Thinking through abscence

To continue the reading-list saga, the fragment of today is one about abscence, loss and memory. When studying (dead) bodies in particular, and archaeology in general, one is prone to stumbling upon such an approach, and the next fragment is taken from an article by M. Meyer (2012, Placing and tracing absence: A material culture of the immaterial. Journal of Material Culture 17: 103):

Absence comes in various guises. Phantom pains, deceased people, ancestors, destroyed buildings, ghosts, gods, silences … All these absences can have effects on our lives. They matter. (p. 103) […] Yet absence is not only something that does. Absence is also something we engage with, something we do something to. In comparing cemeteries and museums, Meyer and Woodthorpe (2008) note:

In a museum and a cemetery we can ‘feel’, ‘see’, and ‘hear’ absence. In cemeteries, we are confronted with absence in the loss of people … In museums, we are confronted with the absence of the ‘world out there’ and/or the ‘world that once was’. Both sites, hence, do something to and something with the absent – transforming, freezing, materialising, evoking, delineating, enacting, performing, and remembering the absent.” (p. 104)

Abscence can take many forms- it can linger around the surviving ruins of the past (as in the above quote), or it can be a void waiting to be filled- the missing links in our interpretation. All these diverse meanings are reflected in (osteo) archaeology where it has been used as a meditation on the historical condition, a pretext of criticising the consumerist society or a conceptual tool for highlighting comemmorative strategies.

Particularly interesting are the studies confronted with the abscence of the very “object” of study, such as the case of the inquiries into the fate of the lost bodies, those who have dissapeared in war/conflict victims. But this will make the topic of a dedicated future post 🙂

Further readings on the archaeology/anthropology of abscence

  • Bille, M, Hastrup, F., Sørensen T.F. (eds) 2010. An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss. Berlin: Springer.
  • Ruin Memories project:
  • Hallam, E and Jenny Hockey 2001. Death, Memory and Material Culture, Oxford: Berg Publishers.
  • Tarlow, S. 1999. Bereavement and commemoration: an archaeology of mortality  Oxford: Blackwell.

Featured image: Source


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s