Monday, July 14, 2008

Guest Post: The alien takeover

A guest post from the excellent anarcho-archaeologist Moll of Hanging Around on the Wrong Side of the World who's fresh from writing an excellent post on racism in Bolivia. Here she discusses the interaction between popular culture, scientific disciplines and politics.

Let me start by saying that I absolutely loved the new Indiana Jones movie. I saw it with a motley bunch of archaeology friends, and we all agreed it was one of the most entertaining movies we had seen in a long time. Behind the fun, however, the archaeological community tends to get its knickers in a bit of a twist whenever a movie like this is made.

The election of Harrison Ford to the board of the Archaeological Institute of America has got the anthropologist bloggers buzzing, while the usual nay-sayers across the academic community are bitching once again about the inappropriate portrayal of the discipline and the terrible damage its going to do to the public's already misguided perception of the past. The only archaeologist who regularly and passionately comes out in defence of poor Indie and his pop-culture friends is the wonderful Cornelius Holtorf, who argues that in an era when science and scientists are generally losing their sense of authority in the public image, archaeologists should embrace the fact that they and their discipline have such consistently enthusiastic press.

The thing that is perhaps most upsetting to the archaeologists about the latest movie, though, is not that it gives an unrealistic impression of the romantic appeal and athletic ability of most ageing archaeology professors, but the alien factor. I'd read in an interview a few weeks before that Spielburg had purposely modelled the series on the pulp fiction of the era they were set in. In this context, the aliens and commies plot line makes a lot of sense, echoing as it does the comic books of the time. But while I agree with Cornelius Holtorf that Indie is not going to bring about the end of common sense as we know it (whatever that may be), the revival of an interest in the aliens and archaeology is one that is disconcerting for more important reasons than some hallowed concept of academic integrity.

Unlike my archaeologist colleagues I'm not too concerned about the inaccurate way archaeology and archaeologists are portrayed in popular culture. I'm not going to be proposing that anyone who wants to watch an episode of Time Team should be forced to read 20 years of back issues of the journal American Antiquity first (I can barely make it through one issue myself, and I'm meant to be studying this stuff). But the consistent belief that aliens are responsible for the civilisations of the past is grounded in a concept of history and of difference that I find particularly disturbing.

We are, apparently, living in a post-modern world. Gone are the old certainties of Modernity - apparently we no longer believe in either Progress, Grand Narratives or Tradition. Or do we? Modernity was meant to be all about the belief that "Civilisation" was inexorably marching on, and that all of history could be seen as a continual, unbroken line from A to B.

In such a view human society has always been in a state of progress - we started as barely sociable animals and we are always advancing towards something better. Better, of course, equalled 'like us', and all those other people that the various waves of crusading, conquering and colonising Europeans encountered were cast as relics of a soon to be gone primitive past - and therefore easily killed, enslaved and otherwise treated as less than fully human. In such a view the past is always inferior to the present, just as anything different to the European is always automatically inferior.

The only problem is, that there is plenty of evidence that plenty of places and times in the past weren't that unsophisticated after all. This is where all the talk of mysteries comes in, when people who can't believe that anyone who lived at any other point in time before them (or, god forbid, in a part of the world other than Europe) were capable of doing something as simple as putting one stone on top of another and building a pyramid. And hence we get the idea of aliens.

The only explanation for the societies of the past is that life forms even more advanced than us modern Europeans built them instead. As unlikely as it is that aliens exist, its considered more improbably that people who were some colour other than white were able to live complex, intelligent and organised lives. "Primitive people being able to think rationally and organise themselves into a society? Nonsense! If there weren't any Europeans around to teach 'em how to live properly, it must have been aliens."

The Italian social historian Alessandro Portelli writes that the things that people believe about the past are as much social facts as the actual 'facts' of what happened.

In one of his most detailed and poignant examples he seeks to understand why the slaughter of 335 prisoners by the Nazis in Rome during the war has been consistently blamed on the failure of a group of resistance fighters to come forward after killing 13 German soldiers in an ambush. Although there is abundant historical evidence that there was nothing the resistance fighters could have done to prevent the mass murder, the 'social fact' is that generations of Italians remember the events differently, and act accordingly. Subsequent political movements from the moment of the event up to the present day have been shaped by the way people 'remember' this single act.

Portelli's example demonstrates something we should always bare in mind when thinking about the past: that the 'facts' of the past become secondary to the social facts. In other words, what happens in the past is not as important as what people think happened, and how this shapes what they do and think next.

Its a small step from thinking ancient non-Europeans were not capable of complex society and rational thought, to thinking that contemporary non-Europeans aren't capable of it either. Such thinking holds as its core the idea that anything different from 'us', must be inferior. What happened in the past - whether the pyramids were built by aliens or by people - is one matter, but the far more important issue is why people believe one or the other in the present, and the impact this has on the way they think about the different capabilities of contemporary people.

So although I loved the movie, there is reason to be worry if Indie brings about another alien invasion of the past.

1 comment:

bob said...

Good to see the mention of Allessandro Portelli, as I am a big fan of his.