Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

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

Abstract

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. 

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