Holtorf's attempt to change the nature of academic discourse is ambitious, provocative and deliberately ambiguous. He succeeds in engaging with a series of fundamental questions about how we write archaeology and, by association, how we write about anything. In reading his paper, I find myself alternately agreeing with his position and disagreeing with it. In the final analysis, however, I object not to the work (in the sense of his 'living' PhD thesis) itself but to the status he attributes to it. My objection stems from the deliberate way in which the state of the work at any time is obscured.
In my view Holtorf is right on several grounds. He is right to reject Costopoulos' criticism that non-serial forms of writing 'are incompatible with the spirit of scientific enterprise'. For all the reasons outlined by followers of Nelson, multilinear forms of writing have much to offer academic discourse. If our intention is to explore multivocality and the way in which accounts of the past are produced in the present then the work is unquestionably successful: it does both. He is also right to reject 'second order' criticisms of the work that relate to, for example, whether text should be read from a screen or not. Contra McLuhan, I would argue that the quality of the ideas can be judged independently of the medium of delivery although, in this case, the choice of medium clearly contributes to the intellectual content. Holtorf, however, does seem worryingly proud of the unsolicited comment that his work is fulfilling McLuhan's vacuous assertion that 'the medium is the message'.
Rather, I object to the manner in which Holtorf implements his idea of a 'living text', primarily because of the impact this has on the ability of the work to be included in a wider formal discourse. The idea itself is interesting and valid — breaking with the artificiality of the written text, in which an author's position is represented as changing instantaneously with the publication of another monolithic text. 'Living texts' offer the opportunity for authors to show how their position is influenced by their thinking, reading and experiences, sometimes gradually and sometimes suddenly. Holtorf's text, however, offers very little of this as he chooses not to record how it has changed, only its current state.
There is no technical reason why a living text could not preserve its past states. Database systems that allow the user to 'roll back' their state are commonplace, and it is not hard to envisage mechanisms whereby individual pages might be archived and linked to new ones as they were changed. The amount of extra storage required would actually be minimal. Not permitting the recall of previous states of the text removes the ability of other researchers to connect with Holtorf's ideas directly for detailed critique or reference. For me, this is not so much an act of omission as an act of concealment: hiding the genesis of the text.
His defence emphasises pragmatic issues but also his view that it would make the work more 'aesthetically clumsy — losing some of its beauty and elegance'. And this is the nub of the issue: if aesthetics are the primary concern here, then this is principally a work of art not of scholarship. Note that this is not intended as a negative remark. As with many works of art it challenges us, appeals to our senses and provokes us to think about the world differently. And it is fun. But in the final analysis it is — as is Holtorf's delightful account of 'incavation' (2001) — not archaeology per se but art about archaeology.
So it is not the work itself that I object to, but its claimed status. The work deliberately absents itself from the body of scholarship that we are engaged with, while at the same time promoting the author's intellectual credentials as a scholar. As a consequence, it represents, for me, a neat postmodernist trick: ironically seeking to undermine what it purports to be. It is a little bit like submitting a PhD thesis that claims that PhDs don't exist.
Department of Archaeology
University of Southampton
SO17 1BF, UK
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Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004