Three Things Thursday: Fiction, Archaeology, and Reading

It’s a Thursday and just after the mid-point of the semester. Most years, the wheels start to come off about now, and I’m certainly feeling a greater sense of general urgency than I usually do. 

As a gesture to a rather frantic time, it feels right to do a little “Three Things Thursday” to clear the deck of wandering blog material that is bound to get caught up in the machinery of daily life and bring everything to a stop.

Thing The First

Last weekend, I read Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence. It’s short and like so much “Late DeLillo” atmospheric. It describes a world when all digital technology simply stops working and five people are forced to encounter life in a fundamentally different way. 

For archaeologists interested in issues of ontology, the book is short enough to be a “must read.”  As the five individuals lose their digital tools (and the digital tools that make the contemporary world possible), they lose part of themselves. The loss of their digital prosthetics leave them with phantom memories that bubble up through their consciousness suggesting that the disruption of digital technology is not enough to entirely divest ourselves of the imprint of our digital tools.

The book also engages with time in interesting ways (and here it seems to pick up where Point Omega, his 2010 novel leaves off. In Point Omega time alternately slows down and speeds up as the characters encounter existence through various modalities including the vastness of the desert, a slowed-down version of the film Psycho, and the structure of a haiku (which apparently give the novel its structure). In The Silence, time appears to stutter, lurch, and double back on itself. One character begins to recite Einstein, the other the fractured commentary on the Super Bowl, while another attempts to understand how they arrived in New York after crossing the Atlantic on a flight when all technology stopped. The staccato stratigraphy presented through DeLillo’s dialogue will be immediately recognizable to the archaeologist who is asked to make sense of the sequence of events (which are so often non-linear) as well as the definition of each object.

Thing the Second

I also enjoyed Anton Bonnier and Martin Finné’s recent article in Antiquity, “Climate variability and landscape dynamics in the Late Hellenistic and Roman north-eastern Peloponnese.” As readers of this blog know, I’ve become increasingly interested in historical climate change and they way in which changes in climate shaped past societies and their archaeological remains. Bonnier and Finné’s article consider climate proxies from three caves in the Peloponnesus and attempt to correlate this data with evidence from intensive pedestrian surveys in the Argolid and the Corinthia. Needless to say this is a messy project, but the results are suggestive.

They propose that a shift is visible away from land on hill slopes during the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods. They then suggest that there exist the political and economic explanations for this: the shift away from diversified agricultural strategies associated with the “family farm” toward less diverse practices associated with the supplying of urban centers with grain. They add to this explanation the possibility that the Late Hellenistic and Roman period was also notably drier than the Classical and Hellenistic era. As a result, more marginal fields on hill slopes with thinner soils that were less likely to retain moisture, for example, were abandoned for better and more erosionally stable fields on the valley bottoms. They make clear that climate change was not the primary driver of this putative shift, but could have been a contributing factor.   

Thing The Third

I’ve been thinking a bit about how we read in the 21st century. In my introductory level World History class, I’ve asked the students to engage in non-linear reading of the class’s open access history textbook. Instead of moving chapter to chapter, region to region, I’ve suggested that student use the search function and read across certain themes, ideas, phenomena, and situations. Searching for topics such as “joy,” “love,” and “anger” connects Confucius’s quip on the joys of a contemplative life, the joy of Buddhist nirvana, and the joy of a Classical Greek religious festival. Love brings together Chinese and ancient Egyptian love poetry. Anger connects the fate of kings, the wrath of deities, and daily life in the Levant. For me, this kind of reading is exciting and disorienting, but for my students, it’s frustrating. Without the coherence and context of narrative (preferably supported by a strong sense of progress!), history becomes a cacophony of unrelated events.

I spend far more time working as an editor and publisher these days than I do as a conventional researcher and writer. As a result, I often find my day defined by oddly juxtaposed texts. Snippets of emails, poetry, typeset text, and academic prose jostle with each other more attention. On some days, it’s deeply fatiguing mostly because like my students, I want to encounter some kind of pattern. I want to find that rhythm of meaning that comes from sustained reading of a single or related texts. In its place, I find jostling voices and snippets of conversation overheard at a crowded bar. On my best days, this feels more real than a tidy narrative or a scholarly argument. The orderly style, tone, and forensic detachment feel inadequate to represent the chaotic realities of everyday life. 

2 Comments

  1. Melissa Morison October 29, 2020 at 7:45 am

    Enjoyed this post. I used to really like DeLillo, but missed these two books, so thanks for that; a good reminder to check them out. Agreed that the Antiquity article you mentioned is thought-provoking; I liked the connections they made with Marston’s Gordion work and, as you said, the interesting playing with the different forms of data. I enjoy work that enables us to toggle between multiple scales and forms of reasoning & this is good stuff.
    Finally — we seem to have similar students. Your description of your non-linear thematic mining of the textbook was right on, for all sorts of reasons; but I know that my *1st-year* students would react in the same way yours did. I feel like they almost have to be taught how to enjoy swimming in the material, and as 1st-year students most of them aren’t quite there yet. Senior seminar would likely go differently! I’ve been wondering whether we should flip the curriculum, so to speak, and do the “survey” courses at the advanced level, with the “intro.” courses much more targeted as to topic. Trying something like this in Roman Civ. 1st-year class this semester; meanwhile, the sweeping survey of “Egypt in the Med.” (Bronze Age to Late Antiquity, with some Cavafy in there at the end) worked well for seniors in the Archaeology program last Fall, in the thematic sense you described in your post.
    Sorry if these comments are rather meandering…..but, just wanted to wave a flag of support from over here on the Lake.

    Reply

  2. The Antiquity article sounds fascinating…The combination of soil science and settlement pattern study, of course, with the ever fashionable climate science, sounds really cool. And that many of us are familiar with that region, which is there in the old Polybius-inspired research agenda in Alcock’s book, means, shoot, I have to read that!

    Can’t wait to read Delilo’s new one now. I last read the thing about the atomic disaster in the college town. Brought me truly back down to earth. A joy.

    Teaching Cavafy on barbarians in my Wester Civ class today. It seems to have worked well last time, but we’ll see….You can’t win. Students will complain that I teach “literature” in a history class; but you lose them with narrative…Ugh.

    Reply

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