Mechinic Consumerism

Yesterday, I started to digest Michael Roller’s recent article in Historical Archaeology ((2019) 53:3–24), “The Archaeology of Machinic Consumerism: The Logistics of the Factory Floor in Everyday Life” (h/t to Kostis Kourelis!). Roller examines an assemblage from a mining town in Pennsylvania as a way to consider the rise of what he calls “mechinic consumerism.” Mechinic consumerism is a blanket term that describes the network of practices, technology, social forms, and landscapes that emerged in the second half of the 20th century. This network manifests itself in this assemblage through the physical evidence for the growing prevalence of machines in manufacturing, the logistical infrastructure necessary to produce the diverse objects in the assemblage, the recognizability of objects associated with national brands and the shared experience of department stores, a common aesthetic language, and the sheer abundance of objects in this one assemblage.

The article offers a theoretical grounding for this modern assemblage drawing on Marx, Deleuze and Guatari, Althusser, and other lights of the Frankfurt School to expand how we think about the assemblage present in this Pennsylvania privy. Paul Mullins and LouAnn Wurst offer thoughtful and critical comment in a pair of responses and Roller, in turn, responds to their critiques. Since they offer such useful and perspective commentary on this paper (and they’re much better archaeologists and thinkers that I am!), I won’t critique the paper per se, but I will babble on about how it provides a framework for understanding a few assemblages that I’m working to deal with these days.

1. Chelmis. Last spring we submitted an article that was somewhere between a methods article and a preliminary report to the Journal of Field Archaeology. Because this isn’t really a kind of article, we’ve been asked to revise and resubmit. As part of that work we need both to expand our description of the artifacts from the site and to contextualize it more fully in the changes to Greek material culture during dramatic changes that take place within the 20th century Greek landscape, economy, and society.

The site at Chelmis, for example, not only reflects changes in rural land use and settlement structure tracking the development of marginal lands as part of transhumant practices in the late 19th or early 20th century and the ultimate abandonment of these lands with the decline in transhumant pastoralism and changes in the agricultural economy of Greece (and the Peloponnesus) after World War II and the Greek Civil War. Mechanized agriculture, greater economic integration on the national and international level, and changes in rural land use policies shaped the rise and abandonment of Chelmis and the use of the structure at the site. Along with these changes, villages increasingly emerged as the centers of economic, political, and social life connected by roads and other forms of infrastructure to cities and this reorganization of life and movement in the Greek landscape also contributed to the structure of assemblages at Chelmis. 

The deepening integration within political and economic systems in Greece directly influenced the material culture present at the site. The use of milled nails for example demonstrated the changing character of manufacturing in Greece over the life the buildings. Their abandonment as habitation and their episodic reuse as storage offers a diachronic view of changes both to rural activity and the network that such activities require. The presence of donkey saddles, wood and milled metal beds, fertilizer bags, glass veterinary medicine bottles, and plastic Nescafe shakers track not only the use of these places but also discard practices and the access to various objects.

2. The Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the most remarkable things about the assemblage present in the four, now-demolished, buildings that constituted Wesley College on the campus of the University of North Dakota is that they preserved such a diverse assemblage of material. Like the privy studied by Roller, these buildings accumulated objects over their 100 year history and these objects – as well as the buildings themselves – mapped the changing values, resources, and networks that defined higher education in North Dakota over a century. 

From the original donors of the buildings to the tangled masses of obsolete cables found in an abandoned lab space, each set of objects opens onto a complex network informed as much by the expansion of capital and “mechinic consumerism” to regional and supra-regional social networks that blossomed from the marginal and transient spaces of the Northern Plains. I wish I had more time to immerse myself in this project.

3. The Alamogordo Atari Excavations. Two years ago, I wrote an article on the excavation of Atari games in Alamogordo, New Mexico that emphasized the various narratives that intersected to create meaning for this distinct archaeological context. You can read the paper here.  Narratives remain attractive to me as a way of critically access meaning across archaeological assemblages (and, as far as I can tell, the critical engagement with narratives in an archaeological context has not been applied to literal archaeological assemblages or to more theoretically tinged corpora of networked objects. 

To my mind, one of the great challenges of understanding assemblages of objects, practices, methods, and experiences is articulating the overlapping and interdependent meanings that these groups of objects produce. How do we produce narrative strategies that unpack these assemblages with their often recursive and sometimes contradictory meanings without collapsing into redundant, impenetrable, or unrepresentative prose. In some ways, the critiques of Roller’s article offered by Mullins and Wurtz reflected the limits of narrative and presentation in archaeology as much as any theoretical or practical shortcomings.

4. Publishing Archaeology. Mechinic consumerism is about more than just reading and articulating meaning in archaeological assemblages from the past. It also reflects how we produce archaeology through narration and publication. Last spring, I continued a on-and-off project that explores in some sense, the archaeology of publishing archaeology. I argue for the significance of the term “work flow” with its 20th century roots in scientific management practices and elided it (somewhat awkwardly, I’ll admit) with concepts of flow developed by Deleuze and Guattari. You can read that here

A deeper and more critical engagement with the process of publishing and the ecosystem in which it functions – the assemblage – offers a way to consider the impact not only of what we publish, but how we publish. The publication process is as dependent on practices embedded within the larger system of mechinic consumption as the material that we frequently study. The final section of Roller’s paper suggests ways to resist the forces of mechinic consumption that range from recycling to reuse, conservation, and traditional practices that exist outside the pressure of direct market forces. It’s idealistic for me to imagine that my little press can offer real resistance to the pressures of capitalism and consumerism in our society, but if it can scratch out a little garden – no matter how commodified – I’m satisfied. 

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