Artifacts and Anarchy: the Implications of Pre-History
An Interview with Anarcho-Primitivist Archaeologist, Theresa Kintz
(from Species traitor #3)
In the last issue of Species Traitor, we opened up some questions about the role and importance of anthropology and archaeology to a critique that opposes the scientific worldview that backs civilization. Ironically, the same field that originated to justify the subordination of ‘primitives’ has been turned on its head over the last few decades and only recently contributed to a critique of civilization.
Theresa Kintz has been run through the archaeologist mill. Since the mid 80’s she has been working in the field as a digger coming from an ‘eco-anarchist’ perspective and gaining acknowledgment from other archaeologists through her radical archaeologist publication The Underground. In 1998 she became a long-term editor at the Earth First! Journal where her editorial in support of the Vail arson (the first major ELF hit in the U.S.) generated more mail than anything ever appearing in the EF!J, including hate mail from Julia Butterfly. While at the EF! J she conducted the first interview with Ted Kaczynski (published jointly by Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed #48 and Green Anarchist No. 57-58) and pied the notorious mayor of Eugene, Oregon, Jim Torrey. Theresa has been extremely active with international green anarchist publications, wrote the introduction for John Zerzan’s latest anthology, Running on Emptiness: the Pathology of Civilization, and is currently finishing up her dissertation on ‘Radical Archaeology and the De(con)struction of Civilization’.
She agreed to respond to some of the questions that we hope to explore more in Species Traitor. Her view is unique as a dissident archaeologist, facing scrutiny from fellow anarchists and archaeologists, and her responses here are more than welcomed to this debate.
How did you become involved with anthropology and archaeology?
Academically speaking, by chance. Like most people, when I arrived at university I didn’t know what anthropology was. After reading the course offerings I signed up for two anthropology classes and they turned out to be my favorites, along with my philosophy classes. (I think anthropology is the new philosophy in terms of its subject matter and the social role it now plays i.e. anthropology and archaeology seek answers to those grand questions about the nature of human experience). I remember the first day of my first anthropology class. The professor asked all of us to write down a definition of the word 'primitive’. She collected and read them aloud and we had a fascinating discussion about what the word meant. I guess ever since I have basically been trying to define the primitive and define civilization, and compare and contrast the two. I do this now in all the classes I teach, to clarify what we are discussing when we call something ‘primitive’.
My own working definition of the word ‘primitive’ would be primary, relating to an earliest stage or state; original, first, the thing (whatever the subject you are modifying by the term ‘primitive’) in its earliest incarnation. That way it is an almost infinite regression that necessitates addressing the biography of the object, descriptive shorthand used to extract the complex history of a thing. When speaking of primitive peoples, what the anthropologists and archaeologists have meant are peoples whose lifestyles most closely resemble the lifestyles of those hunter gatherers arbitrarily assigned the designation of ‘first humans’. There are also primitive boats, primitive alphabets, primitive weapons, primitive computers…of course the term needs clarification since what deserves the designation ‘the first’ is always going to be debatable. But I don’t see the term primitive as being pejorative, primitive does not necessarily mean simple, less complex, crude or naive. I see the use of the term primitive as an invitation to explore and discuss history.
Professionally speaking, I became an archaeologist for the most practical of reasons, I was offered a job. It was in the early days of CRM (Cultural Resources Management) and I began working in the field for a local archaeological firm just before I finished my BA. I loved the work itself - spending my days working outside, engaging in hard physical labor with a small group of people with a shared sense of purpose, the way I think humans are supposed to live. The combination of intellectual stimulation and physical exertion makes archaeology a very satisfying daily preoccupation. If one has to work, being a shovel bum is as good as it gets, I think. Over the past sixteen years I’ve worked on well-over one hundred sites, in 14 different states and three countries. The average dig lasts around six weeks (the longest was 7 months, some jobs would take only 2 or 3 days), so for years I lived as a nomad. The sites themselves are usually in very remote rural areas, often in forested, mountainous terrain; less often in urban areas colonized early in US history.
The archaeologist observes much about the world we live in. The essential focus understands the history of the relationship between the land and the people, trying to figure out what has happened for the last 20,000 years or so wherever we are. Because of my work as an archaeologist I have come to understand something about the chain of events that have taken us from the Stone Age to the Space Age. Now when I look at a landscape I see the history of the place, the evolution of architectural styles, the comings and goings of industries, the rise and fall of political powers, changes in technology, the fads of society, etc.
As far as why I might have found the subject matter of anthropology so interesting…I suppose that’s more complicated. In hindsight I would say it was an ever present, intense curiosity about the world I live in and about ‘the other’. I had been around people from ‘other’ cultures a lot growing up in AZ. I remember going to the homes of my Native and Hispanic friends and being fascinated by how different their lives were, the kinds of foods they ate, the languages their parents spoke, the ways they celebrated holidays, etc. And when I began studying I was living with an Algerian and surrounded by Arab culture. I began realizing that all my views were a product of the distinct temporal and geographical cultural manifestation I was raised in and it gave me a new perspective. Essentially I discovered the concept of cultural relativism and began wondering if there were any universals in terms of human experience, and since that is a big aspect of the subject matter of anthropology, I think I was drawn to it.
Can you describe the divisions within the two fields in regards to the implications of work done? Can you give a bit of a historical look at the splits?
In the US, archaeology is taught as one of four sub-discipline of anthropology, the others are physical anthropology (study of human evolution), cultural anthropology, (study of living cultures), and linguistics (study of languages). In the UK these are all taught separately. I see anthropology and archaeology as having the same subject matter, the study of humanity in all of its diversity, throughout all of its history, across the world.
Archaeology is popularly defined by an activity, digging. The focus is on the recovery of objects and analyzing what they tell us about the lifestyles of the people who used them. In this sense you could argue that technically, anthropologists study living cultures, archaeologists study cultures of the past through the remains those cultures left behind. But they both approach the subject matter in the same way, by objectifying the subject, speaking of ‘cultures’ in terms of categorical constructions, i.e. economics, politics, social organization, subsistence strategies, technology, etc. Both anthropologists and archaeologists will look at these same basic elements and attempt to describe the cultures they are studying, past or present. Anthropology seems to me to be sort of an exotic sociology, and its relevance is diminishing at this point in time. Of course, the discipline’s origin is recent, late 19th century, and it’s directly associated with the Age of Empire when the Europeans first encountered and wrote about the ‘customs of the natives’. Interesting though, one could argue that ‘primitive’ anthropology goes all the way back to the Greeks and Romans who wrote about the strange customs of those they encountered while expanding their early empires. Even if they were considered to be travel journals, their descriptions of the other anticipate anthropological literature.
In the US, the first anthropologists had the Native Americans as captive (literally) subjects and here is where the field really came into its own. The major audience for the anthropologist’s work and their major financial supporters would be the US government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their work would be used to find the best ways to subjugate this population. Interestingly, the early anthropologists often lamented the loss of cultural diversity caused by the march of civilization and would write quite sympathetically about their subjects, those noble savages living wild and free in Eden. Still, they really did nothing to interfere with the cultural genocide they were witnessing. The same goes for the famous early European anthropologists like Levi Strauss and Malinowski working in the colonies of Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Archaeology has a little different history. Even today when I tell people I am an archaeologist they usually ask me ‘Where do you dig, Egypt? Rome? Greece?’ Early on classical archaeology focused on investigating the major civilizations. Many people still think all archaeology is the investigations of big, sexy ruins like pyramids, hunting for the ‘treasures’ of gold and silver, rediscovering the art of the ancients. In the beginning, archaeology was a big treasure hunt undertaken by private, wealthy, self-proclaimed antiquities scholars and was more akin to art history than anthropology even. The earliest museums were these ‘cabinets of curiosities’ where Stone Age axes would be displayed next to elephant tusks and shrunken heads. Of course, we have to realize that people have always encountered the artifacts of the past, always lived around ruins, tombs, found the odd arrowhead they didn’t recognize and probably had their own explanations of who made them, when, and why. The first systematic digs came much later, one of the earliest I have come across in the US is a brief report written by Thomas Jefferson who ‘excavated’ a Native American burial mound on his property in Virginia in the late 1700’s.
I would say that it was the widespread acceptance of evolutionary theory that sent archaeology on a different trajectory. Once it was accepted that humans had evolved from primate ancestors, the quest for the chronology of events was on. At that point, humans became just another animal whose evolution could be understood by scientific research, and artifacts would be seen as the fossil record of past cultures. From then on the story of humanity would be told by the physical anthropologists and the archaeologists.
The implications of the hegemony of the scientific paradigm and the role of the archaeologist as the teller of the story of humanity looms large. There is no such thing as the archaeological record there to be deciphered like some kind of text, a definitive history of the species. It is all a matter of interpretation. The archaeologists tell stories about the past, the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of answers we get are all influenced by culture in the present. This is one of the things the anarcho-primitivist perspective on prehistory illustrates so well. Take the same basic ‘facts’ of human evolution and some will conclude we live in the best possible world, some will conclude we live in the worst.
Archaeology and anthropology have naturally grown from the civilization that we are working to destroy. It has been a part of the sciences, and like other fields, has been used to justify the exploitation and destruction on behalf of expanding empires. The fields still produce a gross amount of information pointing towards the 'short, nasty, brutish' look at 'the state of nature.'
Do you feel that a field with such a history is capable of validly producing an alternative? Or perhaps, as with any other civilized tool, the fields produce what the 'scientist' wants them to?
No doubt archaeology has been and still is an establishment endeavor, and the work of most archaeologists will not challenge the sociopolitical status quo. This is one of the things I have been most critical of in my archaeological writing. Take the profession of CRM (Cultural Resources Management). CRM exists as a result of government legislation. In the early 80’s a law was passed, falling under the Environmental Protection Act, that says before any construction project can be undertaken by a federal agency, e.g. Army Corps building dams, Department of Transportation building roads, or a federally regulated industry, e.g. utilities - gas pipelines are big business for archaeologists - the developer must prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS). Along with addressing the project’s potential impact on natural resources, they must also address the impact on cultural ‘resources’, i.e. archaeological sites. So now battalions of archaeologists are sent out ahead of all these development projects to find, record, and often excavate the sites that will be destroyed by them. Obviously, archaeologists are agents of the empire, we facilitate the development projects, clear the way for the developers. We’ve been bought off, we work for them, our business comes before the bulldozers. For years I have argued that this state of affairs compromises our intellectual integrity.
Archaeologists could be very cogent critics of unsustainable development, John Zerzan does this quite effectively using archaeological evidence. We could argue that what we are seeing now in terms of the global expansion of civilization is ultimately harmful to humans and every other living thing on the planet. We know that, for example, the over-exploitation of resources surrounding human habitations, increasing complexity in material culture and technology, increasing social stratification, etc., are always a bad idea, socially and environmentally harmful. We study the rise and fall of civilizations, we understand some of the key features that bring about suffering, subjugation, environmental destruction, but archaeologists will not work such analysis into their reports. The archaeologists themselves will not contradict the aims of the developers, that would be biting the hand that feeds them. So most are content to do their digging and write superficial reports comprised mostly of laundry lists of the artifacts recovered without addressing this big picture.
Archaeology and anthropology are cross-over disciplines, existing as they do at the intersection of hard science and the humanities. Archaeology really wants to be a science, and as such will make (false) claims to objectivity. When the archaeologists describe the phenomenon of civilization, they are seeking to be merely descriptive, the theories are supposed to, like all scientific theories, appear value neutral. The archaeologists say they are writing about ‘what was’, not what ‘ought to be’. Critical reflection is seen as political and not part of the scope of archaeological research in most circles. The exception is the kind of archaeology that I do, ‘radical archaeology’, a relatively recent development with connections to contemporary feminist and Marxist archaeological perspectives. The radical archaeologist deliberately chooses research questions that are designed to demonstrate, for example, the history of social inequality or the history of the subjugation of women. Of course, asking these questions of the archaeological data will result in making political observations and traditional archaeologists are critical of these trends, arguing that the radical archaeologists are not being objective, which is of course bullshit, since no archaeological research is.
It’s funny though, after years of speaking about AP perspectives to my archaeological colleagues, most will agree with the fundamentals of the AP arguments. The problem seems to be that people feel powerless to change anything. They might agree completely with the analysis of civilization offered by someone like JZ, but when it comes to being able to do anything to change the trajectory of civilization they will say it is impossible. That even if the archaeologists were to become more politically involved and point out the dangers of civilization, no one really would listen to us anyway. We are just putting ‘the facts’ out there, it’s not the archaeologist’s place to make value judgments as to whether civilization is a good thing or a bad thing, just to describe its evolution. Obviously this is a cop out and makes archaeologists part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I feel that an understanding of the past is an important tool for the activist. Studying anthropology and archaeology opens one’s mind. It makes us realize that things have not always been the way they are now, and that there are other alternatives to civilization. It’s not just abstract political theory, we know that people managed to live perfectly fine for thousands of years without cars, refrigerators, computers, telephones, etc. We can compare and contrast the overall costs and benefits of civilization the more we know about what life was like before and since. This knowledge does not require a degree, or even attending a class, people can seek this knowledge on their own. All you need is a passionate curiosity, a desire to understand the world you live in now and how it came to be this way. When I went to work at the EF! J I was not at all surprised to find that among the editorial collective and the small circle of people around it, the majority of those who did have college degrees had degrees in anthropology. I tell myself now that teaching can be subversive, it has revolutionary potential. My students will read Species Traitor, Jerry Mander, John Zerzan, and other AP thought and more than you might think are open to these perspectives, they seriously consider what these authors are saying. I encourage students to think for themselves, to question authority (mine included), but to understand that there are lots of different ways to look at the world, the important thing is to look, not bury your head in the sand and let the business majors and the lawyers run the world, act on your own beliefs.
So yes, I do believe the study of the past, through archaeology, has the potential to enlighten and provoke thought, even action, and I insist this doesn’t require an academic setting. It is the core idea of learning as much as one can about the world you live in that’s important to promote. Of course students will have to wade through lots of bullshit and attitude in an academic setting, never trust the ‘experts’, think for yourself, study on your own if you don’t want to do it in an institution, but it’s just as important for revolutionaries to arm themselves with knowledge.
As far as what a revolutionary perspective has to offer archaeology, well, a sense of purpose. It could/should be so much more than elites satisfying the intellectual curiosity of other elites. Radical archaeologists are now pushing the discipline to acknowledge the role our narratives play in society, highlighting the role of the past, the politics of the past, in the present. I’ve always been at odds with archaeology over its lack of self-awareness, its reluctance to make our work relevant in the real world. It’s funny, my fellow archaeologists see me as a radical green anarchist, someone who comes to do archaeology with an overtly political agenda, an outsider who has infiltrated the ivory tower, really. On the other side, because I study and work in the profession, my comrades the radicals will often see me as part of an academic establishment that defends the status quo, sort of an outsider here, too. I try to walk a fine line in order to bring these two camps together as I do see they can help each other, even if I get bashed from both sides.
Do you feel that anthropology and archaeology are objective processes? What is the real weight of the information that comes from these methodologies?
Archaeology is not an objective process at all. It seeks to objectify, but is thoroughly subjective. The kinds of answers we get depend on the kinds of questions we ask. For example, Marxist archaeologists in the former Soviet Union would incorporate a Marxist agenda into their archaeological research, i.e. look at the past in order to prove the communist theory of history was right. The dominant ideology in the US and Europe is capitalism and our archaeology helps in legitimizing and justifying it. For example, my academic advisor in the UK recently wrote an article criticizing one of the most well-known archaeologists in the world for allowing Shell Oil and Visa to be corporate sponsors of his dig in Turkey. Cambridge professor Ian Hodder’s field archaeologists appeared in photos wearing baseball caps with the Visa logo on them, and Hodder was quoted as saying that ‘obsidian was the first credit card’, essentially suggesting that capitalism has a long history, was inevitable, a natural part of the human condition - this is horrible.
All archaeology has politics and sites themselves, the actual physical remains of the past, are often powerful cultural and political touchstones. Just think about the event that kicked off the most recent intifada in Palestine. It was Sharon’s visit to an archaeological site in Jerusalem. The Taliban blew up the ancient, giant Buddhas because those objects represented a non-Islamic past the regime felt threatened by. In England, the dissolution of the monasteries required that all the old cathedrals and the icons in them be physically destroyed so the church’s political power could be deconstructed in favor of the power of the monarchy. Another example is the use of archaeological research in promoting nationalism. Nations justify their existence and national identities are created by uniting people using the idea of a shared history, culture, language, etc… In Nazi Germany the fascists sought to unite people using this idea of a superior culture and Mussolini did the same in claiming the superiority of Roman culture. The Zionist argument for the occupation of Palestine is largely based on an interpretation of the region’s ancient history.
The concept of people’s shared past is a powerful ideological tool, this idea of an ‘us’ (who are right) and ‘them’ (who are wrong). The construction of a national identity is complicated. Some major elements would be territorial history, language, religion, political and economic organization, even food preferences. What makes an American and American, or a Palestinian a Palestinian, what is the East, the West? Why do we even use these kinds of terms? Defining who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ has a lot to do with histories, this is important to understand. The theoretical perspectives embraced by archaeologists in their research is constantly changing and differs in Europe and America. In addition to radical, Marxist, and feminist archaeology there are processual, post-processual, structuralism, post-structuralism, hermeneutics, evolutionary, behavioral, all different schools of thought that frame the archaeologist’s research questions and interpretation of data. In the US, since the 1970’s, the ‘New’ or ‘Processual’ Archaeology has dominated the field (Binford et al, J. Steward’s cultural ecology). Archaeologists here tend to look at humans as just another mammal occupying a unique ecological niche. The human subject is studied much the same way you would study the evolution of the species of wolves or any other social mammal. In a way I think this is a good thing, we have to keep in mind that we are animals after all. The object of the research is to understand human’s adaptation to specific environments, and culture (economics, social organization, technology, etc.) is seen as a means of adaptation.
Archaeologists are like journalists, they ask who, what, where, when, why, how? The emphasis is on describing the ‘processes’ by which social organization and material culture (technology) change over time, what the catalysts for change are, looking at the appearance, significance and knock-on effects of watershed events (like the first agriculture, the invention of the wheel, writing, etc.). The ‘why’ question, e.g. why did hunting equipment change? Why did people start planting things? Why did they start constructing boats and traveling long distances? Are always much more a matter of debate - and much more interesting to pursue. We will never know for certain why, but hypothesizing, offering possible answers, even tentative ones, I feel, is crucial communicative action.
In Europe, where ‘Post-Processual’ (influenced by post-modernist theory) archaeology dominates there is a great reluctance to pursue the why questions. In my view they have essentially concluded it’s all too complicated, of no real consequence, we can never know for sure, so they’ve just given up and do mostly descriptive work. European post-processual archaeology has also pushed more for understanding the limitations of archaeological research and acknowledged the subjective, political nature of the discipline, which is a good thing. But I’ve always argued against radical relativist tendencies in archaeology. I do believe there are some things we can conclude are indeed ‘objective facts’ based on archaeological research. They are simple, yet profound.
For one thing, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that people managed to accomplish everything they needed to accomplish on a daily basis using only stone, bone, and plant tools for the majority of our existence. To me this is a most salient fact. It proves that everything we think we need to survive now beyond that is really unnecessary. This is not to say that life before civilization was a paradise free from care or worry, without physical hardships. But on the whole, I would argue that archaeology can prove that civilization has increased suffering, rather than decreasing it. And I bet if the trees or rivers or bears were asked, they would say that the world was a lot better place before civilization. Here is something, too, I wish to touch on. Anthropology and archaeology are very anthropocentric disciplines, even though we recognize humans as animals. It would be better if there was a confluence of anthropology, archaeology and ecology. It is wrong to separate the history of humans from the history of the rest of the living things in an ecosystem we occupy. It is important to understand the interplay between all living things. I try to address this in my work.
Most of my experience is on prehistoric sites in North America, mostly in the Appalachian region. And here is another basic fact I have no doubt about as a result of my own personal experience in archaeology. People lived here on the land for 14,000 years and left only the legacy of ephemeral hearth features, scatters of stone flakes and pottery shreds, and the occasional earth work. But what do I see on the same landscape now, after only a couple of hundred years of civilization? Dams, landfills, toxic waste dumps, nuclear power plants, cities like New York, river poisoned by acid mine drainage, clear cuts. The contrast is stark, real, unavoidable. Sure, people have always altered their environments, but the scale of the alteration of matter undertaken in modern civilization is absolutely unprecedented, what with concrete and plastic, steel and all the toxic effluent produced by their manufacture, the rate of the destruction has increased dramatically. It is there for all of us to see, you don’t have to be an archaeologist.
Back to practicalities of the methodology…While there are several way to approach archaeological research in terms of theory, the nuts and bolts of the practice of archaeology is pretty standard everywhere. Excavate and record - ideally everything. We dig with an eye to site patterning of course, in addition to the recovery of artifacts. The ideal is to be able to offer a story about what a site looked like and how the people functioned there when it was occupied. Where were the houses, what did they look like and what were they made of, where was the hearth, where did they throw the garbage, how and where did they manufacture the stone tools, where did they get the stone from, where did they make the pottery, where did they keep domesticated animals if they had them, where did they butcher the animals, what plants were they eating, did they bury the dead, where, with what?
All these things are investigated using scientific analytical techniques like radio carbon dating to determine the age of the site, chemical analysis of the soil to discern activity areas, pollen analysis to examine plant remains, lithic analysis to reveal stone tool reduction techniques and sources of raw materials. All of this is description, not very theoretical or controversial, merely presence or absence of material, laundry list archaeology. And this makes it the most popular specialty in archaeological research, it is the least intellectually demanding, all lab work, measuring and weighing rocks, etc… Most are content to do archaeology that has no theoretical content whatsoever, to spend 7 years as a post-grad writing an 80,000 word dissertation describing the assemblage of stone flakes from a lithic scatter at a single site, big research conclusion? They got their rocks from a local source (duh) and the flint knapper was right-handed not left-handed! Who fucking cares?
What ends up happening in practice, in the real world of archaeology, is usually less than ideal. We always have the developers breathing down our necks to finish the job quickly. Keeping 30 archaeologists in the field for a few months seems expensive to them, especially when they don’t appreciate what it is exactly they are paying for. Corners get cut, information gets lost. For example, at the site I worked on in London the terms of the contract with the developer stipulated that we would only go after the Roman component of the site, so we dug out everything else on top of it (2 meters of Dark Ages - Medieval - Victorian stuff, 1600 years worth) with picks and shovels and chucked it on the dirt pile without really looking at it. And if there were any remains of London’s indigenous people (Celts) below the Roman component, we didn’t look for that either. There seems to be a civilized overtone in regards to the treatment of ‘prehistory’ and primitive cultures. the civilized societies, upholding Reason and Science, carry over the imperialism of 'Truth' and 'Objectivity' to justify their own destruction for the sake of 'Progress,' and a part of that is pushing the sanctity of linear time and thought. Things are to be taken literally, and in a strict order with strict purpose.
By being stuck in this straight ahead mentality, searching for 'hard facts,' we downplay the social-cultural importance of myths, replaced with the documented history: the game of conquers and colonizers. Our view of the world has been twisted into one that doesn't allow for a cyclical understanding of self and being. It seems that anthropology and archaeology embody this movement, seeking a past that has been scientifically confirmed rather than one that has been passed on. For this reason we have seen numerous accounts of primitive peoples who have had to deal with cocky anthropologists and archaeologists who 'know the truth'. Is there some kind of middle ground to be reached between the two ways of being, or are there limits on either side?
The scientific paradigm, with roots all the way back to the Enlightenment, has been replacing all other worldviews in terms of its truth value since its inception. It is very difficult now to assert that the earth sits on a turtle’s back, or that humans arose from dream time. Our civilization now finds the answers to the questions about the nature of existence in molecules and mathematical equations, in the biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, engineering and economics taught in institutions across the world.
Yet, I’m not convinced that traditional mythologies or oral histories are more resistant to ideological manipulation, and would assume that people always, if you were to ask them, used ‘reason’. The cosmologies of the Mesopotamians or the Maya must have appeared ‘reasonable’ to adherents. And what is ‘primitive’ science? The first Iron Age metallurgy required an understanding of chemistry and physics, same with making pottery, astronomy is an ancient preoccupation, and the first domestication was essentially primitive applied biology, the earliest genetic manipulation of plants and animals. And just as some of us will resist harmful changes in society, in technology, in power relationships, today, I am sure there were those who resisted ‘progress’ throughout human history.
I think you touch on a very important point here. Science provides us with our modern creation myth in the form of DNA, the Big Bang, etc. - although most would argue that it is more than a myth, that our contemporary ideas about the world reflect reality more than at any other time. This is arrogant and stupid. I’m certain these explanations will not stand the test of time any better than the ones from a few hundred years ago, which we now see as ignorant and quaint. I love reading old books on sociology, psychology, biology, etc. It just demonstrates that our scientifically proven ‘truths’ will someday look as odd and out of step with reality as phrenology or the idea that women are the inferior sex. I can live with the fact that there is no ultimate truth out there to be discovered, only fluid interpretations of the realities we face at the moment, this need not prevent one from taking a stand.
And this is another important point illustrated by anthropology and archaeology - what does accepting the concept of cultural relativism really mean in terms of how one lives life? There have been, and still are, so many different perspectives on some of the most basic elements of living - on child rearing, on the relationships between the sexes, on the treatment of animals, and the legitimacy of authority throughout time. All we need to do is look at the differences of opinion between cultures, even between individuals within cultures, past and present on these matters and we see that worldviews are constantly changing - what appears to be a ‘rational’ belief at one point in time may appear ludicrous later. Even ‘traditional’ belief systems are evolved, certainly not static. What I am interested in is what are the catalysts for these changes and the results they have on our world.
Which traditional belief systems deserve a defense? According to the traditional belief system in the West a couple of hundred years ago, as a woman, I wouldn’t even have been able to engage in this discussion with you. I would not have been able to receive an education and my philosophical musings would not have found an outlet. As a political science student I studied the history of political thought from Plato and Socrates, through Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, to the ‘Founding Fathers’. Not a woman’s voice among them until the late 19th century really in terms of what we learn at university. Does that mean that women in the West thought nothing of politics for the past two-thousand years? What changed, why can I now engage in this activity? In some ‘traditional’ cultures, women still can’t…is this wrong? How can you argue that?
This illustrates an interesting dilemma. Is one time period’s or one culture’s belief system, tradition, mythology, worldview, weltanschauung, whatever you want to call it, better, truer, more rational or enlightened than another? What aspects of a tradition are bad and which are good, on what do you base such a value judgment when we are all captives of ideological manipulation from which there is no escape, no objective point of reference? Which features from my traditional culture do I choose to respect and which do I reject. I have no problem rejecting the Christian myths I was raised with, the central tenets seem ridiculous to me now. I read philosopher Bertrand Russel’s and other’s arguments against Christianity as a youth and promoted such ideas incessantly in arguments at the dinner table with my Catholic family. But I have a harder time deconstructing, for example, a Native American or Taoist traditions where I see proponents as having a right to believe the world is really quite a different place than science says it is (and I actually feel more sympathetic to major portions of those belief systems - a value judgment, where do I get my values?)
It’s best to reject all universalizing tendencies and respect the diversity of opinion that exists, and therefore I guess I have to argue the same thing about the Catholics, that they have a right to stick to their traditional mythology even if it seems irrational, that science provides evidence they are wrong about a lot of things. But what harm is done if we don’t contradict the central notions of a tradition that says, for example, women should obey men, or humans have dominion over all living things. Perhaps cultures are like individuals, no one is all good, or all bad. This is one of the other reasons that studying anthropology can be as confusing as it is enlightening. When it comes to making value judgments about the merits of cultural practices, traditions, myths, where is the point at which you start if there is no objective foundation for critique?
While I do see science is just another worldview among many, I also think it was somehow inevitable that it arose when it did. Up until only about the last 10,000 years distinct cultural groups could live in relative isolation. When cultures came in contact on the peripheries of territories there could be only a few outcomes. They could merge and incorporate various beliefs and customs taken from each, or they would remain apart, possibly warring, and while they might influence each other, especially in terms of changes in material culture and technology, belief systems regarding the origins and nature of humanity, the legitimacy of power, and proper social conduct, though, might remain markedly different, distinct.
We have come to a time now, unprecedented in human history, when almost everyone through mass media, TV and so on, (which has by now infiltrated even the most remote parts of the globe) knows of the existence of everyone else. We have faced the reality that there have been a myriad of worldviews held by the people in distinct geographical regions throughout time, and must now consider the implications of the fact that there is no ‘one way’ of doing or looking at things. Still, diverse peoples all over the globe are compelled to merge. This is a recent development coinciding with the rise of the scientific paradigm. Science’s claims to objectivity act as a way for diverse peoples to interact with one another on a sort of common ground, using a common language, ‘reason’, the scientific method, to come to a agreement about some very fundamental things. There is now a new global culture, and the new global worldview is the scientific paradigm.
Science is taught pretty much the same in universities in Zaire, New Guinea, Guatemala, China, Saudi Arabia - it is a universal language accepted mostly as a result of its utility. You need to know engineering, chemistry and physics to build an oil refinery or nuclear bomb, biology to suppress known diseases, mathematics to run a complex economy, etc. The fact that any diversity still exists in terms of explanations of what human beings are, how the world came into existence is, I fear, to be short lived now. There are no viable alternatives being offered, except in the case of religious belief systems that are now centuries old and becoming more untenable to their proponents with each new generation.
Is the scientific worldview a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t like the Christian worldview any better. I don’t like the mechanistic attitude of science, and there is certainly no inherent ethics or morality to agree or disagree with in it, with the possible exception of this notion of ‘progress’ that assures that only the backward thinking will resist its charms, oppose its supposedly value neutral project. What science does have is an arrogant certainty of its superiority in providing explanations of reality, to be a final authority. I guess it deserves to be despised just on that basis. But I still remain confused in a way, I feel I must pick and choose which elements to incorporate into my own belief system now from all of the belief systems I have become familiar with. (Note* don’t read the self-proclaimed ‘intellectual anarchist’ philosopher Feyerabend if this confusion is a real problem for you, too. I’ll paraphrase his most intriguing assertion…There is only one response to any statement that has ever been made that is always ‘true’ - it is “That’s what you think!”)
We are constantly coming up against the problem of trying to rationally argue against civilization (which I see as an outpour of 'Reason'). But, what we find from this archaeological data or connecting with wildness at any level is a way of life that is beyond the rational/irrational dichotomy.
Those who benefit from civilization also benefit from us having to play by their terms. It seems that there are points at which these kinds of ‘rational’ argument don’t really cut it (not that there is either one or the other). Do you feel that there are certain limits to 'knowledge' or methods? Or that archaeology, as a science, has limits on its dependability?
I see your point about the limits of rationality. Consider all of the evidence for widespread environmental destruction as a result of the project of civilization. The scientists can put ‘the facts’ out there proving we are basically on a course of planetary self-destruction. Describing the effects of global warming, air pollution, habitat destruction, nuclear waste toxicity, over-population, etc., provides ‘rational’ grounds for arguing for changing the cultural practices producing these effects. But rather than suggesting we rethink the project of civilization in light of its detrimental impacts on our relationship with the natural world and make fundamental changes that would really address these concerns, there is this false hope that more and more science and technology will be able ‘fix’ any problems science and technology have created. This illustrates the limits, and the arrogance, of the scientific paradigm. That even in the face of cogent arguments that civilization is the sickness, there exists a belief that in civilization also lies the cure. Is this rational or irrational?
Whether or not ideas are considered rational or irrational seems to have more to do with power than the logical consistency of the arguments offered in support of one position or another. Thriving in this system of oligarchy (rule of the few) that we do requires a pragmatic, Machiavellian stratagem. Those in power will promote the science that serves their aims, and attack the science that would erode their power. It comes down to being less about the elusive, value-neutral and objective face of science in theory, than the actualities of science in practice in the hands of the powerful. The resistance is forced, in a way, to counter-attack on all fronts and one of these fronts is in the realm of science. I see my work as taking place on this battlefield.
You are right, here we are playing by their rules, but as JZ has pointed out, as soon as the use of language became our dominant method of social intercourse we were on the road to symbolic, as opposed to authentic, association. I believe that there is a constant battle going on in our minds and bodies between rationality, as epitomized by the constant intellectualizing of existence that takes place in the realm of language, and real, authentic, sensual experience of each other and the world around us. I know I perceive this personally and I sympathize with your apparent frustration, sometimes the cacophony of voices, of opinions, is overwhelming, disconcerting, better to just act and ask questions later. I know that my inspiration for action comes more from my gut than my mind, I try to make myself trust this facet of my personality more.
In my more cynical moments I worry that my work, my writing might be so much blah, blah, blah. That even having this knowledge of the history of civilization, its costs and consequences, offering cogent arguments against it, producing archaeological evidence to support my conclusions, it is all just talk and wonder if words have the power to change things at all? Like all activist/writers, I imagine, I struggle with trying to find the best way to say things, not wanting to reproduce an ideology or sound dogmatic. Certainly the power of rational, scientific arguments against civilization is limited, the knowledge itself is obviously not enough to produce the desired effect, i.e. the destruction of civilization, or else it would have occurred by now. It takes something more than words, it takes action and part of the way that people arrive at the decision to take action is to have a logically consistent (rational) reasoning for doing so. I wouldn’t argue that my desire to see civilization collapse is irrational, but the rational aspects of my motives represent only part of my commitment. My study of archaeology is ‘dependable’, inasmuch as my search for understanding is an ongoing process that I can always depend on to provide more food for thought.
As I said, I do not see archaeology as an exclusively scientific endeavor. I recognize the political, and even the poetic, aspects of the project of telling the story of humanity. But I do feel compelled to engage my colleagues in a debate about what effects our stories produce, do they support the status quo, the idea that civilization is a ‘good’ thing? Or does the knowledge we produce have within it the most damning indictment of civilization possible? I keep working because I am convinced archaeological theory and data do provide a foundation on which we can construct a profound and compelling critique that may also be used a basis for action.
It is undeniable that a good deal of archaeological work has been digging up people's pasts. A great deal of controversy has arisen when there is the often occurrence of archaeologists digging up grave sites and tearing apart sacred areas. At what point should lines be drawn?
I will always side with the wishes of the indigenous people with regard to the treatment of archaeological sites and remains as a matter of principle. The politics of the present take precedence in my mind. I don’t like nationalistic tendencies, but I understand the realities of the racist past of anthropology and abhor the ongoing political subjugation and marginalization of indigenous peoples. I can sympathize with all colonized people’s desires to assert themselves politically in the present and gain control of their pasts. One interesting exercise I used to do with my students in the UK is ask them to consider how they would feel if Britain had lost WWII, the country occupied and university posts filled by German archaeologists in charge of doing all the archaeology, writing the prehistory and history of England.
Of course, there is no one voice among the Native Americans on this matter so it gets even more complicated. Some Native groups and individuals believe that archaeology shouldn’t be done at all, and some run their own archaeological services or work closely with hired CRM archaeologists because they want to know the things archaeology can discover about ‘their’ past (and this is also an interesting question, whose past is it? It’s very difficult to say that a living population’s ancestors were the ones who created a 10,000 year old site, and in one case I saw the mortal enemies of a group gain possession of their opponents grave goods because the other culture lost the war and this modern tribe’s ancestors then took over the site - strange, that).
And I would say that archaeologists and Native Americans would both agree that sacred sites should be protected and preserved, even though the archaeologists will go in and dig them up once the preservation battle has been lost through the government’s exercise of imminent domain. Even in the legislation regarding archaeological resources it states that avoidance and preservation should be the first choice, if at all possible. But it is not a genuine sentiment as the archaeologists know that if a road or a new prison needs to be built, nothing will stop it and they will do the dig anyway.
What is the knowledge of artifacts? How does this help us?
Langdon Winner, a philosopher who writes about technology has said, “All artifacts have politics.” I think this point can’t be stressed enough. To choose to utilize a particular form of technology is to choose a particular form of social and political life. Take the technological adaptation of domestication. It completely changed those societies who ‘chose’ it. Instead of people meeting their daily needs of food, clothing and shelter by directly interacting with the natural environment as hunter gatherers do, meeting these needs was now mediated by social relationships, for the first time giving one real power over another. The origins of social inequality and the origins of domestication are directly linked. Look at how things changed once the wheel or writing was invented. In recent times, the television, the automobile, the computer - these artifacts have profoundly changed society. The things are now in the saddle and they ride us.
Knowledge of how changes in material culture influence society adds another layer of understanding. Artifacts represent the physical remains of the processes by which cultures change. I remember the first time I read ‘Industrial Society and Its Future’. I thought it was brilliant on this issue of how much technology influences society. There are lots of others who have written about this, Zerzan of course, also Mumford and the Frankfurt School philosophers Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Archaeologists are acutely aware of how technological changes, represented in the archaeological record, precipitate changes in social relationships and human’s relationships with the natural world. They write now about the social life of things, how the artifacts themselves are imbued with social meaning.
Mainstream anarchism’s reluctance to acknowledge the role of material culture in dictating social relationships is its great downfall. On the road with JZ we’ve noticed how the anarchists will always come to argue against the AP perspective and in support of the artifacts of civilization - asserting that we can have our cake (electricity, automobiles, computers) and eat it too (a free anarchist society). This is simply not true, the two are mutually exclusive. All the artifacts we surround ourselves with in civilization require division of labor and control, the antithesis of anarchy, control of a complex network of social relationships to manufacture, distribute and maintain them. Someone has to work on the assembly line, sell things to people, drive the trucks, clean up the shit, and, most importantly, perhaps, manage all of this. A free anarchist society is absolutely impossible to achieve in an industrial society. It seems so obvious to me. As long as we hold on to this false idea that we need all of these artifacts we will continue on this socially and environmentally destructive path called civilization.
So archaeology demonstrates we don’t need civilization, why do people still cling to it? To me this is perhaps the most important question to explore. How do people become convinced that we need all of this to survive, be happy, lead meaningful lives when the exact opposite is true? My hope is that the work of archaeologists, our knowledge of how all artifacts have politics, how technology influences society, will deconstruct this fundamental notion of the benefits of civilization.
Do you feel that there's a bit of defeatism in archaeology? An understanding that someone is going to dig these up or plow over them, maybe we should try and learn from them or 'preserve' them? Is there an alternative to that take on things?
I have real problems with this, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality. Joining them is the worst thing we can do. What ends up happening to all this information we are getting paid to preserve? It is a well-known and oft lamented fact that the vast majority of archaeological reports produced will just end up filed in the basements of State Historic Preservation Offices, never seen by anyone again. Technically, the reports are the property of the client and the archaeologists can’t release them without the client’s permission. Often the clients don’t want the fact that they are destroying a community’s cultural heritage publicized, so it is a vicious circle. Yes, we are preserving the information, but only a very small portion of the population will ever have a chance to consider it. Archaeologists tend to publish highly technical reports that are inaccessible to the public. All the artifacts will be taken out of the community and put into storage in the basements with the reports.
The work we do is relevant to the present. People find archaeology interesting. When we swoop into a small town rural Kentucky we interact with the locals, check into a motel, go drink in the local bars. Someone will always ask what we are doing there. “We are archaeologists”. “Wow, what are you doing here? My grandfather found an arrowhead once down by the creek….there is an old cabin in the woods by my house…what are you finding?” We cant say for sure whether or not making someone aware of the prehistory and history of their community will result in a life changing experience that prompts them to question authority and join the revolution, but the more knowledge people have - about the way things were, and the way things are now, for that matter - the better in my opinion. It gives a sense of perspective that is missed without an understanding of history.
I’ve always argued that archaeology needs to be more than elites satisfying the intellectual curiosity of other elites. I do archaeology with an overtly political agenda, a radical one. I believe the knowledge produced by archaeologists has revolutionary potential. I use archaeological research to support an argument that an anarchist society is not only possible, but preferable. I use my understanding of the history of civilization to critique it. So I’ve made a deal with the devil, I work on archaeological sites ahead of development projects, but always with an eye to using this knowledge to subvert the dominant paradigm, to argue for revolutionary social change. I have a very hard time relating to people who don’t give a shit, including other archaeologists. I get angry with those who think it is all just about making a living and finding cool stuff. That’s why I write as much about the politics of archaeology as I do green anarchism. I think all archaeologists are potential green anarchists if they would just get over this feeling of disempowerment. Archaeologists are as apathetic as most people, and it is worse for them because they know!
If my study of archaeology is an attempt to better comprehend reality in order to effect change in the world I live in, so far the results have been pretty disappointing. The reality that really speaks to me does not come from intellectual engagement, rather it comes from this place I always come back to, where I am now. What grounds me, what inspires me is hearing the sound of this river in the background, seeing the way the steep, forested mountain looks in sunshine of the fall with the hawk circling against the blue sky, an occasional interaction with fox, elk, bear, deer, chipmunk, squirrel, porcupine, raccoon, possum, or skunk, learning when to plant and harvest my garden, when the blackberries, chestnuts, mushrooms, apples, pears, and grapes are ready for collecting. I look for what is real about the world in nature, where I can connect with what exists beyond the boundaries of civilization. Here I am one living thing living among other living things. Perhaps in my study of prehistory I find the world I wished I lived in, and I believe I share this feeling with others and seek to communicate with them.
I suppose all activists feel they never do enough, are always looking for more effective ways to fight. What action can I take that would make a difference? One of the things that antagonistic opponents will always say when confronted with AP thought is, “Well, if you really believe people should live that way, why don’t you?” My answer has pretty much remained the same for the past two decades - I want to, I will, someday. But for now I feel I have to stay and fight, I feel my own personal escape would be self-serving at this point in time. So I write, I riot, I lecture, I study, I argue about philosophy and politics with friends and enemies, I throw pies at figures of authority and try to support my comrades. I wait and watch for signs that civilization is collapsing and hope, in some small way, I can help give it a push.