Last week, I posted a draft of my ASOR paper, and today it is more or less done. It think I originally titled the paper “Excavating in the 21st Century: A Fictional Biography Mediated by Technology,” mostly because it rhymed.
For my brief remarks today I’m intentionally misunderstanding the assignment for this panel. Rather than discuss the artifacts presented in the pdf file that Rick and Nancy circulated, I want to consider the pdf document as an archaeological artifact. As I looked at the pdf file and its metadata, I recognized that the pdf format was introduced by Adobe System around 1990 and this pdf file appears to have been created using Microsoft Word apparently on a MacIntosh using Apple’s Quartz PDF and running OS X 10.10.5. So we know something of the provenience of this digital artifact.
I knew a good bit less about the artifact visible in the pdf document. So I wrote an admittedly fanciful abstract for this session thinking about all the companies and brand names associated with this single digital document and channeling my inner William Gibson. In particular, I indulged in Gibson’s recent tendency to name everything, which perhaps found its most pervasive expression in his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. Frederic Jameson called this tendency “postmodern nominalism” in his 2007 collection of essays on science fiction titled (aptly enough), Archaeologies of the Future. Of course, the naming of things is not new, but it takes on special visibility in our hyper-commodified culture. The naming of things is significant for the concept of object biography because, we recognized – as did Igor Kopytoff – that objects initially exist with general names as commodities (even in our late capital world) – before 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 social life, which gives rise to 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. As the papers in these sessions have recognized, for archaeologists, the process of commodification is more complex as objects are commodities, have lives, and are then discarded (and become rubbish and striped of all value to use Michael Thompson’s imagining of that term) before once again entering the world of value and life.
In my contributions to these sessions, 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. I’ve thought about technology and been impressed by some recent work by Eric Kansa who has emphasized the role of branded, commodified, interchangeable tools in archaeological practice. If archaeologists in the 1970s prized their (branded!) trowels, today digital cameras, iPads, laptops, and 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 his most recent book Other Things. Brown emphasizes what even the casual reader of Dick’s novels knows: the authenticity of objects is a 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. For Dick, the authenticity of an object – its shift from a commodity to a singularity – depends on time.
As commodities like iPad, software programs, and drones become increasingly ubiquitous in archaeological practices but also more remote, disposable, and depersonalized, archaeological work becomes mediated by “things out of time” (to use a Dickian phrase). It is strangely alienating for archaeologists to come to depend so fully on objects that barely have biographies. It would seem that archaeologies of the future and the future of archaeology is only more enmeshed in this commodified world through which we give objects life.