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Prehistoric Rock Art and the Magical Subversion of Archaeological Time-Discipline

April 18, 2014

The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom no clock can measure.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

the academic imagination of minor functionaries, easily overwhelmed and completely entrenched in the awestruck celebration of the existing system, flatly reduces all reality to the existence of the system.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle.

Later this year I shall be uploading a document with the title, “Away With the Fairies”: Prehistoric Rock Art and the Magical Subversion of Archaeological Time-Discipline. In essence, it is a tinkered-around-with version of a Masters dissertation of 1998, with the same initial title – “Away With the Fairies” – but with the sub-heading, Rock Art and Psychic Geography in West Yorkshire. After sixteen-odd years of tinkering, I feel that I’ve reached the limit of what can be done with the materials I had available. I’ve actually drifted away from some of the perspectives outlined in these texts, but I consider that it would be useful (if only for me) to present some sort of public document as a record of the playing-out of a process of thinking, even if I now find myself slightly out of kilter with what I was writing then.

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The original dissertation came about partly as a reaction to the ‘structural Marxism’ promulgated by archaeologists, Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley, and their ‘conception of knowledge as a production’, which ‘we owe… to the work of Althusser’ (1992: 114). Their academic vehicle for the transmission of a productivist ideology (consistent with Althusser’s Stalinism) was a ‘Marxism’ of a particular stamp. It was as if whatever was alive in the thought of the working class movement (as I perceived such a ‘movement’ and its history at that time), was stamped on and ultimately divorced from the social context where it really mattered – the autonomous struggle of the class against the imposition of the need for money, “the real need produced by political economy, and the only need it produces” (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). In the pages of my dissertation there was a considerable debt to the writings of E.P.Thompson, an old adversary of Althusser, who has written on the festive rhythms and ‘customs in common’ of a plebeian culture progressively confined and regulated by the imposition of wage labour.

Chartist Basin 1842

Alfred Walter Bayes, A Chartist Meeting at Basin Stones, 1842 (From here).

Structural Marxism I despised as complicit with institutional hierarchy, a brand distinguished above all by its expulsion of the concept of species being, instead conceiving human subjectivity as produced, as a social construction, and configuring labour as a permanent condition of life. For me, however, species being is the most essential and worthwhile aspect of Marx’s thought, conceiving a material ground of animate being, prior to the alienation brought about by labour and the production of class relations. It’s a concept that I’d like to explore further, in conjunction with its consonance – or not – with ‘the new animism’.

It was only after the writing and submission of the original “Away with the Fairies”, that I discovered how far the critic and commentator Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) had anticipated what I was trying to grasp. The revised text seeks to integrate the insights of Benjamin with the critique of an impoverished academic perspective which encloses the ‘secret commonwealth’ of human experience, so contiguous with the process of enclosure which facilitates the continuous re-imposition of the prison of the working day, both in archaeological constructions of the past and capitalist construction of the present.

References

Simon Crook 1998 “Away With the Fairies”: Rock Art and Psychic Geography in West Yorkshire. MA Dissertation, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton.

Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley 1992 Re-Constructing Archaeology (Second Edition) London and New York: Routledge

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