Slow Archaeology and Slow Media

This weekend, I read Jussi Parikka’s little book, The Contemporary Condition : A Slow, Contemporary Violence: Damaged Environments of Technological Culture (Sternberg Press 2016). I had also started to think a bit about slow archaeology (again) because I had agreed to be on a panel on slow archaeology at the now-cancelled TAG conference. Finally, next month, I need to start working on a chapter that considers media archaeology for my little Archaeology of the Contemporary American Culture project. These three things sort of converged in my mind as I walked the dogs over the weekend.

These streams sort of coalesced into three proto-ideas.

First, when I first started thinking about and writing about slow, it was in response to calls for greater efficiency and speed that had become typical in digital archaeology (and in American culture more broadly). I figured that slowing down might offer a way to escape from the pressures of efficiency and automation during field work and return our attention to the things, landscapes, and experience of fieldwork.

Reading Parikka’s book, however, reminded me to think a bit more about Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence (2011). Nixon demonstrated that the idea of slow was not just an alternative to modern calls to efficiency but also could be applied to the violent results of our need for efficiency in the modern world. In this context, slow was a way to describe the process of environmental degradation, the breakdown of toxic chemicals, and the impact of these forces on the lives, in particular, of the poor. 

In this case, I started to wonder whether a slow reading of the material world would also allow us to see more clearly the slow violence of the contemporary situation.

The second thing that this brought to mind was the Alamogordo Atari excavation. It’s been over 5 years since we went to Alamogordo to watch a landfill get excavated in search for a “lost” cache of Atari games. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I learned from that experience. It seems to me that thinking about the Atari dig as an example of slow archaeology makes sense. The landfill itself slowed the decay of material preserving green grass clippings, newspapers, food, and, of course, the Atari games.

More than that, the Alamogordo landfill may have been the destination for a number of mercury-laced pigs. In 1969, Ernest Huckleby had accidentally fed some of his pigs with mercury treated grain, and his family, including his eight children and pregnant wife, at some of the pork. The results were horrific and with three of his children and a his infant son were seriously mentally impaired, rendered blind, and paralyzed. Mercury survived in the pigs which passed it onto the children where it caused havoc in their developing nervous systems. Three of the children never recovered full physical or mental function or vision. The photo of Ernestine Huckleby that appeared in National Geographic in the aftermath of this incident was gut wrenching. 

Alamogordo is also, of course, well known for being the largest town near the Trinity Test site where the atomic bomb was tested. Some 30 miles to the east of the town is the WIPP site where nuclear waste from across the US is being stored. The nuclear history of this corner of the American southwest offers another locus for both slow violence and for the attention of slow archaeology. 

(In fact, I’ve increasingly come to realize that my experiences at Alamogordo were almost a parody of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997).)

Finally, I got to thinking more seriously about the source of the material in our digital devices (and for some of Parikka’s thoughts on this, I’ve begun to read his A Geology of Media (2015)). My initial thinking about a slow archaeology was as a kind reflexive practice. I wonder whether this could extend to more critical attention to the materiality of the tools that we use.

Often I think about an archaeology of archaeology which would consider the ways that archaeologists shape the landscape. For example, parts of the ancient city of Corinth are now buried beneath the backfill removed from excavating the Roman forum there. This same way of thinking, however, could extend to understanding the materiality of our digital (and analog) tools from the lithium ponds in Bolivia to rare earth mining sites in China and Australia, petroleum extraction and refining sites (for plastics) in the Middle East and the US, and various manufacturing centers with their global supply chains. It would also be valuable to think about the movement of our post-consumer and industrial waste which now is on a global scale. In short, a slow archaeology transformed into an archaeology of slow and slow violence could consider how our desire for efficiency and speed makes it all the more difficult to understand the gradual impact that our choices has on the earth. Moreover, the emergence of global supply chains which complicate the provenience of artifacts associated with archaeological knowledge making rely on the same speed that they themselves mediate. In fact, the instantaneous character of most engagements with digital tools works to obfuscate the complex processes, spatial contexts, and origins of the mediating technologies. A slow archaeology, with its attentiveness to the interplay between between archaeologists and their tools could bring some of the slow violence of contemporary society into view.  

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