Critique of Archaeological Reason
7. Themes


Giorgio Buccellati – February 2014

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Colonialism and imperialism

Colonialism, a cultural phenomenon rooted in a deep political humus, is the other face of imperialism.

The imperial effort takes shape in the application of coercive (military) and organizational (administrative) practices aiming at the “conquest” of a territory and its population. It is, in the etymological sense of the term, a proper “subjugation” or, as conveyed by the term so candidly and explicitly enshrined in Roman practice, a foedus iniquum.

The imperialist dimension is the ideological counterpart of the imperial policy. It aims to provide cultural buttresses, which often, in the end, appear to be only crutches, for the political practice.

Thus the imperial/imperialist enterprise refers to the subject of the effort, the political center in its expansionist mode. Colonization and colonialism are their counterpart: here the focus of attention is on the target of the effort.

Colonization refers to the way in which the target territory and its population are forcibly organized in ways aimed at securing the imperial domination.

Colonialism reflects the frame of mind that, deriving from the imperial ideology, aims at shaping accordingly the frame of mind of the conquered target.

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Colonialism: a forced broken tradition

It is the latter dimension, i.e., colonialism as a cultural phenomenon, that is of interest to us here. Its relationship to archaeology has been prominently discussed in recent times. But what is relevant for my overall argument are the theoretical implications that, unexpectedly, emerge from a review of the case. For colonialism may be considered as the converse of what happens with archaeology.

Colonialism, in fact, aims at breaking existing traditions. It wants to forcibly replace a given frame of reference with another. Its inner thrust is inevitably totalitarian, in the specific sense that it wants to obliterate differences and impose a totally integrated mental template. Hence it is that a reflection about this effort can help us better understand two elements that are central to my research.

First, it helps us to understand how breakage is possible in the first place, and what are the factors that can lead to it.

Second, it highlights the profound significance of any tradition of self-understanding. The reason one wants to eradicate an existing tradition is because it has a cultural stature and density that cannot be sidestepped.

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Colonialism as anti-hermeneutics

It is therefore enlightening to look at colonialism in a hermeneutic perspective. It is in fact a classical example of a specific and explicit anti-hermeneutic attitude. It does not value the primary hermeneutic dimension, the one a particular social group develops as its own particular “invention” of the world (18.3). Rather, the “imperial” interpretive framework is superimposed on that of the target culture, with the clearest possible ideological conviction. This is both explicit and programmatic.

It is explicit because there is no ambiguity as to the sense of superiority that is intended to justify the procedure – in fact, to require it. In a way, there is no awareness that one is eliminating a culture, because the underlying conviction is that there is, as a matter of fact, no such culture in the first place.

It is programmatic because it is often linked to a parallel political program that is truly “imperial” in nature: it aims at suppressing the originality to the “conquered” culture in order to achieve a much higher degree of control, and hence a greater integration of the component parts into a unified whole.

Within such a frame of mind, how could one possible want to engage in any hermeneutic endeavor?

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From superiority to inferiority

Ironically, the complex of superiority that engenders a colonialist attitude in the first place, is doomed to engender in turn a real sense of inferiority.

We can be quietly sure of our own values when and if we accept the limit of our frame of reference. And accepting limits is precisely the antithesis of imperialist ideology and policy, according to which limits are there only to be eliminated so as to allow for the integration of the beyond. But since, except in the few historical examples of successful genocide, the limits remain, the imperial core conviction is undermined, and to maintain itself must recur to self-deception. Inevitably, this translates into defensiveness and insecurity, hence true inferiority.

Such defensiveness also comes to the fore, in the religious sphere, through ill-placed missionary efforts. If that effort is borne out of superiority, it is indeed doomed. So a proper missionary effort ought, as well, to be intrinsically hermeneutic. It must be born out of the desire of sharing values, and this can only effectively take place if the dignity of the target and its sense of values are not only respected, but in fact appropriated as a value in its own right.

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Non-colonialism as hermeneutics

As would obviously be the case, an explicit intellectual denial of the value of hermeneutics contributes greatly to a better understanding of what hermeneutics’ proper role should actually be.

In the imperial perspective, hermeneutics is actually dangerous.

This highlights, as little else could, the proper power of hermeneutics. Understanding the others’ point of view and their interpretive framework means, in this case, admitting their otherness as valuable, which is precisely what an imperial agenda abhors. There can be no other values.

But then, the symmetrically opposite endeavor, to identify that framework, means to value the values it represents. Hermeneutics as critique (18.4) can indeed recapture an alien framework, and identify with its full referential power (15.7-15.8).

It is especially this referential trigger that imperialism wants to obliterate, and conversely it is the one that hermeneutics strives explicitly to identify.

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The pitfalls of anti-colonialism

I use the term “anti-colonialism” to refer, conventionally, to what I consider to be a misguided political extreme of non-colonialism. Here I will only briefly address the theoretical implications that are of interest for my argument.

Anti-colonialism is that form of non-colonialism that is effectively devoid of a proper hermeneutic intent. It becomes, then, just as anti-hermeneutical as colonialism ever was. The rhetorical furor it can reach suggests a greater interest in imposing the anti-colonial agenda on the “colonized,” who remain in effect just that, “natives” who can be redeemed only if they join in the anti-colonial agenda. There is, in other words, a greater interest in promoting an “anti-imperial” program than in honestly bringing oneself in syntony with the other. What should be the hermeneutic target becomes instead a political target. It matters more that it be anti-colonial than it be itself.

This, too, shows the great power of the hermeneutic effort.

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Colonialism and archaeology

In recent times, the question of colonialism has played an important role in archaeological discourse (see, e.g., Bahrani 2003 Graven Image). Attention has been focused on the negative uses of archaeology when placed in the service of an imperialistic agenda, whether derived from explicit policy or simply from inarticulate intellectual presuppositions.

There are many implications to this, and I have briefly discussed above the one that is most directly related to our interest, namely its relationship to hermeneutics. To my knowledge, this has not yet been brought to the fore. The few remarks offered here will show, I trust, not only the relevance of the topic for a general discussion about hermeneutics, but also the significance of its implications for a better understanding of the question of colonialism as such.

The proper value of the effort has suffered from counter-ideological excesses to which I have just referred. But this whole web of sensitivities provides a very useful perspective on the ultimate social significance of hermeneutics, and in particular of its application to archaeology.

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