Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care (Part 2)

Over the last three months I’ve been fretting and toiling about a paper that I’m writing for European Archaeological Association meeting in September that is due to pre-circulate on August 1. I promised myself to have a completed draft done by July 15, not so much to fulfill some vague Germanic need to have things done on time, but because I was struggling to wrangle my ideas into something that made sense. I posted the first part of the paper on Monday and here’s the second section. It’s rough and a bit raw (and maybe bad). As always I appreciate both constructive and destructive criticism.

As the organizers of this panel know well, transhumanism offers a way to consider the interplay between technology and performance in society (e.g. Haraway 1984) and, more specifically, in archaeology. It also offers a vague roadmap to anticipate the social and disciplinary implications of new approaches to producing archaeological knowledge. Indeed, for most of the later 20th century archaeologists have embraced methodology and seen knowledge making as an explicit relationship between particular techniques, tools, and situations. In this way, archaeological work does not end at the limits of our bodies, but extends reciprocally through technology, techniques, and social organization to create the hybrid space of archaeological knowledge making.

I like to think of the resulting archaeology is far more superficial in the sense that Rodney Harrison has suggested with the dominant metaphor of excavation giving way to the production of surface assemblages consisting of people, objects, tools, and techniques. For authors like Shannon Lee Dawdy, the awareness of how assemblages produce meaningful pasts involves more than simply dutiful documentation and analysis of archaeological work but also recognizing the relationship between field work, local knowledge, ritual activities, and various pre- and anti-modern ways of locating, narrating, and producing social value for artifacts (Dawdy 2016). For Olivier (2012), this speaks to the chaotic nature of time and memory from which the discipline of archaeological seeks to produce an order, but not the only order possible, useful, or meaningful. In this context, the rather linear practice of stratigraphic excavation with its institutional, disciplinary, and performative underpinnings gives way to the raucous and uneven performance of punk rock music which often eschews expertise, barriers to access, and specialized knowledge. There’s an immediacy to it and an explicitly improvised character to even recorded punk music. To use Illich’s terms, the interaction between tools, performance, methods, and individuals is convivial.

My arguments for a slow archaeology shares an interest in conviviality when it seeks to privilege unstructured or less structured engagements with the countryside, embodied field practices like illustrating and note taking by hand, and avoiding the fragmentation of archaeological information into smaller bit of “data.” On the one hand, I remain optimistic that such views of the use of digital technology in archaeology are likely to be superseded as scholars continue to unpack the complex relationship between archaeologists and technology. The transhuman archaeologist is much more likely to recognize the interplay between ourselves and the various digital ”cognitive artifacts” that expand our ability to think about, recognize, or produce archaeological objects (Huggett 2017).

On the other hand, a transhuman archaeology will also transform the social organization of archaeological practice. Digital technology, for example, whatever its integrative potential, relies, in part, on the industrialist and Taylorist approach of dividing complex tasks into rather more simple ones as a step toward aggregating the results of these tasks into completed products. While the linearity of the assembly line may appear outmoded in our digitally networked world, its efficiency speaks to a common goal of fragmenting work as a way to mitigate differences in experience and expertise. Various crowd-sourced research projects (e.g. Sarah Parcak work) have shown how digital tools have produced non-linear approaches to complex archaeological problems. Whatever the value of this kind of archaeological work it is hard not to see it as a kind of digital approach to industrial logic, and as a result, and bringing a distinct form of deskilling (or at very least “reskilling“) to certain kinds of archaeological work.

I recognize that by following the logic of Ellul, Illich, and other anti-modernists, I am predisposed my to worry about the use of remote, structured or simplified recording digital recording interfaces, the ease of point-and-click data manipulation, or the use of software to synthesize unstructured data such as generated by digital photography into 3D structure-from-motion images (Morgan and Knight 2017). I do, however, think that 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 simplifying (and deskilling) certain elements of archaeological work.

Shifting from an assembly line model to a digital model that allows for more dynamic (and remote) access to data production and analysis will transform the organization of archaeological work. The coincidence between an approach to archaeological grounded in assemblages of individuals, objects, places, and pasts, and the democratizing character of digital practices demonstrates allows us to accommodate, but also replace certain kinds of specialists with a computer algorithm or commercial software. The incorporation of algorithms, software, digital tools, and new techniques into archaeological practice brings with them their distinctive logic of practice to field work and analysis.

Jacques Ellul’s work stressed how efficiency and specialization are bound up in the fuzzy concept of technique which he locates as the driving force behind human decision making. For Ellul, technique is modern desire to work efficiently as an end unto itself. Archaeology, on the one hand, as a discipline that emerged, at least in part, alongside industrial practices has always privileged efficiency in organization, documentation, and work. This is not to say that individual archaeologists only and always privileged efficiency, of course, but the very concept of specialization in approaches, methods, procedures, and experiences represents a kind of technique that has played a historically significant role in the production of archaeological knowledge. Practices that marked an individuals specialized skills from carefully maintained notebooks of the trench supervisor or the intricate illustrations of the architect today represent some of the very fields that digital practices propose to refine and improve.

As people like Eric Kansa have noted, the impulse to use digital tools to produce more efficient data collection, as an example, anticipated the recent fascination with “Big Data” well in advance of the consistent demonstration of its results (Kansa 2017; Bevan 20xx). This is not to say that big data will not lead to important breakthroughs in our field, but to suggest that the efficiency possible in digital data collection, analysis, and dissemination, has outpaced our ability to draw significant conclusions. As Roosevelt and others cleverly quipped, digitization is an alternative to destruction in the context of field practices, but this presupposes that this data can produce meaningful interpretation.

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