Reading About Ontology & Animism in Archaeology

SwansThis is a response paper I wrote recently for my Materiality and Agency course.

Response Paper

The practical applications of the theory presented in this week’s assigned readings are thoughtful and generally well reasoned and the critique of interpretive archaeological approaches is sound. Viveiros de Castro’s (1998) demonstration of how Amazonian people experience corporeality and subject perspectives of others, Alberti and Marshall’s (2009) exploration of La Candelaria pottery as being more than metaphors, Overton and Hamilakis’s (2013) description of the sensual experience of killing and sharing environments with swans, McNiven’s (2013) portrayal of the relationships between hunter, prey—both living and dead—and ancestors in Torres Strait, and Weismantel’s (2013) portrayal of the experience of witnessing Chavin in situ are all creative, fresh perspectives that are necessary to challenge the assumptions of dated archaeological epistemologies. However, the usage of ontology and epistemology by these authors is problematic and seem to stem from fundamental misinterpretations of the meaning of ontology and epistemology that are rooted in legitimate critiques of earlier archaeological literatures.

Vivieros de Castro and Overton and Hamilakis describe the first critique as ethnocentrism and Alberti and Marshall describe it as the problem of worldviews. They claim that there is a Western ontology that pushes particular notions, such as the nature-society divide (Viveiros de Castro 1998:473), into the past and across space through archaeological engagement. This ethnocentric ontology, they argue, is seen as truth and objective, while indigenous ontologies are reduced to epistemologies or worldviews (Alberti and Marshall 2009:345) and seen as myth or fantasy. The solution they present is to recognize multiple relational ontologies (Alberti and Marshall 2009:345, Vivieros de Castros 1998:483, McNiven 2013:110). Additionally, several of the authors provide a second critique that the separation of material and meaning, which stems from, what they call, Western ontology. This constructivist perspective, they argue places too much emphasis on representation, metaphor, and human-centric meaning making (Alberti and Marshall 2009:351, McNiven 2013:111, Overton and Hamilakis 2013:113).

Their critiques are not misplaced. However, they appear to have mistaken Western ethnocentrism as ontology, where what they describe is rather an epistemology. If ontology is what is and how what is comes into being, then there can only be one ontology. However, the experience of what is and the knowledge about what is can be innumerable; this is epistemology. We—that is Western academics—have conflated our epistemologies with ontology, which I would argue is a process that occurs across cultures and is not unlike Bourdieu’s description of doxa. Rather than further conflating other’s epistemologies with ontology, we must recognize our epistemologies for what they are: our experience and knowledge of ontology, which can never encompass the intricacy of ontology—even though valiant attempts have been made (see, for example, Latour’s networks and Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome).

Ontology, thus, can contain the infinite connections and attributes of existence and epistemologies can describe the connections and attributes that are relevant to the actors (both human, non-human, and material), contexts, knowledges and practices involved in the experience of what is. This does not elevate one epistemology as truth and reduce another to myth. It does not convert ontology to the material and it does not construct epistemology as superorganic culture or meaning. However, this does open up the possibility for archaeologists (and other social scientists) to recognize the fluidity, variability, and ephemeral nature of our experience and knowledge. It allows us to recognize and set aside our epistemologies in order to explore new epistemologies, to play with new experiences, and to discover new connections and new knowledges.

Failing to hold ontology and epistemology as coherent categories leads to messy and sloppy analyses, especially in the work of archaeologists who are attempting to re-experience materials from the past. For example, Overton and Hamilakis (2013:128) described the experience of skinning swans as an emotionally charged event due to the sensual experience. They portray this analysis as an alternative ontology that allows them to explore the “developing biography of the relationship between humans and known swans” (2013:129) as if their analysis was the truth or reality of some past people channelled to the present by the archaeologists. By representing their analysis as an alternative ontology they seem to create false credibility for their experience of the artifacts. If they had presented the example as an alternative epistemology, they would have left open space for other experiences. Instead, their example privileged the attributes and connections that would be relevant to their sensorial experience of skinning a swan, such as the “visual impact of red blood on white plumage” and “skinned corpses with soft white skins” (2013:128). It is not a far stretch to expect someone raised in a milieu of Judeo-Christian and Western epistemologies to hone in on the attributes that are often contrasted to represent purity and violence. So, rather than explore a new epistemology, Overton and Hamilakis supplant the immense possibility of ontology with their own deeply rooted epistemologies and superficially created the appearance of a new ontology. The vast possibilities of ontology, when not conflated with epistemologies, could have allowed for a greater degree of play and imagination while engaging the experience of skinning a swan. and could have left space for true alterity—alterity over time, between peoples, between species, and between individuals.

References Cited

Alberti, Benjamin and Yvonne Marshall.
2009 Animating Archaeology: Local Theories and Conceptually Open-ended Methodologies. Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 19(3):344-56.

McNiven, Ian.
2013 Between the Living and the Dead: Relational Ontologies and the Ritual Dimensions of Dugong Hunting Across Torres Strait. In Relational Archaeologies: Humans/Animals/Things. Christopher Watts, ed. Pp. 21-41. Routledge, London and New York.

Overton, Nick J. and Yannis Hamilakis.
2013 A Manifesto for a Social Zooarchaeology: Swans and Other Beings in the Mesolithic. Archaeological Dialogues. 20(2):111-136.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo.
1998 Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 4:469-488.

Weismantel, Mary.
2013 Inhuman Eyes: Looking at Chavin de Huantar. In Relational Archaeologies: Humans/Animals/Things. Christopher Watts, ed. Pp. 21-41. Routledge, London and New York.

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