Encountering Imagery: Materialities, Perceptions, RelationsNorwegian Archaeological Review

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Authors
John Robb
Year
2014
DOI
10.1080/00293652.2014.956790
Subject
Archaeology

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representational to experiential. Hamilakis calls for a sensorial imagination of the past thereby accessing the full presence of the material. While this is an interesting and valid proposition surely some readers will raise an eyebrow at this point and recall that such holistic views often come at the expense of structured analyses and strict methodology (e.g. Ingold 2000), and this book is no exception. There is little concern for strict methodological practices or evidence. At times it is reminiscent of typically Ingoldian philosophy, advocating an understanding of ‘sensorial flows’, ‘flux’ and the ‘flesh’ of life itself. His sensorial archaeology is not ‘a representation of the past but an evocation of its presence, its palpable, living materiality’ (p. 199).

Hamilakis is keen to stress how this approach is distinct from conventional archaeologies, resulting in a tendency to be polemic. His multi-sensorial approach, in his own words, will have far-reaching implications at the ontological, political, epistemological and methodological levels, demanding ‘nothing less than a major paradigmatic shift’ (pp. 201–203). To my mind, such dues are best paid in retrospect. Not only have we witnessed a strong movement towards the (hard) sciences lately, but even less scientifically minded archaeologists are likely to be critical of his envisioned paradigmatic change to an ‘undisciplined discipline’, since if we make that change on what grounds can we claim knowledge about the past?

The most pressing point in Hamilakis’ book is that he argues for a distinct ‘openness’ in terms of how material culture presents itself (in a sensate manner). This is in marked contrast to archaeologies that attempt to understand (viz. cognitively reflect on) what material culture re-presents. In short, it means we should allow ourselves to be touched and moved by the things we encounter, by whatever bewilders us.

There is a particular strength in this (naïve) openness that deserves acknowledgement and perhaps even admiration. Simultaneously, it is immensely problematic as an epistemological stance and I have outlined some issues in this review.

Notwithstanding, this book does raise fundamental questions about the role and goal of archaeologies, wherein Hamilakis posits that archaeology is not a discipline of ancient things but a study of things and beings in general, i.e. the essence of being and engagement with life (pp. 15, 112). For this reason the book is a bold statement on the nature of archaeology itself, for which it deserves to be read. © 2014 Maikel Kuijpers

REFERENCES

Edmonds, M., 1999. Ancestral geographies of the

Neolithic: landscapes, monuments and memory.

London: Routledge.

Hamilakis, Y., 2011. Archaeologies of the senses.

In: T. Insoll, ed., The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of ritual and religion. Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 208–225.

Ingold, T., 2000. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill.

London: Routledge.

Ing-Marie Back Danielsson, Fredrik Fahlander & Ylva Sjöstrand (eds) 2012.Encountering Imagery:

Materialities, Perceptions, Relations. In Stockholm Studies in Archaeology, University of Stockholm, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm. 277 pp. ISBN 978-9-1978-2579-5

JOHN ROBB

The most important shift in art studies in recent years – evident across art history, material culture theory, anthropology, and archaeology – has been from asking ‘what does art mean?’ to asking ‘what does art do?’ What art does, and what it is, is the main question posed by this book. Following work by art historians, such as W. J. T. Mitchell and John Berger, and anthropologists (above all

Alfred Gell), combined with a strong dash of

John Robb, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK. Email: jer39@cam.ac.uk

Reviews 229 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00293652.2014.956790 phenomenology and hermeneutics, the editors have assembled a group of 13 studies that pursue this theme in different ways.

The central argument underlying the collection (outlined in the editor’s introduction and in

Sjöstrand’s chapter, which supplies a theoretical manifesto) is straightforward. For many years, archaeologists studying art have been shackled by a narrow interpretive paradigm. We have unthinkingly assumed that art is primarily a representational form of communication, much like language in the Saussurean paradigm: it transmits encoded, quasi-discursive meanings, and the job of the analyst is simply to ‘decode’ the art and extract the original meanings. Meaning, in this sense, is the text associated with the picture, something like the label telling you that the painting on the museum wall is a Madonna and Child rather than (say) a portrait of the artist as an infant on his mother’s lap. Back Danielsson, Fahlander, and

Sjöstrand argue that the representational paradigm is a poor way to understand most art; even when art conveys an explicit representational content, extracting that meaning may not actually tell us most of what we want to know about why people made the art, why they used it as they did, and what it did for them. To take a mundane illustration (mine, not theirs!): recognising that the pattern of dots in a picture represents a haystack or a sunflower almost entirely misses the point of why French impressionists such as Monet and van

Gogh are the paintings of choice in dentist’s offices, waiting rooms, and suburban homes. The discursive meaning does not provide a social analysis; at the very most, it gives us the starting point for one.

Instead, we have to ‘encounter imagery’; the editors’ choice of words is significant, implying that we must approach imagery on its own terms, without deciding in advance what kind of thing it is, or what ontological status it has. The key element is the relationship between the image and the viewer. ‘Represent’ is only one of the verbs which can specify this relationship. Images represent and communicate, but they also affirm, captivate, reassure, relate people, create and inscribe memory, provoke positive or antagonistic reactions, confuse, sort out sensations into a social order, challenge social orders, and many other things.