Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Archaeologies of Precarity

Archaeology has taken me to both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict in the Middle East: the summer before last I was excavating a late Roman fort in Jordan south of the Dead Sea, while this past summer I was working on an excavation in Tiberias/Τιβεριάς/טְבֶרְיָה/طبرية‎. The surplus of names and the site’s archaeological importance both stem from the fact that the city has been continuously inhabited since it was founded in 20 C.E, under Roman/Byzantine rule until the Rashidun conquest in the mid-seventh century, under the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Fatimids until the First Crusade, as the capital of the Principality of Galilee in the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem from the late-11th through the early-13th century, through centuries of Mamluk and Ottoman rule, and the comparatively short periods of the British Mandate and the state of Israel. Its location in northeastern Israel at the edge of the Golan Heights is a precarious one — the city was bombarded from the Golan Heights while the plateau was still in the possession of Syria, and as recently as 2006 Hezbollah fired rockets that hit the city and injured dozens of residents. On the drives through the Israeli controlled Palestinian territory between Tiberias and Jerusalem this summer, I could not have foreseen our current preoccupation with occupations, and I’m ambivalent about the excitement surrounding the term.

Much of Butler’s recent work on ethics is about learning to unsee the imagined boundaries that structure the world, and upon which injustices are frequently founded, whether they’re geographic, economic, cultural, or some combination of all of these and more. The ways in which these imaginary boundaries are reified in maps, peace talks, acts of violence, and the movements of militarized bodies naturalizes them, and I think it’s important to have Butler and critical thinkers like her poking us every so often to remind us that these are contingent, and to inspire us to imagine other ways, perhaps more ethical ways, of negotiating them. An archaeological or longue-durée approach to history has a similarly de-naturalizing effect: when you’re digging through layers of habitation, there’s no convenient sign to let you know when you’ve reached the layer of sand upon which a crusader fought and died, nothing to distinguish it from the layer of sand a few inches or feet below on which a mosque, church, or temple was constructed except for the garbage left behind. The more we know about the past, the more distance we have to step back from the present and consider alternatives.

It’s both tempting and frustrating to look to history for other ways of struggling against the precarity that founds institutions “too big to fail,” but the kinds of documents and objects that can hint at the precarious lives of the past are few and far between–in the scope of archaeological time, all but the most privileged lives look precarious. Although there were undoubtedly lived differences in historical experiences of precarity, the bodies that suffered and those that benefited are all so much dust today. While history can give us the critical distance to consider alternatives to current ways of being, its scale can also overwhelm the all-too-meager sense of hope upon which activism depends. We’re finding new ways to combat this. It’s difficult, for instance, to imagine a late-19th century archaeologist directing something called the Roman Peasant Project, but it’s also important to remember that the very conditions (economic, political, and cultural) under which archaeology is permitted to illuminate the marginal lives of the past are contingent.

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