A few days ago, while browsing through a suite of recent theoretical publications, one particular chapter caught my eye. Actually, it was the author’s introductory hook – a Chuck Palahniuk quote from Fight Club – that really piqued my interest. On any other day, I’d probably just skim through the opening without dwelling on such a small detail. But, in an endless succession of references to self-enlightened men, Chuck Palahniuk felt like the last straw. I suddenly remembered reading this satirical list of nihilistic quotes for young, disaffected white guys penned by the likes of Nietzsche and Palahniuk. Already a bit agitated, I couldn’t help from feeling like that one quote perfectly summed up the current theoretical climate in archaeology. It embodied a philosophical terrain of cis-gendered men citing men writing about other men. It hinted at something troubling hidden in the heroic rhetoric of recent archaeological manifestos.
As a queer feminist collective, the “new materialist” atmosphere in archaeology is starting to feel a bit disenchanting. Don’t get me wrong. In many ways, the ontology-oriented discussions happening in the discipline are refreshing. Over the past several years, archaeologists have been calling for a theoretical revolution of sorts. A number of authors have been advocating a “return to things” to restore an ontological balance thrown off course by anthropocentrism. Relational assemblages of actants, rather than individual agents, are in vogue. An assortment of relational, ontological, posthumanist, realist, and materialist themes accent these innovative theoretical tides. But, when the contributions of Indigenous, feminist, queer, and non-white philosophers are glaringly absent from the conversation, the discussion starts to feel more like a rip current.
If you take a hard look at the names being quoted most prominently in “new materialist” discussions, you’ll find some common sources of inspiration. And, with the exception of a nod here and there to Haraway, Bennett, or Barad, it’s a glaringly masculine genealogy. Archaeological texts that have diverged from these citational trends (e.g. Joyce 2007, Marshall and Alberti 2014, Weismantel 2015, Yusoff 2015) remain exceptions to the rule. This is an issue that’s been brought up by women in archaeology for decades. And while it’s not a novel criticism, it’s still hard to believe that we still haven’t listened. Back when agency was fashionable, Joan Gero (2000) touched upon the cryptic gendering of “social agents”, who, drawn in the image of “action figures”, modeled a “caricature of the not-asking-directions side of males, going it alone, independent and self reliant”. Her feminist reading of agency peels away the morbid comedy underlying a masculine, archaeological expedition into the ontological turn. Now, as we collectively break away from the bondage of agency and set our sights on “immanence”, it’s no surprise that theoretical discoveries are being written by “action figures”. Sarah Ahmed remarked on the irony of citational stream of white men calling for relationality. Her criticism of this “citational relational” alludes to the ironic assemblage of “white men” proselytizing a more relational, intersubjective conception of reality. Similarly, Zoe Todd lamented the absence of indigenous philosophers in ontological discourses. Deeming ontology another word for colonialism, Todd perceptively identified how Western theorists exploit and appropriate indigenous thought only to repackage it as a paradigm shift.
When you look at how the ontological turn has played out within archaeology, these feminist criticisms uncover the privileges underlying seemingly innocuous trends. This masculine sense of being a theoretical pioneer crops up in the somewhat recent fascination with publishing manifestos. They’ve come in different flavors – symmetrical, zooarchaeological, visual, digital, etc. – and they cater to cutting edge appetites. Conceptually, crafting a manifesto is both a call to arms and a blueprint for revolutionary change. It outlines a strategy for making a political vision materialize. A well-crafted manifesto can be a potent catalyst for social transformation. As a genre, the manifesto has been integral to the history of feminist theory. Rhetorically, feminist manifestos appropriated a traditionally masculine genre to articulate a type of political subterfuge focused on liberation. When Donna Haraway (1987) published her cyborg “manifesto”, her ironic gesture to the manifesto was a monstrous fusion of feminist liberation and annihilation. In an interview, Karen Barad commented on this intentional ambivalence and explained why her own writing doesn’t fall into the category of a manifesto (Dolphijn, and van der Tuin 2012: 70):
Well, manifesto is a thing that my friend and colleague Donna Haraway can get into, but I cannot claim that term. [Laughs.] Of course, she means it ironically. Agential realism is not a manifesto, it does not take for granted that all is or will or can be made manifest. On the contrary, it is a call, a plea, a provocation, a cry, a passionate yearning for an appreciation of, attention to the tissue of ethicality that runs through the world. Ethics and justice are at the core of my concerns or rather, it runs through “my” very being, all being. Again, for me, ethics is not a concern we add to the questions of matter, but rather is the very nature of what it means to matter.
Inspired by feminist genealogies, Barad’s “passionate yearning” is an ethical stance. It’s a desire for women to matter. This longing to materialize is deeply embedded in feminist history. For Black feminists like Audre Lourde and Hortense Spillers, hope was born out of a persistent struggle to speak, sing, and feel.
For feminist authors, writing a manifesto might have been blasphemous or liberating, but it was rarely unreflective. This is why I’m apprehensive of recent archaeological manifestos, which often take ethics and authorial agency for granted. They pander to theoretical nuance in a way that becomes detached from ethical responsibilities. Their taken-for-granted authorship is also an act of erasure. Largely penned by male authors, these manifestos wax poetically about rescuing archaeology from theoretical stagnation. Ironically, when the manifesto draws to a close, a stagnant list of recycled references surfaces. One of these manifestos opens by acknowledging 27 influential artists, philosophers, and theorists. Only 2 are women. It seems enlightenment only comes in male form. I guess symmetry and ontological equivalence only apply to artifacts.
These trends go much deeper. In one recent publication on the future of archaeological theory, only 5 of the 46 cited first-authors identified as women. Does that imply that women get to set our sights on an 11% stake in the future of archaeological theory? If so, we might fare better in congress. Archaeological theory makes earning 79 cents on the dollar pretty progressive. Or, take a glance at theoretical dialogues published over the last two years. In some journal geared to the contemporary pulse of archaeological theory, you might find that only 20-30 % of contributors seem to identify as women. And these are primarily white women, who enjoy the privileges denied to women of color and queer colleagues. Is this really what a “new revolution” in archaeology looks like?
In the end, you might be wondering whether this post isn’t just a feminist manifesto. You might chalk this all up to the naïve criticism of junior colleagues. From our perspective, this plea and provocation springs from a theoretical lineage of feminist thought. It’s not a dismissal of any particular author or theoretical standpoint, which is why we’ve chosen not to mention specific names. More importantly, we’re not action figures. The narrators of this post are explicitly nameless, countless authors asking for a place in the future of archaeological theory. We’re disembodied voices asking to matter.
Dolphijn, Rick and Iris van der Tuin
2012 Interview with Karen Barad. In New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, edited by R. Dolphijn and I. van der Tuin, pp. 48-70. Open Humanities Press, Ann Arbor.
Gero, Joan M
2000 Troubled travels in agency and feminism. In Agency in Archaeology, edited by M.-A. Dobres and J. E. Robb. Routledge, New York.
1987 A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s. Australian Feminist Studies 2(4):1-42.
Marshall, Yvonne and Benjamin Alberti
2014 A Matter of Difference: Karen Barad, Ontology and Archaeological Bodies. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24(1):19-36.
Joyce, Rosemary A
2007 Feminist Theories of Embodiment and Anthropological Imagination: Bodies that Matter. In Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future, edited by P. L. Geller and M. K. Stockett, pp. 43-54. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
2015 Seeing like an archaeologist: Viveiros de Castro at Chavín de Huantar. Journal of Social Archaeology 15(2):139-159.
2015 Geologic subjects: nonhuman origins, geomorphic aesthetics and the art of becoming inhuman. Cultural Geographies 22(3):383-407.