Reading Yannis Hamilakis’ recent article in the first issue of the new on-line publication Forum Kritische Archäologie made me want to explain what I mean by ontology in archaeology.
Hamilakis writes that
[a] critical archaeology today should reopen the big questions of ontology (what is archaeology?) and temporality (what kinds of time do we reproduce in our work? what are their political implications?), even if that means dislodging the foundational stones of our cosy modernist “home.”
With home Hamilakis is referring to the self-sustaining system of knowledge that modern archaeology has created. For Hamilakis, that home is saturated with political questions. While I am not that concerned about the politics of archaeology, although that seems to be one of the key concerns of critical archaeology, I do think that ontology is one of the issues that any critical science has to address.
To me ontology and temporality are deeply interconnected. Anything that exists is changing through their relations with other things, and change takes time. What the nature of time is can be observed by studying the effects in things changing. In postmodern archaeology ontology has taken on weird solipsistic overtones. Ontologies are/were thought to be something that have/had significance to any particular subject, as if those subjective realities were not interconnected in any way. Following the idea of continuity between all material things (also ideas are material), I must maintain that the idea of separating subjective realities in a world where subjects clearly interact and affect each others is highly questionable. Placing too much emphasis on subjective perspectives is a form of simplification. That is why I want to emphasize the role of perspectives or subjectivities in a more wider context where political agendas and bacteria for example are given equal existence while also maintaining that political agendas and bacteria may not have direct relationships in the form of a bacterial politics. There undoubtedly is a connection between politics and bacteria since the people who have political agendas would not exists without the multitude of bacteria that inhabit their bodies.
These problems are also what separate those who think cultural heritage is being made and those who think it is being found. Similarly to what I think about the relationship between subjective realities, I remain very suspicious of how helpful these kind of divisions are. This brings me to the most important thesis of my archaeological ontology. There are relationships between objects that are real regardless of my existence, as well as there are relationships between objects to which my existence is of more importance. What some ‘postprocessualists’/’constructivists’ often tend to forget is that while I may not know at this instance what someone else’s experience of the past is like, it does not mean I could not speculate about possible similarities on the ground of the similarities that our experiences of the past do share. The fact that our experiences share something serves as a starting point and common ground for meaningful speculation, which in turn is the starting point for any critical science.