Re: poststructuralism and archaeology

Mon, 11 Apr 1994 16:17:00 EDT

Mike Lewis asks about poststructuralism and the implications for doing
archaeology as understood and taught in US universities. I like this
question, and it is in part this question that led me to consider
designing a seminar in which to explore the possible ramifications.

Much of the discussion about defining poststructuralism, particularly
that presented in simplistic and dismissive terms, indicates to me that
there is a lot of room to explore issues poststructuralism raises but
which are not necessarily widely understood. I not only consider the
French guys here, but also more recent work produced in such areas as
film studies that takes a different approach to applying poststructuralism.

For me and for the research that I am doing, the important thing about
poststructuralism is that it is about epistemology, in a loose sense.
Problems I have had with archaeology that til now has borrowed from
poststructuralism begin with what I see is a failure to address substantive
issues poststructuralism raises. To take this to two posts on the list
by way of example, rather than teaching students geological techniques
as a reaction, why not examine the move to geology within the social
science of archaeology? Rather than wondering what poststructuralism
can do for an examination of stones, bones, and sites, how about making
those practices an object of study around which different archaeologies
could either be recognized or develop? Why I would like to organize a
seminar is not to teach other people how to do a poststructuralist
archaeology, but to lay down some terrain on which others can begin to
step outside some of the normal confines (_a prioris_ or givens) and
imagine some really different possibilities.

I found my own work in eastern Africa, which involved ethnoarchaeology and
questions of the origins of agriculture, untenable after some of the
critiques I came across in poststructuralism. Unfortunately there weren't
satisfactory models to adopt (this may be better prefaced with
"fortunately"), so I had to develop my practice on my own. The impetus
was not poststructuralism, that was a catalyst. The impetus came from
examining field archaeology in rural Africa and realizing that what I had
set out to do, what I had learned, what I had understood as givens simply
could not be constituted in the same way in that other context. The
definition of "the past" became an issue, truth and progress were implicated.
My research now involves detailed archival work, analysis of oral histories
and traditions, both of which require language skills archaeologists (and
many social and cultural anthropologists these days) simply do not usually
find the need to obtain. I do not treat excavation as a defining element
of archaeology, which is a conservative position if you check look into it.
That position is also historically interesting, more so than positing that
what we do and learn in the university community today is any more than
broadly analgous to what "archaeologists" were doing in the 1930s, for

I would be happy to explore this in greater depth with Mike Lewis or others
either on the list or directly. But to sum up, I'm less interested in
saying that my research forms the model, or that there is a correct
poststructuralist archaeology to be done than in exploring what some of the
possibilities are with poststructuralism. This would include looking at my
work, but would more importantly involve others working very hard to come
to terms with poststructuralist writers and to use what they learn to
push archaeology where they, then, would feel it could go. The results, I
think, would be pretty stimulating.

Jim Ellison

p.s. Chris Pound: You would benefit by looking for the death of the author
in structuralism and for subject formation in poststructuralism.