More on Logistics

In a couple of weeks I’m giving a paper at the European Archaeological Association meetings. I’ve posted a draft of the paper, and, frankly, it’s a bit of a mess. First, it is a partly compressed form of a much larger paper destined, ideally, for publication. Second, it’s still too long for my session at the EAAs. In other words, it’s both not enough and too much.

One of the small breakthroughs that I had this weekend, however, came after thinking harder about some of the ideas in Deborah Cowen’s book on logistics. While her work is deeply invested on the empirical reality of logistics, on the ground, at shipyards, corporate boardrooms, and even advertising campaigns, my paper thinks about the prevailing metaphors present in archaeological field work and considers how these metaphors – from excavation to the assembly line and logistics workflow – shape the priorities both of the practice and the discipline. My hope, which is far too ambitious for a conference paper or even an article (and my own modest investment in these ideas) is to show how the intersection of practice, method, and ontology (and even epistemology) produces a transhuman archaeology. In this way, I’m working in a tradition that challenges a view of archaeology that sees it as the systematic uncovering of the past using inert tools and grounded in metaphors of excavation and the assembly line. In its place, I’m adapting Rodney Harrison’s metaphor of surface survey to see the work of archaeological knowledge making as located in the relationship between objects, methods, individuals, and spaces. 

This is messy business, of course, because metaphors are simply heuristic tools to describe a reality bringing their own baggage and limitations with them. For example, I’m been tripped up by the tendency of modern archaeological practice to continue to adapt certain aspects of “assembly line logic.” The interest in efficiency, the tendency to break complex tasks into smaller units of work, and the hierarchical organization of archaeological work where the directors assume both greater responsibility for the final product, but also greater control over its character, continue to play a significant role in the archaeological practice. At the same time, I struggled to recognize the role that new ways of viewing logistics play in archaeological knowledge production.

As Cowen and others have demonstrated, over the course of the 20th century, logistics has come to supplant – on some ways at least – the logic of the assembly line in our understanding of production. The movement of goods across regions, has decentralized and distributed the factory floor and prioritized standardization between industries, efficiency of movement, and the systematic undermining of border and boundaries that defined communities, stages of production, and barriers to access. In short, attention to logistics has demonstrated that it serves to produce value across the entire supply chain. The more seamless and efficient the production (and distribution, which is not a separate stage in the life of an object) can be, the more value an object has. This distributed view of producing value recognizes the range of inputs to an objects worth that extends from those directly impacting the manufacture of the object to those involved in its movement and distribution. It is hardly surprising that a scholar like Manuel Delanda has shown interest in both logistics – in his War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) – and assemblages – in his A New Philosophy of Society (2006). These books emphasize (often following Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of rhizomes and assemblages) the non-linear character of assemblages and logistics. 

In archaeology, our interest in assemblages can be as local as efforts to define groups of associated objects, and as complex as our understanding that all inputs into the work of archaeological knowledge making transform the kinds of knowledge that we can produce. In the context of a kind of archaeological logistics, we might go so far as to argue that the recent interest in linked open data as being driven at least in part by the same impulse of standardization that produced the shipping container or more humble pallet. Best practices in digital practices have emphasized the importance of interoperability in data sets and revealed the persistent tension between standardized (and often regional practices and typologies) and the potential for larger scale hypothesis testing. In fact, the recent interest in regional and period specific practices (say in Late Roman archaeology) has sought to understand whether various methods are interoperable between chronological periods and regions. Interest in comparative practices between regions, such as in Mary Leighton’s recent work, has likewise sought to locate archaeology work – and the process of archaeological knowledge making – in a regional and global context effectively transgressing the boundaries of local practices.

While archaeology has always recognized the role of methods and practices in knowledge making, this recent work has shifted the conversation from a generalized approach to best practices to an effort to understand regional and period specific variations. On the one hand, an industrial approach to archaeology sought to emphasize the repeatability of certain techniques and methods on the ground and the control over the body of the archaeology (and the archaeological project). On the other hand, the recent approach to archaeological practice (or even linked open data) has looked for ways to understand how the relationship between practices in the trench, between contexts and objects, and between interpretative frameworks produce hybridized forms of knowledge that can be assembled and disassembled to address a range of questions (and, to continue with our economic metaphor, markets!). The linearity of the assembly line gives way to the distributed potential of logistics where value and knowledge comes from not the successful assembly of a given object, but from the potential arrangement of a diverse, but interoperable, parts.


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