About six weeks ago, a colleague out of the blue asked whether I’d be interested in writing a book on the archaeology of contemporary American life. Because I almost never say “no” to anything, I responded: “Of course, DUH?! I mean, who wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t I?”
I then went on a long walk or two, sat on my stationary bike, and thought about what a book proposal on this topic might look like.
My proposal started with the idea that I have two anchor case studies for the book: The North Dakota Man Camp Project and the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. Both projects represent, in some ways, essential traditions in the archaeology of the contemporary world. The former reflects the longstanding interest in industrial archaeology, archaeology of extractive industries (particularly mining), and the archaeology of short-term or ephemeral settlement (e.g. the archaeology of camps, of homelessness, and of modern squats of various kinds). The latter looks toward both the tradition of Bill Rathje’s “garbology” and the emerging fields of media archaeology/archaeology of media, and with a nod to “archaeogaming.“
The book would consider the place of the archaeology of the contemporary world within the distinctly American tradition of historical archaeology. This tradition grounds the archaeology of the contemporary world in the empirical traditions of careful and intensive fieldwork and processual archaeology. The influence of Rathje and Schiffer loom large in this work and their earnest respect for objects and things, from garbage to portable radios, anticipates what Tim LeCain has called “new materialisms” and Graham Harman’s immaterialism. I’d argue that the American tradition of archaeology of the contemporary distinguishes it from similar efforts in a continental mode that have drawn more freely on the work of Tilley and Shanks, for example, in their famous study of beer cans. Tiley and Shanks, in my mind, anticipate recent studies that consider the agential character of things drawing on symmetrical archaeology, “object oriented ontologies,” and the ANT of Bruno Latour. This distinction, of course, is not a tidy one, and plenty of cross pollination has occurred (and my recent review essay on “ontology, world archaeology, and the recent past” recognize the range of methods, theoretical perspectives, and forms of presentation that archaeologists of the contemporary world draw upon to make their arguments. Rodney Harrison’s and Esther Briethoff’s survey of the field from this years Annual Review of Anthropology (here’s a preprint), demonstrates a similar diversity.
The various approached to an archaeology of the contemporary world share an interest in objects, buildings, places, and, to steal a word from my old buddy Kostis, situations. They also share a commitment to the potential of archaeological approaches to shed light on overlooked communities, groups, and individuals, to redefine the relationship between humans, objects, and the environment, and ultimately to affect social change.
This is where I am right now. To organize these areas into a book, I have a provisional table of contents:
Part 1: Objects and Contexts
Part 2: Landscapes
1. Precarity and Marginal Places: homelessness, borders, and squats.
2. Institutional Landscapes: campuses, military bases, and parks.
3. Industrial and Extractive Landscapes
4. The Bakken
Conclusions, Prospects and Problems
I’m open to any and all thoughts about this. My goal is for the book to come in under 100,000 words, probably in the neighborhood of 60,000-80,000, so 30,000 each for Part 1 and Part 2 and then 5,000 words each for an introduction and conclusion.
My plan, for now, is to work out the book proposal over the next month or so on my blog! But, for now, back to abandonment…