Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On being a space archaeologist: between science and the postmodern?

My colleague Mick Morrison has posed an interesting question, as part of his hosting of the long-running blog carnival Four Stone Hearth this week.   He asks:  "What are the marginal issues or stories in anthropology that you think deserve more attention?"

I suspect my primary answer to this would surprise no-one at all.  (But just to be clear about this, it would be the material culture and heritage of space industry and exploration).

Easy enough.  But he also made me think about how I understand my position in the world of archaeology (or anthropology, in the North American sense, encompassing socio-cultural, bio-physical and linguistic anthropology as well as archaeology), as a researcher who is already on the margins, working in an area which many, quite frankly, consider to be mad.  (Not that anyone has ever said that directly to me, of course!). In fact I am marginal in more than one discipline, as I also lurk in the corners of space science and policy.

This raises a problem about what to call myself.  I usually use "space archaeologist", but this can be confusing for those not accustomed to seeing the two words together, or who think it's all about remote sensing.  But I'm not strictly a space scientist either, and although "space historian" is more easily understood, and captures part of what I do, I'm not entirely comfortable with this.  Recent discussions with Brett Holman of Airminded highlighted for me the distinctions between archaeology and history. As he characterised it, historians tend to work alone, and are very text-focused, rarely interested in the actual places or things which they may discuss. Archaeologists use documents and archives too, but we are more focused on places, landscapes and material culture, and we are used to working collaboratively, often as part of large multidisciplinary teams, or with stakeholders such as Traditional Owners.  So "historian" could be misleading too, given that I have an intense interest in the stuff. Another recent suggestion has been "space heritage adviser", which I kind of like, as it has a relationship to policy.  None of these seem to fit all that well, however, and each seem to constrain me in some way that I'd rather not be.

So, thinking about this, I am led to the conclusion that some kinds of multi-, trans- or inter- disciplinary studies are more marginal than others.

This is perhaps best illustrated by an experience I had in the early 1990s, when I was involved in convening an interdisciplinary seminar series at the University of Sydney.  Naively, I assumed that my own contribution, an exploration of some obscure (at the time) mathematical models and their application to interpreting human behaviour in the archaeological record, counted as interdisciplinary, in the sense that the methods of two separate disciplines were involved.  Not so.  Interdisciplinarity, as evident in the topics presented in this series, actually meant postmodern, with a heavy emphasis on Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Spivak, etc.  I couldn't actually see how this worked.  (OK, Lacan does use topology, but as Alain Sokal has pointed out, very very badly indeed!  See The gravity of archaeology for my own, no doubt inadequate, application of topology to archaeology).  (And please, no-one tell Sokal).  The others were clearly flummoxed by me putting equations up on the screen, and I understood that I wasn't playing the game correctly, not having mentioned Bataille or Deleuze even once; and clearly believing that I could find something out about the world ..... 

In some contexts, one of the most damning things a colleague can say about one's work is "That's not archaeology ......".  Flirting with pure mathematics can be seen as taking the interdisciplinary enterprise just a step too far.  Fortunately, the field of contemporary archaeology, where we use archaeological theory and method to turn a lens on our own behaviour and interaction with material culture (see Schofield and Harrison 2010), is gaining support, and I find myself quite at home in this area.  Schofield and Harrison even like my excursion into topology! (Thanks, guys).

So, if I am in some sense marginal by being inter- or trans-disciplinary, what is the status of the questions I want to ask about the material culture and places associated with space exploration and industry?  Actually, they are pretty straight-down-the-line archaeology and heritage.  I want to know what we can learn from the places and objects of space; I want to know what is significant to contemporary communities and what are the most practical yet philosophically sound ways of preserving space places and objects for future generations; I want to know how this unique technology interacts with human behaviour and ideology.  So, despite my occasional use of literature, poetry, film and mathematics, perhaps I am just a regular common-or-garden archaeologist after all.

I don't have a problem with that.

Gorman, A.C.  2009  The gravity of archaeology.  Archaeologies:  the Journal of the World Archaeological Congress. 5(2):344-359

Schofield, John and Rodney Harrison 2010  After modernity:  archaeological approaches to the contemporary past.  Oxford University Press

Sokal, Alain and Jean Bricmont  1998  Fashionable nonsense: postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science.  Picador:  New York


  1. Anonymous5:53 pm

    Maybe sometimes garden, never common.

  2. Thank you! I think maybe Dr Space Junk has a garden on the 'Love Pygmy', with a fountain and comfy chairs for drinking tea and reading novels in.

  3. I suspect that sparkling wine would feature more frequently than tea on the Love Pygmy....

  4. Only after 6.00 pm. Oooh hang on, we're in orbit at the moment ......