Academic Piffle

I just boxed up two books on archaeology to return them to Amazon. (Good news: Amazon makes it easy!) I bought the books because I wanted to learn about Mediterranean prehistory — the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. What I found, unfortunately, was a lot of postmodern scholarly navel-gazing.

Apparently, writing a book that sets out what we know about the peoples of the Mediterranean during the Neolithic and Bronze Age would produce insufficient amounts of status. Since the books are already in the box, I can’t quote any specifics, but here’s another dandy illustration of the trend. This is the first part of the Table Of Contents of a book by John Robb called “The Early Mediterranean Village: Agency, Material Culture, and Social Change in Neolithic Italy”. (Robb was one of the contributors to one of the books I’m returning.)

   A Sense of Loyalty
   Some Necessary Concepts
       Social Reproduction
       Material Normality
           Frameworks and Orientations: Time, Space, Landscapes, and Histories
           Tools of Thought: Bodies, Habitus, Identity, and the Senses
           Fields of Action and Projects of the Self
      From the Point of View of Things
      Making History: Creativity, Commitment, and Gulliver’s Dilemma

This reads like satire, but I’m not making it up. “Projects of the Self”? What can that possibly mean? In what sense can things be said to have a point of view? And how on Earth can one begin a book on archaeology by theorizing? Isn’t it obvious that the facts should come first and the theories afterward? Isn’t there something about this in Alice in Wonderland? Well, yes, there is.

As far as I can see, Mr. Robb is more interested in his own intellectual processes than he is in Neolithic Italy. In fact, he’s quite specific in stating the view that presenting the evidence available from archaeological excavations would be unsatisfactory to him. “I became an archaeologist,” he says (it’s the first sentence in Chapter One), “because I wanted to study people. All too often, however, I find myself writing about things.” [Emphasis in original.] Plainly, he’s trapped in the wrong profession.

On page 2 ( lets you read a bit of the book), he tosses off this observation: “Southern Italy between 6000 and 3500 BC is completely unremarkable.” What he means to do here, it seems, is highlight with a rhetorical flourish the fact that the period that is the subject of the book exemplifies, in some way, the ordinariness of daily life in the Neolithic. Unfortunately, his assertion can be (and possibly should be) read as revealing the author’s underlying sense of ennui.

“In this book,” he says, “I address the relationship between agency and daily life.” Pardon me while I scratch my head; what does “agency” mean, if not “the conduct of oneself in daily life”? What other sort of agency could possibly exist?

“To answer this question,” he goes on, “we have to consider the relationship between action and actor, between long-term structures and fleeting moments.” Bear in mind, he’s proposing to tell us something about the fleeting moments of people who died 7000 years ago. His primary resources in this endeavor will be potsherds, obsidian blades, the contents of graves, and the seeds of various plants buried in layers of sediment.

I’d love to read a good book on Neolithic Italy. I wouldn’t touch Mr. Robb’s tome with a pole.

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