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Lewis Binford

Will at Nomadic Thoughts has an interesting post on Lewis Binford. One passage which caught my eye is this one:

One thing about Lewis Binford’s writing is that it is sometime (ok, often) hard to understand. He himself has even admitted that he does this on purpose, because if he writes clearly and the reader immediately understands what is being argued, then there is a risk that it will be blindly accepted and perpetuated as received knowledge. By burying his meaning in complicated prose Binford forces the reader to consciously deconstruct his argument by reading slowly and rereading even more slowly.

How many assumptions in this piece of admirably clear writing by Will, or in Binford’s own words in a quote picked up by K. Kris Hirst, should be challenged are here?

I’ll start with the assumption that readers are largely uncritical and difficult text helps encourage critical reading. I don’t think he’s right. In fact the very fact that I’m debating this at all would suggest that there isn’t a uniform acceptance of clearly expressed ideas. In contrast I’d argue that by writing clearly you make assumptions and arguments explicit. Further there is no evidence provided to support this idea, but there is strong evidence against it. Across Europe academic departments are becoming more Anglophonic because publishing in Slovakian, or even German, doesn’t mean that you’ll be read by a more critically engaged reader, more that you’ll be read by fewer readers.

This leads to a second assumption that Binford makes. He assumes readers have only one source of information about his work. This is plausible, as he’s the guy who’s writing it, but it only truly works in a Platonic Academy outside of time, space and the need to eat and sleep. In one discipline alone there is simply no longer the time to read all papers. If someone is drawing work from further afield, and most authors do, then there’s simply far too many papers to read. I don’t mean that to suggest archaeologists are too lazy to keep up with their field. There are simply too many papers to physically read and too few hours in the day to properly digest them. So we prioritise. I rarely read anything on monasticism, because it’s not a field I work in. Similarly a church historian moving into archaeology probably isn’t going to have Binford’s work on the Numamiut on the top of her reading list. What she may well do though is read about Binford’s work in another book on archaeological theory. If there’s a serious point perhaps she would read Binford’s own work, but a brief encounter with that wouldn’t really sell it. Then comes the judgement are there enough heartbeats left in her life to spend many of them reading one author, or four who have expressed themselves clearly? A lot of criticism of Binford these days isn’t of his work, but of what people have read in books that mention his work. Now imagine if you’re an archaeologist who isn’t a Big Name. Precisely how much impact will obscure prose have? If you don’t want to make an impact, why publish?

Will the edited highlights of his work accurately report what he’s saying? He assumes readers will not replace poor prose with their own assumptions of what he’s saying. Hodder’s criticisms of processualism have been labelled as attacks on a straw man. There are a few reasons why this could be. Hodder has his own points to prove. Processualism could be more flawed in a historical environment than the more anthropologically-minded archaeologists realise. Another is that Hodder simply could be reading a different text to the one that Binford though he wrote. The more obscure text is, the more room there is for double meanings or ambiguity. This may be a good thing – ideas can advance via imperfect replication, but it’s a strange cove who expends effort in being misunderstood if they sincerely wish to advocate what they are proposing.

There is also a fourth assumption, related to the second. He assumes the casual reader is not worth writing for. There’s all sorts of problems with this. One is that who is a casual reader? People with what is initially a casual interest in archaeology or history can become avid researchers, but probably won’t if the articles they read are effectively big “Sod Off” signs. However even that misses the point. Should we really be only writing for the worthy, whoever they are? Not every paper can be made accessible or should, but there is a difference between using technical language because it’s efficient and precise and using jargon simply for the sake of erecting barriers. If archaeology is to be publicly funded, and academic archaeology is, then is there an ethical obligation to make output no more difficult than necessary? If we’re not producing a publicly accessible output then what is the justification for funding academic archaeology? Is it merely a cheaper way of keeping Dons off the streets where they’d be hassling shoppers for loose change or a copy of Antiquity?

One big advantage of poor writing which is rarely mentioned by its proponents is that it is an excellent way of writing about things you haven’t thought through. If you write clearly then you have to understand your subject, only with waffle can you hide ignorance and smuggle dodgy concepts. I think that writing well is necessary for the reader, but it is also the best way of getting to grips with your own research as writer. I’d say on this occasion Binford has it exactly wrong. If the writing is sufficiently clear it cannot be ambiguous.