Critique of Archaeological Reason
7. Themes

Broken traditions

Giorgio Buccellati – October 2014
Agnese Bezzera – October 2014

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Critique of Archaeological Reason:

     2.3Secondary definition: the study of broken traditions
     16.4Archaeological data
     16.5Archaeologiocal reason
     16.13Archaeology and philosophy
     17.5Mending the brokenness: semiotics for a broken tradition
     17.6The other side of semiotics: perceptual analysis
     18.2Hermeneutics of broken traditions

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A tradition and its carriers

The notion of tradition implies awareness and continuity of identity. Something is “handed down” (tradere) by someone to someone else, and this “someone” is in principle a plurality of individuals, a human group. The content of the tradition is thus shared horizontally (within the group) and vertically (through time).

We can choose language as a good example. In this case, the “tradition” is a linguistic structure that is shared by speakers synchronically and handed down, diachronically, to other speakers.

The content of a tradition is as broad as any context requires. Coherent in its overall impact, it is nevertheless in flux (see below), much like a living organism (including our example of a language). It may be considered to be in a “liquid” state, in a sense similar to that proposed by Bauman, but not with the negative connotation he attributes to it.

The carriers of a tradition are as important as its content. They are not frozen receptacles of the content, but rather enter in a living interrelationship with it, which can therefore be gradually modified in the measure in which it is differently perceived, and hence transmitted.

It is obvious that the generic concept of a tradition that is remote in time and in this regard “broken” should occur frequently in the literature. But one does not as a rule draw the systemic conclusions that I do from it. See for example: “The archaeologist and the historian are involved also in this treble anthropological hermeneutic, with the additional intersection of the past, a form of life not directly accessible, but one which must be reconstructed.” (Shanks and Tilley 1992, Re-Constructing, p. 108).

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Pertinent to the concept of tradition is that of collective (Halbwach 1992), cultural (Assmann and Assmann, 1983, 1992, 2005, Balza and Mora 2014), public (Casey 2004), or epic memory (Buccellati 2004). Also pertinent is the notion of “taphonomy” applied to a textual tradition (Miller 2005).

Memory of past events that affected a given human group is a major factor in defining group identity, because it provides past points of reference with which all members of the group can identify. All the more so if there are memorializing monuments and documents that provide a physical memento of the phenomenon held in memory.

There are also less defined elements that have sedimented in communal awareness, and are operative without being specifically remembered. See in particular the notion of archetypes in Jung, and see also the notion of archaeology peculiar to Foucault or the notion of “traditional referentiality” as opposed to “post-traditional” texts (Foley 1991). The question of transmission becomes, in such cases, more difficult to determine.

While memory is an important factor of tradition, this is broader than what can be tied to the past, and even when linked to specific past events or institutions, need not retain a specific time-bound awareness of either.

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Critical to an understanding of the concept of tradition is the notion of competence (for material culture see the classic study by Wynn 1989; for language see, e.g., Moro 2008). This refers to the instinctive control of the content on the part of its carriers. Referring again to the example of a language, native speakers are competent in their language even if they are not systemically aware of its grammar. They have absorbed the relevant linguistic structure independently of a mediated knowledge of its rules: there is as if a wedding of the structure of the content (the language) with the mental structure of its carriers (the speakers).

Competence is shared among members of the group. The very possibility of sharing depends on the reality and validity of the content’s structure, and on the aptitude of the carriers to receive it and identify with it. It is on this that rests the notion of a continuous tradition: one the competence of which is handed down along with the substantive content.

Competence presupposes sharing, and sharing presupposes communication. It is a communication that does not depend necessarily on articulate and formal channels. The specifics, and the structure to which they belong, are appropriated even without a deliberate educational process, but only through the sharing of the presuppositions that lay behind the structural whole.

Certain aspects of the overall competence may be more sharply felt in response to specific situations, especially in response to controversies internal to the group or the emergence of danger from the outside. Thus the religious dimension of a given sense of ethnic identity may be heightened by a contrast during a specifically religious persecution by external elements. This is where the “liquid” dimension of a tradition may become more clearly evident.

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A fluid competence

The “liquid” dimension of a tradition (see above) means that competence is not frozen. It is not like a manual where one can find a fixed definition of mechanical parts. There is a delicate balance between variation and continuity, and conclusions derived from the ways in which self-understanding is expressed must be carefully calibrated.

A telling example may be seen in the classic study (Contini) of a sonnet by Dante Alighieri (“Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare”). Every Italian with a minimum of education can relate to the substance of its content (thus affirming continuity), and yet this level of familiarity does not necessarily reflect the proper import of the original. In other words, the competence of a modern Italian may well be at variance with that of a contemporary of Dante, some eight centuries earlier, even though there remains a substantial continuity between the two poles.

A second significant example may be seen in another classic study, this one in the history of art, by Baxandall 1972. He brings out the fact that merchants in Renaissance Italy had a singular competence in measuring volumes on account of their commercial needs, and that this gave them a special sensitivity for some major stylistic trends (Masaccio, Piero) that were developing at that particular point in time. Our “competence” in this regard is instead extremely limited: it can be internalized, partially at least, through research (such as Baxandall’s), in such a way as to nurture a parallel form of competence. This is of course the task of grammar and hermeneutics.

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The breaking of a tradition

Since a tradition is intimately connected with its carriers, it may be said to break when there are no more carriers. In the case of a language, we speak of a “dead” language, but clearly this applies only to its speakers.

Thus the concept of “breakage” implies the loss of a conduit: there are no more living informants who are “competent” in that particular tradition. This is particularly important when one seeks to answer questions about the possible non existence of a given element: it is this kind of question that highlights distributional possibilities, and cases of mutual exclusivity.

When a tradition is no longer carried alive, it can be retrieved if it has left a proper record. This means not only a record of the content, but also of the “conduit,” i.e., of the carriers through which the tradition flowed.

The hermeneutic effort, then, consists in reconstituting this conduit as well as the content to which the carriers responded. In other words, the object of inquiry is not only the data as preserved (say, a temple), but also the broader cultural context that conditioned its perception on the part of the users, who were the carriers while the temple “lived.” That is the proper task of an archaeological hermeneutics. We must recognize the “breakage,” and mend it.

The possibility of such a task rests in the first place on the fact that these are human traditions. The “breakage” does not therefore imply that an inaccessible barrier has come to exist between our experience and theirs. They also lived. As we do. And the hermeneutic task of the archaeologist is to recapture the filaments that held together the tradition with its carriers.

The methodological question is: how to reach behind the lack of living and competent informers, or carriers. The answer lies in the establishment of an articulate distributional analysis, carried out on as wide a body of data as possible, for which digital analysis gives us a type of control that was until now unimaginable.

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Intentional breakage

A converse situation to the one where the carriers are no longer extant is the one where the carriers intentionally attempt to erase part of their tradition.

This can happen transversally when one social group wants to eradicate the original competence of another group, as with colonialism.

But it can also happen diachronically within a given group. The classical case is that of the damnatio memoriae, the formal removal of visible elements that refer to a person or an event. The formal dimension is generally supported by a more widespread rejection of the substance behind the symbol. A case in point is the rejection of Nazism in Germany, which goes well beyond the removal of symbols, and aims at eradicating (in the literal sense of removing the roots, if possible) the spirit of the movement. An eloquent witness of this trend can be seen in the opposition, to this day, to a republication of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf.

For a similar case of breakage at the personal level, see below.

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The confrontation of a modern observer with the record, i.e., an archaeological hermeneutic effort, must reckon with a number of filters that may have come to be interposed with time between the original situation and us. Some of these phenomena are subsumed under what has come to be known as a collective “imaginarium.”

The factors that can give rise to such filters are many, of which a few may be cited here:

  1. An intentional ideological bias may select given cultural components to bolster a claim of continuity with a past that is deemed to give depth and value to a current political agenda – for example, the pretended descent from prehistoric groups that are rediscovered as emblematic of specific party platform.
  2. An unreflected continuity may be assumed because of links that are in and of themselves valid (e.g., the continuity of territorial identification), but are too partial to sustain a critical analysis – for example, the claim of ethnic groups to be the direct descendants of an earlier ethnic group identified with a glorious political past.
  3. A fantastic and mythological past is proposed as a window for an equally fantastic projection – for example, games about medieval societies project simplified versions of those life styles. (These are more easily identifiable as filters because of the ludic nature of the context. However, they can influence general perception more than one might expect, as with “historical” films that reproduce settings and customs in a very life-like situation.)

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Personal dimensions

In our own personal lives we regularly witness different types of breakage with our past, which, while more easily mended because of the continuity of the subject, require nevertheless particular attention in order to make it possible to bridge the chasm. They are not directly pertinent to our concern, but they may be helpful in pointing towards a general understanding of the phenomenon.

The psychoanalytic effort at regaining a past buried in the unconscious is a case where specific mechanisms have been devised to reach beyond the forgetfulness that may intervene with regard to one’s own deeper levels of being and awareness.

A divorce may entail the conscious rejection of what had been a shared past between two people. Recovering the memory of this shared past would in this case be easier if more painful. And one may well not want to recover such memory, as with the case of the damnatio memoriae cited above.

Accidental amnesia differs because it is unintentional, and in this it differs also from the psychoanalytic sphere: the loss of memory occurs at the full level of consciousness, and mechanisms aimed at recovering it differ from those current in psychoanalysis.

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Nature of the carriers

The comments just made about the personal dimension of the phenomenon highlight the role of the carriers: what is handed down (traditum) is intimately connected with the one who hands it down (tradens). Hence it is that the nature of the carriers as active subjects is of major import.

A signal example is that of the break between hominins and humans. At the cognitive level, hominins relate to the world around them exclusively through perception, whereas humans (us!) can only do so, through the overlay of language and logical thought (following what I call the “transcendental revolution,” Buccellati 2014 and forthc.). In this case, the hermeneutic effort is extremely delicate, since we must deal with subjects whose cognitive nature differs from ours as a matter of substance – even though we presume a deeper continuity.

There are two other cases where, rather than of a break in a tradition where we assume continuity, we deal with carriers who are altogether different by nature. The pertinent data are not archaeological in nature, but they can help us by highlighting the problem of a hermeneutic effort across the chasm of non-congruence.

At least as a thought experiment, one may consider the possibility of an encounter with aliens. Science fiction has fed our collective imaginarium, but the potential of having to communicate with extraterrestrial beings is taken seriously on many levels (Sagan et al. 1978). Presumably intelligent and conscious, these beings would not, however, be human. They would thus hail from a tradition with which we have no common ground. It would not be a case of a broken tradition, but rather of one that is totally unrelated and without any expected common grounds. It may be said, then, that the procedures of archaeological hermeneutics as I am proposing it would be the safest starting point for establishing the roughest basis of communication (Note 1).

Autism may be considered a related case. Here the individual consciousness is severed from the stream of tradition, through a physiological condition. The effort, then, is not on the part of the observer who seeks to identify the tradition of the autistic person, but conversely it is the autistic subject who seeks to capture the tradition with which he or she is confronted. When this happens, it is done through procedures that are quite instructive with regard to our own effort at recovering a broken tradition (see Buccellati 2006).

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The biblical notion of tradition

The notion of tradition emerges with extraordinary force in the biblical mindset. It is relevant for our purposes inasmuch as it illuminates the impact that the belief in the continuity of tradition may have on a community, in contrast with the notion of a broken tradition. The problem of the intervening filters is of particular relevance here.

In the Old Testament, the underlying notion of tradition serves as the motor that creates a canon of a scope and coherence wholly unknown in other ancient cultures, see Buccellati 2012, 12.6, 17.8. The notion of “god of the father” (as in “god of my father,” “god of Abraham,’ etc.) is also pertinent: it stresses the continuity across generations.

In the New Testament, the notion acquires a more explicit formulation, with the words parádosis (traditio) and parathéke (depositum) becoming technical terms to define the phenomenon. Particularly poignant is the expansion of the latter term to depositum fidei, which stretches to the utmost the dimension of continuity: faith is seen as remaining the same, in the form of an element contained in an inheritance clause.

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Un archeologo sulla terra: tradizione e filosofia (Agnese Bezzera)

Nello studio di una civiltà ormai scomparsa non è possibile, per definizione, chiedere ad un portatore culturale di spiegare la funzione di un oggetto o di un edificio. Essa deve essere ricavata da un sommarsi di indizi materiali, che però non sono “pezzi di senso”, ma veri e propri frammenti di “cose” che devono essere ricollocati tentativamente nell’originaria posizione reciproca. In sintesi: l’archeologo si trova dinnanzi ad una rovina come uno che «senza avere alcuna conoscenza del gioco degli scacchi, volesse ricavare il significato della parola “scacco matto” da un’attenta osservazione dell’ultima mossa di una partita a scacchi» – si veda Wittgenstein 1953, par. 316: «Um über die Bedeutung des Wortes - denken - klar zu werden, schauen wir uns selbst beim Denken zu: Was wir da beobachten, werde das sein, was das Wort bedeutet! – Aber so wird dieser Begriff eben nicht gebraucht. (Es wäre ähnlich, wenn ich, ohne Kenntnis des Schachspiels, durch genaues Beobachten des letzten Zuges einer Schachpartie herausbringen wollte, was das Wort “mattsetzen” bedeutet.)»

Realmente l’archeologo si trova in questa situazione? Sarà fruttuoso confrontare la questione con la modalità con cui la filosofia si pone nell’analisi della storia dell’uomo, sia nel corso della sua storia, che nel suo essere inserita in una comunità.

La filosofia, quando si rivolge allo studio dell’uomo, presuppone sempre una continuità. L’io trascendentale di Kant ne è forse il miglior esempio: si può studiare l’uomo solo assumendo che ogni individuo particolare condivida con tutti gli altri membri del genere umano le medesime strutture intellettuali. Al contrario, quando la filosofia studia un soggetto in particolare senza poter dire “così è anche per gli altri” (solipsismo), si trova incapace di compiere un’indagine culturale e storica, poichè queste discipline presuppongono un’intersoggettività. Quindi la filosofia si rivolge sempre alla storia come successione di “punti particolari di soggettività” continui, analizzabili proprio perchè si parte dall’assunto che l’uomo più antico condivida con l’uomo che lo sta studiando il medesimo modo di stare nel mondo, pur variando il mondo che lo circonda.

Per capire questo, può essere utile citare un esempio concreto nella storia della filosofia. Andando alle origini di questa disciplina, è sorprendente come già in Platone fossero state messe in gioco tutte le grandi problematiche del pensiero umano, e che la storia della filosofia si presenti come un continuo approfondimento delle medesime questioni: i problemi sono uguali, ciò che cambia è il modo di risolverli. È com’è fatto l’uomo, infatti, che determina i suoi problemi, sia fisicamente sia intellettualmente: per cui se l’uomo respira aria tramite i polmoni, in immersione dovrà servirsi di una canna che esca dall’acqua o immagazzinarla in bombole di ossigeno; se l’uomo deve giustificare il potere di un sovrano, potrà dire che è per volontà divina, o per democratica elezione.

Ora, l’archeologia si occupa per definizione di quelle tradizioni che, sia dal lato intellettuale (una lingua, una struttura sociale), sia dal lato concreto ( un manufatto, una città), si sono interrotte e sono state sepolte sotto il loro stesso declino. Essa potrebbe dunque essere definita come la disciplina che studia di quei particolari punti del fluire storico in cui la continuità si spezza.

L’archeologo si trova quindi davanti ad una rovina potendo affermare che «dev’esser stata una casa perchè nessuno erigerebbe un tal mucchio di pietre lavorate e irregolari. E se si domandasse: come fai a saperlo? Potrei solo dire: me lo insegna la mia esperienza con gli uomini. Anzi, perfino là dove costruiscono veramente delle rovine, ricalcano le forme di case crollate» (Wittgenstein 1991, p. 46).

Se, da un lato, l’archeologo si ritrova nell’impossibilità di comprendere il significato di una “forma di vita” ormai interrotta, in quanto il senso di un manufatto non è un oggetto nascosto che si tratta semplicemente di scoprire, ma è inserito e giustificato nel sistema di usi e costumi chiamato “cultura”; dall’altro egli può ipotizzare questo senso basandosi sulla propria esperienza umana, cioè presupponendo una continuità.

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  • Note 1: For a science fiction narrative that sets the problem and proposes an interesting and rather sophisticated solution (with recourse to expressive structures derived from the epic of Gilgamesh) see the episode of Darmok from the American television series Star Trek. Back to text

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