Materiality and Time

I’ve been pretty intrigued by the little group of articles published in the most recent Journal of Contemporary Archaeology on materiality and time. As anyone who has read recent literature on materiality (in its various forms) recognizes that materials dictate and in real ways construct how we engage and experience time. This is particularly true in archaeology where the materiality of strata, of artifacts, and of architecture constitute the stuff of chronology in an excavation. 

My interest in time derives in part from my interest in the issue of contemporaneity in archaeology and how the concept of contemporaneity in the present and with the present shapes our notion of an archaeology of the contemporary world. For someone who is much more at home doing the empirical grunt work, the theoretical and abstract nature of time and contemporaneity is giving me fits, but these articles work to anchor the complicated concept of the present much more in materiality are helping me navigate the complicated terrain of time.

As I think through my introduction to my book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture, I want to make sure that I speak both to social (and environmental) issues on a global scale as well as distinctively American engagements with their archaeological present. I was particularly interested in the distinctive temporalities made visible in Astrida Neimanis’s article on the disposal of chemical weapons after WWII in the Gotland Deep. The article emphasized different regimes of time that defined the permanence of this discard strategy, the enduring character of the sea, and the contemporary risk of chemical weapons both to humans and to other creatures who share that space. The Gotland deep is part of what might be seen as a fairly “new” sea in the geological history of the region. At the same time, the perceived permanence of the sea made it a suitable dumping place for unused mustard gas. The delay between the dumping of the gas and our understanding of its impact paralleled the delay between exposure to mustard gas and the physical signs of contamination on the human body. The materiality of time defines the intervals at which we experience the world. Neimanis introduced me – once again – to the concept of queer time, which I honestly do not understand beyond it being a general critique of linear time. That being said, I’ve added Elizabeth’s Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010) to my reading list.

Elana Resnick’s article on the use of glass among Roma in the modern Bulgaria is a lovely short case study for how the persistence of certain materials shape their utility even in the disposable culture of the contemporary European Union. The Roma use glass jars to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables for the winter while at the same time recyclers stockpile un-recycled glass until it becomes economically viable to sort and recycle it into useful objects. The continued value of glass as use objects (and it relatively low value for recyclers) locates it in a perpetual contemporary state where it can serve to slow time for the preservation of seasonal vegetable over the winter months.

In contrast, Gay Hawkins’ work on plastic, unpacks the tension between its persistence and its disposability. Her article makes clear that plastic is particularly fascinating it the way in which it’s material plasticity has limited it functional dynamism in contemporary use. On the one hand, plastic lasts essentially for ever, and, on the other, it’s plasticity ensures that plastic objects have rather narrow functions which makes it eminently disposable. While her understanding of time as a key concern for analytical philosophy if as intimidating as it is overwhelming, I did follow her bibliography to François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2015) and added it to my reading growing reading list. 

More on this, when I have time, of course.

One Comment

  1. I’m just throwing this out there: I greatly appreciate your blog posts. It is one of the only blogs for which I read almost every post, sometimes every other.


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