Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Danger of the Sublime


Leone (2009) writes, “We cannot assume that a sublime object exists. A sublime object is our state, scientific truth apart from politics, or our museums, for example” (162). I agree with the author insofar as objects do not and cannot stand alone. Rather, they are necessarily inscribed with and embed social relationships, often hierarchical ones that privilege one group or individual over another. In the case of historical archaeology, which in contrast to classical archaeology, was initially a product of archaeologists in European colonies (particularly the United States) rather than Europe itself. Therefore, from its inception historical archaeology has sought to enfranchise those who are traditionally disenfranchised, those who have not profited (monetarily or otherwise) from European capitalism. Through examination of the archaeological record, one can call into question traditional histories, which privilege the written word and by extension those in power who have largely created it.

            As Leone discusses through the lens of Castañeda’s work, archaeological sites, as reconstructions of a past for tourist consumption, are seen as sublime and are therefore colonial in of themselves. The example given by Castañeda is Chichén Itzá, the prominent Maya site in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. By emphasizing this particular created past, the Classic Maya, those responsible for heritage inherently force the people currently inhabiting that region to relate themselves to that history. In this way, modern Maya peoples have historically been seen by anthropologists as, in Castañeda’s terms, having “zero degree culture” (163). That is, because they are no longer constructing the monumental stone temples or writing in the glyphic languages that are valorized by the Western world, they have somehow regressed. Cultural heritage is, therefore, challenging because by definition, it aims to preserve the past. In order to do so, however, it is necessary to choose which particular past should be preserved. This selection process often occurs within colonial frameworks, resulting in the construction of narratives that culminate in the zenith that is Western civilization (e.g. Greece) or those that run in direct opposition to it and are curiosities due to their representations of the Other (e.g. the Maya).

            Because of the materiality of archaeological evidence, there is a tendency to imbue artifacts and even entire sites with a supernatural, sublime quality. If not problematized, this capacity can easily promote a colonial agenda. As archaeologists, we therefore must work in tandem with cultural resource managers to situate these objects within postcolonial narratives, making room for, as Leone emphasizes, emotional responses to the marginalization embedded within them.

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