Friday May 19th,  2017 Afternoon Sessions - 1:30pm-5pm


Session: “Parsing Posthumanism”


Session Organizers:

Craig N. Cipolla, New World Archaeology, Royal Ontario Museum


Dr. Oliver Harris, Leicester University


ABSTRACT:  Posthumanism encompasses a varied array of theories and critiques from the humanities and social sciences. From new materialisms to object oriented ontologies and from symmetrical archaeologies to new animist approaches, posthumanism’s influences in archaeological theory continue to grow and diversify. Each of these approaches orients around a general commitment to challenging the limitations of modernist, western perspectives on the world. This can entail moving beyond the limitations of assumed human exceptionalism through recognition of the vibrancies of matter and the complex human-nonhuman relationships through which agency emanates. In certain cases, posthumanism involves embracing the ways in which objects withdraw from our knowledge of them and indeed from all relations; in other cases, it urges us to scrutinize how things open us up to the alterity and otherness of the past. In the end, these arguments all ask us to give things “their due.” Archaeologists tend to orient themselves to these ideas in a dualistic fashion: enthusiastic adoption versus outright rejection. The former group is quick to applaud the intellectual binaries that these new approaches reportedly undercut; they celebrate the ways in which various strands of posthumanist thought lead them to new and interesting questions/problems in archaeological theory. The latter group offers sharp critiques of posthumanism, often for its purported lack of engagement with politics, power, identity, representation, and humans in general. Papers in this session reject both of these caricatured propositions, parsing posthumanism in archaeological theory. Presenters probe their own archaeological research specialties and interests to address what aspects of posthumanism work for them, what aspects they feel they must disregard, and what aspects are in need of further archaeological modification. 15-minute papers followed by discussant (15 minutes).


Individual Papers:


Introduction: Parsing Posthumanism


Craig Cipolla (Royal Ontario Museum/University of Toronto) and Oliver Harris (University of Leicester)


This paper frames the session, developing several themes explored in the papers and asking broader questions about the diversity of posthuman approaches employed in North America and the UK, in anthropology and archaeology, and for the study of different eras of human history. As an American archaeologist focusing on Indigenous-colonial history and a British archaeologist largely focusing on the Neolithic, we use our distinctive training and research interests to help us investigate these questions. Here we emphasize the importance of parsing posthumanism, particularly on some important differences we find between notions of networks, assemblages, and object oriented ontologies. We consider how these differences and the various approaches featured in the session relate to broader challenges associated with moving beyond representation and coming to grips with power and politics.



A posthumanist archaeology of Byzantine song


Sophie Moore (Brown University)


What does posthumanist archaeology contribute to the study of a deeply textual field like Byzantium, where human accounts of religious experience are often held front and centre? This paper explores the intersections between the new materiality and the immaterial nature of the Byzantine spiritual world (cf Buchli 2016). Exploring human experience does not necessarily require us to privilege human agency: the relationships between architecture, feeling, allegory and the divine existed prior to the middle Byzantine moments in which they were experienced. I will discuss whether or not there is any such thing as a posthumanist phenomenology, or whether those terms are inherently self-contradictory, through considering the archaeology of song in Byzantine church spaces.



Floating world: Precontact Inuit bird figurines as ontological puzzles


Peter Whitridge (Memorial University)


An occasional, but reasonably widespread, find on precontact Inuit and related sites of the past millennium is an exquisite flat-bottomed ivory bird identical to the historical tingmiujaaq (s.) of the Eastern Arctic.  In a game played mostly by children, handfuls of these small figurines were tossed on a level surface and won or lost depending on whether or not they landed upright. But a closed reading as a child’s gaming piece captures only part of the story. Tingmiujaat (pl.) were densely ‘vascularized,’ pregnant with cultural meanings and potentialities related to their manufacture, material, form and other sensory properties, and to the practices through which humans, animals and others engaged with them. They may have amused and socialized children but were made by adults, and built or realized discursive connections to the actual birds they depicted, world-making antecedent birds in foundational Inuit beliefs, ivory-producing creatures, the sensuous feel and appearance of polished ivory and its pecuniary value in exchange networks, and distinct fields of meaning connected to analogous ivory figurines of people, animals and things used by women and ritualists.  In effect, they condensed all of these meanings and associations and presented them to children in the form of a meditative exercise cloaked as play. They are also quite beautiful.  Many – really, all - of the things that people made or encountered in the past and that archaeologists contemplate in the present participated in similar seething webs of connectivity; this is what things do.  What is perhaps most striking about the tingmiujaaq is that it seems designed precisely, self-referentially, to elicit these reflections, forcing us to attend to a fundamental seam between the real and the imaginary.  Allying itself with the mundane experience of real birds floating on a real surface, it then invites the player to dive into the murky, bottomless, ocean of meaning below.  Through interacting with them in social and practical ways in part prescribed by their form, and introspectively engaging with their semiotic cast, people respond to such cultural objects by perpetually assembling an ontological order around them.  The complexity arises, of course, in the sheer multitudinousness of things, and in the endless variety of individuals’ responses to them.  Any account that attempts to flatten ontological multiplicity – to characterize the worlds of groups of people in the past as though this diversity did not exist – seems merely schematic.



A Critical Application of Posthumanist Theory: The Role of Camelid Lifecycles in the Formation of Moche Political and Religious Institutions


Aleksa K. Alaica (University of Toronto) and Edward R. Swenson (University of Toronto)


In this paper, we highlight some of the important contributions of posthumanist theory by examining how the lifecycle of llamas in the ancient Andes structured the practices and temporalities of human communities.  We present new data that camelids (llamas and alpacas) played a key role in the trade of goods and the movement of people along the sacred landscape of the southern Jequetepeque Valley centered on the important Late Moche ceremonial site of Huaca Colorada (AD650-850).  More specifically, we will argue that camelid reproductive cycles constrained and enabled many interrelated human tasks including pilgrimage, farming, fishing, calendrics, feasting and ritual observations. The extensive faunal evidence at Huaca Colorada provides important information on camelid lifeways, and how the timing and social management of breeding, rearing, training, herding and butchering underwrote the scheduling of other economic and ritual activities at the site.  In fact, the larger political organization of the community was structured significantly by the biological needs and ritual and economic affordances of camelids.  This evidence reinforces a central critique of posthumanist theory: archaeology has focused too narrowly on human agency and intentionality as the prime mover of structuration.



Ancient Maya Foodstuffs: Agents and Matter, Medium and Message


Shanti Morell-Hart (McMaster University)


From Fighting with Food to Feasts, anthropological literature has long demonstrated the active social role of food, as substance as much as symbol. Foodstuffs create obligation, bind people together, mark differences, ritualize practice, and incentivize social movement. Such positioning is aligned more closely with post-humanist approaches that de-center human agency as key mover or even analytical focal point. Agency is instead distributed along heterarchical pathways, without taking as given the premise that the “human” is an isolatable unit of analysis. The approach I take here does maintain the human as focus of study, but presumes the human realm to be neither discrete unit nor primary source and medium of agency. Drawing primarily from the writing of Charles Saunders Peirce, Andrea Adolph, and Mary Weismantel, I consider the ways that foods operate simultaneously as icons, indices, and symbols, often independently of human intention and sometimes in opposition.


I focus on plants in the ancient Maya area, where, along with faunal and mineral ingredients, botanical foodstuffs occupied special roles. Beyond basic nutritional building blocks, plants were active agents in large-scale terraforming projects, fickle ingredients in long-distance trade, and central figures in large-scale ceremonial feasts-- as well as key players in incantations found in The Ritual of the Bacabs. Moreover, day-to-day botanical activities served to reinforce or overturn social norms, through the medium of food collection, preparation, consumption, and conceptualization. Social messages were ingested, as much as they were transformed and maintained through ingestion.


Using published work by other scholars, as well as paleoethnobotanical data I’ve collected from multiple sites in the Maya area, I sketch a picture of food plants that were manipulated for social ends as frequently as they actively manipulated the worlds around them. From transported landscapes to trade wars, plants played a dynamic role in the lives of ancient Maya people, a role that goes far beyond the basic matter of subsistence to get at semiosis and sociality.




Remedial Semiotics: Signs of Life in the Eastern Woodlands


John L. Creese (North Dakota State University)


Can archaeology make sense of signs ‘after interpretation’ (Alberti et al. 2013)? Posthumanist scholarship suggests that conventional anthropological approaches to representation have failed to account for the profound kinship that exists between things and thoughts, stuff and selves. But the posthuman disillusionment with representation, left unchecked, has the potential to leave the study of semiosis vis-à-vis the subject in limbo. In this paper, I will offer some thoughts about how we might chart a way forward, simultaneously embracing the philosophical insights of posthumanism while using them to productively rethink, rather than abandon, traditional poststructural questions about meaning, subjectification, and power. Building on Ingold’s (2011) efforts to place animacy at the centre of anthropology and Kohn’s (2013) provocative thesis that life ‘beyond the human’ is constitutively semiotic, I will explore representation as an involution of life’s more fundamental animating properties, i.e., its form-taking and form-replicating activities. Using Wendat figurative art as an instructive case, I suggest that semiotic form-taking is inherently open ended and prospective, continuously reaching beyond itself to refigure specific cases as general kinds. These peculiar features can be argued to occasion processes of emergence through which novel assemblages – including societies and selves – are produced.




The ‘Counter-Monumentality’ of Central Great Lakes Earthworks


Christopher Watts (University of Waterloo)


Recent posthumanist developments in landscape archaeology have emphasized the wide array of elemental and material correlates involved in the construction of ancient ‘monuments’. In recognizing that such places were created to effectively and protensively gather together humans and non-humans (including the cosmos) in various configurations, rather than simply to memorialize, scholarship in this vein has sought to move beyond representational accounts wherein henges, earthworks, and mounds serve as little more than mnemonics. Yet there are other ways in which at least one of these forms, earthworks, would seem to work against traditional notions of monumentality. Often inconspicuously nested within the landscape, they feature horizontal outlines at the expense of vertical structures. They enclose voids rather than solids. Indeed, the very materials from which they are made – the earth itself – encourage dissipation rather than durability. Still too, while many conventional monuments are didactic and engage the viewer at a distance, these works invite a kind of close, sensual, and dialogic encounter. Collectively, these themes feature prominently in contemporary built forms described as ‘counter-‘ or ‘anti-monumental’ (see Young 1992) though they remain little discussed in archaeological contexts. In this paper, I show how these themes can be extended to the earthworks of the central Great Lakes, particularly the Cedar Creek Earthworks in Essex Co., Ontario, and consider how they might contribute to a posthumanist account of such places.


Young, James E. (1992) The Counter-Monument: Memory Against Itself in Germany Today. Critical Inquiry 18:267-296.



Power in a world without subjects and objects


Rachel Crellin (University of Leicester)


This paper adopts a relational, assemblage-based approach to the past which seeks to privilege neither object nor subject – rather animals, things, beliefs, plants, and people are placed on a potentially equal footing. Relational approaches have rightly been critiqued for a failure to engage with politics and power. In our own world power is writ large and we ignore it at our peril. Power is a critical political vector with obvious social and historical significance. I argue that all too frequently today power is understood to be exercised by male subjects over a multitude of increasingly powerless objects; objects including things, plants and animals but also women, minorities and the less privileged. Beginning with a flat ontology opens up multiple possibilities for demonstrating alternate ways of being in the world, but, if we fail to engage with power we rob such approaches of their true potential. In this paper I explore how we should conceptualise, understand and engage with power in a theoretical framework that rejects human exceptionalism and the subject:object dualism.


Pluralizing Power at Casas Grandes: Imbrications of Historical Materialism and Posthumanism


Jerimy J. Cunningham (University of Lethbridge)


Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1963) Search for a Method sought to reconcile divides between Marxism and existentialism so historical materialism could finally achieve a human face.  In this paper, I draw inspiration from Sartre and seek points of contact between historical materialism’s study of the dialectic between human freedom and exploitation and recent posthuman insights about object agency. Rather than seeking some new meta-synthesis, however, I argue that such divergent theoretical interests invite a purposeful engagement with theory pluralism.  To illustrate this point, I use distinct standpoint-based inquiries anchored in posthumanism and historical materialism to explore the emergence of inequality at the 14th Century Casas Grandes site of Paquimé from Chihuahua, Mexico.


Posthumanism or postresponsibility? Problematizing ‘responsibility’ in the current archaeological Zeitgeist


Artur Ribeiro (University of Kiel)

As stated by Appadurai, there is an unresolved tension in ideas between the new materialisms and classical ideas of normativity and political critique (2015:222). In part, this tension exists because of a lack of a theory of responsibility on the side of the new materialisms. Traditionally, the dictum “freedom to choose otherwise”, associated to earlier definitions of agency, allowed scholars to attribute responsibility to those beings capable of reflecting upon their own actions, however, this also forced scholars to accept that human beings might be the only beings endowed with agency. Thus, while posthumanism has shown us the advantages of decentring the human subject, one question that remains unanswered is: where do we find responsibility in a world of decentred subjects? Through examples from Tsutomu Nihei’s Cyberpunk Ecology and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, this paper will argue that posthumanism will have radically different meanings depending on how humans are defined. This, in turn, sets the stage for us to think how and in what ways the new materialisms can engage in ethical and political critique – and what this means for archaeological practice.



Yannis Hamilakis (Brown University)