Performing Destruction: Confederate Statues and Iconoclasm

It is with great trepidation that I’m going to wade into the world of current political events, but I feel totally lame hanging around on the sidelines and feel compelled to offer my perspectives on the current controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate war memorials across the southern states. 

But first, go and read Rosemary Joyce’s really excellent response to calls for archaeologists to somehow be involved in the discussion of the removal of these moments.

And before reading further, I want to be entirely clear that I am not apologizing for these monuments, their place in the painful and massively destructive history of American race relations, or those who insist on their preservation. By all means, remove these statues, undermine violently any claim that the Confederacy, the Civil War, or the political leaders from the South were somehow heroic in their treason, and by removing these moments, subvert the tragic racial, social, and political history that surrounds the placement of these statues in the urban fabric of the South. I’m likewise not advocating for a moderate approach or for compromising with groups who are clamoring for their preservation. 

What I’m trying to do with this post is to offer my view of what archaeologists and historians could do to unpack the complexities surrounding the histories of these monuments and current tensions surrounding their legacy and their removal. This is adapted from a Facebook comment.

What has interested me the most about the current debate surrounding the removal of these statues is that there has only been spotty discussion of how various groups are actually removing these monuments. For, example in North Carolina, the state has filed charges against a group for illegally toppling a Confederate Memorial. In Baltimore, the city voted to remove four Confederate memorials and the act of removal was done with far less pomp, taking place in the middle of the night. In New Orleans, the removal also took place at night with the workers wearing body armor. In New Orleans and Baltimore, the removal of the statues seems to have been funded by the city; in Gainesville, the county offered the United Daughters of the Confederacy a chance to acquire the statue of “Old Joe” when they voted to remove it and that group moved it to a cemetery outside of town. It seems to have taken place during the day without any protests or problems.  The New York Times offers a thorough list with very interesting photographic documentation (worthy of a study in its own right).

I think there is far more significance to how these statues are being removed – both procedurally and physically – than what the statues mean. In fact, I worry that we’re sort of fixated on reinforcing the historical meaning of these monuments in order to make the political work surrounding their removal a socially acceptable gesture of restorative justice rather than seeking to understand how the statues produce meaning in public spaces. In other words, we have tended to privilege the original intent of the statues (which was morally repugnant) over their lives as monuments in living cities. This is not to suggest that we allow these monuments to stand and it certainly is not to suggest that these monuments don’t continue to represent a painful, immoral, and tragic history particularly for the black community or that they don’t, in part, carry forward the intent of their racist makers. What I guess I’m responding to is that archaeologists have tended to complicate this kind of historicism and locate objects and monuments in relation to changing perceptions and attitudes. By reading the meaning associated with these statues in such an intensively historical way, we’re promoting a gestural and spectacular approach to transforming contemporary culture. This isn’t bad unto itself, but it evokes certain elements of contemporary “slactivism” that sometimes function to detract from the real hard work of changing racial attitudes. If we can just remove the monuments, then we’ve done something.

(And again, this isn’t to detract from the hard work behind removing these monuments or even the impulse behind it, but to question whether these kinds of performative acts are more about political capital than the hard grinding work of social change which so often is invisible. Maybe, the removal of these monuments reflects and celebrates this work? Maybe it’s a clarion call telling the rest of us how much more we have to do? What does this moment really mean?)

At the same time, the removal of these statues is a far more potent act than whatever repressive, offensive, and racist meaning that the statues themselves carried. This isn’t to marginalize unduly their role in the history of race in the U.S. or the brutal work of white political leaders and communities in the southern states to negotiate a politically and culturally expedient identity in the face of the demographic, economic, social and political changes of the early-20th-century. Instead, I’m reflecting on some of Ömür Harmanşah’s work on the destructive acts performed by ISIS (albeit for a despicable and terrible cause). To my mind, the public acts of removing the statues matter far more than the statues themselves or some utopian notion that ALL the Confederate memorials in public spaces could be somehow removed. As an aside, this seems unlikely, probably impossible, and possibly even undesirable as neglect and even irony can sometimes be more potent tools than iconoclastic performances. As an alternate gesture, think of the so-called “Arlington House” (or the National Robert E. Lee Memorial) which offers a far more nuanced and complicated expression of Lee’s legacy bound up in the changing political and cultural understanding of Lee and the Civil War. 

There is an undeniably element of political theater in the removal of these statues as I suspect there was in their commissioning and original placement. And, again, to be clear I’m not proposing a moral equivalency here between those working to remove the monuments and the motivations that led to their placement. If archaeologists – and historians – are to invest energy in the critical reflection on these monuments, perhaps we should work more to understand them not as static indicators in the landscape, but as part of inherently political and performative character of place making. This impact and implication of this kind of gestural politics is the kind of complicated discursive process that archaeologists and scholars of visual culture have reveled in over the past several decades. My hope is that archaeologists can get beyond debating the historical significance of these monuments, whether and how they should be documented, and whether they should be preserved or destroyed, and move toward understanding how the moment of removal and the impact of their present/absence makes meaning for their communities and the nation. 

Slow and Ethnoarchaeology

Somehow I missed this recent article on ethnoarchaeology as slow science in World Archaeology. Jerimy J. Cunningham and Scott MacEachern argue that the ethnoarchaeology offers a counterweight to fast science driven by big data. This contributes to some of my recent ideas on slow archaeology.

The clever argument that Cunningham and MacEachern make is that ethnoarchaeology can work to create a space for archaeological thinking outside of dominant narrative of modernity (as well as capitalism). For most working archaeologists, this includes our desire to fragment knowledge, promote efficiency, and develop typologies. The rise of big data – and data-driven archaeology – fits well within this trajectory as it promotes streamlined acquisition of bits of information and the granularity and fluidity to support its large scale aggregation. I am not necessarily suggesting that big data and data-driven archaeology is bad, but that it does fit within a particular disciplinary, social, economic, and even political discourse. As the authors contend, big data is often part of a larger direction in archaeology that promotes large-scale projects, resource intensive computing and analytical practices, costly archiving protocols, and exacerbates the divide between a small number of highly-resourced projects who work to set global standards and a large number of poorly provisioned projects that either conform or exist at the margins of the discipline. To my mind, this reflects the intersection of contemporary, institutional archaeology, as well as long-standing historical practices dating from the origins of the discipline. 

I have argued for a “slow archaeology” as a way to critique this trajectory and to promote a sense of disciplinary self awareness (and I’ve been fortunate for some of my ideas to be advanced and developed by others who are far smarter than I am!). Cunningham and MacEachern align themselves with the slow science movement – particular scholars like Lisa Alleva, Olivier Gosselin, and Isabelle Stengers – and argue that the ethnoarchaeology offers a way to escape the modern pressure and trajectory of archaeological practices and processes by studying explicitly the complexity of traditional practices and modern lifeways. This allows us to grasp paths in the modern world that are not as neatly shaped by the pressures of capital, industrial production, and progress, but hold fast to craft practices, for example, as a means to communicate certain values that lack expression or are marginalized in the market.

Returning then to the idea that archaeology traces the trajectory of modernity, ethnoarchaeology offers a space to critique the impact of modern thinking not by denying its impact, but by understanding how it shapes what we do. In this way ethnoarchaeology, slow science, and slow archaeology share a concern even if they deviate in terms of methods.


Bricolage and Performance

I was intrigued by Katy Soar and Paul-François Tremlett’s recent contribution to the World Archaeology issue on counter-archaeologies. They examine the material culture and space of the Occupy Democracy demonstration in London in 2014 and the “Disobedient Objects” exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum during the same year. 

For the authors “protest objects” represent both embody Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage to describe the opportunistic re-use of everyday objects as objects supporting protest. Tents, camp chairs, banners, tarps, and other objects drawn from everyday life become protest objects when situated in relation to both political spaces (in this case, the Parliament) and amid a particular set of performative gestures. The protesters used these objects to perform their critique of democracy (or whatever). The police and “heritage wardens” tasked with keeping the area around Parliament “authentically heritigistical” (or something of that sort) performed their critique of the demonstration by removing and destroying these objects. In short, the relationship between the diverse assemblage of objects associated with the Occupy Democracy protests in London and a range of performative gestures create meaning.

The nearly contemporary exhibit of “disobedient objects” at the Victoria and Albert transformed these same objects into artifacts of the protest. Severed from the immediacy of performance, the objects nevertheless served to evoke the spirit of the Occupy movement by standing in for the absent performative relationships that gave them meaning. At the same time, the exhibit succeeded in “othering” these objects by locating them within the foreign performative confines of the experience of the museum. For the authors, this exhibit transformed the tradition of museum display at the Victoria and Albert from one based on the formal qualities of an artifact to one based on its use. The museum offered a hybridized perspective that relied on the utter banality of the “disobedient objects” to highlight meaning generated through their performative context.

This move by the museum (and this article) to re-contextualize these disobedient objects in a way that allows for their investigation and interrogation reminds me a good bit of what I was trying to do with my tourist guide to the Bakken. The modern space of the museum, the academic article, and the tourist guide provides a performative context for objects that both re-presents some aspect of their original performance as well as opening up those relationships for examination. To my mind, this move is fundamental to modernity and echoes, for example, our ability to both be part of “nature” and to isolate it for study.  

The banality of the objects used by the demonstrators and their transformation to protests objects and then, through re-exibition at a museum to disobedient objects, likewise informed my ongoing study of everyday objects used in construction of temporary domestic space in the Bakken. Shipping pallets, cable spools, camping chairs, gas grills, scrap wood, and generators contribute to everyday life in the Bakken through a network of performative relationships and other objects. By locating the research – as tourist – within this network of relationships (that in some ways define dwelling), we acknowledge the artifice of our gaze as part of the world that defines and recognizes these objects.


Doin Work

I’ve been pretty disappointed in my productivity since my return from fieldwork in late June.

Part of this is because I’m juggling quite a few little projects these days from working on The Digital Press to wrapping up some longer term writing projects to working on data from Pyla-Koutsopetria and finishing an already-accepted article. 

Part of this is because I’m starting to feel my age and simply do not have the ability to just hammer through projects like I once did. I need to be a bit more precious with my downtime and back off when I feel like pressing through a project is no longer productive.

Part of it may be because I’m in a rut.

As the start of the semester looms, I’m beginning to think about how I can change up my routine to get a bit more productivity back into my days and weeks. I was particularly inspired by Kate Ellenberger’s post “Intentional and Consistent Writing is Hard.” I will be the first to admit that I’ve never been very consistent in my writing, but I’ve tried to be intentional (or at least deliberate) in my daily and weekly work rhythms.

For the last decade, I’ve broken my day into working blocks: (1) blogging, (2) emails, (3) morning writing, <lunch>, (4) afternoon writing, (5) late afternoon reading. Teaching and meetings can swap into any block when necessary. For example, when I teach an afternoon class, it takes the place of (4) afternoon writing and preparing for my night class takes the spot of (5) late afternoon reading. Grading often occupies (3) morning writing. 

The challenge facing me now is that this routine feels pretty stale. I need to think about Kate’s post and figure out some ways to adjust my schedule so that I can find a new groove.

Photogrammetry and Archaeological Practice

Phil Saperstein’s and Sarah Murray’s recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology is remarkably useful for anyone considering using photogrammetry or structure from motion techniques to document an archaeological site. The authors argue that for the efficiency and precision of photogrammetric techniques to make a significant impact on archaeological documentation practices, archaeologists need to demonstrated greater rigor and transparency in the implementation of these techniques in the field.

Their article outlines key considerations for developing more rigorous field procedures for using photogrammetric techniques. For example, the article advocated for the use of coded targets to improve the efficiency of modeling and the accuracy of the resulting images. The authors provide a useful primer on focal length, aperture setting, and camera equipment which is useful to anyone using photography to document buildings, objects, or spaces. Anyone thinking about using photogrammetry in the field should consult this article. I know that I would do things a bit differently had I read this prior to our field work this summer.

There are three interesting things, however, that this article does not really consider, and I think that these speak to certain tendencies in archaeological methodology and, perhaps, how the discipline “works” in the field at a procedural level.

First, it was curious that there was little discussion of actual software in the article. On the one hand, this is understandable. The requirements of a particular software package, of course, are subject to change, and it was probably worth downplaying specific software in the interest of keeping the article timely. At the same time, the authors do make clear that the software that makes photogrammetric images possible is complex and opaque. This article offers a primer on understanding how to make useful images in the field, but it does not extend to understanding how these images are processed. This division remains a key difference between traditional archaeological illustration practices which are relatively more transparent, and our new use of technology to document sites.

Second, the article focuses on field practices and does not extend to the publication and dissemination of the images produced through these techniques. Like the software used to analyze issues, there tends to be a discontinuity between image production, analysis, and publication in archaeology. With the increased use of digital tools in the field and the growing interest and reliance on processed and 3D images offers unique challenges to archaeological publications that continue to emphasize 2D media for technical and traditional reasons.

Moreover, the producing photographs that are also data used in analysis has additional challenge of making sure that the data is available for independent confirmation of the analysis or future study using new and more advanced software. While archaeologists are never obligated to disseminate data publicly, a requirement does exist to archive properly both the photographs themselves as well as the results of photogrammetric analysis. Archiving digital photographs is relatively straightforward using existing standards and technologies; archiving photogrammetric or 3D models offers some new challenges. I’ve tended to see the needs to archive the results of photogrammetric analysis as something that extends directly from its use in the field and maintaining the continuity of metadata for each image is part of carefully executed field work.

Finally, (and readers of this blog know to expect this), I do wonder whether even a technical article like this could benefit from going beyond arguments for efficiency to include a stronger sense for the interpretative goals and potential for this kind of work. Accuracy and precision, for example, are always relative to the interpretive or analytical needs. Field efficiency is likewise dependent upon the desired interpretive outcome.

The authors do present a nice matrix for deciding whether photogrammetry is possible at a site, but this nevertheless depends on the kind of questions that archaeologists are asking. An article focusing on field practices cannot anticipate every possible interpretative outcome, but the authors have extensive experience with these kinds of technologies and could offer some substantive case studies.

In the end, these quibbles are mostly me saying that I’d prefer this article to be different rather than saying that the article isn’t good. It’s really good. Go read it.

Bottle and Privies in North Dakota: An Indigenous Archaeology

My Friday afternoon house cleaning was interrupted last week by a knock on my door. A 20-something guy in a sleeveless t-shirt and jeans asked if I was an archaeologist and if I would look at a couple of artifacts that he had purchased. I’m a curious guy, so of course I wanted to see the artifacts (and the last few times people have asked me to identify interesting artifact, they’ve ended up being pretty weird things and that’s even more fun). I’ve found that North Dakotans, in general, have an interest in archaeology and history 

Needless to say, I couldn’t identify objects that he had acquired, but as we talked, he explained to me that he made a living excavating 19th and 20th privies and selling and trading the bottles that he finds in them. He explained that he had excavated over 500 privies in his career, how he found them, and that he did so with permission of property owners. 

My gut reaction was the same as any archaeologist might have: “ugh, please don’t do that.” Instead, I asked him frankly whether me telling him to stop would cause him to stop. He said “no.” At that point, I felt like we could have a more open conversation about his methods, practices, and goals. I’m assuming, for the most part, that he was being honest with me about his approach to finding privies and that his reasons for excavating them. 

1. Passion for Bottles. He explained that his real motivation to dig up privies was not to make himself rich on excavated artifacts, but because he just really liked bottles. This wasn’t some kind of naive passion either. He clearly understood the history and typologies of glass bottle making in the region and could identify, date, and link bottles to particular places of manufacture and circulation.

2. Methods. His approach to finding privies was remarkably sophisticated. I let him prospect in the backyard of my late-19th house. He used a home made spring-steel probe with a hollow handle and started with depressions in the backyard working outward from an axis formed by the backdoor of the house. As he worked the backyard with his probe, he described the various sounds that the probe made as it passed through subsurface levels identifying some the grinding noise as “stove ash” and unsuccessfully searching for a lightly compacted area that would be the house’s outhouse. 

He also described successful efforts at using the old plat books for towns and then going to the now abandoned townsites and mapping in the individual lots on the ground. Then, it would be possible to find the location of the houses and their privies for excavation. This is a genuinely sophisticated and thoughtful approach to mapping a site prior to excavation.

Finally, he has started to take GPS points for each of his privy sites over the past year or so, mapping in over 100 privies that he’s excavated in the Red River valley and he can, in many cases, connect bottles to particular sites.  

3. Excavation. It is clear that his excavation practices are not stratigraphic, but this isn’t to say that he didn’t make careful observations about the formation processes that created privy shafts and their deposits. For example, he understood that privies were sometimes cleaned out leaving layers of earlier material on the bottom. And he recognized the different shapes of privy pits and the levels of backfilling and post-abandonment activities that formed a cap on the privy,

In short, his understanding of stratigraphy and formation processes demonstrated that he wasn’t just digging holes looking for artifacts, but recognized how artifacts made their way into deposits and how artifacts served to date individual depositional events.

4. Publishing. We talked a good bit about his collection of bottles from the Red River valley in eastern North Dakota and his desire to make his collection better known. While one could assign questionable motives here – a desire to improve the value of his collection or to gain renown or whatever, our conversation demonstrated a certain earnestness. He wanted to publish his collection because he understood its value, and he recognized its value because as a collector and a kind of archaeologists, he noticed a gap in the academic tradition that he used to identify and date his finds. Publishing his work is a way to make what he does useful and to preserve his work for future generations.


While I don’t condone his methods, I found his approach to his passion fascinating and I was impressed with how developed his methods and practices were. His work demonstrated a deep familiarity with a very limited kind of archaeological context and gave me renewed appreciation for the wide range of indigenous archaeological practices in use. My hope is to encourage him to give his records over to an archive, to publish what he knows, and to think about how to make his collection serve the public good. We’ll see how far I get!

Curating Excavation Data

Over the past two weeks David Pettegrew and I have been working through the data from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project’s excavation seasons. This includes two seasons of excavation in the 1990s by Maria Hadjicosti with the Cypriot Department of Antiquities and and three seasons of excavation by a team from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Messiah College, and the University of North Dakota. So far, we’ve prepared the finds tables for publication following the approach that we took with the data from the intensive pedestrian survey at the site published in 2014.

With that more or less under control, we’ve turned our attention to the excavation data which is a bit more complicated a proposition. When we published our intensive survey unit data, we recognized that each survey unit is more or less comparable to every other survey unit. They are all the product of the same procedures, methods, and recording. It is, therefore, useful to query all the data together or a wide range of subsets of that data to interrogate the relationship between surface conditions and artifact recovery rates, densities, and assemblages.

Excavation data, in contrast, is different. Each stratigraphic unit (SU) represents a more complicated set of variables, procedures, and methods that make it very difficult to compare them. For example, a scarp cleaning unit or a plow-zone unit is very different from a unit that is floor packing. The excavation of floor packing in different trenches may or may not be defined the in the same way spatially or procedurally. In one trench the floor packing might be a single SU; in another, the floor packing might be removed over several SUs that are determined only later to represent the same stratigraphic context.

Our description of survey units served to define each unit in a way that allowed us to compare surface conditions across the entire survey area or even between survey areas. Our recording practices in excavation often serve to define our stratigraphic units in a way that is relative to physically adjacent units that represent later depositional events. This isn’t to suggest that we can’t compare units between trenches, but to note that the relative differences between stratigraphic units are often more important in describing the character of a stratigraphic unit.

All this is to say that we’re trying to figure out what information is important to include as searchable, queryable, and sortable data and what information can be left on our stratigraphic unit forms (which will be published as scans). The issue, then, is not whether we’ll publish some information and not publish other information – we’ll publish all of our recording sheets – but rather what we will publish as data and what will remain available, but not presented in a way that can be queried or 

 My instinct is to be fairly minimalist with the information that we present as formal data points. My take would be to publish as data:
* EU (trench number)
* SU (stratigraphic unit number),
* Harris Matrix Relationships (using the basic Harris matrix style terms)
* Description (as a free text block).  

David advocates for a more robust set of queryable descriptors. 

The first group are the same as mine:

* Area
* EU (trench number)
* SU (stratigraphic unit number)
* Description

The next group can be easily pulled from our forms:

* DateExcavated
* MinElev
* MaxElev
* Munsell
* Texture
* Consolidation
* Stoniness
* Dominant Clast

Some of the categories will be included not as textual data, but as links to other resources:

* DrawingNumber
* DrawingDescription
* PhotoNumber
* PhotoDescription

The final group is more interpretive and will draw from the final reports and our published chapter:

* Context (Surface, Plow, Destruction, Floor, Subsurface)
* Phasing in Site
* Summary (from our chapter) 

He does not include Harris Matrix relationships.

The question that I leave for my readers to consider is how do we balance between presenting as much data as might be useful for our audience, and publishing so much data that we allow for unwanted errors to creep in without providing additional utility. 

More 7th Century

Just a short post this morning, but I’ve really been enjoying John Haldon’s The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740 (Harvard 2016). In many ways, Haldon has been responsible for the changing perceptions of the 7th and 8th century among historians and archaeologists with his several, high-influential works on the topic.

His most recent work stands 25 years (well 26), after his Byzantium in the Seventh Century, and surveys the field since this important work. The book brings together politics and religion with institutional history of the Roman state and the archaeology and even environmental history of the Late Roman world. I’ll reflect on the book more expansively next week.

What interested me the most for now, however, is that Haldon decided to use a biological metaphor for his study of the Roman state. His title and, indeed, the main focus of the book, is that states must “die.” The persistence of the Roman state in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the massive dislocations, turmoil, and changes of the 7th and 8th centuries, is, in some ways, its exceptional feature. For Haldon, the military and economic pressures on the state created conditions under which it should fail, but it didn’t.

It’s interesting that among archaeologists, we’ve increasingly come to expect continuity despite political and economic changes. In other words, we’re less inclined to expect a local social organization, political structures, or material culture to change even under rather dire or extreme pressures from military interventions or regime change. This speaks to the deep affinity to structuralism among archaeologist, our inclination to study society at the scale of centuries, and our profoundly ironic attitude to the traditional historical discourse. If history says change, archaeology frequently calls for continuity. 

As I read Haldon’s book, I can’t help but constantly turn his premise on its head and wonder what agents and force would be necessary to make a state change at all and what kind of change would be necessary for us to declare a state well and truly dead. 


If you haven’t read Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book, Evicted, you should. It is the best non-fiction book I’ve read for years and has done more to crystalize how I think about housing in the 21st century than almost anything else. Readers of this blog know that housing has become a significant interest of mine stemming largely from my work with the North Dakota Man Camp Project and conversations with my colleague Bret Weber.

As most folks probably know, Desmond’s Evicted follows a group of people who were evicted from their homes and shows the struggles that they endure to reclaim stable housing. He complements their perspectives with that of a couple of landlords who constantly balance between managing their properties as investments and dealing with the precarious lives of their tenants. The main argument in the book is that evictions are not the result of social and economic problems among those battling endemic poverty in American cities, but causes the economic and social problems making it nearly impossible for the poorest of the poor to claw their way to stability. Evictions not only become mark the records of the evicted as unstable renters driving them into far less stable markets for housing, but also disrupts family life and stable employment, undermines the ability for existing social safety nets to function properly, and deprives individuals of a sense of worth that is crucial for self esteem, confidence, planning, and that most characteristic condition of capitalist, ambition.

I took five things away from this book:

Functional Housing. I’ll admit that I’ve tended to see housing as a more less functional category of space. Perhaps this comes from my experience as an Mediterranean archaeologist where we’ve tended to see certain assemblages of material and spaces as “domestic” in function without much in the way of nuance outside the wealthiest elite of the ancient world. When I tried to adapt this kind of definition to my work in the contemporary Bakken oil patch, I found that it was rather inadequate to describe the conditions present in workforce housing in the Bakken ranging from ramshackle RVs to austerely functional, professionally managed “man camps.” While the latter certainly served the basic housing needs for a significant portion of the Bakken workforce, they also functioned like hotels, limiting the opportunities for their residents to personalize their space, privileging functionality over intimacy, and undermining the traditional middle-class division between work and life by bundling housing with employment.

Desmond’s book does not deal with workforce housing per se, but few of his evicted residents end up on the street or without a place to stay. Instead, they are forced from their homes into the homes of others, shelters, and other places that function as housing – or perhaps more basically shelter – but do not offer a sense of security, intimacy, or “ownership” (in the broadest sense of the term). Desmond brilliant reveals the division between housing as a function and housing as part of the psychological armor that an individual needs to survive in the modern world.  

Property as Investment and Housing as Life. The broader function of housing makes the tension between housing as an investment and housing as fundamental to a successful life in the 21st century all the more dramatic. Desmond’s work follows the story of both renters and landlords that embodies this tension. What is interesting is at the lowest level of the housing scale in the U.S., landlords are not faceless companies or management outfits, but real people who make their living providing housing for the poorest of the poor in American cities. In some ways these individuals are more sympathetic figures with more flexible approaches to housing than, say, the banks that held mortgages during the subprime mortgage crisis. On the other hand, these individuals could be fickle and unpredictable as they attempted to manage a housing stock that often was in desperate need of repairs, tenants who struggled to pay rent, and the various institutional challenges brought by building inspectors, the police, and various other city service providers. The property owners in Desmond’s book are far more sympathetic figures than the absentee, millionaire investors vilified by K. Stanley Robinson in his most recent novel or in the recent survey of housing by Marcuse and Madden.

Precarity. Bret Weber introduced me to the idea of precarity earlier this year and since then, I’ve been turning it around in my head and trying to figure our whether the idea is sufficiently robust to apply it formally to how we understand the coming changes to 21st century society. It basically describes an social and economic condition where one’s ability to survive in a meaningful and independent way is constantly under threat. I’ve considering applying it to the condition of oil workers in the Bakken whose livelihood is dependent on economic forces that are beyond their control and there is a clear value to wealthy companies to avoid encumbering their bottom like with a stable and permanent workforce. The recent rise in adjunct labor at American universities is similarly invested the creation of precarity in the academic workforce. Precarity also drives down wages, preserves a pool of available labor for just-in-time production, and undermines social stability in communities.

Among the poorest of the American poor, precarity is a way of life with the vicissitudes of housing not only manifesting the precarious nature of their existence, but exacerbating it. Precarious employment means precarious incomes and this means precarious housing. More importantly, the system of inexpensive rental housing depends on the precarious labor of the chronically unemployed who will work at below minimum wage or for incredibly low wages because they have no choice. This low cost labor keeps the margins up on low cost housing that is frequently occupied by the poorest of the poor who, in turn, provide both rents and low cost labor.  

Social Networks. One of the more remarkable things that I learned from Desmond’s book is the way in which personal relationship – the social network – functioned for the poor and the evicted. In some cases, personal relationship provided a functional safety net for people evicted from their homes. Friends, family, and neighbors took in the newly evicted and even provided food and – perhaps as importantly – advice, friendship, and sympathy.

At the same time, these networks were incredibly fragile with friends and family frequently unwilling or unable to help, and new relationships forming almost spontaneously during crises. This dynamic situation is both heartening because it demonstrates a kind of shared humanity during a crisis, but also troubling because social bonds become structured around the practical needs of housing and sustenance. As we start to analyze the interviews from the North Dakota Man Camp Project, it’ll be interesting to determine whether we can recognize these dynamic networks of relationships that thrive in precarious environments.

Objects. This is an archaeological blog, right? I couldn’t help but think about all the objects mentioned in Demond’s book. I immediately envisioned a student project that produced an index of objects from the book and considered how objects served to both advance Desmond’s argument and in the lives of the evicted. Producing plans of the houses and rooms that Desmond describes would also provide a kind of blueprint of poverty in American cites. Someone needs to do this!

Slow Academia and the Summer

I found Dimitri Nakassis’s recent blog post in response to Mary Beard’s recent column in the TLS pretty interesting, and it seems to have generated a bit of social media buzz as well. Go read it. 

[For those of you who read my blog regularly, you can probably skip this post!]

To summarize Dimitri and Prof. Beard briefly: they let folks know that academics work all summer despite the tendency to see our profession as primarily involved in teaching undergraduates and getting “summers off.” As readers of my blog might suspect, both Prof. Beard and Dimitri are really busy over the summer doing research, prepping classes, and even doing professional service to their disciplines and their universities. For most academics, this is hardly a surprise. We have the luxury of working when we want and sometimes even where we want for part of every year and most of us embrace these times not as an opportunity to turn our back on our professions, but to actually do things that enrich and expand our professional lives. As some of the comments on social media suggest, academics even define leisure activities like vacations or (in my case) bike rides or long walks as professionally productive time. 

I’ll return to these ideas, but first, it’s important to acknowledge the context context for their post. Both Beard and Dimitri work at publicly funded schools and these posts have a real value inasmuch as they remind the public that despite many of us not teaching in the summer, we, in fact, still work. They might have added that technically many of us are not even under contract in the summer months (although I am not sure about Dimitri and Prof. Beard). So those of us who continue to do our jobs – read drafts of theses, do research, respond to emails, revise classes, and the like – are doing so without being paid a salary. At the same time, most American universities do treat tenured and tenure track faculty as employees even when we’re not being paid, providing lab and office space, library access as well as health insurance during the summer months. In other words, American (and I assume most) universities provide their tenured and tenure track faculty with the basic tools to do their jobs even when they’re not drawing a salary. 

That being said, both posts also address one of the most interesting conflicts in the life of academics: the tension between our lives in the industrial world of education and the pre-industrial world of research. Research, especially in the humanities, frequently follows a pre-industrial model and ebbs and flows in fits and starts. We race toward deadlines and, at times, work settles into prolonged lulls. We work on weekends, over the summer, and on holidays, but we might also find ourselves taking weeks off from research as teaching, service, or other obligations take priority. Teaching and service, in contrast, tend to follow an industrial pattern with regimented flow of classes and semesters shaping our work rhythms.

This tension between industrial and pre-industrial work contributes significantly to the confused discourse of work/life balance in academia as I noted in my two part review of the Slow Professor, and I think it also creates some confusion when I discuss slow archaeology and the like. There is a tendency to see pre-industrial work rhythms as less efficient and positioned to benefit from any number timesaving tools designed to streamline workflow from research to publication. There’s also a tendency for industrial expectations to influence preindustrial work rhythms. This isn’t necessarily always bad. For example, the division between work and life is a product of industrial modes of production, and it allows for academic lives fit more easily into a world shaped by middle class expectations. Dimitri and Prof. Beard advertised the work that most of us do in the summer when either not on contract or at least not engaged in the regular work rhythms associated with teaching, continues to align rather closely with regular industrial practices. In other words, we don’t have time off in the summer; we work then too, just like normal working janes and joes. 

On the other hand, among academics, there is tendency to see our preindustrial lives as particular pernicious because until the industrial routine centered on punching the clock and performing tasks on time and on clearly defined specifications, preindustrial work is not circumscribed by such tidy expectations. We work when we need to, how we want to, and to deadlines and specifications that are largely (if not always) of our own devising. For some, this leads to malaise as our structured training in academia gives way to the unstructured preindustrial world of research. In other cases, the lack of structured expectations can give way to pervasive anxiety about work or a drive to re-compartmentalize work and life. 

This is where a slow approach to academia has merits. Putting aside the tangled and unconvincing arguments in The Slow Professor which try and fail to accommodate the tension between industrial and preindustrial practices, I think embracing slow aspects to research offers one way to remind researchers that we don’t need to accommodate industrial work rhythms in all of our productive work. Slow practices allow for such disparate and seemingly inefficient practices as a vacation, a field season, a weekend reading, or a frustrating night writing to all be regarded as valuable and productive time. In this sense, slow has less to do with the speed at which once accomplished a goal and more to do with an approach that rejects tools or work rhythms that promote efficiency or speed at the expense of effectiveness. Slow practices draw a line between time defined by structures designed to promote the goals of the industrial academy and those designed to ensure the most effective contribution to our scholarly communities. There will always be a need to generate equivalencies between the slow aspects of our professional lives and those set apart by industrial expectation – as Dimitri and Prof. Beard have shown – but it remains particularly important that we not internalize these expectations.

(And I’ll leave this post for now, but I’d like to think more about communities of practice and the role of slow practices in the academy and archaeology in shaping the expectations of these communities…)