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My very rough notes from a book I am reading for an independent study

February 11, 2010

Note that they are written to facilitate discussion and does not constitute a review of the book. They are not quite even as the first three chapters were written for a discussion last week and the next 7 chapters for this coming Friday.

Btw, if you’ve ever read the reviews on and also news stories about this book (though it’s albeit old, sometime in the early part of this century and the end of last), it’s courted controversy to such an extend that she was nearly denied tenure. There’s a New Yorker article about her case, if you care to try to find it in the archives.

Talk about the politics of academy and the oppression of the public sphere. Her work is not perfect, but it is pretty good in terms of a number of arguments it made, despite certain shortcomings that no proper human can run away from. However, her critics and detractors are taught the art of selective critique (which means pick up points that make your blood boil, regardless of the context in which it is stated, and the eviscerate the text). And her critics are educated people, a number of them (though from some of the troll-like behavior you witness on the Internet, you may not think so). That goes to show that even if you have a degree from an Ivy League and is part of the intelligentsia, your arrogance may make you think you’re too smart to learn from reading anything that disagrees with you (or that does not speak your particular language or fit within your area of comfort). That sounds like a lot of people I know. And another thing is, academics can be nasty and be of questionable intellect (that too I’ve come across).

Check out the wikipedia entry to get a dirty redux.

Nadia Abu Al-Haj’s “Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society”

First three chapters
The first chapter of the book outlines Nadia Abu El-Haj’s appropriation of science studies, the methods in the sociological studies of science, to construct “archeology as n institution, realized and practiced at the nexus of multiple social and political fields” (2) Nadia argues that archeological practice becomes the generator of epistemology (not unlike Marx’s argument that material discursive practices are the inspiration for ideation) that finally led to particular construction of identity, nation, homeland and cultural rights.
She does a political historiography that links the movement of Zionism to a rise in colonial-settler politics, from the time that the British promised the land of Palestine to the Jews. She argues that there is a strong move to “efface Zionism’s colonial dimensions, at least from the perspective of those building and supporting the Jewish state” (5) She goes on to state that

The work of archaeology in Palestine/Israel is a cardinal institutional location of the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood, producing facts through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects and historicities “happen” (6)
She has decided that she would do an intellectual history of how archaeological practices came to shape the epistemic practices of Israel that would later contribute to the material-culture of their national and ethnic consciousness. These epistemic practices are what she attributes to being also a form of scientific practice with institutional and political interventions.

Nadia also points to the importance of understanding the constitution of facts (later in chapter 3, she would argue how a sort of “consciousness” were programmed into the minds of the citizenry to persuade them of the value of the “potsherds” and objects of antiquity which they may uncover in their own backyard or in the land they till. For her, archeological practices cannot be divorced from social ideologies that come into play in the interpretation of the artifacts and the reconstitution of historicity; in other words, objects of archeology are easily manipulated to create a particular picture, especially when the reconstruction of excavated pieces do not necessarily construct an unambiguous possibility.

I am curious as to the notion of how she defines archaeology as the study of “unique and unduplicable human acts (15)”. This seems to contradict the view that archaeology is about a scientific reconstruction of the past through shards of material-culture available. I would be interested to interrogate the meaning of this “affinity between archeology’s epistemological and methodological commitments” and what it means by the cultural-politics of this Jewish colonial state (16). Beyond the Jewish framework, I am interested in understanding how archeology can construct and also erase other geographies and the act of interpretation, appropriation and arguments that led to the reification of particular political identities. I am also interested in exploring, via Nadia, the discourse of archaeology with the durability of national beliefs; how collective memory, with some help from archeology, seems to constitute a past based on present’s back-engineering, such as how to render visible the land as Jewish. How are archeological objects found and made within a public domain?

In the second chapter of the book, Nadia continues on with the perception of scientific underpinnings in archeology, this time detailing the involvement of the British, as colonizers, in the cartographical construction of the Palestinian lands, which include actually physical remappings. She brings in colonial science, a science driven by the motive of imperialistic motivations. In the process of creating this cartography, the British and other European explorers were also engaged in natural and political descriptions of other lands. I would certainly like to go beyond the historical narration of remapping, reconstitution of maps and extrapolation of former maps into new maps to understanding the contingencies of such mapping processes and its implication on the revisioning and interpretation of knowledge objects distributed across these boundaries. As Nadia herself invokes the promotion of particular disciplinary practices, I too am interested in understanding how the institutionalizing of disciplinary practices play a role in shaping our discursivity when dealing with particular knowledge objects. How do we determine the value of the object, what comes into play in setting the value in the first place? Work was funded by Europeans to ‘restore’ biblical stories through the identification of their sites of actions. It is also interesting that in colonial science, Nadia notes how science turns to indigenous knowledge and native traditions to enter the past. I would like to explore further what it means by this form of indigenous knowledges’ tension, contribution and relationality to ‘scientific knowledge.’ Just as some questions the veracity of the Bible, some may be questioning the purpose reliability of witness accounts in aiding the reconstruction. How does one deal with the question of the indigenous and its implication on archeological excavations? How can archeology prove the veracity of the Bible if its methodology and knowledge tools are based on pre-supposed assumptions that the Bible is true?

Another interesting question raised in this chapter is that of race memory, which is highly pertinent to claims as highly disputed and subject to continuous tensions and contentions such as Israel-Palestine, and even in other lands that have undergone centuries of invasion, settlement, inter-marriages, genocides and immigration. The process of trying to excavate the history of race and religions is aptly described by Nadia as the excavation of both the conscious and unconscious, where the “boundaries of belonging and racial difference begin to be construed anew. (38)”

Then there is this very notion of the antiquities. How does an object of antiquity, or a collection of objects of antiquities, serve to demarcate historical? Or serve as a differentiation between objects of historical importance? How does one then read into the spatial meaning of these objects, and how does on about contextualizing them?

In Chapter 3, Nadia goes into an explication of how archeology became construed as the Israeli national past-time and hobby, by trying to demonstrate how those concerned about the fate of artifacts and relics around the land join forces with national politics to generate interest and understanding of the importance of these pieces of history for constructing the legitimacy of particular peoples, especially for many of the new Jewish migrants into the state, though the Arab cultures are not to be neglected, even if not as highly publicized and impressed upon as the fate of Jewish antiquities. It is interesting to read more in later chapters, the role that various organizations involved in archeological digs in influencing the epistemic formations and the intellectual culture of the public. Also, it is interesting from this chapter how the government has appropriated the discourse of preservation and upkeep to appropriate and delineate the boundaries and values of land around sites of considered importance, and the consciousness relating to the legislation that sprung up to regulate such sites as well as the artifacts that are found in such sites. Also, there is a reference to book culture (which I’ve also heard about elsewhere) that seems to be participant to the entire archeological history of Israel-Palestine that I would like to explore further, especially to understand how the excavation of such ancient (or more recent tomes) would influence the perception and exploration of the intellectual history of the people who had lived in such lands. I suppose at a later date one can bring in the discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the other lost books of the people. Nadia also renders problematic the discourse on antiquities considered as being part of the national culture. What else comes into play in capturing the imagination of the public beyond the role of archeologists who seek to attribute social value and importance to their artifacts of inquiry? It would be fruitful to examine more closely what are these “objects of knowledge” that were repeated many times throughout the chapter.

I have read chapters 4 – 10 of Facts in the Ground and it is from these chapters on that Nadia begins to layout the theory in practice of archaeology while also bringing in her own cultural theory in political theory and nationhood to bear, even as archaeology as a would-be-science negotiates the treacherous terrain of settler-nationhood, claims of ascendancy and in Nadia’s on words
Archaeology remains salient in this world of ongoing contestation. It is a sign of colonial presence and national rights, of secularism and science, as various groups in Palestine and Israel engage in struggles to (re)configure the Israeli state and polity and to determine its territorial limits. (281)

Chapter 4 is where Nadia goes into an explication of the topography of archaeological politics in Israel, where she talks about certain major (and perhaps controversial) excavation projects done with the intention of matching the artifacts and material-culture unearthed with the origin story of the people. On page 74, she refers the process of excavation as an “effort of (arfi)fact collecting configured a distinctive form of settler-colonial space.” She talks about fact-collecting as a form of colonization and the tracing of the remaking of the space (and since this is a chapter about the reconnaissance of material-history in the settler-hood of Jews in the Palestinian land) within the ‘recent’ Israeli terrain. Much of the chapter is dedicated to how the artifacts discovered are then used to support and reify existing discourse, particularly the myth of origins, and how problematic the correlation between textual ‘facts’ and material-culture ‘facts’ (how does one know that this event takes place in one particular time and that the events did not take place within decades of each other, particularly in civilizations that no longer leave any unexcavated traces. Nadia points to that but then again, would such a question even be important within a larger picture story? To really understand how her archaeological description would have further bearings on her larger story of nation-making, perhaps I would need a better understanding of archaeological methods. I am curious with this phrase on pg 82 “ While archaeological expertise and practice were increasingly confined with reference to the excavation of material remainders, the work of Jewish archaeology in Palestine was still far more diffuse. It integrated bodies of knowledge produced by what we would consider today as objects of study of distinct disciplines….”she goes on to provide a list from geography to cartography…but interesting is how they coalesce into “instantiations of Jewish presence…and integrate a Jewish national terrain.” And then, there is a process of renaming, which is one marker of a colonial/postcolonial/settler identity (we have a lot of that in colonial to postcolonial states) and the choice of name dictated by linguistic significance and ethnic/national identity/. I suppose this would be a good time to talk about the shared history of Arabic with Hebrew and how these two languages grew in tandem. I am curious as to the British Mandate that later led to the Balfour Declaration…throughout this chapter and the ones that follow, there is a continuous sense of alienation, displacement and oppression of the indigenous Palestinian population for which Britain is rendered complicit. For whatever the history, the argument seems to be that in order for the Jews to reconstitute their former nation and to create this Jewish state, there is a need to displace the local people in ways not unlike the Old Testament stories. I think the discourse of consanguity to the land (which is a big issue where I come from) is anchored into this binarity between Jewish and non-Jewish. And then there is this different between ideological and physical displacement, and the former is something of interest, and whether the entire Israeli-archeological project is complicit in redirecting ideological privileging (and what is this ideology that’s spoken of here in the first place?). In the final sentence of this chapter, Nadia suggest that the “truth” of Jewish nationhood resides in the credibility of facts….and it is this act of fact collecting, whatever the methods, that “established the matrix of a terrain within which the practices of (settler)nationhood and a more fully nationalist-archaeological discipline would take place and shape in the newly founded Jewish state” (98)

In chapter 5, the “positive facts” that Nadia speaks of is her wry allusion to the positivistic tendencies that set the epistemic culture of archaeology in Israel, where the “quest for ‘facts’ and the epistemological commitments that underwrote that quest illustrate the dynamic relationship between empiricism and nationalism and demonstrate how a commitment to the former gave credible form to the latter, not just in narrative, but, even more powerfully, in material cast (100).” I am curious by this statement that she made here on the same page, where she says that “archaeological practice would henceforth involve puzzle solving, which continually extended the empirical basis of the original theory, a practice in which key background assumptions, nationalist and nationalizing, were never questioned.” On a different note, I am curious about the ideological difference between JFES and IES. It seems that this chapter argues that the Israeli archaeologist tries to empirically underwrite their national narrative, and she gave case studies of the two competing camps led by Aharoni and Yadin. I wrote next to this passage on pg 114, “empirical facts, which were construed as being independent of the initial historical hypotheses, were used to verify or falsify specific elements of the biblical texts, details of the historical events presumably chronicled, albeit not always consistently, therein (114),” which means therefore, how would the interpretation provided with the help of textual accounts not also be falsifiable, if Yadin uses these accounts to provide the interpretation of facts to specify historical stories and historical eras not derivable from facts? Is there something not quite right with this picture? In pg 119, she goes on to say that “the naming of objects was integral to producing an independent evidentiary basis upon which an empirical tradition of archaeological practice would henceforth build.” Whereby the name “Israelite” is used as a signifier to artifacts recovered. Perhaps now is a good time to discuss as to what constitutes as best practices in archaeology, and how different is the role of an archaeology from that of a historian, an anthropologist and cultural geographer. Also, I am curious as to the background of this yedi at ha-Aretz convention.

I am interested also in this statement she made in 122

“Identifying Israelite ethnicity in the archeological record from the Galilean sites required not just the demarcation of a “new material culture” found in ancient tells believed to be brought from without, crystallized from within, or some combination of both. Rather, Yadin, Aharoni, and Amiran all identified both continuities and differences within and between Canaanite and Israelite pottery assemblages. The problem, then, was not simply that without the Bible this new ethnicity would not be nameable, but reading the Bible as a historical and chronological guide required the recognition or particular “breaks” in the material-guide required the recognition of particular “breaks” in material-culture as critical…and I guess we can link it to our discussion last week with archaeology as being a ‘live’ practice entangled with ongoing national discourses.

In chapter 6 that talks about the controversial issue of “digging up” Jerusalem. I like this quote on page 140 “ Within a conception of history defined by events and architecture, by stories of war, heroism, and (national) destruction, there is little place for a sustained curiosity about other kinds of questions that one could imagine asking about the city’s past”…and after discussion of the overtly deterministic nature of the origins-archaeology project of Ben Mazar and Avigad beginning from pg 132, she then says of the various findings, such as the Iron Age II quarry (I would like to read more about this periodic transition from the before the Bronze age all the way to the Iron age in Biblical archaeology)m “could have been used to raise questions about the nature and presence of industry in the ancient city’s environs, and, by implication, of a working class or a slave class. Aside from being inscribed in the excavation records, however, none of this evidence has become an object of sustained scholarly inquiry or even curiosity” (141) This is equivalent to saying that if something does not fit your plot, you throw it out. Israeli archaeology is accused of having no interest in daily life… much of the focus is concerned around questions of “national ascendancy and cohesion then demise.” Nadia also claims that the interpretive work in archaeology rarely goes beyond descriptive and chronological accounts of the city’s topography and settlement patterns, or of the structure and function of the architectural remains.” (147)…this goes back to my question on disciplinary boundaries. I am also curious as to what constitutes as ethical methodology practice in archaeology; e.g. using bulldozers versus not, doing excavations all year round, having someone taking over your work…I doubt that one can say that scientific inquiry can ever be detached from political interest, if we were to take the point of view that any social is already political in itself, and that includes the human interest in the subject in the first place. In the final page of this chapter, Nadia states that “Jerusalem’s history was made at the conjecture of historical frameworks and excavating practices: paradigms of history and of practice – inevitably enmeshed – framed the historical quest, a quest realized through the practical work of excavating, which construct its embodied form (162)” which of course is her investment in the model of social constructivism and epistemology as a part of that project.

Chapter seven concentrates mostly on the representation of the monuments(such as the City of David) and the museums that house artifacts from the area. I am curious as to when they decide that they’ve done enough of excavation work that they decided to reconstruct the place as they think it to have looked as such. And it is here that we have a discussion the racial constitution of citizenship stemming from a rather heterogeneous composition of sometimes just one site (the term stratigraph works well here, methinks). I have heard from an Israeli friend that segregated pluralism does exist in Israel (she didn’t use such a word but after reading Nadia, I know she is referring to something similar) and is it purely for political security of the Israeli govt that such segregation takes place, or is that something more insidious? I think it is in this chapter also that Nadia talks about how the Israeli govt wanted to preserve the slumlike Jewish quarter whereas the architects wanted to build structure representing the organic growth in keeping with the environment. Is this sentimentalizing of the past an insecurity over some tenuous connection to a possibly miniscule past?

Chapter 8 is where Nadia’s political leanings come out more clearly, even though she still attempt as much of a balanced view as she feels she is able to. But when one talks about the national narrative versus religious sensibilities versus individual identity versus official versus invisible histories, the object of interest takes on a different flavor depending on which lens/layers of lens through which one views the object…and then there is the question of how sacred is the past? I do think that Nadia gave some pretty good insight into the performative and discursive aspect of museum exhibits, from the choice of the artifacts to their arrangement and placing within the museum to the accompanying texts to narrate their less obvious (and also obvious) attributes. Also, this brings in the entire politics of conservation and preservation practices, and the different acts ranging from verbal (the preservation of memory through repeated narration, even if each individual guide has a variation to the prescribed narrative) to physical by way of textual markings, tagging, chemical work and relocation. The ambiance, as Nadia points out, is also as important. And in my personal experience of museums, to link it to Nadia’s explication, too much of a visual stimuli causes one to blank out and sometimes come out with nothing, or only with memory of the ‘loudest’ stimuli and in one of the museums where there was a film playing continuously to summon particular attention of the visitors, and to imprint them with particular memories of their visit. In this chapter, Nadia talks now about the transference of produced knowledge from the knowledge-makers and producer (archaeologists, curators, historians etc), mediated by the guides, to the (un)knowing public. And there is the discussion of secular versus religious interest (which she goes on to talk about in the next chapter in terms of secular and orthodox Zionism, which I think I’ll need to read more about in terms of different, though I currently have a very rough idea). This chapter also opens up the conversation on colonial structures versus imperial forms of knowledge-seeking, knowledge production and knowledge creation that seems to place the non-Jewish, Palestinian (of Arabic descent) in rather bad light. How do we know what pieces are from what, and that there is no overlapping of patterns in those pieces between time periods, or across the Muslim or Jewish culture? In public science education where the ‘scientificity’ of the project is placed second to publicizing and advancing political agendas, the study of standpoint is important in this case, especially when we look at the manner in which the guiding was conducted and the impression that was intended to be made on the captive audience. Since Nadia pointed to this, I am curious as to the relationship between various groups of religious Jews to archaeology; especially as she talks about the altercation between the Orthodox Jews and the secular Jews (including the former’s increasing political power) and of course, we are aware that a class system does exist even among the Jews.

From chapters 9 and 10, when I think about the discourse of settler-hood, I can’t help thinking that the notion of indigeneity, consanguity and settler persons are all overlapping and inextricably bound, as all ethnicities would have belonged to any one of these groups at any point in time. Or do we only speak of such identities within the post 1948 and 1967 Palestine? But how can we even be certain that Palestinian history works the way that the Bible says it does, and especially when there are large gaps in periods of time in which the Bible is pretty silent. All settlers want to grow their own history (or excavate a ‘lost’ history and one that may or may not have existed). Also, I feel Nadia does not sufficiently interrogate the complex makeup that is of a settler-nation. How is Israel different from the US or Australia or New Zealand, for example? It does seem as if she lumps the case of Israel with the case of all other settler nationhoods. I am of course interested in the difference between a diasporic and a territorialized national consciousness (is she referring to non-Israeli versus Israeli Jews?) Also, there is this problematic attempt at making boundaries, where boundaries may not really exist, especially when we try to draw a thick line around categories of knowledge, which also spell categories of self-conscious identities.

There are a number of things we can talk about in this book which I will refer to during our discussion, but this will provide a rather rich and thick start.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2010 9:02 pm

    What’s the independent study you’re taking?

  2. clarissal permalink*
    February 24, 2010 9:16 am

    Archaeology of the Holy Land: Politics of the Middle East.

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