Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

After Discourse: Things, Archaeology, and Heritage in the 21st Century


Things are back. After a century of neglect, and after decades of linguistic and textual turns, there has for a while been much buzz about a material twist in the humanities and social sciences: a (re)turn to things. The fascination with Saussure, Derrida, and discourse has diminished, matter has replaced symbols, text is substituted with “flesh”, also reported as the return of the real. In studies ranging from political science to English literature, things, objects and materiality are suddenly figuring prominently on the agenda. Associated with this “turn to things” is the vast array of theoretical developments that already have had a significant impact on social and cultural research, such as actor-network theory as developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and others, Manuel DeLanda’s “assemblage” theory, and object-oriented ontologies as proposed by for example Ian Bogost, Levy Bryant and Graham Harman.

Our CAS project is an explicit attempt to critically scrutinize this material turn, to explore its consequences and potentials for two traditionally thing-oriented disciplines, archaeology and heritage studies, and thereby to prepare new ground for studying things in the humanities and social sciences. While acknowledging and drawing on the profound contributions to thing theory made in philosophy, science and technology studies, sociology, geography, anthropology and other fields, this project differs in accentuating a renewed trust in the material itself. It is the project’s grounding assertion that a successful turn to things cannot be accomplished through theoretical and discursive reconfigurations alone but must also be grounded in the tactile experiences that emerge from direct engagements with things – including broken and stranded things. Building on archaeology’s long and intimate engagement with things, and anchored in field studies of modern ruin landscapes and abandoned sites, our research will focus on three main themes: the materiality of memory, the affective aspects of material encounters, and the ethics of things. By bringing a concern with ruins and things themselves to the forefront, this project aims to develop a new platform for debating archaeology and heritage in the 21st century. 

End Report

Bringing together an international and interdisciplinary research group at CAS provided a unique opportunity to address and explore the research themes and objectives of After Discourse and its “mother project” Object Matters (funded by the Norwegian Research Council). Through individual and cooperative research, daily exchange, seminars, and workshops, we managed to scrutinize all the objectives and thematics outlined in our application. Thus, as an overall judgment this was a very successful undertaking!

Researchers bringing their own research to CAS to be merged with the particular objectives of this project, created very interesting synergies and new ways of approaching and articulating the After Discourse thematics.

It is important to emphasize that the full outcome and results of the stay at CAS cannot be conceived at the present moment. Research initiatives were started, new questions posed, publication and other disseminations started or planned, and what become of all this is yet to be seen. A number of outside scholars visited CAS for seminars, lectures and workshop, and the contacts established also with them offer new possibilities for research and collaboration. Thus, the larger network that emerged through the initiatives of our active group is indeed an important achievement.

While our approach to things and materiality is importantly theoretical we also worked from the premise that a new awareness and inclusion of things in social and cultural research must be grounded in the tactile experiences that emerge from direct engagements with them. The way we successfully managed to keep the “mundane material” a constant focus of attention, as explored through our main themes of memory, affects and ethics, was indeed a major achievement, and one well visible in our published and forthcoming articles and books. Another important achievement that is directly related to this is the rethinking of the concept of heritage. While for long being subjected to a social and cultural reductionism, where the question of use-value is predominant, the After Discourse group has approached heritage from different ethical and affective perspectives, and also questioned the dominant trope of preservation. Moreover, by working from a more inclusive understanding of heritage that also involves waste, pollution and the unwanted, we have explored the material “unruliness” of this present past, and the way it triggers involuntary memories.


  • Bailey, Doug
    Professor San Francisco State University 2016/2017
  • Bjerck, Hein B.
    Professor Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) 2016/2017
  • Burström, Mats
    Professor Stockholm University 2016/2017
  • DeSilvey, Caitlin
    Associate Professor University of Exeter 2016/2017
  • González-Ruibal, Alfredo
    Senior Researcher Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) 2016/2017
  • LeCain, Timothy
    Associate Professor Montana State University 2016/2017
  • Naguib, Saphinaz-Amal
    Professor University of Oslo (UiO) 2016/2017
  • Pétursdóttir, Þóra
    Postdoctoral Fellow UiT The Arctic University of Norway (UiT) 2016/2017
  • Tamm, Marek
    Professor Tallinn University 2016/2017
  • Witmore, Christopher
    Associate Professor Texas Tech University 2016/2017

Previous events


Group leader

  • Bjørnar Julius Olsen

    Title Professor Institution UiT The Arctic University of Norway (UiT) Year at CAS 2016/2017