Theory and Politics
Theory and Politics
If we are to undertake an archaeology of the contemporary past, we need Wrst to be able to characterize it—to understand both those quotidian aspects of contemporary life as well as what makes this period distinct from other periods that preceded it. Although we have already suggested in Chapter 1 that the archaeology of the contemporary past should not be considered a period study, it is nonetheless important to understand both the continuities and discontinuities in contemporary life that might form the object of an archaeology of the present. This chapter will introduce a theoretical framework on which to build an archaeology of the contemporary past through a consideration of what various cultural theorists have written about the nature of the subject and its relevance to the study of contemporary places and material culture. There is a large literature on the nature of modernity and late modernity (a term we use to describe both ‘postmodernity’ and ‘supermodernity’ in a historical sense, see further discussion below), from which we have drawn a selection that we consider helpful in understanding the topic of contemporary archaeology, and that provides a theoretical background to the work of archaeologists who study the contemporary past. This chapter will also explore the ways in which archaeology as a form of documentation becomes a political and social intervention when its gaze is turned towards the contemporary past. We argue that this political dimension is one of the defining characteristics of the archaeology of the contemporary past. Although we noted in Chapter 1 that this is not a book about heritage, the issue of heritage is in many ways integral to understanding the role of contemporary archaeology, as it relates to the ways in which we engage with, and understand, the past in the present. Indeed, in this chapter we argue that the rise of a heritage industry is itself a tangible artefact of the same impulse that led to the rise of contemporary archaeology as a distinct Weld of study (see also Ferguson, Harrison, and Weinbren 2010). At the same time, understanding these impulses that have given rise to heritage and the archaeology of the recent past helps us to understand what makes the period unique, and lays the foundation for a thematic framework for undertaking an archaeology of the contemporary past.
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