Monday, July 4, 2011

Dumping on Binford

Colleen Morgan at Middle Savagery pointed to a new article in which Alice Kehoe bashes Lewis Binford (Kehoe 2011). Kehoe obviously has some serious and long-standing beefs with Binford, and her piece is more an emotional rant than an intellectual analysis. It jumps all over the place, from serious intellectual and empirical issues to innuendo and hearsay. I agree with Bradley Garrett, in his comment on Colleen's post, that Kehoe's paper is "deeply embarrassing for all parties involved. Why would a scholarly journal publish such a vicious personal attack thinly veiled as a disciplinary biography?" Well, if their emails are any indication, I would conclude that the journal (Arqueología Iberoamericana") is desperate for articles. This one certainly wouldn't be accepted (in its published form) at most archaeology journals.

I think many of us have our beefs with Binford. For example, see my urban theory paper (Smith 2011) for some remarks on his academic provincialism, which contributed greatly to the isolation of archaeology from other social sciences by using standard social science terms (e.g., "middle-range theory," "normative") in idiosyncratic ways. But what is needed is serious intellectual analysis of Binford and his role, not emotional personal attacks.

It often seems hard to come to grips with the intellectual legacies of major scholars immediately after their death. For example, almost everything written about Gordon Willey since his death ten years ago (e.g., Sabloff and Fash 2007) has been in the hagiographic mode: what a great man, such important contributions, wasn't he wonderful! Yet in my opinion, his stubborn (and puzzling) view that the Maya were a non-urban civilization held back the progress of Mayan studies for several decades. Now this is a small point in comparison with Willey's broad range of positive contributions, but I haven't seen a negative word published about Willey.

Archaeology needs some serious work in the area of intellectual biography. The lives and works of recently deceased towering scholars, from Lewis Binford and Gordon Willey, to William Sanders and David Kelley (there is a definite Mesoamerican slant here), deserve close scrutiny. Although I agree with many of Kehoe's criticisms of Binford's thinking, and in spite of some entertaining notions ("Binford as a Southern Baptist preacher"), I think Lew deserves better.


Kehoe, Alice B.2011    Lewis Binford and his Moral Majority. Arqueología Iberoamericana 10:8-16.

Sabloff, Jeremy A. and William L. Fash (editors)
2007    Gordon R. Willey and American Archaeology: Contemporary Perspectives. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Smith, Michael E.2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:(in press).


Anonymous said...

well said!

Anonymous said...

Well, at least she isn't in hagiographic mode. And at least it isn't boring to read. It is biased and, I’m betting, has a lot of truth to it. Why can't one of his critics write a bio-piece without losing her/his contempt? I have read so much unprofessional contempt for other scholars coming from the pen of Binford himself. Far from an embarrassment, I think this piece is more historical than a lot of the other one's I've read on LB. She treats him as a historical figure--a figure whose biography (to be historical) must transcend the pages of his CV.

MT Bale said...

I heartily agree that Archaeology needs a stronger tradition of biography. Where is our George W. Stocking? One of the fondest memories of my grad school coursework was getting to sink my teeth into the biographical books on anthropologists by Stocking.