Nothing gives me time to think quite like time to think. So far my good friends Sarah James and Dimitri Nakassis have been doing virtually all the heavily lifting on the Western Argolid Regional Project where I am now stationed, and this has left me time to think up bad plans and half backed ideas.
This week, I’ve begun to think more carefully about Jeff Ferrell’s Empire of Scrounge as well as some recent work on landfills as the critical locus for the study of material culture as well as consumerism and household archaeology. Most of this bibliography appears in journals associated with the field of cultural studies or sociology rather than archaeology. One of the things that this scholarship has emphasized is the complex life of everyday objects. This is profoundly archaeological, of course, as archaeologists like to imagine their work as intervening in the life of an object and resurrecting an object from obscurity. As archaeologists, we do this by not only bringing an object to the surface physically, but also subjecting it to the scholarly gaze through cataloguing, describing, and displaying the object in a systematic way.
This process of redeeming an object is quite empowering (as you might imagine, most archaeologists have some kind of savior complex), and pushes the archaeologists and scholars of material culture to look at the world – usually the past – in a different way. Refocusing our redemptive gaze on contemporary society is challenging in everyday life as we are trained to look through the most common objects in our world. Ironically, it is many of these very common objects that have the most significant impact on the functioning of our culture, economy, and society. The trick is figuring out how to refocus our gaze in everyday life.
So along these lines, I’ve inaugurated the Pallet Project. For now I’m using my iPhone camera and John Gruber’s little Vesper Application to collect photos with some short notes on location. For a ubiquitous object like shipping pallets, I decided to use a ubiquitous device.
There are few objects more ubiquitous in 21st century society than wood shipping pallets. The North Dakota Man Camp project documented the use of pallets in a wide range of uses from elevated walkways to fences. Just as Jeff Ferrell became sensitized to the “empire of scrounge” that existed throughout the everyday world in the forms of trash piles, street scavengers, recycling centers, thrift shops, and dumpster diving, I hope to use the simple directive of documenting the location and context for shipping pallets to refocus my archaeological impulse on everyday objects.
Pallets are interesting for the archaeologist not only because they are so common around the world, but also because they represent evidence for the workings of the global economy. Just as ancient amphora are not particularly significant as transport and storage amphora (they are not, for example, particularly dynamic or complex expressions of ancient culture when compared to, say, fine wares or religious architecture), the distribution of amphoras provide a key indicator of the extent and nature of ancient trade. Pallets are not nearly as diagnostic as ancient amphora, however, but they do demonstrate how deeply the global economy penetrates our modern world. The form of the pallet, their expansive distribution, and the range of secondary uses for these objects demonstrates the convergence of the global movement of goods, global markets, and local practices.
If I was a book writing guy, I’d write a book with chapters that were like this:
I. Introduction: Pondering a Punk Archaeology
II. Lakka Skoutara: Formation Processes in a 20th Century Rural Settlement in Greece
III. The Man Camps and the Bakken: Short-term Settlement in a 21st Century Context
IV. Digging Atari: Speed, Context, and the Life of Objects in Late Capitalism
V. The Pallets Project: Common Objects and the Archaeological Gaze
VI. The Small Town Yard: A Test Trench into the American Dream
VII. Archaeology and Slow: Digital Practices and Refocusing the Archaeologists Gaze
VIII. Toward a Punk Archaeology of Late 20th Century Capitalism
So, the ball is in your court publishers, make me an offer I can’t refuse!