Flat Ontologies or a Disney Approach? Debating Non-Human ‘Agency’

Flat Ontologies or a Disney Approach? Debating Non-Human ‘Agency’

Manuel Fernández-Götz (University of Edinburgh, M.Fernandez-Gotz@ed.ac.uk)

Andrew Gardner (University College London, andrew.gardner@ucl.ac.uk)

Guillermo Díaz de Liaño (University of Edinburgh, guillermodiazliano@gmail.com)

In recent years, there has been widespread interest among theoretical archaeologists in what has been labelled as a ‘material’ or ‘ontological’ turn, whose aim is to recognise the importance that material and other non-human entities have in human societies. This has crystallised in multiple approaches, such as Symmetrical Archaeology, Material Engagement Theory or Entanglement Theory, but also has points of similarity with the memetic approach in Darwinian archaeology. Despite these approaches deriving from very different backgrounds, their interest in exploring the capacity that things have to affect the world sooner or later implies the need to address whether things and non-humans have agency. But the concept of agency is difficult in itself, as it has a long history of being an exclusively and distinctively human attribute. Moreover, and despite recent attempts to separate agency and intentionality, both terms seem to be bounded in the minds of most archaeologists, some of whom propose that, in order to study the impact that non-human and material entities have in the world, another term should be coined.

This session invites critical contributions to these debates, focusing particularly in the following:

  • To what extent is it productive to grant ‘agency’ to non-human and material entities?
  • If both humans and things have agency, is it necessary to differentiate between different types of agency, à la Gell?
  • Is it possible to avoid anthropocentrism when speaking about the agency of things? Is anthropomorphism a valid alternative, as Material Engagement Theory has suggested?
  • To what extent is our notion of agency based on our contemporary, post-industrial and individualised identity, facilitated as this is by high technology?
  • How can we adopt flat ontologies without risking archaeology’s capacity for social and ideological critique?
  • What are the political consequences of creating an equivalence between people and things?

Keywords: agency, identity, ontologies, posthumanism



Debating Flat Ontologies – Introduction to the Session

Manuel Fernández-Götz, Andrew Gardner and Guillermo Díaz de Liaño


The Predicament of Ontology

Robert W. Preucel (Brown University robert_preucel@brown.edu)

In the last ten years or so, the social sciences have seemingly become enamored of ontology.  Everywhere we look there are scholars advocating for “assemblages,” “vibrant matter,” “perspectivism,” and “object oriented ontology.” Although distinctive, these approaches share an interest in animating things and together are often cited as signs of an “ontological turn.” Not surprisingly, archaeologists have taken notice of this new-found fascination with things and are engaging in the ontological debates on our own terms. One can distinguish three main approaches- entanglement theory, symmetrical archaeology, and relational archaeologies. In my presentation, I examine the nature of the “ontological turn” and offer a critical ethnography of its use in archaeology.


Crafting ‘Agency’: An Inquiry into the Thing-Human Imbroglio through Ancient Crafts

Alicia Núñez-García (Edinburgh University, A.Nunez-Garcia@sms.ed.ac.uk)

Olsen has illustrated the symmetrical understanding of the world through the assemblage of traditional Innuit hunter, their kayak and hunting gear. However, most of these things are human-made, but the agency processes behind their creation are never discussed. It is argued that an analysis of the interactions between human and things (resources, tools and finished product) during the crafting process could provide a more complex illustration of the thing-human imbroglio, and the agencies of each. It could also present a dynamic human that might help soften the de-centering of the human agent, a well-known criticism towards symmetrical theory.


From the Bronze Age to Bambi: Animal and Material Agencies in Processes of Conceptualisation through Illustration

Kevin A. Chew (University of Cambridge) and Joanna M. Lawrence (University of Cambridge, jml99@cam.ac.uk)

Animals have populated human narratives for millennia.  It remains unclear whether prehistoric animal characters were passive objects or anthropomorphised subjects, either within narratives or in human perceptions.  However, through two case studies, the first on Bronze Age Scandinavian Southern Tradition rock art and the second on Disney animated features such as such as Bambi, we argue that animals do indirectly exert an influence upon their representation in human visual media through their interactions with illustrators. Furthermore, in both stone and film, the medium possesses agency in this process in demanding a critical engagement with the idea of the animal, complementing the agency that arises as the animal contests the terms of its representation. To conclude, we consider how non-humans demonstrate the capacity to act beyond an anthropomorphic understanding of agency, and explore implications for the nature of agency in relation and contrast to intentionality, classification, and anthropocentric ontology.


The Bottle Tried to get me Drunk! Biologistic Reductivism, from Memes to Object Agency

Timothy Taylor (University of Vienna, timothy.taylor@univie.ac.at)

Biology and culture have often been mixed up in archaeology (unsurprisingly given the long-term, evolutionary perspective). This paper argues that the reductivist mis-step of mimetics, which aimed to seamlessly extend the concept of Darwinian selection from biology to technology by sleight-of-hand, has encouraged a climate of philosophical and (related) terminological confusion.

Meme ‘theory’ (memetics) postulates that ‘units of culture’ operate in a similar way to genes, even though the former are bound up with intentionality and the latter axiomatically have no aims or intentions (their ‘selfishness, sensu Dawkins, being metaphorical). Object agency theory seems to have responded to such reductivism by according intentionality to inanimate artefactual objects. This seems to be a case where Lichtenberg’s provocative rhetorical aphorism, ‘To do the opposite: is that not also an imitation?’ might well apply.

Alternatives to both memetics and object agency do exist, and might be developed: in The Artificial Ape I proposed that humans might be seen as having the status of bio-tech symbionts who create an arena where intentional action arises jointly from neurons, muscles, and information- and material- technology (consider the totality of a Bronze Age drinking symposium). This is not symmetrical, as there are no reflecting ‘sides’. The traditional distinctions (between internal and external, substance and appearance) mislead us as to the nature of the phenomena, so we need to spring-clean our terminology and, with it, our logic.


The Body in the Cave: Agency and Temporality in Neolithic Cave Burials

Rick Peterson (University of Central Lancashire, RPeterson@uclan.ac.uk)

The connections between living people, dead bodies, artefacts and landscapes are all central to the ‘post-humanist’ turn within archaeology. In a recent study of cave burials from the British Neolithic I have suggested that rather than be concerned about whether places and dead bodies have ‘agency’ it is more helpful to study the ways in which they may have been perceived to act. If we think of all these kinds of things as acting, regarding them as equally important parts of any network, then it follows that we can also consider them all as participants. Therefore, caves, artefacts, living and dead bodies are all able to constitute temporality. The material indices of the passage of time are the place where the recursive nature of structure and agency exists. The places, objects and bodies within any network are the embodied and material narratives within which caves, bodies, people and things are constituted.


A Matter of Life and Death: Augmenting the ‘Biographies’ of Objects

Helen Chittock (Project Officer, AOC Archaeology Group, helenchittock@gmail.com)

Archaeologists often employ human metaphors as tools for understanding objects. One of the most influential uses of such a metaphor in the context of archaeological theory has been that of ‘object biographies’ (e.g. Gosden and Marshall 1999, Joy 2009). Although it has been harnessed in varied ways, at its heart is the idea that objects can accrue biographies as they move through time and space, forming mutual relationships with people. Recent years, however, have seen the examination of the limitations of object biographies, rooted in post-humanist archaeologies, questioning the degree to which anthropomorphic biographies are able to capture the complex ontologies of objects. This paper derives from a discussion that took place at TAG 2017, regarding ways of building on or moving on from object biographies. It continues to pursue this discussion, suggesting that a raft of linked approaches could be most useful. A case study from Iron Age Britain will be used to suggest that an assemblage-based approach might form a useful addition to recent approaches. After all, “no one theory will ever be adequate to understand all circumstances” (Gosden and Marshall 1999, 172).


From Agency and Intention to Agencement and Affect

Oliver Harris (University of Leicester, ojth1@leicester.ac.uk)

In this paper I want to reflect on why, in my own work, I largely no longer find agency – whether in its human or object varieties – a particularly useful concept. In contrast to the session abstract, which posits a return to debates around the nature of agency, I suggest that an approach rooted in a notion of affect, taken from Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, combined with the related ideas of agencement or assemblage, allow for a more fruitful understanding of the past. Furthermore, such an approach has the potential to facilitate the emergence from archaeology of a far more radical form of immanent political critique.


Taking the Wrong Turn? Re-examining the Potential for Practice Approaches in Archaeology

Andrew Gardner (UCL Institute of Archaeology, andrew.gardner@ucl.ac.uk)

Is the ‘material’ or ‘ontological’ turn a major new paradigm in archaeological theory? Or is it another iteration of the cycle of piecemeal innovation which has created a very fragmented discipline? While there are insights from recent scholarship in this vein which are certainly important, this paper will err toward the latter view. Even though ‘symmetrical’ and other object-agency approaches are still growing in mainstream archaeological debate, much of the source literature upon which they draw has been around for 20+ years, and accumulated a fair amount of critique. At the very least, therefore, we need to learn from the way the materiality debate is playing out in other sub-fields. Beyond that, I will argue, we should go back to the turn before this one – the practice turn – and explore that road a bit more thoroughly, if we are to find the most useful approaches to develop in the future.



Artur Ribeiro (University of Kiel, aribeiro@gshdl.uni-kiel.de)