It is with mixed feelings that I note that Seed has recruited an archaeologist for its Seed Salon dialogue feature (“yesss!”), and that the one they’ve chosen is Mike Shanks (“nooo!”).
Now, why would anyone dislike Mike Shanks? Well, because of, in one word, post-modernism. I read Shanks’s dreadful 1987 co-authored book Social Theory and Archaeology, and nothing I’ve seen of his activities since has suggested that he has become any less of an obscurantist jargon-spewer, academic joker and opponent of rationalist science. He’s archaeology’s equivalent of Jacques Lacan, whom Noam Chomsky considered “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan”.
Shanks has advocated politically motivated propagandistic interpretations of the archaeological record (“only nice leftie propaganda, please”), he walks around conferences trailing an actor and performance artist, he’s one of the originators of “critical archaeology”; in short, he’s the very embodiment of the worst kind of pretentious 90s pomo garbage in archaeology. If I had to choose my least-favourite archaeologist, it would be either Shanks or his accomplice/co-author Chris Tilley. These men should be selling bus tickets in rural Surrey, not teaching archaeology.
So, what is Shanks up to these days? Alas, he’s a professor of Classical Archaeology at the “Humanities Lab” at Stanford, and he hasn’t changed one bit.
“In 2005, Michael Shanks [...] and three colleagues started The Presence Project to explore issues of presence and documentation across the arts and sciences. Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson … joined soon after and, together with Shanks and others in the Stanford Humanities Lab, created Life to the Second Power, an online encounter with her archive. As they see the project through to its completion in 2010, Shanks and Hershman Leeson plan to further explore memory, identity, and place.”
“Explore issues of presence and documentation”. “Explore memory, identity, and place.” Explore navel lint, I say.
Archaeology is about answering questions about past societies using scientific methods applied to their material remains, basta. You don’t aim at finding out about past societies? OK, you’re not an archaeologist. You don’t study material remains? OK, you’re not an archaeologist. You don’t use scientific methods? OK, you’re not an archaeologist.
The funny thing here is that the Seed Salon is usually a natural scientist and an artist talking, but this time they’ve managed to get a “scientist” who is almost as arty and out-there as the artist. Throughout the piece, the two are patting each other on the back, exchanging wannabe-philosophical pleasantries and wordplay, and it’s all absolutely vacuous. Airy musings. The whole piece is a cuckoo’s egg in Seed‘s nest, being about as far as you can get from science while staying on campus.
Shanks: “A lot of people think that archaeology — archaeologists — discover the past. And that’s only a tiny bit true. I think it’s more accurate to say that they work on what remains. That may sometimes involve, absolutely, coming across stuff from the past — maybe a trilobite fossil, or a piece of Roman pottery [...] — but the key thing about archaeology is that it works on what’s left. And that makes of all of us, really, a kind of archaeologist. We’re all archaeologists now, working on what’s left of the past.”
Palaeontologists may be interested to learn here that trilobite studies are only a tiny bit about discovering the past. Because, you see, palaeontologists and archaeologists “work on what remains”, but they don’t find out scientific truth. We shouldn’t take it too hard though, because Shanks very likely believes that nobody in the world finds out scientific truth.
I wonder who chose Shanks as Seed‘s first archaeologist. I’m sure there’s plenty of room in the English public transport trade for that person too.