I was woken up a few nights back by my neighbours, which is no surprise. It happens all the time, but not usually as late as 3 in the morning. My apartment building and theirs face each other over a small garden that, rather annoyingly, has perfect acoustics: pretty much any conversation held on the balconies overlooking the garden travels directly into the windows on the other side, making it sound like the speaker is standing over your bed having a little chat. Its creepy.

So, having been woken up at 3 by them pulling up chairs and popping open the champagne, I then lay awake the next few hours trying not to listen to their conversation. It seems one of the girls had recently broken up with an errant boyfriend. He said this, she said that, then you’ll never guess what she said to him!!

Well I didn’t have to guess, because I heard it all intimate detail through my ear plugs. I can inform you that her ex really was a naughty boy. But I don’t care what he did with that girl from over the road. when sleep deprived I have very little sympathy. Being a light sleeper has turned me into a terribly grumpy neighbour.

Anyway, it was a few days later that I worked out why they were sitting on their balcony at that time of the morning. It was the solstice! And I totally missed it!

Last year I spent the solstice at the ancient site of Tiwanaku, waiting for the sun’s rays and Evo Morales alongside several thousand Bolivians. They year before, I was in Peru celebrating the neo-indigenous ritual of Inta Raymi at Cusco. The previous two years before that, I was at Stonehenge, dancing the night away. This year, I passed the solstice in bed in Chicago, listening to teenagers lamenting their love lives. It was a bit of a let down, to say the least.

I should have known it was getting close though, as I’d read in the media a few days before that the police were going to be cracking down harder on visitors to Stonehenge this year. Because that’s what’s really needed in the wake of all the great press the police have had recently: more aggression. If they were being heavy handed its a pity, because the two times I went to Stonehenge for the solstice the already over-intimidating police presence was the only blight on an otherwise incredible experience. Right up there on my top ten things I think everyone should do is spend a solstice at Stonehenge, while you still can.

Its strange to have spent this year’s solstice in Chicago though, and even stranger to have missed it altogether. Its made me feel a little despondent about still being here so late. Over the last few years I’ve made my annual visit of pseudo-pagan/neo-indigenous/reclaimed solstice celebrations at archaeological sites into something of a tradition. At some point I wanted to write something about the contemporary uses of archaeological sites in this way, but researching it is a tad tricky when you only get one night a year to compare with. Missing out on this year’s example is a bit of a faux pas.

As a result, however, the solstice has turned into a personal marker for me. Not a marker in the “welcome the sun”/”connect with mother earth”/”mark the new year”/”blah blah blah” kind of way. Its just that, every year for the last four, its been a little bit of reoccurring research for me. That I missed it this year just reinforced the sense of frustration I’ve had for the last six months, hanging around in Chicago waiting for the bureaucracy to work out so that I can leave and go do my fieldwork. That I’m still in Chicago for the solstice, and hence missed it, becomes just another sign of having wasted too much time waiting this year. So in my mind, the solstice has become a ritual that marks me being “in the field”, doing research. Where ever I am that day, it reminds me of where I was that day for the previous few years. The solstice doesn’t mark the middle of summer so much as marking me watching other people marking the middle of summer.

My friend Keith, the one who spent last year at the South Pole, was telling me last week that the mid-winter solstice is a really big event there. Given that they really are affected by the turning of the seasons there, the midwinter marks the point when they can start to look forward to some sunlight returning in a few months time, and eventually to going home. I’ve always been a tad skeptical about the archaeological tendency to interpret every damn monument built anywhere in the world and at any time in prehistory as a calender for the solstice. Partly because I think there has to actually be some reason for caring about the middle of summer/winter.

The South Pole experience I can understand. My reason is a bit off-the-wall and personal. The usual explanation given in the archaeological interpretations is that its necessary for agricultural communities to know when to plant and so on. But I wonder if that’s really the case. Do farmers really need to know the exact date iof the middle of summer in order to be able to plant? As opposed to, say, being able to judge the weather that particular year? I heard on the radio this morning, for example, that farmers in Illinois this year have been totally fucked by the torrential rain we’ve had in the last few weeks, which means they are struggling to get crops planted this week while its still just about dry enough and warm enough. So I’d assume there are so many variables to growing crops than the exact date of the middle of the season isn’t really that important. I’d be interested to ask some contemporary farmers who live somewhere that doesn’t have an extreme climate whether they even notice the solstice. Maybe our contemporary tendency to think every archaeological site is somehow aligned to the solstice has more to do with our own obsession with accuracy and dating.

This time next year I’m not sure where I’ll be. Quiet possibly back here in Chicago, enjoying a break after a year of fieldwork. Where ever I am I’ll make sure I pay more attention. If only because, if I’m going to miss it, I might as well get a decent nights sleep.

The ever lovely Jim celebrated two years of his insightful and politically astute blog Daily (Maybe) two weeks ago. He asked some of us for a guest blog as a birthday present, but being the kind who always turns up fashionable late to parties I only got round to writing it this week. If you’d like to see me sullying the pages of an otherwise fantastic blog with my ramblings, follow this link…

The alien takeover

Happy belated birthday Jim :)

Object agency is a favourite topic of mine within archaeological and anthropological theory. As if the concept of agency of humans is not complex enough, we have to go and add into it the concept of non-human things having agency too. I’ve been having something of an ongoing argument with some anthropology colleges about how the study of material things, while all very well in itself, is meaningless if you can’t also analyse speech. Note that this theory taken to its logical conclusion would invalidate all of archaeology, and in fact any study of the past not based on texts, because people are not there to talk to.

Well, I have several problems with this stance, the first being that what people say and what they do are two very different things, and that what people say and what the listener hears are another different set of things. But secondly, and more importantly, a vast amount of action and being in the world does not involve language at all. So lots of the things that happen to us and around us are not the result of language, and by implication communication through a medium that we presume to be able to understand each other with. Here’s an example.

This morning, I go down to the basement of my apartment and put my laundry in the washing machine. Coming back half an hour later I find the washing machine has broken. I collect up my soaking wet clothes and head to the laundrette. I find a machine, put my clothes in it, set it going, sit down on the bench in front. Above me, a television is blaring out Mexican telenovellas, and just to the side of me two men chat in Spanish. I take out my eeepc and continue the reading I was doing in my apartment. After I while I am vaguely aware of the men no longer talking, and I get the feeling, though I’m not sure, that they are staring at my eeepc. After a while one of them gets out his cell phone and starts to listen to music on it, without using any headphones. The tinny music on the tiny speakers is extremely annoying, and I wonder if he’s doing some kind of techno-posing in response to my little laptop. The music keeps going, the telenovellas keep stretching, and the laundry is no-where near done. I can’t concentrate on my reading, start to get annoyed, but can’t leave because I need to sit with my washing.

Nobody has said anything but a lot is going on and only some of the entities doing things are humans. Agency is variously defined, but most usefully as the ability to cause an effect in the world on something else (a patient). In many formulations other definitions are added – the need for intentionality being a common one. But the problem with intentionality is, how do we know someone has an intention before they enact it? If all we see is the action we have no way of knowing if they intended to do it, or if it ‘just happened’. Does intentionality require choice? Once they enact an action, we can only see the action and can’t tell if there was a choice of another action. Overall, its best to leave intentionality out of it, as we have no way of knowing whether it exists or not.

So in the example above. The music on the cell phone was irritating the hell out of me. I think to myself, “That guy is trying to annoy me by standing right behind me playing that crappy music”. In this case, the guy is an agent because he’s causing an effect on me (pissing me off). But I have no idea if he is intending to act as an agent (by having the effect of pissing me off) or if its an unintentional consequence of the world being as it is (he happens to be playing music and it pisses me off). But he’s not the only thing having an effect on me and making me a patient. The telenovellas are also having an effect (they are also pissing me off and making me unable to concentrate). So the television is also acting as an agent, but can I say that the television is intentionally pissing me off? No, no more than I can tell the guy is – although I might be able to ask the guy and I couldn’t ask the TV, in the case that I don’t (and I don’t) there is no way to tell if either have intentionality. But both are very similar agents.

But then, what other agents are at play? Do I, at that moment, have agency, in the sense that I have an ability to act? Well my potentially for agency, to do something to make a change on the world – in this case on my own experience of the world – is restricted. My washing is in the machine, I can’t move away from it. So my washing also has agency over me, in that it restricts my ability to move away from the annoying music and telenovellas. But thinking about that music, where is it actually coming from? I’m blaming the guy, but actually its coming from the cell phone. The guy would not be able to be the agent he is (someone who pisses me off with crappy music) without the cell phone. He might very well be able to be another agent (say, someone who pisses me off by whistling), but not this particular form of agent. So, without the cell phone, the guy isn’t this kind of agent. Its the combination of the cell phone and the guy that makes the agency he is at this moment. Its not that the guy has agency through the object, its that the agent is a combination of guy and cell phone. But then, what about the TV? The TV was turned on by someone who liked telenovellas, who then walked off. (Or maybe by someone who knew how annoying telenovellas are and then ran away giggling – but we are leaving intentionality out of this.) Is the agent the combination of the TV and the person who turned it on? In this instance, we only have the TV, but this kind of example has also been referred to as extended agency – its only the person and the TV that have agency, even though they are separated in space and time. I don’t agree with this explanation though. In this moment the person who turned the TV on is no longer part of the equation. Its just the TV that has agency and is pissing me off.

But what does that say about the cell phone? The cell phone is the thing that is pissing me off – or more specifically, the music. What connection is there between the music and the guy? Well, one that I assume to exist because he’s holding it, but is that really the case? His agency went into turning the cell phone on – he is the agent, the cell phone is the patient. Then the cell phone caused the music to exist – the cell phone is the agent, the music is the patient. (By the way music is still a physical thing in case you were wondering, sound waves having a physical existence.) Then the music hit against my ear drums and pissed me off – the music is the agent and I am the patient. But I still blame the guy and whoever turned the TV on. Whatever happens, we humans can’t help bringing in intentionality, we can’t help blaming things on humans.

And here is the most interesting distinction that complicates discussions of agency – there is a difference between the debate about ‘how we interact with objects in the world in terms of their and our agency’ and ‘how we humans conceptualise the ability of things and objects to have agency’. In the latter, we act very strangely. For instance, I still blame the guy for pissing me off, even though its the music that annoys me and I have no way of knowing his intentions any more than I know the intentions of the television. But we humans also have an interesting way of interacting with objects that reveals something of our understanding of their agency. I swear at my eeepc and beg it not to die on me before I finish writing this. Little girls talk to their dolls the same way old ladies talk to their cats (animals being that wonderfully confusing category somewhere in-between humans and objects). A women wears her lucky knickers which will always make her pull when she goes out on the town. A guy told me the reason my car kept getting traffic tickets was because I hadn’t given it a name yet (I still refuse to. I still get lots of parking tickets). And that’s even before we get to the classical ethnographic subjects of totemism, art, fetishes, religious objects, magic and lucky charms.

The way we interact with the world around us depends on subtle combinations of the cultural and the physical. That the washing machine in my apartment was full of soapy water that wouldn’t drain and that the one in the laundrette was not, effected the interaction between patients and agents (them and me). That the television was situated right above my head and had flashing lights and loud music similarly affected the way I acted (that I couldn’t concentrate, and kept glancing up at it). That the bench in front of the washing machine had enough space for someone to stand behind me, but that he would be fairly close in doing so. But the physical alone doesn’t explain why I thought it necessary to stay near to my washing, why I didn’t ask the guy to turn the music off, why telenovellas are so annoying, why I cursed my stingy useless landlord so profusely, or why I wanted to have clean clothes in the first place. Its this combination, though, of cultural and physical, that we interact with unthinkingly and unconsciously, that makes the world as we experience it.

(Incidentally, when the anthropologist Alfred Gell formulated a lot of these arguments in a book called “Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory” – which he died before finishing – he used the example of the a soldier and a landmine, rather than a guy and a cell phone.)

The following was written as a response to a question raised during an ongoing email debate on anthropologists working for the military. It might seem a bit of a tangent, but the the question of archaeologists working for the US Army in Iraq is something I’d like to bring up because I think its a relevant comparison.

The question raised was:
“Archaeologists and physical anthropologists were recruited– through posts from our own department–to aid in the post-invasion examination of human rights abuses and mass graves in pre-invasion Iraq. I don’t recall there being a lot of outrage in the department or the field in general at the time. Should we dismiss their work as “mercenary anthropology,” too?”

I think this is an important point to follow through. The reasons for or against objecting to working with mass grave excavations as opposed to becoming ’embedded anthropologists’ rest on three highly significant questions: 1) who/what is the subject of anthropology, 2) who do we imagine anthropology is being done for when we do it, and 3) what is anthropology’s responsibility to the world outside of academic?

I’m going to give a bit of background to the case of archaeologists working in contemporary homicide or genocide investigations and describe some of the ethical questions that have been discussed within the sub-field sometimes called ‘forensic archaeology/anthropology’, as they bear on the army ethnographer case. My main point perhaps is to make the argument that the motivations for doing such work stem from a very different idea of professional responsibility, and that the moral and practical implications of such work are quite different. But also perhaps just to point to the degree to which professionally-reflexive debates about the moral and social responsibilities inherent in academic work (and this type of work in particular) have been carried out within archaeology for some time now, and may be of use in this latest discussion.

In writing this, I am drawing on research I did back in 2002 with British practising archaeologists who work with human remains, as part of a study of archaeological ethics/conceptualisations of death and the body/the objectification and personification of human remains. Some of those archaeologists worked with the recently dead – either for the police investigating murder cases, or in war crimes investigations frequently uncovering mass graves. Not surprisingly, though, working in such situations is something that many archaeologists talk and think, even if they never do it themselves – everyone I interviewed had an opinion on the ethics of it, whether they could imagine themselves being able to do it, and so on. Most saw it as a way of being involved in the world outside of academia, as being socially involved, and as a positive part of the discipline – as something they respected, but would be emotionally unable to do themselves because of the highly traumatic nature of working with the recently dead.

I am also going to draw on the writings of Margaret Cox, a British professor of archaeology who has written very intelligently and compassionately about such work based on her own involvement in creating this as a sub-discipline within archaeology and physical anthropology. She is particularly vocal on a) the psychological effect on the archaeologists of working with recently dead bodies, and b) the responsibilities that accompany such work and how they include directly confronting media misrepresentations of the victims/causes of homicide and genocide. Her work would be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about these debates, along with that of Zoe Crossland.

So first, what is it that forensic archaeologists and physical anthropologists do, and how is it different to being an embedded anthropologist? As Margaret Cox often points out, there is a fascination in popular media with archaeologists as ‘forensic scientists’. But this terms is a misnomer that comes about partly because of a wider fascination in the media with all things gory – murder and crime movies are cool, therefore archaeology can be made to appear cool if its associated with gore and called ‘forensic’. Most archaeology is not ‘forensic’. But the skills that most ‘traditional’ archaeology requires can be highly useful in criminal investigations – careful excavation of physical evidence with the aim of attempting to establish what may have happened and how, and with the direct aim of identifying bodies; and understanding wider socio-cultural contexts. Involvement in homicide and genocide investigation is, to being with, a very new practice. Despite the existence of at least three MA courses in the UK dedicated to ‘Forensic Archaeology’ (and I am sure there must be a few in the US, but I know less about the situation here), the number of people who work full-time in collaboration with the police or in genocide cases is very small. As well as assisting with the police ‘at home’, there is the work done in many parts of the world working with war crime investigation and specifically the excavation of mass graves. This has included, to name only a few, places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and looking for Argentina’s “disappeared” – the latter being something that Zoe Crossland has written extensively about. And now there is the work in Iraq.

What does it take to work in these situations? Well, it can be pretty traumatic work. It takes someone who is emotionally and intellectually able to deal with not only the decomposing flesh aspect, but also with the ethical, political and emotional environment that they are immersing themselves in. As an archaeologist I interviewed pointed out, its one thing to excavate medieval skeletons in the calm of the English county-side, another thing when the watch on the arm of the body you are uncovering is still ticking and there are crowds of distraught relatives standing 2 meters away. This in itself points to a difference between the subject of investigation for archaeology and anthropology, in that people usually assume archaeologists work with the dead and anthropologists work with the living. Archaeologists work with dead people who (in some sense at least) can’t be affected any more by being studied, and yet they are also always working with living people in a contemporary moment. There is a responsibility towards the dead but also a pressing responsibility towards the living. In the case of forensic archaeology, this connection is especially clear. Any archaeologist who agrees to work in such situations has to think very clearly about their responsibilities and the moral implications of their work – will my involvement in this case lead to someone being tried and subject to the death penalty? Will I be part of imposing an inappropriate (and neo-colonial) conception of justice on a non-western group of people? Do I have a responsibility to the non-white, non-female, non-middle class victims of homicide that get ignored by the media – and should I apply my anthropological and archaeological training to understanding and representing the causes and contexts of both the phenomena of homicide and its distorted media representation?

There is a responsibility to work professionally and within legal structures, but also to be involved in a contemporary world – with our eyes open. To excavate and investigate a case in as objective a manner as possible – and to recognise that data does not speak without a human interpretor, and that subjectivity of interpretation is therefore not only something we have to be aware of – it is essential to being ethical. For this reason, the situation in Iraq is a difficult one. Those archaeologists who end up working in forensic cases often do so out of a desire to apply their skills, to have some positive impact, to help the victims of injustice and so on. What of Iraq? My understanding of the particulars is sketchy, but here are some personal reflections. When the email recruiting people from our department to go to Iraq to work on the mass graves there came around in 2005, I personally felt very conflicted about the moral implications of this particular case. I have considered in the past doing such work, and on the whole agree that it is a positive way of acting on my own (much talked about but rarely acted on) desire to connect academic to the rest of the world. But how could I bring myself to work within the US Army? I have no doubt that any benefit that came about for the families of the victims of the genocide would probably have to be balanced against the use of those crimes in an ongoing justification process for the US led invasion and occupation. To be sure, individuals would benefit from being able to identify and bury their family members, and we would learn something about genocidal practises in pre-invasion Iraq. But as long as this was conducted under the auspices of the current occupation, it would no doubt contribute to the justification of a colonial project. Although I think there are aspects of these dilemmas in all cases of working with war crimes, in the case of Iraq the ongoing occupation and propaganda campaign make them particularly urgent.

The complications of this moral dilemma directly parallel the situation of Tracy and co, but also reveal the hollow core of the arguments for anthropologists working in Iraq. Who is Tracy responsible to, and for? Is her involvement a response to a need on the part of the Iraqis, or on the part of the occupiers? In 2003 the media brought us images of Iraqis excavating mass graves in what was portrayed as a chaotic and frantic manner. Margaret Cox has claimed that, when she arrived very shortly afterwards, the same communities were excavating their dead in a highly organised manner, but that the media were not interested in showing this to the world. Her assistance in Iraq in these excavations was based on an already existing need to do that work. Once that work gets taken over by the US army, then yes, there is a problem in how you feel about how the results of that work is going to be used in the longer term. But if your help is requested by relatives of the dead to do something specific they are trying to do themselves (finding evidence of mass murder, identifying bodies) and you are able to do it, should you turn it down? The other side of course would be, should you reject the Army’s request to excavate, if living relatives don’t want you to, which is something some of my interviewees discussed.

Do the Afghan and Iraqi people Tracey is working with require or request her assistance? Is she using her professional skills to assist people in something they are trying to do themselves already? Of course not. The anthropologists who are working with the Army are responding to the direct and indirect needs of the occupiers, not the occupied. At best, they are making colonisation a little more PC. The difference is not between studying dead people or living people, because ultimately all archaeology and anthropology is concerned with, and impacts on, living people. (Although there is the very valid point of archaeology as a means of seeking ‘justice’ etc on behalf of the dead.) Instead the difference lies in who the anthropologist or archaeologist is working for the benefit of. This, to me, is what makes the Tracey a ‘mercenary anthropologist’, and the war-crimes investigators not.