Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It is supposed to hit 75 today here in North Dakotaland and I’m too exhausted from cleaning up leaves yesterday to enjoy it (and the 20 mph winds make it seem less like an “Indian Summer” and more like the end of days). That being said, the clear blue skies and the mottled sunshine through the falling leaves certainly makes me glad to live here on the Northern Plains.

This Sunday, I’ll be down in Ellendale, North Dakota enjoying the hospitality of the folks in that fine community at their annual book fair. If you’re around, come on out and say “hey!” This means that my new book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) is out. Get it here or here. Here’s what’s going on:


Many of my friends and colleagues will by at the Institute for the Ancient World at New York (which is, often called, the Ellendale of the Empire State). I think this event is all fulled up, but I’m looking forward to following the backchannel on twitter via Eric Kansa, Sebastian Heath, Eric Poehler, and co. The hashtag is #DPMA17!

For those of you who can’t be in New York City or in Ellendale (and everyone else too), here’s a little gaggle quick hits and varia:

IMG 1232

I’m singling “The Barge” out for a little special attention. Not only does he have a hurt leg, but the vet told him that he was fat. He’s not feeling the love lately… 

IMG 1244

Environment and Society in the Ancient World

Dimitri Nakassis pointed me in the direction of the most recent issue of History Compass which features a series of article the environment and society in the Ancient World. These article are best read as short essays on the state of the field with distinctive takes on the scholarly conversation rather than groundbreaking works of original scholarship. Considering both the immense outpouring of recent work on the historical (and modern) environments and challenging body of technical tools and discussions necessary to understand this scholarship, this issue was a good idea and a nice place to start for anyone interested in the “environmental turn.”

The two essays that caught my eye were Catherine Kearns article titled “Mediterranean archaeology and environmental history in the spotlight of the Anthropocene.” The article offers a nice review of recent work on the Anthopocene, the long term history of Mediterranean environments, and, then, a case study  from Cyprus where Kearns has done important work using the survey data produced from the Vasilikos and Maroni valleys on Cyprus. She argues that environmental changes contributed to the reuse of certain features like check damns in the upper reaches of these river valleys between 800 and 300 BC. These dates coincide with a period during which carbon stable isotope analysis revealed an increase in water on the island. These sites also provided access to copper deposits which represented an important source of wealth for the island. At the same time, the increased availability of water during this same period, contributed to increased agricultural productivity on the island to support copper mining and the emergence of the (new?) Iron Age polities that would come to dominate Cypriot society until the Hellenistic period.

Michael Decker’s two-part article on the environment in Late Antiquity offers a useful contribution to understanding the role that climate change and the environment played in the Late Roman world. Late Antiquity, of course, is full of paradoxes. On the one hand, it would appear that the Late Antique world experienced persistent and perhaps even increased economic activity, trade, and prosperity from the 5th to the 8th century. On the other hand, this period also witnesses significant political instability and relatively rapid religious and social change over the Mediterranean basin. As Decker notes, the alarming character of the political collapse in Late Antiquity often supported colonialist readings of the pressures exerted on the empire’s margins. In this reading, for example, the rise of Islam, for example, represented a political and religious response to the increased aridity of the Near East, the economic decline of the Roman core related to the deforestation of North Africa, and the failure of the Roman state in the peripheral provinces of the West correlated to cooler and dryer temperatures. Decker demonstrates how many of these views, at least for the East, contributed to and fed upon Orientalist assumptions regarding the character of nomadic groups living around the periphery of the Roman Empire.

The second part of his article considers new data that is being brought to bear on climate change at the end of the ancient world. While Decker stops short of arguing how this data will go beyond correcting the environmentally deterministic views of the end of antiquity in the past and provide new ways of thinking about how longterm trends in climate change changed the ancient world. But, he makes clear that there is significant promise in the analysis of finer-grained data.

These articles are a useful introduction to the growing impact and future potential of climate science and environmental studies in the ancient world. As with so much of this work at present, it is more promising than compelling, but it clearly marks a significant path forward for future research. 

Writing Wednesday: Atari Excavations, Narrative, and Media Archaeology

I’ve had a terrible time putting words on the page this fall and summer, so I decided to invest the next month or so in finishing an article that has been lingering around my hard drive for the past few years. In April 2014, Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I made our way down to Alamogordo, New Mexico to contribute to the excavation of a dump of Atari games at the local landfill there. The games included numerous examples of the (in)famous E.T. game and our presence there gave us a chance to work a bit with the well-known Hollywood director and screenwriter Zak Penn. 

Our work in Alamogordo allowed us to collect a good bit of empirical data about the excavation of the landfill and the Atari games, but it also encouraged me to think a good bit about how archaeological work, objects, and popular perceptions shape the kinds of narratives possible in our discipline. So instead of a rather boring article that presented the results of our work there, I decided to put together three different narratives grounded in three different forms of analysis designed to demonstrate the complexities of archaeological story telling. 

Since I already have a draft of the basic description of the Atari excavation, this week I decided to work on a study of the Atari excavations from the perspective of media archaeology (and archaeology of media). 


Here’s what I have so far:

The excavation of the Atari dump at Alamogordo confirmed the presence of the Atari games long-thought to have been dumped there. This excavation also located the games within a particular context that extended stratigraphically starting with their immediate context, and then digging down into the nature of the game play, particular of the E.T. Game, and their place within the history of video gaming. The goal of this section is not to explore all the possibilities of these games as either media objects in an archaeological context or as objects of media archaeology, but to colocate the narrative structured by the games themselves within a broader archaeological narrative.

The recovery of the E.T. Games, along with a range of other titles and Atari paraphernalia in the Alamogordo landfill confirmed shadowy story from 1983 that the Atari Corporation transported thousands of returned, remaindered, and unsold games from their El Paso distribution center for burial in a small town landfill (Guins 2014). The rational for this was perhaps no more sinister than a cost saving move by a cash strapped company that found the dumping rates cheaper for corporate waste in a small, desert city. Whatever the reason, by dumping the games amid a post-consumer, late 20th-century domestic assemblage ironically returned these games to their intended, but largely unrealized place alongside the objects of everyday life in the mid-1980s American home. Movie posters, video and audio tape, magazines and newspapers, represented both common objects in the Alamogordo and staples of late-20th-century American media consumption. In fact, that dates on newspapers and media provided chronological markers for the various levels present in the dump. The presence of the Atari games alongside other contemporary media objects simultaneously displaced and restored the games to a discarded version of their intended domestic context.

The dumping of these games in a rather remote, small-town landfill demonstrated that the relative banality of domestic discard in the 1980s had allowed for these games to be hidden in plain sight. For archaeologists, however, the work of the archaeologist William Rathje and his team at the Tuscon Garbage Project (Rathje 1992) had begun to reveal the patterns of domestic consumption in post-consumer waste through their systematic study of both curbside trash and landfills. This work has had a formative influence on more recent efforts to study the social context of late modern discard (Ferrell 2006; Lucas 2002) and production of landfills (Reno 2009) as well as historical roots in the earliest era of archaeological practice (Schmidt 2001). In other words, archaeologists have both a contemporary investment and historical commitments to unpacking the complexity of domestic discard through the study of middens, discard practices, and even modern dumps. By revealing Atari dump amidst domestic discard through documenting the excavation of the landfill, as opposed to only the assemblage of Atari games, we located contemporary media within disciplinary practice as well.

The disciplinary practice of revealing the complexities of domestic discard and documenting patterns hidden in plain sight has intriguing parallels to certain features present in the E.T. video game. In the video game itself, the player had to bring E.T. home while avoiding a number of perils including difficult to escape pits. Like many Atari games of this era, the E.T. game also contained an “Easter egg.” Easter eggs are hidden features in the game that only a complex set of typically obscure moves reveal. The earliest such feature revealed the name of game designer in the game Adventure (Monfort and Bogost 2009). The game designer for the E.T. game, Howard Scott Warshaw, included an Easter egg that transformed the plucky E.T. first into “Yar,” the title character, in the game Yar’s Revenge, then into Indiana Jones from the movie-themed, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Atari game. Warshaw designed E.T., Yar’s Revenge, and Raiders, making the Easter egg a kind of personal signature. It also formed a narrative parallel to the search for the burial of E.T. games in the New Mexico dessert as the games served as a kind of Easter egg under the detritus of contemporary life at the Alamogordo landfill.

The interplay of the expected and the hidden that make video game Easter eggs so appealing to early Atari gamers likewise reflected the genre bending character of the E.T. video game (and its contemporary release of Raiders of the Lost Arc). The 1982 E.T. film involved the efforts of a suburban kid, Eliot, to keep hidden the affection extra-terrestrial until he is able to find his way home. Set in the American suburbs, the film in punctuated by the adorable E.T. being hidden in plain sight, like the assemblage of video games. In fact, the history of the film itself contains a kind of Easter egg in a deleted scene that featured Harrison Ford as Eliot’s principal. While this scene never appeared in the film itself, it was sufficient well know to garner comment from director Steven Spielberg who had a history of having Harrison Ford and other favorite actors make cameo appearances in his movies.

To return to media archaeology and archaeology of the media, the intended domestic context for Atari games belied their unexpected appearance in the post-consumer discards in the Alamogordo landfill. At the same time, the appearance of this deposit echoed the presence of Easter eggs in Atari game play and in the E.T. game, in particular, where the author of the game made his presence known through a series of secret moves. Like Eliot in the film, one goal of the excavation and the game play was to return the Atari cartridges and the extraterrestrial to their familiar domestic contexts, home, while simultaneously revealing a hidden meaning. For an observer familiar with the games, the film, and with popular depictions of archaeology, such as that presented in the contemporary film (and game designed by Howard Scott Warshaw) Raiders of the Lost Ark the interplay between hidden and known, domestic and displaced, was a familiar theme.  

Another One for The Punk [Archaeology] Bookshelf

I finally got a chance to finish reading Brian James Schill’s This Years Work in the Punk Bookshelf, or, Lusty Scripts (2017). It is a vital component to any collection of recent punk rock literature and holds its own next to Zach Furness’s Punkademics, Beer’s Punk Sociology, and, even (modestly of course), Punk Archaeology.

Unlike those books which tend to deal more with the performative aspects of the punk movement, their radical politics, DIY aesthetic, or their general ambivalence toward convention, Schill’s book considers the intellectual roots of punk rocks and reconstructs a punk bookshelf filled with the works of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, Genet, and Philip K. Dick. While, I won’t do too much of a review here, because I’m interviewing him for a longer piece over at North Dakota Quarterly that’ll appear next week, I wanted to draw some attention to this book, especially among my punk archaeology friends.

One of the key things that I learned from Schill’s careful reading of punk lyrics and punk literature – from the genuine literary outputs of Richard Hell and Exene Cervenka to the myriad interviews in often ephemeral punk and music zines of the day, is the tremendous ambivalence in punk. For every moment of Dionysian fervor on stage, there’s an equal moment of contemplative reflection on genuinely challenging texts that fueled their transgression. The careful reading of Marx and the frequent commitment to radical politics belied their sometimes bourgeois upbringing and tastes in literature. Their rejection of convention often did not extend to their rejection of education with numerous punks going on to receive graduate degrees. Schill’s work explores and attempts in many ways to resolve this tension and to demonstrate certain broad patterns in punk bookshelf that both elucidate and run counter to the prevailing view of punk as an anti-intellectual movement.

The book is very much an exploration of punk as a field of literary expression that is only gently tethered to social, economic, cultural or political life of the day, the grind of the music industry, or even the musicality of punk in general. But this is not a bad thing, necessarily, because it shows that however much punks were sellouts, products of their era, poor or untrained or just uninteresting musicians, or posers, they were well-read, thoughtful, and reflective. In a word, no matter how much their music seemed and sounded derivative, uncontrolled, and angry, they were not superficial and in their own way they sought to be genuine.

When Kostis Kourelis and I started talking about punk archaeology, we began with the simple question of why so many archaeologists found something significant in punk rock music. Pursuing that across a blog and a book, we argued that it was the DIY aesthetic, the critique of convention, or even the explicitly performative character of archaeological work that drew us to punk. We didn’t say as much about the intellectual side of punk rock. Maybe we recognized the Marxist, collectivist character of the Mekons, the presence of entropy and destruction in the work of the Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop, or the focus on materiality in Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and other cyberpunk authors, but we certainly didn’t dig as deeply (see what I did there?) into the intellectual roots of punk rock to find cross currents with archaeological work (or at least I didn’t). Even the allusions to Freud that Schill excavates from numerous punk songs passed through the collective sieves of our punk archaeological imaginations.  

Schill’s book brings the intellectual aspects of punk rock into a greater focus, and in that way deserves a place on the punk [archaeology] bookshelf. Stay tuned for a conversation with the author over at the North Dakota Quarterly page next week!

Hybridizing Paper

This is probably too grandiose a title for this blog post, but after my post last week, I realized that I had some odds and ends that I meant to include, but for various reasons did not. Most of these focus on the idea that the potential of digital media and digital books has tended to be set in opposition to paper books and traditional media. If hybridization occurred, as I proposed in my post last week, it tended to be in the creation of digital media that formally adopted some of the characteristics of paper books. This is best manifest in the continued currency of the PDF files as probably the most common and perhaps the most functionally useful way to circulate digital content. They look like a page, act like a book, yet are open to external hyperlinks, video, audio, and 3D content, and relatively seamless linear and nonlinear organization that does not compromise the basic structure of the page or the codex.

I’m more interested right now in the flip side of this situation. This past week a paper book that I wrote with Bret Weber has appeared from North Dakota State University Press. It is published only in paper, and as far as I know, there are no plans to make the book available in a digital format. As I’ve blogged on before, I have an interest in expanding the paper book to include both updates to the itineraries, but, more important, updates to the ideas present in the work. In effect, I want to wrap the book in a new context that allows the original paper volume to continue to stand as a unit, but can also offer new ways of thinking about it through updated research, reading, and thinking.

The desire to move from digital to paper and to digital again, I think is one of the intriguing challenges facing publishing these days. As I outlined with my new project in collaboration with the digital journal Epoiesen, establishing ties that link paper to digital content is both an aesthetic and practical challenge. 

It is interesting to note that there are some recent ventures in commercial publishing that have wrestled with the exact same issue. In my little corner of the world, for example, the watch blog Hodinkee recently published its first paper magazine. Carrying over many of the key aesthetic features from the blog, including the high quality color photography and genteel style, the magazine runs to $27.00. There are, of course, branding issues here that suggest that perhaps serve to distance the premium periodical from the more lowly blog while at the same time demonstrating a family resemblance.

My favorite audiophile blog, Parttime Audiophile, has recently initiated a similar venture with a downloadable .pdf called The Occasional. While this is a clever play on the “part-time” name, it sets itself apart with its higher production quality and its explicit print orientation, although at present, it is only available as a download. The presence of two page spreads, the organization of the text in difficult to read (and non-justified!) columns, and the absence of hyperlinks makes it more difficult to read as a digital document, but also clearly echoes the paper page. 

As I’m looking ahead to new ways to bring North Dakota Quarterly to a new and expanded audience, I’m likewise facing the challenge of integrating regular digital content appearing on our website with ab annual paper version.  

There are reasons, of course, for the persistence of paper. In the case of Hodinkee or (perhaps hinted at by The Occasional), there is a prestige associated with print even if it is digitally mediated. For upscale commodities like watches and high-end stereo equipment people expect a certain kind of luxury even in the media surrounding these products. My colleagues at NDQ have tended to emphasize the physicality of the paper book and the character of the final product as evidence for having MADE something. I admit that this feeling of making has carried over into my love of producing paper books as well. 

For academic work, there is another important and more practical aspect to producing paper that hybridizes with the digital. In academic culture it is still easier to cite paper (or paper-like) versions of books and article according to page numbers. Reviewers continue to prefer paper books – when given the option – and libraries remain better equipped to catalogue, preserver, and circulate print copies even as their book budgets continue to shrink. Paper copies, whether on the desk of an editor or on a library shelf, conform to certain institutional expectations for how knowledge looks physically. Of course, this might be a temporary or transitional stage in how knowledge looks and circulates as we come to terms with a more robust and complex digital future, but the massive history and continued ubiquity of printed media suggests that these paradigms will be slow to change.

All this is to say that one of key challenges facing publishing these days is not making digital less like paper, but making paper more like digital. There is a present need to create hybrid forms of paper media that push the boundaries of how the paper codex has traditionally functioned and to blur the lines between paper and digital. This under-appreciated and under-recognized form of hybridity will be part of what The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota explores.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s a cool, fall Friday here in North Dakotaland, but the the weekend feels like a good one to stay inside, catch up on some reading and writing, and enjoy some sporting activities with the two dogs. 

As a little advertisement for myself, I’m happy to announce that The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape has arrived at the NDSU Press from the printer so preorders will be sent out soon! Hit the “Shop Now” button on their Facebook page to get a copy.

And congratulations to my friends over at North Dakota Quarterly for the outstanding recognition of their hard work in the 2017 Best American Essays volume

Nice win last night, Eagles! I still think this is a 9-7 team, but it looks like they might have a better record.

While you wait for your copy to arrive, here are some quick hits and varia:

IMG 1216Puppy see, puppy do, or, Copy Dogs.

Analogue Anxieties at a Digital Press

A few weeks ago, Sebastian Heath, one of the more thoughtful and long-standing participants in my corner of digital archaeology, and I got into a bit of a disagreement about the continued utility of the .pdf file type in digital publishing. Heath argued, to put words in his mouth, that other superior formats exist that are more flexible, dynamic, and suitable to a digital medium. Various forms of mark-up allow texts to be machine readable to present embedded data in a more accessible and useful way and enable text to be displayed in different formats on different machines by different software. In most ways, mark-up formats (I suppose we can call them) are better than the crusty old .pdf file type.

At the same time, as a small publisher and a regular consumer of .pdf files, there are certain advantages of this venerable file type. First, they are ubiquitous to the point that they don’t require any special software on most devices (with the exception of dedicated ebook readers which generally only like one kind of file), they don’t require an internet connection to read, and are archival. Second, they are baked into most publishers’ workflows because they represent a useful and easy intermediate step between digital layout and print publication. And finally, there is something tremendously familiar to the .pdf. It produces a document that looks like a page and works, on a basic level, like a book. Whatever its limitations from a technological standpoint, a .pdf is the digital expression of the codex page and there is something deeply comforting in that. They’re easy to cite, because they’re well-suited for page numbers and most pdf software allows readers to even annotate these files with highlights, underlines, and even skeuomorphic post-it notes that reinforce the idea that a pdf page is the digital equivalent of a page in a codex. Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, the codex and the published book – whether in paper or digital form – is fundamental to the construction of academy and the reading public (as Laura Mandell has so clearly argued in her Breaking the Book (2015)). Between digital convenience (in both production and consumption) and familiarity, they represent a particularly useful hybrid type.

At the same time they do produce certain challenges. As my fall production schedule at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota gets underway, I’m facing some analogue anxieties as I think about producing my next batch of analogue/digital hybrids.

Epoiesen Annual. Earlier this month, I agreed to work with Shawn Graham and his team to produce an annual print (and probably pdf) volume from the content of his new journal Epoiesen. He sent along a bunch of markdown files that I had to then figure out how to convert to something that can be easily ingested into InDesign where I do layout. This ended up being fairly simple using Pandoc, but now I’m also confronted with the challenge of designing a page to accommodate the the complexities of a markdown document including hyperlinks (which will function perfectly well in a pdf, but not necessarily in a paper book!). In particular how will I keep the page uncluttered while displaying hyperlinks as well as marking each article with its own DOI and license? 

Secret 3D Project. So I have a slowly developing, “top secret,” 3D project that will involve embedding 3D archaeological objects in pdf documents using the 3D pdf capabilities. This allows for a small press like mine to disseminate 3D content in a tidy and familiar package. Unlike recent efforts to publish archaeological objects in 3D, this project will embrace the hybrid nature of the pdf by retaining the traditional format of the codex while at the same time introducing more dynamic data. Like some earlier efforts at producing a linked pdf version of a traditional archaeological monograph, the pdf version will have links to both higher resolution 3D models and their complete digital associated metadata, but the pdf will also serve as a truly portable, standalone book that can be used independently of a broadband internet connection. At the same time, I’ve been urging the authors to consider a paper version of this digital book. Obviously the paper version will not include 3D content, but it will take the concept of digital hybridity a step further by working to develop the paper side of digital hybridity in a more seamless way.

Codex. As a template for this kind of hybridity, I’ve been working with Micah Bloom on a dynamic multimedia publication project that involves a digital book, video, and a trade paperback. One of the little cosmetic challenges that he and I have faced is that many stable URIs are not aesthetically attractive or humanly readable. In the case of Open Context URIs for example, they look like this: This will be less than optimal to use outside of a purely digital context. As the address behind a link, for example, it won’t matter that the URI runs 50 characters, but in a print book, this is an awkward address in a footnote or in in-text citation. One alternative, that we used in Mobilizing the Past, is QR codes, but from an aesthetic and formatting perspective, these are always a bit less than ideal. They tend to be clunky, are no more humanly readable than a massive URI, and require a device with an installed QR code reader to direct the audience to a website (and these readers are less common on laptops and more common on mobile devices, but many of the data-rich pages that a reader might want to view are probably best viewed on a laptop.) There isn’t a simple solution to this issue, but it does, to my mind, reinforce certain challenges that face various kinds of hybrid publications that seek to move the reader from the world of print and the page (whether digital or paper) to the more fluid space of the web.

It goes without saying that we’re in a liminal space in the history of paper and digital media. The codex and the printed page (whether digitally or physically rendered) continue to play an important role in academic communication. Our citation systems, design language and aesthetics, technologies, publishing workflows, and even – as I have observed before – reading preferences (which still favor paper books or rather more linear and “orthodox” engagements with texts) are embedded in the construction and persistent utility of the codex and the page while at the same time, there are legitimate pressures literally pulling the book (and the publishing industry) apart. Navigating these pressures remains, for my little press, the greatest challenge in contributing to the construction of a sustainable alternative model of publishing. 

Roman Temples and Christian Churches

I’m stealing this from Sarah Bond’s brilliant weekly column at Forbes (which you should read). Feyo Schuddeboom wrote one of the tighter papers on the conversion of pagan temples to Early Christian churches that I’ve read in recent times. Focusing on the city of Rome, he argues that very few – if any – converted temples appeared to reflect religious motivations. Instead, the conversion of temples or the building of churches on temple sites seems to have take place over several hundred years and to have been driven by motivations ranging from local topography and visual position of the building to the suitability and legal status of the building. 

Schuddeboom helpfully reminds us that most ancient temples remained protected by Roman law. Their status as public, res sacrae persisted even after these buildings had fallen out of use and rendered them res nullius which prevented them from falling into private hands. As a result, these temples often stood neglected for centuries and their sites undeveloped making them suitable places for Christian churches provided that the bishops could gain approval from the imperial authorities. There were a few examples of this practice even long after direct imperial control of the city had lapsed in the mid-5th century. Pope Boniface IV, in the early 7th century, requested permission to convert the Pantheon to a church, and a decade later, Pope Honorius I gained permission from the emperor to strip the abandoned temple of Venus and Roma of its bronze roof tiles. By the 8th century, imperial properties officially became the possession of the Pope paving the way for the acceleration of temple conversions. Their legal standing both before and after the emergence of the Papal States prevented the conversion of temples to private structures or, generally, their reuse as civic or public buildings. This is among the more compelling arguments for the fate of Roman temples, and while I’d be reluctant to expand it too broadly to temples across the empire, it certainly helps explain why the Theodosian and Justinianic Code contains a number of laws requiring the preservation of temples in urban areas (particularly, but not exclusively after their confiscation by the state) as well as their destruction in the countryside. Of course, imperial rescripts suggest that the law was not followed in every case, but evidence that the bishop of Rome had to request permission to recycle the building or its parts suggests that the law carried some authority in these cases.

This article offers an interesting perspective on the physical conversion of urban space to Christianity in Late Antiquity. For those of us who see Christian buildings as having both practical, but also symbolic or even spiritual functions within the city, the delayed and procedural adaptation of these buildings speaks more to the rise of the secular in the Late Roman world than the clash between Christians and pagans. In some ways, the growth of the secular explains how the centauromachy on the Hephaisteion in Athens could be reinterpreted at the battle of good versus evil rather than as the religiously potent representation of a rival cult. In Greece, it would seem, the conversion of temples or other religious sites to churches or their spoliation traced the line between the persistent paganism and the emergence of a secular world.

Religious violence has been in the news a good bit over the last few years and folks like John Pollini have argued that recent scholarship has downplayed the violence of the clash between Christians and pagans in the ancient Mediterranean. He’s argued that as part of the conversion of the Parthenon to a church in the 6th century, at least one panel of the frieze was ritually defaced. For Pollini, this suggested that the Parthenon maintained some of its sacred power and the desecration of parts of the temple, reflected the religious intolerance or, perhaps even, the fear of the persistent pagan power of the temple. In highlighting the violence of Christianity, Pollini seeks to correct for a view that saw the Christians as at worst ambivalent toward pagan monuments, and at best, beneficial to their preservation. While evidence for violence of Christians toward their pagan neighbors and predecessors is uneven across the Mediterranean, there is no doubt that the totalizing discourse of Christianity sought to challenge the growing secular space left between the retreat of traditional religion and the rise of institutional, liturgical Christian practices.  

In coming to understand the interaction between Christianity and pagan monuments, Pollini seeks to push back against a “Judeo-Christian bias” in scholarship, but he also is willing to advance the role of Christianity as one of the key filters that constructed out view of Classical antiquity. In my post yesterday, I wondered whether Johanna Hanink overlooked of the role Christianity in shaping our view of Classical antiquity and the kind of ancient world possible in the imagining of both modern Classical Philhellenism and the modern Greek national identity. What Pollini tends to see as a Judeo-Christian bias that downplays the role of Christian violence in the modern reception of Classical antiquity also served to marginalize the corrupting influence of Christianity on the purity of the Classical. By writing the Christian influence out of the Classical world, we could avoid dealing with the complicated filtering processes that produced our image of the ancient past and assert that the depredation and decadence of the Medieval, Byzantine, and, certainly Ottoman eras did little to obscure or contaminate our view.  

If Pollini’s studies reminds us that Christianization wasn’t always a peaceful process, Schuddeboom’s analysis of the conversion of ancient temples offers a glimpse of another, less easily understood, aspect of the rise of Christianity. By arguing that most temple conversions in Rome happened well after the demise of urban paganism in that city, he places the ongoing Christianization of Rome at the expense of secular space that existed outside of the Christian-Pagan dichotomy.  

On The Classical Debt

Like 98% of the Classicists (or at least Hellenists) in the world right now, I’ve just finished reading Johana Hanink’s The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Age of Austerity (2017). It’s a remarkable book that traces the history of the concept of “Greek debt” from conversations about the West’s historical debt to Greek democracy, philosophy, and science to the recent economic crisis in Greece largely triggered by Greece’s economic debt to various Western European institutions. Hanink shows how these two concepts of debt are deeply entangled with the former working as an Enlightenment fueled spark that ignited Greek nationalism in the 17th and 19th centuries and the latter shackling the resulting Greek nation to the political and economic interests of Western European powers.

(Read my friend Dimitri Nakassis’s post on the book here.)

Hanink’s account begins in Classical antiquity where she argued that Athenian propaganda provided a foundation for later accounts of the “Greek miracle” which produced the flourishing art, architecture, philosophical life, and, of course, democracy. She located this propaganda within a critical context of the Classical period demonstrating that even in the 5th- and 4th-century Athens, dissenting views existed. In the end, the more heroic and triumphant narrative of Athenian and ultimately Greek exceptionalism came to dominate the canonical view of the Classical age owing in no small part to the Roman, Byzantine, and even Arab, Ottoman, and Medieval interlocutors who celebrated the monuments and literature of Pericles’ city.

Hanink largely overlooks the gap between the ancient and modern world and relegates a millennium of engagement with the Classical past to the status of passive “filters” that distilled the narrative of Athenian and Greek exceptionalism down to an almost irrefutable essence. This leap makes sense for the larger goals of her work which really begins with the potent re-imaginings of the European and Greek Philhellenes whose late 18th and 19th century work formed the basis for locating the Classical spirit in the landscapes, monuments, and people at the periphery of the shaky Ottoman Empire (with a brief, but significant passage through Evliya Celebi’s accounts of late-17th-century Ottoman Athens). In many ways, the paradoxes of this initial engagement of Europeans with the town of Athens culminated in Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles and their bumpy journey back the England and into the British Museum (if not in the wayward Venetian shell that began the task of purging the Acropolis of later accretions). The desire to transform the physical place of modern Greece into a European home for democracy, philosophy, art, and literature came in the aftermath of the Battle Navarino in 1827, when the opportunity to construct a modern nation-state on the physical territory of the Classical past became clear. With inspiration from Byron and Koraïs, the European debt to Greek antiquity became politically manifest in the new Greek state and its reconstructed capital crowned by the Acropolis and the ageless Parthenon.

Hanink’s description of the modern debt crisis in Greece is among the best that I’ve read in that it both maintains the utter incomprehensibility of contemporary global finance while also driving home causes and consequences ranging from the 2004 Athens Olympics to the collapse of the Greek public sector and social safety net. (On a personal note, the trajectory of the Greek economic miracle of the late-1990s and early 2000s parallels my own discovery of Greece and two lengthy stints in Athens. Hanink doesn’t quite capture the pride that Athens felt being welcomed into the club of Europe (despite being part of the EU (and its predecessor the EEC since 1981) by adopting the Euro and ultimately hosting the Olympics.) The scorn that Greece attracted with the collapse of the Greek economy and the painful and humiliating bailout conditions appeared in the jeering cartoons published in multiple media outlets that framed the Greeks as unworthy heirs of their Classical legacy. Whatever debt Europe owned to Ancient Greece became a burden borne by the nation as it alternately reminded Europe of its intellectual and political history and endured the economic consequences of its modern legacy.

The book concludes with an epilogue the offers a way to engage with the narrative of Western Civilization that recognizes both ancient Athenian discourse and its influence on the modern construction of our own views of antiquity. At the same time, she urges teachers to consider alternate narratives that offer the potential to free ourselves from our debt to the ancient world (and Greece, in particular) enabling us, like modern Greece, to find a new way forward and to image new, less encumbered, futures.

This is a very good book. My only real critique of Haninck is that her work contributes relatively little upon which to form an alternative narrative of Greek debt. In fact, the book’s binocular vision of Classical antiquity and the modern world reduces the crucial two millennium between the peak of Pericles’ Athens and Renaissance to the passive status of filter. By doing this, she largely overlooks the contribution of the Roman second sophistic, the complicating burden of Christianity, the trauma of the Crusades, the Frankokratia, and Ottoman conquests, as well as the complicated and sometimes contradictory narrative present in contemporary Greek nationalism. Her reasons for overlooking these centuries are, of course, understandable considering the book’s accessible approach and, more importantly, her focus on a particularly influential strand in the current political discourse. At the same time, I suspect that understanding and even rehabilitating the filtering history of these two millennia offer the best hope of creating a new foundation for our own Western identity and freeing Greece from the pressures that Hanink rightly views as overwhelming and overwriting any autonomous and potentially liberating counter-narrative.

My point isn’t to undermine or question the motives of Hanink’s work, but to push it just a bit by suggesting that her own work does little to complicate the 18th and early-19th prefiguration of a “Greek” nationalism that emerged from the Classical discourse. For example, Evliya Celebi’s description of the light-filled mosque of the Parthenon is almost certainly an echo of the Byzantine tradition which celebrated the miraculous the light associated with the Parthenon as the cathedral of Athens. Anthony Kaldellis has argued that this  Medieval “filter” magnified this building’s renown during the Frankish period and ensured that the Parthenon would hold pride of place among Classical monuments in Greece. Elsewhere, she slips and says that the Greeks were never really colonized, but, of course, that overlooks the history of the Ionian Islands and the Dodecanese, whose identities and connection with Western Europe emerged in a kind of colonial continuity that extended from the Fourth Crusade to French Revolution (and beyond), as well as the unique political history of Crete. These places with their colonial histories provided modern Greece with many of its influential political leaders from Capodistrias to Venezelos. Finally, the Megali Idea, that fueled so much Greek nationalism of the first half of the 20th century, owed as much to ideas cultivated in a kind of post-Byzantine millenarianism that regularly witnessed a hope for liberation in religious images of the empty imperial throne in Constantinople.

The point of this isn’t to find a niggling examples with which to undermine her argument, but perhaps complicate it in a productive way. Her binocular attention to Classical antiquity and the modern world set in a kind of relief the two-millennium-long filtering process between various groups who made often-rival claims to the Classical past, inhabited its ruins, and negotiated a dense web of economic, religious, and intellectual debts. I suspect that these tangled, dynamic, and obscure millennia offer a key to a productive reconsideration of Greek debt, both in terms of our persistent interest in a shared (but diverse) narrative of Western culture and in the real consequences of the growing economic inequality between creditor and debtor nations that preserve the historical legacy of the  “Classical” Mediterranean.

The Bakken and the Body

Our panel last week at the Northern Great Plains History Conference was really exciting. The four papers presented in our panel, titled “Boom Goes the Bakken,” each explored a different aspect of ongoing research in the history of the state and western North Dakota. The papers by Nikki Burg Burin, Richard Rothaus, and Bret Weber opened up some new lines of thinking for me and will contribute to a new project that’s been gnawing at the back of my head for several months now. Go here for the panel’s line up and here for a draft of my paper.

Nikki’s and Richard’s paper, in particular, got me thinking about the body in the Bakken. Nikki’s paper continued her important work on human trafficking in North Dakota and how women’s bodies came under different legal definitions over the course of North Dakota legal history. The most significant changes in these laws recognized trafficked individuals as victims even if they engaged in activities such as sex work prohibited by existing statutes. While Berg Burin stressed that there is still significant work to do to protect women who turned to sex work out of economic desperation, immigration status, or as a result of childhood or adult trauma, it was also clear that attitudes toward the female body in North Dakota had undergone significant change over the 100 year history of the state. Moreover, recent changes in the law hint at more subtle understanding in agency when it comes to exploited women that recognized the limits of bodily control even in cases when both the victims and the crime have a profoundly physical and bodily aspect.

Rothaus’s paper likewise focuses on the individual and the body in his discussion of a series of grizzly murders in Williams and McKenzie counties in the early 20th century. The crimes were all committed by “outsiders” who came to the area as itinerate laborers on local farms during the the rapid growth of settlement across the western part of the state. In two of his case studies, the murderers themselves were murdered by mobs of men who pulled them from their jail cells when their convictions seemed less than assured and took justice into their own hands (in the other case the murderer committed suicide). Like in Nikki’s paper, the bodies, quite literally, became the nexus for the definition of community as alienated outsiders both committed and received physical violence that confirmed their outsider status.

Bret Weber’s paper was a bit more sweeping and engaged Guy Standing’s idea of the “precariat” to understand the Bakken in the broader context of neoliberal employment trends around the world. At the same time, his understanding of the the Bakken precariat is grounded in individual stories drawn from his hours of interviews. While he did not articulate the experience of being precarious in strict bodily terms, his commitment to the individual ensured that the risks, opportunities, and experiences of the Bakken were not generalized into a state of anonymity.

Finally, my paper, completely missed the boat in an explicit way (I felt like I had been invited to a costume party but showed up in khakis and an Oxford shirt!), but I think that my emphasis on the experience of modernity through tourism and movement in the Bakken demonstrated more than a passing interest in the impact of this space on bodies. 

My point with this overview of recent work in Bakken research is that we have become increasingly drawn to the individual as the locus for the experience of the Bakken oil boom. In fact, the panel last week got me thinking about the character of Bakken bodies exposed to the pressures, vagaries, dangers, and sensations of global capital in a distinct (but not unique) way.

I have this fantasy project where I explore the history of the Bakken boom using the kind of deep mapping techniques that guys like William Least Heat-Moon used for his book PrairyErth. The project would start with the large-scale historical, economic, and cultural impact of global petroculture and end with the analysis of a singe (or a small group) of individual bodies in the Bakken with intermediate steps considering the intersection of petroculture with national politics, the economy and culture of the state, and the Bakken landscape. The papers on Thursday was the first time that I became attuned to the idea of Bakken bodies in a way that made it appear as the natural conclusion for my proposed project.