Thursday, 30 January 2014

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Obscurantism

The humanities and the social sciences are unusually accepting of obscurantism - that is to say, texts that are deliberately obscure and difficult to read.  Outsiders typically label this stuff 'postmodern' or 'postmodernist', but that term isn't accepted by most obscurantists, as it is really only one obscurantist movement among many, including post-structuralism and, I would say, structuralism as well.  But since the texts are deliberately difficult to read and contain few genuine chains of argument, they're all much of a muchness, differing primarily in style and purported subject instead of approach.  So they can be treated similarly, I think.

Obscure texts are the bane of students' lives in the humanities and social sciences.  Students complain (usually in the pub) about having to read the works of, among others, Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, and Gilles Deleuze, because the writing is dense and the meaning is difficult to see through the wordfog.  Academics tend to love this stuff, though, and a number of disciplines and departments are largely taken up with teaching and writing about obscure texts and the ideas supposedly drawn from then, including social anthropology, women's studies, and some history and sociology departments.  Classics is perhaps most immune to this stuff, due to the fairly elite, conservative background of a lot of classicists (meaning that they're not exactly prone to obscurantist non-arguments in favour of Maoism).

The success of obscurantist texts and authors in academia is something of a mystery.  It's so obvious an example of the Emperor's New Clothes, a story we're surely all familiar with, that I find it incredible that anyone falls for it.  How could academics, people with doctorates who have spent the bulk of their lives studying and bettering themselves intellectually, endorse texts that they don't understand?

One theory, the 'idea effort justification' theory, is that the very difficulty of the texts makes any knowledge gleaned from them inherently valuable.  This theory has been written of in Skeptic magazine and can be found online - in fact, it was in this week's eSkeptic, and you should probably read about it there.

The theory is this: the time spent in deciphering a difficult text has to be justified somehow, meaning that an especially impenetrable text will seem especially wise.  As long as the sentences are more or less grammatical and contain words that are individually meaningful, it is easy for the earnest knowledge-seeker to believe that they've found great truth in the text, and, given the obscurity of it and the apparent lack of any real meaning, this truth will probably correspond quite well to what the knowledge-seeker already believes.  Since we like reading things we already agree with, it is easy for this fundamentally irrational process to override any prior scepticism towards the texts and authors.  A similar process probably underlies religious texts and their use.

Since the people introducing students to these texts are often authority figures and gatekeepers, it's not hard to see how they seduce the unaware.  And once the students have used those texts to acquire qualifications and academic positions, there is a yet stronger need for effort justification, as all the hours spent studying those obscure texts have to be rationalised.


When a prepared mind starts reading an impenetrable book by Deleuze, the person is undergoing something akin to a religious experience.  Where a more reasonable approach to the text would show that there is nothing even approaching sense or meaning in any of the sentences, it is hard to dissuade the true believers, just as it is hard to reason religious people away from their beliefs.  This is why Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures, a modest and sensible book about obscurantist abuse of scientific ideas and terminology, was well received by neither the obscurantists themselves nor their true-believing followers, even though its arguments were clearly correct, and even though it definitively showed that a lot of the supposed erudition and nous of French leftist obscurantists was an illusion.

The latest fad in the social sciences is 'ontology', a word that means something completely different to its obscurantist use.  The abusers of the word 'ontology' have stretched it so far as to mean almost nothing, even though its original meaning is very clear.  They use their abused word to cover a variety of obscure positions that are nigh-impossible to make sense of and which have either trivial or absurd interpretations (nothing original or compelling on its own terms is likely to be found in an obscurantist text, of course).   This 'ontology' is just a fad and nothing more - just another trend for students to have to learn despite its uselessness.

The academic job market is highly competitive, and obscurantism is a convenient way of getting ahead without needing to be original or knowledgeable.  It makes sense to me that a student wanting a life in academia would indulge in this stuff even though it makes no real sense to them and even though they can only explain their 'theory', as they so often call it, in the vaguest and most jargon-ridden terms.  But it also makes sense to me to promote facts and knowledge above superficial erudition and literary trickery, and to attempt to find out what is true instead of devising ways to disguise a lack of originality.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Pama-Nyungan Expansion - Bellwood's Account

Peter Bellwood's First Migrants (Wiley-Blackwell 2013), a book on prehistoric migration, has plenty of sections devoted to proposed early- and mid-Holocene language family dispersals, including, of course, Indo-European, Afroasiatic, Austroasiatic, and Austronesian.  But Bellwood also talks about Pama-Nyungan, an indigenous Australian family that I discussed in an earlier post on this site.  Pama-Nyungan is a good example of a language family that spread over a wide area without the help of plant or animal domestication, and so it runs counter to Bellwood's earlier view of language families spreading primarily due to the adoption of agriculture by the protolanguage-speaking population (known as the 'farming/language dispersal hypothesis').  Bellwood gives a good account of the Pama-Nyungan expansion, clear evidence of his disavowal of strong forms of the farming/language dispersal hypothesis since the publication of his First Farmers nearly ten years ago.

File:Macro-Pama-Nyungan languages.png
Distribution of the Pama-Nyungan languages (yellow).  Non-Pama-Nyungan in other colours.  As I say below, it matches the distribution of backed unifacial stone blades.  h/t Wiki.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

I regret studying social anthropology.

I regret studying social anthropology.  It was, on reflection, a waste of my time, money, and abilities.  I learned some very interesting things, but those came almost entirely from books I would have read anyway, and from my tutor, whose apparently unfashionable views about kinship and society - views that are entirely sensible and defensible - did not make it as far as the anthropology exam papers.  I made some good and interesting friends while studying, and doubtless learned something good from them.  But I don't think that quite justifies the time and expense of the thing.

If you're considering studying socio-cultural anthropology, make sure you know what it's about.  Most of my reading before attending Oxford had been about culture history, prehistoric cultural inheritance, kinship, non-state social structure, magic, religion - the stuff anthropology concerned itself with almost in its entirety until about thirty years ago, before such topics were denounced as romantic and conservative.  I thought that the continental garbage side of things was in a minority in anthropology departments, and that the kind of comparative Austronesian ethnology and formal kinship-based social structural analysis that I wanted to do would find a comfy home in the department at Oxford.  This turned out to be the inverse of reality.  No substantive arguments were presented as to why this was the case, or why studying marriage alliance is inherently conservative and backward.  Regardless, such things never came up in exams and were clearly regarded as peripheral to what anthropology now is - hangers on from a former age.

I don't think it had anything to do with Oxford specifically, and more to do with socio-cultural anthropology as a whole.  I regret studying it, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who dislikes obscurantism and sanctimonious anti-scientific pseudo-epistemology.  If I could go back and do it again, I would definitely have taken linguistics instead, where continental philosophy is not dominant, where real problems are solved, where a set of real and powerful methods are taught and employed, and where no one really cares whether or not you call it 'a science'.

I want to emphasise that I am not in any way a political conservative and I don't oppose the social and political aims that have become entrenched parts of anthropology departments.  But I don't think those aims are what anthropology is about, I don't think obscurantist pseudo-philosophy is a good way to achieve them, and I don't think writing obscure academic texts about how humans are now trans-human feminist cyborgs empowers minority groups or the working class, or achieves any worthwhile aim in any sphere of human activity.

UPDATE:  This post has aroused a small amount of attention on reddit, so I thought I'd answer a few of the points raised there.

First, I want to affirm that I am not on the right politically.  Not that that has anything to do with anything.

carlyb24 wrote:
I am quite familiar with a number of cultural anthropologists in the US that are absolutely engaged in trying to solve "real problems" (what ever that is supposed to mean).
I know quite a few anthropologists who are interested in solving interesting problems and as far as I'm aware, they do so quite competently.  But my point is that solving problems is not taught on anthropology courses.  No formal skills are taught on anthropology courses at all; there is no standard method that tells you how to solve particular problems.  I understand that this is because anthropologists think their problems are peculiar and unresolvable, but students are given no real skills at all when they study anthropology, which means that they have few skills to transfer to, say, a job.  Linguists, on the other hand, are given some seriously powerful tools for making sense of language, even while recognising that the phenomena they are studying are enormously complicated and difficult to solve.

It is no wonder anthropology graduates are the least employable of all degree holders given that they learn no real skills in anthropology departments.  And it's not that there are no skills to learn: why not try teaching or studying the methods of historical linguistics, population genetics, and archaeological interpretation?

masungura wrote:
Disciplines change, you can't keep doing the same thing for years and years.
I think you can: physicists are still engaged in solving fundamentally the same problems as Newton, biologists are still engaged in the same pursuit as Darwin and Wallace, and mathematicians are still making sense of the same problems as Euclid.  These disciplines have moved on by making empirical advances (assuming mathematics is empirical, anyway) rather than by turning the discipline away from what it originally did.  I keep hearing that anthropology has moved on, but I have yet to hear a cogent justification for the direction in which it has moved.  All I hear is the genetic fallacy over and over again.  The discipline has changed, it's moved on, it's no longer a tool of the imperialist pigdogs, etc.
To me this article comes off as "I wanted to be a stick in the mud and thought of all the places to do that Oxford would be it but even they won't let me, WOE".
 I thought that Oxford would be a good home for what I wanted to do because I researched the department first.  I saw that there were at least two researchers interested in the same things as me.  I simply didn't realise that they a) were about to retire and b) had no clout within the department, and that my degree would be based on things entirely different to what I wanted to study.  I was accepted on the basis of a personal statement that talked entirely about historical linguistics, prehistory, non-state social structure, cognitive psychology, and other features that I had reason to believe are part of anthropology departments - and which in many cases actually are - but which did not feature in exams and barely featured in course content, except the personalised content provided by my (excellent) tutor.  It's not that I thought Oxford was a backward department, and I was aware that continental philosophy had become the norm in many departments.  It was more that I thought the balance was tipped less in favour of continental thought than it actually proved to be.

I should point out that I had a brilliant tutor.  It's just that my brilliant tutor was of retirement age and was being pushed out of the department by the sanctimonious march of continental thought.


Urizen wrote:

Admittedly, old school anthropology concerned with tribal relations and tribal rituals is boring. Modern cultural anthropology is amazing.
I think this view is based on a kind of chauvinism that treats people in non-state societies as less than people in states and post-industrial societies.  It's not racist, but when you're saying that the lives, rituals, and 'relations' of people in 'tribal' societies are 'boring', you might want to think about why you find their lives dull and yours so interesting and exciting.  But I'm glad someone came out and said it: they prefer anthropology today because it's not concerned with those boring tribals anymore.

Problems in the sociology of non-industrial, non-state societies (e.g., societies with segmentary systems, bridewealth, asymmetric marriage alliance, etc) are very interesting problems, as are the intricacies of human history and prehistory that generated 'tribal rituals' and 'tribal relations', and there is no reason whatsoever to ignore them.  If you find them boring, then a couple of decades ago it would have been feasible to suggest studying something other than anthropology.  Now, even anthropologists don't study them, so people (like me) interested in doing so have nowhere to go.

The fact that anthropologists no longer teach students to understand societies like that has two important consequences.  First, anthropology departments no longer do what anthropology departments once did, which is to make sense of human societies not directly connected to one's own and to understand humans in a wide range of socio-cultural milieux.  Second, if anthropologists aren't studying or teaching these issues anymore, then nobody is studying or teaching these issues anymore.  What that means is that entire areas of human life are no longer considered the purview of the academy, and that happens to include - I don't think it's accidental - people who don't live like us, who don't have any of the same fundamental values as us, who aren't or weren't wholly integrated into neo-liberal systems or the world economy.

And changing culture is how you change the world.
That may be so.  But how did 'changing the world' become the objective of anthropology?  It certainly wasn't even a couple of decades ago.  This is a recent development.  The only thing this 'anthropology' has in common with anthropology before the 1980s is the name.  And I see no reason to completely do away with the basic premise of anthropology before the prescriptive/continental turn, which was a) to understand human societies cross-culturally, including language, thought, prehistory, etc, and b) to make sense of non-state and non-industrial human societies, with sociology's role being to make sense of state, industrial, and post-industrial ones.  Sociology is where you learn to use all kinds of research methods - useful tools that help you to find a good job or solve difficult empirical problems - to make sense of the dominant modes of life on earth today.  Anthropology is the smaller, less culturally-important discipline devoted to those societies that aren't this way.

hammey wrote:
I'm studying medical anthro right now and what I've learned so far seems 100% applicable to the real world

That may be so.  But that isn't what I meant by 'real problems'.  I think mathematicians study real problems - real things in the world that need to be solved because solving them is interesting.  They have tools that they can apply to their problems, and those tools are useful and powerful in a range of different applications, but mostly those tools are useful for solving mathematical problems.

Applying things in the real world isn't always the point.  Anthropologists used to study real problems in making sense of non-state and non-industrial human societies.  They used to apply some good, sensible tools to the analysis of societies unlike our own, as you'll know if you've ever been to a part of the world where, say, patrilineal descent groups are still important features of the social landscape.  This wasn't especially useful, and it has become even less useful in the modern world as these kinds of societies have disappeared.  But being 'useful' was never the point.  Understanding humans in all of their variety and environments was the point. 

archaeofieldtech wrote:
 I think our terminology may be a bit different so someone correct me if I'm wrong. It seems to me that continental philosophy is equivalent to what we in archaeology call Post-Processualism.

Continental philosophy is in fact not the same as post-processualism, although doubtless there was some continental influence on the movement.  'Continental philosophy' is the conventional name for a set of movements in Western philosophy that tend to reject formal logic, scientific epistemology, and the idea that objective knowledge is at all possible.  The alternative is called analytic philosophy, and is commonly associated with Anglo-American philosophers (hence the name 'Continental' to refer to the more French-influenced variety).  In reality, analytic philosophy developed largely due to the efforts of German and Austrian philosophers and mathematicians, and was never an exclusively Anglo-American phenomenon, but those are the terms we use.

Analytic philosophy depends on formal studies and is, in a certain sense, scientific: it depends on making everything explicit and explaining things rationally, using empirical examples and scientific content.  Philosophy in this sense is continuous with science.

Continental philosophers, by contrast, often claim that science is just another 'way of knowing', that it is bound by Western ideas and cultural hegemony, etc.  Continental thought is often vague and obscure; terms are rarely explicitly explained; logical chains of argument are often ignored; logical fallacies are the norm; texts are often deliberately difficult to read; human cultures and societies are often claimed to be 'texts' in some way; and continental thought is continuous with some schools of literary theory and psychoanalysis, as opposed to science.

Analytic philosophy is dominant in philosophy departments throughout most of the world, and continental claims are often made by people in anthropology, literature, and art theory departments.

Post-processualism is a different beast, and while it is clearly influenced by continental thought, it isn't the same as it.  Of course, there needs to be some moderation in archaeological interpretation, and there needs to be some accounting for biases in interpretation introduced by the interpreters' backgrounds, but I don't think modern British Wiccans can help at all when it comes to making sense of Catalhoyuk.  Hodder's use of such people was a ridiculous move, one only a lunatic would conceive of and only a person of unwarranted authority could possibly get away with.

I don't think it's racist to be a post-processualist archaeologist.  I just think it's a bit dumb.

Finally, I want to say that I'm not disillusioned with the academy in general.  I just think that anthropology departments are kind of useless, and I certainly wouldn't recommend studying anthropology to anyone interested in rigour, reason, analytic philosophy, science, or prehistory.  I should also point that I've been given a PhD offer in an excellent art history and archaeology department to do exactly what I want to do, and that I don't bear a grudge against any department or individual, as my life really isn't so bad.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Ancient Egypt - Cultural Continuity

'Ancient Egypt' is a term everyone is familiar with, but no one is really familiar with what it actually means.  In the popular imagination, it includes mummies, pyramids, Cleopatra, and Tutankhamun, with a characteristically colourful style of iconography and painting, often found on walls consisting of enormous blocks of light sandstone.  The writing was in hieroglyphs - exotic but crude.  They thought cats were sacred.  If you image search 'ancient Egypt', Google even provides the images divided up into category - mummies, pyramids, maps, hieroglyphics, pharaohs.

But 'ancient Egypt' is a term that serves to cover three millennia of time.  Here's a startling reminder of the extreme longevity of this civilization, if that's what you can call it: you are closer in time to Cleopatra (died 30 BCE) than Cleopatra was to the builders of the Pyramid of Khufu (completed 2560 BCE).  Tutankhamun was about midway between the two, living as he did in the fourteenth century BCE.  You are closer in time to the Visigothic kings of Spain than Tutankhamun was to Khufu.  (John Green makes a similar point in his fun, and actually rather good, 'Crash Course: World History' episode on Ancient Egypt.)

Egypt is impossibly ancient, the kind of age that puts other human societies into stunning perspective.  It wasn't a period, or a sort of civilized prelude to Greeks and Romans, but possibly the longest-lived literate civilization on earth, ever.  The competition comes from Mesopotamia, but there are fewer examples of such extreme sameness over such long durations.  Egypt wasn't politically unified for the entire time - see, for instance, this map of political divisions in the Third Intermediate Period - but the reason ancient Egypt seems like one place, in which Cleopatra shared a two-dimensional walking dance with Khufu, is because some things stayed nearly the same over three thousand years.

File:NarmerPalette ROM-gamma.jpg
The Narmer Palette.  This is from 5100 years ago.  5100.  h/t Wiki.

Of course, there were changes in ancient Egypt.  Khufu's pyramid was built with huge blocks of stone transported over rivers and up ramps by teams of workers, and it is true that this style continued in use for some time.  Monumental architecture is characteristic of public sites in early Egypt.  But by the time of Akhenaten, around 1350 BCE, workers used much smaller blocks, ones that could be carried by a single man.  These are conventionally referred to as talatat, after the Egyptian Arabic word for 'three', referring to the three-handspan length of each block (about a cubit, or 45 centimetres).  Akhenaten also imposed changes in iconography related to his belief in the Aten, but these were not long-lived.  Akhenaten's Egypt would doubtless have seemed strange and foreign to Khufu, had he seen it.
File:Small aten temple.jpg
The Small Aten Temple at Akhetaten, aka Amarna.  Built using talatat.  h/t Wiki, User: Markh.

But hieroglyphs were in use for a very long time, well into the (Greek) Ptolemaic period (began 332 BCE) and beyond.  Hieroglyphs are very flexible and use a large number of signs of different kinds.  Some represent sounds, whether single phonemes (like /f/, represented by a horned viper, I9) or standard combinations of two sounds (like 'mt', for which read /met/, represented by a stylised phallus, D52).  Some are what are now called 'determinatives' - little pictures added on to the phonetic hieroglyphs to give a clue as to the meaning, as vowels were not written in hieroglyphic scripts.

Due to their flexibility, hieroglyphs were used to write several variants of the Egyptian language, including Archaic (in the earliest inscriptions), Old (roughly the time of the Old Kingdom), and Middle (the 'classical' language of Egypt until the Roman conquest, in which most of the great Egyptian literary works were composed).  The language changed, as spoken languages always do, but the hieroglyphs remained basically the same.  In addition to hieroglyphs were the hieratic script, which dates from approximately the same time as hieroglyphs and uses stylised versions of hieroglyphic characters; and the Demotic script, used to write a later form of Egyptian from c.650 BCE.  At which point, I hasten to add, Egypt had been using hieroglyphs, largely unchanged, for about two-and-a-half thousand years - nearly the time from the beginning of Demotic up to now.  The Greek and Roman alphabets are only just beginning to approach that age.
File:Prisse papyrus.svg
Hieratic script.  Image in the public domain, but see Wiki.
It is rare for histories of human societies to produce dates that rival geological or cosmological time in their ability to make you reconsider your place, and the place of everyone else, in the universe.  And Egypt's longevity may not make you think the kind of thoughts that the age of the universe makes you think.  But it certainly makes it hard to indulge in the belief that one's own society is primordial and ancient when that society pales in age next to the traditions established by the people of the Old Kingdom.

Egypt is perhaps the only literate place on the planet where there is such obvious cultural continuity, where even the written record attests to the incomparable age of the lifestyles found there.  But it's relatively easy to find continuities of a sort in prehistory.  At Cuddie Springs, an archaeological site in New South Wales, Australia, archaeologists have discovered remains of Pleistocene megafauna in human-associated contexts for a period of over seven thousand years beginning about forty thousand years ago.  These now-extinct megafauna included Genyornis and Diprotodon, a gigantic flightless bird and a three-metre-long giant wombat respectively.  For seven thousand years, humans lived alongside these creatures in that part of Australia.  They woke up every day for seven thousand years with the prospect of seeing, and perhaps killing, an enormous wombat.
File:Genyornis BW.jpg
Genyornis - a companion and prey of Australian communities for a period longer than the presence of farming in western Europe.  h/t Wiki, User: Nobu Tamura

All of which is just to remind you that the universe is vast, ancient, and inscrutable, and that everything you take for granted and think of as normal and essential to life is dust in the wind.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Some Hittite Legal Cases

In the thirteenth century BCE, the town of Emar, in what is now Syria, was governed by the Hittite empire via the king of the city of Carchemish.  The empire was centred on Hattusa, a fortified city in central Anatolia, modern day Turkey, and was ruled by a king with the help of a large administration and codified laws.  The Hittites spoke an Indo-European language, but they were strongly influenced by the local non-Indo-European-speaking Hattians in almost every respect; the name 'Hittite' is an Anglicised version of the Hebrew word for Hatti, the word the Hittites used for their kingdom, which came from the Hattians.  They were people of diverse origins and they governed in the same way: a key principle of Hittite governance was the use, wherever possible, of established local law and convention, such that the Syrian cities' laws were not overturned by the imposition of law from Hattusa.
File:Map Hittite rule en.svg
The Hittite empire, Hatti, at its greatest extent.  Emar is the city on the Euphrates southeast of Aleppo.  h/t Wiki, User: Ikonact.