This past weekend, I read After Discourse: Things, Affects, Ethics edited by Bjørnar J. Olsen, Mats Burström, Caitlin DeSilvey, and Þóra Pétursdóttir. The entire book is worth a perusal, if you’re familiar with the work of the editors and their typical host of collaborators and colleagues.
I want to focus on two specific parts of the book that attracted my attention.
The first section of the book was titled: “Things: Writing, nearing, knowing” and it brought together a series of articles that considered how we write about the archaeology of the contemporary world. The contributors to this section address something that I too have recognized as a problem (and to be honest I was likely inspired as much by reading the contributors and editors fo this volume as works by scholars such as Amitav Ghosh, Lauren Berlant, and Rebecca Solnit). I’ve started to wonder about the limits to the language, genre, and forms of writing that we use to think and write about our own place within the deep past (whether articulated as the Anthropocene or something else), within the climate crisis, and within the incredibly (and increasingly) fleeting moment that is the contemporary.
It was particularly exciting to read Bjørnar J. Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s explicit critique of the IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) style of academic (and, in particular, archaeological) writing. Scholars have long argued that its concise form and easily recognized and understood style of organization evokes an idealized form of the scientific processes that produce the article’s specific conclusions. At the same time, this this idealized form suppresses the complexities, ambiguities, and openness of the research process in the name of legibility and efficiency. While there is no doubt that it is easier for an academic to read and process an article written in IMRAD style, but, as we’ve seen with the recent wave of the anti-science movement, the clarity of expression may not be the only and best measure for effectiveness of knowledge production. Our unwillingness
[I’m increasingly interested in the role that fiction can and should play in academic knowledge production.]
As Robert Macfarland pointed out in his essay, the complexities of the archaeological record and our current cocktail of crises (COVID, capitalism, racism, virulent populism, climate change) resist resolution or reduction in a tidy linear package. Tracing the contours of the contemporary may involve embracing a styles of writing that moves abruptly across scales, embraces fragmentation, doubles back on itself, and reifies the inherent ambiguity of processes whose outcomes are not yet clear.
I was likewise taken by Chris Witmore and Curtis L. Francisco’s journey through the environment surround the Jackpile-Paguate uranium mine in New Mexico. The mine was the largest open pit uranium mine in the world and functioned from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. The Laguna Pueblo people live in the lands surrounding the mine and many worked in the mine itself. The impact of the radiation unleashed from the exploitation of the mine into the region has been catastrophic for this community, as their lands, their homes, and the local landscape itself has become radioactive. While the mining company made an effort to remediate the mine, the site remains a superfund site, but mitigating the damage that the radiation has caused to the surrounding area seems impossible.
The contribution by Witmore and Francisco is not a straight forward discussion of the mine and its history and impacts, but a trip through the landscape surrounding the mine. By tracing the impacts of the mine on the ground through places, stories, and encounters, the deep integration of the radiation and the mine with the area becomes not clear —because this isn’t a story that requires or rewards clarity—but apparent against the shifting backdrop of the history, environment, and economy of the Pueblo community.
To be clear, Witmore and Francisco do not present their argument for the impact of the Jackpile-Paguate mine through some kind of radical or chimerical generic exploration. Their article is simply the synthesis of a series of trips and conversation through the area surrounding the mine. This approach to communicating and exploring the issues surrounding the impact of the mine, the ubiquity of the radiation that the mining unleashed, and the future of the people, animals, and plants that live in this tainted landscape, however, leads the reader away from any simple solution and toward a deeper appreciation of the complexities associated with life in the Anthropocene.
In any event, this book is good and well worth the read even if the themes and participants publish almost as frequently as William Parker releases albums. There will be something familiar in this book and the work of these authors does not exist outside of the contemporary academic economy where production is measured in pages published and citations counted. That said, there is enough thought provoking here to be worth our time.