Archaeology of Temperature

This weekend, I finished Scott W. Schwartz’s new book, The Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape (2022). It’s really good and offers as compelling a contemporary critique of number and “numeracy” as anything that I’ve read in recent years. In fact, it will help me bring together some of my illformed ideas about how “slow archaeology” can contribute to a critique of the field, how our national response to COVID has fallen short, and the role that numbers play in our current conversations about global climate change. 

This is a dense and thoughtful book so no blog post is likely to do it justice. Schwartz looks at the practices and technologies associated with measuring temperature to unpack the way that these quantitative practices have traced the dehumanizing forces of global capitalism and colonialism. By transforming the experience of temperature into an abstraction, the development of the tools required to measure heat or cold have played a part in an effort to quantify, analyze, and ultimately predict (or forecast) the future for economic advancement. It goes without saying that I’ve condensed a complex and compelling book into a slightly inaccurate historical summary here, but if it feels even a little interesting to you, I’d encourage you find it and read it.

As per usual, I’ll let the author’s work speak for itself, and just hit on a couple little points.

1. It’s Cold. One thing that really struck me about this book is that the approach to temperature (which is really amazing) doesn’t consider too deeply the experience of temperature. Superficially, I might say that this reflects the experience of someone who lives and works in New York City, a fairly temperate urban environment (more sympathetically and accurately, I’d suggest that it reflects the author’s decision to emphasize the quantitative).

In any event, this week was the first week where the temperatures struggled to get above freezing and I ended up spending time outdoors and feeling cold. Knowing it’s cold outside is one thing and this is often communicated through numbers (it’s 25 degrees) but feeling cold is quite another. At some points, however, the numbers representing the cold tell us more about the temperature than our body can. For example, once our bodies become acclimatized to being outside in the wintertime weather, it is difficult to tell the difference between, say, -10 and -20, but the risks associated with the latter (for frost-bite, for example) is considerably greater than the risks associated with the former. In other words there are these blurry spaces where quantitative measurement of temperature inform experiences in distinctive ways. To be clear, Schwartz isn’t denying this, but his emphasis on the numerical values of temperature as abstractions (and their development) tends to overwrite the places where these abstractions actually meet the human skin. 

2. Documenting with Numbers. The idea that numbers are useful ways to make experiences susceptible  to generalization. One of the points that I try to make in slow archaeology is that numbers are often inadequate representations of archaeological experiences. Of course, no one honestly believes that archaeological work in the field could be reduced to numbers and even in the most hardcore intensive survey head would stress the importance of descriptive fields in contextualizing numerical descriptions of finds. 

At the same time, the experience of being in a landscape and does offer certain ways of understanding artifact patterns that are sometimes lost when we convert the distribution of artifacts into numerical counts and densities. For example, it is pretty common to get the impression that the quantity of artifacts increase or decrease across an area, but when the area is sampled, the “data” reveals patterns that are far less pronounced and visible that on the ground impressions. Finding ways to blend these two impressions is, of course, the work of archaeology, but as the scale of a survey areas get larger it becomes harder balance the need to generalize against the granularity and particularity of individual observations.

I got to thinking about practices of distant versus close reading throughout this book and how distant reading techniques so often rely on text mining and quantitative practices. The relationship between these practices and those associated with big data techniques which have ways of dehumanizing the intimacy of experience like reading.     

3. Numbers as Material. For me the most compelling chapter in the book is Chapter 4 where Schwartz locates ten instances of public temperature in New York. He connects these examples not only to their immediate material environment, but also their larger place without the global economy. In this way, he shows that the practice of measuring temperature has a material context that its ubiquity and communication as a number (that has universalizing aspirations) seeks to obscure. By digging deeper into the economic and technological practices that support public temperature displays, Schwartz shows how these seemingly innocuous conveniences represent small gestures that banalize evil by making convenient numbers so common. From the dangers associated with mining nickel and mercury to the carbon required by the technologies necessary to “forecast” the weather. More than that, these technologies trace the networks of colonialism and capitalism that have long committed to undermining the present in the name of future profits and wealth. So forecasting the weather is part of a larger cluster of strategies that consume the present in an effort to maximizing future profits by anticipating the relationship between the weather and the needs of business.

This chapter makes these connection clear by unpacking the specific complexities of public displays of temperature in New York. In fact, I’d have liked to see more of these case studies which were fascinating and compelling in their own right.   

4. COVID and Climate Complaisance. It is easy enough to see the relationship between the numbers associated with temperature than those associated with COVID pandemic and developing climate catastrophe. In the case of COVID, the constant stream of numbers – positive tests, positivity rates, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccination rates, vaccination effectiveness, and so on – do less to humanize the cost of the pandemic and more to emphasize the scale of the disaster. This sense of scale seems so typical of modern ways of understanding our world. Much like GDPs, reported costs of disaster that run into the millions or billions of dollars, casualties in war, and election results, these numbers quickly exceed our ability to connect them to a human experience. At the same, they are increasingly touted as vital to understanding our present and the future. 

It is hardly surprising, in this context, that people are finding COVID and climate change to be hard to understand beyond the personal level. The debate over vaccination, for example, has frequently devolved to personal appeals and networks of social knowledge rather than the kind of quantitative data that public health experts use to formulate policies. Climate data is even more complex as the reams of data produced by scientists often represents obscure (and often contested) proxies for the impact of humanity (and frequently capitalism) on the Earth.    

5. Numbers and Postmodern Fiction. One of the most intriguing observations that Schwartz makes is that the shift in the current discussion toward the production and consumption of “energy” rather than fossil fuels reflects the argument that energy, unlike coal, oil, or gas, cannot be created or destroyed. Energy is effectively infinite and it forms a convenient parallel for the capitalist conceit that economic growth is effectively infinite. Thus, our efforts to understand the physics of the universe is bound in some ways to the development of capitalism.

It is hardly surprising that postmodern authors have taken a particular interest in this confluence. Schwartz notes Thomas Pynchon especially his novel V and The Crying of Lot 49 (although I’d also add Gravity’s Rainbow) and the interplay between physics, numbers, the economy, and the banal materiality of everyday life. More compelling might have been a reference to Don DeLillo especially his masterpiece Underworld and some of this more recent works. DeLillo’s interest in time, space, and physics is well known as is his eagerness to critique the capitalism and dehumanizing character of the modern world.

~

This review-ish post has not done this book justice. It’s replete with subtle and compelling observations for how archaeology can contribute to a more critical engagement not only with abstractions like numbers and temperature, but also to the structures that seems like common-sense in our contemporary world even as they obfuscate tremendous violence and injustice. It’s worth a read. 

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