The more I roll up my sleeves and work on revising my book manuscript, the more I get the itch to write. Some of this is just me being lazy. It’s easier to write and garner a sense of accomplishment from the appearance of (relatively) well ordered words on the page. Revising is a humbling slog and whatever joy I get from playing with words at the writing stage, quickly evaporates as I have to try to discipline those words though revision.
I also like to think that my itch to write more also comes from the desire to contextualize what I have written in the rapidly changing present. I wrote most of my current manuscript against the backdrop of Trump’s presidency, but I hadn’t anticipated the protests of the summer of 2020, the COVID pandemic, and the deadly riot of January 6th. These events seem too significant to ignore especially in a book that purports to deal with the archaeology of the American experience.
It’s not just the events. The entire conversation surrounding the events, the COVID pandemic, and legacy of populist politics in the age of Trump has pushed me to consider how scholarly publishing should engage with this situation in a meaningful way. Even the most casual scroll through the social media feeds of academics reveals colleagues who have intensified their calls for social and racial justice, struggled under the increased burdens and workloads brought about by the COVID pandemic, used their platforms to engage often divisive and politicized issues such as the removal of statues, and taken on significant emotional labor in support of communities processing and responding to the daily that seemingly defined 2020. For my part, I’ve largely been silent. At best, I could justify this as giving more thoughtful voices space to be heard. At worst, this reflected my own inability to understand and process events and the dense layers of privilege that insulate my position.
All this is to say that I need to write an afterword to my book that acknowledged the time and situation in which I wrote this book.
First, I need to acknowledge my privilege. I’m a white, middle class, tenured, university professor without children and with a supportive partner and friends. This situation allowed me to weather the storm of 2020 and remain academically productive. This has caused me a great deal of ambivalence as I recognize that my privileged position has allowed me to continue to advance my career while others are losing their positions or have had to reorder their professional priorities in response to the pandemic’s disruption of traditional schooling or the need to care for sick or vulnerable family and community members. In contrast, the disruption of my traditional summer field seasons opened up more time for me to write and think intensively about various projects.
I have also avoided engaging the COVID pandemic in a professional way. Historical archaeology has much to add to understanding the impact of pandemics on communities and social institutions both in the past and in the present. A recent article in American Antiquity, for example, composed jointly by the editors, situated the contemporary situation in the long history of pandemics, marginal communities, and race. By considering the uneven social impact of pandemics in the past, the authors push us to consider how our ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak can avoid further marginalizing groups who have historically suffered from inadequate medical care and economic opportunities. A series of articles in the African Archaeological Review have similarly sought to situate our contemporary response in past practices and to understand the impact of long term change, indigenous knowledge, social resilience, and colonialism shaped how communities reacted to such traumatic events. As importantly, Shadreck Chirikure in the same issue calls for archaeologists to not just content themselves with the study of past pandemics, but to use this knowledge to collaborate with other disciplines and to shape policy in the present. Kristina Douglass’s article considers how the disciplinary knowledge that archaeology produces about the past might form the basis for a more resilient present both for the communities where we live and study and for our discipline. A special issue of Social Anthropology, likewise dedicated to COVID, featured precious few articles that deal with the material culture or archaeology of COVID-19, but Natalia Magnani and Matthew Magnani’s article proposed a “rapid response” archaeology that documented the community’s and the state’s reaction to the COVID pandemic in the town of Tromsø in Norway. The specific outcome of such work remains unclear in this brief article, but the potential for this kind of research to understand how community’s responded to various policies in a rapidly changing situation seems more than clear.
For my part, I’ve fumbled with how my own work can contribute to an archaeology of COVID. I have pondered how COVID has changed our sense of time, and suggested that North Dakota’s response to COVID paralleled certain kinds of structural violence that archaeology has recently sought to explore. None of this has become more than notes, and this reflects both a certain lack of urgency and a significant sense of insulation from the pandemic even as it ravaged my state and community.
More critically, my work and this book reflects my perspective as a middle class, white, academic. As I develop my afterword more I want to demonstrate how my position(ality) shaped my understanding of scholarship on the contemporary world and how my own work and this subfield might evolve to address contemporary concerns in a more assertive and impactful way.