Philip K Dick and Archaeological Futures

I have this mediocre idea of reading a bunch of Philip K Dick and then using it to think about the future of archaeology. Bill Brown’s recently sweeping study of things in literature spurred my interest in Dick’s work and particularly his concern for the relationship between objects and things. Since this reading is for a paper that I am scheduled to give toward the end of November at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting in a panel on object biography, I thought that anything I could do to complicate the idea of objects having a biological trajectory through reality would make my paper an interesting contribution. 

This weekend, I made my way through Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959). The main character in the novel lived in a town constructed to appear just as it was in 1959. In fact, he was not aware – at least consciously – that the year was not 1959, but 1998, until he discovered some buried magazines that described events and people with whom he was not familiar and started to discover slips of paper labeling the location of objects in his complex stage-managed surroundings. This provided material evidence that complicated his present by simultaneously providing glimpses of the real 1959 and the construction (literally!) of his own reality and led the main character to question the authenticity of his own surroundings. The tension between the present constructed to accommodate the main character who – as if anticipating the plot of Enders Game – played a newspaper strategy contest daily which allowed the world government to destroy incoming nuclear missiles fired from the moon. The reconstructed 1950s town represented a kind of delusional utopia constructed to manage the main character’s anxiety and the pressures of protecting the world from nuclear catastrophe. Dick’s work creates a tension between the perfect town with its past and the complicated, messy, and dystopian reality of the year 1998 with its real past.

In 200 pages, Dick offers a clever (and untheoretical in his particular way) perspective to the idea that time and things have a uncomplicated relationship. Pasts and presents exists simultaneously and in incompatible ways as archaeology offers glimpses of both unrealized futures (and presents) as well as impossible pasts. For the characters in the Dick novel, time does feel out of joint, but it speaks to a more disjointed experience of reality that archaeology encounters on a regular basis.

Our obsession with chronology and dating, in this context, is about trying to put time back into joint and to putting the world into an order that is recognizable and that makes sense. Philip K Dick’s Time Out of Joint, challenges us to wonder whether the 1950s town of the main character with its superficial consistency and manufactured is out of joint or the ostensibly more authentic reality of 1998. 

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