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Symmetry, STS, Archaeology (Part 2)

Posted by Timothy Webmoor

. . .continued from Part 1 of 2.

The ethnographic examination of archaeological practice has become an established sub-domain (Edgeworth 2006, 2010; Yarrow 2003), although this reflexive platform has not developed in explicit contact with STS ethnographies of science (Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay 1983; Latour and Woolgar 1986; Lynch 1985). The characterization of scientific activity as craft work (Amann and Knorr-Cetina 1990; Revetz 1971; Shanks and McGuire 1996) has been influential; affirming the skill and material integument bound together in practical activities brings the acknowledgement that archaeologists do not discover the past. Like the accounts of scientific settings in STS that followed the collective effort of rendering textual and media outputs from laboratories, it is a position that undercuts the romantic idea of a neutral “opening up” of (a past) reality.

Such ethnographic and craft oriented appraisals of archaeology merge with more focused studies of the representational forms of the discipline (Shanks 1997; Webmoor 2005; Shanks and Webmoor 2012). Refracting STS lessons through archaeological examples offers a radical break with the inherited view of representing the past in the present.

Archaeology, through unpacking its practices and descriptive work, has bound itself to STS lines of research. This is a point of contact where archaeology’s unique temporality places friction on this line of STS inquiry. And there is much to be gained from knotting these insights. For instance, the descriptions of coordination work in scientific and other settings are often a retroactive activity. Consider, for instance, Latour’s (1988) unfolding of how Pasteur successfully mobilized a vast network in order to establish, through trials of strength, the reality of microbes. Or Law’s (1986) discussion of the feat of heterogeneous engineering that allowed Portuguese sailing vessels to tread vast oceanic distances to trade. We are not presented with the microbes or Portuguese sailing vessels per se. An odd swapping of disciplinary expectations occurs. STS becomes archaeological in the conventional sense. These sociomaterial assemblages leave distributed traces that STSers must gather with their descriptive narratives and recording instruments to offer an account that registers a definite presence of what was otherwise too ephemeral, far flung or unapparent to connect together. It takes keen observation, a willingness to look beyond the apparent, good recording devices and reliable media. Textual records, photographs of configurations of material objects (laboratories or equipment), accepted entities (like microbes), or skeumorphs are critical points of these STS exhibitions. The activity is not dissimilar to long-established archaeological practice.

However, unlike most STS descriptive accounts, archaeological mobilizations of the past are simultaneously retroactive and proactive. This is “the isotopy of the past(s)” (Webmoor 2012). Like unstable, isotopic elements, archaeological materials may be obdurate, but their former networks, their relations with other objects, tend toward “radioactive” dispersion. So archaeologists stabilize certain configurations of materials in the present in designing for the future. Even in a more “representationalist” register, most archaeologists would not disavow the basic premise of the conservation ethic (Lipe 1984). There may be no claim to objectively representing the “past as it was”. Yet in its most elemental form, whether contemporary archaeology or prehistory, the endeavor attempts to say: “this happened here”.

There is more. Merging the recognition that archaeological work, like STS descriptions, actively stabilises certain configurations of sociomaterial in the present, archaeologists nonetheless design for future engagement with an interested public (see Olsen et al. 2012: chapters 6, 8; Webmoor 2012). There is a temporal continuity or flow through the archaeological process: retroactive descriptions that anticipate future engagements. In the practical arrangement and stabilization of materials of the past within the present there is a temporal pleat that makes all archaeology “archaeology of the contemporary past” (Olsen et al. 2012: chapter 7; also Olivier this volume).

In stark contrast to this applied design of archaeology, there is worry of wider relevance amongst STS practitioners (Collins and Evans 2002; Lynch and Cole 2005; Woolgar 2004; Woolgar et al. 2009). I would argue that it is an absence of an extended temporality passing from past events and objects to future configurations that in the first place reduces relevance of STS accounts. While most archaeologists are aware of the temporality of their activities, creating productive tension in the lines of object inquiries, STSers have yet to grapple empirically with these temporal issues. In part this detracts from its direct engagement with public concerns that are future oriented. As a result we often encounter a temporal inversion to descriptive work in archaeology and STS. There is discussion of the cross-over between academic STS and the private industry, especially with respect to User-centered or User-generated Design. Yet these “applied” examples do not deploy the full armature of STS practice and theorization, but rather focus upon ethnographic inquiry. A result is that published examples of this type of work more closely resemble commercial sociocultural anthropology than STS (e.g. Wilkie and Michael 2009; though see Marres 2009).

More recent ethnographies of archaeology draw explicitly upon the work of STSers (Garrow and Yarrow 2010; Harrison 2011; Harrison et al. 2012). While many of these archaeologists offer archaeological expertise as reciprocal contribution (e.g. Edgeworth 2010; Gosden 2010), there is scant friction along these ethnographic lines of investigation. A point of contact is anthropologist Charles Goodwin’s (1984) influential description of the disciplining of skill in particular fields. He detailed the archaeological excavations at Arroyo Secco, and his example of “professional vision” is widely deployed in both archaeology and STS. The study, as Edgeworth (2010) notes, contributes reflexive insight into archaeology’s material practices and development of Goodwin’s anthropological theory of language and visualization (see also Gero 1996). Notwithstanding the apparent richness and potential of archaeological examples of practice, it has remained by and large archaeologists themselves who have developed them.

Even the few examples of direct referencing or engagement (Lynch 1985; Latour and Lemonnier 1994; Latour 1996; Lemonnier 1993) spend scant effort in illuminating issues by working through archaeological case studies (though see Ratto 2006; Watts 2005). It is as if the unalloyed insights of STS can illuminate archaeological problems without archaeologists or archaeological materials. Consequently the situation is redolent of the “philosophical importation debates” of the 1970’s in archaeology (Flannery 1982; Schiffer 1981). Indeed, STS is beginning to worry that importation into many disciplines may dilute its provocative influence unless there is renewed radicalism (Woolgar et al. 2009).


Let's take an example. I would argue that engagement with archaeological case studies might usefully disrupt what is somewhat of a stale standstill in STS between what can be glossed as “representationalism” and “performative” camps (see Law and Singleton 2000; Madsen 2012). These positions place different emphasis upon the role of the STSer when s/he documents practices. Some STSers insist that there is no neutral, external vantage point from which to make descriptions. That we are always already inside the “belly of the machine” (Haraway 1999). Our own descriptions are not only situated and local, but additionally are caught up in the very sociomaterial network or set of relations that they (partially) describe. As material-semiotic inscriptions, they also perform action and have consequences. This camp of STSers (e.g. Haraway 1999; Lynch and Singleton 2000; Star 1991; in philosophy of science see Barad 2007), argue that politics are built-in to our work as scholars. Indeed, that STS work is “ontological politics” (Law 2004b, 2009; Mol and Law 2002). Situated, political and performative, many such scholars attempt to “intervene” with their own descriptions in particular gendered, class-based, military or governmental materializing agendas. This is the sense of "intervention" that has of recent gained so much cachet in certain social sciences and humanities.

While the representationalism camp cannot be grafted onto Actor-Network Theory (ANT), it is most directly associated with early studies undertaken by the developers of ANT (e.g. Callon 1986; Latour 1987, 1993b; Law 1986). This camp does not disavow such connections between STS descriptions and phenomena under study. To be sure, ANT typically presents rich empirical examples to demonstrate the extensiveness of networks and the ontological proximity amongst entities. Yet, as other STS scholars have pointed out, ANT lacks an explicit politics (Law 2009; Star 1991). John Law with his more recent work provides an interesting exception (Law and Mol 2004; and see Law 2009; Law and Singleton 2000). Furthermore, the role of description, the work of the scholar her/himself does not figure prominently in representationalism accounts. Without an apparent rear view mirror, accounts offered by this camp of STSers may come off as objective, authoritative and further from the objects than they appear. As if they perform Haraway’s (1999:176) “god-trick” and remove themselves from local settings when they undertake descriptions.


This tension within STS over the effects of and goals for representational work relates to another slippage between STS and archaeological descriptions. It is a scalar issue. A good STS description must make apparent what is beyond the scale of immediate recognition. Consider again the example of Portuguese sailing vessels; assembling good descriptions of these ‘objects’ is not to present boats, but to make evident the vast ocean of mobilized ingredients behind and beyond these more readily discernible things. If objects are more readily recognized, then the onus upon STS description is to make apparent the linkages, the relations that bind together these things. Yet this leads to an overemphasis upon relations, so that in focusing upon the network that things take part of, objects themselves drop out of view and descriptions pass quickly to the “higher order” scale.

Is it intellectually blasé or even disreputable to describe objects themselves? Does this scale seem too inconsequential? As archaeologists such as Gosden (2010) and Olsen (2010) remind us, the discipline is good at “thick descriptions” of things. That part of the care for things is an obligation to attend to the mundane and minute details of humble objects (Olsen et al. 2012; Webmoor 2012). Yet this tendency to scale-down does not inhibit archeologists from producing scenarios of tidal movements at the scale of regions and world history. Scalar effects seem to be well handled by archaeologists (see Edgeworth this volume). There is a demonstrated capacity to integrate object-intensive material science descriptions within larger scale sociomaterial networks. The shifting of analytic scale from supposed objects qua objects to objects in association with other humans, nonhumans and materials as networks is anchored in the principle of symmetry.


More recently, there has been sustained focus upon the principle of symmetry as developed by ANT and its archaeological implications (González-Ruibal et al. 2010; Olsen this volume; Olsen et al. 2012; Shanks 2007; Webmoor and Witmore 2005, 2008; Webmoor 2007; Witmore 2007; Knappett and Malafouris 2008). This “radical symmetry”, or the type of symmetry that has merged with archaeological thinking to amalgamate into the discipline’s so-called ontological turn, was, however, first formulated by sociologists and amphibious philosophers of science (Callon 1986; Callon and Law 1997; Latour 1986, 1987). This type of symmetry advocates an analytic agnosticism with respect to who or what the “players” are in any sociotechnical account. Developed from a “sociology of translations” (Callon and Latour 1981) and a “sociology of associations” (Latour 1986), it has become recognized as the analytic attitude of ANT (Latour 2005; Law and Hassard 1990; Yaneva this volume). It has proven to be both influential and controversial, particularity in granting the real possibility of non-anthropocentric agency in sociomaterial accomplishments (see Finlayson this volume; Collins and Yearley 1992; Callon and Latour 1992).

If calling out humanity’s vanity has raised the ire of some in STS and archaeology (see Webmoor and Witmore 2008 on “social” archaeology), then this issue is a ripple on the pond of metaphysics (see Webmoor 2012). With symmetry follows the issue of essentialism. If all action is fundamentally collective, with humans only some actants working with other materials and companion species as networks, then where do we ascribe qualities such as agency, identity, intentionality, causality? As we considered with scalar issues, ANT places emphasis upon the larger network. Indeed, single and isolated humans, objects and other entities are incapable of much effect on their own. So in terms of qualities, the “glue” or relations holding the network together becomes paramount. For without these relations holding, however provisionally, a network together, then little action could be accomplished. There would be no microbes and “Pasteur”, no Portuguese sailing vessels. It seems with actualism that the capacity to act eclipses any notion of non-relational, non-contextual identity. Is there any abiding solidity or substance to things themselves? Or, to put it differently, what is the “object” that has been “symmetrized”?

For Graham Harman (2009a, 2011) these two tendencies amount to age-old philosophical predilections to see things themselves as too unimportant to be invested with inherent qualities, or too profound for their real qualities to be known. In spite of, or rather because of, ANT’s success in “following the actors”, they and many of their colleagues in STS have “left the objects” (see Costall and Richards this volume). Instead it is primarily archaeologists and rogue philosophers who are tackling these matters of concern (Harman 2005, 2009b, 2011; Olsen et al. 2012; Webmoor 2012; Witmore 2012). While a phenomenological penchant urges this questioning for many of the emerging group of “speculative realists”, archaeologists perform double vision in exhaustively describing objects themselves, manifesting them in their accounts, while considering the larger sweep of events that they are enrolled in. Perhaps more importantly, the simultaneity of scales involved in archaeological accounts discourages any lapse back into the fetishization of objects; to simply retreat from relations into stand alone objects. We want to avoid such a dialectical gesture amongst object-orientations. The paradox of symmetry is that it must be continually performed. Otherwise, archaeology may assume objects to be the sole locus where qualities of interest inhere. Symmetry is attained in descriptive work through letting it go like the truth-bearing paradox of a Zen kōan.

Disciplinary Agency and Load Failure

While there is the perpetual risk of performative contradiction with the symmetrical attitude, it has been an ambassador of sorts for ANT and STS more generally. Yet to discuss archaeology and STS in terms of disciplinary agency, or impact upon theoretical precepts, research practices and overall intellectual currents, STS would overshadow “the discipline of things”. As it is, if we looked to established metrics for ”impact”, archaeology would seem to be in the shadows of interdisciplinary research; conspicuously absent in citation practices and literature connected to the academy’s ontological turn. For instance, if we examine at a recent overview (Trentmann 2009), we have an inventory presented that inscribes anthropology, STS, material culture studies, human geography, even literary studies as the progenitors of object-oriented approaches. From STS practitioners themselves we have voluminous attempts at Making Things Public, enlisting the efforts of just about every discipline in the social sciences and humanities, from art history to political theorists, but not archaeology. Not a single archaeologist is asked about objects! How can this be for a discipline which boasts a panoply of sophisticated approaches to documenting the "entanglement" of people and things over the long-term (see Hodder 2011 for a review; Olsen et al. 2012).

While STS has certainly been influential in shifting academic concerns to the ontological register, the slippages in the seeming knot of STS and archaeology’s engagement endanger both to load failure. For STS there slips away a set of empirics and unique practices that offer the potential to rekindle its intellectual radicality through pushing the issues of temporality, representationalism/performativity, scale and symmetry. For archaeology, without symmetrical binding of the Fisherman’s knot, it’s liable to slip free and miss contributing to the timely considerations of things that transverse the disciplines.

Figure 2: “Critical failure” of Fisherman’s Knot

Conclusion: Metrology Matters

So how to knot the insights of archaeology and STS? Let us return to the knot as a useful heuristic tool. If we place ourselves in those moments when knots are doing work, we are not concerned with the usual preoccupations of modernist thought. With mereological pursuits of parsing out ontological parts, reducing out irrelevant entities and qualities, adding up the resultant components to make a supposed whole explanation. Instead, grappling with gravity shocks us out of such disinterested and passive intellectual tendencies of oscillating between simplification and complexification. Discernment of ontological distinctions and categorization into human, materials, and nonhumans is less important. These are, of course, all blended in the activity at hand. But there is no value given to knowing these in the moment. Metrology rather than mereology suggests itself when we approach the bewilderingly rich variety of mixtures of the world through engagement and wonder. At the end of our (double Fisherman’s knotted) rope, woven concerns such as elemental durability, extension, weightiness, and compositional stability come to the fore. Either everything is holding, fulfilling the activity, or it is not. These are the matters of concern when engaged with knots.

As a waypoint to begin knotting STS and archaeology I would propose a statement: practice does not exhaust a thing. Archaeologists ought to ask with STSers: what are the archaeological practices that enable objects to enter relations? This has been a valuable insight of STS. To reciprocate, however, we refract STS practices through archaeology's object-orientation: what does the resistance of objects and their “thingliness” tell us about the presumptive centrality and presumptive agency of practice in STS accounts? As a habit of mereological thought, we should remind ourselves to avoid a redux of social constructivism in the guise of "practice".

In the collegial mode we can look at the amalgamation of objects, humans, nonhumans, relations and practices. What are the ratios of agency and causality? Or the ratios of qualities with relations in the ontology of things? Do we, for instance, ascribe too much to practices in STS accounts of phenomena? What about things themselves? What stake do they have in entering into relations and stabilising certain constellations of reality? It is too easy to fall back upon the middling position of affordances (cf. Costall and Richards this volume). Instead, I suggest archaeology, through its practical engagement with temporality, performative representation, scale and symmetry, has a more nuanced metrology for appreciating why and how certain realities of the past(s) endure. It is a knot knowing.

See Part 1