Three Things Thursday: Survey Archaeology, Western Literature, and Poetry from a Former Student

My body is gallantly fighting off a cold the week, so I don’t quite have the energy for a long involved post. So, instead, I’ll offer a little “Three Thing Thursday” as I try to keep the balls in the area down the stretch run of the week.

First Thing.

A colleague shared this article with me over the weekend: Kimberly Bowes et al. “Peasant agricultural strategies in southern Tuscany: Convertible agriculture and the importance of pasture” from The Economic Integration of Rural Italy. Rural Communities in a Globalizing World, ed. G. Tol and T. de Haas. (Brill 2017): 165-194. The article uses examples from her Roman Peasant Project to explore the interplay rural land use and the interplay between pastoralism and more settled agriculture. This team of scholars excavates five sites known from intensive survey archaeology from small ceramic scatters. Two were small seasonal or short-duration “work huts” and combining the modest architecture with botanical, palynological, and faunal material collected from the excavations, they were able to suggest that these structures served land that was likely used as pasture. Pasture plays a key role in strategies associated with ley agriculture which allowed fields to go fallow for years in order to restore the soil and stabilize yields. These small structures (and the small ceramic scatters), then, which a survey might have suggested represented the intensification of conventional agriculture, may, in fact, represent a less intensive strategy associated with ley farming.

Among the more interesting observations from this article are a two sites identified by low-density artifact scatters which produced no structures, but did reveal field drains dating to antiquity and probably the Roman period. These field drains consisted of cobble filled trenches. This is exciting to me both because I was unaware that field drains were used in the Roman period, but more importantly, there is relatively few publications that discuss drain building practices in the Roman period. The use of cobbles to slow the flow of water and to prevent the drains from carving deep channels in the fields offers some evidence for why the builders of the “South Basilica” at Polis may have created a “French drain” on the uphill, south side of the church to keep the rush of water down a natural drainage from undercutting the south wall of the basilica. It’s not a perfect analogy but suggests that my argument may not be entirely wrong.

Second Thing.

I’ve been reading John Beck’s Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (Nebraska 2009). I really like the book. Whatever it’s academic merits (and I’m not really qualified to judge that), it has intrigued me. Beck uses literature to explore the character of the post-war, Cold War Western landscape through an emphasis on Japanese internment, the militarization of the landscape (and the Mexican border), the use of the west as a dumping ground for toxic, nuclear, and otherwise unpleasant waste, and the almost simultaneous emergence of the suburban ideal (cf. J.B. Jackson’s “The Westward Moving House”). Beck makes clear that works like Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian while situated in the past (in this case, the mid-19th century) nevertheless speak to the present situation in a Western landscape shaped by Cold War militarism and its consequences. Elsewhere he weaves together the critiques of Rebecca Solnit, Ellen Meloy, and Terry Tempest Williams which emphasize the role of industry in the refashioning of the Western landscape. While I am embarrassed not to know these works well, I can’t help but wondering whether they influenced somehow my own effort at a similar critique in my The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscape. Don’t be surprised to see these works appear in the ole bloggeroo over the next few weeks. Solnit and Meloy remain priorities for my weekend reading list.

One of the reasons that Beck has excited me so much is that he has pushed me from thinking about archaeology of the contemporary world as a historical and social scientific window onto the contemporary American experience, toward thinking about the archaeology of the contemporary world as a distinctly cultural engagement with late-20th and early-21st century American life. This isn’t meant to deprecate the important work done by people like Jason DeLeon or Shannon Lee Dowdy or Bill Rathje, but to reframe their interventions as much as part of a much larger current of cultural critique. Instead of archaeology treating the contemporary experience as the object of study, archaeology of the contemporary world is (or at, very least, represents) the American experience. If we prioritize the notion of contemporaneity and suggest that it subverts the most common forms of disciplinary and historical detachment, then it makes sense that we can’t study or locate archaeology outside of American culture in the present. This, of course, remains a work in progress.

Third Thing.

I’m very excited to redirect your attention to the North Dakota Quarterly blog this morning. The blog features a poem from Amalia Dillin. Our hardworking poetry editor, Paul Worley, selected this poem for publication without knowing that Amalia was one of my former students at UND where she majored, I think, in Classics but also took history classes. She’s put those classes (and a bunch of her own hard work) to good use as a writer. You can check out her stuff here (although it’s very different from her poem)!

Go read the poem, it’s pretty great and I think summarizes neatly the anxiety that many of use feel in our media saturated lives. 

Contextualizing the Garbage Project

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a chapter dealing with Bill Rathje’s Garbage Project as part of the origin story of the archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I’ve been trying to put this project in its cultural context and this is pulling me back to thinking about the American West and its place within our historical imagination.

Most archaeologists are familiar with its academic context. The conversations between Rathje and Michael Schiffer and Jefferson Reid link The Garbage Project to the developing middle range theory of behavioral archaeology, systematic understanding of formation processes, and the study of modern material culture. Rathje himself unpacks some of this history in his conversation with Michael Shanks published a few years ago and Michael Schiffer unpacks this further in a 2015 article in Ethnoarchaeology dedicated to Rathje’s work and memory

What I’m interested in, however, is the broader cultural context for Rathje’s work. This is as much because the book that I’m writing is focused on the archaeology of the American experience (rather than the history of archaeology or archaeological methods) as it is because I’m not sure that I’ve seen the Garbage Project located within a distinctly American cultural landscape.

My argument is still rough, but it’s centered on three main points.

First, the Garbage Project is part of a larger critical engagement with consumer culture in post-war America. If the interwar period introduced Americans to the desirability of disposable goods, the post-war decades offered the first critique of so-called throwaway culture. The best example of this comes from Vance Packard’s series of influential books in the 1950s and early 1960s emphasized the close tie between consumption, the economics of production, and waste. In the introduction to his 1960 book, Waste Makers, he presents a series of fancifully wasteful anecdotes about futuristic “Cornucopia City” where the abundance of disposable goods produces a parallel abundance of trash. Heather Rogers’ has called the 1950s, the “golden age of waste.” It goes without saying that archaeologists have long connected waste – whether in middens or in other “systemic” contexts, with consumption patterns. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, this connection emerges in the context of contemporary American culture. By redirecting attention to garbage, which tends to be moved out of sight (and out of mind), authors and critics hoped to redirect attention to practices associated with post-war consumerism that likewise have escaped our attention. Michael Roller’s recent article in Historical Archaeology, while not uncontroversial, emphasized some of the mechanisms that produced the rapid transformation of American consumer practices in the mid-century.

Second, Rathje’s Garbage Project starts in Tucson, Arizona before branching out to other cities in the U.S. and abroad. It’s origins in the “New West,” however, are significant. The rapid growth of urban centers in the American West established the region as the most economically, socially, and culturally dynamic parts of the U.S. Tucson itself grew by over 340% between the 1950 and 1960 census expanding from 45,500 to 212,900 people in a mere 10 years. By the start of the Garbage Project in the early 1970s, Tucson was approaching 300,000 people situated in a series of sprawling suburbs extending to the southeast along the Santa Cruz River. The West, and the southwest in particular, was the vanguard of settlement change in the U.S. 

This Western urban growth influenced some of the work done by a group of artists loosely associated with a movement called the New Topographics who often used austere black and white photography vaguely reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams to document settlement change in the post-war American West.   

If the 1950s and 1960s saw the rapid acceleration of American consumer culture, then, the expansion of the western American cities made manifest these attitudes in settlement as rapidly growing western cities literally consumed the western landscape. The changing character of American urbanism, however, created new challenges. One of the most relevant for the Garbage Project is the so-called “Garbage Crisis” that Martin Melosi charted in his book, Garbage in the Cities (1981). As Melosi (and many others since) recognized the so-called Garbage Crisis of the 1970s was as much a crisis of politics as a infrastructure or economics. (And I owe Bret Weber a debt of thanks for introducing me to the changing political landscape of American cities in the 1960s and 1970s). The formulas which allocated federal funding for certain services in cities changed at the same time that the growth of suburbs fundamentally altered the urban tax base. Many cities were faced with the dual challenges of reduced funding for essential services and higher costs associated with more dispersed suburban settlement. As development expanded from the traditional urban core, the rise of NIMBYism and the need to locate landfills and waste processing centers at ever further remove from suburban and ex-urban settlement brought into relief the realities of solid waste disposal in a changing political, demographic, and racial landscape. The growth of cities in the West, then, was part of a larger national narrative concerning new forms of settlement which required a rethinking of basic urban infrastructure. 

Finally and most intimidatingly, the Garbage Project emerged as a distinctive way of viewing the process of occlusion and visibility in post-war American society. Once again, so much of this is situated in our view of the American west. During the Cold War, the American West became home to numerous installation that operated secretly or with greatly restricted access from the infamous Area 51 to White Sands Missile Range and the Trinity Test site. The west is pockmarked with ICBM silos, home to NORAD, and frequent setting for conspiracy theories, UFOs, and top secret military projects which are both known and obscured under a veil of Cold War secrecy.

The interplay of the known and hidden likewise manifests itself in sites like the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site and WIPP or, on a more mundane and banal level, the Atari dump in Alamogordo (for the connection between these sites, go here). The burying of waste in the west, has parallels with a view of the west defined by the hidden costs of extractive industries. Timothy LeCain’s compelling work on sites like the Berkeley Pit in Montana, for example, make clear that the vastness of the West effectively hides the scars left by the extraction necessary to feed our consumption in the same way that it removes from sight the waste associated with our disposable culture. 

My observations here are not new and largely follow paths made by Rebecca Solnit, Lucy Lippard, Ellen Meloy, and others. In fact, this characterization of the American west is so fundamental that has shaped post-war western fiction (as John Beck makes clear in his book Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (2009). Don DeLillo makes, Nick Shay, the main character of his epic Cold War novel Underworld a waste management executive who at one point relocates to Phoenix. Cormac McCarthy’s haunting narratives often play out against Western landscapes subtly shaped Cold War anxieties and understandings. 

As the legacy of the Garbage Project infuses the archaeology of the contemporary world today, it is hardly surprising that the Jason DeLeon’s amazing work along the U.S.-Mexican border relocates our post-war and Cold War anxieties in another western landscape: the Sonoran Desert. The Land of Open Graves documents the material culture, desperate conditions, and human cost of Mexicans entering the U.S. through this desert landscape. The remoteness of this landscapes allow Americans to project their militarism onto an “enemy” safely removed from the public gaze. Like Cold War installations, waste disposal sites, and the lasting scars of extractive industry, the American west of the Garbage Project was a place where Americans could both project their military and economic power and obscure its ultimate costs.   

Teaching Tuesday: Without a Syllabus

Over the last few years, I’ve started to do some work to flip my classroom in both my introductory level and mid-level courses. I’ve also discovered that students have come to expect a certain amount of classroom inversion at my institution. What I used to have to explain and justify for students has now become expected. In general, I think this is a good trend in education.

This morning, I meet with a group of 10 students who have signed up for a one-credit course that will focus on Montgomery Hall. Montgomery Hall is among the older buildings on campus having once served as the university commons, then as the library, before becoming the deanery for Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School, and building filled with storage and small departments. Over the years, the building’s prime spot on the main road through campus and its awkward orientation toward the rest of campus and use of Tudor style architecture rather than the prevailing College Gothic has made it vulnerable to more ambitious campus planners. As a result, the building is slated for demolition this year. 

While this is bad for the building, it is good for students, because it means that once again, we have a building that we can explore as a way to understand architecture, the history of campus, and the complex ways that we might memorialize these buildings and understand how campuses change.

Two years ago, I ran a similar class focused on two now-demolished buildings associated with Wesley College on the campus of UND. In the case of this class, I very much set the agenda and enlisted students as co-researchers who helped me document the building and the objects left behind at abandonment. Over the course of the class, however, students began to get their own ideas and set their own agendas. By the end of the class, the data that I collected was far less interesting than the work of the students themselves. The optimist in me imagined that my research established a framework for the students to explore their own interests, but part of me wondered how the students might do if I hadn’t framed so much of their early interaction with the building.

So, this semester, I’m going to leave the class more open ended. For example, I’m not going to have a syllabus. I’m also not going to tell the students what I want them to do. Instead, I’m going to talk about ways to KNOW a building in general, munch on donuts, and listen to how they think about campus, campus-changes, and commemorating or recognizing the history of campus over time. In the past, I’ve been interested in the tensions between campus as a dynamic place and campus as a place saturated with history and traditions. As recent controversies surrounding the Silent Sam statue on UNC’s campus, the renaming of buildings at Brown, Calhoun College at Yale, and others across the U.S. often marks the intersection between broadly progressive values and the role that college campuses play as mnemonic landscapes for generations of alumni and students.

Framing the class at this very intersection – between formal requirements of a syllabus and the less structured experiences and attitude of students toward their built environment – might set up new ways of thinking about campus buildings and changes over time. 

The class starts now, so we’ll see.   

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It was a cold week here in North Dakotaland, but that’s why people pay the price of admission. This weekend, we’ll get a little break for the cold with temperatures soaring into the 20s F, but to remind us that this is North Dakota and the weather makes the rules, we’re going to have a blizzard. 

There are, of course, worse things that could happen on a weekend and it gives us a good excuse to stay inside, read a good book, watch some NFLing, and, at least this morning, keep an eye on the second Australia-Indian ODI (in Rajkot where it is a lovely 72 degrees F). 

To make things just a bit easier, you could head over to The Digital Press page and download the latest Epoiesen Annual (volume 3!) or go and read this interview with Shawn Graham where he discusses failure, teaching, digital archaeology and humanities, and his growing media empire!

If none of that floats your boat, I humbly submit this little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

IMG 4616

Freud in the Garbage Dump

One of the project that I’m committed to re-energizing this semester is my book on Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. It’s been a bit slow going, in part, because I’ve had to reacquaint myself with historical archaeology more broadly and, in part, because I’ve had other demands on my time.

Anyway, I’m making progress these days, and can’t resist working into my chapter on garbology, some references to Freud. I was particularly charmed by an article by Raymond H. Thompson on A.V. Kidder, who famously excavated Pecos and was instrumental in creating policies that set the groundwork for NAGPRA. Kidder spent some time around the Andover, Massachusetts dump. The opportunity for my two-penny Freudian musings was simply too much to resist.

Here are two paragraphs from my chapter: 

In the field of archaeology, the study of contemporary or nearly contemporary trash is as old as the discipline itself. Dietmar Schmidt, for example, argues that preeminent German anthropologist Rudolf Virchow’s accidental discovery of rubbish pits in Berlin represented a crucial moment in the understanding of archaeology as both a practice and metaphor for modern social science (Schmidt 2001). In the late 1860s, Virchow thought he had discovered the remains of an Iron Age pile dwelling in the middle of the modern city, but soon realized that the deposit of bones, shells, and kitchen pots was discarded rubbish from the previous century. Despite his disappointment, he documented the deposits carefully and presented a number of papers arguing that this deposit of 18th century kitchen waste revealed a good bit about the culinary habits of the German aristocracy and their predilection for oysters and mussels in particular. When Virchow goes on later in the century to visit Heinrich Schleimann’s dig at Troy, he comments on the discarded refuse. Moreover, Virchow’s work led to periodic investigations of modern sewers and other nearly contemporary refuse deposits elsewhere in Europe. Schmidt suggests that Virchow’s and others’ interest in the mundane trash rather than simply the glorious inspired Freud’s use of the archaeological metaphor to characterize his exploration of the human consciousness. Both trash and Freud’s construction of the unconscious represent objects that are hidden but also poised to reveal their formative and foundational influence on contemporary life.

A similar early examination of a nearly contemporary garbage dump comes from A. V. Kidder early exploration of the dump in Andover, Massachusetts. In 1921, Kidder, who is better known for his systematic excavations at Pecos, New Mexico, found himself in Andover caring for his aging mother. Over the summer, he made regular visits to the dump initially attracting the attention of the local police who thought he was either a vagrant or an escaped resident of a psychiatric hospital. While we have little direct records of his observations in the Andover dump, the various bits of information that Raymond H. Thompson gleaned for archival sources demonstrated Kidder’s fascination with both the depositional processes that created the landfill as well as the sequence of lamps that mapped the shift from whale oil to lightbulbs. Over the course of regular observations, Kidder recognized that the process of dumping material on the landfill mound influenced the distribution of artifacts with objects like baby buggies and garbage can lids rolling to the bottom of the slope. He also collected an assemblage of lamps during his observations at the dump and was able to developed a typology that anticipated the well-known Mayers-Oaks (1955) illustration of lamp seriation. Kidder’s initial inability to recognize a number of flattened metal bands which his mother identified as metal corset bones, and made clear, as Thompson observed, that his study of the garbage dump offered insights into women’s underwear to which Kidder would not have otherwise had access. In fine Freudian fashion, Kidder’s time caring for his mother opened a marginal and hidden world to him in the Andover dump. Kidder’s himself endured marginalization when he was misrecognized as a vagrant or as someone escaped from an institution explicitly linking the dump to individuals and circumstances meant to be invisible.

Documenting Mid-Century Grand Forks

For the last year or so, I’ve served on our town’s historic preservation commission. The main mission of the group, from what I understand, is to identify and inventory historical monuments in town while also serving as consulting body for any decisions having to do with heritage in our community. 

The commission is funded annually through a grant from the state and each year we identify properties, buildings, projects, or groups of properties that we’d like to study or inventory more carefully. In some cases, we request funds to nominate buildings for the National Register of Historic Places, but as often, we request funds to develop a more thorough understanding of the heritage present in our community.

This year, I proposed a study of three classes of mid-century buildings in Grand Forks. Sadly (for me!), the committee did not recommend that any of them be funded, but since I compiled the lists, it made sense to share it.

In the past year, we have nominated six, mid-century modern schools for inclusion on the National Register. That research revealed, unsurprisingly, that these schools stood at the center of mid-century neighborhoods. The historic preservation commission is currently doing an inventory of these neighborhood looking for exceptional mid-century modern domestic architecture.  

In keeping with these initiatives, I proposed a three additional studies aimed at documenting mid-century Grand Forks. In some cases, such as mid-century churches, there is enough information for us to perhaps proceed with a formal multi-property nomination (probably under criteria (a) and (c). I feel like they will also satisfy the exception: “A religious property deriving primary significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance” because this multi-property nomination will emphasize these buildings as ” integral parts of districts that do meet the criteria.”  

1. Multi-property nomination for the mid-century churches of Grand Forks.

There are 18 churches (at least) that I would suggest that we bring under study for a multi-property nomination. Some of these buildings will be undoubtedly eliminated as having been modified too significantly to qualify or as standing outside of a clearly discernible mid-century modern district.

The buildings are distinct in that most of them are modern in design and consistent with the popularity of mid-century modern-style architecture in the region and in their surrounding neighborhoods (including the recently nominated schools). My guess is that quite a few of the buildings involved “named” architects and a few show signs of Deremer and co. and Wells Denbrook.

Pre-Mid Century Modern 20th-century Buildings

St. Michael’s (1908-1909)
St. Mary’s (1918; School 1929)
New Life Foursquare Church (321 Cottonwood) – I’m guessing 1920s.
United Lutheran (1931-32) – Individually Listed
B’nai Israel Synagogue (1937) Listed with the Montefiore Cemetery

Mid-Century Modern

St. Paul’s Episcopal (1948)
University Lutheran (1951)
Calvary Community Church of God (1957)
St. Mark’s Lutheran (1958)
Immanuel Lutheran (1958)
Bethel Lutheran (1960)
Faith Baptist Church (1960) Community?
Holy Family (1961)
Grace Baptist (1962)
Zion United Methodist (1962)
Wittenberg Lutheran Chapel (1964)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (1966)
Trinity Free Lutheran (1967)
Calvary Lutheran (1969)
Augustana Lutheran (1950s?)
Wesley United Methodist (1950s?)
Christus Rex (1950s?)
Redeemer Lutheran (1950s)
Sharon Lutheran (1966?)


Salvation Army (1956) not originally built as a church.
Islamic Center (1974)
Seventh Day Adventists (1975)
Assembly of God Church/Valley Christian Center (1978)

2. Commercial Grand Forks

In conjunction with a sustained emphasis on mid-century architecture in Grand Forks, I would recommend a wind-shield survey of mid-century commercial architecture particularly along the S Washington Street corridor. The development of this corridor is less about distinct architecture and more about tracing the growth of the city south and considering how this development changed the character of other historical districts, including the downtown. Some buildings (e.g. the current Atlas Auto building (built as a service station in 1957), Eide Hyundai (1958), or the Ambassador Hotel (1959) will likely fit the survey of transportation related sites planned for 2020.

Two things are worthy of particular note. First, it’s difficult to figure out how to identify these buildings. My very brief survey below is less than ideal.

More importantly, though, we might consider – if we’re ambitious – nominating Grand Cities Mall as a single property nomination. It’s eligible (1964) and it’s a work of DeRemer, Harrie & Kennedy. It’s also the first mall in North Dakota and one of 6 malls that are currently in operation (Fargo-West Acres – 1972), Grand Forks (Columbia Mall – 1977), Bismarck (Kirkwood (1970) and Gateway (1979), and Minot (Dakota Square – 1980)). Considering that there will be no new malls built in ND (and haven’t been since 1980) and that at least one or two of these will likely disappear in the next decade, there is a real reason to document this building more carefully.  

Here is a sample of buildings, not all likely to be contributing, along the S Washington Street corridor with dates (note that Denny’s Lounge at 1100 S Washington appears to be earlier than most surrounding commercial building):

715 S Washington ST (1953)
First National Pawn/Halal Meets (1440 S Washington – 1962)
Hugos/Collins/Papa John’s et c. (1958/1962/1964)
Town and Country Shopping Center 1711 S WASHINGTON ST (1958)
Treat, Play, Love building (1900 S Washington – Inn Expensive Inn owners – 1956)
Rite Spot Liquor (1963)
Josef’s School of Hair Design (2011 S Washington – 1959)
2301 S Washington (1969)
Burris Carpet (2307 S Washington – 1960)
First National Pawn (2495 S Washington – 1965)
Blue Star Investment (2506 S Washington – 1967)

**Grand Cities Mall (1964)

3. Bars

The landscape of bars, lounges, and taverns is changing in Grand Forks. There is a core of mid-century modern bars that continue to operate in their original locations. Bars, churches, and schools represent the key complements to the mid-century residential expansion and regularly outpaced commercial development along key corridors. Doing a windshield survey of these buildings and preparing a more comprehensive inventory of the buildings, their history, and their condition offers a nice way to track urban history in Grand Forks. It seems unlikely that any of the are suitable for individual nomination, but it feels like a multi-property nomination (and bar crawl) would be possible. (Note that Kelly’s is a pre-1950 service station).

The Hub (1899 – building only)
Charlie Brown’s (1947)
Broken Drum (1950)
Judy’s Tavern (1950)
Denny’s Tavern (1950)
McMenamy’s Tavern (1950)
The Bun (pre-1962)
El Roco (pre-1965)
Highlander (1962)
Southgate (1969)
Johnny’s Lounge (1969)
Kelly’s (1969) Pre-1969 was a service station of pre-1947 date.
Diamond Lounge (1971)
Wild Bill’s (1971)


As I said, sadly, these recommendations were not sent forward to the state for funding, this year, but that gives me a year to do additional research and to prepare more thoughtful recommendation for the 2021 grant cycle. I already have a team of people interested in the mid-century bars!  

New Book Day! Epoiesen 3

It’s new book day over at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as the third installment of the Epoiesen Annual drops in a paginated-pdf and as a print-on-demand paper volume from Amazon

As readers of this blog know, Epoiesen is a digital journal published at Carleton University in Ottawa and edited by Shawn Graham. Three years ago, he asked whether my press might be interested in publishing a paginated and paper version of the journal. Without hesitation, I agreed and this is the third installment in that series. 

To my mind, this is the strongest Epoiesen annual yet. It features a series of interactive meditations on the Melian Dialogue touched off by a Twine game developed by Neville Morley, an album of assemblages concocted in Andrew Reinhard’s laboratory, an exploration of the concept of the “phrygital” from Digital Archaeology heavy-weights Ian Dawson and Paul Reilly and in the fantastic papercraft of Alyssa Loyless. Each of these contributes have compelling response (including one from me!) which challenge, expand, and critique the work. A concise introduction by Shawn Graham brings this work together and a reflexive commentary on a visually compelling Twitter essay by Katy Whitaker provides a nice anchor to the volume. The cover art from Jens Notroff makes the cover an essay.  

If you haven’t checked out Epoiesen you should. And, if you have a creative project or genre defying article that is lingering in your mind and looking good home, consider submitting to Epoiesen!  

To celebrate the appearance of Epoiesen 3 and Shawn’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays last month, he agreed to answer 7 questions about his work, failure, and future project. We’ve published this interview at The Digital Press blog.

Disjointing Time: Ancient Texts and Science Fiction

This weekend, the last weekend before the 2020 Spring Semester Party gets started, I spent a few hours finishing Brett M. Rodger’s and Benjamin Eldon Stevens’s Once and Future Antiquities in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2019). It’s not really what I should have been doing, but it’s what I did. So, whatever.

To be honest, I was drawn to the book as much by its cover as my own casual reading interest in science fiction. Readers of this blog, I realize that a little bit of science fiction usually appears in my summer reading list (last summer it was Octavia Butler, the summer before Ursala K. Le Guin, the summer before that Isaac Asimov, and Neil Stephenson before that). I also wrote a paper considering the influence of Philip K. Dick on archaeologies of the future.  I also mention the influence several science fiction authors in a recent article in the European Journal of Archaeology:

“While the general absence of an intellectual framework for punk archaeology and its questioning of disciplinary practices and expertise invited useful criticism (Mullins, 2015; Richardson, 2017), its emphasis on the do-it-yourself and low-fi character of punk shaped my view of technology in archaeology with the (proto-) cyberpunk dystopias of Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, and John Shirley providing an anxious backdrop.” 

Rodger’s and Stevens’s book, then, while not a pressing read, did fit into a larger, if poorly defined, pattern in my work. (I feel the need to justify this because I have too many other things to do than to spend time reading random books because I like their covers).

Once and Future Antiquities does a nice job of showing how Classical texts and usually Homer shaped particular works of science fiction and fantasy ranging from Dr. Who and Rocky Horror to Hayao Miyazaki, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jack McDevitt. These articles embrace the patient rewards of a close reading of both modern and ancient texts. There is a hat tip to methodology throughout, especially in Tom Keen’s article, which also gives this branch of the study of the intersection of ancient texts and science fiction a point of origin in a blog post from 2006. I’ve tended to think about archaeology and science fiction in terms Frederic Jameson’s 2007 book, Archaeologies of the Future which I encountered Bill Brown’s recent-ish book, Other Things (2015), but the way archaeologists think about antiquities and Classicists do, is obvious somewhat different.

While the detailed description of how ancient and modern texts intermingle was fascinating, the most intriguing thing about these articles is that they often go beyond a sort of linear understanding of how an earlier texts influence a later texts. As any number of recent scholars have shown, this kind of “common sense” approach reflects the strong grasp that narratives of progress hold over scholarship over the last two centuries. Needless to say, this way of reading history and texts is problematic particularly in its tendency to normalize a continuum with more and less developed societies on a global scale. More recently, as folks like Rebecca Futo-Kennedy have shown, these models of progress (which likewise influence the shape of archaeological time as well) often have served to inform narratives of Western Civilization that reify the dominance of particular national and racial groups. Needless to say, modern ways of thinking have often served to reinforce the place of Classical antiquity as a key influence over modern “Western” society and, consequently, as a superior form of culture in the so-called marketplace of ideas. 

Science fiction and fantasy with its more fluid and discontinuous views of time (from Dr. Who’s TARDIS, to the Dick’s Time Out of Joint and the complicated meditations on time in The Watchmen) offers an ideal platform to disrupt these kind of linear, historicized, readings of influencing and influenced texts. What is clear in Rodger’s and Stevens’s volume is that modern texts have shaped our reading of ancient texts in every bit as a profound a way as the latter have shaped the former. Reading Homer as shaped by the work of Miyazaki and Oyeyemi reminds us of the power of creative texts to rewrite and re-authorize the past.  

As Donna Zuckerberg has pointed out, the complication of historicist readings of texts isn’t always inherently benevolent. Ancient texts can as easily find themselves appropriated by people with misogynistic, racist, or nationalist agendas. The main difference, I’d contend, is that many of these readings – particularly those of the “Red Pill” variety – rely on arguments for the historical primacy, authority, and time-tested superiority of ancient texts. The more disruptive readings offered in Rogers and Stevens offer us a way to escape from the burden of historicizing, modern, and often positivist analysis and to use speculative futures (and alternative pasts) as a way to claim meaning for ancient texts in the present.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s cold in North Dakotaland with the temperatures not expected to get about -2 F today. It seems fitting that the last gasp of winter break feels like real winter. 

The semester starts on Tuesday for me and my syllabuses are ready and my classes are mostly prepped. Most of winter break projects are done (and just a bit more hustle over the next few days will wrap them all up) and the football and cricket seasons are coming to an end. The best thing about February in North Dakota is the existential quiet that lulls you into a kind of contemplative productivity. It’s when things get done whether you want them to or not.

As festivities ramp down and the serious work of teaching, reading, and writing start up again, enjoy some quick hits and varia:

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