Objects, History, Conflict: Cyprus, Atari, The Bakken

This has been a hectic week, but I did have the chance to get a little bit of reading done. I particularly enjoyed Rebecca Bryant’s recent article in American Ethnologist 41 (2014), 681-697 titled “History’s Remainders: On Time and Objects After Conflict on Cyprus.” 

The article looks at objects looted, left behind, and sometimes returned after the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots in the 1960s and 1970s. The displacement of families from their homes on both sides and the occupation of new homes whose residents were displaced created a series of object biographies that traced the outlines of the conflict itself. Necessity often compelled Cypriots to loot commodities from the homes of their displaced neighbors during lulls and in the aftermath of the conflict. These objects represented the spoils of the conflict and rarely had lasting emotional value. These Bryant refers to as “remainders” whose everyday – mundane – existence communicated an uncanny quality for both the current and past residents of Cypriot homes. Their familiar, yet ambiguous and displaced existence, evoked a disturbed sense of home and belonging (from the belongings).

Bryant called “remains” objects that had clear and intimate connections to the home’s previous owner, and these objects tended to have less ambiguity and be treated with greater respect. Bryant describes photographs, dowry chests, and wedding gowns that evoked the shared humanity of both the resident and displaced “other”. In some cases, these objects were destroyed by the new residents who made efforts to suppress the humanity of their displaced adversaries. In other cases, these objects were preserved or even returned their displaced owners as a gesture of shared humanities.

Both remains and remainders carry with them the burden of history and objects often represent conflict both in a tremendously immediate way and through their complex associations with past events. This emphasizes the temporal character of these objects and their potential both to create a sense of belonging in history and to generate anxiety about an uncertain future. 

At the same time that I was digesting this complex and compelling article, I was following the auction of the games from the Atari landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Without trivializing the history of objects and experiences of people on Cyprus, these games also emerged through a moment of conflict and continue to carry the ambiguous potential of an uncertain future. For some, these games represent the folly of our hyperactive media cycle which can impart value almost instantly and withdraw it almost as quickly. They also invoke the tumultuous history of the gaming industry in the early 1980s. The history of these games, then, rests at the intersection contemporary media culture and the fragile economy of the early 1980s.

Today, I’m heading out to the Bakken oil patch one more time with an updated draft of my Tourist Guide in hand. I’ve been thinking a good bit with Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist (1976). He argues that one of the goals of tourism is to unify the fragmented world of modernity and the subvert the alienation so characteristic of the modern world. This is particularly the case of tourism focused on industrial sites, factories, and the like. The position of the tourist, above and outside of the fragmented experience of industrial labor, allows them to understand the universe of work and the production of objects as all part of the same experience. Rebecca Bryant regarded objects as uncanny owing their ambiguous relationship with time. Tourism must produce a similarly uncanny encounter with the world as the tourist stands outside of the fragmented temporal rhythms of everyday industrial life, but nevertheless still in contact with this experience and its products.

The temporal displacement encountered through tourism and through objects associated with conflicts, the fickle whims of the media, and booms (like the Bakken) makes for a good topic for reflection recently as I spent time in various timezones and observe the world from and increasingly distant and detached perspective. Strolling through airports, truck stops, or streaming by outside a car window has given me pause to consider whether the “unified” world view has any more relationship to our lived experiences than some cheaply made “souvenir”  from an airport gift shop.

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