A review of Laurent Olivier: Le sombre abîme du temps. Mémoire et archéologie.
Seuil, Paris, 2008.
French theory has had an enormous impact across the social and human sciences during the last forty years. We may hardly understand global trends in archaeology, history or anthropology without structuralism, post-structuralism or the Annales school. One may, thus, wonder why French archaeology has remained mainly untouched by the theoretical paradigms developed in the same country. The truth is that although archaeology in France has not been characterized in general for its theoretical contributions, there is a small but important group of archaeologists whose commitment to theory is out of the question. This group includes, among others, André Leroi-Gourhan, Alain Schnapp, Anick Coudart and Jean-Pierre Demoule. Although not an archaeologist, we should include here Pierre Lemonnier, whose work on the anthropology of technology has been highly influential in archaeology. Laurent Olivier is a member of this select community and the book that is reviewed here will grant him a privileged position not only within the national community of archaeological theorists, but certainly within the world of archaeological thinkers in general.
Olivier’s book is ambitious: he basically proposes to no less than rethink archaeology – a task, until now, mostly reserved to Anglo-Saxon scholars – through a reflection on time. His critical analysis, however, goes well beyond the discipline and cuts to the heart of history. Actually, the main enemy of Olivier is historicism. With its sequential, homogeneous and unilinear rendering of time, historicism has prevailed in the historical sciences. Historicism is what truly kills archaeology and makes it “despairingly superficial” (p. 53): if archaeology wants to be a relevant science, it has to stop resorting to the flawed temporalities of traditional historiography. His critical undertaking leads him to revisit inherited concepts of archaeological practice (including typology and excavation), heritage, and the history of archaeology. In his journey, he finds unexpected allies in people as desperate as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Aby Warburg and Georges Perec.
In order to deconstruct historicist time, he develops the idea that archaeology is not a form of history, as often understood in Europe, but a form of memory. Archaeology, though, does not work with individual or collective memories, but with a material one: “Archaeological memory is a material memory, and memory is a property of everything that is born, grows and disappears” (p. 59). This material memory is unconscious (it is what “escapes history’s consciousness”): the work of the archaeologist in bringing it to light is similar to the task of the psychoanalyst who excavates through layers of repressed psychic memories. As with psychoanalysis, archaeology shows something that we should not normally see. Yet, at the same time, the past is not something physically remote – a point which has been recently emphasized by other authors (Olsen 2003; Witmore 2006). The past is at hand (à portée de main), here and now, everywhere. What we have on the surface, or near the surface, are remnants, traces, fragments de temporalité (p. 100), which are continuously involved in our lives and reinscribed according to new circumstances. Even more: the vestiges from the past condition our present (consider Roman roads and city planning). It is with these fragments of memory that archaeologists work – an idea that resonates with Michael Shanks’ motto: “archaeologists… do not discover the past. Archaeologists work on what is left of the past” (Shanks 2007: 591; cf. also the idea of “residuality” in Lucas 2008: 62-63).
For Olivier, archaeology has the potential to conceive another time altogether and, therefore, to overcome historicism. As a matter of fact, archaeology has been on the brink of revolutionizing our comprehension of time since the 18th century, but in each occasion, it has balked and withdrawn to the secure realm of historicism, becoming a mere subdiscipline of history. It is what Olivier calls the “missed revolutions of archaeology” (p. 61) or the “normalization” of the discipline (p. 146). Archaeology must retake the more hazardous but much more promising path offered by non-historicist time. Other disciplines have done that already, according to Olivier. Psychoanalysis and the natural sciences (geology and palaeontology) threw off the yoke of unilinear time a long time ago. To follow this path, we have to bear in mind that “the place of the past is not the past itself, but rather the present” (p. 86). To do research on the past, then, is nothing more than studying the materiality of the present (p. 100). This idea might be compared somewhat to the “flattened temporalities” suggested by other authors (Lucas 2008: 59), as a way to overcome scalar time.
In addition to this, archaeologists must come to terms with the ephemerality of the past. Despite the sturdy appearance of some ruins and monuments, archaeology actually digs “ephemeral testimonies” – what Lucas (2008) calls “events”. The perpetuation of these testimonies depends not on their conservation, but on their transformation – a lesson that most heritage managers have been slow to pick up. When things stop being transformed, they die. This is aptly exemplified by the author at the beginning of the book with a personal example: the box of family heirlooms that he has inherited from his mother. He faces the dilemma of keeping the box as an untouched relic or continuing adding things to the box (and therefore transforming it). Paradoxically, only the second choice guarantees the survival of the reliquary. The fate of the manicured and fossilized village of Oradour-sûr-Glâne (a village whose neighbors where massacred by the Nazis in 1944) exemplifies, for Olivier, our inability to stop time and to create sites beyond temporality. It is precisely in the peculiar archaeological sites of the contemporary past where the fruitless task of the conservative heritage manager becomes more evident.
Resemblances to Laurent Olivier’s ideas can be found in the work of other archaeologists elsewhere (Lucas 2005, 2008; Bailey 2007; Witmore 2006, 2007; Olsen 2007), who are trying to find paths beyond, or rather around, sequential time. Yet only Olivier, as far as I am aware, has addressed our current, and increasing, concern for this matter. According to the author, it is because of the “destruction of experience” brought about by the 20th century, with its wake of total wars and genocides, that we are now ready to reappraise history. On the one hand, the industrial catastrophes of the past century questioned the unidirectional perception of history as sequential progress. More importantly, the brutal events themselves have been perceived as unsayable: they have produced “a deficit of historical transmission” (p. 132). Therefore, the destruction caused by supermodernity affects at the same time the physical world and the possibility of making true history. Against that, archaeology can become a weapon of resistance.
Today, we see the present as a field of ruins and garbage, in which entire parts of our past have been obliterated, and this vision has made us aware that time is full of holes and absences, it is discontinuous (p. 136). We have also realized that the past as such is, unlike historicism wanted it to be, unknowable, incomprehensible and unrepresentable. It is in rubbish that we have to find the identity of the past: thus the outstanding relevance of archaeology – not only to understand the deep past, but the contemporary world as well.
From this perspective, archaeologists are the “scavengers of the past” (chiffonniers du passé), sorting out the garbage of history. However, Olivier complains that archaeology is disgusted with this role and rejects the earth, things and digging (also refer to Olsen 2003). The author considers that this disgust toward excavation, which relegates this practice to a secondary role in the teaching of the discipline, can be explained because archaeological digs make obvious the divorce between history and memory. This is regrettable, since digging, as one of Olivier’s reviewers notes, is “the essential gesture of archaeology” (Claudel 2008). The problem is that, through excavations, it is the fragmented unconscious of history that is exposed in the form of objets-mémoire, “memory objects” (p. 198). These memory objects (archaeological vestiges) are things in which time is inscribed. Like a photograph, they record the memory of a singular moment in time. It is then an incongruous collection of photographs (of instants) that archaeologists have. They vainly attempt to reconstruct sequential historical time from those bits and pieces, which resist completeness and order. As opposed to historicism, the essence of memory is discontinuity. It is repetition and intermittence that make archaeological (biological, geological and psychological) knowledge possible: the long-term is nothing other than the interrupted repetition of materialized, minute memories, akin to the psychic layers poked by the psychoanalyst. That archaeology works with a different time can also be observed, argues the author, in artifacts. Laurent Olivier talks about a temps typologique, which is situated beyond “real” time. This typological time can be observed in the whimsical trajectories of things, which have their own internal logic. We are not masters of our material products, concludes Olivier, because they live their own existence and develop their own memory (p. 272).
In conclusion, we should well follow the advice of Olivier/Benjamin (p. 271) and abandon the homogeneous and empty time of historicism and adopt the heterogeneous, multitemporal, nonlinear and full time of the Jetztzeit, the “time of now”. This is an approach that understands survivals and repetitions as a research object, that takes the minute and banal at heart, and understands that “order is in the noise” (p. 287; cf. also Witmore 2006). Laurent Olivier’s book is an outstanding contribution to archaeological and historical theory for several reasons, but probably the most important is its unique archaeological way of reasoning, starting from the earthly remains of the past. Despite the intellectual influences, this is not theory imported from other sciences, as it is often the case (semiotics, phenomenology, Marxism, post-colonialism, etc.), but a plea for the tremendous potential of archaeology for rethinking fundamental problems. By reversing archaeology’s role as a passive recipient to which it seems to be condemned, Olivier performs the daring act of suggesting that archaeology can be useful for other sciences to think. Although history is the most obvious beneficiary, anthropology, which has reflected on how societies understand time but much less on how the discipline itself grasps it, could learn a lot from The Dark Abyss of Time. An English translation of the book, which is clearly and beautifully written, would provide Laurent Olivier’s ideas the wide readership that they absolutely deserve.
Bailey, G.N. 2007. Time perspectives, palimpsests and the archaeology of time. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26: 198–223.
Claudel, P.-A. 2008. Les chiffonniers du passé. Pour une approche archéologique des phénomènes littéraires à propos de Laurent Olivier, « Le Sombre Abîme du temps. Mémoire et archéologie » Acta fabula 9(7)
Lucas, G. 2005. The archaeology of time. London, New York: Routledge.
Olsen, B. 2003. Material culture after text: re-membering things. Norwegian Archaeological Review 36(2): 87-104.
Olsen, B. 2007. Keeping things at arm’s length: a genealogy of asymmetry. World Archaeology 39(4): 579-588.
Shanks, M. 2007. Symmetrical archaeology. World Archaeology 39(4): 589-596.
Witmore, C. 2006. Vision, Media, Noise and the Percolation of Time. Journal of Material Culture 11(3): 267-292.
Witmore, C. 2007. Symmetrical archaeology: excerpts of a manifesto. World Archaeology 39(4): 546-562.