Thursday, 8 November 2012

Am I a Neo-colonialist too?

I am not quite sure what to make of this: Elena Corbett, 'Outrage and the Plight of Cultural Heritage: an Outsider’s Perspective', the ASOR Blog October 22, 2012. Dr. Elena Corbett is the Resident Director of the Amman Study Center of the CIEE (Council for International Educational Exchange). In this polemic, she seems to consider it a great discovery that "we are political creatures, engaged — as are all producers of knowledge, archaeologists included— in what are ultimately political acts". The events surrounding the Second World War showed archaeologists that, if nothing else. This is the context for her reflections. She starts off in a familiar place:
It’s safe to assume that any one of us who finds ourselves on this site —reading, blogging, responding— is a person with visceral feelings about damage to heritage. The callous, irreparable, human-made variety cuts us sincerely, deeply, and outrages us in ways we have trouble articulating. At what or whom do you target your anger? [...] Uproar over looting, anger over purposeful damage and defacement to antiquities, allegations of corruption, warnings about the sale of antiquities for funding terrorism, and perceptions of inability or unwillingness to care for Middle Eastern antiquities echo far and wide [...].
 She sees "uncomfortable discursive parallels between our time and that of a century ago".

Your predecessors, the (mostly) white (mostly) grandfathers of your fields, both blatant and unwitting agents of colonialism among them, used similar vocabulary to talk about the threats to the objects of their efforts, just as they used science to create historicity out of antiquity for modern geopolitical aims, militarizing their projects when they thought necessary, legalizing their looting activities, justifying themselves the real heirs to what they carried away to national museums in imperial capitals. [...] the rhetoric we’ve heard in recent years—about Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and so many other places—the need to protect this or that as the heritage of all man/humankind, of stepping forward to take one for the team and bear that responsibility, while perhaps sincere enough, is the modern corollary to the same kind of imperialist-speak that, in any other venue, we just wouldn’t accept anymore.
Dr Corbett sees the roots of looting and the market as "still embedded in basic capitalism" but somehow considers the commonly applied "foreign market drives archaeological looting" model an "insidious" one, and a "sloppy" response. She remonstrates that it is "the equivalent of sighing and throwing up our hands because there’s nothing we can really do about it so we don’t have to think too hard". Eh? Surely the whole point of that argument is that according to precisely this model, there is indeed something we can do to help curb this problem, irrespective of whether all archaeolohgical sites are guarded 24/7 and there is full and gainful emnployment for every citizen of the source country. That something is to bring influence/pressure to bear on as many elements of as many manifestations of these markets as possible to reduce the demand for illicitly-obtained items. That is the "basic capitalist" approach.

 I think there is some confusion in the writer's mind here over what constitutes the market for illicit antiquities. The basic problem we are talking about is people (it does not matter who) are digging holes in archaeological sites for collectable and saleable artefacts [it is that which produces the illicit antiquities]. According to Corbett, however, the second flaw in the argument that "the market drives looting" is that:
[...] it reproduces a simplistic power narrative that gives all the agency to the market and its institutions while denying it to the actors in the supply chain of “looting”—the “looters,” the middle men, the people who move the “loot.”

The problem is where she draws the line between the looter and the market. Surely the "middlemen, the people who move the loot" are indeed one of the agents (indeed the primary agents) of the market. From what she writes, Dr Corbett seems to regard 'middlemen' as among the 'looters', which would lead us to the conclusion that she would only consider something as being 'on the market' only when it gets into a New York dealer's showroom, rather than when it is moving no-questions-asked through various laundering hands to get there . The latter is what I, and I assume the rest of us, consider 'the market' - the one we want cleaned up. It's no use just trying to deal with the flashy displays alone, to cut off the trade in illicit items, surely we have to follow the process right back, and aross international borders.
Finally, this widespread narrative in which poor people “loot” because they are poor denies agency to the other reasons why people “loot.”  [...] It has likewise been demonstrated that people “loot” as a past time (sic): it’s something they do with family and friends, and it provides not necessarily income, but building materials, interesting things for the home, and means of social interaction.
Nice to see UK and US metal detectorists mentioned there. But then - since she is willing to speak of this kind of activity in the same breath as the artefact-miners of the Middle East, how does that sit with her earlier statement that concern about damage done to sites by these means is in some way "colonialist"? I live in Poland and write about artefact hunting and collecting in other countries, am I being "colonialist" when I express concern over what happens in Egypt, Syria and Mali, but not when its Islip, Surrey and Margate? Why?

But I would like to know where Dr Corbett sees these "archaeologists" espousing a "White Man to the Rescue ethos". Apart that is from the remarks of people like Dr Parzinger. Are not the people she labels archaeologists in fact on the whole (US) museum curators? An entirely different category when we look at the American manifestation of the species. Certainly some of them have a marked neo-Colonialist approach to the heritage of others, differing in no way from the attitudes of many individuals in the antiquities trade and collecting world. We are left wondering about just how many post-processual archaeologists Dr Corbett has been talking to.

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