Why fascists don't like 'post-processualism'

Cornelius J. Holtorf

It is a sad fact but not a new observation that many of the most fundamental disputes in archaeological theory are based on gross misunderstandings of different positions. Paul Feyerabend once remarked that 'experts frequently do not know what they are talking about and Žscholarly opinion', more often than not, is but uninformed gossip' (1987: 16). It has, for instance, long been a common place for archaeologists associated with 'processual' approaches to accuse, rightly or wrongly, those associated with 'post-processual' approaches of attacking caricatures and straw persons which believe in a rigid scientism that is not held by anyone, in reality. However, many of the critics of post-processualism can be charged with a similar offence: these critics accuse post-processualists of a relativism which they have never believed in.

The polemical argument, which I regularly come across not only among the opinions uttered in first year tutorial groups but also in the work of some of the most prominent archaeologists, usually goes like this. If post-processualists stress the contemporary social/political/ideological context of all interpretations of the past and point to the ethical responsibility archaeologists have for what they do, if they hold that archaeological interpretations always tell us more about the present than about the past (as it really happened) and assume a plurality of equally legitimate views of the past to be good thing, then they are in fact advocating, so their critics say, an extreme relativistic position which cannot offer any 'objective' standards against which interpretations could be evaluated and in the end has to acknowledge that 'anything goes'. This being the case, post-processualists allegedly invite and justify extremist political (ab)uses of archaeology - including fascist archaeologies. Most recently, this is the point of a paper by Kevin MacDonald and others (1995) and of many of the contributions to a volume edited by Philip Kohl and Clare Fawcett (1995). note1

I see my brief comments that follow as a contribution to eradicate uninformed gossip. They should be seen neither as a defence on behalf of individual post-processualists, as if they had not done or could not do that for themselves, nor as an attempt to rescue 'post-processualism' as a package. I am interested here in a particular issue, not in a large research ideology which perhaps does not need rescue attempts anyway. Let me put the record straight about the issue of relativism, in two steps.

1. Relativism does not mean that 'anything goes'; there are other than 'objective' standards for evaluating interpretations.

There are many relativisms, the two principal ones being 'epistemic' and 'judgemental' relativism (cf. Shanks and Hodder 1995:19). The problem is that the two often become confused. Epistemic relativism means that our knowledge of the world is relative to the conditions under which we reach it. The world is known differently in different contexts: there is a plurality of world and past views. Some would even say that there are many worlds and pasts. Scientific rationalism defines only one of them: science may be objective but the objectivity of science is not. The same can be said for fascist theories (see Feyerabend 1987: 73, 297-311). However, each knowledge of the world and the past is everything but arbitrary. We only need to look at how, in any given context, people around us know the world, to see that, by far, not 'anything' goes. If it is the case that we really can say anything we like about the past, we still do not like saying anything about the past. Knowledge is not random but context-dependent. In 99 of 100 situations, fascist ideology will be considered as sheer nonsense straight away.

Judgemental relativism holds that judgements about different accounts of the world ought to depend on the very context of these accounts. In other words: in a fascist context, Nazi archaeology which justifies racism, land claims, or even war would nevertheless be 'right'. This is a position which post-processualists supposedly adhere to, yet I have failed to come across any book, paper or lecture that would support such a view. Which archaeologist advocating an epistemic relativist position has ever had any difficulty in dismissing a Nazi interpretation of the past?

Illustration By Quentin Drew
While we may indeed lack standards to determine objectively epistemic (and ontological) validities of competing truth claims, there is no shortage of other standards by which different views of the past can be assessed, and fascist archaeologies dismissed. Such criteria include political impact, ethical acceptability, and aesthetic values of the accounts concerned. It may not be easy to achieve a broad consensus in these issues, as political, moral and aesthetic criteria differ between people. But this must not stop us using these criteria. Society is changed on a day-to-day basis by individuals or groups of individuals who vote and act according to what they are convinced is right, not by social consensus or objective necessities. The past we desire needs to be worked for, or we will not have it. Holocaust denial, therefore, ought to be challenged politically and defeated in the law court, while some academic works and presented papers can be considered excellent on aesthetic (literary, rhetorical) grounds, or reactionary in their implied human philosophy; much of 'fringe' archaeology may be acceptable solely out of respect for the genuine beliefs of fellow human beings. It all depends on what is important to us.

Such judgements do not, of course, make accounts automatically right or wrong also in respect to the archaeological 'data'. No bona fide archaeologist has ever accepted inaccurate or counter-factual claims about the past, and there is certainly no need for emancipation of our interpretations from the data. But this is not to accept that there are firm and solid archaeological data in the first place, which alone could (and hence should?) determine our interpretations of the past. The data not only keep changing, depending on the particular theoretically informed position from which we look at the world and the past, but they underdetermine interpretations of the past anyway: there is always room for creativity and interpretive agency. Look at it this way: the data do not (only) restrain us but (mainly) enable us to interpret the past. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that our accounts of the past seem to be getting ever more diverse, and not uniform, as archaeological research moves on.

Our interpretations necessarily have agendas, explicit or implicit, which are not based on the data. This is why a strict scientific methodology can be called na‘ve and potentially dangerous, because it refuses to accept political and ethical standards for interpretations of the past although the data cannot be interpreted without other factors, including politics, coming into it. It is simply not good enough to have the data right in an interpretation of the past.

2. Relativism does not invite or justify politically dubious archaeologies, while approaches stressing scientific objectivity and rationalism do, or should do.

One should expect, according to some critics, hordes of fascists gathering around post-processualists wherever they teach or give lectures, in order to learn ever new ways to strengthen their agenda. In practice, however, this does not happen. How many extremists have ever tried to justify fascism or any other extremist politics on the basis of an epistemic relativism? I doubt that those political extremists who actually use references to the past in order to support their positions have heard even of the now established names among the post-processualists. They would no doubt prefer a scientific rationalism maintaining the possibility for objectivity, because an epistemic relativism does not make it at all easier for fascists and other 'archaeological terrorists' to argue their case. In fact, epistemic relativism makes it harder for extreme political activists to use the past for their purposes, because it dismisses absolute truths out of principle and leads to an acceptance of both political grounds for critically assessing interpretations and full ethical responsibility for the accounts produced. It also paves the way for what Feyerabend calls a 'democratic relativism' in which the citizens themselves decide about the truth and usefulness of paradigms, both for their own lives and for society (1975: chapter 18; 1984:138-43, 168f.; 1987:54-62). It should therefore be obvious why it does not make sense for fascists to be relativists, and why fascist archaeologists will not choose post-processualism as their paradigm.

Just as totalitarian regimes tend to legitimate their actions through references to 'scientifically' gained eternal truths about human nature, history and society, extremist interpretations of the past are similarly based on the notion of archaeology seeking the objective truth about the past. Politically dubious archaeologies may in fact contain a through-and-through rational argument and a very acceptable treatment of the 'data', as a consequence of which they are difficult to combat by those emphasising this as the single standard for evaluation. In other words: a position which declares itself wholly dependent on following rational scientific procedures may support just about any interpretation; there is little that conscientious scientists can do against clever fascists. It is the desire to find, and the conviction to reach, at least partly objective interpretations of the past through a rational argument, thus contributing to our knowledge of the true historical reality, which scientific and fascist archaeology have in common and which keeps them both going. The rhetorical alliance between 'scientific' interpretations of the past and metaphysical notions such as rationality, objectivity and truth, thus needs to be challenged in a fundamental way, in order to save archaeology from carrying, willingly or unwillingly, politically or morally disastrous messages. Supposedly objective interpretations too are underdetermined by the archaeological data; scientific procedures alone do not fill the gap: 'rationalism has no identifiable content and reason no recognizable agenda over and above the principles of the party that happens to have appropriated its name' (Feyerabend 1987:13). There is always room for agendas. Fascists have long realised this as a unique opportunity.

The philosopher Paul Feyerabend is often cited among philosophers of science, but it seems to me for the wrong reason. Feyerabend is usually credited with, and then quickly dismissed for, advocating the ultimate relativist position of 'anything goes'. However, when reading his (in)famous book Against Method, one finds that he argues in fact exactly the opposite. It is worth citing the relevant sentences in full:

It is clear, then, that the idea of fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, Žobjectivity', Žtruth' it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes. (Feyerabend 1975: 27f.).

Feyerabend had studied the history of science and 'anything goes' emerged as the most important methodological principle for achieving scientific progress as defined by the scientific rationalists' own standards (see also 1986:11; 1987:283f.). James Bell has brilliantly summed up this position (which, I should add, is not his own):

Postulation of as many theories as possible, of any type whatsoever, encourages the advance of knowledge.... Belief in method thus encourages false confidence in privileged theories while intimidating critics and dismissing their arguments. Belief in method also stultifies the generation and consideration of alternative theories.... Deliberate ad hoc adjustments, misleading interpretation of Žsupporting' data, suppression of anomalous data, invalid reasoning, and even propaganda are all acceptable means of gaining a hearing for favored theories and disparaging others. (Bell 1991: 72f.).

If this is right, then fascists should be especially welcomed among scientific rationalists, as their paradigms may well contribute more to the advancement of scientific knowledge than science itself.


My opinion as expressed in this article has benefited considerably from discussions on 'Relativism, Objectivity and the Politics of the Past' which we had in the summer term of 1996 in a postgraduate and staff seminar series at Lampeter. I would like to thank all participants and especially those who gave presentations or wrote position papers in this context: Yannis Hamilakis, Mark Pluciennik, Michael Shanks, Bill Sillar, Sarah Tarlow, Michael Tierney, and Alex Woolf. Thanks also to Kathryn and Willy for inviting me to express some thoughts on this matter in the form of a contribution to Assemblage. Finally, I am pleased to acknowledge Quentin Drew for providing the wonderful illustration.

note 1 For initial reactions see Pluciennik (forthcoming) and Holtorf et al. (1996) with the subsequent discussion on Arch-theory that included mailings by Paul Graves-Brown, Angela Piccini, Dan Mouer, Matt Tomaso, Julian Thomas, and Luis Cornejo. To return to text click here.


Bell, James A. 1991. Anarchy and Archaeology. In Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies. Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past (ed. Robert W. Preucel). Center for Archaeological Investigations. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Occasional Papers No. 10, pp. 71-80.

Feyerabend, Paul. 1975. Against Method. Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge. London: NLB.

Feyerabend, Paul. 1984. Wissenschaft als Kunst. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Feyerabend, Paul. 1986. Wider den Methodenzwang Revised German edition [1983] of ŽAgainst Method'. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Feyerabend, Paul. 1987. Farewell to Reason. London: Verso.

Holtorf, Cornelius J., Pluciennik, Mark, and Shanks, Michael. 1996. On 'relativism' and 'post-processualism'. A reaction to Kohl and Fawcett 1995. Message sent on 15.3.96 to Arch-theory.

Kohl, Philip L. and Fawcett, Clare. (eds). 1995. Nationalism, politics, and the practice of archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacDonald, Kevin C., Hung, Frank Y.C., and Crawford, Harriet. 1995. Prehistory as propaganda. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, 6: 1-10.

Pluciennik, Mark. Forthcoming. Comment on MacDonald et al. 1995. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology.

Shanks, Michael and Hodder, Ian. 1995. Processual, postprocessual and interpretive archaeologies. In Interpreting Archaeology. Finding meaning in the past (eds I. Hodder et al.). London: Routledge, pp. 3-29.

About the author

On the subject of himself, Cornelius Holtorf writes: I am a Ph.D. student at Lampeter and enjoy being there. My general academic interests are archaeological theory and the meanings of the past and its remains in various presents. In my actual research I am interpreting the meanings of ancient monuments in later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, NE Germany. When I am not sitting behind the computer screen, I like going places all around Wales, especially at the seaside.

Address for correspondence:

Cornelius J. Holtorf, Department of Archaeology, University of Wales, Lampeter, Ceredigion. SA48 7ED. E-mail: PJ015@lamp.ac.uk

©Cornelius J. Holtorf 1996


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