Contemplating Contemporaneity

I’ve been thinking much more systematically about contemporaneity lately. This is in part because I’ve sent off a proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture. While I have no idea whether it’ll be accepted, writing it, and my long-paused Atari article, stimulated me to think a try to wrap my head around recent work on contemporaneity.

What has intrigued me the most is how clearly debates about the nature of a contemporary archaeology represent a critique of modernity. In many cases, the archaeology of the present or the contemporary offers a counter method and narrative challenge to the persistent authority of periodization schemes which tend to fortify narratives of progress. These narratives of progress, of course, are intimately bound up with our modern understanding of capital and, as a generation of postcolonial and subaltern studies scholars have shown, colonialism.

The insistence on a gap or a “break in tradition” between the present and the past grounds archaeology in the modern era which sought to replace arguments for tradition (and the political baggages associated with them) with a new source of authority. Excavation was a particularly apt metaphor and method for revealing a past that past practices sought to overwrite and obscure. Layers of tradition, legend, and other “tainted” views, were pealed back by specialists in a performance that both produced new authority and grounded it in new knowledge. Modern geology developed stratigraphy to argue for an Earth that was much older than religious traditional would allow. Historians culled archives to produce new narratives that undermined (literally) the authority of the ancien regime. Psychology, as Julian Thomas has expertly shown, likewise looked to excavation and stratigraphy to articulate both the layers of the mind that create the individual, and ultimately, the interleaving of individual and societies. Similar efforts and metaphors appeared in the work of ethnographers who demonstrated that traditional folk tales often preserved truths about both specific pasts and universal pasts that later accretions have obscured. 

While it is easy enough to see the significance and value of insisting on barrier separating the present and the past, it likewise reasonable to understand how this divide provided a significant impetus for narratives of progress in which the contemporary authority overwrites tradition. Projected globally, the chronological divide translated to a spatial and political divide with the present of the West being represented as the ultimate future for “traditional” societies whose present will, in turn, be overwritten by a more rational, “advanced,” capitalist, and democratic future.  

Recent interest in contemporaneity between the present and the past looks to complicate and critique the relationship between archaeological work and modernity. As Rodney Harrison and others have observed, scholars have recently appreciated how incomplete or “unfinished” the project of modernity is, or to put it in less teleological terms, how uneven the surface of modernity is. As part of the effort to recognize and survey this unevenness in archaeology, archaeologists have increasingly sought to produce an archaeology of and in the present. In this way of thinking, the contemporaneity of the archaeologist and the archaeology challenges the view of the past as something “out there” to be uncovered but rather something co-created in the relationships between the archaeologist and the objects and situations and narratives that they organize as knowledge.

By drawing attention to the contemporaneity in archaeology, archaeologists of the present are in a place to trace the surface of the modern world and through the metaphor of the surface assemblage to understand how the interplay of the past and the present produces meanings that have distinctive meaning to the present. By doing this, an archaeology of the contemporary or, perhaps better, an archaeology of contemporaneity, offers two opportunities for the discipline (and, I’d suggested for society). First, it resists the practice of seeing the past a series of presents that invariably and inevitably led to our own world. By recognizing that a wider range of pasts can lead to a wider range of potential futures, it shifts our attention as archaeologists to the complexities of formation processes that embrace both past and present events, values, expectations, and narratives. Second, to understand the complexities of these assemblages, archaeologists have to move beyond disciplinary epistemologies, methods, and practices and to embrace a wider view of what constitutes archaeological knowledge. 

As I work to complete a draft of an article based on my experiences at the Alamogordo Atari Expedition, I’m increasingly struck by how our contemporaneity with both the objects of study (and their excavated context) and their larger cultural context revealed new narratives enmeshed at the intersection of popular views of archaeology and our own disciplinary biases.    

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