More Fragments on Punk, Slow, and the Archaeology of Care

I’ve been playing around with some chunks of texts for the paper that I’m to deliver at the EAA conference in September. Because it’s how I role, I’m pre-nervous and fussing already with too many ideas and not enough thought.

What I’d like to write about is whether digital practices and tools in archaeology – from field procedures to analysis and publications – tend toward certain kinds of social relations among practitioners (broadly defined in their archaeologicality), at the level of the discipline, and in the ontological situation of objects. My fears and anxieties stem from, on the on hand, the prevalence of a certain language of description found particularly in Mediterranean practice (and here my concern is the growing influence of efficiency which follows – to some extent – the fears of Jacques Ellul) and, at least in my corner of the archaeological universe, the persistence of a kind of historicism which celebrates the modernist metaphor of excavation. By removing the overburden of history and the past, we reveal how things “really” work and that privileges a certain efficiency in process and practice that technology can accelerate. If the first efforts to accelerate how archaeologists produce (or “reveal”) the past grew from industrial practices and organization of labor, then the most recent digital turn appears – to some extent – to draw upon post-industrial modes of organization with the interchangeability of data, expertise, places, and people producing a kind of “Uber”-fied discipline. I know this requires a good bit of nuancing and some folks will find it unconvincing, but it’s a start.

So far, it’s led me to fragments and places like this:

What is an un-ironic archaeology? Would it all just be surfaces, following Rodney Harrison and even Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina or Olivier’s Dark Abyss of Time as opposed to, say, Buccalleti’s A Critique of Archaeological Reason

The challenge of thinking about an un-ironic archaeology is simultaneously recognizing that what we really want to understand is below the surface – the floor packing of archaeology, if you will – while recognizing that the main metaphor for archaeological work has been “excavation as destruction” (or even excavation as creation or digitization) which celebrates the knowledge associated with the surfaces and strata themselves. In other words, we want to know what is below the surface while at the same time preserving the surface itself as the strata through which sub-surface knowledge becomes apparent.

In this way, archaeology reveals a deep conservatism in both meanings of the word: it seeks to conserve the surface – albeit in a mediated form – and to validate the surface as playing a legitimate role in the making of archaeological knowledge only inasmuch as it implies a relationship to the levels that it covers. Historically, superficiality in archaeological thought and a concern with surfaces is important largely because it reveals deeper meanings. Even so-called “flat ontologies” with their rhizomic relations function as expressions of something else, of a hidden meaning, something profound and perhaps more real.

These kinds of musings, of course, don’t get us anywhere really. Critical appreciation of the excavation as the dominant metaphor for archaeological practice and a growing appreciation of the contemporary as both the space and the time of archaeological knowledge hardly offers a blue print for present or future uses of digital tools, for example, much less meaningful disciplinary or social change.

In fact, we could argue that celebrating surfaces of archaeological practice, unironically expressed in the performativity of punk or the slow crunch of dry soil beneath a boot in the Greek countryside, run the risk of absolving archaeologists from thinking about how and why their work matters. As a critical reading of punk archaeology has shown by emphasizing performance on its own without creating rooms to consider what is being performed, archaeologists are giving up the hard fought terrain of expertise. In effect, we’ve invited “fake news,” climate change deniers, the alt-right, and crystal worshipers, into the archaeological mosh pit, if not on stage. The improvisation of the double quartet of the Commune of Digital Anarchism must have limits and however much they challenge, reject, ignore the hard bop favored by the Academy of Digital Advancement or song book at the heart of the Ministry of Digital Orthodoxy, they still play recognizable instruments.

(As someone who lacks any formal archaeological training (other than sitting in on a graduate course in archaeology one semester), I can roll my eyes at the institutional structures of expert-making, while still admiring the technical proficiency of an experienced excavator. I can pretend that the embodied knowledge of craft is somehow more democratic, less hierarchical, and more open than the credentialing provided by universities corrupted through their complicity in capitalism and colonialism, but I also know that the contingent contemporaneity of archaeological practices does not parse that easily.). In short, a looter is a looter, there are good and bad archaeologists in our profession, good and bad (if not BEST) practices, and tools that will never escape their social, technical, and political limitations to be used in our field (and here I’m thinking about the potential of, say, the atomic bomb as an excavation tool, but also “sharks with friggin’ laser beams“).

So where does that leave those of us who see the world as a single (Borgesian) surface rather than a series of superimposed contexts waiting to be documented and removed in order to reveal new knowledge?

Archaeology of Care is an effort to recognize the social affordances of this map.

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What I’m increasingly interested in is the relationship between archaeological practices – particularly those mediated by digital tools – and the structure of archaeological thinking. This extends from the social organization of the discipline – both in terms of field practice and larger economic and political concerns that involve considerations of gender, race, and class – to the relationships between archaeologists and their communities as well as the basic structure of archaeological knowledge as simultaneously contemporary and in the past.

In other words, how does our critical understanding of our digital tools both reflect and produce archaeological knowledge that is socially meaningful. And how do we do this without falling back ironic conceptions of archaeological knowledge that see “real meaning” existing below a surface that must be excavated away.

Jeremy Huggett has offered some compelling insights into the nature of digital practices and digital thinking in his use of the concept of cognitive artifacts.

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One of the methodological implications of so-called “flat ontologies” in archaeology is the deskilling of archaeological practice. Digital technology whatever its integrative potential, relies at least in part on the industrialist (and Taylorist) conceit of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones. These simple tasks, often mediated by the simplified fields of the data collection form as opposed to the synthetic archaeological notebook, the ease of point-and-click data manipulation as opposed to the experience of walking through the landscape (Brouwer Burg 2017), the clicking of a GPS point as opposed to plotting a location on a map, or the use of structure-from-motion photography as opposed to drawing by hand (Morgan and Knight 2017). While nearly every field archaeologist would admit to the importance of these methods in transforming the production of archaeological knowledge, most would also recognize the role technology has played in changing archaeological practice. As I have argued elsewhere, the adoption of digital tools and the understanding of digital technologies at both a conceptual and applied level is not merely exchanging one set of skills for another (pace Roosevelt et al.), but also the deskilling of certain elements of archaeological work.

The ease with which archaeological projects generate “Big Data” (Kansa 2016; Bevan 2015) – my project in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota has generated over 10,000 photographs, over 100 hours of audio interviews, video, illustration, text documents, and other forms of data (and paradata, and metadata, and quasidata and almost invariably flavors of pseudodata) – is directly related to the ease of data collection and the power and ease of the tools developed to analyze these large datasets. This isn’t to say being a good digital archaeologist is easy – certainly there are practitioners and theorists in the field of digital archaeology who are thinking and working hard to transform how we understand digital practices in the field – but, as Colleen Morgan and Stuart Eve have observed in some respects “we are all digital archaeologists now.”

Of course, the analogue roots of archaeological practice can be overstated. While there has always been a craft element to archaeology (e.g. McGuire and Shanks 1996), industrial practices have recently started to give way to post-industrial practices with their concern for data. There are elements of this transition which could encourage the uberfication of archaeological knowledge making (Hall 2017) in which increasingly granular data and practices await synthesis by a handful of scholars who have control over the data.

Is this a science fiction distopia where the alienation from objects reflecting our alienation from one another?

Uberfication involves creating a workforce consisting of individuals with very basic skills, mediated by digital technologies, who can be exchanged in a highly modular way. The internet of things and the distribution of agency throughout decentralized networks of objects has normalized increasingly digital forms of social, archaeological, and intellectual relationships and at least implied (albeit in an uncritical way) through this dispersed model of agency that objects, data, individuals, and landscapes (even across scale) are more or less commensurate. The impact of this can be summarized in the inanimate carbon rod winning the “Worker of the Week Award” on the Simpsons, disappointing Homer.

3 Comments

  1. I’m not sure that “so-called “flat ontologies” with their rhizomic relations” are commensurable concepts. Where did you read that?

    Reply

    1. I think I’m probably conflating some of the recent work on assemblages (that alternately build on either Deleuze and Guttari or DeLanda) and their interest in rhizomic relations and some of the work on object oriented ontologies that thinks about the distribution of agency across networks.

      So, I don’t want to (dis)credit anyone with this kind of thing other than my own over-excited imagination. What do you think about it?

      Reply

      1. I think that I have misunderstood what has now been subsumed under “flat ontologies”, but I am interested in the cross-over between these frameworks, because in that messiness they become productive (unless we call everything a flat ontology). It’s difficult for me to imagine rhizomes as flat entities; I do see how it results in a concern with surface and subsurface. To sum up, I don’t know.

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