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The meanings of things

From the perspective of the pragmatist philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce things only have meaning relative to an interpretant. It would be easy enough, in this light, to jump to the conclusion that things can only have meaning relative to a human interpretant. This anthropocentricism would be misplaced, simply because other forms of life also respond to the ways that they see and experience things (Nealon 2016). As others have argued, things emerge as particular kinds of thing through the process of interpretation. Those particular kinds of thing then have certain consequences in terms of the behaviour of the agency that characterises them. The implication is that any reference that is made by archaeologists to the ‘meanings of things’ remains empty until we are given to understand the practices of an interpretant whose relationship with those things brought such meanings into existence.

The complex ways in which things were understood and used, relative to people, have often been falsely characterised by the archaeological assumption that the pattern of things encodes the meanings that were expressed in their creation. It can be easily overlooked that the interpretant, in the case of an archaeological interpretation, is of course the archaeologist herself, and archaeologists do tend to assume that the meanings that they see in the material were those meanings that had originally been inscribed into that material by others. It has been but a short step to extend this kind of reasoning to treat the archaeological interpretation of materials as if it were analogous to the reading of a text (Buchli 1995).

This treatment of things-as-texts was originally developed from the perspective of the model for language use that was developed by Ferdinand de Saussure (Saussure 1974; Miller 1982). Saussure had treated a linguistic representation as if it was expressed as the consequence of a cognitive experience, and was formulated through the use of a sound/word order. This system of communication therefore comprised two elements: a conceptual element (the signified), and an expressive element (the signifier). Notice that in Saussure’s scheme what is represented by the signifier is not the thing itself (the referent), but the language user’s conceptual registering of that thing, the signified (cf. Kirby 1997). Notice also the chronological primacy that is awarded by this scheme to the cognitive element which the signifier then expresses. In this way an inner awareness, or cognition, is taken to precede expression, and the external world of things has slipped from view.

In the theory of language developed by Ferdinand de Saussure there is no necessary or mechanical link between an individual word (the signifier) and an individual concept (the signified) employed either by the speaker/author or by the listener/reader (Saussure 1974). The link is constituted instead by the conventions that a language user learns during their growing familiarity and competence with the pattern of sound differences that make up words (signifiers), and the differences in the world of things as they are experienced. It is this pattern of sound differences that is mapped against the differences in the things that are experienced physically and captured cognitively (the signified). In this scheme it would appear that the cultural work of classifying things is something that is indeed done cognitively. It is cognition that appears to group and to contrast the body’s physical experiences of things and to assign various values to them (such as good things vs bad things, or hot things vs cold things). One consequence of this reasoning is that it distinguishes the processes of human cognition from the ways that other forms of life operate in the same environments as humans. The special status of humanity appears to be secured because humans have the cognitive ability to make sense of the world in terms of a cultural order. Animals on the other hand are assumed to respond to the world by instinct, whilst plants are assumed to merely respond to different environmental conditions and stimuli (Nealon 2016). There is no commitment in such reasoning to the idea that any forms of life other than humans might develop through their own interpretations of the world (but see Godfrey-Smith 2017).

The grammar of a language (i.e. the scheme that structures language use and facilitates the creation of meaningful speech acts) was distinguished by Saussure from its actual use in speaking (which might, sometimes, appear to be ‘non-grammatical’). This distinction resulted in Saussure claiming that analysis should focus upon a language’s grammar (la langue) rather than upon its more idiosyncratic use in speaking (parole). This turn away from the analysis of practice (speaking) encouraged the ‘structuralist turn’, because it was the supposed grammar (the structure) that ‘underlay’ and thus determined the possibility of meaningful verbal expression. It then appeared as if a case similar to that of language use could be made for other aspects of material practice.

We should remember that we have all learnt to speak by actually trying to speak, rather than by learning the grammar of our language, and we have all learnt to live amongst things by means of experiencing their use, and misuse, rather than by learning how to live from some kind of cultural manual. We have therefore learnt through practice. Practice theory concerns the ways that humans actually live and learn by means of their engagement with, and recognition of, the realities within which they live (Bourdieu 1977 & 1990), and these realities include the need to communicate with, and to be recognised by, others (Tomasello 2016). This kind of approach should lead us to doubt not only the attempt to use the Saussurean model to illustrate the way that language use might develop, but also its use to explain the reproduction of material culture. This brings us to the confusions that have arisen in archaeology as the result of the analog)' that has sometimes been drawn between the use of language and the use of material culture. It is this confusion that has been amplified by the different ways that the term structure can be used. As we discussed in the previous chapter (see page 66), the term structure can be used either as a generative verb (to structure, as in ‘to bring to order’), or as a descriptive noun (a structure, as in ‘an arrangement’).

An assumption of the Saussurean model is that the effectiveness of language-use obviously depends upon the expectation that its user will be understood. In other words, language use is one way of constructing a social existence in which a growing linguistic competence aligns the practitioner towards an existing and developing network of interpreters who are themselves also communicators. But if language use is simply treated as one form of behaviour among others, then we could also allow that it is behaviour, recognised by others, that constructs a social existence. Behaviour is itself directed towards, and is recognised with reference to, certain material conditions. We therefore arrive at the principle that a social existence emerges through the behaviour of bodies that are recognised by others as operating comprehensibly with reference to material conditions (Latour 1993 & 2005).

It was from the structuralist perspective developed by Levi-Strauss that things appeared to gain their meaning by their juxtaposition with and contrast against other things. The classic example of a structuralist analysis in archaeology is that of the parietal cave art (cave paintings) of Palaeolithic date undertaken by Leroi- Gourhan (1964). Leroi-Gourhan analysed the spatial distribution of animal imagery on a large number of cave walls, claiming that the images of horse and bison dominate in two clusters in a spatially distinctive ordering that is variously accompanied by images of subsidiary animal species, along with what Leroi-Gourhan and others have interpreted as the occasional, and admittedly very ambiguous, engendered signs for male and female. The somewhat uncertain conclusion that was reached by Leroi-Gourhan (Lewis-Williams 2002, 60-65) was that the Palaeolithic mind perceived the world as if it were structured by two distinct engendered qualities, and that it was this structure that symbolically generated the horse:bison assemblages of images. Bison images, for example, do not therefore ‘mean’ bison but were part of the representation of the cognitively engendered order by which the world was believed to have been structured.

Doubts about the treatment of material culture as if it had encoded meaning in this way arose initially from the observation that the making and using of things is quite unlike the making and using of sound-words. A hand-axe is created mechanically, fits into the hand in a certain way, feels heavy, hard, and cold, whilst the words that signify it do not do this. Material things therefore embody a form of physical resistance in their making and in their use that is largely absent from the making and use of words. However, the problem that accompanied the interpretive turn in archaeology went well beyond reliance upon a dubious analog)' with language-use. We must now return to our underlying concern: the extent to which archaeological interpretations of a historical residue could ever reveal the ways that the material, and social life in general, had been knowingly constituted.

The challenge that a structuralist analysis presents to archaeology may be illustrated by reference to the interpretation of a surface of northern European prehistoric rock art. In considering such a surface we might well be tempted to regard the figures as the self-evident representations (signs) of actual human figures, carts, chariots, ships, ploughs, weapons, and so on. This would assume that those who had decorated these surfaces did so simply by referencing the shapes of those same things that had existed in the world around them. However, from a Sau- ssurean perspective, the sign is only arbitrarily related to the concept of the referent (the actual thing). The structurally coherent relationship is the one that generates the signifier (the external expression) from the signified (the internal concept). Consequently, given that the ‘outer’ world of things might well have been transformed by being ‘internally’ conceptualised as the manifestation of an underlying sacred order, then that sacred order might be expressed metaphorically by the images deployed, in a similar way to Leroi-Gourhan’s treatment of Palaeolithic cave images. Values such as virtue, authority, the divine, the under-world, or concepts of social distinction might then have been symbolically represented by the order of the images (Tilley 1991 & 1999). This is similar to the way that the reordering of skeletal remains in the western European Neolithic was treated archaeologically, as if it were the symbolic dissolution of the individual being and its re-articulation as part of an ancestral community (Shanks & Tilley 1982). Our carved rock surface might have represented, symbolically, a coherent scheme of order uniting various metaphysical forces and moral values. If this was indeed the case, then gaining an archaeological understanding of that order without the benefit of a culturally knowledgeable informant would seem to pose a considerable challenge, to say the least. Archaeological attempts to interpret what things might have originally represented must, as the consequence of this reasoning, be uncertain, ambiguous, and open-ended. We might therefore feel some sympathy when Olsen complains that:

Scandinavian rock art, just to take a random example, [is where] one will find that a boat, an elk or a reindeer can be claimed to represent or signify almost everything - ancestors, rites of passage, borders, totems, gender, supernatural powers, etc. - apart, it seems, only from themselves. A boat is never a boat; a reindeer is never a reindeer. (Olsen 2012, 22)

In 1982 the anthropologist Ernest Gellner published an essay that was directed at an archaeological audience and which drew a distinction that Gellner recognised between the generative structures that were the object either of structuralisme with the ‘scent of the Left Bank’ that ‘is forever attached’ to it, or of the ‘solid, earthy, blokey . . . humdrum’ version of structuralism that described a cultural order in the anthropological tradition of structural functionalism (Gellner 1982). One major distinction between the two traditions, Gellner argued, appears in their treatment of culture, which in the case of structuralisme arises from the belief that things have an essence that is hidden but can emerge into open view in the patterns and regularities of material experience. This is very much the structuralisme of Levi- Strauss and Leroi-Gourhan where, for the latter, the engendered essence of the Palaeolithic world emerged during a human and culturally moulded experience of it. It was supposedly this world that was symbolically represented by animal imagery. This contrasted with, in Gellner’s argument, a structural concern with the organisation of small-scale societies, where culture was seen to operate as a set of arbitrary tokens that ‘were required to identify this or that category of people, this or that ritual occasion’ (Gellner 1982, 104). The latter understanding of culture is that it functioned as a secondary' ‘colour’ to social structure, a perception that culture was somehow a ‘secondary’ veneer upon actions, a view that we might most easily equate with the approaches developed within the New, and then by Processual, Archaeology. The important observation, which Gellner then made, is that of the two perceptions of structure, the former (structuralisme) is an ‘emic’ perspective available to those living a particular form of life, whilst the latter (structuralism) is the ‘etic’ view achieved by an external observer (Gellner 1982, 112).

In light of Gellner’s commentary, the break that an Interpretive Archaeology attempted to make from the demands of the New or Processual Archaeology' was marked by the attempt to see the world from the perspective of those who lived the lives that were represented by archaeological materials, rather than the New Archaeological attempt to explain those lives as the product of some kind of determinate condition that had operated ‘behind the backs’ of the participants. It is perhaps for this reason that Interpretive Archaeology has found such a resonance with the concepts of human agency and post-colonial theory, simply because both these concepts recognise the rights and the responsibilities that others carry in determining the paths that are traced by their own lives, without being over-written and recolonised from the outside by our ‘etic’ narratives of‘explanation’.

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