Sunday, February 24, 2013

Enchanted America, Enchanted Archaeology

Morris Berman is a disenchanted American studies scholar and social critic.  He thinks America has failed and that there is no hope for a turnaround (Berman 2012).  In a recent essay (2013), he starts by discussing older thinkers who worried about how our “rational” world was non-harmonious and disenchanted:

The notion that there was a way of life characteristic of modern (or industrial) societies that was qualitatively different from the way of life found in pre-modern (or folk) societies goes back, at least, to the German sociologist Max Weber [2009].  Modern societies, said Weber, are governed by bureaucracies; the dominant ethos is one of “rationalization,” whereby everything is mechanized, administered according to the dictates of scientific reason. Weber famously compared this situation to that of an “iron cage”: there was no way the citizens of these societies could break free from their constraints.  Pre-modern societies, on the other hand, were permeated by animism, by a belief in magic and spirits, and governance came not through bureaucracy but through the charisma of gifted leaders. The decline of magic that accompanied the transition to modernity Weber called die Entzauberung der Welt–the disenchantment of the world.

He goes on to mention other thinkers who have made similar distinctions, such as the Gemeinschaft [community based on good social relations] and Gesellschaft [society based on contracts] cultures of Ferdinand Tönnies (2002), the Genuine [contented, satisfied] versus Spurious [frustrated, dysfunctional] cultures of Edward Sapir (1924), and the moral versus technical order of Robert Redfield (1963).  These are all simple, old fashioned, distinctions about modern culture versus “pre-modern” with the emphasis on the non-modern as being a more humane way of life.  It is them looking over the fence and seeing greener pastures.

Of course, he could have added Nietzsche (1872), Ruth Benedict (1934) and E. T. Hall (1976), who also divided cultures into two types, the Apollonian-Low context cultures versus the Dionysian-High context ones. While there is no doubt that Hall’s Low Context Culture resembles a spurious technically ordered society it is hard to say that Dionysian cultures are always moral orders full of community minded folks.  After all, Dionysians can be genuinely nasty.  I, of course, prefer this distinction and emphasize that it does not force a moral valuation of one over the other.  They are good ways to describe cultures without judging them.

To be disenchanted, one must believe the basic premise of modern versus pre-modern, and then draw a moral distinction. One supposedly seems better than the other based on some yardstick of warm, sweet and cuddly versus cold and impersonal.  Certainly, Weber’s work has been debated greatly.  Does rationalism and technological change really disenchant?  Some folks don’t think so (Jenkins 2000; Landy and Saler 2009) and I don’t think so.  When people become enchanted with science and rationality, the magic of it all isn’t called magic but something else, such as “it’s an elegant theory” or “it’s a no-brainer.” 

However, let us suppose that Berman is correct and play along with him.  Is America disenchanted based on the criteria outlined above?  Let’s look at animism, belief in magic and spirits, and governance via the charisma of gifted leaders.  First, we do have a bureaucracy without charismatic leaders.  In my adult lifetime, back to Reagan, I can’t think of a single person in the political realm who inspired me. Martin Luther King was inspiring but he wasn’t a political leader. So chalk one up for being disenchanted with our leaders.

Does American culture have animism, magic and spirits?  They dominate our popular culture.  In the last year, every commercial for Jaguar cars has been animistic; this month, the tag line for the newest commercial is, the car is “Alive as you are.”  Our entertainment is full of wizards (Harry Potter) and ghost hunting (Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Haunted Collector).  Moreover, if ghosts don’t get your attention then vampires, werewolves, zombies, and angels are there to fill the void.  The basketball player called “Magic” Johnson didn’t get his name because he plays like a machine but because his movements are “magic.”  By any standard, American popular culture is as enchanting as any recent Brazilian carnival.

Some critics might say that popular culture doesn’t reveal the “real” culture.  This is foolishness, typically coming from older modernists who still glorify intellectualism and “high” culture.  Pop culture is our folklore, our mythology, our soul.

To make this point a little deeper, let’s look at a subset of American culture, the profession of American archaeology.  Do archaeologists believe in ghosts and spirits?  Some of them do.  Most of them do not have cold-blooded clinical mentalities.  Archaeologists go into strange unusual places and they tend to find ones that were once sacred.  They are human, all too human, and many of them are susceptible to their emotions, their imagination, and the heebie-jeebies.  Many will tell stories of places that spooked them so much they had to leave; others talk of having nightmares while excavating graves. Many a lab technician has heard things go bump in the night and day, especially when human remains are on tables or in boxes nearby.  Spookiness and archaeology go together.

Does archaeology have animism? Very much so, it’s everywhere.  Whenever archaeologists discuss artifact assemblages you will likely hear phrases such as “these are objects of change” or “vectors of change” or “this artifact symbolizes.”  Archaeologists reify and animate objects with regularity because it’s the way Americans communicate.  Animistic statements are complex metaphors that tie us to our natural world.  Objects and technology are part of our natural environment.  Tools, all material culture, are extensions of us.  There is no difference between a cyborg and a robot.  Why shouldn’t we talk about them and interact with them as if they were alive? Likewise, we talk about abstractions as if they were alive:  statistics “speak for themselves,” cultures "move" from one place to another, and America is said to “fail”.  How can America “fail”; is it alive with agency?  Just as in “pre-modern” cultures, it is customary for Americans to communicate in this way. 

For archaeologists artifacts have magical powers.  Not every artifact or site does, but some do.  If you dig a hundred shovel tests and find only one arrowhead then that moment of discovery may be magical, special. Most archaeologists are connected to the tools of the trade.  Many have their special trowel that symbolizes their professionalism, like a red badge of courage.  Field vehicles are old friends, held onto for many years.  Just as the cable show Warehouse 13 demonstrates, some artifacts are imbued with meaning and power such that they can be transformative.  Find the right type of site or artifact and it can change your life, your career, no different from winning a large lottery.  Ideas are also magical.  Coming up with a new and compelling interpretation or explanation can be career enhancing.

Moreover, many archaeological ideas are coyote tales, full of trickery and suspension of disbelief.  Given a couple hundred artifacts and a few radiocarbon dates, an archaeologist can reconstruct the life way of a culture.  Do you believe it?  Archaeologists have also held many debates over the “realness” of their artifact typologies.  It doesn’t matter that sand tempered cord marked pottery from Virginia likely resembles sand tempered cord marked pottery from Nebraska; they have to be different based on the archaeological mentality.  Many a thesis or dissertation has been written based on the analysis of a few ceramic shards or a shoebox of “projectile points” (many of which were likely knives or scrappers).  Nevertheless, who cares?  A compelling statement is what matters.  Archaeologists are sometimes magicians.

Currently, there are a few charismatic characters in archaeology.  However, none of them is leading the profession.  In the recent past, there were charismatic leaders, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.  In those years, America was transforming from an Apollonian culture steeped in rationalism into a Dionysian one based on intuition.  This transformation was the Fourth Awakening (McLoughlin, 1978) that was a revitalization movement (Wallace 1956).  It was a frenetic era with social unrest and an unpopular war. These years are marked in archaeology as the New Archaeology era.  During this time, Louis Binford introduced a narrow form of positivism into the profession, the idea caught fire in popularity with minimal disbelievers, and the profession rode the wave of “rational” ecstasy for twenty years, until it burned out.  It also coincided with the broader love fest for science that was underway in the social sciences at that time, such as the New Ethnography, Enthnoscience, the New History, the New Geography, and monetarism in economics.

 The New Archaeology had all the traits of an old-fashioned religious revival movement (McLoughlin, 1978).  Led by a charismatic leader, it used something old and abandoned, positivism, to make corrective changes within the profession, to make it more scientific.  In the face of rising intuitive processes and complex metaphors it was a retro, conservative, effort to continue rationalism that ultimately failed, as all revivals do, because it didn’t instill long term change.  When the New Archaeology flame burned out scientism crashed in American archaeology, as it did in all of American culture in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The irony is that the New Archaeology was a Dionysian process, a slight of the hand, or the brain, if you will.  It is well known that left hemisphere processes (McGilchrist 2009) direct Apollonian cultures; the control, order, hierarchy, and temporal aspects of life are emphasized over their opposites.  Rationalism is a left hemisphere complex metaphor.  But, what happens when the right hemisphere plays with it? You get eye dazzlers.  

Apollonian artifacts usually have geometric designs and they are simple and elegant—think of the popular late modernist corporate buildings from 1970s with all the rectangular glass. Next, take all those rectangles and compound them so much that the positive and negative fields are blurred.  You get a design that shimmers as patterns go back and forth.  It becomes an eye dazzler.  The same thing happens with our concepts and ideas. Take conceptual linearity too far and you get conceptual bedazzlement.  The New Archaeology, with its hypothetical deductive argumentation, was a coyote tale of bedazzlement, enchanted by its supposed rationalism.

Today, American archaeology is fully Dionysian.  There are a few elder modernists holding on to their left brained science but they live at the margins.  Right-brained science and non-science are in control; Post Modernism and Romanticism are the buzzwords of the day.  Other warm and fuzzy concepts are widely used such as collaboration and “community archaeology.”  The preference is Gemeinschaft as a way of approaching archaeology, a desire for a moral order that is genuine and democratic, leaving everyone satisfied and fulfilled. It is enchanted archaeology. 

There are problems within archaeology.  While many likely believe that historic preservation compliance is the redeeming feature of the profession, because it drives the majority of work, it actually is a vampire sucking the soul from the profession by reducing the total number of excavations done every year.  Digging is the true life-blood of the profession.  It is what the majority of the public wants from us; not site preservation. Archaeologists can break free of this cage if they choose.  But since they have not done so, the need is not dire enough for it to happen.

Maybe the troubles of America that Berman documents so well in his books could compel archaeologists to switch gears and go another direction.  I’m all in favor of it.  However, an “iron cage of rationality” is not one of those troubles.  America is fully Dionysian and enchanted; its troubles stem from the wild impulses emanating from our right hemispheres.  This will continue until the next Awakening, some forty years hence.  Meanwhile, resolving immediate problems will have to be done by tickling the right hemisphere, and the solutions will be based in reciprocity and reflexivity, not cause and effect.

There is no reason to be disenchanted when life is such a wonderful carnival.


Benedict, Ruth
1934  Patterns of Culture. Houghton Mifflin, New York.

Berman, Morris
2012 Why America Failed:  The Roots of Imperial Decline.  John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ
2013  The Moral Order:  A Dying Civilization.  CounterPunch, February 8, 2013; (, accessed February 22, 2013)

Hall, Edward T.
1976  Beyond Culture.  Doubleday, New York, NY.

Jenkins, Richard
2000  Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium.  Max Weber Studies 1: 11-32.

McGilchrist, Iain
2009  The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.  Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

McLoughlin, William G.
1978  Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Nietzsche, Friedrich,
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Landy, Joshua and Michael Saler, eds.
2009  The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age.  Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Redfield, Robert
1963[1953]  The Primitive World and Its Transformation.  Cornell University Press.

Sapir, Edward
1924  Culture, Genuine and Spurious. The American Journal of Sociology 29 (4): 401–429.

Ferdinand Tönnies, Ferdinand,
2002[1887]  Community and Society. Translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis. Dover Publications, Mineola, NY.

Wallace, Anthony
 1956  Revitalization Movements. American Anthropologist 58: 264-281.

Weber, Max
2009[1904]  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Norton Critical Editions.