Weary Po-Mo Platitudes

i-ec00eec9973fc9df83e58ead5f11d4d7-charlotte1.jpgBrowsing through the reviews section of the current issue of Antiquity, I came across a confusing and irritating piece (behind a paywall) by one Dr. Charlotte Whiting. She works for the Council for British research in the Levant and is based in Amman in Jordan. Her review article treats three recent books on the Iron Age of the southern Levant, in other words, what is commonly known as Biblical archaeology. Though I entered archaeology as a shovel grunt on Tel Hazor in the Galilee, I know very little of this subject. I have read none of the books Whiting discusses; my complaint isn’t about that. What raises my hackles is a series of snarky hyper-relativistic phrases that mark Whiting out as the kind of lingering 1990s post-modernist that is all too common in my discipline. What confused me was that those distasteful soundbites are interleaved with sensible rationalistic arguments that are quite at odds with hyper-relativism.

Many Sb readers, perhaps mainly being interested in the natural sciences and looking at them from a U.S. perspective, may be blissfully ignorant of what “post-modernist hyper-relativism” means. Put briefly, post-modernist sociology of science observed that all science takes place under its own social circumstances, and documented that these circumstances may bias the results, which are thus to some extent relative to the situation where they were produced. I say “may bias” and “to some extent”. The hyper-relativistic wing of this school of thought holds that the results are in fact constructed in and by the situation, and that no objective knowledge whatsoever is attainable. This, if true, would in my opinion be a strong argument for closing down all universities and research institutions. Luckily it is false, as shown for instance by the fact that the computer screen you’re looking at right now actually works.

Writes Whiting,

“Kletter provides an essential volume for allowing historiographical studies of the archaeology of the southern Levant to be undertaken — a crucial step to developing self-reflexive and critical archaeological practice.”

What this means is that Whiting feels that before anyone can do any useful work in the archaeology of an area, there must be comprehensive research into the history of archaeological research there, which has constructed the current consensus in the field. This attitude is typical of post-modernists, who often prefer to study researchers rather than do actual research in a discipline. Of course, such metastudies would be subject to the same relativity as the primary studies the post-modernist aims to deconstruct, which leads to an infinite regression and makes it all a big waste of time.

In my opinion, historiographical studies of archaeological research may offer some value to students of those recent decades under study — but little to help actual archaeology. And I cannot but notice that real historians of science rarely pay any attention to such histories of archaeology: they’re written and read by people trained in archaeology itself as an act of collective in-house navel gazing.

“The importance of the sequences of absolute dates provided by these studies cannot be underestimated. Indeed, they are the crucial first step towards providing a platform from which future scholarship can begin to develop new and alternative interpretations of the south Levantine Iron Age.”

I hardly know where to begin. Dr Whiting, I am confident that south Levantine archaeology knows a lot about the area’s Iron Age. I mean, intelligent scholars have been working there for ages. There can be no need to wipe the slate clean and “begin to develop new and alternative interpretations”. Because, you see, the main task of a scholar is to find out what the world is or has been like. I don’t care if an interpretation is new or alternative: all I want to know is if it is well supported by good data and likely to be correct. There is no value in heaping conflicting interpretations upon the data without weeding out false ones. We are not art critics.

A structural engineer who cannot say if a bridge is likely to survive the weight of a train should not be paid. An ichtyologist who cannot say if a certain fish species likes high salinity should not be paid. An archaeologist who cannot say what life was like a long time ago should not be paid. Because archaeology is not art criticism. It is about a real material record left behind by real people who lived in a single real past.

“Rather than grapple with
the complex methodological and theoretical problems concerning chronology and the way chronological information is used to interpret the archaeological record … many of the articles in this section still uncritically attempt to tie the archaeological record to spot events in recorded history. … Despite new chronological data, many contributions in this volume seem unable to move beyond traditional interpretative methods, resulting in a fruitless quest for the ‘correct’ chronology …”

Good Biblical archaeology, like all historical archaeology, can only be done with the aid of good source criticism. But why on Earth would an archaeologist want to put scare quotes around the word “correct” in relationship to chronology? Every single object we handle has been made, used, modified, deposited, re-deposited and excavated at certain dates. Chronological research aims at finding these dates out — correctly. Without correct chronology, we cannot learn about the actual past. Such research is no more fruitless than any other scientific endeavour where models are gradually improved as new data and methodology become available. We keep learning.

Then suddenly Dr. Whiting snaps out of her po-mo Ms Hyde mode for a while and starts saying eminently sensible things like

“[H]ow can future researchers assess the reliability of the dated samples if their context is not adequately presented to allow an assessment of contextual integrity?”


“The geo-archaeological and chronological investigations of the so-called ‘Negev fortresses’ provide new perspectives on Iron Age activity in this area and offer exciting opportunities for comparison with arid areas in southern Jordan.”

But she descends into buzzwords again, ending with this gem:

“Since the past as presented by archaeologists is created, they present their own versions of the past.”

Since the stars as presented by astronomers are created, they present their own versions of the stars. Since zebra fish as presented by ichtyologists are created, they present their own versions of zebra fish. Since corn as presented by plant geneticists is created, they present their own versions of corn. That, Dr. Whiting, is a platitude and a silly one.

Still, I have hope for Dr. Whiting. She’s a seasoned fieldworker with many apparently quite solid publications to her name. I’m sure she could learn to drop the pretentious anything-goes vocabulary yet retain her solid good sense. Because that other stuff is, like, so 1992. And it’s nonsense.

Update 21 April: Dear Reader Christina suggested that I add a link to a paper on these issues (Eng/Swe versions available) that I published in 1995. Readers with some grasp of Scandinavian may also want to have a look at this other paper of mine from 2005.


23 thoughts on “Weary Po-Mo Platitudes

  1. …may be blissfully ignorant of what “post-modernist hyper-relativism” means.

    It’s easy to suspect that such a construction doesn’t have any meaning in a rigorous sense.

    “Since the past as presented by archaeologists is created, they present their own versions of the past.”

    So why are you on ScienceBlogs at all? Doesn’t sound like you’re doing science. 🙂

    Interesting article. I know very little about post-modern hyper-whatsit anything, partly because the terminology and perceived attitudes make my eyes glaze over.

    I enjoy your blog, by the way. One small niggle …

    I came across a confusing and irritating piece

    A “requires payment” warning by that link would have been a friendly touch.


  2. I actually share post-modern attitudes to some extent (just as you noted “some bias” and “some extent”). It’s quite evident in Soviet international law, that it was ideologically biased. While at the same time I position such an approach as a method of scholarly critisism, not universal (academic?) worldview as Dr. Whiting seemingly does.


  3. Scott: If “science” implies natural science to you, then I am no scientist. But in German and Scandinavian languages, the word Wissenschaft and its cognates covers all systematic and source-critical inquiry into what the world is and has been like. To denote natural science, we say Naturwissenschaft etc. In my opinion, there is no essential difference between wissenschaftlich work in particle physics and history.

    Denis: of course a set of laws is ideologically determined. The question is if we are able to state anything objective about what these laws (or these stars, or these frogs, or these Stone Age villages) are or were actually like. I believe we do.


  4. “the word Wissenschaft and its cognates covers all systematic and source-critical inquiry into what the world is and has been like. To denote natural science, we say Naturwissenschaft etc. In my opinion, there is no essential difference between wissenschaftlich work in particle physics and history.”

    I didn’t know the German/Scandinavian term, but this is just how I think of science and history, as different ways of exploring the world and how it works. You put it more elegantly than I could.
    Though it seems to me there’s a difference between fields where prospective controlled experiments can be done to test a hypothesis (e.g. medical science, where if you want to find out whether Drug A works better than Drug B in patients with Condition C, you can set up a prospective trial and find out), and fields where they can’t (e.g. evolutionary biology, where if you want to find out whether the dinosaurs disappeared because of an asteroid you can’t go back to the Cretaceous, divert the asteroid and see if they survive).


  5. Scott: If “science” implies natural science to you, then I am no scientist. But in German and Scandinavian languages, the word Wissenschaft and its cognates covers all systematic and source-critical inquiry into what the world is and has been like. To denote natural science, we say Naturwissenschaft etc. In my opinion, there is no essential difference between wissenschaftlich work in particle physics and history.

    Ah … we seem to have a cross-cultural misunderstanding here. I was most definitely not trying to imply that what you do is not science. It’s transparently obvious that it is science.

    My comment was intended to refer to some of what’s-her-name’s silly comments such as “Since the past as presented by archaeologists is created, they present their own versions of the past” could be twisted to suggest that what you do isn’t science.

    Sorry for the misunderstanding ….


  6. Sorry also for the garbled grammar. Sometimes you hurry to correct a misunderstanding and screw it up … try this instead:

    My comment was intended to refer to some of what’s-her-name’s silly comments such as “Since the past as presented by archaeologists is created, they present their own versions of the past.” Such comments could be twisted in a sarcastic manner to suggest that what you do isn’t science if all you’re doing is presenting your own version of the past … which I know that you’re not.


  7. Carla, you are right: different disciplines do have different sets of truth criteria. It is much easier to test the truth of an engineering hypothesis (“This bridge will support the weight of Wisconsin”) than of a historical hypothesis (“18th century engineers in Wisconsin were on average better paid than their colleagues in neighbouring states”). Medical research is somewhere in between: data is abundant, but isolating cause and effect is extremely hard. Yet they are all variations on the question “What is or was the world like?”.

    Scott, now I understand. I’m afraid many po-mos will only speak about science and truth in scare quotes. “‘Science’ aims at finding out the ‘truth’. Haha, hopelessly naive.”


  8. Right on, Martin. We’re still learning. And why would you want to do any Wissenschaft at all if you didn’t believe that you really can pinpoint some things, figure some things out, eventually get it right (collectively even if not individually)?

    To me the exciting thing about archaeology in particular is the way that it can allow you beyond the written sources (if written sources actually exist) and take you deeper into what it was really like back then, from the basic sensory level, to the real people (not just the “important” ones) and their actual lives, to mapping of concrete events, all the way up to, perhaps, glimpses of people’s social organization, beliefs and world view.

    Obviously every scholar has his/her biases and point of view but that’s part of the game. You just have to deal with it. Be smart about it. See it as a positive, as a source of creativity and different interpretations that can inform your own in one way or the other. The more you have to think about it, the better, I say!

    Thanks for your blog, I really enjoy it, by the way.


  9. Martin,
    Is the English version of your very own “Kampen för teoretisk korrekthet inom arkeologin”
    from The European Archaeologist availbale on the net? You should post a link for it if there is one (I can’t find one myself), since it is an excellent read in the first place, but it is also very much pertinent to the issue at hand. As things stand now, those of us who can understand Swedish can read it on your home page at http://www.algonet.se/~arador/theor_correct_sv.html
    The rest of us will have to stick with Matthew Johnson’s “Archaeological Theory” until then (well, there’s Hodder’s “Theory and Practise in Archaeology”, too, but then again, it’s Hodder, and I really like to read a sentence only once and understand it that first time…).


  10. Many thanks! I’ve added links to the blog entry. If you look at the top line of the Swedish version of “Theoretical Correctness”, there’s a link inscribed “This document is also available in English”. What this means is of course a matter for hermeneutic interpretation. (-;


  11. Thanks for posting the link to your article. I was missing critical background information, and didn’t understand either your position or “what’s-her-name’s.” I expect to have it all sorted out here shortly.

    By the way, I’ve really been enjoying your artifact images!


  12. In my research I use historiographical studies all the time. It’s known as a literature review.

    Slightly snarky remark aside, I can kinda see where she is coming from in this respect. I’m not an archaeologist but I do dip into the palaeolithic quite a fair bit and, by it’s very nature, study of this period requires a fairly healthy dollop of interpretation on the basis of limited facts.

    Bearing this is mind, it’s useful to have a good understanding of the theoretical context in which research was being undertaken at a given point in time. Palaeolithic interpretations changed to a certain degree following the arrival of post-processual types, for example. Of course, any working archaeologist should be aware of this kind of thing and it hardly requires dressing up in po-mo blather. Basically it’s all about having a grasp of your subject and a good knowledge of the field.

    Speaking of the Palaeolithic, I highly recommend the following paper. It’s a review of the Acheulean/Clactonian question and incorporates a bit of history as well as summing up the current state of affairs and providing significant personal insights. I’d say this is a good example of how a researcher uses historical context without talking utter bollocks.

    White M 2000. The Clactonian question: on the interpretation of core and flake assemblages in the British Isles. Journal of World Prehistory 14: 1-63.


  13. Literature reviews have been part of all good research in archaeology since the 19th century, as a step on the way to new archaeological knowledge. I question the value to the field of specialised historiography that never aims for that goal.


  14. Just a couple of remarks on terminology. First, regarding Whiting’s concluding “gem”, it should be noticed that a sentence of the form

    “Object O, as presented by speaker S, has property P”

    is ambiguous. It might either mean

    “S’s presentation of O has P”


    “According to S’s presentation, O has P”

    These are very different claims. Suppose, for example, you have just delivered a 40-minute lecture on the Neolithic. Then, obviously,

    Martin’s presentation of the Neolithic took 40 minutes.

    But (unless you have gone bonkers) it will not be the case that

    According to Martin’s presentation, the Neolithic took 40 minutes.

    So what to say, then, of the claim

    “The Neolithic, as presented by Martin, took 40 minutes”?

    Well, presumably, that the sentence can be construed as meaning two different things, one of them true, the other false. I understand this sort of insidious equivocation is a hallmark of Postmodernism. For the rest of us, the ambiguousness of the locution is a good reason to avoid using it — especially when debating pomos.

    Secondly, I want to take issue with your statement, in one of your comment responses above, that “different disciplines do have different sets of truth criteria”. To be sure — and evidently this is what you had in mind — different disciplines employ different criteria for including a sentence among those provisionally _considered_ true. But your phrase “truth criteria” makes it sound as if the difference concerns what it takes for sentences to _be_ true. And that can hardly be right. To be sure, different sentences have different truth conditions. The sentence

    “The sun runs on nuclear fusion”,

    for example, is true if and only if the sun runs on nuclear fusion, whereas

    “Most neolithic lullabies went in c minor”

    is true if and only if most neolithic lullabies went in c minor. Those are different conditions — but it’s the same difference whether you happen to be an astronomer or an archaeologist.


  15. What I meant with reference to truth criteria was that e.g. engineers have a number of ways to test a hypothesis that are not available to workers in retrospective disciplines such as archaeology and palaeontology. They have it easy and I envy them.

    Astronomers are also lucky. Theirs is a retrospective discipline, too. But thanks to the preservation of information over vast expanses of time in radiation travelling through space, they can operate as if all the things they want to look at were still around. Through a telescope, they still see the quasar as it was. As an archaeologist, I have to travel to the region where my quasar once was, as it were, and try to make sense of the debris left behind when it perished.


  16. I entirely agree Martin. Science and archaeology already has a perfectly valid and useful way of expressing the history of research. Why an extra level of meaningless pretension has to be I added I don’t know. Still, I supose it keeps someone in a job.

    By the way, though I classify myself as a geologist (which I probably shouldn’t), I actually work in a geography department. Therefore this kind of attitude isn’t exactly unfamiliar to me!


  17. Yeah, human geography has its share of blitherers. The closer a department is sited to a lit-crit department, the greater the risk of po-mo contagion. Before you know it, people start to moan about the insufficient consciousness of current social theory in mainstream work on nematode reproduction and peneplanic fracture patterns.


  18. Well, Martin, my degree’s in musicology. Most of what I learned (and care about) came later, working at Smithsonian Folkways and Folk Masters, where I had the opportunity to work with many fine traditional musicians. (No, I’m not a folk musician myself.)

    That link you found is from a more than 10-year-old project. I didn’t quite realize wolf trap still had it online. It went unfinished for various reasons.

    We’ve got the field/museum/university “tri-chotomy” thing going in folklore, too, of course, with the latter batted back and forth between “lit-crit” (as you say) and anthropology departments.

    Did I understand you grew up in the U.S.? Where? (If you don’t mind my asking.)


  19. I lived for two years in the mid-70s, when I was four and five, in Greenwich, Connecticut. It’s an affluent commuter’s suburb of New York. The time and place of the movie The Ice Storm, in fact!


  20. hehe…
    noticed your discussion about the word Wissenschaft, a German word influence.
    Another German word influence is: Besserwisser

    Didn’t have the willpower to read Whiting’s article, but does she mean that nothing can be stated/concluded from archaeological finds? How does she stand being in this profession?


  21. That, dear Z, is one of the great unanswered riddles about post-modernism. I believe one answer is that if you’re content with “enriching the source material with new interpretations”, then you’re fine. Only a few humanistic disciplines would ever contemplate such a paltry purpose.


  22. Writing well is not easy. A lot of what passes as post-modernism is people trying to sound erudite when they don’t really think their data tell a lot.

    Sometimes they should just report the data. Maybe someone else can see the grander story. Tycho Brahe, anyone?


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