A comment on “What comes after Post-processualism???”

On June 3 Cornelius Holtorf initiated an interesting discussion around the question “What comes after Post-processualism???” The discussion is extremely worthwhile and I wish add to a few comments in hopes of keeping it going.
Processualism and post-processualism: the powers of the paradigm, manifold as they are, add to the persistence of these terms. What are our beacons? How does one map the constantly fluctuating terrain of archaeology?
It is hard to ignore the deeply dug trenches which form the limes of the hypercritical period of 30 years ago, a period when these very terms were in the midst of acquiring definition. At that time the energies were fresh, the battles were raging, and the factions were given names. Historical though they may be, processualism and post-processualism have become terms of ease and convenience for our understanding of such a variegated terrain, a terrain largely oriented around a schism (with ‘historical’ insert ‘abandoned,’ as who exclusively ascribes to their core tenants (cf. Hegmon 2003)? Well let’s not be surprised if some, perhaps, still do!).

Were we to draw a new map today, following Cornelius’ assessment, we would have an archipelago rather than any two continents. Paradigms map disciplines, and I find that act provisional at best given the fact that boundaries are the most futile of classificatory devices for a science (and humanity); as soon as a line is draw someone will inevitably stray over it and lay claim to new territory. It is better to hang up our cartographer’s garb and dawn that of a meteorologist. A weather pattern might be the best way to describe the complex fluctuations Cornelius alludes to.
Paradigms adhere to a modernist temporality of the unidirectional line. To affix the ‘post’ is to attempt to have the next word (which is never the last word) while endeavoring to cast that which came before to the wayside. And yet it is also to frame the entire reaction in relation to that which came before (even a notion of post-theoretical (see Hitchcock’s comment) is firmly tied to theory which it must define itself against; I for one, would love to hear that definition!).
Who wins? As with Cornelius’ question, we have already framed the temporal nature of post-processualism with the use of the preposition ‘after.’ We have consigned post-processualism to the past as it attempted to consign processualism to a past which consigned culture-history to a past (nonetheless they were all stubbornly persistent). This gesture works well with process, as Gesseler’s comment specifies, but underneath it are more complex networks of relations. Process does not produce these relations rather it is the other way around. Despite claims of being passé (Hitchcock’s comment on Holtorf), many of these ‘archaisms’ are very much still with us, whether you are in Århus, Austin or Timbuktu.
We have solidified processualism and post-processualism as dominant positions, but if we work hard we will surely uncover evidence that even these core disciplinary terms where not adequate descriptions of the disciplinary terrain 25 years ago (and I am not, by any means, the first to state this (for example, refer to a recent assessment of Hegmon by Moss (2005)). Battles create the most commotion and ruckus; conflicts create the loudest noise and thereby avert our attention from the other work that was and still is taking place.
I agree with Cornelius that perhaps we have been asking the wrong question all along. The question of “what comes after” fits into a larger logical scheme of bifurcation and contradiction which relegates previous scholarship, ideas, theory, work, etc. to the past and abandons them. However, it is this very scheme that wins out by asking the question. To subscribe to it is to run the risk of forgetting and, therefore, repetition. To put a spin on an old adage: those ignorant of previous arguments tend to repeat them.
We can accomplish a great deal with bits, pieces, and components of that which were framed under the rubric processualism and post-processualism and even culture-history. Rather than exclusively struggle for the next thing, we must also struggle against forgetting the lessons of those who either subscribed to the tenants of these camps or were forced underneath their banner. Only then can we create new possibilities and produce novel work that, no doubt, will either be labeled as the ‘next thing’ or be ignored altogether.
Hegmon, M. 2003: Setting theoretical egos aside: issues and theory in North American archaeology. American Antiquity, 68(2), 213-43.
Holtorf, C. 2007: “What comes after Post-processualism???”, Archaeolog, Available at: http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/archaeolog/2007/06/what_comes_after_postprocessua.html (accessed June 2007).
Moss, M.L. 2005: Rifts in the theoretical landscape of archaeology in the United States: A comment on Hegmon and Watkins, American Antiquity, 70(3), 581-87.

13 thoughts on “A comment on “What comes after Post-processualism???”

  1. Just to clarify one thing. I certainly did not want to give the impression that archaeology is (or should be) “post-theoretical” or that we have been witnessing something like “the death of archaeological theory” (as some commentators have it). It is more that I think we now require a different kind of archaeological theory. I may be wrong but I get the impression that we no longer seem to long as much for the latest in epistemological theory telling us how to become (even) better archaeologists by finding out (even) more about the past. It is that sort of archaeological theory that I think has effectively been sidelined today.
    Instead of theory for archaeology-as-science, I think that there is a greater demand now for theory of archaeology-in-society. (This is not an entirely new field of course and both processual and post-processual works have made important contributions in the past.) By that I mean on the one hand theory engaging with the particular situation archaeology finds itself in, as part of the Experience Society (questions concerning cultural memory, collective identities, multicultural communities, authenticity, sensual experiences, etc). On the other hand I am referring to theory that arises from the specific challenges the flourishing business of commercial archaeology faces (questions concerning criteria of valuation, conservation practices, target audiences, community input, quality standards, value-for-money, viable large-scale research agendas, etc).
    It is symptomatic that some of the most exciting (theoretical!) agendas and indeed publications are now being driven by state heritage agencies like English Heritage in the UK and Riksantikvarieämbetet in Sweden. Think of who has been championing the field of ‘contemporary archaeologies’ (link). Think of who has been engaging with changing social conditions such as the emergence of multicultural societies and its consequences for the goals and practices of archaeology (and some other disciplines) (link, link). — Looking at such processes taking place before our eyes, I see a major shift of what goes on today compared with the situation in the 1970s and 1980s (although admittedly I wasn’t an archaeologist then!).
    P.S. Note the new comment by Matthew Johnson in the other thread. He makes an interesting observation about the discursive function of the processual / post-processual division in archaeology.

  2. Interesting argument; I certainly agree with you saying “The question of “what comes after” fits into a larger logical scheme of bifurcation and contradiction which relegates previous scholarship”.

  3. Hi Chris,
    Although I’m not sure that there is a greater demand now for theory of archaeology-in-society as the comment pointed out. I agree that your arguments were insightful and cast new light on the subject.

  4. The new sort of “archaeological theory” that we need now is one that doesn’t desperately try to cling to the current dogma. Mainstream archeology seems far more bent on maintaining current theories, rather than expanding our knowledge. The history of Egypt is a prime example. Cognitive dissonance is much too present in archeology.

  5. I am intrigued by this post because I have a fascination with the ways in which archaeological theory affects database design and digitisation strategies. I either work with contract archaeologists or on a post-processual site and the structural requirements are quite different, though both fundamentally rely on single context recording

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