Contemporaneity and Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and Historical Archaeology

This weekend, I got my very first paper copy of the European Journal of Archaeology. I felt very international! 

The EJA is one of those journals where I always find at least one article that intrigues me. The most recent issue had an article titled “Modern Colonialism, Eurocentrism and Historical Archaeology: Some Engendered Thoughts” by Sandra Montón-Subías and Almudena Hernando. The article is open access.

The authors argue that “de-Eurocentring” archaeology and history is more than just opening our disciplines to indigenous voices, expanding our views of agency, and developing more socially aware practices, but also needs to include critiques of the very basis of disciplinary logic. In particular, they suggest that history and archaeology focus on change at the expense of stability and continuity. The former tends to celebrate individuality which, in turns, tends to emphasize both the development of hierarchy and technology. It goes without saying that this trajectory has tended to emphasize men. In contrast, they argue, women often play key roles in maintaining social stability particularly in non-hierarchical societies, but these roles, experiences, and spaces tend to be overlooked because our history and archaeology tend to focus on change. In fact, the projecting of change, and ideas of progress and development, backward from the Enlightenment into earlier periods (and the emphasis on, say, developmental models of periodization and endless debates over continuity and change. The historical trajectory of male, capitalist, expansionist, hierarchical, and technological Europe has become a model for all societies and change is in these places is seen as evidence for the advanced state of European culture and an excuse for colonial practices that, at best, seek to elevate the condition of “undeveloped” societies.

There’s a lot for me to unpack in this article and many citations to follow (particularly those related to “relational identity”), but it got me wondering about what an expanded role of contemporaneity plays in destabilizing on of a key element in defining discontinuity in archaeology. As a number of archaeological theorists have argued, our knowledge of the past often requires us to recognize a “broken tradition” between the time of the archaeologist and the past. While scholars have obviously challenged this deeply modern way of viewing the work and perspective of an archaeologist, it is difficult to deny that the disciplinary logic of archaeology insists on the place and time of the archaeologist is very much separate from the time occupied by the objects that they excavate, study, and interpret. The accounts from the prevalence of the metaphor of excavation which sees the surface as the present and levels beneath the surface as belonging to a past otherwise hidden from the archaeologist’s gaze, in modern and archaeological thought. In other words, the notion of change – and radical change at that – is implicit in archaeological work as long as the archaeologist remains situated outside of archaeological or historical time and works from the perspective of a perpetual present.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the idea of contemporaneity in archaeology. It seems to me that an archaeology of the contemporary world upsets the idea that the time of the archaeologist and the time that they study are different. It undermines the notion that time is defined by breaks and discontinuities that are so often viewed as the manifestations of radical moments of individuality pushing back against the torpor of tradition. The most common definitions of the contemporary (the last 20? Or 30 years?) press back directly against the accelerated pace of modernity by insisting on the long present. By locating ourselves in the same time that we study we insist on continuity in a discipline defined by change.

I’m not naive enough to suggest that this simple time shift will decolonize archaeology, but perhaps its a way to open more space for critical engagement with gender, social inequality, and the narratives of progress that underpin the logic of our disciplines.  

 

 

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean: Dissecting Digital Divides

Next month, I’m giving a paper at a conference called “Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean” and hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. It’s title is “Dissecting Digital Divides: Teaching, Writing, and Making Knowledge of the Mediterranean Past.”

Right now, I only have a title and the dread feeling that I really have nothing significant to say about digital approaches to teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. 

I do, of course, have a little swarm of unrelated ideas and a strong yearning to be the kind of senior professor who can give a paper on three of four random things to a rapt audience. (Rather than feeling like an undergraduate who is trying to recycle the same three ideas that I’ve had since 2004 into another paper and hoping that nobody notices!).

So here are my ideas.

1. Digital Divide. There’s been a good bit of scholarship on the digital divide in secondary and higher education. The digital divide, in its most basic form, argues that a significant divide exists between those who use and have access to digital technologies and those who do not. This divide usually mapped along social, economic, and regional lines. Rural states, like North Dakota, tend to fall on one side of the digital divide especially when access to broadband internet is concerned, but I’d also argue —at least anecdotally— that students at UND are generally less technologically savvy and comfortable in digital environments than their more affluent and more suburban counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. 

I need to get data for this, but just observing my classes over the last few semesters, I continue to be struck by the significant number of students for whom technology is not a constant companion. Many of my students do not bring their laptops to class regularly, for example. In a recent field project that involved using mobile phones to take video, a number of students had such outdated phones that they could not accommodate more than short video clips; one student had a flip phone. While it was easy enough to negotiate the different access to technology, it remains clear that the digital divide—in terms of hardware—remains firmly in place. (A recently updated “smart classroom” with a series of small group work stations relies on students to use their own laptops too access the large, shared monitor. This seems like an optimistic implementation of technology.)   

Access to the right hardware, however, is only part of the digital divide. Over the last decade of teaching at UND, it has become clear to me that something as simple as a broken hyperlink or a pdf document oriented the wrong way, represents a significant barrier to accessing information. A significant group of students lack the standard tool kit of web “work arounds” that range from savvy web searches to negotiating the standard elements of user interfaces across multiple software. Even something as simple as using a mobile device as a quick and dirty scanner or looking for an article on Academia.edu or institutional repositories that they can’t access at UND remains on the fringes of their practice (even when such approaches are modeled in class).     

In my larger Scale-Up style class where groups of 9 work together to produce text, it was pretty apparent that even relatively simply digital interfaces – like editable Wikis or shared documents in Google or Microsoft 365 – caused myriad small scale obstacles that frustrated students and complicated group work. 

2. Prosumer and Consumers. My experience teaching at UND has suggested that access to hardware and familiarity with software (and these often go hand-in-hand) sketches one level of the digital divide and contributes to the existence of the “second level digital divide.” The second level divide maps the difference between individuals who are consumers of digital material on the web and those who are so-called “prosumers” of digital and web-based content. I contend that this second level divide is far more problematic that the first level divide for implementing digital approaches to teaching and, as a result, I have dedicated more time to cultivating prosumer culture among my students and demonstrating how digital tools facilitate certain kinds of collective knowledge making.

I will admit that my general approach is a naive one. I continue to have a certain amount of faith that the last unfettered wilds of the internet hold out a glimmer of hope for a society that is far more likely to be shackled, monitored, and manipulated by technology than liberated by it. I want my students to understand the power of Wikipedia, the ecosystem that produced the growing number of open educational resources and good quality open access software, and the potential, if not unproblematic character, of maker culture, and be prepared to contribute to it. 

On the other hand, I also understand that most aspects of prosumer culture have been coopted by the usual suspects of capitalism, exploitation, sexism, racism, and technological solutionism. By producing new knowledge, creative works, and tools, we are also likely to be producing profits for transnational corporations who are as comfortable limiting access to our own work as they are preventing us from foment even very small revolutions that cannot be monetized. As the kids say: “the revolution will now be monetized.”   

I still have hope, though, and at very least I want to work to undermine still-persistent attitudes that certain incredibly exploitative industries (like textbook publishing) represent a meaningful source of authority in the time of Wikipedia. 

3. The Other Digital Divide. History students obsess over and are baffled by the distinction between primary and secondary sources. For students of the ancient Mediterranean, their consternation is understandable and useful in unpacking the relative uselessness of this distinction among practicing historians. A source is a source and only primary or secondary in relation to its use. 

Practicing archaeologists sometimes find ourselves in the same bind, of course. The divide between “data” and “interpretation,” for example, coincides with the primary and secondary source divide among historians. The persistence of terms like “raw data” (which I think is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from use) reveals an understanding of archaeological knowledge making the divides data from interpretation. It seems to me that digital data makes this divide all the more convenient in part because the data itself appears so distinct from interpretative texts, and partly because digging down into the data represents a useful play on the modernist assumption that excavation (literally or metaphorically) provides access to a view of the past less encumbered by present interpretation. While intellectually, we may understand this divide as naive—as generations of archaeologists who celebrate reflexivity and methodology has taught us, we nevertheless tend to lean on the distinction between data and interpretation to frame our conversations. Endless references to archaeological data populate academic conferences, publications, and, I suspect, our teaching. For students who continue to want to see “facts” as the antidote to “fake news,” the transparent use of data appears to be a compelling ontological tonic for their epistemological anxiety. 

To my mind, this digital divide is every bit a pernicious as the other digital divides described in this post. In fact, it might be more dangerous in the era of “Big Data” than the other digital divides because it tends to see data as holding a particular kind of fundamental and inescapable authority in how it describes the world.  

4. Prosumption Critique. For the last 5 years, I’ve taught a large, Introduction to Western Civilization class at the University of North Dakota in a Scale-Up style classroom. The class generally enrolled 150-180 students and the room was set up for them to sit around round, 9-person tables. Each table had three laptops connected to a monitor and also came with a whiteboard and a microphone for the students to play with when bored. A central teaching station allowed me to observe most of the groups and to project content from the tables onto four large projection screens in the corners of the room.

The design of the room encouraged students work together and at least in theory sought to mitigate the hardware aspects of the digital divide by ensuring that at least three students had access to a laptop. In the most common implementations of this design, a student or students worked as the scribe for the table on a provided laptop or students worked in smaller groups, three to a laptop, sometimes installed with appropriate software for the task at hand. While I did not formally leverage the practical aspects of three-laptop design, it did work to mitigate the uneven access to technology among my students.

The class sought to mitigate the “second level digital divide” by encouraging students too critically work as prosumers of educational content. In practice, this involved having the students write a Western Civilization textbook with each table working on a series of chapters that would come together at the end fo the class as a completed book. This task encouraged students to recognize the value of their own voice, critical abilities, and their ability (and maybe even responsibility) to produce their own historical narratives and analysis. It also subverts some of the economic and political power of textbook publishers, although, I do ask them to buy a used copy of an older version of a textbook as a model.

Finally, the students start with more or less a blank document. I do not provide an approved list of primary or secondary sources or even offer much in the way of a critical guide to navigating the internet. Most students get that journal articles are “better” than random webpages (of uncertain authorship and content), that Wikipedia is a good place to glean chronology, geography, and additional sources, and that historical arguments are only as good as the sources they identify to build their arguments. If they can’t find good evidence for an argument, then no amount of rhetorical savvy is likely to make it compelling.

 

At the same time, this approach de-emphasizes the idea that there is a body of data “out there” ready for consumption, analysis, and interpretation. Instead, it encourages the students to see the body of useful evidence and data as the product of their research questions and priorities. The “raw material” of history is not something that is “mined” for knowledge, but something that’s built up as evidence FOR arguments about the past. 

In an era where relational data is literally being treated and traded as a commodity, it is hardly surprising that we envision knowledge making as a kind of extractive industry (and, here, I’m thinking of a paper that I recall my colleague Sheila Liming giving a few years back on the metaphor of “data mining” and “text mining”) rather than, say, performative or generative. It seems to me that encouraging students to be critical and conscientious prosumers of historical knowledge offers a little space to push back on both the economic and intellectual (or at very least metaphorical or rhetorical) underpinnings of our digital world.     

 

Publishing Archaeology

Over the weekend, I read Amara Thorton’s Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People (UCL 2018). The book documents the efforts by late 19th and 20th century archaeologists to publish popular and accessible works on archaeology. She brings together these books with deep dives in the publishers’ and archaeologists’ archives and offers intriguing perspectives on how and why archaeologists worked with publishers to produce accessible, popular books that introduced the public to their sites, outlined the value of scientific practices, and allowed for more thoughtful tourism to the Eastern Mediterranean. 

More than that, it provided important insights into the professionalization of the discipline. Many of the characters of Thorton’s book were full-time, Mediterranean archaeologists who looked to popular publishing to fund their work both directly through the proceeds and by attracting subscribers to support their excavations. At the same time publishers recognized the potential audience for popular works on archaeology. An interest in archaeology paralleled the growing interest in travel and tourism among an expanding and literate middle class. The turn of the 20th century was also the start of a golden age of publishing in the UK where it was possible to produce, distribute, and sell low cost books. In short there existed the infrastructure, the audience and the motivation for popular works in archaeology. 

The book got me thinking about a few things as an archaeologist and a publisher. These are not meant to be critiques of the book, but rather reflections on whether the situation that Thorton documented in the early 20th century might have significance for 21st century academics. 

1. Popularizing Archaeology. Over the last decade, there has been more and more of a call for academics to produce popular works for the general public. While I’m not opposed to this idea, I’ve often thought that the recent pressure on academics – particularly in the humanities – to share their research in popular ways was out of step with the realities of academic work. For example, most academics do not have the time to pursue vigorously both research and popular writing. Both require more than just a casual commitment to the task to be successful. Secondly, producing high quality popular history or archaeology requires the commitment of publishers and editors to work with faculty to produce accessible works that will sell to audiences. Third, there has to be an audience for this work at a scale that is sustainable for the investment from publishers. Finally, such work needs to be institutionally incentivized because writing for the public will detract from our other responsibilities whether those are research or teaching or service.

Finally, and most importantly, calls for humanities scholars to be more engaged with the general public tend to overlook that full-time scholars in the humanities teach (or are in public facing positions at, say, museums or historical sites). In other words, we already make our work accessible on a daily basis to our students.

2. Funding the Future. It was particularly striking that relatively few of the authors in Thorton’s book had regular teaching positions. Some had research positions a museums or universities or other administrative posts to support their travels and work, but few had access to the resources that we have today. The motivation to publish for a popular audience was not, then, the recognition that the public deserved to understand the work of archaeologists, but rather often driven by financial necessity. With the rise of grant and institutionally funded research in the mid-20th century, the need to write for the public declined. 

In the 21st century, funding for research in archaeology and history looks to be an increasing challenge for academics. Not only are the number of tenure-track positions in decline (with their access both to institutional stability and the sustained investment in research), but research dollars from federal coffers (via the NEH and NSF, for example) increasingly scarce and competitive to acquire. On the one hand, this would appear to be the perfect opportunity for a new wave of popular archaeology to support research and scholarly writing. In fact, this kind of market-driven view of academic work seems to inform attitudes at the NEH and among university administrators. At its best, this would seem to suggest a more democratic approach to research.

On the other hand, this approach to funding research – or at least the view that accessibility should be a criteria for funding research – creates an arena where the market drives research as much as research questions and problems. Of course, this already occurs in the sciences, where applied research receives more funding than basic science, and that has shifted the character of university research. It would be intriguing (and to my mind, not entirely positive) to imagine how shifting attention to popular research in the humanities would shape the future discipline.

3. Possibilities of Publishing. Pushing academics to publish popular works may also require a shift in how publishing itself works. There are no lack of publishers looking to monetize the production of scholars and some of the more intriguing passages of Thorton’s work demonstrate that this was the case in the early 20th century as well. In fact, Thorton’s work shows a balance between books commissioned by publishers and works proposed by authors.

In the 21st century, it’s never been easier to publish popular works, but the audience for these works (and the competition to get them recognized) has never been more fierce. Getting a book recognized is harder than just producing good content, but also requires savvy advertising, careful attention to production, and getting access to institutional markets as well individual subscribers. As archaeology looks to the new ways of disseminating knowledge, publishing also goes beyond the traditional print media platforms to codex style books. As Thorton notes, the mid-20th century saw a number of cross media ventures which crossed from print-book popularity to radio and then television. The complexities of these markets in the 21st century – especially in the age of YouTube, streaming audio, podcasts, and social media – puts added pressure on publishers and popularizers to figure out how to get their work into the hands of an appreciative audience. An iconic book cover – like Penguin Books’ famous Pelican covers – isn’t enough (although it doesn’t hurt). 

All this other stuff – from design to marketing and promotion – represents investments of money, time, and expertise. Popular publishing requires more than academic will, but also investment from consumers and publishers needed to develop the infrastructure to accommodate and promote significant works across a range of media platforms. 

If Archaeologists in Print was written to describe popular archaeological publishing in the 21st century, it would be a very different book, even if some of the main contours of the discipline remained the same.

 

 

Hearing Corwin Hall

On Friday afternoon, after a long week filled with jet lag, frantic course preparation, and seemingly endless page proofs, I snuck off to hear UND’s music department perform their regular faculty showcase. I was particularly excited to hear Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall” performed. This piece developed from our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project which focused on studying the four buildings on UND’s campus associated with Wesley College prior to their demolition in May 2018. 

Last week, this piece debuted at the KYMA International Sound Symposium (KISS) in Santa Cruz earlier this month and this was the first time that it was performed in North Dakota. 

Here’s Mike Wittgraf’s abstract for the piece:

Hearing Corwin Hall uses sound sources from the third floor of two adjoining now-demolished buildings, resulting in a radical altering of the acoustic space of that location since the time of recording. It is fascinating to look up at the open space where the third floor used to be, twenty feet above the ground, and imagine the former building structure and its acoustic signature, as well as the mics, cables, and people present during the recording. Corwin and Larimore Halls, formerly on the campus of the University of North Dakota, demolished in May of 2018, were originally constructed in 1909 as part of the Methodist-Church-affiliated Wesley College, which later was absorbed by UND. For a period of time Corwin Hall housed the Music Department, and adjoining Larimore hall served as a women’s dormitory. Hearing Corwin Hall uses source sounds from a recording taken on March 13, 2018, after the buildings were abandoned, but before they were demolished. The recording took place on the third floor, which included the Corwin recital hall. Eight microphones were placed in a variety of locations. During the recording the composer presented an informal “memorial service” that included a keyboard synthesizer performance of five hymns from the Methodist hymnal, after which attendees were encouraged to wander the third floor and engage with the microphones in order to capture the acoustics of the space. Hearing Corwin Hall takes digital data from these sound sources and applies them to time-based parameters in a live-processing environment in order to symbolize the fleeting nature of time and objects, as well as highlight the acoustic signature of the space. Using time in this manner creates an altered state in contradiction to the usual passing of time. Video projection of historical and recent photos, as well as photos of the demolition and post-existence of the buildings accompany the music.

~

Our plan is for Mike to perform it once more on campus and to record it for publication. My hope is to have something suitable to publishing in Epoiesen over the next six months. Our article will have three themes to it (as I conceive of it not) which work at the intersection of archaeo-acoustics, the study of time, and the considerations of how we experience the recent past especially after it has been radically altered.

1. How Buildings Sound. Over the past few years, my friend Amy Papalexandrou and I have been talking about the acoustics of Byzantine churches (and she’s published on this here and Sharon Gerstel here). As Amy makes clear, sound plays a key role in how we experience our environment and it was particularly significant in the context of monumental ritual spaces in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine worlds. The location of particular features in Byzantine churches, the movement of individuals in the spaces, and the intentional and unintentional effects on the sound of ritual in these buildings contributed to how individuals experienced the rituals there.

For Corwin Hall, like the nave of a Byzantine, this has particular significance because the room where we performed the recording was a recital hall for the music department of Wesley College. The space featured a deliberate design with a proscenium arch, acoustic shell, and vaulted ceilings which gave the room particularly desirable acoustic characteristics. By arranging eight microphones throughout the building, including in key spaces in the recital hall, we were able to capture the sound of Mike Wittgraf’s performance of a series of hymns from the Weslyean hymnal as well as the ambient sounds of a group of people moving throughout the space. It makes sense to document the space a recital hall with sensitivity toward its acoustics just as archaeologists have long studied lines of sight in ancient buildings or traces of movement between rooms.

2. Time. Our work to document the sound of Corwin Hall, however, was an effort to capture the original sound of the room or the building. The room itself endured a series of significant modifications that included a solid wall with a single door along its north side that separated the recital hall’s acoustic shell from the rest of the room at the proscenium arch. Moreover, air-conditioning ducts were installed around the room’s perimeter and covered in acoustic tile. The windows lacked curtains when we recorded and the room was filled with discarded desks and other furniture removed from the rest of the building. In other words, the room as it was preserved was rather different from its original design. That being said, the original design persisted, even in its compromised state, and, as a result, our recording was a kind of state plan which showed the existing state of the space while also indicating its original arrangement.

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 E103 pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 05

Archaeologists regularly use photography and illustration to accomplish this kind of time shifting. We indicate earlier phases of a building through the visual inspection of existing structures and combine the past and present states of a building or object in a plan. To accomplish this kind of acoustic time bending we also placed microphones (some of which seem to have worked… ) in both Corwin Hall and Larimore Hall to which the former recital hall was attached through the doorway in its northern wall. This door merged the spaces of the recital hall with the offices carved out of rooms in the former women’s dormitory and transformed its acoustic signature. This created new spaces to record and hear the sound of the recital hall and allowed us to record the sounds of the recital hall in a way consistent with its later use as a classroom and offices. Individuals were encouraged to move and interact with the microphones so that we could record the sound of people through the space from various locations. In effect, we were able to create an acoustic phase plan that, however imperfectly, captures both the original plan and the state plan. 

I’ve recent come to appreciate how our time in Corwin Hall both during the recording and during the larger research project served as what Sara Perry has called “bodystorming” as we discussed with Mike, the research team, and members of the public the history, space, and sound of the building. Our microphones captured our movement through this space and superimposed our research project, public engagement, and performance. 

3. Presenting Corwin Hall. Mike’s performance of “Hearing Corwin Hall,” however, was not a literal presentation of the sound of the space neatly arranged for the audience’s consideration. Mike’s piece sought to bring the audience not only into Corwin Hall as a space but into the experience of Corwin Hall as the site of a research project, as an example of change on campus, and in the process of being transformed from a standing building to well manicured lawn that preserves beneath the surface archaeological remains of the former college. To do this, Mike integrated sound, video, and performance(s) in “Hearing Corwin Hall” in distinctly evocative ways.   

Last week, I heard an interesting paper by Ruth Tringham (the first paper here) on the use of sound to evoke emotional (and intellectual) responses from archaeological sites and objects. A key point that Tringham makes is that archaeologists have been too dependent on texts (both written and spoken) to communicate the past. She considers the work of the composer György Ligeti who has used singers to create emotional states without the use of text and calls attention to Alice Waterson’s work “Digital Dwelling” (or here) on the Neolithic village of Skara Brea in Scotland which similarly uses video and audio, but not text, to communicate the experience of both the space and the past.

Mike’s piece integrates both the acoustic space of Corwin Hall with its final months and a number of related performances designed to recognize the importance of these places on UND’s campus and in the community. For example, both the video, the sounds, and Mike’s performance communicate the violence of the building’s demolition both physically and emotionally. The destruction of these buildings embody an ongoing conflict on campus between an administration who is eager for rapid economic, cultural, and physical transformation across campus and faculty and community members who remain committed to established practices and priorities. The violence of the piece (and its performance) captures how the destruction of these buildings – their transformation from classrooms and offices into archaeological remains – generated significant emotion across campus and in the community. 

What makes this piece even more unique is that Mike integrates our efforts to document and commemorate the building into his performance. My voice, for example, is merged with the acoustic signature of Corwin Hall and looped over and over so that the words have become unintelligible, but it nevertheless evokes the sound of a bustling campus building. Sheila Liming’s bagpipes, played during a campus ceremony to honor Harold Holden Sayre after whom one of the Wesley College buildings was named, likewise loop through the performance as the tension and anxiety builds. My voice reflects the campus din as well as the work of documenting the Wesley College. Sheila’s bagpipes communicates both the death of these buildings as visible monument as well as how we commemorated their memory. The blurring our experience of the buildings between their lives as active campus structures and as objects of abandonment, study, and commemoration.  

More importantly, “Hearing Corwin Hall” communicated the violent tension between destruction and commemoration, between standing buildings and archaeological remains, between tradition and progress,  through the linearity of texts, but through sound. This does not make the piece any less archaeological, however. It remains dense, nuanced, complex, rhythmic, and multivocal.  

I can’t wait to share it with a wider audience. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Low, grey skies set off the changing colors of the leaves this time of year in North Dakotaland. It’s fall. There’s football on TV and the daily struggle to decide whether to break out the sweaters or not. Cricket and Formula 1 are gearing up warmer places, and, at the same time, it’s the sweet middle of the semester when I feel like I’m in my groove and the students are not quite overextended.

(As a cricket related aside, I watched a good bit of Alistair Cook’s final innings for England and thorough enjoyed it. That he left the game the way that he arrived is great to see and I can’t help but wonder whether with his retirement, we’ve witnessed the end of the era of deliberate openers in test cricket.)

It’s a great time of year and a nice backdrop for some quick hits and varia:

Books in Barcelona

Like most publishers, I really like books. It’s not just the content of books, but also their physical form, the indeterminacy of the medium in contemporary society, and design that draws me in. As readers of this blog likely realize, the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota takes seriously the work of book making whether it is circulated as a digital file or as a paperback. 

This past week, I got a chance to cruise through the La Setmana del Llibre en Català (The Week of the Book in Catalan) in Barcelona. Because I don’t really read Catalan, my experience wandering through the colorful displays was drawn to the design of the books on display (and in many cases, the shear number of offering available!)

I was particularly interested in the design of various book series. Such as these lightly designed pastel covers from Comanegra press.

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Or the distinctive blue and green covers of Angel Editorial’s translations.

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Or these more bold and assertive covers offered by Editorial Barcino (top) and Fonoll Edicions (below).

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The simple graphic elements of this series from Godall Edicions work for me.

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The simple designs used for Aida Edicions series of poetry are compelling:

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As are these from Edicions 62:

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Finally, the most compelling marketing strategy of the book fair was from the Institució de les Lletres Catalanes of the Catalunya Department of Culture. The had a wall of brightly colored stacks of postcard sized quotes from Catalan poets and invited folks to come and tear off quotes that spoke to them.

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Transumanism and Archaeology

I was pretty excited and anxious about my panel at last week’s European Association of Archaeologists meeting. This was partly because I had to travel, but partly because I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the concept of transhumanism and how it might be applied to archaeology. 

I was gratified to discover that the outlines of a posthuman and transhuman archaeology were as clear as the tortured characters in a Philip K. Dick novel who struggled to understand their own ontology. Ontological issues aside, the papers in the panel presented a practical posthumanism that encompassed the full range of archaeological work from the edge of the trench or survey unit to communicating finds and experiences to the public. 

While I’m still processing this panel, I have been mulling three things as I look toward revising my paper for consideration in the European Journal of Archaeology

1. Beyond Digital. I have tended to understand trans and posthumanism as a product of digital tools and practices or at very least modern technology. In my mind, these terms described ways in which modern technology – from the use of fossil fuels to latest immersive digital technology – transformed human engagement with the world. Several papers in the panel, however, pushed me to think about transhumanism as a far more complex phenomenon that reached back to the very first use of tools by humans. In effect, the panel got me wondering whether humans have always been transhuman. Just as Latour’s (and other’s) critiques of modernity has left us wondering whether the tidy divisions produced by modernity should continue to hold such a significant influence over how we see the world, transhumanism may well represent not a new era in the development of human expression and perception, but simply the latest iteration of our use of tools, organization, institutions, and technologies to comprehend our environment. 

In this context, transhuman and posthuman practices go from defining the edge of what makes us human (and what can be seen and understood as post- or transhuman) to actually offering a much more expansive perspective on our basic humanity. For whatever reason, I didn’t understand this, and simply overlooked the idea that trans- and posthumanism did not mark out actual transformations of human capacities, but, instead, traced a much more expansive discursive range for the traditional practices and questions at the core of the humanities (and humanism). 

Despite my incessant writing about Philip K. Dick, I somehow overlooked that this was exactly what he was  doing when he wondered whether androids dream of electric sheep. Closer to disciplinary practice, actor-network theory, the work of Tim Ingold, and scholars interested in embodied knowledge have all recognized the dense entanglement between humans and objects as central to who we are as humans. Whether modern or even digital tools make this entanglement so dense as to transform what it means to be human or whether they’ve simply made more obvious our long-standing integration with objects and others might well be one of the major projects for transhumanism moving forward. 

2. Sensory. I guess I understood, in a really basic way, that archaeology involved all of our senses, from the smell of the first, dew-covered, survey unit of the day to the sound of the trowel, the feel of ceramic surfaces (soapy to the touch!), and the view of the landscape. In fact, most of what we do as archaeologists, historically at least, is transform the range of sensory impressions that form the basis for our understanding of the landscape, vessel, or trench into another form of impressions – usually through the medium of text. 

Several of the papers in the panel noted that, first, this was a rather impoverished way to communicate archaeological work (despite the potential for excitement generated by reading a particularly compelling site report!), but also that there is tremendous potential in using technology to allow professionals and the public to engage and understand archaeology in more expansive and intensive ways. Of course, there are challenges with creating a more affective archaeology that range from the limits of digitally mediated immersive experiences to the our dependence on language (whether verbal or written) as the primary medium for disciplinary expression. Several papers, however, demonstrated that the use of language as a medium for archaeology reinforces a view of both the past and present separate from the experiences of an individual. In other words, language serves, in some ways, as a barrier between ourselves and the past and defines the limits to our own place within humanistic inquiry. The use of more and more dynamic tools which engage more senses expands our relationship to objects from the past and presents new ways not only to understand the past (as a basic form of humanistic engagement), but also to bridge the deeply modernist (and humanistic) expectation that the past and present are not and cannot be coincident in any way (pace Collingwood).   

3. Ethical. Finally, like so many of the papers that I experienced at the EAAs, I was struck by how much of our discussion revolved around ethical practices and responsibilities. Transhuman practices and interpretative paradigms, it would seem, will also stimulate the development of a new transhuman code of ethics. This involves not only something as seemingly simple as managing our expansive online identities and avatars to the limits of engaging the senses of a public whose expectations in experiencing the past derives largely from more more passive media. 

Archaeologists have long recognized that our humanity does not simply end at our body and that objects, landscapes, and buildings from the past require us to treat them with a certain kind of respect. As transhuman practices, however, embrace the more ephemeral media of digital technologies, sensory experiences, and transmedia engagements, we are pushed to understand, or at least realize, that what makes us transhuman cannot always be neatly separated from the materiality of objects, tools, or places. In fact, what makes us transhuman, it seems, is not necessarily defined by the modern divisions of past and present (or future), producing a densely-packed and expansive ethical quagmire full of competing claims for priority, access, and identity. For example, it remains to be seen how claims of national, local, or even indigenous rights to objects which have been historically so central to our ethical compass as archaeologists, will endure in a world that sees such positions as constituted by elusive and often competing strands of our own (trans)humanity.  

If the transhuman project has the potential to contribute to archaeological practice in any way, it seems like it is in the almost overwhelmingly complicate area of archaeological ethics. If our basic humanity does not end at our own views of being in the world and the present is, indeed, shared with the past and future, then the guidance of long held positions shaped by modern humanism is compromised.      

Ballard in Barcelona

On the way to and from the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona, I read two J.G. Ballard novels, The Drowned World (1962) and Hello America (1981). These works are part of Ballard’s fascination with a post-apocalyptic near future shaped by ecological catastrophes. Ballard set The Downed World in in an inundated and tropic London, largely submerged beneath rising sea levels created by the melting of the polar icecaps. Hello America describes a North American continent turned largely to desert on account of changing weather patterns formed by the Soviet damming of the Bering Sea. 

The novels are explicitly archaeology both in their setting and the structure of their plots. In fact, neither book offers much in the way of compelling dialogue or complex character development. (In fact, the characters in The Drowned World are mere sketches or exemplars of types who interact only through almost comically stilted dialogue). Their beauty and power comes from the way in which the characters interact with, perceive, and respond to their environment. This alone made them appropriate books to read on my way to an archaeological conference. 

Since I’m still processing the books (and have more Ballard to read over the next few months), I’ll offer a few observations here:

1. N-Transforms. Perhaps the most obvious aspect of the two novels is Ballard’s interest in the way in which nature shaped the man-made environment. Inundated London, overrun with massive mutated animals and insects haunting the upper stories of buildings that stand amid a silted series of lagoons. In Hello America, the Appalachian mountains and the great American desert had migrated eastward to clog the avenues and streets of an abandoned New York City with golden dunes. In both novels there’s a tension between the irresistible power of nature and the dogged persistence of the urban fabric. Improbably, two of the main characters in The Drowned World squat in penthouse apartments whose aging air conditioners and diesel powered electrical systems provide civilized shelter from the intense heat of the tropical day. The New York of Hello America is largely abandoned but for the occasional camel-riding migrants who move through the sparsely populated North America. The tropical Las Vegas, on the other hand, has been occupied and restored by an eccentric and mad genius who seeks to “make America great again.” 

The archaeologist in me feels like Ballard has an overly optimistic view of the persistence of modern building (and clothing) in the time of ecological disaster, but his view of saturated London is not far from that of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Perhaps the foundations of this saturated landscape would survive the shifting silt and surging tides of the surrounding sea, but I’m skeptical. His desiccated New York, in contrast, is more believable, even if his tropical Las Vegas seems a bit too robust.

2. Futures. Analyzing the plausibility of Ballard’s landscapes, however, misses the point. Set against the backdrop of Barcelona, a city shaped by its own series of past futures (especially in the work of the turn-of-the-century Modernisme movement which remains strongly visible in the city’s urban core, Ballard’s landscapes remind us that our world is simply a series of compromised futures from the past. As an archaeologist who thinks a good bit about how the past bustles with competing and compromised possible futures which await our critique, analysis, interpretation, and ultimately spoliation, Ballard’s novels are deeply compelling. 

In Hello America, a powerful, sociopathic madman bunkered down in Las Vegas and claimed the title of President of the United State long after the political entity had ceased to exist. He revealed to his loyal followers that his goal was “to make America great again” and filled the skies with holographic projections meant to evoke the glories of the American past. Published in 1981, this seems beyond prescient and underscored just how fragile the line is between futures imagined and the present.

The overgrown skyline of London, in contrast, seems to recycle Barcelona’s Antonio Gaudí’s fin-de-siecle fascination with nature and natural forms in his architectural masterpieces. As any number of the museums dedicated to Gaudí’s work remind visitors, his use of natural forms in his architecture sought to make clear the organic relationship between humanity and the creator. The dense tropical landscape of inundated London represented a literal expression of the city as a “concrete jungle.” The work of humanity neither succumbs to nature nor erases it, but reveals that it is part of the same process. Flooded buildings become lairs for giant iguanas and caimans, they stabilize sandbars and reefs giving purchase to vegetation, and even shelter desperate individuals in their struggle to cling to civilization. There is no hint of the Anthropocene in either of the novels largely because Ballard has determined that humanities and nature cannot be separated.

3. Time. Of course, the relationship between the past and the future is temporal, but for Ballard, time doesn’t simply march forward. In uterine environment of The Drowned World, time regresses from the catastrophic Holocene to the miasmic mists of the Triassic. Time drags the characters in the novel along with it as they become driven by long suppressed instincts awaken by their changing environment. These are, of course, communicated in haunting dreams which create an overwhelming impulse to regress, retreat, and survive. In Hello America, the trip from the deserted east coast to the tropic Las Vegas represents a voyage from the tense civilization of an exploratory expedition sent to investigate seismic and radioactive events in abandoned North America to a depraved form of egalitarianism grounded in violence and survival.  

In archaeology, we assume that we can remove more recent deposits to reveal deeper layers of the past. For Ballard, though, the past isn’t just revealed by physically uncovering or restoring the abandoned remains of human civilization, but also by moving forward through it. In Hello America, two characters scuffle in the long-abandoned Oval Office over who could claim to be President of the United States after taking time to clear debris and tidy up in an attempt to restore it to its past significance. The future, however, is not the Oval Office, but deeper in the human past exposed during the trip across the deserted continent. The same is the case for The Drowned World in which time starts to regress and the characters are drawn inexplicably toward the south and the place of human origins.     

Check this out.

 

 

Five Quick Reactions to the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists Meeting

I just got home from the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona and was really impressed by my experience. Since, I’m still shaking off jet leg and racing to play catch up with my classes and other responsibilities, I’ll keep my comments here pretty short and impressionistic, but hopefully I’ll have to space to post something more involved later in the week.

1. So Many Panels. The EAAs were literally the opposite of the old joke that the food is bad and the portions are too small. The panels were good and there were so many of them. It was impossible to get anything more than a taste of the conference with panels stretching for four, five, or six hours, huge numbers of overlapping panels, and panels that might appeal to the same audience being held at the same time (e.g. a panel on Early Medieval transitions in the archaeology of Europe at the same time as a panel on Medieval archaeology more generally). At times people had to scoot between two panels in which they were participating or to see papers.

To be clear, this isn’t a complaint, after all there’s a limit to how a conference can organize over 1000 papers in over a 3-day event, but it’s important to recognize that any observation on the conference will only represent a small sampling of panels at the event.

2. Socially Conscious Archaeology. The theme of the conference was “Reflɘctiᴎg Futuᴙɘs”(weirdly, there are no flipped lowercase versions of Latin “n” or “r” in unicode), and, if I came away with one impression, it’s that the future of archaeology is socially engaged with pressing problems facing the world. I was particularly impressed that papers the dealt with the challenges of climate change, political pressures, and neoliberalism generally avoided the “c-word” (crisis) and preferred a sober, practical, systematic, and disciplinary approach to problems facing the future of the past. 

In fact, I sort of wanted a bit more urgency at times, but I also appreciated that so much of my desire for the urgent (OUTRAGE) demonstrates my own addiction to the excitement offered by our hyperactive media cycles and “theory of the day” approaches to problem solving and knowledge making in the humanities. What the EAAs showed me is that concepts like anarchism, decolonization, indigeneity, and public engagement have deep roots in archaeological work in the present that could produce a strong, relevant discipline for the future.     

3. Heritage, Contract, and Academic Archaeology. Maybe I’m more used to attending the ASOR or AIA annual meeting than, say, the SAAs, but I was particularly struck my the interaction between heritage and museum professionals, contract archaeologists, and academic archaeologists at the EAAs. In my panel on transhuman archaeologies, several of the heritage archaeologists deftly applied the more conceptual and academic papers to their own sites in the discussion periods. In a panel on climate change, heritage managers, contract, and academic archaeologists shared their work in documenting and preserving sites made vulnerable by coastal erosion and other climate change driven environmental concerns. 

It was really energizing and challenging as an academic archaeologist thinking in terms ontologies and epistemologies mediated largely by academic practice, to get pressed earnestly by folks involved in contract work and teaching contract archaeologists as to how what I’m saying is relevant to their work and students. This wasn’t done in a dismissive or confrontational way but as a genuinely intellectual challenge to my work and it was very much appreciated.   

4. More Bakken than Byzantine. I joked with my colleagues the week before going to the conference that every once in a while I remember that I’m a Europeanist and should attend conferences on the Continent and engage with my colleagues in Europe in a face-to-face way. What was funny though is that I found myself reflecting on my work as an Americanist far more regularly than my work in Cyprus or Greece throughout the conference. The sessions that I attended on time, climate change, and digital technologies had stronger grounding in “historical” or “world” archaeology than the work that I do when wearing my “Classical Archaeologist” hat (safety first, kids!) in Europe.

In the future, I’d like to present my work in the Bakken to the EAA audience as much to engage more thoughtfully with the social impact of my work as to grasp the role of heritage management and memory in ephemeral modern landscapes.

5. Barcelona Backdrop. Finally, Barcelona was a genuinely inspired place to hold a conference on Reflɘctiᴎg Futuᴙɘs in archaeology. The city provides a master class not only on past futures visible in the Modernisme movement as well as museums dedicated to Picasso and Miró, but also a legacy of radicalism, industrialism, post-nationalism, and neoliberalism as well. A visit to Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Família is a literal reminder of modernism as an unfinished and deeply ambiguous project which juxtaposes profound, religious truth and rebar protruding through roughly finished concrete spires. 

Just to make this point more clearly the conference itself was situated at the edge of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic where the Medieval plan of the city is best preserved and tourists and pickpockets jostle with each other down this tree-line and commodified thoroughfare. We were a short walk from Richard Meier’s well-known Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (a museum that famously opened without a collection!) whose glass and white walls reminded us of the fraught character of transparency and cosmopolitan ambivalence in the 21st century.

Five Minute Version of “Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care”

Because one of the panels that I’m on at the EAA meeting has pre-circulated their papers, they’ve asked us just to give 5 minute versions of our ideas.

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As you might expect, the ideas in my paper have continued to develop since I wrote it in July and it was pre-circulated in August, but I think the major contours of the paper remain more or less intact.

Here’s my effort a sub-5 minute summary.

This paper is an expression of anxiety more than anything. I’m particularly anxious about the growing role of digital tools in archaeological work both in the field and during the analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of archaeological knowledge. 

My paper considered the role of digital tools and processes particularly through the lens of archaeological practice (punk archaeology) where technology has expanded the range of human perception, memory, organization, and analysis. While my arguments were rather diffuse, I pursued a line of thinking that began with a consideration of two mid-century Christian anarchists, Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, who argued that technology, and modernity more broadly, have undermined the organic creativity of conviviality by emphasizing efficiency and convenience in the name of human interaction, embodied knowledge, and a respect for place. It is hardly surprising that these anti-modernist thinkers would offer a potentially useful critique of the modern discipline of archaeology.  

The second point I try to make, then, is that Ellul’s and Illich’s critique aligns with a recent strand in the discussion of digital tools in archaeological practice. Digital tools represent improvements in efficiency and accuracy, as well as the transparency and portability of digital (or digitized) archaeological information, but often rely on the fragmentation of archaeological knowledge into streamlined and integrated workflows. These practices, however, are not particularly surprising considering the significance of the assembly line on the organization of archaeological work where the regimented adherence to methods and procedures incrementally build new knowledge. The term “raw data” is analogous to “raw materials” that form the basis for industrial production. The influence of a modern, industrial approach to archaeology presents a counterpoint to archaeology as craft (and slow archaeology). 

Finally, and this point did not appear in the paper that I precirculated, I suspect that the mobile, modular, and granular nature of digital data anticipates a shift away from the assembly line and toward a very 21st century form of industrial organization: logistics. The assembly line manufactures a valuable product, whereas logistics involves the streamlined and decentralized distribution material, services, and goods that produces values through their relationship across space. These are both transhuman forms of producing value, but the former tends to structure the relationship between humans and machines in a linear way organized around a particular place, and the latter attends to a diffuse and decentralized relationship between objects, movement, standardization, while challenging or even just overwriting the notion of place and relationships that have long remained important to our idea of community and disciplinarity.

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The goal of my paper is to offer a more focused critique of the role of recent digital trends on the rhetoric, structure, and organization of archaeological practice, and to attempt to articulate some of the risks associated with these trends not just to the knowledge that we produce but to the kind of discipline that archaeology wishes to become.