Maintaining the Open Space

By Thomas, Julian | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Maintaining the Open Space


Thomas, Julian, Antiquity


The force of Willy Kitchen's call for the World Archaeological Congress to be 'reinvented' and to undertake a 'more principled political engagement' depends upon a particular understanding of what kind of an organization WAC is, and of what it does. WAC was originally formed as a result of the IUPPS' withdrawal of support from the Southampton Congress of 1986, occasioned by the exclusion of South African participants (Ucko 1987: 127). It exists above all to hold international congresses, which focus on a series of concerns which are distinct from those of the IUPPS (including the role of archaeology in the third world, the significance of archaeology to indigenous communities, the social and political context of archaeological activity, archaeological education, archaeological theory and the role of new technology). WAC is characterized less by a unified position or agenda than by a conviction that particular issues are worthy of debate, and a commitment to providing the conditions under which they can be discussed openly. WAC establishes the discursive space within which competing points of view can be rehearsed, and it can be distinguished from the more unified platforms of organizations like the new Radical Archaeology Forum (Hamilakis et al. 1996). I support both organizations, recognizing they exist to do different things in different ways. WAC's membership draws from different nations and cultural backgrounds, and rather than seeking to homogenize these it sets up the circumstances in which they can engage in a conversation, to their mutual enlightenment. If WAC can be said to have a single mission, it is one of consciousness-raising. Further, it is more than a semantic point that WAC meetings do not have 'delegates' (as Kitchen suggests) but 'participants', who do not represent any government unless they declare themselves to do so.

Undoubtedly WAC's discursive space was compromised by the ban on any consideration of the Ayodhya issue at WAC3 in New Delhi. It is worth recalling the circumstances under which Jack Golson, as President, exhorted those attending the Congress to refrain from discussing the destruction of the mosque. Golson and the WAC Executive were under the impression that the request to restrict debate had come from the Indian government; they were acting on the basis of information from reliable sources implying that any mention of Ayodhya might result in bloodshed and death (WAC fell on the second anniversary of the destruction of the mosque). With Congress participants arriving and considerations for local security, the WAC Executive chose to accede to the ban rather than cancel the Congress. They then agreed to investigate the circumstances surrounding the ban and provide an opportunity for a full discussion of the Ayodhya issue, which was eventually achieved with the Croatian Inter-Congress earlier this year.

WAC owes its existence to a principled political stand on the issue of institutionalized racism - surely an instance of a risked decision. But we should remember that South African participants were not excluded from WAC-1 on the grounds of the views they held. Most, if not all, of the 27 people concerned were actually opposed to the policy of apartheid. This was not an attempt to shield WAC from the insidious influence of a corrupt political philosophy, but an act of solidarity with a UNbacked academic and cultural boycott of the apartheid state. I find it quite conceivable that WAC might make such a political stand again in the future, and in its condemnation of the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque it has shown itself capable of decisively adopting a position on contemporary issues. However, I would hope that WAC will always form its policy in the light of an honest attempt to understand the complexities of a given situation, rather than a knee-jerk reaction. It is for this reason that I would be opposed to the 'no platform' policy which Kitchen advocates, which would involve denying 'participation to those who by their actions would frustrate WAC's broader aims'. …

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