The Dark Abyss of Time

This weekend, read Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (2011). It’s good. 

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been slowly drawn back to the topic of time and archaeology and history over the the last year. Some of this come from my recent, largely stalled, efforts to sort out what it means to produce an archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I am interested in understanding what it means for an archaeologist to be contemporary with a particular artifact, object, building, or event

Olivier does not comment on this directly, but as the title of his book suggests, he recognizes the past and the present as being distinctly separate with the position of the archaeologist and the position of an object from the past being incommensurate points. These points, however, are not necessarily on a linear continuum, but like objects in our unconscious that appear in the present but are clearly of the past. As archaeologists, our job is to make sense of these objects in our present world and to attempt to comprehend both their pastness and their nowness. 

This perspective is intriguing to me, in part, because it situates archaeological knowledge as a challenge to the assumptions of linearity that define the modern world. The modern concept of progress assumes that the present overwrites the past as it builds upon it toward a new future. The existence of the past in the present, however, whether through patina, the unexpected appearance of an object, or through traditions, monuments, or excavation, confound the linear progress of time and create the space of a discontinuous present. This kind of contemporaneity between the past and the present suggests that archaeological time is deeply anti-modern in its conceptualization of the world. 

This got me thinking about some of our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the buildings, Sayre Hall, is a memorial to Harold Sayre who died in the 1918 in World War I. Olivier’s book reminded me of the deep irony that this building will be demolished in 2018, in the name of modern progress. World War I was a truly modern war that both on display the horrible achievements of the modern Industrial Age and shook the confidence of a world that looked toward modernity as the end to the conflicts had defined the “barbarism” of the pre-modern world. It seems to me that nothing better highlights to dehumanizing cost of modernity that the destruction of a monument to a soldier who died fighting in modernity’s war.

On a less somber note, this weekend, I wrote an (overly long) email to my colleagues on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation in my ongoing effort to understand how the Atari games became archaeological artifacts.

Here’s more or less what I wrote:

As you can probably tell from some of my writing, I’ve increasingly seen the games themselves as a bit of McGuffin. After all, there wasn’t any great mystery regarding whether the games were actually there or not – that was pretty well-known and documented. Moreover, even if there are open questions concerning how many games were deposited and for what purpose, these questions are much more likely to be answered through careful archival work than excavating an entire landfill.

So the question that has been bothering me is why did these games become the object of archaeological work. After all, it’s pretty rare that archaeologists excavate something for no other reason than to check on archival records. This isn’t a super solid research question, of course, but we can get a pass because we didn’t properly speaking organize the excavation. From what I can tell, the excavation was designed to resolve the urban legend, but this simply changes the question a bit and asks “why did the urban legend emerge?” That question is to me, basically the same as “why did we excavate the games?”

Olivier’s book plays around a good bit with Freud, which I think is pretty helpful as Zak Penn’s documentary is [almost] explicitly Freudian and our “quest” for the games is essentially an effort to interrogate or critique modernity (or at very least demonstrate that despite modernity we can still create meaning in the past). Olivier likens the archaeological record to our unconscious in that it exists in fragments of the past that appear through excavation in the present. In other words, like Freud’s unconscious, the archaeological record – objects – are transposed from the past into the present. They mean something, but their meaning isn’t clear and direct and it’s always mediated by present concerns, but nevertheless “real.”

We create this unconscious in two ways. As an interesting aside, the Atari games, of course, were in secondary discard (in that they were cast aside and forgotten) but there were also pressures that sought to drag them into primary discard. For example, the site was called a graveyard or a burial (not on a literal sense). Their burial in Alamogordo both placed them out of sight (and memory) and located them in a known place for known reasons (laws against scavenging, cheap disposal rates, et c.). This tension, I supposed, served two functions: on the one hand, secondary discard attempted to push the games out of memory and into our “unconscious.” Efforts to mark the games as being located in primary discard, in turn, kept some of their memory alive.

By excavating the games in their ambiguous discard we can see how some aspects of the past of the games is, on the one hand, forgotten, and, on the other, partially remembered. It moved the games into the place of legend and the partially remember unconscious of our memories. This move, I’d contend, was important because it forgot certain specific aspects of the past of these games. Namely, that the discarding of these games represented an economic move. These games were commodities, were ubiquitous, and were not – in any real ways – special. That memory had to be overwritten or forgotten, if we were to reinscribe the games with something of value to the present. This overwriting and reinscribing is the stuff of archaeology and of psychoanalysis. It’s all about managing the gap between the object as a moment from the past and our own place in the present. And since the act of discard and our act of excavation exposed this gap, our work revolved around making the the games relevant and significant for the present.

The metaphor of the gap as producing meaning is a useful one. First, it’s similar to how films work (Olivier, 186). Films depend on the gaps between frames to create movement, of course.

More importantly, establishing the gap between the past and the present by archaeology allowed us to create a more innocent past for ourselves. We used this gap to overwrite the consumerist and capitalist past of the games – which is anti-romantic (in every sense) and exposes us to the harsh reality that our childhood and fantasy life was not pure and innocent, but a the commodified product of our late capitalist world. Here we can even follow a bit of Shannon Lee Dawdy and say that these game’s particular patina transformed them from commodities to artifacts (and this transformation allowed them to become revalued in distinctive ways in the ebay auction).

Zak Penn’s documentary sort of wraps up this reading of the Atari dig by making the Freudian leap from the present to our buried unconscious all the more explicit. The sense of closure for Howard Scott Warshaw, the E.T. game’s creator, at the end of the film and the parallel between “our” childhood fantasies and Warshaw’s coming of age at Atari is simply too good to be true. Even as Warshaw’s fantasy came crumbling down, the existence of the games in some far away landfill held out the hope that some aspect of his innocence could be buried safely, and recovered like a psychoanalytic treatment that finds the source of pain, reveals it, and returns the conscious mind to its tenuous equilibrium.





One Comment

  1. I think you already expressed the uneasiness about this in earlier blog posts, but you’re saying that you were not really archaeologists but made into archaeologists by following the directions already in the script. You express that very well in this post; I like it. Archaeological practice is always performative, but more interesting with less movements prescribed and more freedom. That’s what I like about archaeology of the contemporary, there’s more freedom to adopt and get a different perspective on normal practice. But you were already saying that, too. The same is true about contemporary French philosophy, a lot less strict and more freedom. Of course, Olivier, I should have sensed that you were bound to end up there.


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