Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Time Machine Leftists at the WAC

One place you can still find people whose worldview is frozen in 1968 is the World Archaeological Congress. Consider this symposium, organized by two Brazilian archaeologists:
Description: Contract archaeology (CA, from hereafter) —variously known as CRM, urgent, and rescue archaeology— can be defined as the way the discipline engages capitalist expansion, sacrificing its critical stance. Its impact is so pervasive that a significant number of archaeologists work for that growing market. By doing so, they have abandoned any possible intervention in contemporary issues in order to dance to the  rhythm of money. . . .

Are archaeologists conscious about their complicity with the market and capitalist mandates? If so, how do they accommodate a practice that calls for social justice and accountability while at the same time working with and for capitalist projects that bypass social demands? Is it possible to practice a decolonizing archaeology in a CA program? The non-reflexive complicity of most archaeologists with CA has created a public space in which capitalism demands archaeological expertise —as a means of appeasing the vigilance of heritage protectors (themselves providers of capitalist/humanistic products)— and archaeology happily provides it. Thus the relationship between archaeology and capitalist expansion  appears as an innocent instrumentality, as a mere technical service that avoids probing the conditions under which such a relationship unfolds, the principles (if any) that are at stake, and possible scenarios in which complicity is replaced by critical engagement. 
Among the topics they propose to discuss are:
(b) how CA has abated the critical stance of archaeology towards the global order and —the struggle for social justice, including engaging alternative social/historical worldviews— by an overt complicity with market mandates; (c) how CA has turned the past into a commodity and local communities as its consumers; and (d) how CA has diminished the  possibility for the discipline to re-build its metaphysical and ontological apparatus, already clearly hierarchical and neocolonial.
This has been circulated in the US by people who find it offensive. I find it hilarious. It's like running into a VW microbus full of hippies in tie-dyed shirts shouting slogans about turning on, tuning in and dropping out.

I particularly like the locution "capitalist/humanistic products." This is tough guy Marxism at its most rigorous, casually dismissing your attempts to sugar coat the grim reality of the system with sentimental crap like preserving historic neighborhoods. No, nothing short of  revolution -- excuse me, Revolution -- is worth undertaking. To the barricades! Use your shovels to dig some bomb shelters, not more complicitly neocolonial test units.

I do have a serious response, which goes something like this: there is precious little an archaeologist can do, as an archaeologist, about the injustice of the world. Since 1968, the academic leftist critique of capitalism has had zero impact on how the world is run. People who want their work to be about changing the world should become labor activists or run for office and leave archaeology to those of us who want to learn about the past.

Changing the world is very hard. And yet the world does change, in response to the demands of millions. In the way I vote, the way I have raised my children, by giving money to certain causes and candidates, I have tried in small ways to help it change. But I do not expect our fundamental economic structure to change very much any time soon. So I have, as I have said several times, found a comfortable niche within the system where I can support my family in a reasonably interesting way, without too many moral compromises. Viva accommodation!

And now excuse me while I go dance to the rhythm of money.


Miri Textiles said...

I'm an editor at a CRM firm in the Southwest and your post is very timely to me! I was just discussing this very thing with a colleague the other day. We are conscious of this schism that you describe and our complicity with capitalism/corporatism. We comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are at least documenting the remains, even though they are often bulldozed over. And while I agree with you that the WAC statements are melodramatic, I/we do see their point. There are some agencies that encourage companies like ours to recommend as many sites as possible ineligible for the national register, so that construction/mining/drilling/whatever can commence... This is something that scares us.

John said...

We all do what we can. What else are we supposed to do?