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The liquidation of material things

Küchler, S; (1996) The liquidation of material things. Archaeological Dialogues , 3 (1) pp. 26-29. 10.1017/S1380203800000532.

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Thomas' paper and manuscript are ambitious. He aims at nothing less than opening up for discussion fundamental concepts which have informed archaeological writings to date. While in principal laudable and exciting, the chosen concepts – time, culture and identity – are broad, each one on its own of daunting complexity. The vastness of the project is handled by setting up an opposition at the outset between the Cartesian and modernist reading of these concepts adopted by archaeology and an anti-Cartesian and anti-modernist reading facilitated by Heidegger. At issue is less the validity of Heidegger's writings or their deployment in contemporary theory-making, a fact which the author is at pains to defend, though leaving the novice at pains guessing what his writings are actually about; at issue is whether the future of archaeology should rest on developing an anti-Cartesian theory in the first place. The mind/body dualism associated with Descartes has been the subject of much critical work, so much so that it seems at best unnecessary to have to revive Heidegger to give Cartesianism the final blow. One may further question the opposition itself; is it not Kant who is the foundation of post-Enlightenment thought, rather than Descartes, and would thus not his writings be the point of departure for any rethinking of theoretical assumptions that may have guided archaeological theory and practice? A third reservation may be voiced about the validity of the interpretative approach itself; it rests on the assumption, also known as the logocentric paradigm, which holds that a relation exists between an object or image and a narrative description of it which is ‘found’ outside the object and thus may vary according to the context in which the object is seen. The most serious criticism to this assumption is that it ignores the immediacy of understanding which allows images to play a fundamental role in social transmission. Thomas' use of Heidegger's notion of Being appears to strive towards precisely such an immediacy of understanding, yet fails to do so by leaving accounted for the materiality of images. In advocating the interpretative approach, Thomas sets out less a new direction for archaeological theory than captures post-modernist writing which dominated across disciplines for the past decade and left a whole generation of scholars trained during this period ill-equipped to deal with artefacts in more than an exemplary manner. In the late 90s, however, due to advances in cognitive psychology and our day to day experience with cyberspace, this neglect of the image, material and conceptual, and its role in transmission has become glaringly obvious and unacceptable. Critical in their inception, however, paper and manuscript are intently thought provoking, stimulating and timely in calling for a rethinking of archaeological theory to accommodate the contemporary perception of material things. In my discussion I aim to both paraphrase the main points of Thomas's paper and manuscript and to offer comments and questions. © 1996, The Author(s). All rights reserved.

Type: Article
Title: The liquidation of material things
DOI: 10.1017/S1380203800000532
UCL classification: UCL > School of Arts and Social Sciences
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/119293
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