Philip K Dick and Archaeology

I’m beginning to think a bit about this crazy ASOR paper that I proposed last spring for the final installment of the session on object biography. My role in the session is to consider how technologies impact our ability to think of the life history of objects. To do this, I decided to think about the future of archaeological objects (both objects under study and objects that we use as archaeologists) and trace the fuzzy line to an archaeology of the future.

Here’s a first draft:

When I wrote my abstract for this session, I was thinking of William Gibson. For example, I indulged Gibson’s recent tendency to name everything, taking a cue from the cue from what Frederic Jameson called “postmodern nominalism.” Of course, naming things in our hyper commodified culture associated by Jameson and, surely, Gibson as well with the reach of global capital. At the same time, we recognized – as did Kopytoff – that objects can shed their status as commodities when they enter our world as artifacts. As artifacts, they go from being general types to things that have meaning in a singular way – a process Kopytoff calls singularization. Singularization transforms the commodity into something that has a life that can be narrated as a biography. 

In the three previous object biography sessions, the papers have generally focused on the life of these singularized things and have paid particular attention to the objects that archaeologists study or recover. In this context, there was significant concern for authenticity and the reality of archaeological artifacts.

In contrast to that, I’ve tended to reflect on the tools that archaeologists use and tried to understand how these objects intersected with the objects that we study. As technology has taken on a more central role in archaeological practice, archaeologists have embraced any number of branded, commodified, interchangeable tools. If archaeologists in the 1970s prized their trowels, today digital cameras, iPads, laptops, and branded software join traditional field gear as vital for the archaeologists work. Archaeology has been even more enmeshed in the commodified world of Gibson where products and brands intersect with archaeological things.

As I thought about this, I was drawn to the novels of Philip K Dick particularly as interpreted by Bill Brown in most recent book Other Things. Brown emphasizes what even the casual reader of Dick’s novels knows:  time and authenticity are central concerns for the author as he explores the future of the past. In Time Out of Joint, the idyllic surroundings of a 1950s American town slowly falls apart when the protagonist discovers a cache of magazines describing an alternative present that appears every bit as real as his surroundings. In Ubik, objects drift in and out of chronological focus in a netherworld between life and death. In The Galactic Pot-Healer, Dick contrasts the deeply-fulfilling, artisanal work of a pot-healer who repairs damaged ancient vessels, with the emptiness of modern existence. Authenticity plays a role in many other Dick novels as well. 

The tension between the commodified world of “named things” and the archaeological world of singular things gives birth the potential of object biography. I’m curious about whether this tension also provides us with insights into the issues of authenticity and time that frames both what we study (i.e. the authentic and singular) and the tools we use (the commodified, ephemeral, and inauthentic).  

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