Burying the Ledes

Over the last two months I’ve been going back through my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience tidying up citations, tightening my prose, and doing some proofreading. It’s not my favorite task, but there’s something vaguely gratifying about it.

I’m adding two things to each chapter that connects it to the rest of the book and breathes a little air into the density of my writing. One thing is what I call a lede, which attempts to speak more casually about the topic of the chapter and to fit it into the larger organization of the book. The other thing is a brief conclusion, usually no more than a paragraph, that wraps the chapter up and sends the reader on their way.

In the best of times, this kind of garnish could be pretty fun to write and think through. These, of course, are not the best of times. I’ve missed my manuscript and I’m entering a murderers row of deadlines which like the 1920s Yankees line up to hit anything out of the park.

That said, here’s the lede and conclusion for my latest chapter:

Lede

The first half of the book began at the edge of the Alamogordo landfill and explored the intersection of waste, consumer culture, and things in American society. The second half of the book will step back from objects and their movement from things desired to things discarded and consider the materiality of particular situations that define key parts of the American experience. Much of the second half of this book is informed by my work with the North Dakota Man Camp Project. This project documented the social and material conditions in workforce housing in western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. Our work in the Bakken intersected with a wide range of situations ranging from 21st-century displacements, to the structure and organization of camps, new forms of urbanism, industrial archaeology, and the archaeology of extractive industries. Just as the Alamogordo Atari Excavations introduced this book, the North Dakota Man Camp Project will serve as a kind of conclusion the book by anchoring this relatively wide ranging (and not always strictly archaeological) treatments of various situations and landscapes in a materially and historically specific context.

Over the next four chapters, this book will follow threads that culminate in the conclusion. The next chapter, for example, will consider marginal places that often play such a key role in defining the center of the American experience. Many workers in the Bakken oil patch found themselves at the margins of established communities in Western North Dakota and living in cars, parks, and shelter belts. The establishment of man camps and RV parks for temporary workers which were set apart of the towns and settlements of the region reflected their status as outsiders. Local communities sought to control the number and distribution of workforce housing sites and whenever possible encourage workers to settle into permanent homes in the region. At the same time, the workers, often displaced from their homes by the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008, often tried to create a sense of community and to modify their temporary living situation in ways that evoked suburban life.

To be clear, comparing mostly American workers who arrived in the Bakken and lived in temporary “man camps” to the global situation facing undocumented migrants, refugees, and the homeless runs the risk of confusing the similarities of form with similarities in situation. At the same time, the experiences of borders, migrants, and the homeless define the limits of a normative national, middle class, existence that has come to characterize the “American Dream.” The desire to control the individuals and experiences that threaten to destabilize the idea of the nation by transgressing its borders has led to nations attempting to management movement across borders through increasing rigorous border controls and holding undocumented migrants who elude those controls in camps and prisons that isolate migrants in “states of exception” where they are left unprotected by the law and outside any legal standing (Agamben 1995; De León 2015, 27-28; Hamilakis 2016). Similar strategies have emerged to address the visible presence of homelessness in urban areas with cities creating policies and installations designed to limit access of the homeless to public space. The visibility of homeless individuals complicate notions of prosperity, opportunity, and progress. Policing for vagrancy and loitering demonstrates how having a permanent place to live confers certain rights and protections (e.g. Desmond 2016). The following chapter considers the archaeology of migrants and the homeless broadly in an effort to understand how archaeology of the contemporary world can shed critical light on a global landscape increasingly characterized by precarity, expulsions, displacements, and contingency.

Conclusion

The archaeology of marginal groups and individuals reflects the challenges at the borders of the modern nation-state and the edges of the capitalist world. By documenting and making visible the workings of borders and walls and the hidden the strategies adopted by the homelessness archaeologists offer critical perspectives that can form the basis for political and social reforms. From Jason De León’s efforts to challenge the inhumane policies that define the US-Mexican border to Rachael Kiddey’s efforts to develop an archaeology of homelessness with therapeutic goals that fosters a more expansive view of heritage, this work also recognizes that the materiality of precarious and contingent individuals, groups, and situations requires particular attention. The ephemerality of groups in constant motion likewise informs the archaeology of camps and university campuses which we will turn to in the next chapter.

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