Defining the Contemporary in Time and Place

The final sections that I need to write for (first draft of) the introduction to my book on archaeology of the contemporary American experience serve to define the scope of the book. I’ve located the archaeology of contemporary America in its historiographical and, to some extent, theoretical contexts, but my book still requires some formal limits. In a practical sense, my book is going to be short (<80,000 words) and synthetic and invariably will not be all things to all people. 

As with most books on archaeology, its scope is both chronological and spatial.

For time and place:

The archaeology of the contemporary American experience exists at a dynamic intersection of traditional practices and innovative ways of understanding our relationship with the past and present. This means that any definition of the archaeology of the contemporary must be both provisional and flexible enough to reflect the range of contributions present under this broad banner. The chronological definition of the contemporary world will have less to do with some narrow period centered on the present, and more to do with the predominant economic, political, and social conditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This period saw the ascendence of neoliberal economic programs, the development of the internet and greater access to digital technologies, an accelerated pace of globalization with the end of the Cold War, and aa growing anxiety surrounding the human wrought changes in the environment. Moreover, many archaeologists working in the second decade of the 21st century experienced these changes first hand. It also coincides with material that falls within the last 50 years and outside of the conventional (and legal) definitions of protected heritage in the United States. This chronological definition, of course, does not limit our interest only to objects manufactured over the last 50 years or identified closely with this span of time. This book will also follow the lead of Shannon Lee Dawdy, Laurent Olivier, and Alfredo González-Ruibal in recognizing the role of the most distant past in the present and how the interplay between the past and the contemporary complicates the persistent linearity of the modern narrative.

As for the geographic definition of this work, most of the examples will derive from North America and the United States more narrowly. In this way, the book recognizes and seeks to trace a distinctive character of the American experience which in large part reflects the priorities present in the field of historical archaeology. At the same time, trends in globalization and the increasingly fluid movement of goods, capital, and individuals over the last 50 years has introduced significant complexity to traditional definitions of historically constituted regions. The concept of “late sovereignty,” for example, articulates the increasingly blurred boundaries that define the authority of sovereign states in the 21st century. The political and economic power of multinational corporations and the reach of the internet across national boundaries contributes to a declining sense of geographically defined cultures and experiences. The rise of non-descript non-places at a global scale and the the mass movement of populations displaced by political and economic forces has further eroded a sense of provenience and distinctly national experience. This book will still focus on the United States and North America, but it will also be attuned to the various courses of influence, capital and movement that transform the contemporary world.

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