Over the last month there has been steadily more buzz on Marilyn Johnson’s Lives in Ruins. I was lucky enough to get and enjoy an advance copy and had planned to write a traditional review as soon as book came out. Then I remembered that I don’t usually write formal reviews here on The Blog, so I shelved the project and time passed and other things came up.
This past week a few friends have been bantering about the book and it received some good press over at The New Yorker. So now, amid the social and old media buzz, I figure I should write down a few of my thoughts on the book.
In the interest of full disclosure (which is rarely very interesting), I met with Johnson after an AIA talk in New York City last year and chatted a bit about my work. We then corresponded about contemporary and punk archaeology over email. She was curious and gracious and even apologized for not including material from our conversations in her book.
Not only did I like her, but I also liked her book. I bought a copy for my mother for Christmas!
I thought that she was very effective in drawing characters as lively as any I’ve met in the archaeological profession. She also balanced the struggles of professional archaeologists against their triumphs and the haves, personified by none other than Joan Connelly, against the have nots like Kathy Abbas who scrubbed floors to fund her quixotic campaign to document an 18th century fleet in Newport Harbor. Her survey of the field ranged from historical archaeologists of the Caribbean to Connelly’s work on Cyprus to contract archaeologists in New York state, forensic archaeologists in New Jersey, and government archaeologists for the US Military. Her book, then, provided a sweeping view of the profession and lingered well outside the insulating walls of academia. I suspect that the picture of the field and the discipline will sit well with many of my professional colleagues.
Despite this, I still felt something was a bit off in the book. Something did not quite coincide with my experience in the discipline. Some of this feeling was almost certainly a product of the medium – popular non-fiction. The stories included in the book tended to follow a certain formula that created a satisfying rhythm to the narrative: first I did or said THIS, and no one believed me, peopled didn’t recognized my work, or people thought I was crazy, but then THIS, and everyone realized that I was right all alone. I think Hayden White would call this comedic mode of emplotment, not because it’s funny, but because her narratives tend toward the conservative and the socially integrating. In the end, Grant Gillmore, our struggling Caribbeanist hero, gets a job; Bill Sandy is able to forestall (for now, good reader!) the destruction of an important 18th century cemetery; Laurie Rush was able to promote to meaningful changes to the US Military’s policies toward cultural heritage. This is not to suggest that Johnson’s book is naive or unrealistic. She recognized the ongoing struggles of Sandy and Abbas in funding their projects, but there is this optimism throughout that, ultimately, the intrinsically compelling nature of our discipline and its practitioners will win out. This, of course, makes for compelling reading especially to a generation raised on the satisfying glow of situation comedies where confusion, antics, and pratfalls resolve themselves and life goes on the way that it should. Archaeology and truth win out.
This is not to suggest that there wasn’t some hints at personal heroism (that is, suggestive of the Romantic or even the Tragic modes of emplotment) reinforced by the moral good of the individuals and their pursuits, but generally speaking the integrity of the discipline and methods, practices, and truth carry us forward.
So maybe it was the focus on individual and their place within the discipline that left me a bit unsatisfied. I think that I wanted to read something less conventional and less resolved. Archaeology for all its romance and appeal is not something that is achieved as much as something that is constantly produced through interactions between archaeologists in the field, in publications, and both within and outside of disciplinary media. The challenge of constructing a discipline with practice, methods, policies, ethics, and expectation constantly run ahead of modernist ideologies that see our fixation on the past as a hinderance to constructing a more enlightened, rational, and perfect future (perhaps, but not necessarily driven by market forces?). For example, notice the consistent critique of NSF funding archaeological projects.
Archaeology, then, like the discipline of history, is in a constant state of remaking itself and pushing back against the very Enlightenment values that defined its place within the modern academy. This tension does not lend itself to the comedic mode of emplotment, but is, to my mind, far more suitable for satire where the actors struggle to find a resolution within the world of their own making. The poetic structure of irony, then, that most 20th-century way of seeing the world is the most suitable for understanding the nature of archaeology as a discipline. Our discipline’s efforts to evince a conservative, scientific character run counter to our goals of understanding the past. This tension not only produces an atmosphere of dynamic questioning in the discipline, but also ensures that typical forms of resolution – employment, solved problems, contributions to a fixed body of knowledge, professional recognition – can hardly represent the culmination of lives in ruins.