It’s August 2nd, 2018 and we’re preparing to depart from Tromsø for Honningsvåg to meet the fishing boat that will take us to the remote peninsula of Svaerholt.  We will first go to Finland to pick up supplies.  This part of our journey takes us two days, but the drive is breathtakingly beautiful.  I’ve lived in some truly gorgeous places in the United States, but I’ve never seen anything like I see here.  Along the way there are endless mountain peaks, rivers, and reindeer.  Indeed, crossing the border to Finland, the first thing we see ambling along the side of the road is a reindeer running along like a jogger in the States.  It takes an incredible amount of supplies to go on an expedition like this and we’ll have to carry them all to our camp from the beach when we reach Svaerholt.  That day will be one of the most physically demanding I’ve ever experienced.

Prior to departing, they have taken me to the Archaeology Department at University of Tromsø.  They show me where they store the finds from previous digs and expeditions.  There are handwheel doors similar to those that you would find on a ship and behind them are boxes and boxes of carefully catalogued and bagged materials.  Stein Farstadvoll pulls out a couple boxes at random and we go into another room to explore their contents.  There are bags upon bags of rusting nails, fish hooks, fish bones, shards of porcelain pottery, bits of the clogs that the prisoners wore, schnaps bottles from the prison camp (which are both surprising and suggestive), and other things besides.  As I look at the catalogue scheme, I can’t help but think of Latour’s article “Circulating Reference” in Pandora’s Hope.  There, right before me, is a stage in the referential process.  I won’t see other stages until three days later when I help to dig trenches in middens in the cold gray rain of Svaerholt.    I express a feeling of being overwhelmed to Chris Witmore, that I don’t know how to put all of this together.  I feel as if I’ve been confronted with the categorization system Foucault describes at the beginning of The Order of Things.  He smiles and makes the melancholy observation that occasionally an archeologist dies and we lose the thread that ties and links these things together.  I’m crushed by this thought and have been thinking about it ever since.

read on!

I’m still processing what I saw on this trip and struggling to synthesize it in a useful theoretical and philosophical way.  In a gorgeous article entitled “Archaeology and the New Materialisms” published in in The Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, Witmore closes the article with a discussion of archaeology as a care for things.  This echoes the battle cry of the symmetrical archaeologists as “the discipline of things”.  Paraphrasing Bjørnar Olsen, he says that “…this care implies an appreciation for an entities well-being and a respect for it in its own being” (219).  There is something of Heidegger’s sein lassen here, and an entire ethic follows from this.  Chris is careful to emphasize that this doesn’t entail treating a bit of broken porcelain pottery as being of equal value as a human value, but it does imply a certain reverence(?) for things, treating them with care, allowing them to emerge from themselves and out of themselves, refusing that move that would immediately subordinate them to categorical and interpretive schemes.  The symmetrical archaeologists are making a call for us to go to the things themselves.

In this care for things, I think there is something similar to Husserl’s phenomenological epoche.  In the phenomenological epoche we are to suspend the natural attitude so as to describe the structure of intentionality or the manner in which the objects of our consciousness are given to us in and through consciousness.  This first reduction is characterized as a “bracketing” of the existence of things independent of how they are given.  The archaeological epoche, I think, is something different.  In their 2012 article “Archaeologies of the Dead?” in The Journal of Archaeology, Jeff Love and Michael Ming contrast the work of archaeology with that of history.  Often the archaeological endeavor is subordinated to the narratives of history, to a preexisting historical narrative that provides an interpretive framework guiding what the archaeologist expects to find in their surveys and excavations.  We might think of this as analogous to the difference between psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.  The psychotherapist already knows what they will find as a result of their categorical and interpretive scheme.  They fit the words of the patient into that scheme.

This approach generates a certain deafness to the words of the patient because the therapist already knows what they will find.  This situation is even worse with medicalized models of therapy heavily reliant on the DSM and its categorical system that treats various psychic maladies as being similar to diseases like the flu.  Ideally in a psychoanalytic context, by contrast, there is a certain learned ignorance on the part of the analyst so as to hear the speech of the analysand.  The analyst refuses the impulse to understand so as to care for the speech of the analysand and let that speech speak its singular truth.  As Lacan somewhere says, each new analysis should, in principle, put all of analysis on trial, allowing it to be fully transformed.  We see this in the way Lacan read texts.  In approaching a corpus of work like Joyce’s writings, Lacan never assimilated these texts to extant psychoanalytic categories, but rather he allowed the text to transform psychoanalysis.  The encounter with the text– whether it be Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Kant, the work of Cantor, Quine, and Wittgenstein, Descartes, etc., etc., etc. –is not confirmation of a pre-existing categorical scheme, but rather transforms that scheme.  Something new emerges.  In this regard, Lacan in his practice of reading and listening seems to discover a practice beyond the philosophical circle described and critiqued by Laruelle.

Something similar is at work in the archaeological epoche.  The archaeological epoche practiced by the symmetrical archaeologists aims at a bracketing of the totalizing and overdetermining narratives of history and historical consciousness.  In their provocative declaration that archaeology is the discipline of things– a declaration that is rife with consequences that I hope to explore more here in the future –the symmetrical archaeologists are, in effect, calling for us to let the things themselves speak.  And just as the Lacanian analyst’s refusal to understand allows something like a genuine hearing to take place– or, at least in the Rome Discourse period of Lacan’s teaching, for something like a full speech to take place on the part of the analysand –the symmetrical archaeologist’s refusal of overdetermining historical narratives and categorical schemes in the name of bricolage and uncertainty allows something of the past that is now to speak.  Drawing on Proust, Bergson, and Deleuze, Olsen speaks of an involuntary material memory that occurs in our encounter with the things of the archaeological record, ruins, landfills, and drift.  There is a forced recollection of something here that we do not encounter in the face of totalizing historical narratives.  In coming days I hope to explore more of this past that is now, because it both helps me to understand so much of what confused me in the sites and projects they had chosen, and because I think it is rife with implications for how we understand the world about us and the concepts of society and heritage.  That aside, I think this care of things signals a different attunement to the world about us and our engagement with us that we would do well to adopt for reasons that far exceed archaeological concerns.  As Witmore emphatically said to me in the car driving to the city from which we would depart to reach Oslo by plain, “The time is now!  We have to tell this story!  We have to make these things visible!  We have a duty to do this!”  These were both hopeful and melancholy thoughts in the face of climate change.  And as we discussed this, we thought of the difference between those Stone Age homes whose foundations we stood in on the isthmus in Svaerholt and our own homes.