Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Stone: Let's talk about Theory, baby

First off, apologies for not blogging for the last couple of weeks- I've been working pretty hard to finish the second draft of my PhD thesis. It's done now, sent off to my supervisor and advisor for their thoughts, and hopefully will soon be transformed into the final version. Phew! So I'm back blogging, and, looking at the loose cycle of Pots-Places-Stones-Bones, I realised that this post needed to be a Stone post. In the past, I seem to have used these posts for a bit of a whinge, a bit of a gripe. Sometimes (I hope mostly) those moans are constructive and about relevant topics that need to be questioned. However, I want to do something a bit more productive with these posts over the next couple of months.

You may not think that talking about archaeological theory is productive. When I was an undergraduate, there was a strong feeling that theory was "dead" and was a surplus requirement to the practical business of digging things up. I'm not sure if the proponents of this idea (who were many, and who were vocal), were responding to an internalisation of theory, or were just being mischievous. Either way, when a member of academic staff starts your "Introduction to Archaeological Theory" module with a soothing (read patronising) little monologue on how "theory is tough" and "it's ok not to understand," the chance to change those people's views went down the toilet.

So here's what I think. Theory isn't tough. Sometimes the language that the people writing it use is tough, obscure, downright daft. But theory is about ideas, and the ideas are usually devastating- because they are, at their heart, relatively simple. When I taught an undergraduate module with a good friend on "Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology," because we were theorists, we filled the course with it. Students lapped it up- we got stellar feedback ratings. Because you don't teach theory by whinging on about how tough it is- you make the IDEA clear, you find a fabulous pair of case studies that illustrate the point (usually one ethnographic and one archaeological for our purposes) and then you make the students apply the theory, go back to the original work and demolish the crap presentation to get at the central concept.

Because (and drum roll here please) you are applying theory all the time. ALL THE TIME. Theory is alive and well, because you are using it. You can't wipe your head clean, you can't empty out your mind. This is what Ian Hodder was talking about all those years ago about "theory at the trowel's edge," a phrase that's often smirked at. Every time you pick up a trowel, every time you read a source, every time you trawl through a museum store, you are doing something pretty special. You are simultaneously combining preconceived opinions and physical evidence to make a new idea. You can't turn off that process- that's what we're in it for. Even if you're watching archaeology on telly, you are still doing this. You are theorising- having and making ideas about material culture. That's archaeological theory.

So, if you are going to do this all the time, it seems like a pretty good idea to organise those ideas. To find out who thought of them first, and how their thoughts differed to yours. To discover the flaws in your own arguments and be able to make them (harder) better (faster, stronger). To find new ideas that are exciting, that transform your thoughts about objects, words or people. That's what learning archaeological theory is for, and, taught correctly in fully contextual and applied manner, it's f***ing brilliant.

So, over the next lot of Stone posts, instead of faux-positive whining about how I can't get a job*, I want to talk about the big ideas in theory. The thinkers, the case studies, that have changed how I approach objects in my professional life, and most of my actual life. Once you're familiar with these arguments, which aren't just about archaeology but about people, you see them everywhere- you can bust them if they're rubbish, or use them if they work for you. BUT YOU HAVE TO KNOW THEM FIRST! To make up for my absence, there will be two posts this week- probably tomorrow I'll be back, and I want to start (almost) at the beginning of archaeological theory.

See you tomorrow for some cultural Darwinism.

Don't look so worried Charles! It's just some ideas!

*Although you never know- as a colleague and I discussed on Twitter, I think a BBC4 series on theory in anthropology/archaeology could actually be pretty damn good: thinkers, ideas and case studies every week. Like the recent Richard Miles doc on the history of archaeology, which was well presented and fun and accurate- the Holy Grail. If you're reading this, O Hallowed Producers, give me a shout.

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What do you think? I'd love to hear what's in your head.