- On Delusions
Like many Southeastern archaeologists, I have been thinking about Pauketat’s new book since its arrival (and even earlier—I recall its attention-grabbing title glaring up from an AltaMira advertisement several months prior to publication). Given the challenge that Pauketat has issued to his colleagues in Mississippian archaeology, it is timely and fitting that Native South offer its readers a forum such as this.
At the risk of slipping into literary criticism, it seems important to begin not with what Pauketat has to say in Delusions, but rather with how he chooses to say it. Before I am pegged as someone with an excessive sensitivity to matters of tone, I should point out that this is not merely a matter of being nice. As Pauketat, channeling James Griffin, puts it, “we must criticize each other to move ahead.”1 I fully agree that critique is essential to the scholarly process, yet I believe that the way he makes his case threatens to overwhelm much of his message. He tells us at the beginning that “not wanting to offend, I borrow a technique from Kent Flannery”: the narrative device of the composite persona (Delusions, 4). But if we look closely, we find an immediate—if unintended—distinction between how Flannery and Pauketat use this device. In The Early Mesoamerican Village, Flannery refers to his three protagonists as “characters.”2 Pauketat refers to his four creations as “caricatures” (Delusions, 4). This simple distinction conveys much of what seems misguided in Pauketat’s tone.
Flannery is able to recognize a part of himself in each of his composites: the Real Mesoamerican Archaeologist (RMA), the Skeptical Graduate Student (SGS), and the Great Synthesizer (GS).3 Perhaps because of his empathy, Flannery is careful to depict them as complex characters, [End Page 111] each of whom is trying to understand the early Mesoamerican village to the best of his abilities. Each has his own theoretical and methodological axes to grind and often goes about grinding these on his colleagues’ heads, but Flannery’s description of their questions and debates is always generous enough to portray them as fully human characters—as people—even as we are witness to their various faults and foibles. What is more, we find ourselves carried along in the debates because we are able to see each side; there are no heroes and villains in Flannery’s tale, just archaeologists grappling with their imperfect understanding of the past. Indeed, in the end RMA hands SGS a check and an airline ticket (out of his own funds, no less) to begin fieldwork testing some shiny new processual ideas, and SGS gives RMA a bottle of fine tequila (the kind with the worm still in the bottle). Flannery’s point is clear. If we are willing to get beyond the hyperbole and finger wagging, we might have something to learn from each other.
In Delusions, Pauketat eschews this constructive approach for one that is easier, if less intellectually satisfying. True to his word, he offers two-dimensional “caricatures,” or straw men upon whom he can heap his scorn and abuse. The white hats in Pauketat’s tale are worn by the Uncertain Graduate Student (UGS) and by the Southern Pragmatist (and one could argue by Pauketat himself, who pops in now and then to offer sage advice to UGS).The dark hats are worn by Dr. Science and Darth Evader. Dr. Science is a processualist of the (now) old school, so attached to his rote explanations of Mississippian society—and so incapable of even understanding questions posed from a postprocessual perspective—that Pauketat concludes, “No reason to think that I could engage this guy in an interesting two-way conversation” (Delusions, 39). This is quite the departure from Flannery’s approach. But we should keep in mind that Dr. Science is only a caricature. It is Pauketat himself who later asserts that only by adopting his ideas can we “give voice to our indignation over the dark forces working against human history” (Delusions, 207–8). So his is a story with good and evil, of dark forces and those who (one must surmise) work for...