Touchstone Thursday: Alison Wylie’s ‘Archaeological Cables and Tacking: The Implications of Practice for Bernstein’s Options Beyond Objectivism and Relativism.’

Among the memories of a life spent learning–much of it having to do with archaeology–Alison Wylie’s ‘Archaeological Cables and Tacking: The Implications of Practice for Bernstein’s Options Beyond Objectivism and Relativism’ stands apart from all the other papers I’ve read. I don’t mean that it’s the best ever (although it’s probably in the top 25); just that it, alone, reaffirmed my confidence in the ‘scientific project,’ and at the same time helped me to avoid the vertiginous feeling of helplessness that I had developed in response to radical post-modern anthropology. 
     In the mid 80s there was much feminist and post-modern criticism of science, because its practitioners, besides being majority male, were believed to be hopelessly mired in their cultural and social worldview, and that ‘doing’ science didn’t privilege a knowledge claim over any others in the realm of knowledge making. The writings of Derrida and Foucault were on everyone’s mind, and I was very uncomfortable with the notion that scientific knowledge was no more credible than, say, personal or religious knowledge. I was hearing ‘science is dead’ more than I could stomach. I wasn’t ready for a world in which the phrase ‘anything goes’ accompanied the question of choosing between competing explanations of past culture change.
     I was very fortunate that my graduate advisor, Meg Conkey, was friends with Alison Wylie, and found some money to bring Alison to Berkeley for a semester in 1989. Wylie’s Ph.D. dissertation had been an examination of the tension between the stated goals of processual archaeology and the reliance on an account of science that had its roots in stringent empiricist philosophy of science. Put succinctly, coming to know the archaeological past–i.e. something that literally does not exist–was effectively ruled out by the view of science known as Logical Empiricism (AKA Logical Positivism) and the nomothetic-deductive method championed by Lew Binford and others. In 1989 Alison had published a string of articles that, for me, made sense of many of the debates that had riven archaeology in the 1970s and 80s. They included

An Analogy by Any Other Name is Just as Analogical: A Commentary on the Gould-Watson Dialogue, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 1 (1982): 382-401. [Which ‘reinstated’ ethnographic analogy as one path to the past.]

Epistemological Issues Raised by a Structuralist Archaeology, in Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, edited Ian Hodder, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 39-46. [Which calmly extolls the virtues, and underscores the shortcomings, of Structuralism as a methodological framework for doing archaeology.]

The Demystification of the Profession, in The Socio-Politics of Archaeology, edited by Joan M. Gero, David M. Lacy, and Michael L. Blakey, University of Massachusetts, Anthropology Research Report Series #25 (1983): 119-129. 

Between Philosophy and Archaeology, American Antiquity 50 (1985): 478-490.

Putting Shakertown Back Together: Critical Theory in Archaeology, Journal for Anthropological Archaeology 4 (1985): 133-147. [Which took a sensible approach to the search for ideology in archaeology.] 

The Reaction Against Analogy, in Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, Volume 8, edited by Michael B. Schiffer, Academic Press, New York, (1985): 63-111. [Which elucidates the way that archaeological inferences are really made.]

In seminar, Wylie took us through her thinking about archaeology, its scientific basis, its epistemic limitations, its ultimate goals, and its relation to the latter-day critiques from Marxism, Feminism, and Post-Modernism.
     This Thursday’s Touchstone showcases Alison Wylie coming to grips with the radical post-modern critique and, using a traditional empirical approach, illustrates [among other issues] why the post-modern critique can be seen to shoot itself in the foot, leaving room for what’s called a ‘mitigated’ objectivity as the goal of an empirical science.
     I can’t recommend this work in strong enough terms. It vanquished my fear of post-modernism, once and for all. And it can do the same for yours [if you’re predisposed in that direction].

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