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The principle of symmetry according to Tim Ingold: An occasion for more clarification

Posted by Christopher Witmore

When deployed in the context of metaphysics, symmetry is an awkward, even unsightly, term. Those of us who have enrolled this principle have been the first to admit this. We have also been the first to state that we are more than happy to take leave of symmetry. But such vocabulary works because it is not meant to carry any empirical weight, but to aid us in taking fresh angles on our matters of concern.

This has all been stated before, so why do so again?

My return to this issue was prompted by a recent article written by Tim Ingold (2012) who takes issue with symmetrical archaeology, under the rubric of material culture studies, on the grounds that it operates with “a conception of the material world and the nonhuman that leaves no space for living organisms.”

Here is what he had to say.

In their efforts to bring things back in, theorists have proposed a symmetrical approach, in which nonhumans of all sorts are allowed to play a role, alongside human beings, in the conduct and continuation of social life (Olsen 2003, 2007, 2010, p. 9; Webmoor 2007; Witmore 2007). With its geometrical connotations, the concept of symmetry is less that apposite, since precisely what is not implied is a relation between terms that are equal and opposite. On the contrary, the approach seeks a way of talking about persons and things that both allows for heterogeneity and is nonoppositional (Latour 2005, p. 76). Humans and nonhumans are different, but they are not to be regarded as ontologically distinct (Witmore 2007, p. 546). What is most remarkable about this principle of symmetry, however, is that it rests on a claim to human exceptionalism, along with a vision of progress from the animal to the human and from the hunting and gathering of our earliest ancestors to modern industrial society, which could have come straight out of the nineteenth century. Paradoxically, an approach that deontologizes the division between the human and the nonhuman and that establishes in its place a level playing field is justified on the grounds that in the manner of their engagement with material things and in the progressive history of this engagement human beings are fundamentally different from all other living kinds. Hardly could a symmetrical approach rest on a more asymmetrical foundation! (2012).

Ingold is correct that mountains and arroyos are things. Ingold is correct about the involvement of things in animal life. And Ingold is correct about being inclusive with respect to animals and plants, air and soil, weather and sun. We couldn’t agree more – this is in fact the whole point – to be open to any entities that may participate in a given situation. Symmetrical archaeology hasn’t forgotten animals – far from it. Just because Bjørnar Olsen doesn’t always mention reindeer, brown bears, minke whales, lynx, or lemmings by name at every turn doesn’t lead to the denunciation that symmetrical archaeology makes no room for them. They are all things, both in Olsen’s vocabulary and in symmetrical archaeology more generally (see Olsen’s discussion of reindeer, for example, 2010, 86-87).

One could turn Ingold’s argument around upon his own program by claiming that his ecological anthropology is not inclusive enough – where are the microbes, for example? What about the symbiotic rapports between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and clovers or mycorrhizae and maple trees? Or what about the complex microbial ecosystem that comprises a human being? The genes of friendly bacteria that are on or inside my body outnumber the number of genes that I inherited from my parents (Ackerman 2012) - and that's after my morning shower! Why not begin with symbiosis, following Lynn Margulis (1999)? Or even dare to address Gaia?

Touché Ingold? Of course not.

This kind of scholarship is expedient and unfair. One sets up a piece of work as a foil for another to make a point. One chides others for making no room for X or Y, which leads to denunciation. And yet, these supposedly missing masses are the grounds for the critic’s argument and not a factor of the conditions under which an achievement was realized. It is easy to take labor out of context and paint an author as foolish for having missed something. What is more, it is unfair to the conditions under which a body of work arose – symmetrical archaeology is faithful to issues that run to the heart of archaeology, not anthropology (Olsen et al. 2012). Such fallacious distortion lends itself to the proverbial straw person, to be sure.

In all fairness, Ingold wrote “Toward an Ecology of Materials” in order to seek a substantive engagement and I very much agree with the spirit of the piece in this regard, even if he begins with the assumption that the character of that engagement is one of rapprochement. (This is a bit strange given Ingold’s tremendous impact upon Symmetrical Archaeology). My point is that such diplomacy rests on shaky grounds if we ignore the purposes for which these studies were undertaken and deny our colleagues trust in their ability to undertake the empirical and pragmatic adventure that is their field of concern, which, in this case, is archaeology.

But that is not enough. Ingold misrepresents the notion of symmetry. The whole point of symmetry is to help us remember not to impose a priori filters on a given situation (see these archaeolog entries here and here).

Here is my definition of symmetry:

“. . . the notion or principle of symmetry is meant to remind us not to decide in advance what role various entities play in a given situation by imposing arbitrary hierarchies of value or preformed dogmas concerning the nature of the real. Symmetrical archaeology is agnostic. I don’t mean this in the smug sense of the skeptical critic who remains aloof from the seemingly wayward beliefs of others. No, I take this in a very analytical sense, in that symmetrical archaeology refuses to delimit a given situation by imposing any predetermined schemes. Rather it strives to allow entities to define, to frame, themselves. Symmetrical archaeology grants dignity to all participants in a given situation and it does so by placing them on the same footing at the start.” (Witmore 2011, 13).

As archaeologists the entities that have defined themselves happen to be things and we follow them where they lead. Of course, we do not foreclose on the impact of animals (or microbes for that matter!) – all are assemblages and, again, all are things. Still, the kind of memory that things hold in dealing with what has become of what was, often tells us little of whether materials strewn across an abandonment level resulted from the reuse of a structure as a sheepfold, children playing a game in a ruin, a series of exceptional snow storms, or the collapse of roof made of olive wood after many years of exposure to the weather (rapports between microbes, fungi, water and wood).

What of Ingold’s point concerning human exceptionalism?

If we add the qualifying statement to the point regarding the ontological distinction of humans and nonhumans it reads: “human and non-humans should not be regarded as ontologically distinct, as detached and separated entities, a priori” (Witmore 2007, 546). Again, symmetrical archaeology is a serious attempt to understand those entities encountered in the course of archaeological practice without recourse to a vulgar ontological exceptionalism. Pause and do not assume the roles or relations between entities to be asymmetrical from the start. Do not use a different rulebook for humans operating in the world. Do not look for the “Indian behind the artifact” (Olsen 2012; Olsen et al. 2012) – begin in medias res, with the richness of things themselves - try to follow them and see what stories unfold. This need not always lead to mixtures – a point over emphasized in my paper cited by Ingold – goats, WWII screw pickets, and former Classical watchtowers can exist in isolation from certain species of contact.

Olsen’s point about the trajectory from Olgvi Gorge to Post Modernia is not one of 19th century progress! That passé gloss is supplied by Ingold who misses Olsen’s point concerning the increasing delegation of tasks to nonhumans, including horses and oxen, carts and roads, plows and iteratively selected plant seed, water wheels and channelized streams of water. Indeed, Ingold fails to mention Olsen’s qualification that there are different involvements with different groups – movement from assemblages to assemblages – and that there are both gains and losses in these transformations. But to claim, as Ingold does in the article, that Olsen’s renders society and history “as exclusively human achievements, brought about by way of the enrollment of objects and things” is to completely misrepresent symmetrical archaeology.

Moreover, this is not to claim that progress, which has become a proverbial whipping boy, doesn’t exist – it does. Otherwise, my internal combustion engine would still be getting 10 to 12 miles per gallon and generating 22-horse power (not bad for a model T). Progress is not some external measure of life, rather it is movement generated within the ontogenesis of the engine, which involves a kind of “internal necessity”, to use the words of Simondon, where the engine self-realizes (Olsen et al. 2012). (Incidentally, I was happy to see Ingold discuss the work of Gilbert Simondon in the text of this new article, especially given the fact that in past work he completely ignored Simondon, who puts forward one of the most significant and sustained critiques of hylomorphism – have a look at Ingold’s 2011 article entitled “The Textility of Making”, for example. Simondon, however, does find mention in a redux version of the same article in Ingold’s excellent new book: Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, 2012).

Olsen’s point about the trajectory from Olgvi Gorge to Post Modernia concerns movement, yes movement, and ever increasing and weighty interactions free of human-to-human and even human-to-nonhuman contact. Through delegation we begin to see more nonhuman-to-nonhuman (which should not be erroneously equated to “made objects” as Ingold does in his definition of terms in this article) contacts and such trajectories are part of the big stories we associate with the archaeological.

But there are also small stories. And here again there is more misrepresentation when Ingold quotes Olsen in what he characterizes as a “simple statement of fact” (Ingold 2012): “Things are more persistent than thought. They evidently last longer than speech or gestures. Things are concrete and offer stability.”(Olsen 2010,p. 158). Ingold fails to include the end to this sentence: "although to a varying degree" (Ibid.). Of course, this slight-of-hand gesture on the part of Ingold avoids what are the key issues for archaeologists – where are the Neolithic expressions of love for parents, stories concerning the cycles of the moon, or gestures for the proper burial of an adolescent? On this wonderful symbiotic planet bacteria insure that leaves do not sustain themselves for very long, but consider polished stone axes. Olsen seeks to understand these differences in light of the kinds of pasts archaeology realizes. So what does Ingold get out of such wanton perversion?

A sham device of academic rhetoric, perhaps, but not much substantive engagement.

These clarifications are not retroactive attempts to duct-tape together tired, anachronistic ideas, despite Ingold’s efforts to frame it this way. In this enterprise, Ingold missed another key thing about symmetrical archaeology, its implicit expiration date. As I pointed out right from the start, all of us recognize the need to dump the adjective, and we admitted that up front. When? Well that is not up to us. It remains a challenge for archaeology when it fully recognizes that we begin, not with a detached past, not with bits of pots that act as intermediaries to artisans, but with what becomes of what was. With things and, as mediators, these work to co-realize the past and hold memories of their contact with soil, aerobic and anaerobic bacteria and fungi, moisture, roots, burrowing animals, and other entities associated with their erstwhile existence.

Finally, I too would be remiss if I were not true to the point of Ingold’s review, which is namely to bring things, materials back in. Perhaps if Ingold resisted the lure of denunciation through rhetorical positioning he might capture the matters of care and concern that we all share and to which we too have been laboring to return.


Ackerman, J. 2012: The Ultimate Social Network. Scientific American, June 2012, 36-43.

Ingold, T. 2012: Toward an Ecology of Materials. Annual Review of Anthropology 2012, 41, 427-42.

Latour, B. 2005: Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Margulis, L. 1999: Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York: Basic Books.
Olsen, B. 2003: Material Culture after Text: Re-Membering Things. Norwegian Archaeological Review 36(2): 87–104.

Olsen, B. 2007: Keeping Things at Arm’s Length. A Genealogy of Asymmetry. World Archaeology 39(4): 579–88.

Olsen, B. 2010: In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Olsen, B. 2012: Symmetrical Archaeology. In Archaeological Theory Today, ed. Ian Hodder. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Olsen, B, M. Shanks, T. Webmoor and C. Witmore, 2012: Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Webmoor, T. 2007: What About “One More Turn After the Social” in Archaeological Reasoning? Taking Things Seriously. World Archaeology 39(4): 547–62.

Witmore, C. 2007: Symmetrical Archaeology: Excerpts from a Manifesto. World Archaeology 39(4): 546–62.

Witmore, C. 2011: Interview: Jonas Žakaitis talks with Christopher Witmore. The Federal. Issue #2, October 2011, 11-20.