day among the remains of the modern. They form places for a distinctively mundane politics - like arguments about the idea of modern heritage for instance.

We Were Modern draws together writing about the continued effects and presence of the modern, across archaeology, anthropology, architecture and contemporary art. The writing will seek to move beyond the entrenched presentism that characterises so many current discussions of modern material culture in the social sciences, and away from the false choice between pure nostalgia on one hand, or pure futurism on the other, that dominates discussions of material change.

In this way, the blog will draw together two strands in my current writing. Both of these are concerned with the contemporary and interdisciplinary value of archaeological perspectives: the contemporary value of archaeological thinking about the modern period. First, it will explore how we can use anthropological thinking to make interdisciplinary contributions to our understanding of the recent past. Second, it will think through how we might shift our discussions of the material afterlives of the modern beyond the current tired terms of reference around heritage - saving, preserving, rescuing, designating, etc - to re-imagine the material and built environment as a resource for human living.

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