Over the last couple of months I’ve been struggling to write the conclusion to my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. In part, I found it difficult because my book is a broad survey, and there wasn’t a natural way to conclude an argument. I also struggled to make sense of the book that I wrote against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the violent assault on the Capitol in January 2021. It seems like these things should shape the book that I wrote even if the book was largely finished as 2020 unfolded.
Right now, my plan is to write a conclusion that tries to connect what I’ve set out in the book to the events of 2020. It’s not a pretty thing, in part, because the events of 2020 caught me so much by surprise. As such, the conclusion is both kind of a confession and an effort to make my work matter. Here’s a bit of the draft.
It is conventional to end a book with a conclusion that summarizes the book’s arguments and content and perhaps points in future directions. For a book like this, a conventional conclusion would start with a return to the Alamogordo landfill and archaeological and cultural stratigraphy of a contemporary excavation. From there it would reflect on the emergence of garbology and various approaches to discard as a way to understand and critique 20th and 21st century consumer culture. Attention to consumer culture in historical archaeology provided a platform for a broad study of things in the contemporary world which, in turn, engages questions of materiality, ontology, and agency. The parallel rise in media archaeology with its emphasis on both material technology as well as the immaterial experiences of computer games and growing reach of digital technologies in archaeological practice. The archaeology of our digital devices and experiences returns us to the world ushered in by Atari games and the landfill in the desert.
The second half of the book takes us to the Bakken oil patch and uses it as a way to frame a series of landscapes where archaeology—as well as history, anthropology, political science, and other disciplines—offers insight into the contemporary situation. Archaeological methods, for example, and the discipline’s attention to discarded objects and traces holds forth the potential to make visible the surreptitious movements of the homeless and undocumented migrants across national borders. Archaeology can likewise unpack the tension between the neatly organized spaces of military camps and college campuses and evidence for resistance and dynamic strategies of adaptation and reuse. Archaeology brings a similar attention to the processes of change to the analysis of industrial spaces and urban areas. Efforts to document often ephemeral sites of protest and activism whether adjacent to military bases or embedded in the urban fabric have not only served to document the character of contemporary social movements but also to preserved the material culture of these events for future generations. In concluding the book with a detailed consideration of the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch, I once again connect archaeology of the contemporary world to the long-standing interest in extractive industries among historical archaeologists and suggest that our interest in things and materiality emphasizes the link between consumer culture and contingent labor in the US as well as the archaeology of contemporary climate change.
This summary of the book’s contents reflects its engagement with significant trends in the discipline of archaeology as well as in contemporary political, social, and economic concerns. The emphasis on trash and pollution, exploitative labor regimes, undocumented and forced migrants, marginalized groups, and climate change traces issues pushed to the fore over the last thirty years and makes clear that archaeology of the contemporary world also represents an archaeology for the contemporary world. That said, very little of the trajectory traced in the preceding pages prepared me for the events that formed the backdrop to the completion of this book. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, and the attempted coup in January 2021 made the concerns at the center of this book appear if not trivial, at least less urgent and pressing than the events that dominated our collective attention over the last twelve months. As a result, the result of this conclusion will reflect on the “long 2020” and consider how archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world might shed light on the events that defined this extraordinary span of time.
Before I make any effort to analyze the past twelve months, I need to acknowledge my position of privilege. I’m a white, middle class, tenured, university professor without children and with a supportive partner and friends. This situation allowed me not only to weather the storm of 2020 but also to remain academically productive. This situation has caused me a great deal of ambivalence. 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 also admit that as a white scholar living in a predominantly white community, I was relatively isolated from the racial tensions that the killing of George Floyd brought to a boil and that triggered BLM protests and activism across the US. This sense of isolation is evident in the preceding pages which consistently struggled to articulate and define the role of race in the study of contemporary material culture. The violent invasion of the Capitol in Washington DC in January 2021 occurred as I finished revising the first draft of this manuscript. Like most people, I was horrified at the events and reminded that my privileged isolation from the tensions, anger, and violence just beneath the surface of American society did not absolve my complicity or apathy. The following afterword is an effort to direct my reading of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience toward the events of 2020. My hope is that this serves not so much as a conclusion to this book, but another chapter what must be an urgent and ongoing conversation.