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Levi Jordan

Truth Claims, Conversations and Borderlands: Archaeology and the Internet

by Carol McDavid

This was written in early 1997, before this web site was created, but after I had begun to think about some of the issues involved. I pretty much still agree with what I wrote then, although I suppose (like most pieces of writing we go back to after some time) I would now organize things a bit differently. Anyway, it's presented in a more-or-less standard style, with the references attached at the end (instead of in the web site bibliography). I'd love your comments, via (as usual!) our feedback form.

Compu - telecommunications technology involves an epistemological shift no less radical than Kant's Copernican revolution. The very forms through which we perceive and categories with which we think are transformed by the changing technologies of knowledge production. Things give way to events, identities to differences, and substances to relations. Everything is simultaneously connected and in flux....Epistemology offers no relief if it is not humanly wired. (Taylor and Saarinen 1994b:3)

Truth Claims

This short essay will take the position that archaeologists must learn to deal with "truth claims" differently than many of us have been trained to do, if we genuinely want to communicate in a reciprocal, meaningful way with people who hold different points of view. It will also maintain that this is especially important if we plan to communicate with the so-called "new communication technologies", such as the Internet. These technologies are opening the field of discourse which defines archaeological "truths" to those outside archaeology – who may make claims not supported by "our data", and who may wish to appropriate "our data" for their own purposes.

Perhaps in the past we could take refuge from these incursions behind "the guarded doors" of our expert culture (Taylor and Saarinen 1994c:9), but we can do this no longer. The doors are still in place, and no doubt will be for some time, but they are becoming fuzzy and permeable. As soon as we create a Web site, enter an Internet discussion list, or even use email we are operating within new and unstable territory. This new technology can be both tool and weapon as we humans describe, and therefore create, who we are.

Turn on, tune in...there is no tuning out
(Taylor and Saarinen 1994b:6).

This is, I would suggest, not a bad thing. Calls for a more relevant, engaged archaeology (and anthropology) have been made for years, and it is past time to act on them. This new technological frontier can provide us with the means to do what we have already said we want to do, but there are many issues to confront besides the relatively simple technological ones of, say, publishing a Web site or starting a Internet discussion group.

When beginning to deal with truth claims made in this new environment, we must first deal with the implications of what we already know – that our own identities as claimers-of-truth are not fixed and unitary. We already find it "distasteful if not immoral to fix a single meaning" to artifacts, ourselves or past human actors (Buchli 1995:191). But in face-to-face communication, our various multiple identities are more obvious to our interlocutors – by using appearance, gesture, and expression we can generally come to understand "where we are coming from". Multiplicity and identity are both amplified and further fragmented when communicating on the Net, which embodies the idea of a "busy intersection through which multiple identities crisscross" (Rosaldo 1989:194). Whatever multiple identities we may embrace – ethnic, sexual orientation, professional, gender, class – are easily masked, shifted and even imagined (Turkle 1995). The Habermasian notion of unified selves dealing with each other in the public sphere does not apply (if it ever did). Face-to-face talk – uncoerced or not – is:

"confused and complicated by the electronic form of exchange of symbols...the machines enable new forms of decentralized dialogue and create new combinations of human-machine assemblages...the individual's performance of the communication requires linguistic acts of self-positioning..."(Poster 1995)

These linguistic acts are what we do when we present our (various) selves to our publics. We make our "marks and noises" (Rorty 1991b:12); we present our data, construct and respond to arguments, and make statements about what we know about the past. This is no different, of course, from what we have done before, in museum exhibitions, books, classrooms, and on television. The receivers of our information are still not passive – they never were (Castells 1996:335-336, Eco 1986, Hooper-Greenhill 1995, Thompson 1995). What is different now is that we can, if we wish (and sometimes if we do not wish), create new kinds of environments in which our publics - including us - can participate in more mutually empowered ways.


We can conceive of these new environments as conversations (Rorty 1989) – not traditional conversations, but disembodied, expanded, fragmented, associative and multivocal conversations. These conversations can be part of an engaged cultural criticism which includes research archaeologists among other "organic intellectuals" who celebrate and participate in the life of the mind (West 1989:234), but relate their ideas and knowledge to collective and individual praxis (in contrast to traditional intellectuals who take their shelter in the academy, observing and contemplating their world, without acknowledging that they are also creating it (Hodder 1992:3).

I would suggest that archaeologists stop worrying about how to deal with "other" truth claims and focus instead on having free and open encounters about archaeology with anyone and everyone we can. This includes people with whom we may disagree, because it is within these conversations that we will find "truths" about the past – and about the present. Truth will be whatever we – and they – decide that it is. This does not mean that our own truth claims should be regarded as subordinate to others. On the contrary, carrying on these conversations means that we are obligated to make our truth claims as loudly and forcefully as we can – to actively and creatively offer our "skill in crafting and interpreting material pasts" (Hodder et al. 1995:28). But before we do this we must set aside our notion of truth as something "out there" that we can discover, or convince other people to discover. In doing this we embrace science, as our tool-of-trade, but not scientism – operating within a pragmatic realism that does not lead to relativism or skepticism (Goodman 1995:4). Instead, we

...accept the position we are fated to occupy in any case, the position of beings who cannot have a view of the world that does not reflect our interests and values, but who are, for all that, committed to regarding some views of the world – and, for that matter, some interests and values – as better than others (Putnam 1990:178).

Shelter - What we lose, what we gain

If we embrace (and even celebrate) the idea that our voice in these conversations is contingent – contingent upon our own interests and values as well as upon our "interaction with and experience of the data" (Hodder 1992:174) – what do we lose, and what do we gain?

What we lose is our shelter, especially when we enter the Net:

"Authority as we have known it will change drastically...The Internet seems to discourage the endowment of individuals with inflated status...The formation of canons and authorities is seriously undermined by the electronic nature of texts. Texts become "hypertexts" which are reconstructed in the act of reading, rendering the reader an author and disrupting the stability of experts or "authorities" (Poster 1995).

Our professional shelter is a comforting place. Within it we can bracket the more "mystical" alternative ways of looking at the past as "nonsense" (Shanks 1992:115), and we can continue our appeal to neutral criteria as the only way to justify "truth". We can continue to worry about whether there is "sure ground" for our knowledge, and we can wonder what the difference is between "fringe archaeologies and those which question the sovereignty of science" (Shanks 1992:114, citing Renfrew [1989]).

But where does this get us? Does it help us to use archaeology as another way to critique our culture, our taken-for-granteds? Does it help us to tell stories in a way that helps us to recreate who we are – what our categories are? Does it help us to create a more relevant archaeology – one that is relevant not only to those people who want us to justify their views of history (e.g., Native Americans as the first ecologists, women as goddesses, America's "Founding Fathers" as infallible heroes, and so on) but also to people who genuinely appreciate the science of archaeology, and the fresh view of the past that archaeology can offer? Does it help us to be less cruel?

I suggest that it does not - and that gnashing our teeth about it is a pointless exercise which will serve only to alienate archaeology from the cultural mainstream even more than it already is (Peacock 1997). This mainstream, more and more, has to take the Internet into account. We should, of course, continue to explore ways of working out the various social and technological challenges the Net presents us with – plagiarism and copyrights, for example – but then we need to move on to other, more important issues, such as access, power, and the Net as a site of cultural mediation.

We should not see the "cranks" or other people who do not agree with us about the past as outsiders. Rather, we should see them as people playing a role – an important role – within our society (Rorty 1991b:15). Their existence, their voices, even their disagreements with us will help insure that our own voices are not marginalized, isolated and irrelevant – they are after all evidence that our own points of view will enjoy the same freedom of expression. We need to rejoice, not throw up our hands, when our conversations with them lead to others with which we have more difficulty. In strategic terms, we can simply regard these difficulties as matters of translation (Rorty 1991c:103) – as a program for more work (James 1995:56). Instead of asking "How do you know that?", we can say "Tell me more about why you say that". We can say "Think of it this way...", rather than "This is how it was". This sort of strategy will, instead of just creating a standoff,

get us working harder at trying to understand our interlocutor. Its consequence is to bring us closer to specifying just where our disagreements with him or her lie and how his or her repertoires of belief and sentiment differ from our own (Bowlin and Stromberg 1997:132).

It is true that we will encounter those with whom the idea of having a conversation is repugnant - those with whom our disagreements are all too clear (white supremacists who question the importance of excavating slave sites, for example). But we will have to work out the limits on a case-by-case basis, rather than falling back on some stable, "objective" criteria of what is acceptable knowledge (Rorty 1991d:208). Our best hope to prevent our own academic voices from being suppressed is to help create a culture which "prides itself on not being monolithic – on its tolerance for plenty of subcultures and its willingness to listen" (Rorty 1991b:14). We need to look for as many conversational opportunities as we can, and we must converse with and tolerate those with whom we disagree.

This is what we will gain. By being willing to take on the task of being "organic intellectuals" we will be able to use our fresh views of the past (with all their provisionality and contingency) to create new conversations and new "paradigms of imagination" (Rorty 1991a:94). With these conversations, we can teach each other more about what it means to survive, what it means to be cruel, and what it means to love and live with other human beings. Our research and our imaginings can, in the Gadamerian sense, fuse with what we and others already know about these things from our own experience. By "redescribing lots and lots of [even very old] things in new ways", it is possible to

...make new and different things possible and important - an appreciation which becomes possible only when one's aim becomes an expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions rather than The One Right Description (Rorty 1989:39-40).

Our professional search to find out what "happened" in the past should not be more important that our "desire for free and open encounters between human beings,...culminating either in intersubjective agreement or in reciprocal tolerance" (Rorty 1991b:8). The Net offers us new ways to have these encounters. It not only gives us an expanding new audience – huge numbers of potential conversations – it does so in ways that we are only starting to understand. As we experiment with the new technology we are finding that we can build in levels of interactivity that are not possible in print texts. Even though some hypertext theorists overplay the capacities of the technology as it now exists, the possibilities are still tantalizing.

For example, it is conceivable that, through the use of links between bodies of text and images, hypertext may be able to replicate the archaeologist's own thought process – how did he or she "tack back and forth" (Wylie 1986) between images, archaeological data, historical documents, and theories, to arrive an interpretation – a story – about the site? What questions were not answered – what "test implications" were not met? To paraphrase George Landow (Landow 1992:176-177), suppose someone could find a way to allow reader Smith to experience some of the connections obvious to Professor Jones – suppose Smith could "see" the artifacts as they lay in the ground and experience links between those artifacts and the ethnographic examples that suggested certain kinds of artifact patterning to Professor Jones? Smith could see, perhaps, how these data link with images of old historical records, photos, and so on, and begin to understand Professor Jones' thought process – to "see" how Professor Jones knows what he knows. Even within the technological limitations of a web site, it may be possible to suggest many more of these kinds of connections than would be possible in a traditional classroom or other interpretive setting – one more conversation, one more redescription.

Borderlands and Interstanding

On the Net, once we accept the idea of the conversation as the point of communication, we may also find that what is "between" objectivity and subjectivity is more interesting and transformative than what was "under" either – the gaps, the interstices (Meskell 1997) between archaeologists and readers, machines and bodies, and surfaces and depths become new, fertile grounds for our imagination.

When depth gives way to surface, under-standing becomes inter-standing. To comprehend is no longer to grasp what lies beneath but to glimpse what lies between...Understanding is no longer possible because nothing stands under...Interstanding has become unavoidable because everything stands between...(Taylor and Saarinen 1994a:Interstanding 2-3)

If we "deny the dualisms" (Hodder et al. 1995:21), and concentrate instead on the blurred, shifting borderlands, we may be able to use the Net to create webs which create interstandings, rather than understandings. To illustrate, I will borrow a passage from Renato Rosaldo's Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Rosaldo 1989), in which he quotes a passage from a book by Gloria Anzaldua called Borderlands/La Frontera. In her book, written from a Chicana lesbian perspective, Anzaldua "celebrates the potential of borders in opening new forms of human understanding" (Rosaldo 1989:216); in the following passage, she discusses how

The new mestiza [person of mixed ancestry]...copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode – nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else (Anzaldua 1987:79).

The Net offers archaeologists the opportunity to explore "the many-stranded possibilities of the borderlands" (Rosaldo 1989:216), in much the same way that Anzaldua describes. By creating hypertexts, especially in collaborative settings, we may learn new ways of developing tolerances for ambiguity, and these hypertexts – these conversations – may provide opportunities for our collaborators and our readers to develop these tolerances as well.

When we give up the claim to have right and reality on our side, and embrace the "associative and aleatory" logic of the net, (Taylor and Saarinen 1994b:9), we may gain an ability to acknowledge the richness of the abysses which are, in other settings, masked – we can no longer pretend they aren't there. (Rorty 1995:134). These abysses then become open to our critique – to our conversations.


"Once one gives up on the search for foundations and the quest for certainty, human inquiry into truth and knowledge shifts to the social and communal circumstances under which persons can communicate and cooperate in the process of acquiring knowledge" (West 1989:213)

This approach used in this essay is not another attempt to "ground" archaeological practice in any particular theoretical or philosophical approach. It is, rather, a way to clear the ground for a more democratic archaeological praxis (Rorty 1991b). We cannot have it both ways. We cannot call for an engaged, relevant archaeology and, at the same time, insist on setting all the rules for that engagement. As archaeologists, we do have a responsibility to those people in the past whose material lives we plunder – we "owe" them our best methods and our best theories. But we also owe living people within and outside our discipline our best efforts to create conversational opportunities that will enrich all our lives, and give our discipline a reason to continue.

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