Michael Shanks on Seed Salon

i-e341a2eb2f42b731dc10c1aa7c9ce96f-shanks.jpgIt is with mixed feelings that I note that Seed has recruited an archaeologist for its Seed Salon dialogue feature (“yesss!”), and that the one they’ve chosen is Mike Shanks (“nooo!”).

Now, why would anyone dislike Mike Shanks? Well, because of, in one word, post-modernism. I read Shanks’s dreadful 1987 co-authored book Social Theory and Archaeology, and nothing I’ve seen of his activities since has suggested that he has become any less of an obscurantist jargon-spewer, academic joker and opponent of rationalist science. He’s archaeology’s equivalent of Jacques Lacan, whom Noam Chomsky considered “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan”.

Shanks has advocated politically motivated propagandistic interpretations of the archaeological record (“only nice leftie propaganda, please”), he walks around conferences trailing an actor and performance artist, he’s one of the originators of “critical archaeology”; in short, he’s the very embodiment of the worst kind of pretentious 90s pomo garbage in archaeology. If I had to choose my least-favourite archaeologist, it would be either Shanks or his accomplice/co-author Chris Tilley. These men should be selling bus tickets in rural Surrey, not teaching archaeology.

So, what is Shanks up to these days? Alas, he’s a professor of Classical Archaeology at the “Humanities Lab” at Stanford, and he hasn’t changed one bit.

“In 2005, Michael Shanks […] and three colleagues started The Presence Project to explore issues of presence and documentation across the arts and sciences. Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson … joined soon after and, together with Shanks and others in the Stanford Humanities Lab, created Life to the Second Power, an online encounter with her archive. As they see the project through to its completion in 2010, Shanks and Hershman Leeson plan to further explore memory, identity, and place.”

“Explore issues of presence and documentation”. “Explore memory, identity, and place.” Explore navel lint, I say.

Archaeology is about answering questions about past societies using scientific methods applied to their material remains, basta. You don’t aim at finding out about past societies? OK, you’re not an archaeologist. You don’t study material remains? OK, you’re not an archaeologist. You don’t use scientific methods? OK, you’re not an archaeologist.

The funny thing here is that the Seed Salon is usually a natural scientist and an artist talking, but this time they’ve managed to get a “scientist” who is almost as arty and out-there as the artist. Throughout the piece, the two are patting each other on the back, exchanging wannabe-philosophical pleasantries and wordplay, and it’s all absolutely vacuous. Airy musings. The whole piece is a cuckoo’s egg in Seed‘s nest, being about as far as you can get from science while staying on campus.

Shanks: “A lot of people think that archaeology — archaeologists — discover the past. And that’s only a tiny bit true. I think it’s more accurate to say that they work on what remains. That may sometimes involve, absolutely, coming across stuff from the past — maybe a trilobite fossil, or a piece of Roman pottery […] — but the key thing about archaeology is that it works on what’s left. And that makes of all of us, really, a kind of archaeologist. We’re all archaeologists now, working on what’s left of the past.”

Palaeontologists may be interested to learn here that trilobite studies are only a tiny bit about discovering the past. Because, you see, palaeontologists and archaeologists “work on what remains”, but they don’t find out scientific truth. We shouldn’t take it too hard though, because Shanks very likely believes that nobody in the world finds out scientific truth.

I wonder who chose Shanks as Seed‘s first archaeologist. I’m sure there’s plenty of room in the English public transport trade for that person too.

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20 thoughts on “Michael Shanks on Seed Salon

  1. Yeah, I understood almost none of that quote and have no idea what they are actually up to with the English tax dollar (besides swilling beer and swindling college students). I tried to read one of their (Shanks & Tilley) books one time, and it made me so confused I took it back to the library, I’d rather read legal or medical documents in 6 point font. I would never pay money for such, because I don’t want to subsidize a pile o BS, and wouldn’t want anybody I know to see it in my possession. When this sort of po-mo stuff comes around, I’m glad us Americans are so dumb that we just don’t Get It. Let them look down on us in our materialism.


  2. Awww shoot! I thought for a second that it would be Michael Shanks. My favorite Stargate archaeologist. Even though 99% of his “archaeology” for the show was utter nonsense, Daniel Jackson (played by actor Michael Shanks) was an archaeologist with an MP5, which made him cool 🙂

    Kidding aside, Seed should get the likes of Colin Renfrew, Kenneth Feder, Martin Rundkvist, or Larry Zimmerman for an interview.


  3. It was:

    [I]t’s particularly interesting because Second Life and some of these social-network programs involve notions of trespass that have no geographic boundaries.

    which puzzled me. Anything with a password has a notion of trespass with no geographical boundary. Are Shanks and Hershman Leesman on the verge of discovering hacking?

    Perhaps I missed some deeper meaning.


  4. Archaeology “works on what’s left”? Well, gee, my eyes work on the photons which manage to reach them! It’s true, but uninformative: a platinum-grade platitude.

    I kept expecting either Shanks or Leeson to dive into quantum feminism. Those “notions of trespass that have no geographic boundaries” would go very nicely alongside “The lurch and the jump of a browser’s deterritorialized journey through a hyperlinked text [which] simultaneously problematizes connectivity, perspective and the nature of multidimensional space even as it explores them.”


  5. I had my own horrifying experiences of Shanks & Tilley’s works as a student – they kept turning up on our reading lists for theory classes. They didn’t make sense then, and judging by that article they don’t make sense now. With so many archaeologists to choose from, I’m amazed that Shanks was the one who got interviewed. I can think of lots of others that would have made more sense.


  6. Speaking as someone who feels that theoretical awareness and aspects of contextual archaeology have brought some nice insights to archaeology, I can only concur in your assessment of the “critical archaeology”-school. Thier ideas seem almost completely aimed at browbeating everyone into submission, deconstructing everything, and constructing nothing more tangible than platitudes and truisms.
    I will never forget a conference I attended where two adoring women archaeologists presented Performance as if it was a novel concept (hello 70’s!) and brought MS live to the audience on a huge canvas through internet (WOW! – I mean, how many lightyears ahead are they, thechologically!!?) It had the slightly nauseating aspect of a religious prayer meeting – though I would say 80% of the archaeologists were utterly unimpressed.

    To think these people get funding when those who actually want to study what went down i prehistory have to drive taxis for a living…


  7. Judging from your work, I believe you and I have similar ideals in archaeology, Åsa. Ian Hodder, chief ideologue of the contextual school, spews jargon too in his books, but his fieldwork at Catal Hoyuk is an empirical scholar’s wet dream. The Shanks & Tilley school, however, isn’t archaeology by any one of the three necessary criteria I suggest.


  8. It may be worth noting that, in terms of wages at least, there’s not a lot between working the buses and education in the UK. Certainly a bus-driver where I live will be getting better pay than I am for the same hours. If I were a lecturer, I would be doing better than him or her, but not by so much. And I know one person who drove buses in Hampshire, which is nearly Surrey, who got a job as sole IT technician in a secondary school at the cost of a four thousand pound p. a. pay cut.

    So maybe Shanks isn’t qualified to get to that kind of economic importance? >:-)


  9. Maybe he applied for the Stanford chair after being laid off by the Surrey Bus Company. He wouldn’t accept that the buses and passengers had an uniquivocal, context-independent physical existence.


  10. I have to admit that one of my most favourite assignemts in university was one where we were to chriticise a Tilley and Shanks book. That assignment came really easy to me – although the theories are difficult to understand, once you do understand them, they are ridiculously fun (and easy) to completely pick apart. One of my favourite things to do through out school was to, in just about every exam or essay, add in a little paragraph along the lines of “of course, if you were to interpret this in a Shanks sort of way, then…” and then insert something nasty to show the shortcomings of Tilley and Shanks’, or sometimes, just for a change, Hodder’s, theories.
    I had to read a fair amount of both Shanks and Tilley’s writings, did not like them, and as mentioned in a prvious post, I was upset that I had to actually purchase the books, becasue I’d rather support good research than this bulls***.


  11. well, I’ll be damned. According to my atlas, California IS in USofA. I thought it was on Mars. Mebe they ought start teaching geography in Mississippi.


  12. Since when are trilobite fossils found in an archaeological context? Were the Vikings/Romans/etc palaeontologists (kept a few fossils on the hearth, just for decoration perhaps), or is that guy a few hundred million years out of date?


  13. Ah, this reminds me of a fine shouting match at the Society of American Archaeology meetings many years ago: “theorists” versus field scientists. Okay, so the theorists weren’t quite as nutty as this, but everyone in the crowd was pulling for the people who actually spend their time digging instead of doing armchair philosophy… or whatever. Frankly, I don’t quite get the point of being an archaeologist unless you get to do, dare I say it, “real” research?


  14. I don’t get it either. I know a number of academics who would clearly be much happier (and less resource-obliterating) if they hadn’t for some reason pursued degrees in archaeology. The root of the problem is really that for 15 years, Swedish archaeology departments have allowed people to graduate regardless of what their theses were really about. All probably for fear of being seen as too traditional. It’s all just the Emperor’s new clothes.


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