Reflexivity in Archaeological Field Diaries: Repetition, Knowledge, Power

I’m revisiting a quite provocative academic article that I read a year or so ago, because its central idea keeps floating to the top of my mind: Reflexive field diary-writing can actually empower junior archaeological workers (those who do the exhausting, tedious digging and cataloguing) because through this process they can claim interpretive agency. This feels relevant in some way to artistic and critical labor in my field, too, though I’m not sure how to articulate yet. (Something to come back to.)

Deep trench, Çatalhöyük, 2006. By Mark Nesbitt. From Wikimedia Commons. 

Deep trench, Çatalhöyük, 2006. By Mark Nesbitt. From Wikimedia Commons. 

The abstract of Alison Mickel’s “Reasons for Redundancy in Reflexivity: The Role of Diaries in Archaeological Epistemology” (2015) piqued my attention as the article promised to trace not only the history and uses of reflexive writing in relation to knowledge creation, but also pose questions of shifting authority and power relations in the discipline of archaeology.

In the article, Mickel observes that the contemporary archaeological diary, as used now at the Çatalhöyük site in Turkey, is part of a “local network of objects and inscriptive devices” (i.e., historical artifacts and the media used to record information about them, such as conventional pro forma, GPS location, and digital rendering). After uncovering linguistic patterns of repetition and differentiation between the diaries and the other inscriptive devices, Mickel argues that diaries motivate reflexive practice because they allow archaeological excavators to reclaim some agency in the interpretation of a huge range of disparate data in the face of “the reflexive obligation” in archaeology—that is, the disempowering understanding that objective knowledge is an impossible goal.

Mickel uses colloquial, personal, error-ridden, and emotional field diary quotations to first show that the diary database is a unique record of thought processes. This one is lovely:

We dug a little bit more around of skull we exposed some obsidian fragment …When i was digging more I saw the obsidian surface and it was polished … Suddenly I remembered last year. Also we found a fragment of obsidian mirror in the Mellarts fill in the South area. … After that mirror we changed our idea.

Next, she traces similar descriptive statements in more formal paperwork, such as catalogue information about artifacts’ locations and materials. By repeating their observations across reflexive diaries, formal paperwork, and databases, argues Mickel, lower-level workers seal their interpretations into the records that build scholarship.

In her conclusion, Mickel brings in politically or ethically committed theories, such as Michel Foucault’s concept of episteme—which describes social power relations that limit creation of knowledge within an academic discipline—but without explicitly commenting on the ethics of the conditions at Çatalhöyük. (Perhaps Mickel’s choice of Foucault’s theory is an implicit recognition of the ethical issues at stake? Or there’s an expectation that readers of Field Archaeology would already know? Realizing that in my own project, I’ll need to articulate this.)

Something else that struck me (perhaps because I’m making weekly public “diary entries” for Rewritings): Mickel doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that the Çatalhöyük diaries are intentionally public. She focuses on the network of professionals, theories, and inscriptive devices that the diaries act on and support. She does note that Çatalhöyük excavators can comment on each other’s diaries, but not that the diaries actually form a dynamic, public online database. At the Çatalhöyük project website, anyone can browse and perform searches on all of the diary entries and other documents through a simple blog-like interface. This is crucial to the project.

With this in mind, as Mickel comments on how the diary entries reflect, resist, and enhance the “reflexive obligation,” she might also consider a “public obligation.” I would define this as the need for a project to be visible to, and scrutinized by, the general public. This might be to meet the demands of funding bodies for measurable public impact and innovation (as in my current Sachs-funded project), in which case we could ask questions of the public performance of the role of researcher. Less cynically, and building on Mickel’s internet-based metaphor of a “local network,” we could consider the public diary database as part of a global network that encompasses much more than the artifacts and inscriptive devices at Çatalhöyük’s physical site. This could expand the practice of personal reflexivity into one of public accountability.

Punctum

At her writing desk, by the empty windowsill where her glossy black cat, Ivan, twitched and stared this morning, the woman skims an essay on photography by the curator Boris Groys. It was written for an exhibition in Germany—Punctum—that Moyra Davey lent artwork to. She wants to understand what “punctum” means. She has an inkling, but she’s not sure. She blushes just a little, imagining what her editors would think if they knew of this gap in her art-theoretical knowledge.

In the heavy black book, Groys cites two scholars of the history and theory of photography: Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes. She pauses, taps her computer keyboard; her eyes wander to a small, deep blue and grey painting on the white wall behind the monitor: circles and squares, made by a close friend who passed away. She has just noticed that both Kracauer and Barthes began their theoretical inquiries into the nature of the photographic image with deeply personal reflections on photographs of women they had lost, grandmother and mother respectively.

Feelings of loss, distance, or disconnection made the photographs difficult to look at for the two scholars, she thinks. (There’s something in common, she thinks, with the way that her friend’s painting is hard to look at, because he’s not really there in the blue and grey shapes—is he?) Kracauer’s grandmother lacks individuality because her clothing, hair, and makeup are so dated that, to him, she could be almost any Victorian woman. Barthes’s photograph of his mother has punctum, because she is just a child in the picture. The woman realizes—aha!—that this photograph has punctum because it turns Barthes’s attention away from the image and toward “the void that these photographs cover.” (Groys, 2014, 7-8.) It’s a sort of existential awareness of time and death, the impossible distance between adult Barthes and child mother. 

The woman smiles with her eyes, mouth pursed in thought, hands resting on the computer keyboard. So often, she thinks, academic research and deep, productive thinking begin with powerful personal experiences. And while Barthes, she reads, believed that paintings can’t have punctum because they’re “fictional, non-referential,” (Groys, 2014, 9.) she begins to think otherwise.

Why else would the blue-and-grey painting invoke such similar emotions? Well, that's a research question for another time. 

Introductions, goals, values

In my messy home office (piles of notebooks, half-finished drawings, thrice-renewed library books, cat hair, curled-up cat, dust), just watered my crispy little beige-green parlor palms, thinking about some goals for this yearlong project, Rewritings, which is kindly supported by The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania.

A bit intimidated, if I’m honest. Trying to lean into the high-expectation-anxiety and structure the work into a calendar-like paper grid, manageable, which will go up on the home office wall. I anticipate the vulnerability that this project demands: self-reflection and true reflexivity, openness about gaps in my knowledge, examination of my power and lack. Also: imposter syndrome.

It’s helpful to remember the values that motivate and ground the work—values that I sensed, too, in artist Moyra Davey’s integrated visual art and writing practice.

Notes taped to my home office wall marking some of the knowledge-power dynamics that first stood out to me while watching Moyra Davey's film  Les Goddesses , 2011, on my computer. Clearly, I observed themes that relate to my interests in medicine and psychology, feminism, and history.

Notes taped to my home office wall marking some of the knowledge-power dynamics that first stood out to me while watching Moyra Davey's film Les Goddesses, 2011, on my computer. Clearly, I observed themes that relate to my interests in medicine and psychology, feminism, and history.

Over time, I had become frustrated, as a critic with a modicum of power in the art world (Artforum, Frieze writer), with the impersonal, inflexible, and authoritative writing style that I had developed. As I began to research this project last fall—originally, on how I might write more creatively, freely, and autobiographically on contemporary art—the #metoo and #notsurprised campaigns were gaining momentum.

I’m a sexual assault survivor and anti-violence advocate. As news unfolded about art world figures accused of sexual violence, I was heartened by the Artforum staff’s response to allegations against publisher Knight Landesman (though there’s much to be done). This prompted me to think more deeply about the relationships of knowledge and power between art writers, artists, editors, and publishers—and how different forms of writing and thinking might further uncover and disrupt these relationships, both for individuals and in community.

Davey models this work, I believe, with sublety and compassion.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll first explore some grounding principles or attitudes for Rewritings, which together sort of inspired the “re” in the project title: reflexivity, recursion, refusal, and resistance.

Looking forward to reading and writing with you.