A review of Bjørnar Olsen: In Defense of things. Archaeology and the ontology of objects. Lanham: Altamira Press, 2010.

During the last decade, three books have appeared that mark a turning point in the way archaeology is both thought and practiced. These three books are Theatre/Archaeology (Pearson and Shanks 2001), The Dark Abyss of Time (Olivier 2008) and the one reviewed here. I think that we can talk now of a real loss of innocence in the discipline, because what these authors do is ask social theory not what it can do for archaeology, but ask archaeology what it can do for social theory (to start with, changing the very concept of what “society” is). This is an important breakthrough: so far, archaeologists generally sought to turn their discipline into something else (archaeology as anthropology, archaeology as cultural history) or overcome the limitations of their profession through the theoretical approaches of other social sciences. This desire has proved crucial in providing the thrust necessary for moving away from the sterile territories of purely descriptive culture-historical archaeology and entering the terrains of theory. However, the time is ripe now to go a step further. The three works mentioned coincide in looking for the strengths of archaeology vis-à-vis other disciplines, not its limitations. Their common project is not about borrowing, but about sharing, and maybe even lending.

Bjørnar Olsen’s book is a vindication of materiality made from an archaeological point of view. Archaeology, writes Olsen, is “first and foremost a concern with things” (p. 2), and particularly with humble, everyday things, but this concern seems to have continuously receded in the discipline, as archaeologists have been more and more interested in looking for the people behind the artefacts. This interest rested on a consideration that the two can be separated and that the latter are of importance insofar as they allow us to get at ‘people’. Olsen takes a different path altogether: succinctly, things and people are inextricably bound. Indeed, now that this is becoming more accepted in the social sciences, it is worth noting that the author was among the first archaeologists to call attention to the relevance of materiality (Olsen 2003), at a moment when postmodern anthropocentrism was at its highest point in our discipline. It might be argued that a concern with materiality existed at least since the 1980s, but, as the author demonstrates, those theoretical perspectives that apparently defended things, actually ended up reinforcing the dematerialization of the world: material culture (consumption) studies, landscape phenomenology and the somatic turn (revised in Chapter 2).
However, instead of rejecting previous approaches in the revolutionary way that has characterized archaeology’s changes of paradigm, Olsen carefully avoids throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He points out the failures and inconsistencies of, for example, Tilley’s phenomenology of landscape or Miller’s consumption studies, and then offers his own interpretation of the philosophical sources that orient them. This attitude is related to the author’s self-avowed eclecticism (p. 14), which does not have to be understood as acritical or superficial foraging of theories, but rather as an essentially philosophical attitude. After all, philosophers have always engaged in fruitful dialogues with unlikely colleagues from all times and persuasions, reinterpreting and recontextualizing their ideas. This, again, can be understood as another sign of a more mature and theoretically oriented archaeology.
This reflexive strategy can be seen in Olsen’s commentary on post-structuralism (chapter 3). The author proves that the archaeology of the last three decades has been frequently constructed on misunderstandings and faulty or hasty readings of theoretical sources: this is particularly obvious in the relationship between post-processualism and post-structuralism. According to the author, there is hardly anything that can be properly called post-structuralist archaeology (p. 46). The idea that material culture has a final meaning that can be disclosed through interpretation is not post-structuralist, but rather early hermeneutics. If anything, post-structuralism emphasizes the irrelevance of context: there is nothing out of context (il-n’y a pas de hors-texte), everything is intersected by multiple meanings. The emphasis on meaning would make post-structuralism a candidate to become the arch-enemy of thing theory. Yet Olsen does not discard post-structuralism as a whole either: there are some ideas that can help us understand the being of things. For example, Barthes distinction between ‘writerly’ and ‘readerly’ texts. None of them are completely open to endless interpretations, there is a resistance in both, but the writerly text opposes more resistance and “insists on being more than a medium for communicating a preconceived meaning” (p. 51). In that, it acts very much like things. The point, then, is perhaps to reverse the analogy—the text as thing—rather than discard it altogether.
If archaeologists did not get it right with post-structuralism, the imprecision is even more blatant with phenomenology (chapter 4), because, after all, phenomenology is about things—things-in-themselves, to be more precise. Phenomenology, as it has been popularized in archaeology, is a way of dealing with how people experience landscape and particularly through visuality. For Tilley’s successors—rather than for Tilley himself—landscapes, “open, multi-vocal and ever-changing” are conceived as something that exist by “virtue of its being perceived” (p. 29). However, Olsen demonstrates that phenomenology is exactly the opposite: it is a radical challenge to the notion of perception based on human relevance (p. 65). The challenge is especially evident in Heidegger’s writing, and particularly the early Heidegger of Being and Time that is given precedence over the late Heidegger. For the philosopher, things that are ready-to-hand (zuhanden) are not seen by us, rather, we are “practically and skillfully involved” with them (p. 69). We live in a state of immersion (“thrownness”) in the totality of the world (Heidegger’s Geworfenheit) and, in this state, the things of which we are aware are a minority, an accident, the “tip of the iceberg” as Olsen eloquently puts it, that conceals a majority of things about which we do not think—except when they fail, for example. Instead, phenomenological archaeologists have been more concerned with the tip of the iceberg, the things that are “selected for special care” (p. 74), mostly monuments, rather than with the mass of anonymous objects that make up the world. This implies an important critique of the post-processual concept of human agency, with its focus on people that “consciously and carefully manipulate material symbols” as Hodder (1982: 121) put it. The real return to the things in themselves that is proposed in the book is a humbling retreat from the spectacular achievements of interpretive archaeology, Olsen admits. It means paying more attention to the thingly qualities of things and less to their supposed multifarious social meanings and cosmological ramifications.
In chapter 5, the author explores in more detail why things have been forgotten. The critique of modern technology and the rise of social anthropology are described as two of the forces behind the oblivion of (and contempt for) materiality. Another interesting explanation proposed by the author is that things were not easy to categorize within modern divides: neither unadulterated nature nor pure culture, they became an “excluded middle” (p. 103), an abject reality, between the “me” and the “not-me”. From this point of view, there is a problem with the limits of the concept of thing in the book: Olsen mentions in several places the reindeer as a thing. We can doubt whether animals can be comfortably included in such a category. This is paradoxically a modernist insight: the animal as an instrument, commodity or a resource, typical of capitalism, versus the animal as kin and partner, typical of many nonmodern societies (Descola 2005). A relevant point in this chapter is that things have not been totally forgotten in academia: the “singularized artifact”, the one that is “emancipated from the networks of everyday trivia, dirt, and work” (p. 105) has easily found a place in scientific discourses. This can be applied to the field of material culture studies, too: even if the range of artifacts that is taken into account is greater than in art history or anthropology, they still focus too much on singular objects. The task, now, is to reclaim the rest: archaeology, which its indiscriminate concern for everything material (from tiny pottery sherds to roads and cathedrals) is in a good position to undertake this work.
Reclaiming materiality means also reclaiming another sort of temporality: the memory of things (chapter 6). The oblivion of the time of things is related again to anthropocentric perspectives: once the human subject disappears from history, the past vanishes as well (p. 112). With other authors, Olsen defends that the past lives in the present, and it does so through things (cf. Olivier 2008). But the way this past exists in the present is not always controlled by humans (as museums, archives or monuments are): it sediments in unpredictable ways and brings about involuntary and abject memories. Olsen resorts to the concept of “habit memory” defined by Henri Bergson to make sense of the temporality of things, which is characterized both by its unconscious and repetitious nature and by its particular duration. The concept of habit memory has been explored before by philosophers and sociologists, but those who have been influenced by the Bergsonian perspective have tended to forget things and deposit habit memory on the body alone—consider Merleau-Ponty or Paul Connerton. This is a mistake for two reasons: habitual action is hardly possible without artifacts and, as opposed to performance or speech, things last (p. 121) and, therefore, are tremendously effective in reproducing memory. The kind of duration encapsulated in things, then, is different to that of bodies, performances or speech acts. Olsen complains that, despite attempts such as Connerton’s to vindicate its relevance, “habit memory has formed the neglected story” (p. 124): what has prevailed is a focus on conscious recollection. This is quite obvious in the books about memory in the past, which have abounded in recent years (e.g. Alcock and Van Dyke 2003). I would argue that the problem has to be related to the wider oblivion of the unconscious in post-processual archaeology. It is the conscious, active individual that manipulates things and negotiates with other human actors in the social arena that has been the focus of post-processual research. A focus on things, then, should also imply a turn from the realm of the conscious to that of the unconscious.
This turn to the unconscious is implicit also in the ontological perspective that sees humans and things as inextricably entangled (chapter 7). Our interactions with things, precisely because they are constitutive of our very being, pass in most cases unnoticed. Living with things, as Heidegger notes, is living without realizing that we live with them. The role of the archaeologists is then to make this networks of humans and non-humans visible: “Instead of any central hero subjects—human, worldview, mind—we should envisage a brigade of actors: plates, forks, gravestones, humans, garbage pits, houses, food, chamber pots, law books, musical instruments, and so on acting together” (p. 145). In a sense, what Actor-Network-Theory proposes is something that archaeologists have been doing for decades without fully realizing it and often openly denying it, as if ashamed that the collectives they study are formed by pots, pits and bones, and not by humans-among-themselves.
In the book’s final chapter the author makes a call to take into account the qualities of things by preserving the autonomy of the object—as opposed to contextual theories that emphasize the relations between things. Although Olsen explicitly notes that this does not imply rejecting relational theories altogether, I find that this call is somewhat problematic. The qualities of objects are often inseparable from the relations these objects have with other objects and with people, and if things help to stabilize our world is not only because of their individual solidity and permanence, but also because of their sheer, undifferentiated mass (as Olsen himself notes: p. 158). On the other hand, delving into the qualities of things is easier said than done: how can we do that without falling into the arid descriptiveness of traditional folklore studies or German-style ethnography? One possible solution is given in another book by the author, where he and his collaborators have managed to translate the silent language of things (as found in an abandoned Soviet mining town) into a powerful account of materiality, time and decay (Andreassen et al. 2010). Both Persistent Memories and In Defense of Things have extraordinary photographs (many by Bjonar Olsen himself) that convey the qualities of things in eloquent ways. This does not mean that visuality is the only form of expressing thingliness. “Although words and things are different, writes Olsen (p. 17), this is not to say that they are separated by a yawning abyss” writes the author. Things “may also be transformed (and translated) into discursive knowledge” (p. 61). In a time in which new media experiments (sometimes trivial) seem to be the only way of manifesting materiality, this call for writing can almost be regarded as a gesture of resistance. In fact, I would contend that there is something akin in writing and materiality: their capacity for stabilizing relationships and slowing down time—as opposed to the virtual and the audiovisual. Both writing and things resist the ephemeral, the fluid and the plastic.
The idea that things slow time and change, which appears in several parts of the book, that things leave “a thick and sticky heritage” (p. 162), is a relevant argument which goes against some of the widely held tenets of postmodern thought (routes against roots). Olsen reminds us the importance of roots: probably not the same kind James Clifford and others had in mind, but they have the same capacity for slowing time, fixing people to the ground, and stabilizing society. Besides, as Jonathan Friedman (2002) has argued, these fluid and ever-changing world of routes imagined by anthropologists and cultural critics is the privilege of a fraction of humanity. Most people keep living purely rooted, material lives—actually, even those who celebrate ephemerality live less virtual lives than they think. What Olsen’s critique opens is the possibility of conceiving of an archaeology of that which does not change. An anti-archaeology for that matter, since the discipline has been always more interested in documenting change rather than in recording its resistances (Hernando 2008).
This is not to say that things do not change. The author argues that there is always a latent criticism involved in habitual living: in our practical involvement with objects, we see failures that we try to amend or things we try to improve. In this way, things change and people change, but always keeping a preserve of the past. This is also the case in the late modern world, where things seem to be superseded so rapidly—we have to remember that the airplanes in which we fly, the quintessence of technological progress, have not substantially changed since 1958. Obviously not all of the past is preserved in the present. The things that are not preserved do not disappear, though, or not always. As ruins and garbage, they become “the material antonyms to the habitually useful” (p. 169). As such, they are not just redundant: they can also trigger involuntary memory and become agents of disruption. They challenge visions of history as progress and continuous narrative.
To conclude, In Defense of Things is both an unequivocal sign of paradigm change and of the maturity achieved by archaeological thinking. As one of the three most important books in archaeology over the last decade, it deserves to become the reference book of archaeological theory for the next two, at least. Moreover, it places archaeology on an equal footing with other social sciences: this, in itself, is a profound contribution.
Alcock, S. and Van Dyke, S. 2003. The Archaeology of Memory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Andreassen, E., Bjerck, H., Olsen, B. 2010. Persistent Memories. Pyramiden – A Soviet mining town in the High Arctic. Trondheim: Tapir.
Descola, P. 2005. Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard.
Friedman, J. 2002. From roots to routes. Tropes for trippers. Anthropological Theory 2(1): 21–36.
Hernando, A. 2008. Why has history not appreciated maintenance activities? In Engendering Social Dynamics: The Archaeology of Maintenance Activities. (S. Montón-Subías and M.
Sánchez-Romero, eds.). BAR International Series 1862. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 9-16.
Hodder, I., 1982. Symbols in action: ethnoarchaeological studies in material culture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Olivier, L. 2008. Le sombre abîme du temps. Paris: Seuil.
Olsen, B. 2003. 2003. Material culture after text: re-membering things. Norwegian Archaeological Review 36(2), 87-104.
Pearson, M. and Shanks, M. 2001. Theatre/Archaeology. London: Routledge.

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