Joel Jonientz

April 22, 2014 § 29 Comments

Yesterday we lost Joel Jonientz, one of my closest friends, collaborators, and neighbors. He was 46 and has a wife and three small kids. It sucks.

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Joel was a remarkable guy. He had vast knowledge ranging from painting, drawing, and comics (his scholarly specialty) to music, technology, baseball, football, and (while he refused to discuss it as a Seattle sports fan) the NBA. He knew how to use a circular and a table saw (and rebuilt my front porch while I helped). Whenever there was something to do, he’d remind me: he could read how to do it on the internet, and he had a masters in FINE arts. He could go from moderating a panel of poets, artists, and writers at the UND Writers Conference to complaining about an offseason move by the Seahawks in a moment.

He co-produced a podcast and you can hear it here.

He maintained a blog that documented his art here.

He has videos on Vimeo here including this one in Mayan.

He designed an amazing poster for Punk Archaeology here for free because he though the entire thing sounded fun. He laid out the book and designed the cover art.

He always stayed to the end of the game when watching sports at my place. When things were going well for one of our teams, he would insist on high-fives. I don’t do high fives.


He understood that it was just as important to hang out when things were going poorly. In 2011, he was the only person watching the NLDS with me (in a crowded house) and we both noticed Ryan Howard limping after running hard to first on the final out of the Phillies’ losing effort. 

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More than any of that, he was a family guy. He loved his wife and kids in a way that gave perspective to the entire world and gave him a consistent set of priorities that guided his life, work, and friendships. When he and I were stressed out about something, he’d smile and tell me that when he got home, he had three little people who would remind him of what was really important in life and produce joy.

Whenever I needed something, he would be there to help. He was supportive of most of my ideas (and he was supportive of most of his friends’ ideas) even if it was largely because “he loved a bad plan.”

Yesterday, I was barely able to function, but today, I think I’m seeing a bit more clearly. Anyone who met Joel – even just for a moment – remembers him, and we’ll all feel his loss for a long time. 

Joel and I had plans! He was the co-director of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with me. We had both worked hard to direct the disparate energies of the Working Group in Digital and New Media (there was even talk of us getting a web page!). He was fascinated by my work in the Bakken and, when we last talked on Easter, he was excited for my plan to excavate Atari games in the New Mexico desert

If yesterday, I was wracked by grief, and, while today I don’t feel any less sad, I also realize how much work I have to do to live up to Joel’s legacy.

A little update : This post has received over 400 page views in the last few hours. Joel used to tell me that a mention on my blog was worth about 30 page views on his. He and his friends are returning the favor 10 fold. So take a few minutes to click through to his blog, listen to a podcast, or check out a video. This image was touching today.

One update more: My good friend Tim Pasch shared this with us today. It’s a cover of Grateful Dead’s Ripple

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

Digging E.T.

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

So, this has been a bad week for our community and I am still in shock from what happened this weekend. At the same time, one of the last conversations I had with Joel was about the Atari excavation. He was so excited about it and wanted to hear about it as soon as I could officially tell him anything. (In fact, I had said that I would send along some unofficial updates via email as the project developed).

So this afternoon, I’m off to Alamogordo, New Mexico to excavate a landfill and to document the search for some 4-5 million discarded cartridges of the Atari game E.T. The team is sweet: Andrew Reinhard is our fearless leader, Richard Rothaus and K. Lindsay Eaves know how to do things, and Bret Weber and I will be there to theorize, contextualize, and learn. We’ll also be joined by Raiford Guins, author of Game After, Ernie Cline, author of Ready Player One, and a band of merry and accomplished filmmakers.  

I’ve blogged on locating this work in a larger conversation about the archaeology of late capitalism and in narrative strategies embraced by fantasy, fanboy, and gamer culture. I think we should also think about how excavating a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico contributes to our image of the modern American West where high-tech industries intersect with open and unpopulated spaces and failed dreams. I’ll be leaning on Bret Weber’s expertise in Western History as we track the final journey of the games from the Atari distribution center in El Paso to the landfill in Alamogordo. 

While I am not sure whether we’ll be allowed (or have time) to tweet or blog from the dig, but if we can, I will. In the meantime follow the hashtag #diggingET to see what’s up.

Fantasy, Fanboys, and Archaeology

April 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve been reading Ernie Cline’s Ready Player One in anticipation of meeting him at week’s end in Alamogordo, New Mexico as we assemble to track down millions of dumped Atari cartridges. The book is entertaining and captures a particular strain of distopian science fiction that contrasts a decaying, dangerous, and impoverished world against a gleaming virtual reality. Gibson framed it most famously as the contrast between the sprawl and the abstracted flow of data through the matrix. Cline’s book is also laced with vaguely archaeological references. Without giving too much away of the plot, the dorktastic main character engages in a quest in a massive game simulation to win a dead billionaires fortune. The quest involves the main character exploring tombs, ruins, or places frozen in time.

The archaeological character of the book, set in the middle decades of the 21st century, plays off an explicit sense of nostalgia for the 1980s. It fits nicely in the growing nostalgia for that decade that fuels, in part, the desire to track down and excavate the buried Atari cartridges in the New Mexico desert. The goal of this excavation, like the quest in Cline’s novel, is to solve a mystery, but it’s also to restore the objects buried in ground (hidden and discarded) to a place within our cultural consciousness. The act of restoring value to copies of the E.T. video game, finds a nice parallels with the plot of the movie (and the goal of the game) where the homesick alien struggles, but ultimately finds his way home.

This kind of Romantic quest for restoration projects a utopian future grounded firmly in a past that is somehow more authentic, innocent, and just. Just as Freud understood excavation as the method to uncover our primordial humanity by cutting away the cluttered overburden of the conscious mind, the nostalgic trip into the New Mexico desert to restore the game E.T. to its rightful place in our nostalgic utopian view of the past. Hayden White, following Northrop Frye, recognized Romantic forms of emplotment as evoking anarchist ideologies although not necessary in the strictest, most doctrinal sense of the word. The act of Romantic restoration, however, does fit well the task of the archaeologists who build their ideal futures through the careful reconstruction of the past.

There is something of an echo between the archaeologist’s craft and our desire to make the past whole again, and the fantasy of science fiction which so often – in its most popular form – follows the well-worn path from impending distopia to redeemed utopia. The nostalgic fanboy recognizes the Romantic emplotment common to fantasy and archaeology. The Atari dig embodies the powerful impulses of nostalgia, science-fiction, fanboy enthusiasm, and archaeological epistemologies.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

I am under brutal, continuous assault by allergies this month so I had a slow, headachy, mucus-filled morning at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Headquarters.

But, the blog must go on and my readers deserve their quick hits and varia on this springlike Easter weekend.

Maiden Flight

How should things end?

April 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

For the last five years, I’ve taught the undergraduate methods class in the history department at the University of North Dakota every semester (History 240). Next year, I go on sabbatical and when I come back, it’s my understanding that my services will no longer be required in this class. So this will be my last time teaching the course for the foreseeable future.

I designed the course in 2009, and made it a combination historiography and historical research methods. The goal was to introduce students to the history of the discipline of history and to use that to situate how we approach historical research and writing today. In general, the course was successful, although I am not entirely sure that the methods introduced in the course were reinforced enough to be second nature for our students by the time they reached our capstone class. In fact, we’re introducing a class between History 240 and History 440 (our capstone) next year to reinforce many of the basic research skills introduced in history 240. As a result, the character of History 240 will have to change. More than that, I suspect that my own idiosyncratic approach to the course will not continue. That’s ok, though. I’ve had my time.

The end of teaching this class did get me thinking about how to end a class. My usual approach at the end of the semester is to scribble down some notes about how the class went and what I might want to change. These notes and some quick and dirty statistical summary of student performance (based on grades) allowed to adjust the class the next semester by shifting the emphasis slightly, reinforce key points, and even eliminate assignments on which students performed irregularly.  

This semester, however, there is no need to do that. I’m not teaching the class again, and if I do, it won’t be the same class. So as the semester winds down in this course, I find myself without a clear sense of purpose. I guess I never developed or even considered an endgame strategy.

Thinking about my lack of endgame, got me to reflect on the various initiatives that begin with promise on university campuses, but seem to lack a formal endgame. This is particular significant at a place like UND where our administrators rotate through every 3-5 years and bring with them a new set of priorities, strategies, and vision. More than that, the economy, technology, and disciplinary boundaries appear to have entered a period of particular fluidity and dynamism that calls into question the value of any project or program that would continue 

If faculty have the initiative and resources to invest in new programs or projects, then, then we must also understand the environment in which we work. Project, programs, and even classes need to have endgames which are more than just slipping quietly into sabbatical or watching interest in a program or project decline until it is quietly discontinued. Just as archaeological projects generally have plans to move from field work to publication, I wonder whether programs and projects on campus should have requirements for productive, reflective conclusions. These conclusions not only allow for the assessment (and if we know anything about the modern university, it’s that they love assessment) of the results of the program, the class, and the project over a set length of time, but also hold all parties accountable for the resources committed to the undertaking. Productive undertakings that succeed in their goals will have the opportunity to make a strong case of continued support – over another fixed duration with another set of clear goals; unproductive undertakings or ones that do not achieve their goals over a realistic span of time, will not get continued support freeing up resources for new, innovative programs.   

This approach may seem overly mechanistic and run counter to an open-ended spirit of humanistic inquiry. But, spending the last few weeks thinking about the trajectory of a course has made me realize that a class’s endgame has to produce a more satisfying and productive results than my current situation. As I wrap up teaching History 240 – perhaps for the last time ever and certainly the last time in its current configuration – I’m struck by a feeling of pointlessness. Five years of teaching the class and I have no ability to reflect on what I accomplished over that duration in a synthetic or systematic way. 

Matthew Kirschenbaum Lecture at UND Today

April 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

The UND Working Group in Digital & New Media is happy to present “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing,” A Virtual Talk by Matthew Kirschenbaum. The talk is free and open to the public and will take place at 4pm on Wednesday, April 16 in the East Asian Room in the Chester Fritz Library. You should be able to stream his talk here.

KirschenbaumFlyer pdf

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH, an applied think tank for the digital humanities). He is also an affiliated faculty member with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Maryland, and a member of the teaching faculty at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. Kirschenbaum served as the first director of the new Digital Cultures and Creativity living/learning program in the Honors College at Maryland.

A 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, Kirschenbaum specializes in digital humanities, electronic literature and creative new media (including games), textual studies, and postmodern/experimental literature. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, and was trained in humanities computing at Virginia’s Electronic Text Center and Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (where he was the Project Manager of the William Blake Archive). His dissertation was the first electronic dissertation in the English department at Virginia and one of the very first in the nation.

Kirschenbaum’s first book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, was published by the MIT Press in early 2008 and went on to receive numerous awards. Kirschenbaum serves on the editorial or advisory boards of a number of projects and publications, including Postmodern Culture, Text Technology, Textual Cultures, MediaCommons, and futureArch. His work has received coverage in the Atlantic, New York Times, National Public Radio, Wired, Boing Boing, Slashdot, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. For more information, see his website.

Blogs and Archaeology Published Quickly

April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been nudging a draft of an article on blogging archaeology forward a little bit each week. I’ve posted part of it here already. The first part of the article looks at blogging among archaeologists as a community of practice. The second part will look at blogging as one of the ways that archaeologists are speeding up the pace of archaeological knowledge production.

This is done not by archaeologists working faster, but rather through a regular stream of information available about archaeological research on the web. Transparency removes what appears to be long pauses from the field work and research process and makes visible the incremental efforts, small revelations, and baffling setbacks that characterize archaeological research.  

Here you go:

Compared to the social media, blogs develop content rather slowly. Even the most fast paced commercial blog rarely rewards more then two or three visits a day to the site. Academic blogs, true to to longstanding rhythms of disciplinary production, tend to update on a much more gradual schedule. At the same time, compared to the traditional print publications, the practice and medium of blogging allows the posts to appear at a blistering pace. Unencumbered by such time consuming processes as editorial oversight, peer review, typesetting, and proofreading, blogs can appear as quickly as the author has words to fill them. Of course, the speed at which blogs posts can appear and the absence of peer or editorial oversight represent blogging practice, and this has attracted the attention of critics who remain skeptical of the value of blogging to the larger academic discourse. Our ability to push unfiltered archaeological knowledge into the web has both outpaced the institutional practices designed to evaluate and control the flow of academic knowledge as well as our interpretative habits which often rely on clear generic indicators to define the character and utility of scholarly production.

Field archaeology is a meticulous process that proceeds at its own pace dictated by the vagaries of manpower, artifact recovery, and recording. The publication process frequently fall prey to the same gradualist approach as famous excavations can take years or even decades to reach publication. While some of this can be attributed to the workflows of particular excavators and their teams, at least some of the issues reside in the traditional process of publishing a field project which involves significant time dedicated to review, editing, and layout. The published results of the field publications are regarded as definitive, although even the most hardened empiricists recognize a difference between a preliminary excavation report and the final publication.

The basic character of blogging streamlines many of these concerns, traditionally going with limited editorial attention and drastically simplified layouts. Both in terms of practice and as a medium, blogging lacks the substantial friction associated with print publication, has allows for almost instantaneous online publication. Bloggers now report on field projects from the field and use the blog to speculate on their work, hypothesize, and even report tentative conclusions. These practices not only lift the veil on the interpretative processes that produce archaeological knowledge (Morgan and Eve 2012; Maguire 2008 for similar attitudes), but also communicate some of the experiences of archaeology from the edge of the trowel. My blog, for example, both documented our misguided expectation that a basilica style church stood on the site of a Hellenistic fortification, and explored the tensions among the project’s senior staff as we struggled to balance the educational and research components of our work. A similar, if more radically inclusive process, was used on the Prescot Street excavations in the U.K. in which all participants were invited to blog and to document their work on the excavation.

While few will argue against the value of blogging for provide a sense of the archaeological experience and to expose archaeological practice to a wider audience, there are limits to the kind of immediacy and transparency that blogging can provide. For example, some nations control stringently the right to reproduce images of objects, architecture, and sites, but have yet to develop comprehensive policies extending to the digital realm. A blog may or may not represent a digital publication. On an even more practical level, announcing the results of an ongoing excavation during the season might make a site more susceptible to looting or other forms of disruption. As with all archaeological work, the limitations and opportunities of a particular medium or practice is not the final work on a decision to disseminate information.

If field work blogs have the potential to make the field processes more transparent, research blogs invite readers into the creative and generative process associated with scholarship. The ability to present ongoing research to a wide audience of peers fits into a continuum of scholarly communication that begins with the conference paper (or perhaps with the informal conversation) and culminates in the peer reviewed book or article. The blog is less clearly vetted than the conference paper or the late, barely lamented, “note” or “correspondence” section of academic journals. In the lead up to the 2014 Society of American Archaeology blogging panel, Doug’s Archaeology Blog curated a blog carnival involving many prominent archaeological bloggers. The responses to the question “Why do you blog?” revealed the range of purposes associated with research from publishing snippets of programing code useful to archaeologists, to staking claim to academic ideas in process and sharing academic problems as they arise in scholarship. As S.W. Kansa and F. Deblauwe have recently noted in their survey of web tools for research in Zooarchaeology , scholarly use of blogs to circulate research remains inconsistent (Kansa and Deblauwe 2011). The practice of exposing ideas to critique is part of the academic process, but we have yet to completely exploit the potential of blogging for communicating ongoing research.

The recent responses to the prompt posted on Doug’s Archaeology Blog likewise demonstrate the importance of the public nature of blogging which has allowed it to become a venue to communicate scholarly work to a broader audience. The popular appeal of archaeology has provided a ready-made audience for efforts to bridge the gap between academic research and the public fascination with the past. At the same time, there is an important aspect of outreach in archaeological blogging. Because archaeologists rely on an informed public both to identify and to protect archaeological sites and objects. In a broader sense blogging to a public audience allows archaeologists to communicate disciplinary boundaries and expertise to a wider group of stakeholders.

The process of blogging research as it occurs also increases the pace of archaeological knowledge production by disseminating and acknowledging the significance of provisional conclusions. Archaeologists make tentative observations regularly over the course of their research and analysis. By making these public on a blog, we demonstrate that the production of archaeological knowledge is not always a plodding, incremental, ponderous slog through reams of data, but often jumps and dances across a landscape of ingenious false starts, brilliant failed hypotheses, and provocative dead ends. Making the intellectual leaps and bounds public hints at both the importance of process and the potential utility of failure for both the academic community and the general public. While it may seem like archaeological publication takes years because of inactivity on the part of archaeologist (and surely some of that is true), in most cases, archaeological analysis is rarely stalled by long delays and is regularly punctuated with exciting, if incremental accomplishments. Archaeology done quickly makes these little victories (and failures) visible.


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