More on Codex: Books, Performance, and Archaeology

I was initially drawn to Micah Bloom’s Codex project because it combined two elements that have become more or less central to my life: books and archaeology. At our book launch event last Friday, I realized that Bloom’s project had even more in common with my interests than I had initially recognized. In a short presentation Bloom unpacked the process of developing both the Codex book and short films that came from his efforts to document the books scattered about the Minot landscape.

If you don’t know Micah Bloom’s Codex, do go and check it out now.

In a brief back-and-forth in Minot, I asked Micah if he was inspired by recent work in “archaeology of the contemporary world.” I was inspired to ask after he discussed the particular care that he and his team took to document the scattered books both in situ and to number, label, preserve, and photograph the collected books systematically. Moreover, his team donned hazmat type as you can see in this clip from his film, and approached each artifact with extraordinary care

He admitted that he wasn’t particular familiar with this frequently theoretical (or at least conceptually ambitious) branch of archaeological work. He was inspired, however, by various manuals and technical literature that he found on for dealing with toxic objects, biological waste (including bodies), and other potentially contaminated (and contaminating) detritus. In other words, he used technical literature as a guide to performing real archaeological fieldwork, not in order to produce a thoroughly and systematically documented record of the 2011 Minot flood, but capture the particular sanctity of the books left behind in its receding waters. Performing archaeological work demonstrated care.

Archaeologists like Michael Shanks have long recognized the confluence of archaeological work and performance, and, indeed, theater. Without delving too deeply into this inspiring, if complex set of ideas, I have always struggled a bit to understand the relationship between the superficiality of theater – that is the concession in theater that the actors and the audience both have to suspend disbelief and recognize the actors as acting their parts – and archaeological methods, which ideally guide actions even when no one is looking. This isn’t meant to denigrate the work of actors and the depth of the characters that they portray or the promote the idea of the archaeologist as a singularly and consistently principled practitioner (but I’m sure most of us say that we try to be). The desire to keep our scarps straight is not just a cosmetic act that reinforces the scientific (scientistical?) precision of our work, but a practical way to make the stratigraphic relationships between various depositional events more visible. An actor may embrace certain aspects of a character off the stage (perhaps as part of an approach inspired by method acting), but this is fundamentally secondary to role played on the stage. There is always a risk, then, in emphasizing the performative in archaeology that we succumb to the artificiality of the aesthetic and as Michael Shanks has realized “abstracted from what is being represented, removed in an escape from social and historical reality, from anonymous popular masses, from the messy vernacular human and natural detail…”

Micah’s work offers an intriguing complication to this risk. Not only did he document his work to bring order to the messy chaos of flood recovery speak to a particular moment in time (and an effort to resolve what must have been a pervasive feeling of disrupted existence), but he also documented the books themselves in ways that are not immediately visible in his published work. For example, he disclosed that he has photographs of hundreds of books in situ and once he and his team collected and documented them. He also has a database (technically a spreadsheet) of close to 800 books recovered, identified, photographed, and documented from his work. Unlike the public facing work of the film and book and installation, these aspects of the Codex project, like the method actors behind the scenes routine, remains out of sight (at least, for now). 

Since Micah’s presentation, I’ve been turning around in my head how to make at least some of this archive available. Whether this archive will produce new archaeological, historical, or cultural knowledge is difficult to say, but it does reveal the depth of Codex as a form of authentic archaeological engagement with the world. 

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