A Final Definition: What is the Archaeology of Contemporary America?

One of the more interesting challenges that I’ve faced while revising my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, is defining more clearly and more positively what the archaeology of contemporary America actually is. My original introduction included a definition nestled in the middle of the typical introductory blather. You can read it here.

This has two problems. First, it wasn’t obvious enough for my reviewers and so a number of readers struggled to recall or identify where it is that I defined the scope of the book. Second, it was fairly weak sauce. I didn’t really offer an argument for why I had defined the field as I did. 

I’ve fixed the first problem by moving this to the very beginning of my introduction so BLAM it hits you in the face. 

I think I’m getting closer to fixing the second problem by offering an argument for what the archaeology of contemporary America is, at least for this book: 

One last thing: this was fucking hard to write. I would love some feedback on it, but be kind and constructive.

The next section will unpack the idea of the archaeology of experience, but I need a bit of time before I start to think about phenomenology, archaeology of the senses, and what it means to experience the present. 

Defining the Archaeology of Contemporary America

The archaeology of the contemporary American experience is a comparative young field and this introduction will attempt to both establish a provisional definition of the archaeology of the contemporary in an American context and situate the distinctly American form of archaeology of the contemporary within the larger context of the field’s history. The final section of the introduction will provide a brief outline of the book itself. Readers will quickly come to realize that similar to many emergent fields the definition of an archaeology of the contemporary American experience is fuzzy and this complicates the our ability to produce a canonical origin story for the field. As a result, this book will not satisfy all readers and an earlier version of this manuscript evoked divergent responses from reviewers and editors alike. As the introduction and the following book will argue, my view of this field seeks to remain within the broad, if fuzzy, boundaries of the contemporary discourse, while also recognizing my own positionality as an archaeologist and an individual.

Archaeologists has a long-standing interest in periodization schemes which serve to structure archaeological chronology and disciplinary and professional specialization Over the last 20 years, however, archaeologists have joined scholars across the humanities and social sciences to critique and challenging our professional chronologies and attitudes toward time and temporality more broadly (for a useful summary see Tamm and Olivier 2019 and Lucas 2021). This expansive and often deeply theoretical discourse offers a complex backdrop to any definition of archaeology of and in the contemporary world. Indeed, the very notion of the contemporary requires particular attention. As Gavin Lucas notes, the concept of the contemporary implies that two events discernable in the archaeological record occurred at the same time. This does not mean, however, that they occurred simultaneously, but rather that the possible chronological span for their occurrence overlapped for some duration. When describing the archaeology of the contemporary world, then, we are describing the archaeology of events, objects, relationships, and situations that overlap in time with the publication of the book. The challenge here, of course, is, as any number of recent archaeological publications have emphasized, objects can have very long lifespans and even ”sealed contexts” often embody artifacts that contemporary at their moment of deposition represent a range of time spans (see Olivier 2015 for the classic treatment of this issue). In other word, we are, in effect, contemporary with the Parthenon in Athens, the Great Zimbabwe, and the White House in Washington, DC as well as the latest iPhone, a 1970s shopping mall, and material from the 1980s in a New Mexico landfill. Of course, no scholar studying the archaeology of the contemporary world would include lengthy discussion of the architectural development of the Parthenon in their work, although they might include a discussion of our reception of the Parthenon or its relationship to the landscape of Athens in the present time (e.g. Hamilakis and Ifantidis 2015). In general, this approach recognizes that there are a plurality of temporalities that exist in the contemporary. Shannon Dawdy famously called this coincidence of multiple temporalities a clockpunk archaeology after the science fiction genre that set in a world featuring the juxtaposition of objects, fashions, and technologies from multiple time period (Dawdy 2010).

This recognition coincides with the growing awareness that the modern present is a distinctive experience. Laurent Olivier, drawing on the work for French cultural historian François Hartog (2015) refers to this situation as presentism and define the present as an era characterized by a radical break both with the past and with the future (Tamm and Olivier 2019). Olivier argued that the contemporary present is bracketed between a past that no longer seems relevant for our current situation and a future that is either completely foreclosed by the impending catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change (or the irrepressible forces of capitalism or a nuclear holocaust) or exceeds our ability to comprehend (for a useful discussion of the future see Bryant and Knight 2019). Thus, archaeology now studies “what the present does to the world” and abandoned earlier efforts to reconstruct the past as the past and replaced it with an effort to reconstruct the past that already exists in the service of the present (Olivier 2019, 30).

This has contributed to Olivier’s interest in how the technological developments of the modern age shape the experience of individuals living today, including their present understanding of their own pasts. Archaeologists of the present period recognize how the global scope and the massive destructive capacities modern technology have transformed the world in ways and at a scale that was inconceivable even a century earlier. Massive mines (Witmore 2021; LeCain 2009), the detritus of global conflicts such as the Cold War (Hanson 2015; McWilliams 2013), climate change induced catastrophes (Dawdy 2006), forced migration (Hamilakis 2016), and the challenges associated with discarding toxic detritus that literally exceeds the imagination (Joyce 2020) characterize an era of supermodernity which transforms the particularity of human existence into a ruinous landscape of non-places indistinguishable from one another (Augé 1993; Gonzalez-Ruibal 2008). The archaeology of the present in this context emphasizes the dehumanizing and destructive capacities of technology and economic regimes in the service of mass consumption. This awareness of the present as a global regime shaped by the massive material forces of 20th and 21st century technology has also transformed our own understanding of time. This expansive view of the present or the contemporary poses certain challenges to archaeology. Not only, as Olivier himself notes, does the dehumanizing and global experience of the 21st century exceed our ability to understand it at the small scale associated with traditional archaeology, but the expansive scope also risks a reductive approach that obfuscates the differences among those who are experiencing the present.

The tension between the global impact of the supermodernity and the diverse ways in which individuals and communities understand and experience their present likewise informs this book. Different groups bring different definitions of the present to our contemporary and our ability as archaeologists to engage with different experiences of time consistently complicates our work. While the concept of contemporaneity allows for multiple overlapping views of the present, it nevertheless requires some absolute framework that constitutes their shared temporality. For the purposes of this book, the last 50 years offers a useful, absolute chronology for the present. The 1970s mark a period where neoliberal economic policies came to the fore both in the US and in Europe. These policies contributed to supermodernity by producing vast new networks of globalized, private, capital that challenges and exceeds the economic, social, and political power of states (Harvey 2005). There are more parochial reasons to identify the last 50 years as a convenient duration for this book. Among American archaeologists, the last 50 years represents a period that falls outside conventional dates for historical significance according to federal guidelines (Yoder 2014). This also happens to coincide with my life experience, as a white, male, academic archaeologist born in 1972. To reinforce this self-referential framework of the contemporary, I have included brief first person preludes to each chapter that serve a reminder of chronological coincidence of my perspectives and experiences with the objects, situations, landscapes, and contexts that this work studies.

This book acknowledges the complicity of academic institutions and archaeology in constructing a view of time that culminated in the modern present and marginalized alternate forms of temporal experience. Johann Fabian referred to this tendency to subordinate other forms of temporal existence to the dominant academic, modern measure of time as allochronism and part of the difficult legacy of anthropology, archaeology, and colonialism (Fabian 1995; Lucas 2021, 110). While this book’s dependence on my own sense of the present will invariably shape its perspective, I will also work to recognize the contemporaneity of multiple views of the present. In practice, this means sometimes viewing the present as sometimes more narrow and sometime broader than the 50 year measure that I propose in this introduction. For diaspora, indigenous, Black, Queer and immigrant communities, the concept of the present might be narrowly circumscribed by the experience of migration or might extend generations through collective memories of an irreducible landscape or the nefarious working of intergeneration trauma. As Jennifer Morgan has noted for the study of the Early American republic, conventional patterns periodization poorly represent the experiences of enslaved Black women (Morgan 2016). Limited views of the present likewise do little for descendants of the Tulsa and Rosewood massacre (González-Tennant 2018; see CHAPTER X) or the Japanese concentration camps (Get Citation xxxx; SEE CHAPTER X) who continue to endure the consequences of lost generational wealth and trauma in the present. Dawdy’s work in post-Katrina New Orleans shows how the devastation of the 2005 hurricane exaggerated the city’s diverse attitudes to the past and present (Dawdy 2016) with Black residents often feeling ambivalent about the city’s ongoing efforts to preserve traditions and places associated with the city’s past. White residents, in contrast, placed even greater value the ability of artifacts and buildings to connect them to the city’s history and their pre-Katrina lives. In this way, were similar to many of the older residents in my community of Grand Forks, North Dakota, which endured a destructive flood in 1997. As Olivier has noted, our inclination to cling fiercely to fragments of the past often manifests our anxiety in the present (Olivier 2019).

If the contemporary includes multiple times, it also consists of multiple spatial extents. As Gavin Lucas has noted, the larger the area covered by a periodization scheme, the more abstract and reductive these schemes tend to become (Lucas 2021, 66). The concept of supermodernity, for example, recognizes the global distribution of non-places such as airports, shopping malls, and open pit mines which exist outside of any local traditions of design or use. An archaeology of workforce housing site in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Patch and at a construction site the Persian Gulf recognizes similar architecture, patterns of use, and adaptation. The interest in global supply chains likewise connects the almost seamless flow of capital to the movement of workers, goods, and material. The export of the American suburb, factory, and military base around the world in the post-World War II decades likewise ensured that supermodernity took on a distinctly American cast. In other words a view of the present defined by the rise of neoliberalism will require a global perspective to understand how and why we experience the contemporary world as we do. For migrants struggling to endure a brutal crossing of the Sonoran Desert, the intensely local experience of the desert and national border policies speak to regressive character of “late sovereignty” for example, which alternates between increasingly permissive policies regarding the movement of money and good and increasingly restrictive policies on the movement of humans (Walker 2003 and CHAPTER X). In this way, it becomes possible to derive examples of the supermodern from North America and the United States, while also exploring how the plurality of temporalities contemporary with the global present also preserve geographically and culturally distinctive experiences. This balance will allow the book to reflect the priorities established by the field of historical archaeology as well as elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences where national specialties remain prominent.

4 Comments

  1. “If the contemporary includes multiple times, it also consists of multiple spatial extents. As Gavin Lucas has noted, the larger the area covered by a periodization scheme, the more abstract and reductive these schemes tend to become (Lucas 2021, 66). ” I think you are enlisting Lucas against the grain of your argument. Isn’t supermodernity and archaeology of the contemporary about actual connections and flows, as you argue in the final paragraph, not abstract and reductive at all? In other words, are you actually opposing Lucas’ argument here? Is periodization really a thing in archaeology of the contemporary? Think Dimitri Nakassis’ “double tap”: don’t introduce periodization in a new and emerging field that’s trying to escape from that. Sorry, if my comment bothers you.

    Reply

    1. This is great!! Thanks for taking the time. In some ways I’m responding to reviewers here who very much wanted time and space… so it’s a messy compromise but perhaps one that I need to navigate more elegantly.

      Reply

      1. I thought that was the point of (super)modernity, the historical situation of modernity: it’s everywhere, the world collapses in one spatial entity. Supermodernity says it all, in spatial terms. (Don’t wanna complicate things further but I think in that respect non-places versus local is a false divide; non-places are everywhere.) I think your case studies about global flows illustrate that; it’s connected, everywhere simultaneously. From a European perspective (from my position): I really learnt a lot about the American experience from your chapters.

  2. I’ve slept on it: if you are looking for multi-spatiality, the corrolary of multi-temporality, it’s probably something like multi-layeredness. Although I am not a fan of thinking in terms of layers as the right metaphor for the spatiality of supermodernity, it does capture the juxtaposition of global and local. (On another note: why I suggested historical situations when you started the project, is the situate has the connotation/potential of juxtaposition; it’s more concrete than, a corrolary of context). Finally, to add to the comment about my perspective as a reader of your book: positioning yourself is spatiality, too. Supermodernity is everywhere, but is slightly different everywhere; it depends on your position in the global network. What if you position the American experience in the global network more explicitly, to illustrate the spatiality part. It’s just a suggestion.

    Reply

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