Pallets and Epoiesen

When I get overwhelmed with things to do or get stuck with a project that seems insurmountable, I start to think up new projects. In fact, over sabbatical, I got stuck and ended up writing a 35,000+ word little book. 

I’ve been pretty unproductive since I’ve been home and that’s pushed my mind to drift off to new projects that (like all projects on their first days) have more potential to produce something tangible (rather than the endless editing of an article or introduction that is almost ready for primetime, but can also endure constant tweaking as we search for the elusive edge!). So I decided to spend a few hours this morning working on a draft of an article to submit to Shawn Graham’s brilliant new project Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement and Archaeology. It has a ton of interesting features including a open comment and review through Hypothes.is, open access licensing options, submissions in mark-up, an open and adventurous scope, and a great editorial board.

I have this idea that I want to publish a short (i.e. <5000 word) article in Epoiesen on my stalled “pallet project.” This spring I spent the better part of several NASCAR races coding photographs from my trips to the Bakken oil patch. I literally coded hundreds of pallets. Last summer, I did a research trip to a pallet reconditioning and redistribution center, collected some bibliography on pallets, the whitewood industry, and containerization, and took notes and photographs on the use of pallets in the Greek countryside.

What I’d like to do is offer pallets as a kind of physical analogue for a number of larger trends in the global economy. On the one hand, the ad hoc use of pallets (and their place in adhocism) evokes certain elements of the “sharing economy” (broadly construed) from the flow of pallets between individuals for a wide array of improvisation to the use of redistribution centers where used pallets  (also known as cores) are repaired and made available once again to manufactures and shippers. Pallets travel with bulk goods of various kinds from distribution or manufacturing centers and then build up at highly distributed locations where pallet recyclers collect them, repair them (if necessary), and re-sell them back to manufacturing or distribution centers. The system for the recirculation of pallets is highly decentralized and this has the occasional side effect of pallets ending up rural areas where there is little demand (and little infrastructure for them to re-enter the market), and the effort to privatize pallet pools by three large companies has strained the circulation of traditional whitewood pallets in different ways. The competition between closed pool pallet companies (who own their pallets, control their circulation, and look to stabilize supply) and the open pool whitewood pallet circulation provides an interesting analogy for the tensions between open and closed pools in almost any economic or cultural system (and manifests some of the same tensions that exist within the sharing economy).

The pooling of pallets in places in like the Bakken present the intersection of opportunity and circumstance. Temporary housing in the Bakken during the height of the oil boom constantly looked to improvise in low-cost ways; at the same time, whitewood pallets were ubiquitous in the region owing to the absence of a pallet recycling center in Williston or Minot contributed to the collecting of pallets in the Bakken. This coincidence of need and opportunity produced innovation in temporary Bakken housing and speaks – in some ways – to the productive potential of open pool systems as well as the adhocism present in Bakken building practices.

In a sense, my submission to Epoiesen will have an essayistic edge, but fully embrace the meaning of the term and the maker culture in which this new journal project will embrace. Now I just have to become more familiar with markup (and complete that Hesperia article, the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, my little corner of the final report for WARP, the article on the Atari excavations, and various other shining objects that come my way). 

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