B. Frazer, Commentary on 'An emancipatory archaeology for the working class'


Commentary on 'An emancipatory archaeology for the working class':
Class and Archaeology -- an Opinion

Bill Frazer
Department of Archaeology & Prehistory, University of Sheffield

I agree very much with the authors of 'An emancipatory archaeology for the working class' in that the issue of class has been seriously neglected in archaeological discourse (but for a notable exception which argues for a similar reconceptualisation of 'class', see Saunders, forthcoming). There are, as Philip Duke and Dean Saitta observe, a number of factors (many of them contradictory) affecting that situation, and many of them could equally be said to be problems in adjacent humanities and social science 'fields' as well (as Sherry Ortner, among others, has observed; Ortner 1991). While the class background of archaeologists in the US and Canada does not strike me as particularly different from the class background of, for example, historians (i.e. it is predominantly middle class and upper middle class, but with a fair mix from all social strata), the class background of archaeologists in Britain is strikingly upper middle class (and liable to become increasingly so). Racially, the craft of archaeology, in Britain especially, is decidedly lopsided and unrepresentative of broader national populations. (My understanding of archaeology as a 'craft' derives from discussions with Michael Tierney and from Shanks and McGuire 1995.) All this makes me highly sceptical about whether the authors can legitimately generalise about 'Anglo-American' archaeology. In my opinion, as an American anthropologist who has been a participant observer in Britain for over six years, differences across the Atlantic are too often overlooked.

To be sure, these days there are a great many pretentions to left(ish) politics and/or (neo-)liberal agendas among archaeologists in both North America and Britain. These include all sorts of issues related to archaeological theory and methodology, but, almost invariably, they also entail little practical activity furthering radical agendas backing up the tubthumping and rhetoric. It has become important, career-wise, to be seen as leftish. The blunt truth, however, is that many of those loud voices and loud e. mails are only loud because some powerful, job-preserving or job-giving entity is present, listening. We get competitive archaeological contractors proclaiming an interest in 'digging differently' (the sarcastic phrase is Margaret Ronayne’s; Ronayne, pers. comm.), without even consideration that the extreme hierarchical power relations on most field work teams need desperately to be reconfigured alongside methodological changes. We get moans about lousy wages, job security, benefits (in the US), and the general treatment of diggers in the contract/CRM (cultural resource management) industry -- all genuine, serious problems -- but nary a whisper of unionisation. (The British Institute of Field Archaeologists is not a union, nor is the Society of Professional Archaeologists / Register of Professional Archaeologists.) We get emphatic vocal commitments to interdisciplinary research agendas and multicultural curricula, but the same old school boys (and now, girls), as long as they don't rock the boat too vigourously, get virtually all of the jobs and perpetuate all the same problematic homogeneity in hiring, archaeological methods, and research agendas. (And just for the record, field archaeology is often worse about this than academia). At the end of the day, we hear all the usual excuses: 'it's the decision of the funding bodies'; 'it's university policy'; 'there's just no money'; 'it's the only way we can stay competitive'; 'we feel more comfortable hiring people who share our views'; 'off the record, I sympathise with you'; etc. I confess, therefore, that it's no real surprise to me that class is ignored in most archaeological studies. In fact, I'd go further than the authors: crude Marxism, of a sort which is rare in historical endeavour these days, is continually used as a whipping post from which alleged 'radical postprocessualists' and New Archaeologists alike differentiate themselves. ('Structuralism', of a sort which also really doesn't exist any longer, is another current bête noire in Britain at the moment.)

The term 'class'
The term class still needs unpacking -- though Duke and Saitta admit they cannot do it justice in their short article. One of the problems with its use here is that the nuances of the term (and hence its conceptual strength) are programmatically stated but not so fully explored.

So, for example, is there a problem with the authors' agenda on the one hand, and, on the other, understanding class change through time as well as of the different nuances of the term in different historical circumstances -- a criticism which could be levelled at a number of the articles in Spriggs (1984), as well as some of the work of other archaeologists who draw upon Marxism or neo-Marxism? Within historical archaeology, I think that the authors' assertion that class is widely ignored is somewhat overstated (but okay, it's for rhetorical effect, so I'll overlook it). The problem within historical archaeology, it seems to me, is not so much that 'class' is ignored entirely (though it often is), but that when it is discussed, it is treated as an a priori taxonomic category which is not subject to the vicissitudes of time and place, nor the interpenetration of other aspects (or 'structuring principles', if you like) of social identity. Rather than exploring how class is created and reproduced through material culture, historical archaeologists tend to categorise people into a class according to a list of material culture 'haves'. In Britain and the US today, to provide a contemporary example of cultural and spatial differences, class articulates with social life in fundamentally different ways. 'Class' in Britain bears more similarities to class relations in western and central Europe than to class relations in the US. (This is partly obscured by the fact that many culturally chauvinistic Britons consider the US to be essentially a 'crap' version of British culture, as, in turn, many Americans, through sheer ignorance, consider Britain to share in American culture.)

Class is not simply an economic issue; it is a cultural one, a point to which Duke and Saitta allude. This is, in part, another way of saying that the old base-superstructure binarism simply doesn't ring true. A classical Marxist view that sees human groups forming exclusively on a narrow understanding of economics reduces all human action to 'economic calculating machines' (see Willis 1998: 19), just as right-wing 'rational- choice' theories and Marvin Harris's 'cultural materialism' do. Powerful beliefs that socio-economic difference, or 'class', is somehow merit-based infuse many understandings of social location today, typically in combination with racism and sexism (Willis 1998: 19). This is of vital significance to archaeologists (not just those concerned with the recent past), because our explorations of material culture can unravel the threads of such ingrained cultural patterns, offering not only an exposé but also critical scrutiny of how such patterns come into being and are negotiated. Thus our explorations of material culture can also offer possible ways of rethinking problematic ideas about human difference at a fundamental day-to-day level of material living.

Another problem is whether the authors' implied broad, inclusive definition of the 'working class' today is liable to result in a weakening of the term's political edge? (This needs to be considered with more particularity, after Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe; e.g. Laclau 1977; Laclau and Mouffe 1985). Does a project like Laclau and Mouffe's broadening of the term undermine Georg Lukács's standpoint theory of the working class's privileged ability to perceive its own oppression (see Lukács 1971)? Certainly Laclau and Mouffe have been criticised along these lines. In a somewhat contrary opinion, the late Cornelius Castoriadis, building upon his idea of 'bureaucratic capitalism', argued that we

can no longer maintain the proletariat in the role Marx assigned to it, based on the idea that the process of capital was going to transform everyone (apart from a handful of capitalists and perhaps a few foremen) into industrial proletarians. This is not what happened. To say that everyone, or almost everyone, has become a wage earner does not mean that everyone has become proletarian with the content one used to give to this term. To be a wage earner is virtually the general condition in modern capitalist society; it is no longer the situation of a 'class'. Quite evidently, there are from several standpoints sizeable differences among wage earners. But they do not furnish us with a division into classes (Castoriadis 1997: 26-7).

Elsewhere, John Urry (1995) has considered 'postmodern' identity usefully, in a manner which implies that the postmodern condition is largely occupation-based (in a succinct way, which, needless to say, echoes Frederic Jameson's argument that it is class-based; Jameson 1981). Perhaps this might be a fruitful direction for broadening the definition of 'working class' and re-emphasising the need for a consideration of class in archaeological analyses. A recent schematic analysis by Linda Gordon and Allen Hunter (1998) concerning the concept of 'patriarchy' and the changing nature of male dominance in American culture over the past several hundred years makes some interesting observations about dramatic changes in female identities, yet the remarkable continuity in the character of masculinity. The authors argue that this was due in part to a 'radical individualisation and destruction of community and hierarchy' -- which still, obviously, did not bring down male domination (Gordon and Hunter 1998: 83). In addition to problematising the changing relationships between gender, age, and wage labour -- and thus alluding to the diachrony of class, particularly the working classes -- their article also perhaps provides a useful model for homologous shifts in class identities through the recent past. As an aside to the issue of our own 'situatedness' and class affiliation today, I can't help but observe that many English archaeologists that I have encountered, including many 'postprocessual' archaeologists who are quite willing to acknowledge the plasticity of identity (at least in theory) in their archaeologies, still treat their own class identity as a given, bounded category, fixed at birth. Does this contradiction point to a tension we have in navigating the relationship between past and present? Does it point to a widespread failure within our craft to make explicit the importance of the past to the present and future? How do the authors intend, for example, to tackle this issue in their ongoing project in Colorado? It might be easier to relate it to present-day miners in the area or descendants of survivors of the Ludlow Massacre or both, but what of other audiences?

Pursuing this, and returning to the issue of time and historical circumstances, what significance can the term 'class' have across different modes of production? Many discussions have shed some light on the articulation of power relations in 'non-industrial' scenarios and the types of cross-cultural similarities, in terms of structural power, that we frequently see demonstrated empirically (e.g. Gordon and Hunter 1998; Scott 1990; Stern 1987). Are these analyses which do not use the term 'class' as a catch-all more relevant to prehistory, or does such a statement provide prehistorians with an inbuilt excuse for ignoring 'class'? This issue, of course, relates to the distinction often drawn between class-based and pre-class societies, which the authors mention in their article.

In the 'Introduction', another problem seems to be the authors' understanding of capitalist ideology as bourgeois mystification. This is a rather unsatisfactory understanding of ideology. It implies passivity in 'reception' of such ideologies, and it also implies that subjects, of whatever class, are easily duped. It glosses over the complexities of subaltern consciousnesses, in terms of how and in what manner ideologies which extend or reproduce existing power relations infiltrate the beliefs and habits of people in subordinate positions of power. I have elsewhere criticised the extension of a totalising understanding of Antonio Gramsci's 'hegemony' as being applicable outside of certain very specific circumstances of late industrial capitalism, and even then my feeling is that many understandings of hegemony overemphasise structural power and relegate resistant power (Michel Foucault's 'power to') to epiphenomenal status (Frazer, in press). Others have argued along similar lines: Mary Beaudry, Lauren Cook, and Stephen Mrozowski (1991) in Randall McGuire and Robert Paynter's The Archaeology of Inequality, soundly criticise Mark Leone's germinal Paca Garden article (Leone 1984) for a similar misunderstanding of ideology as top-down, mystifying 'dominant ideology'. (Many others have done so since.) They draw upon the first of two excellent books by Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill, and Brian Turner (1984, 1990), with which the authors are probably familiar. In addition, I have found Slavoj Zizek's (1994) collection of classic articles on ideology useful in exploring a more complex understanding of the concept. James Scott is also heavily critical of assumptions about the pervasiveness of dominant ideologies in the consciousnesses of subalterns (Scott 1990).

How to grapple with subaltern agency and consciousness, cultural difference and commonalities in human experience in the present, whilst bringing the past to bear constructively upon all of these issues in order to fashion a brighter future is, of course, a heady question. Briefly, one of the theorised approaches I have found compelling are those arguments made by Martha Nussbaum with regards to certain 'virtues' -- a problematic term -- which she relates to 'spheres of choice' encountered in 'shared conditions of human existence' (Nussbaum 1988: 37 and passim; I disagree, however, with Nussbaum's dismissal of 'identity politics'). Empirically, Nussbaum and others have dealt with such issues in relation to international human rights in the 'developing' world, particularly for women (e.g. Nussbaum and Glover 1995). Such a viewpoint, however, is not given the attention it deserves because of its roots in Aristotelian and Enlightenment philosophy (and Nussbaum is frequently caricatured as an 'essentialist' by her critics). Others have argued more polemically against a fashionable, and too often summary, rejection, in the humanities and social sciences especially, of all ideas with an Enlightenment pedigree. In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky reasserts a position he has elucidated before (q.v. Chomsky 1988; passim) about navigating between cultural difference and the notion of a general human nature which 'has support from some of the sciences, but is mainly founded on a philosophical investigation into our hopes, intuition and experience, and an examination of history and cultural variety' (Soper 1998: 15, my emphasis). He argues that:

There are needs for conditions which allow the flourishing of human capabilities.... people need to exist in free association with others -- not in isolation, and not in relations of domination. There is a need to replace social fetters with social bonds. (Soper 1998: 15)

The primacy of class?
Duke and Saitta's critique of 'a determinist theory of society and a modernist conception of class subjectivity in which individuals are fully constituted by economic forces' could also stand to be expanded -- particularly in light of what they argue shortly afterwards, 'that class ... is arguably more important ... than these other categories' (i.e. 'ethnicity, race, and gender'). This strikes me as patently incorrect, and would appear to contradict their criticisms of economic determinism. It amounts to a reassertion (albeit a tentative one) of the primacy of economic social relations and class-based analyses of history. If the authors wish to redefine class as something beyond economically based relations, then I believe they must do so more explicitly (see my comments above). Arguments, some from leftists like Richard Rorty, which claim that 'cultural politics' and 'identity politics' are divisive to the left because they distract us from economics are overstated. Arguments that cultural radicalism is elitist and distasteful to the socially and sexually conservative values of 'most people' are themselves elitist (Willis 1998: 19, and passim). They are elitist in the condescending assumptions that (supposedly since the 1960s) most folks have been bamboozled into abandoning their genuine interests in favour of 'a cultural sideshow' and that most folks are easily duped. Personally, I am tired of seeing people at some conferences getting shouted down (by apparatchiks touting the supremacy of class relations over everything else) when they suggest that gender or ethnicity or race or sexuality might be significant in the formulation of resistance to global capitalism. The class-always-takes-precedence attitude doesn't begin to get at the complex interweaving of different aspects of identity. Class may be an aspect in all power relations. Certainly, I believe that economics play a major role in all social relations, regardless of the mode of production -- and, interestingly, this statement is basically a paraphrase of Max Weber, someone frequently caricatured as being 'against Marx' (see Weber 1968). The latter two beliefs are a sufficient basis from which to argue the authors' platform -- that class should be more widely considered in archaeological discourse. To go beyond that, and reassert that old class-relations-take- precedence-over-all-others chestnut is to sabotage one's own project. It's pretty easy to demonstrate empirically that class doesn't always supercede other aspects of identity. Different modes of oppression engender different subaltern social identities and different resistances. Unequal power relations in the US, Britain (the places where the authors grew up), and elsewhere are too solidly rooted in racism and sexism to be dealt with without grappling with complex issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. They cannot all be shoehorned into the 'class struggle' scenario. This is increasingly being recognised from within class-focused organisations; John Sweeney (President of the AFL-CIO), for example, has talked about benefits for gay partners as a working-class concern (q.v. Pollitt 1998); the Liverpool dockers, during their recent fight for fair and decent treatment on the job, networked extensively with a variety of grassroots activists and grassroots organisations who are not primarily class-based. If the authors wish to counter this last criticism, perhaps, by building upon Ortner's idea of 'surplus antagonism' (Ortner 1991), then they need to do so in more depth. Can class really serve as an antidote for race, gender, ethnic, national oppression, and so on? Is this a wise thing to work towards?

Archaeology 'for the people'
As I have said, I think the authors need to be more explicit about what they mean by the 'working class', since they are choosing to define it more broadly. Alongside this, then, care must be taken in 'catering' to what they feel are working-class understandings of archaeology. I've seen more than one well intentioned public archaeological project fall back onto those trusty laurels of 'expertise' and talk quite patronisingly to the (non-archaeological) 'public'. Nick Merriman's point about the contrast between past and present having a soporific effect on the public makes me suspicious (Merriman 1989). I genuinely think that most people who visit a museum or heritage display and see a single narrative historical interpretation which is one-sided, patronising, and authoritative are more likely to come out thinking 'nice pictures, but what a load of bullshit'. To each other. On a survey, however, such opinions are a great deal less likely to be expressed. Subsequently, folks will vote with their feet, and avoid historical interpretations that deny their ancestors any agency, that present a monolithic past, and that are housed in buildings which look and feel like a courthouse or bank.

The authors' agenda for 'an emancipatory archaeology' is laudable. I don't know, however, how much I believe that an archaeological embrace of Richard Rorty's pragmatism can be a cure-all for making our craft more relevant to more working-class people. Rorty's agendas on cultural issues are not necessarily that progressive. While I applaud his involvement in projects in the US committed to fostering communication and alliances between labour and academia, I feel compelled to note that such alliances are hardly new. They are simply not as widespread as perhaps they have been at other times in the recent past, though most alliances have not been as high-profile as the conferences in which Rorty has been involved. Nevertheless, grassroots networking around such issues as graduate student unions or, as recently in California, against attacks on affirmative action and immigrants (to name just a few), has mandated alliances between labour and academia (typically students, as in the Student Labour Action Coalition organisation, and not tenure-track academic staff). One of my points here is this, a lot of archaeological adoptions of pragmatism seem more like justifications for faux populism, in terms of public outreach. In terms of archaeological method and theory, they seem more like crass Peircean pragmatism with its fetishising of impersonal, objective observation, than anything that I understand Rorty to advocate (q.v. Rorty 1980). In short, for some so-called archaeological 'pragmatists', it's business as usual, as far as archaeology's relationship to non-archaeologists goes, and it's business as usual as far as entrenched views of positivist, processual archaeological practice go. I'd be interested in the authors' thoughts on this.

I find the ongoing project concerning Ludlow, Colorado, the 1913-14 miner's strike and the massacre there fascinating. Although I know only a little about the topic, mostly what I recall from Howard Zinn's excellent account of the 1913-14 events there in his book, The Politics of History (Zinn 1970), I look forward to hearing more about Duke, Saitta, and McGuire's archaeological work there. Clearly, one of the ways in which they can begin to show the interrelationships between different aspects of identity could be to examine the involvement of men, women, and children in the squatter's camp in that region, for instance, how gender and age categories interwove with class and social location. How did ethnic background and race articulate with class (e.g. most of the miners were recent southern European immigrants, and some seven percent of the miners were African-American)? How will the authors include local working-class people in their work? And how much leeway do they have with the United Mine Workers approving all their work (since, after all, that union was rather conservative in 1914, especially when compared to the Western Federation of Miners)? If the authors 'look' for it, the archaeology of the 'everyday' lives of people before, during, and after the strike will no doubt reveal an array of resistant discourses -- 'hidden transcripts' which never made it into the official history, but were nevertheless fundamental to miner consciousness. I'm eager to see how some of the ideas they've expressed in this paper are played out methodologically and theoretically in the field.


Copyright © B. Frazer 1998

An Emancipatory Archaeology
B. Frazer's commentary D.J. Saitta and P. Duke's response


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