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Agency and personhood 67
of 16th-century folk housing attributes variation in house plans to choicesmade by the owners. Effectively, he argues that a practice or form is adoptedbecause somebody has chosen to adopt it – and thereby enters a circularargument.The critique came mostly from gender archaeology. As Gero succinctly putit (2000, 12), ‘the knowledgeable actor is nominally neutral, but genderedmale by association with traditional male behaviour’, such as striving forpower and prestige, and with ‘modern male-associated personal qualitiesemphasizing decisiveness and assertiveness’. Indeed, most archaeologicalstudies of agency at the time focused on aggrandizing, competitive leaders(Meskell1996).Giddens’s‘knowledgeableagent’resembledtheclassicliberal,free-willed and rational individual, the ‘unencumbered self’ (Sandel 1982)who acts autonomously, unhindered by webs of relations, obligations andtraditions (Gero 2000; Meskell 1999). As Gero (2000, 35) remarked, ‘thesenotions of agency...devalue building community and consensus, avertingconﬂict...or restricting and controlling self-interested expressions of power’.In this way, a modern-day perception of agency – but effectively anessentialized, abstracted construct (ibid. 36; Meskell 1999, 26) – is projectedto the past. However, agency takes different, historically speciﬁc forms; wecannot talk of agents without placing them in the cultural background andthe historical conditions within which they operate (Johnson 2000, 213). AsBarrett (2000, 62) rightly remarked, ‘agency is not a force operating outsidehistory, [nor] something essential and timeless...which fashions the worldwithout itself being fashioned’. To conclude, Giddens’s social agent, at leastin the way it has been applied in archaeology, projects an anachronisticvision of a free-willed, self-centred individual, unencumbered by social tiesand obligations.
Embodied persons and lived experiences
More recently, Giddens’s modelhas been attacked for presenting a dehumanized and power-centred vision of the past. The critics have been inspired by phenomenology and the emphasison embodiment, perception and experience (Merleau-Ponty 1962), notionsof difference and performance developed by third-wave feminism and queertheory (Butler 1990), and the recentring of the individual in recent studies(e.g. Cohen 1994). This wave of studies, primarily by Lynn Meskell (1996;1998; 1999), but also by Tarlow (1999) and Hodder (2000), brought somesharp and provocative critique to the discussion.Tarlow’s (1999) starting point was a critique of power-centred approachestothepast,andheraimbecametostudyindividualsinthepastasexperiencingand emotional subjects. However, there are internal contradictions in hertreatment of emotion, motivation and experience. She emphasized the needto incorporate notions of agency (ibid., 26), but saw volition as a ‘sociallyconstructed trait’ (ibid., 27). She stressed the need to incorporate three-dimensionalexperiencingindividualsintoarchaeologicaldiscourse(ibid.,19),but she admitted that she had to shift the focus ‘from delineating the preciseemotionalexperiencesofindividualstounderstandingtheemotionalvaluesof a culture’ (ibid., 34). In the end, Tarlow reached very interesting conclusionsabout collective attitudes to death, about the social construction of emotions