Parsing Posthumanism

Posted on March 6, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Posthumanism encompasses a variegated array of theories and critiques from the humanities and social sciences. From new materialisms to object oriented ontology and from symmetrical archaeologies to the new animist approaches, posthumanism’s influences in archaeological theory continue to grow and diversify. Each of these approaches orients around a general commitment to challenging the limitations of modernist, western perspectives on the world. This can entail moving beyond the limitations of assumed human exceptionalism through recognition of the vibrancies of matter and the complex human-nonhuman relationships through which agency emanates. Or it can involve embracing how objects always withdraw from our knowledge of them, and indeed from all relations. Sometimes it involves examining how things open us up to the alterity and otherness of the past. In the end, these arguments ask us to give things ‘their due’. Archaeologists tend to orient themselves to these ideas in a dualistic fashion: enthusiastic adoption versus outright rejection. The former group is quick to applaud the intellectual binaries that these new approaches reportedly undercut; they celebrate the ways in which various strands of posthumanist thought lead them to new and interesting questions/problems in archaeological theory. The latter group offers sharp critiques of posthumanism, often for its purported lack of engagement with politics, power, identity, representation, and humans in general. Papers in this session reject both of these caricatured propositions, parsing posthumanism in archaeological theory. Presenters probe their own archaeological research specialties and interests to address what aspects of posthumanism work for them, what aspects they feel they must disregard, and what aspects are in need of further archaeological modification.

Organisers: Oliver Harris (University of Leicester) and Craig Cipolla (Royal Ontario Museum/University of Toronto)

Assessing the Role of Camelid Lifecycles in the Formation of Moche Political and Religious Institutions: A critical application of posthumanist theory

In this paper, we highlight some of the important contributions of posthumanist theory by examining how the lifecycle of llamas in the ancient Andes structured the practices and temporalities of human communities. We present new data that camelids (llamas and alpacas) played a key role in exchange and the movement of people along the sacred landscape of the southern Jequetepeque Valley centred on the important Late Moche ceremonial site of Huaca Colorada (AD650-850). More specifically, we will argue that camelid reproductive cycles constrained and enabled many interrelated human tasks including pilgrimage, farming, fishing, calendrics, feasting and ritual observations. The extensive faunal evidence at Huaca Colorada provides important information on camelid lifeways, and how the timing and social management of breeding, rearing, training, herding and butchering underwrote the scheduling of other economic and ritual activities at the site. In fact, the larger political organization of the community was structured significantly by the biological needs and ritual and economic affordances of camelids. The evidence from Huaca Colorada supports a central critique of posthumanist theory: archaeology has focused too narrowly on human agency and intentionality as the prime mover of structuration.

Aleksa K. Alaica (University of Toronto) and Edward Swenson (University of Toronto)

Power in a World Without Subjects and Objects

This paper adopts a relational, assemblage-based approach to the past which seeks to privilege neither object nor subject – rather animals, things, beliefs, plants, and people are placed on a potentially equal footing. Relational approaches have rightly been critiqued for a failure to engage with politics and power. In our own world power is writ large and we ignore it at our peril. Power is a critical political vector with obvious social and historical significance. I argue that all too frequently today power is understood to be exercised by male subjects over a multitude of increasingly powerless objects; objects including things, plants and animals but also women, minorities and the less privileged. Beginning with a flat ontology opens up multiple possibilities for demonstrating alternate ways of being in the world, but, if we fail to engage with power we rob such approaches of their true potential. In this paper I explore how we should conceptualise, understand and engage with power in a theoretical framework that rejects human exceptionalism and the subject:object dualism.

Rachel Crellin (University of Leicester)

A Posthumanist Archaeology of Byzantine Song

What does posthumanist archaeology contribute to the study of a deeply textual field like Byzantium, where human accounts of religious experience are often held front and centre? This paper explores the intersections between the new materiality and the immaterial nature of the Byzantine spiritual world (cf Buchli 2016). Exploring human experience does not necessarily require us to privilege human agency: the relationships between architecture, feeling, allegory and the divine existed prior to the middle Byzantine moments in which they were experienced. I will discuss whether or not there is any such thing as a posthumanist phenomenology, or whether those terms are inherently self-contradictory, through considering the archaeology of song in Byzantine church spaces.

Sophie Moore (Brown University)

Rethinking Relations: Characterising connections in the light of posthumanism

From the turn to practice in the 1980s, through concerns with phenomenology and personhood in the 1990s and 2000s, to today’s interest in posthumanism, archaeology has become increasingly interested in relations as a central element of our ontology. Whether discussing Latourian networks, Ingoldian meshworks, or Baradian phenomena, relations, and being relational, are now critical to many of our modes of analysis. In this paper I want to think more about how we describe and discuss these relationships in the light of posthumanist thought. A danger in relational approaches is that the description of relations becomes an end in itself, and we lose sight of the historical processes through which things come into being, subsist and end. We also, I suggest, need to develop a more nuanced vocabulary for discussing different qualities of relationships. To address these issues I will draw principally on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, but also from the philosophers that inspired them, including Charles Sanders Peirce.

Oliver Harris (University of Leicester)

Fear of Ontological Wolves

I frame this paper as a direct response to Viveiros de Castro’s 2014 Cambridge lecture, ‘Who is afraid of the ontological wolf?’. I offer a critical assessment of ontological questions in archaeological theory, particularly as they relate to the practice of collaborative Indigenous archaeology and the archaeology of colonialism in North American contexts. Viveiros de Castro’s lecture provided an up-to-date synthesis of ontological transformations and debates in the discipline of anthropology while emphasizing the importance of Deleuze and Guattari’s writings. Drawing directly on the work of these thinkers and more, I outline the advantages that ontological questions afford archaeologists who work with Indigenous communities and who strive to decolonize our discipline. However, I also place emphasis on my fears and anxieties, what I see as the shortcomings and omissions of the ontological turn in archaeology. These relate directly to certain ontological arguments for dissolving, or in my opinion, glossing over the meta-ontological moorings of the archaeologist in favour of multiple ontologies and novel explorations of alterity (e.g., ‘Other worlds’). As a white middle-class male who works in collaboration with Indigenous communities to rethink colonial histories, I discuss why I find these proposed ontological leaps both challenging and colonial.

Craig Cipolla (Royal Ontario Museum/University of Toronto)

Uncertain Allies? The place of indigenous metaphysics in posthumanist thought

The term ‘relational ontologies’ has a wide purchase these days, often used to cover anything that eschews a modernist binary between human and thing (subject and object, nature and culture etc.). Thus a new materialist metaphysics as espoused by Latour or Barad might be considered a relational ontology, as might many indigenous or ‘animist’ perspectives. Yet how comfortably do indigenous ontologies actually fit within the wider family of posthumanist approaches? Perhaps understandably, the critical impetus thus far has been geared towards undermining modernity’s pernicious great divides, as well as debating the finer distinctions between leading Western theorists such as Latour, Bennett, Barad, Deleuze, Ingold and the like. But much less attention has been paid to the specificities of indigenous metaphysical commitments, although they occasionally get drawn into new materialist rhetoric as potential allies. In this paper, drawing on the Inkas as a case in point, I will consider just how closely ancient Andean ontologies reflect the posthumanist Zeitgeist in the modern academy. Rather than trying to present posthumanism as either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ lens through which to interpret the Inkas, I suggest that there are moments both of agreement and sharp divergence; and these are themselves very instructive for highlighting many implicit premises of posthumanist theory.

Darryl Wilkinson (University of Cambridge)

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