Friday, 2 April 2010

Intimate Distance: Three Kinds of Detachment in the Archaeology of the Modern


image: remains (earthworks and stone settings) of the site of a bender (tent) originally erected in 1999, and subsequently dismantled, at the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp, Derbyshire (part of an environmentalist campaign against the expansion of two limestone quarries on Stanton Moor). From Anna Badcock and Robert Johnston 2009. Placemaking through protest: an archaeology of the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp. Archaeologies 5(2): 306-322.
I'm speaking in a panel at a conference in Cambridge (30 June-3 July), which my colleague Tom Yarrow is convening with Matt Candea, Jo Cook and Catherine Trundle. The meeting - on the theme Reconsidering Detachment - is part of an ESRC-funded initiative called The Detachment Collaboratory
The long abstract for my paper is below: the paper takes stock of three alternative approaches to 'detachment' and 'proximity' in the archaeological study of the modern period.

Three kinds of detachment in the archaeology of the modern
Dan Hicks (Oxford University)
As in social anthropology, archaeological thinking has since the 1980s witnessed a series of critiques of scientific and objective detachment. However, these critiques have perhaps differed from those in anthropology in that the firm distinctions between scientific/objective and social-constructivist/subjective approaches described in the conference abstract have from the outset been considerably more entangled.
Since debates over distance and proximity have been perhaps most sharply focused in the development of the archaeological study of the recent past, this paper focuses on how in this field, instead of clear narratives around connection and engagement, a number of possible forms of detachment have emerged. The paper examines two kinds of detachment in the archaeological study of the modern period, and then considers an alternative approach to proximity and distance, in order to develop an archaeological contribution to the conference theme of ‘the analytics of disconnection’.

1. Critical Detachment
The first form of disconnection that I want to identify we might refer to as critical detachment, a term I use to evoke its commonality with certain forms of literary criticism, rather than with critical theory. It is associated most directly with archaeology’s version of the ‘cultural turn’, and operated by seeking hermeneutic distance through the contention, central to post-processual thinking, that archaeology is a contemporary practice that involves mediating relationships with the past. In contrast with socio-cultural anthropology’s model of Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986), in archaeology the more contemplative idea of Reading the Past (Hodder 1986) understood the past (and most commonly European prehistory) as other. In transferring this approach to the study of the modern period, archaeologists including Sarah Tarlow and Matthew Johnson extended this literary model to imagine apparently familiar objects of enquiry as ‘unfamiliar’ (Tarlow and West 1999). For example, in his discussion of medieval castles, Johnson sought


to stress the unfamiliar, to move away from easy readings, to interpret castles 'against the grain', just as literary critic Jonathan Dollimore suggests we should read Renaissance literary texts against the grain (Johnson 2002: 17).
Here, archaeological theory was imagined as analogous with the uses of literary theory in New Historicism: as a tool for a more nuanced (and thus more accurate) historiography. The distancing of the archaeologist as subject from the object of enquiry served to extend, rather than straightforwardly critique, ideas of scientific detachment. Where in a conventional model of scientific detachment the researcher was located nowhere, in the model of critical detachment the archaeologist stood, impossibly, between past and present: self-consciously mediating the interpretive reception of modern remains to write the ‘social archaeology’ of the recent past.

2. Contemporary Detachment
If in the critical-literary model of an archaeology of the modern period the researcher stood impossibly within a relationship between past and present, an alternative model of detachment - which we might term contemporary detachment - has sought to situate both the researcher as subject and the object of enquiry firmly within the present: distinct and detached, in other words, from earlier periods of archaeological study. This position has increasingly sought to define the idea of 'contemporary archaeology' - as uncoupled from the kind of 'historical archaeology' discussed above.
Where the critical model of detachment drew from the 1980s post-processualism of Ian Hodder and his students, the contemporary model has been associated with the parallel trajectory of 1980s archaeological thinking in Cambridge: the development from ethnoarchaeology of a distinctive British version of earlier Americanist trajectories in ‘modern material culture studies’, especially by Danny Miller and his students (Hicks 2010). In contrast with the critical-literary model, the use by Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas of the idea of ‘the contemporary past’ sought (pace Harrison and Schofield 2009: 196) explicitly not ‘to create a distance from the familiar’, but conversely to ‘mak[e] the undiscursive discursive’ (Buchli and Lucas 2001: 14).
Instead, however, after the publication of Buchli and Lucas’ thoughtful account, a tendency has developed towards a new form of detachment, as some in the field have increasingly sought to define 'contemporary archaeology' as fundamentally different from the archaeological study of earlier periods: as a distinct, and explicitly interdisciplinary, field of enquiry. For example, in their recent review of ‘archaeologies of the contemporary past’, Rodney Harrison and John Schofield criticize ‘a conservative and literal definition of archaeology, as something that should concern itself only with that which is ancient, or "archaic"’ (Harrison and Schofield 2009: 186). Instead, the authors list what they see as the main themes of contemporary archaeology, the coherence of which relies upon their apparent detachment from the worlds of the university- or heritage agency-based researcher: the list runs, with a certain predictability, from abandoned factories, urban graffiti, working class housing, and sites of political protest to disaster sites, battlefields and other sites of conflict and violence, crime scenes, virtual/digital worlds, and the material culture of counter-cultural movements. In a re-statement of the subalternism of Americanist Marxist historical archaeologies, and yet generalized to the extent that any explicit political position is stripped away, in this account ‘archaeology has a major role to play in foregrounding those aspects of contemporary life at the margins which are constantly being overwritten by dominant narratives’ (Harrison and Schofield 2009: 191). The suggestion is that such 'outsider' materials - retrochic readymades already uncoupled from the observer - represent somehow in themselves sufficiently archaeological objects of enquiry: so that they can form the proper focus for ‘contemporary archaeology’.

3. Disciplinary Detachment
In this way, like anthropological material culture studies two decades before, the idea of ‘contemporary archaeology’ came for some during the 2000s to be imagined as a separate field, standing apart from the discipline of archaeology. The apparently ‘interdisciplinary nature of the archaeology of the contemporary past’ has inspired rallying calls to explore ‘the new frontiers of archaeo-ethnography and auto-archaeology’ (Harrison and Schofield 2009: 198, 196). But such post-disciplinary arguments, as I have argued elsewhere for anthropological material culture studies (Hicks 2010), serve to deny the emergence of objects of enquiry from research practices. Instead, they seek to identify 'the archaeological' in contemporary readymade things or places that are away from everyday human life - abandoned, decaying, etc. This means in practice that the everyday or the apparently banal elements of modern and contemporary life - as studied, for example, by more recent work in anthropological material culture studies (eg Miller 2008), in feminist historical archaeology (eg Wilkie 2010), and elsewhere - find themselves outside the purview of the archaeology of the modern.
The final section of this paper therefore calls into question the slippage from the idea of an archaeology of the contemporary past to the idea of a special, and explicitly interdisciplinary, field of study which could be called ‘contemporary archaeology’: which reproduces the distinction between past and present that was at the heart of the critical-literary detachment described above. The critical and contemporary models of detachment have, respectively, understood the study of the modern as either fragmented or total, objective or subjective, monolithic or cosmopolitan, pure or hybrid, historical or avant-garde. At the same time, both models have served to bound off (and then inter-relate) the historical from the contemporary: leading to a persistence of the idea that mainstream archaeological research has an end-point that can never extend into the contemporary world.
In contrast with the critical and contemporary models of detachment, the main argument of this paper is that the extension of archaeological perspectives into the modern period has inevitably brought a breaking-down of conventional distinctions between the archaeological past and the archaeological present, and between scholar and object (Hicks 2003): but that this need not bring an end to detachment in the archaeological study of the modern. An understanding of the disciplinary enactment, rather than the straightforward representation, of the past underlines the emergence of archaeological materials from archaeological practices. Comparing this argument with recent discussions of the idea of ‘contemporary anthropology’ (Rabinow 2007, Rabinow et al 2008), the paper makes a new argument for disciplinary detachments, against the post-disciplinary status of the archaeology of the modern that has characterised both 'critical' and 'contemporary' models of detachment.
***
In this re-statement of disciplinary detachment – which actively recalls David Clarke’s commitment to archaeology as archaeology – we might usefully turn to WG Sebald’s reflections on Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia/Urn Burial (1658). Sebald suggested that the antiquary’s melancholic account of the excavation of cremated human bone in earthenware vessels buried shallow in the Norfolk soil showed how the practice of archaeology serves to collapse immediacy and distance in our conception and experience of the past:
Je mehr die Entfernung wächst, desto klarer wird die Sicht. Mit der größtmöglichen Deutlichkeit erblickt man die winzigen Details. Es ist, als schaute man zugleich durch ein umgekehrtes Fernrohr und durch ein Mikroskop.[The more the distance grows, the clearer the view becomes. You glimpse the tiniest details with the utmost clarity. It is as if you were looking through a reversed telescope and through a microscope at the same time] (W.G. Sebald 1995. Die Ringe des Saturn, pp. 29- 30)
Using Sebald’s evocation of what we could call the 'intimate distance' that emerges from the practice of archaeology to consider not Anglo-Saxon funerary remains, but the remains of the 20th century, the paper concludes by suggesting that a focus on the interventionist and transformative character of archaeological practices – from excavation and collecting to photography and writing – can serve to collapse our conventional scales of disciplinary proxemics. Re-evaluating the utility of new forms of ‘detachment’ – the creation of any object of enquiry as a form of methodological, enacted and partial separation, rather than distanced representation – the paper calls for a renewed (if moderated) sense of disciplinary distance and self-identity in the archaeological study of the modern. Through the intimate distance that emerges through archaeology's 'creative materialising intervention' (Buchli and Lucas 2001: 17), and thus through the sense of the contingency of our knowledge of the modern upon the means that we employ to study its remains, new, more provisional, forms of transdisciplinary collaboration can be developed. In the process, the place of 'contemporary archaeology' within the broader archaeological endeavour might be re-asserted.

References
Buchli, V. and G. Lucas (eds) 2001. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. London: Routledge.
Clifford, J. and G. Marcus (eds) 1986. Writing Culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harrison, R. and J. Schofield 2009. Archaeo-Ethnography, Auto-Archaeology: Introducing Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. Archaeologies 5(2): 185-209.
Hicks, D. 2003. Archaeology unfolding: diversity and the loss of isolation. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 22(3): 215-229.
Hicks, D. 2010. The material-cultural turn: event and effect. In D. Hicks and M.C. Beaudry (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hodder, I. 1986. Reading the Past: current approaches to interpretation in archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Johnson, M.H. 2002. Behind the castle gate: from medieval to Renaissance. Oxford: Blackwell.
Miller, D. 2008. The Comfort of Things. London: Polity.
Rabinow, P. 2007. Marking Time: on the anthropology of the contemporary. Princeton University Press.
Rabinow, P. and G.E. Marcus, with J.D. Faubion and T. Rees 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sebald, W.G. 1998. The Rings of Saturn. London: Vintage.
Tarlow, S. and S. West (eds) 1999. The Familiar Past? Archaeologies of later historical Britain. London: Routledge.

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