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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
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Representation and the body: the seductive artifact paradigm
(or: an ode to the tyranny of representation)

A Response to Discussion Week 3: Sept. 22. Body and the archaeological discourse

Other responses of the week

Omur Harmansah Posted: September 25, 2006. Tuesday: 2:05 pm.

“…but she wasn’t conscious of it. It was her body that did it, with the cunning and silence of bodies everywhere”
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002: 27.
(Thank you Emma for reminding me of this book. As you can see now I am reading it).

In her article “The somatization of archaeology,” Lynn Meskell critiques archaeologists for their aesthetically oriented choice of materials of study, usually “visually evocative” materials such as “wall paintings, iconography, motifs, jewellery and ornamentation” (may I add figurines and statues especially here for the Near East). According to Meskell, scholars prioritize such seductive material evidence, while they study “posture, gesture, costume, sexuality and representation in preference to the construction of individual identities, bodily experience or lived bodies in a corporeal sense.” (Meskell 1996:7). Bearing the heavy impact of traditional structuralist art-historical approaches prevalent in archaeology (stylistic analysis, iconographic analysis etc, historically developed to study European Renaissance/post-Renaissance painting), representationally evocative artifacts are brought to the forefront of archaeological discourse. Representationality (especially visual representationality) therefore, if we may imagine such a concept, hijacks the field of academic discourse, while uncritical use of images and representations in archaeology often end up decontextualizing its subject matter. This scholarly tendency is also described in critical literature as the “tyranny of representation”.

It seems that the study of the representations of the body suffer from similar shortcomings, when the preoccupation is “the exteriority, surface treatment, elaboration and decoration of the body” (Meskell 1996: 11), taking the body as a surface, as a screen upon which symbolisms are encoded, social structures are inscribed. This is when the irreducible materiality of the human body, its practices, its gestures are ignored, and the embodied subjectivities of past social actors as individuals are overlooked, when the human body is rendered passive and deprived of its agency to change the world, its performativity denied.

This issue however is not that simple to be addressed only in passing, but needs to scrutinized more surgically. I am afraid this is no place to carry out such in-depth operation but it may be useful to point out some avenues of thought. Let me try to explain here briefly what I am referring by talking about “representation” as a cross-disciplinary problem. This thorny problem of representation is no longer limited to the fields of art history, literature and the philosophy of aesthetics, but it has become an interdisciplinary concept, an overarching paradigm in the wide spectrum of the social sciences and the humanities. The pictorial and literary theories of representation are being adopted here as instruments for understanding a multiplicity of discursive methods. As long as one speaks of a human reality (e.g. a piece of landscape, a historical event, a cultural artifact) vis-à-vis its signified image (a map, a historical text, a documentary photograph), re-presented to the world of things, and in the world of things, through a symbolic language; he finds himself immediately in the polemical waters of representation. Representation is therefore an epiphenomenon of existence, an effigy of reality. History as well as the many other branches of the social sciences attempt to capture “the modalities of the discursive construction of the social world” and approaches the past more and more to see “connections among practices and representations,” since none of the sources for human history can any longer be considered outside the definition of representation (Chantier 1997: 1-4). In the field of art history, voices have been raised to demonstrate that the traditional view of representation in art as “a disinterested and therefore politically neutral activity” could not hold water any more, but it should be seen as “an inextricable part of social processes of domination and control” (Owens 1992: 88). Both anthropology and archaeology have been incorporating a phenomenological understanding of human landscapes: taking landscapes as cultural artifacts, a palimpsest of historical practices. Landscapes are now extensively discussed not only in terms of the physical human interventions to the environment and the material assemblage that is continuously deposited in it throughout history; but also with reference to the structure of social practices that lends that very spatial structure its meaning and coherence (Ashmore and Knapp 1999). As such, having left behind the scientific interest for accurate documentation of the physical world, the field of geography now reconsiders its maps as non-neutral representations of natural places and social spaces, especially in the hands of colonialist ideals (Piper 2002). The question of architectural representation is more and more extensively raised as a problematic in the discourses of architectural history and criticism, where scholars addressed the complexity of space generating practices that is demonstrated in the urban and architectural form as well as their visual documents (Pérez-Gómez and Pelletier 1997).

It is then particularly relevant to pursue this problem with the paradigm of the body in mind, as the representational discourse is often reductive and prepares traps for us, the modern day spectators: it often reduces social reality to two dimensional pictorial narratives, with a strong emphasis on visuality (Ouzman 2001). Meskell’s critique then is well placed, but we need to look at the spectrum of the appearances of the body in academic discourse and be critical of the ingrained Western interest in exteriority, representationality and surfaces (Summers 2003). What we are aiming on the contrary is to come to a unified (and not segregated) understanding of the ontology of the body and its representations. What Roger Chartier suggests is most compelling: to come to an understanding of the “connections among practices and representations” without losing sight of the agency, materiality, spatiality, temporality and performativity of the body.

Works cited:

Ankersmit, F. R.; 2001. Historical representation. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California.

Ashmore, Wendy and A. Bernard Knapp; 1999. “Archaeological landscapes: constructed, conceptualized, ideational,” in Archaeologies of landscape: contemporary perspectives. W. Ashmore and A.B. Knapp (eds.), Blackwell: Malden MA, 1-30.

Chartier, Roger; 1997. On the edge of the cliff: history, language and practices. L.G. Cochrane (trans.), The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

Mitchell, W.J.T.; 1994. Picture theory: essays on verbal and visual representation. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Ouzman, Sven; 2001. “ Seeing is deceiving: rock art and the non-visual,” World Archaeology 33: 237-256.

Owens, Craig; 1992. “Representation, appropriation and power,” in Beyond recognition: Representation, power and culture, (Craig Owens). S. Bryson et. al. (eds.), University of California Press: Berkeley, 88-113.

Pérez-Gómez, Alberto and Louise Pelletier; 1997. Architectural representation and the perspective hinge. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. Piper, Karen; 2002. Cartographic fictions: maps, race, and identity. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Summers, David; 2003. Real spaces: world art history and the rise of Western modernism. London: Phaidon Press.