Three Thing Thursday: Cities of Salt, Digital Practice, and Borders

Maybe I’ll make a habit of this over the next few months. Or maybe not. (I’m tempted to be one of those bloggers who releases shorter posts throughout the day. In fact, I’m tempted enough to write those posts, but not as tempted to push them out over the course of the day.)

Anyway, here are three unrelated things that are flitting through my addled mind.

1. Abdelrahmen Munif’s Cities of Salt should be required reading in North Dakota. The novel describes the disruptions experienced in an unnamed Middle Eastern country with the discovery of oil. It begins in a verdant oasis which is destroyed and, then, moves on to a dreary coastal town where the American company houses Arab workers, many displaced from their previous homes in the oasis, in a series of man camps. The first camps were tents set up along the beach in neat lines and after they worked to construct an American-style town to accommodate the American workers, they were moved to a series of barracks where the lead used in the tin roofs dripped down on them during the day as it melted in the sun. Both the American-style town and the various camps for the Arab workers were set apart from each other and their surrounding by barbed wire and access control points. Munif set these in contrast to the oasis, which despite being a physically distinct environment from the surrounding desert, nonetheless saw the constant flow of caravans and other movement that emphasized its integration with the rest of the world.

While I haven’t finished the book, Munif provides a dynamic and deeply social portrayal on the way that extractive industries can disrupt the interplay between society and the environment. (For more on this, see my Tuesday post.)

2. The Character of Digital Practice. I spent a little time yesterday afternoon and last night fiddling with a paper that some colleagues and I will give at next week’s Society of American Archaeology annual meeting. One of the things that my co-authors, Derek Counts and Erin Averett, have really prompted me to think about some of the binaries that shape how we think and talk about archaeological work. For example, the distinction between data collection and analysis, between data and interpretation, between being in the field and being in the lab or in the office, between doing and thinking. These binaries both reflect long-standing philosophical divisions between, say, mind and body, here and there, and describing and interpreting, but they also represent differences in experience between being hot and dirty and tired in the field and being clean and rest and cool in one’s office or coordinating team leaders and trench supervisors on the ground and running statistical analysis on a dataset.

It is easy enough to characterize these binaries as false and unhelpful. For example, we understand that certain assumption, expectations, and structures of digital data collection directly shape the kind of archaeological interpretations and knowledge that we make. At the same time, these divisions are real and they do shape our approach to the tools – digital or otherwise. For me, negotiating this tension seems to be very close to the heart of how we understand digital practices in field archaeology. While I am always quick to lump all aspects of archaeology together as “interpretation and knowledge making,” I think that this kind of lumping might be reaching the end of its usefulness in the case of understanding digital practices in the field. Digital technologies do present ways to break through certain binaries, of course, but they also exist in a particular place and moment of archaeological practices.

3. Borders. Yesterday, I had the real pleasure of hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak about his work, including his 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizers. As a Vietnamese-American writer he talked a good bit about how various borders – physical, literary, and economic – served to define the limits of how a minority author could express himself or herself. He talked about how he worked to defy literary expectations and instead of writing, what he called “little brown realism,” he sought to write in a more self-consciously literary style. It was a novel written by a minority and the son of refugees that wasn’t a minority novel. 

He likewise discusses the roles of borders in defining groups and impeding movement while acknowledging that his family’s experience as refugees from Vietnam was made possible by Cold War politics and the favorable optics of the United States accepting refugees from a communist country. He also recognized that this kind of permeability of borders with information, culture, animals, tacos (yum!), and capital crossing from one country to the next. This permeability of borders, for Nguyen, held forth the future of the world where borders don’t exist. At worst, humans would flow like capital and best like culture.

 

One Comment

  1. Cities of Salt is excellent. No spoilers!

    Reply

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