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The Limitations of doxa

The Limitations of doxa

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Journal of Social Archaeology


Copyright © 2001 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol 1(2): 155–171 [1469-6053(200110)1:2;155–171;019032]

The limitations of doxa
Agency and subjectivity from an archaeological point of view
Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

ABSTRACT In recent years, archaeological discussions of agency have relied quite heavily upon Pierre Bourdieu’s rendering of doxa in discriminating between those phenomena resulting from habit and those from active intention. However, doxa presents considerable problems for archaeological analyses as it rests upon a troubling theory of history and fails to assist in promulgating an archaeological account of subjectivity. This article presents an explicitly archaeological critique of Bourdieu’s doxa, utilizing a decorated silver-plated goblet from the Middle Bronze Age site of Karashamb, Armenia, to explore future directions in the theorization of subjectivity. KEYWORDS agency q Armenia q Caucasia q doxa q ideology q Karashamb q Middle Bronze Age q representation q subjectivity


n a parenthetical remark buried deep in the pages of his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), Pierre Bourdieu raises a troubling problem for archaeologists and historians interested in representing the past as a


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creation of reflective individuals who actively produced and reproduced social formations. Bourdieu writes, ‘when there is a quasi-perfect correspondence between the objective order and the subjective principles of organization (as in ancient societies) the natural and social world appears as self-evident. This experience we shall call doxa’ (Bourdieu, 1977: 164, emphasis added). With a casual parenthesis, Bourdieu consigns the practices of the denizens of ancient societies to the realm of doxa, their lives cast as routines predicated upon the mis-recognition of social orders as natural ways of life, rather than political products. The persistent opposition between structure and individual is historicized, lent temporal depth as not only a synchronic array of sociological forces but as an emergent feature of (world) social transformations. Bourdieu is arguing (at least) two points with this parenthesis. The first is historiographic in that descriptions of doxa are positioned as exhausting studies of social life in the more remote past. The focus of archaeological analysis is therefore restricted to iterations of the highly scripted routines that reproduced the existing world as the only conceivable order of things. Bourdieu’s second point is historical in that he posits a broadening of the horizon of agency somewhere between the ancient and the modern. Archaeological theory has tended towards just the opposite view in the years since the publication of Outline of a Theory of Practice, dismantling the systems that once compressed the past into rigid models of stimulus and response in order to locate the complicity of individuals in social production, reproduction and transformation (cf. Barrett, 2000; Brumfiel, 1992; Dietler, 1998; Dietler and Herbich, 1998; Hodder, 1986: 6–9; Knapp, 1996; Miller, 1982; Saitta, 1994; Shanks and Tilley, 1987: 71–2). In the context of a move within both archaeology and general social thought to re-consider the restricˇ ˇek, tions of subjectivity (cf. Foucault, 1978; Jameson, 1992; Ziz 1999), we must ask whether the tyranny of doxa that Bourdieu posits for ancient societies represents a satisfactory way of thinking about the limitations of agency. It is important that we critically examine Bourdieu’s account of the limitations of agency for (at least) three reasons. First, Bourdieu’s move to vest agency in a substantive understanding of will presents great problems for an archaeological view where actions may be manifest in the extant record, yet intentions obscure. Thus an inquiry into Bourdieu’s conceptualization of doxa is central to identifying an approach to agency that can flourish within archaeological thought rather than simply reproduce, in Dobres and Robb’s phrase, an ‘ambiguous platitude’ (2000: 3). Second, Bourdieu’s account of doxa provides the historical foundation to his formulation of practice theory, a theoretical approach that has gained increasing popularity within archaeology. It is thus important that the implications of doxa for studies of the past be fully elaborated, given the changing frameworks within which archaeologists have begun to confront the problem of action (Wobst, 2000).


The limitations of doxa


Lastly, Bourdieu’s account of the correspondence of the social order and the natural world in ‘pre-modern’ contexts has already begun to fashion a new formulation of a dramatic historical rupture between the ‘pre-modern’ and the modern, as in Timothy Mitchell’s account of the ‘novelty of modern subjectivity’ imposed on Egypt by European colonial powers (1988: 59–60). If archaeology is to succeed in articulating the past with the present in meaningful ways, then we must actively resist the construction of rigid boundaries that set the ancient apart from the modern as an ontologically distinct ‘other’. This article outlines a theoretical response to Bourdieu’s assertion of the primacy of doxa in antiquity. In the first half I develop a critique of Bourdieu’s substantive sense of agency (that is, his definition of agency as a capacity for action vested within individuals) and a historiographic argument against representing ancient societies as inherently more enslaved to routine than those in the present. The second half of the article employs a silver goblet from Middle Bronze Age Armenia to extend the critique of doxa into an explicitly archaeological domain of theory and to suggest a conceptualization of action in the past, rooted in a multidimensional, relational sense of the creation of subjects within daily practices.

Like the critical theorists of the Frankfurt school, Bourdieu’s overall philosophical project centers on an account of how culture, understood as practices of symbolic manipulation and consumption, contributes to the reproduction of social (class) privileges. As Gartman rightly points out, Bourdieu improves on the abstract conspiracies of the Frankfurt school (e.g. Adorno, 1997; Horkheimer and Adorno, 1993; Marcuse, 1964) by creating a highly empirical ‘blueprint of a structure of class and culture whose logic produces its effects behind the backs of individuals’ (Gartman, 1991: 422). Bourdieu’s steadfast empiricism has much to do with the productive ways in which archaeologists have engaged with his thought, mustering his account of practice to battle various forms of extra-social determinism that remain a prominent part of the intellectual terrain of the discipline. However, in theorizing the restrictions on agents that stave off upheavals in social orders (the logic of practice), Bourdieu’s Whiggish conceptualization of doxic history ultimately alienates actors in ancient societies from their activities in a far more self-conscious and programmatic way than many of the traditional archaeological determinisms. Let me begin by briefly exploring what Bourdieu means by doxa. Doxa refers to the field of activities that are taken for granted, those so thoroughly regularized that their pursuit cannot be considered agency as they are


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deprived of intention. As doxa incorporates fields of knowledge in which the existing order of the social world appears self-evident, it is a political instrument, ensuring reproduction of existing formations. Doxa emerges in the mis-recognition of a field of possible courses of action as an unchangeable singular routine (Bourdieu, 1977: 164–6). Agency, in contradistinction, rests upon the will to supersede such limits, to recognize the arbitrary nature of the objective order and to refuse to accede to its demands. Agency is thus defined as a substantive concept, a capacity of the individual to recognize ingrained socio-cultural traditions as political constructions and to overcome such orders through the exercise of will (Bourdieu, 1977: 166; 1990: 68–9). Bourdieu’s description of agency and doxa can be read in a number of different ways. On the one hand, by basing doxa on the mis-recognition of politically created orders as natural worlds, Bourdieu’s account can be read as a reworking of classic Marxist ideas of false consciousness (e.g. Althusser, 1969; Lukács, 1971; Marx and Engels, 1998). Indeed there is a clear sense in which doxa emerges as a buttress to the division of labor and apportionment of power amongst social groups (Bourdieu, 1977: 165). On the other hand, by predicating agency upon the will to exceed limits – on the refusal to take the world at hand for granted as a natural order – doxa can also be read as a retelling of the Nietzschean account of herd morality. Agents, through their embrace of will to power, supersede the limits of the doxa, elevating themselves above the herd who remain blind to the myriad alternatives to their dull routine (Nietzsche, 1989: 201–8; cf. Foucault, 1984). These readings are by no means mutually exclusive. However, each brings with it a legacy of critique that undermines the utility of Bourdieu’s substantive conceptualization of agency and its limits. By predicating doxa upon mis-recognition, Bourdieu takes on the problems attendant with identifying false consciousness, of which I would like to briefly touch on three. First, by holding motives to action in deep suspicion, the concept of doxa alienates the subject from his or her own decisionmaking process. The analyst, in our case the archaeologist, inserts him or herself between the individual and their everyday practices, evaluating the degree to which the link between the two was informed by a fully conscious understanding of alternatives. Analysis of agency is founded not upon an understanding of the contextual situation of actors but rather upon a claim of privileged knowledge of the actor’s intention vis-a-vis the existing structure of class relationships. This knowledge is not based on a real sensitivity to motives, emotions or convictions but rather is entirely prefigured within theory such that a choice for the existing way of things is emphatically not a choice but slavish devotion to routine. This leads us to a second problem with Bourdieu’s account of doxa. Reproduction of the existing order within a doxic account of the limitations of agency can never be a conscious, considered choice out of an array of


The limitations of doxa


options but merely the misjudgment of an insufficiently self-conscious subject. The critical impetus to analysis in the doxic mode lies in the drive to limit agency to the ‘revolutionary subject’. Unfortunately this leads Bourdieu to conflate agency and praxis, the latter of which specifically denotes transformative activities within Marxist thought (Gramsci, 1971: 364–6; Marx, 1998: III). As a result, agency is left a rather anemic concept, limited to spectacle, inured to the quotidian. While I have some sympathy with the desire to locate revolutionary sensibilities in the past, to limit agency to radicalism precludes the development of a parallel understanding of the conservatism of social production in ancient contexts. To dismiss the individual who assents to the doxa as simply part of the herd is to miss the analytical mark as the forces behind the active desire for the continuance of the existing order are as compelling and vital for social analysis as the logic of deviance. The psychological locus that Bourdieu assigns to agency raises a third objection to his account of doxa. The agent, according to Bourdieu, is defined, a priori, in reference to a restricted set of socio-political structures. Agents and non-agents are distinguished solely on the basis of their (political) stance towards a monolithically conceived structural order intent on their subjugation. The result is to obscure the contextuality of assent and the meaning of deviation. After all, the assent of a wealthy elite to relations of inequality surely holds different implications than that of an impoverished farmer, factory worker or minimum wage service-sector employee. Alternately, an individual who attempts to blow up a government building may be radical or reactionary, Adolf Verloc or Guy Fawkes, depending not upon intention to subvert the existing order but on multi-dimensional relations to political institutions, economic resources and cultural traditions (real and imagined). Indeed, Gramsci’s (1971: 180–2) more highly developed temporal view makes clear the centrality of the historical moment to an adequate account of the political act, a contextual sensibility entirely absent from the concept of doxa. A second set of theoretical problems arises from Bourdieu’s attempt to base agency in a sociologically moderated sense of will to power. In so doing, Bourdieu redescribes the historical view as one focused upon those who transcended the doxa. The sort of history that results would presumably pair an account of what did not happen in history – that is, the alternatives not embraced – with biographies of those who dared, in the words of Apple’s grammatically regrettable slogan, to ‘think different’. On the one hand, Bourdieu may be accused of overestimating the unthinkable, as not even slavish devotion to routine can be said to preclude tolerance, or at least awareness, of alternatives. As Giddens (1993: 81–2) points out, constraints upon action cannot be presumed to imply a lack of awareness of choices, since constraints are not all identical. On the other hand, Bourdieu overprivileges the will, as sources of revolution must be constituted within the


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existing field of political power. Even those who tear off the mask of naturalness assumed by political practices do so within a field of possibility limited by the very historical formation which they aspire to overcome (Abrams, 1988; Corrigan and Sayer, 1985). As Holston (1989: 12–13) cogently argues in his study of the modernist city, intentions are conceivable only in relation to the instruments and practices within which they emerge as realizable possibilities. They are thus intelligible not as substantive components of a generalized sense of will but only as dimensions of subjectivity set closely within contexts of practical activities. Unless we wish to return archaeology to the service of ‘great man’ history in which the subject, qua revolutionary hero, provides the privileged locus of social transformation, we must center analysis on the relations amongst various structural positions and actors that create opportunities for both assent and praxis. The central question of analysis is thus shifted from the limits of agency established in a simplified dialectic between structure and individual to a consideration of the social creation of subjects, by which I mean individuals complicit in a broad cultural process of self and social formation. In both its Marxist and Nietzschean threads, Bourdieu’s definition of agency as ‘will to supercede the doxa’ creates a host of theoretical difficulties for an examination of the human past. Of most immediate concern for archaeology is his exclusion of agency from ancient societies. Why does Bourdieu place this condition within his argument? I think the answer lies in his implicit historical argument regarding the development of fields of knowledge over time. While every social order ‘tends to produce . . . the naturalization of its own arbitrariness’ it is only in the ancient world, he writes, that the arbitrary and the natural essentially fuse together (Bourdieu, 1977: 164). Human history, in a doxic mode, is an account of the cracks that have been forced between the objective order and the subjective principles of social organization in the oscillation between orthodoxy’s drive to reinforce the doxa and heterodoxy’s instinct to broaden the field of what is simply opinion. By enslaving the more remote past to routine, this impetus to question the existing order is not simply a structural possibility but takes on the pale echoes of a Marxist historical imperative. If Bourdieu does not damn the ancient world to mindless routine, his account loses its sense of moral urgency, its revolutionary drive to heresy. However the price for creating this rather thin sense of temporality, in what is otherwise a rather ahistorical philosophical corpus, is the utility of doxa for an archaeology interested in constraint but opposed to determinism. In turning away from an account of action located in a dialectic between agents as wilful transgressors and structures as formalized jailors, the creation of personal identity, and the limitations placed upon this project, emerge as integral to the reproduction of social orders as well as their contestation. Self-formation and the formation of social worlds are intelligible as indivisible elements of one another. As a result, agency does not hang on


The limitations of doxa


the intentions of the isolated revolutionary, but rather is entailed within intertwined projects for producing political subjects, for developing cultural frames of subjectivity, for promoting social structures of subjectivization and for articulating all of the preceding into a shifting sense of subjecthood. This is not to argue, following a trend in cultural studies led by Judith Butler (1990, 1997), that a focus on personal transformation (identity politics) should replace a consideration of political economy or the power of ˇ ˇek, 1999: 260–4). Rather, the conclusion that institutions (cf. critique in Ziz should be drawn is that subjectivity, and thus the parameters of action, are constituted in multidimensional contexts that are simultaneously personal, social, cultural and political. Within these overlapping realms the subject emerges as more complex than either agent or patient, actor or dupe. What is more, descriptions of subjectivity are not constrained to substantive accounts of possibility and intention. Instead, the creation of subjects is understood as an intensely public process, locatable within daily practices. As a result, it provides an account of action and constraint that is more accessible and potentially productive from an archaeological perspective. Despite the foregoing objections to Bourdieu’s account of doxa, there is most certainly a need within archaeology for an understanding of the parameters that restrict how individuals make choices about their daily lives. Yet such a theorization should not simply replicate stale structure-actor dichotomies – what Dietler and Herbich term (with palpable impatience) ‘the persistent central paradigmatic dichotomy of the social sciences’ (1998: 245). But how can this problem be framed such that we neither remove aware individuals capable of making decisions from the past nor create a reliance upon a substantive sense of intention? The foregoing discussion has primarily confined itself to a consideration of the theoretical implications of Bourdieu’s account of doxa for archaeological studies of the past. However, the interpretive possibilities opened by an examination of subjectivity and foreclosed by a theoretical allegiance to doxa warrant grounding within the realm of material culture. The following discussion considers doxa and subjectivity from the point of view of a single artefact – a Middle Bronze Age goblet found in a kurgan1 at the site of Karashamb, near the Razdan river in modern Armenia. The purpose of limiting discussion to a single artefact is not to restrict the archaeological field of vision to the purely art historical, but rather to allow material culture to bear upon the formulation of theory without the former overwhelming the latter. The following discussion is not intended as a case study of the preceding theoretical discussion, as is the dominant formal aesthetic within contemporary archaeological writing. I do not want to suggest that the Karashamb goblet in itself provides sufficient empirical grounding for the theoretical case described above. Instead, consideration of the Karashamb goblet is intended as a further extension of the critique of doxa developed in the preceding pages within an explicitly archaeological frame of reference.


Journal of Social Archaeology 1(2)

Set between the Black and Caspian Seas, Caucasia is a broad isthmus linking southwest Asia to the Eurasian steppe. Southern Caucasia is most readily defined as the highland regions between the Middle Araxes and Middle Kura river drainages (Figure 1). It is a region of rugged mountains and elevated basins shaped by the tectonic action of the Arabian and Eurasian plates. The legacy of this geologically active landscape can be seen in numerous volcanic peaks, such as Mount Ararat and Mount Aragats, and in the large deposits of basalt, tuff and obsidian found across the region (Mil’kov and Gvozdetskii, 1969). Average elevations within southern Caucasia are between 1200 and 1800 m above sea level, dipping below 1000 m only in the Ararat plain. During the Early Bronze Age, southern Caucasia lay near the geographic center of a material culture horizon known as the Kura-Araxes complex that was distributed in a broad arc from the eastern Mediterranean (Khirbet Kerak ware; Amiran, 1965) to the northern slope of the Caucasus range (e.g. Velikent; Gadzhiev et al., 1997), to the central Zagros mountains (e.g. Godin Tepe; Young and Levine, 1974). Kura-Araxes

Figure 1 Map of southern Caucasia


The limitations of doxa


settlements in southern Caucasia in general were small villages with a subsistence economy based upon plough and irrigation agriculture and seasonally migratory stock herding (Kushnareva, 1997: 181). In the last centuries of the third millennium BC, extensive transformations in economy, culture and society provoked the dissolution of Kura-Araxes communities and a broad alteration in the archaeological record for the succeeding Middle Bronze Age. The most conspicuous archaeological feature of the Early to Middle Bronze transition is the extensive shift in settlement pattern that led to the abandonment of a large number of late Kura-Araxes communities. Although the stratigraphy of sites such as Metsamor (Khanzadian et al., 1973), Garni (Kushnareva, 1997: 141) and Uzerlik-Tepe (Kushnareva, 1985) indicate some continuity between Kura-Araxes and Middle Bronze Age levels, the large majority of late Early Bronze Age sites appear to have been abandoned near the end of the third millennium BC. As a result, most of our evidence for the early second millennium comes from cemetery rather than settlement contexts. Mortuary customs also changed during the Middle Bronze Age as kurgans – such as those documented at Trialeti (Kuftin, 1941), Vanadzor (Kirovakan; Piotrovskii, 1949: 46), and Karashamb (Oganesian, 1992a) – became the dominant form of burial architecture. Ceramic styles and forms shifted in the Early to Middle Bronze Age transition, most noticeably in the disappearance of the characteristic blackand brown-burnished wares of the Kura-Araxes horizon and the appearance of the painted wares of the Trialeti-Vanadzor and subsequent Karmir-Berd (Tazakend), Karmirvank, and Sevan-Uzerlik horizons.2 These new ceramics were accompanied by changes in metal tools, weapons, vessels and jewelry, including new daggers and swords, socketed spearpoints, flat axes, chisels and drinking vessels. During the Middle Bronze Age, a broad differentiation in burial treatment, including massive kurganstyle funerary monuments and rich artefactual complexes, indicates the emergence of a new elite. The association of this elite with the trappings (weapons, shields, chariots) and the iconography of warfare (discussed below) strongly suggests that social stratification in the Middle Bronze Age hinged upon a martial culture where the values of social violence had become the legitimating values of a newly formulated social hierarchy (Badalyan et al., forthcoming). In the autumn of 1987, a team of archaeologists excavated a large Middle Bronze Age kurgan at the northern end of a well-known burial ground at Karashamb, on the west bank of the Razdan River. The kurgan was a raised earthen and stone mound built atop a funerary area delineated on the ground surface by a ring of stones. Within this funerary area, the excavators uncovered the cremated remains of the deceased accompanied by numerous animal bones, weapons, ornaments and utensils. The architecture


Journal of Social Archaeology 1(2)

of the kurgan and its inventory indicate substantial parallels with similar tombs at Vanadzor (Kirovakan) and at Trialeti (Oganesian, 1988: 145). Current periodizations of the extant materials suggest that this TrialetiVanadzor complex dates to the first centuries of the second millennium BC (Avetisyan et al., 1996, 2000; Oganesian, 1992a).

Figure 2 Photo of a silver-plated goblet from Karashamb, Armenia (source: courtesy of the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography,Yerevan)


The limitations of doxa


Amongst the finds in the Karashamb mound was a silver-plated goblet, its exterior surface divided into six registers, separated by raised bands, each decorated with images in relief (Figures 2 and 3; Oganesian, 1992b: 86). The top register depicts a boar hunt. An archer, attended by a dog with a collar, prepares to loose a second arrow into a wounded boar that is also being attacked by a lion and a leopard. The second register depicts a battle, a parade of a captive and a banquet, most likely providing a narrative order in which the scenes are to be read. The battle scene is composed of two sets of two foot soldiers fighting with spears and daggers. In the adjacent procession, three soldiers trail behind a single unarmed captive pressed forward by a spear in its back. The banquet scene is bracketed by a large stag on one side and a seated figure with what appears to be a musical instrument on the other. At the center of the scene, two attendants fan a seated figure (generally interpreted as a ‘king’) who sips from a cup as servants attend to offerings set atop two large tables (Oganesian, 1992b: 86). The third register presents a group of scenes related to the aftermath of conquest. At the center of the composition stands a winged creature with a lion’s head. To its right we find a defeated foe being killed with a spear and a seated figure sharpening an axe next to a pile of decapitated heads. Following that we find a pile of weapons, presumably left strewn upon the battlefield, and another captive being killed. To the left of the winged lion,

Figure 3 Drawing of Karashamb cup scenes (source: Kushnareva, 1997)


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three headless figures stand adjacent to a superimposed lion and ram. Interestingly, all of the ‘enemy’ portrayed in the register have been given bushy tails. In the fourth register, a row of leopards and lions parades from right to left. Only the interjection of a single shield ties this scene of predators to the battle depicted above. The fifth register, which completes the body of the goblet, is ornamental, consisting of relief-engraved rosettes with pointed ends. The last register, encircling the foot of the goblet, depicts a single lion with its head en face flanked by four lion/leopard pairs standing on hind legs. Similar metal drinking vessels are known from kurgans V and XVII at Trialeti and from a burial at Maikop (Dzhaparidze, 1988: 8; Kuftin, 1941: 8, 90). Echoes of this tradition in stylistically similar ceramic cups from Uzerlik Tepe have led Kushnareva (1997: 112) to suggest that the vessel form and aesthetic tradition were locally developed even as certain symbolic motifs suggest diverse influences from southwest Asia (e.g. the hunt scene in register one). The most compelling aspect of the Karashamb cup is its representation of a rather limited set of practices central to the reproduction of political order: war and conquest, feasting and celebration, punishment and ritual, hunting and the technology of violence. The central theme of the piece is clearly the conquest of enemies and the glorification of the ruler and the apparatus of political authority. That the martial scenes on the central registers are bracketed by images that depict violence in the natural world would seem to support Bourdieu’s description of the equivalence of natural and political orders. Indeed a number of studies of ‘royal’ art from southwest Asia have revealed a great concern by rulers to embed their regimes and activities within sets of naturalistic symbols (Kantor, 1966; Marcus, 1995; Russell, 1991; Smith, 2000; Winter, 1981). If we are to accept a doxic interpretation of the Karashamb cup, then we are forced to understand its imagery as purely mimetic – as representations of the real state of things in which nature and state conjoin unproblematically, just as Bourdieu suggests. Such a position would preclude an account of the production of the vessel as an ideologically conditioned instrument; production, exchange and consumption are necessarily intelligible only as performances of highly scripted roles. We can see from the organization of the composition, the use of ellipsis to reduce the number of figures and the inclusion of fantastical elements that, while the scenes depict concrete, perhaps even historical, activities, there is considerable distance between the real and the represented. And it is in this distance that decisions were made as to how activities should be represented, that is, what argument the images should make. In the case of the Karashamb cup, the most obvious argument seems to be that the political violence of the era was an extension of the violence of the natural world.


The limitations of doxa


But if the images are an argument as to how the world should be seen, then the implication is that the equivalence of the objective natural world and the subjective political order was by no means taken for granted as Bourdieu’s account of doxa demands. Rather, such sources of legitimization had to be actively produced within political practices, of which the cup is one instrumental manifestation. This demands a relational view of action, such as that forwarded by Feldman who argues: ‘Political agency is not given but achieved on the basis of practices that alter the subject. Political agency is relational – it has no fixed ground – it is the effect of situated practices’ (Feldman, 1991: 1). Analysis of action, as a result, cannot be vested in the substantive intentions of a single, isolated actor, but rather can only be understood in the confluence of both first and third person views that come together in the identification of the subject and the constitution of subjectivity (O’Shaughnessy, 1980; Ryle, 1993). The central concern for an archaeological account of action is not simply agency, either in its seemingly forgotten Hobbesian sense of a relationship between agent and patient or in the extant formulations of structure/agent dialectics. Rather, the problems that the Karashamb cup poses center on the creation of subjects – of political regimes, of economic systems, of social orders – that carry out actions. This is a problem not simply of opposition to an existing structural power, as Foucault (e.g. 1978, 1979) cogently demonstrated, but of multiple relationships amongst various structurally embedded social positions (e.g. elite institutions, grassroots social groups) and plurally sited individuals (that is, individuals located as profoundly in heterarchical roles as hierarchical ones). Nor would it seem a particularly compelling interpretive stance to yield agency itself to the Karashamb cup, as Gell’s (1998: 17–19) vision of ‘things’ as social agents would advocate. Such anthropomorphism tends to obscure the distinction between action and instrument, between subject and the apparatus of subjectivity. Instead, the Karashamb cup should be thought of as instrumental within a broader framework of culturally shaped subjectivity. Here we might do well to consider Thomas Frank’s (1997) highly engaging analysis of The Conquest of Cool, of the appropriation of 1960s countercultural symbolics by Madison Avenue in the production of ‘hip consumerism’. In his account of this ongoing process of cultural production, Frank does not reduce Madison Avenue to a unidimensional structure inseparable from the guiding political currents (indeed the appropriation of countercultural icons to sell consumer goods coincides with a neoconservative backlash against the 1960s). Nor does Frank portray consumers as a mass of dullards. Rather, we find in Frank’s analysis a multidimensional account of the creation of subjects in which cultural productions are shaped by grassroots discourses (such as a constantly shifting vernacular avant-garde and enduring identity affiliations that structure


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niche marketing) even as they endeavour to appropriate those discourses to a specific end (selling commodities). The Karashamb cup can be seen in this light as a cultural production directed towards the creation of particular kinds of subjects – actors who accede to the putative ruler’s claim to the naturalness of the existing order as they go about their daily activities. This relational process of cultural production entails a host of practices, each of which presents opportunities for decisions, both grand and quotidian, that potentially implicate subjects in social reproduction, revolutionary praxis or, most likely, something in between. As it is produced, the cup embeds material and compositional decisions of the maker within the decisions of the ruler as to the appropriate representational strategies for securing legitimacy; as it is exchanged, the cup articulates decisions about form and representation with decisions as to the intelligibility of symbols and marks; as it is visually consumed, the cup enters yet another set of relationships as variously delineated audiences embrace, scorn or ignore its representation of the order of things – possibilities which then recursively impact subsequent directions of cultural production. Such a view on the limitations of subjectivity allows us to approach the past with an understanding of social transformation less exclusively focused upon the revolutionary moment and hence less skeptical in its description of social actors in the past. This is an unapologetically liberal emplotment of the ancient world, one that looks to human action in the creation of social conditions but does not hang all transformative possibility on the isolated revolutionary. In bringing the Karashamb cup into the production of archaeological theory, it provides an effective reminder that limitations upon agency do not arise out of a pre-existing universally held field of restrictions but rather are produced within a complex set of practices that shape subjects and recursively alter the conditions of subjectivity. If archaeology is successful in defining the instrumental roles played by material culture in creating subjects, we will have gone far towards building a more profound account of possibility and constraint within ancient societies.

1 Russian term for a large stone and earth mound erected over an interior chamber. 2 A tradition of black-burnished pottery does continue in the Middle Bronze Age in some places, as reflected in the wares from the Meskheti kurgans (Dzhaparidze et al., 1985).

Abrams, P. (1988) ‘Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State (1977)’, Journal of Historical Sociology 1: 58–89.


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ADAM T. SMITH is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He holds degrees from Brown University, the University of Cambridge and the University of Arizona. He is currently co-director of Project ArAGATS, an international archaeological programme focused on the archaeology and geography of ancient transcaucasian states that is investigating early complex societies of the Late Bronze Age in the Republic of Armenia. [email: atsmith@uchicago.edu]

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