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Archaeology and the Speculative Turn

10 minute presentation for "Worlds Otherwise": Archaeology, Theory, and Ontological Difference, TAG 2010, Brown University.

Christopher Witmore

on 21 October 2010

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Transcript of Archaeology and the Speculative Turn

Archaeology and the Speculative Turn Christopher Witmore Speculative Realism Texas Tech University Two PRINCIPLES The Ontic The Democratic The Speculative turn The speculative turn refers to a renewed concern with realism and materialism in continental philosophy. there is no difference that does not make a difference (Levi Bryant) human/nonhuman relations are no more privileged than relations between inanimate objects (Graham Harman) The Corinthian Puteal amphora 22.212 Common ambition to unsettle post-Kantian correlationalist thought. (Correlationalism is the the doctrine that holds two poles of reality—consciousness and the physical world—as co-originary.)

You can be labeled as correlationist if you only talk about human-world interactions.

SR tentatively scrutinizes paths forward into the world without recourse to understandings of the world as it appears to human beings.

There is no fixed gap, separation or chasm between humans and other actors in the world.

Animal life, relations between objects free of human beings, the world indifferent to humanity is no longer abandoned to the natural sciences.

Otherwise the the advocates of SR diverge as much as they agree on the ways forward. an enduring object? Objects are assumed to have an inner core, an essence, that remains unaltered despite the adventures in change that occur around it.
This is to endow “things of the past” with a determinative specificity that renders subsequent actor-relations as purely derivative.
Objects are assumed to sustain themselves on their own, free of aid, as if by some inner force or inerta.

Alfred North Whitehead refers to this as a ‘vacuous actuality’.
For Whitehead, rock-cut voids do not exist free of their relations, but as things they always gather, they are always aggregates and this has implications as to their reality.
The Ontic principle relates to Latour's principle of irreduciblity: things are neither reducible nor irreducible to anything esle.
There are many realities to a rock-cut void in the Valley of Kings. But what makes this a tomb in the Valley of Kings in 1817?

The mummy of Seti I had been transfered to a tomb at Deir el-Bahri over 3 millennia earlier, and this cache was not found till 1881.
In the 19th century the Valley was known as Biban el-Moluk, the ‘Gate of the Kings’.
By the third intermediate period what comes to be called KV 17 had been completely robbed out.
In the Greco-Roman period the excavated voids became a tourist attraction and, among other things, an attractive destination for passing the day.
In the Byzantine period, the voids were transformed into habitations for hermits who lived in the Valley.
Another former tomb, KV 3, was even transformed into a chapel.
These voids subsequently become catchment basins for sediment generated during flash floods that periodically occur in the Valley. Example: The tomb of Seti I was discovered by Giovanni Belzoni in 1817 in the Valley of Kings. the Corinthian Puteal Perpetual perishing and incessant novelty.
Remember, there is no difference that does not make a difference.
Because every new relation results in a transformation, no matter how large, no matter how small, there is a transformation in the reality of a thing.
In this way the Corinthian puteal is an on-going series of events.
A wellhead
An object of veneration
A gift to Notará
an antiquity for sale in Zante
a garden decoration at 24 St. James Place in London
what comes to be the “Corinthian puteal” is multiple in its ongoing figuration.
Not so much an object as a project, as a performance.
As such The past does not sustain itself on its on, but has to be worked for.
Importantly, this is not to say that things are reducible to their relations-they hold something in reserve. Amphora 22.212 If things are actively happening with the Corinthian Puteal; then with Amphora 22.212 we take a closer look at the network of relations, actors, and labor that goes into its constant renegotiation, renewal or stabilization, so to speak.
The synthetic environment of a museum exists to do precisely this—maintain a pot as a 2500 year-old black-figure amphora.
The democratic principle stipulates all these relations be placed on the same footing-the amphora too, is a participant.
A flat ontology helps one not to decide in advance what part things should play in the world (we will return to this).
This is the principle of symmetry (helps to avoid the strife between intentional social players and objective matter).
“all things equally exist, . . . they do not exist equally" (Ian Bogost). Care is a distributed set of relations participants in this course of action—conservator, acrylic resins, curator, Rubbermaid utility carts, cotton gloves, elevator gaps, polyethylene foam and so forth—and every member of this litany of entities comprehend (or to evoke Whitehead’s terminology, ‘prehend’) the amphora differently.
Here a clarification is necessary: for me to suggest that there are no distinctions between resins, carts, installation crews and air conditioning would be foolish.
To the contrary, the world is brimming with bewildering diversities of entities with their own idiosyncratic actions, genealogies, properties, qualities, roles, and so forth.
The democratic principle emphasizes how relations are a problem for all entities.
Graham Harman: other entities “interpret each other as much as we interpret them.”
The democratic principle, however, implies more than an attempt to grant dignity to things—an esteem that they formerly lacked.
This is also about the recomposition of what it is to be human 1) How do we reconcile generalized ontologies (meta-ontologies) with anthropological specificity? Questions The Ontic principle states that utter specificity matters.
If we wish specify the furniture of the world in advance then we have already set out the grounds for our study and we thereby undermine the possibility of understanding how the actors deploy their own modes of existence.
The Democratic principle grants dignity to all entities.
We should be aware of imposing any arbitrary limits upon the range of entities at work in a particular situation. It is a question of where to start. Always in medias res—in the midst of things.
For me, being aware of these obstacles more than opens us up to the work things do, it is an exercise in good empirical practice.
A greater freedom of movement comes with placing all entities on the same footing and it helps us to understand how to respect shifting ontologies—something I attempted to do with Amphora 22.212. 2) Is it possible to take a comparative approach to ontological inquiry in archaeology? So long as to undertake a comparative approach to ontological inquiry is to not assume one reality at the expense of others, this is a good thing. 3) Is the instability of categories and material integral to archaeological inquiry? Whitehead’s ontological principle stipulates “There is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere,” Alfred North Whitehead famously stated, because “[e]verything in the actual world is referable to some actual entity.”
Actual entities are always perpetually perishing and incessantly novel.
For Whitehead to think otherwise is an abstraction, a simplification.

On these grounds, archaeology becomes as an ongoing and necessary struggle in the face of perpetual perishing. 4) How does an ontological approach change the way we manage archaeological evidence? (thematic questions raised by the conference organizers) Everything changes with what we are here calling an ontological approach.
“Ta archaia”, a tomb or a wellhead maybe, but they are also a lot of other things in addition.
In a shift from “ta archaia’ to ‘pragmata’—a term which designates a ‘deed’, ‘an act’, ‘an affair’, a ‘circumstance’, a ‘contested matter’, a ‘thing’—I have used the term ‘pragmatology’ to capture something of the plurality of things.
Archaeology becomes one orientation of many, or several orientations of many, but archaeologists cannot be indifferent to all these other differences, all these other realities of things.

It is about what constitutes good empirical work and a fidelity to the richness and multiplicity of the things we deem to be of the past.
The world becomes far more interesting, pluralistic, relevant and refreshing. So the answer is YES. Why?
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