An Archaeology of Structural Violence

This weekend, I read Michael Roller’s An Archaeology of Structural Violence: Life in a 20th Century Coal Town (2018). It’s a pretty compelling book that considers the history and archaeology of Lattimer No. 2 (later Pardeesville), Pennsylvania from its origins as a company town for a local coal baron to its late 20th and 21st century history as a community struggling to adapt to changing economic realities. The book is pretty complex and it contributes to quite a few of my ongoing research areas from life in boom and bust communities to archaeology of the contemporary world, borders and immigration, and the role of modernity in creating contemporary labor regimes.

While this book deserves a formal review, I simply don’t have time this week (and it’s really short enough that it deserves to be read in full). So here are some of my key take aways:

1.  Immigrants and Identity. The residents of Lattimer No. 2 largely consisted of Southern and Eastern European immigrants and their status as immigrants had a significant effect on their economic and social status. Roller linked the late-19th century process of national building and borders as a key step in defining the status of these groups. During the process of immigration, individuals lost identities bound up in their social and political status in the old country, and entered the US as individuals defined by their passports and their names inscribed on ship manifests, immigration ledgers, and, ultimately employment paperwork. Following the work of Giorgio Agamben (and others), Roller understand this transformation as a key step in creating the modern individual as “bare life” who the state can transform through a new set of political and economic relationships experienced in part through the immigration process. 

Organized labor in Pennsylvania coal country and the role of the state in suppressing the power of labor to resist the economic imperatives of mine owners represented another step in the process of redefining the social and political status of residents of Lattimer No. 2. In this context, the Lattimer massacre, when the local police supplemented by deputized mining company managers opened fire in striking immigrant workers killing several and wounding many others. Efforts to break the power of organized labor reinforced the atomized economic and political status of labor in relation to the mining companies. This prepared the way for the late-20th century, post-coal economy in the region where casual, light industrial jobs came and went based on the vicissitudes of global capital.

Ironically, this economic volatility not only led to large scale out-migration from Pennsylvania coal country, but also encouraged the arrival of another wave of immigrants from South America and the Caribbean who took advantage of the low cost of housing and availability of unskilled work. Like the Italian and Slavic immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century, these groups have also been met with xenophobia and discrimination.

2. Corporate Town and Shanty Town. Lattimer No. 2 was originally a company town owned the local coal company. Neatly arranged duplexes lined the main street of town and provided housing for employees. On the outside of town, however, recent immigrants constructed and adapted a small group of shanties. The residents of this community represented local surplus labor who found occasional work around the fringes of the increasingly mechanized coal mining process. Roller’s excavation of a privy and several other plots in this former shanty enclave demonstrated that the residents of these ad hoc were not only marginalized economically in their relationship to the coal industry, but also geographically in relationship to the traditional, corporate owned housing of the main town.

The artifacts recovered from excavations around this shanty town reveal the way in which these individuals were integrated into the local, national, and ultimately global economy. Roller unpacks the significance of the increasing presence of goods produced through industrial practices in the shanty town assemblage more fully in an article published last year in Historical Archaeology. I discuss that article here.

Over the same period that more and more manufactured goods appear in the Shanty town assemblage, the shanty town itself undergoes significant architectural changes as it shifts from a series of closely spaced and related ad hoc structures to nearly organized properties sold as real estate and, today, to the appearance of a typical American suburb.

Roller’s work on the Shanty Town certainly shed light on my work in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota where we documented both formal, corporate owned workforce housing sites and more casual RV park-type camps. The latter, it would seem to me, shared many of the characteristics of the Lattimer No. 2 Shanty Town with their abundance of ad hoc structures, adaptive strategies designed to make life in North Dakota more comfortable, and residents who as often worked in services that supported the core extractive industries of the Bakken oil boom. 

3. Historical Archaeology and the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Roller is deliberate in his understanding of Lattimer No. 2 and Pardeesville as a contemporary community that continues to struggle with the structural violence of its legacy as a corporate coal town. The most obvious example of this is the systemic alienation of its residents from the close knit communities that existed in Southern and Eastern Europe prior to immigrant and the reconfiguration of these relationships through organized labor, the church, and life in the Lattimer No. 2’s Shanty Town.

The collapse of the mining industry and the rise in more casual labor constantly reinforced the primacy of the individual in the social and economic regime of the modern world. Projects like urban renewal which led to the clearing of many of the ad hoc structures from Pardeesville and affordable housing in nearby Hazelton, further eroded collective strategies to enjoy life and survive economically in the volatile economy of Pennsylvania coal country. This kind of structural violence ultimately did little to improve the quality of life for residents of this region, but did produce a pool of low cost labor of periodic utility to global capital.

The book does much more than these three points indicate and it is well worth the time to give it a read!

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