So, I organize the Archaeological Theory Interest Group
When Mimi asked me to write a piece about my interest group, the Archaeological Theory Interest Group (ATIG), I thought of it as an opportunity to recount an aspect of graduate school that unfortunately ends up being marginal to the academic professional experience, its impact being minimal on a CV, but that is nonetheless extremely enjoyable and will likely bring you closest to that coveted sense of being a part of an academic community.
Philippe de Champaigne's Vanitas (c. 1671) representing Life, Death, and Time
Firstly, the process of creating the group was vastly simplified by having the Archaeology Centre in the Anthropology Department. Graduate interest groups are just a small part of a broader range of academic endeavors that are supported by the centre, and there are a variety of resources, including funding for lectures from visiting scholars which I have yet to take advantage of. The unassuming archaeological theory denomination is perhaps a cover and a means to allow flexibility, as most of the meetings so far have focused on the theory of the archaeology of the contemporary, with later meetings dealing more closely with methodologies employed in the field. The theory meetings proceeded empirically from sites of research, including robotics, AI, orbiting satellites, remote drills at the bottom of the sea, and nanotechnology, among others, with discussions dealing with the theoretical apparatus required to approach them archaeologically. The methodology meetings were organized as dialogues between disciplines that operate in the realm of the contemporary, such as archaeology v art, and archaeology v architecture. A couple of notable exceptions were a guest lecture on concepts from De Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life discussed in the context of Moche society (100 – 700 AD), and a discussion of archaeological representation using videogame constructions of ancient Rome.
My encounter with the field of the archaeology of the contemporary first took place when I heard about a certain scholar that was working on the archaeology of space junk a few years ago, on the eve of entering graduate school as a Master’s student. This small, and likely esoteric archaeological subfield then grew in prominence to such an extent that an Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary had already been published by the time I finished my Master’s (n.b. I often go back to this book because it has served as a catalyst for some career decisions). As I have previously described this transition at a group meeting, “wacky” papers about zoos, cyborgs, and Cold War material culture have been circulating in our discipline for a while, but only in recent years have they become somewhat central to archaeological discussions, likely as archaeological theory has become a central concern to a previously empirical science (see Harrison 2011 for an excellent disciplinary history, including earlier processual and postprocessual iterations of contemporary archaeologies). I believe it was discussing Harrison and Schofield’s After Modernity (2010) in an archaeological theory course in a fall semester, and then reading it over that winter break which finally convinced me that my fear of research isolation – which has kept me working in the field of historical archaeology during my Master’s and now incipient PhD – was merely based on uninformed, albeit well-meant advice, and led me to change my PhD project to an archaeology of the contemporary topic.
Organizing the group soon followed, as opportunities to do course work exclusively on the archeology of the contemporary are not yet available at UofT, and I am very thankful for the collaborative environment it has provided me to elaborate on concepts and explore methodology. One meeting in particular, entitled Archaeology v Art, allowed me to “see the light” and connect the many threads I was fumbling with into a coherent methodological approach for my PhD proposal. I have also been inspired by my colleagues and I got to see friends – Mimi, included – presenting their research in professional formats I would not get to see otherwise, because of our work in separate departments. But perhaps I should also credit UofT here with fostering this collaborative research atmosphere to begin with. This includes creating internal and cross-departmental communication channels for advertising meetings and all the other ways in which it encourages UofT scholars and graduate students to organize and network within their community. Earlier attempts on my part, at the university where I completed my Master’s, to create an environmental reading group for archaeologists, something I thought was necessary in the context created by the rise of the Idle No More movement at the time, was met with a lot of raised eyebrows and no results.
One of the ideas that guide my work with ATIG – and which has inspired me in more ways than I have room to elaborate in this short piece – is transdisciplinarity. My awareness of an alternative to interdisciplinarity comes through Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, where she critiques the streamlining and simplification of ideas and concepts in interdisciplinary forums. To counter this, she proposes transdisciplinary approaches modelled on the associations between earth sciences, such as STEM, based on concepts that forward the discourse in each participating discipline. For me, and likely counter STEM approaches, this means allowing for ambiguity and multiple meanings, rather than focusing on creating a space of mutual intelligibility through simplification and perhaps using this ambiguity as grounds for creativity. Also, this means encouraging ATIG participants to talk to the group from within their discipline rather than from a presumed common ground and see where – what would be construed as misunderstandings – can lead us.
A specific issue I tried to address from the onset is the discouraging or off-putting effect that a dry discussion of social theory may have on students. Because many students can take a methods-based route through their undergraduate and graduate degrees, and because archaeological theory remains something of an unusual specialization (recently made a lot more popular by groups like TAG, the Theoretical Archaeology Group), there are still many graduate students who, despite lacking the background, are nonetheless extremely interested in becoming versed in theory. Another issue is that having little in terms of formal guidelines on the question of when one becomes versed in archaeological theory (reading Trigger’s A History of Archaeological Thought seemed sufficient not too long ago), it is difficult to foster the confidence required to debate openly and comfortably among archaeology students. This led me to explore collaborative approaches, where participants can support each other, and forward examples from their fields of research that broaden everybody’s understanding of the topic being discussed. This has worked particularly well in mixed groups that included students from multiple departments. I confess that coming from a continental philosophy background, and favoring or rather being stuck in debate mode myself, this has taught me to think outside my own box.
Of course, you could ask, why not just meet your friends at the GSU Pub and talk theory like countless generations of students have done before? I think there definitely is value in informal conversation (they are not exclusive of each other, in fact they have promoted each other), but I have also been appreciating the opportunities provided by communicating in a somewhat more formal space. For one thing, conducting meetings has allowed me to see themes, concepts and methods connect into a potential course syllabus and get a sense of what a course on the archaeology of the contemporary would look like (spoiler, there are Archaeology Departments at other universities that already teach it!). For another, I have been able to meet people that share my interests outside of my academic network, and finding that your passion is shared is always nice.
Paulina is a doctoral student in the Archaeology Department at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include contemporary archaeology and archaeological theory. She blogs at Archaeology of Toronto. Get in touch with Paulina via her blog!
Harrison, Rodney 2011 Surface Assemblages. Towards and Archaeology in and of the Present. Archaeological Dialogues 18(2): 141 – 161.