The Alamogordo Atari Excavation as the Archaeology of An American Experience

My blog is late today mostly because it took me forever to write this new conclusion to the final chapter in the first part of my book project on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. You can check out the book project here and get a broad sense for how the book is organized.

This conclusion is an effort to connect our work at the Alamogordo landfill more clearly to the archaeology of the American experience and to tease out how “garbology,” the recent discussion of things, and media archaeology and archaeogaming help us understand contemporary society more clearly. I’m not sure that I’m there yet, but I feel like this is a good bit closer to where I need to be than I was, and I suppose this is the goal of revision.

Conclusion

The conclusion of this chapter is also the conclusion of the first part of this book. The first four chapters of this book have sought to unpack some key concepts in the history of the archaeology of the contemporary world and provide a context for the Atari games excavated from the Alamogordo landfill. The archaeology of contemporary garbage, the ongoing conversation about things and consumer culture, and the emerging significance of media both in and for archaeological work developed at the intersection of archaeology and contemporary American culture. These developments in the field both paralleled and interrogated significant moments in the American experience: the so-called garbage crisis of the 1970s, the growing critique of consumerism in the 1980s, and the embrace of digital technology at the turn of the 21st century. The recursive relationship between the American experience and the emerging field of the archaeology of the contemporary world means that studying the development of the field is every bit as significant for understanding the character of American society over the last 50 years as the material and immaterial culture that the archaeology of the contemporary world takes as the object of its inquiry.

This recursive critique of the American experience provides a context for the excavation at the Alamogordo landfill. The excavation revealed the detritus produced by a small southwestern city, and, although we were not able to explore it systematically, the assemblage included artifacts consistent with late 20th-century consumer culture. From celebrity posters to housewares, beer cans, catalogues, newspapers, broken household plastics, and holiday wrapping paper, the landfill itself embodied consumption practices of the city of Alamogordo that parallel the national markets. The material in this landfill, however, also spoke to the post-depositional processes that created unstable scarps, noxious smells, and harmful gasses. These processes, ironically, made it truly difficult to study the landfill in a safe and responsible way. In short, the excavation of a contemporary landfill exposed us directly to the material challenges of doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world. The Alamogordo landfill’s chemical and structural volatility demonstrated how the processes that remove post-consumer waste create spaces whose very materiality resisted analysis and interpretation. Sites like the Alamogordo landfill exist outside the American experience by design. As Michael Thompson’s classic study Rubbish Theory postulated, the removal of the games from the experience of American life through their time in the landfill allowed them to acquire a new status that quite literally clung to their physicality. The smell, the damage done to the cartridges, and the certificate of authenticity all reinforce the provenience of the games which enabled them to follow a trajectory from trash to treasure. The marginalization of modern trash deposits allowed the games to pass sufficiently out of mind and circulation that they could acquire a new value and cultural significance.

The use of the Alamogordo landfill as the dumping ground for Atari games also anticipated recent literature that has stressed how the disposal of e-waste is a global industry. Marginal spaces like a small city in the New Mexico desert became appealing sites for the bulk deposition of corporate e-waste for both economic and regulatory reasons. This coincided with a broader view of the American West as empty space suitable for the disposal of a range of toxic and radioactive waste. In this way the practice looked ahead to dumping e-waste in South Asia and Africa in the 21st century where objects manufactured with material extracted from the Global South would return to the Global South when no longer useful. The deposit also revealed the international and national networks of manufacturing, distributing, and disposing of Atari games. The distributed origins of the American experience relies more and more heavily on global networks of trade and manufacturing. Objects such as the Atari cartridges represents relationships that extend well beyond the national borders. In this way, we can see how Congolese miners, Chinese assembly line workers, Filipino ship crews, midwestern retailers, and Nigerian landfill scavengers encounter and participate in a globalized American experience that supports our consumer culture. In the 1980s, the emergence of these global networks contributed to how Atari gaming consoles re-shaped middle-class American domestic space. In the 21st century, the glass screen of the modern cellphone represents the best metaphor for this distributed experience. Designed to allow us to have experiences that are materially present in the palm of our hand and infinitely expansive through the images that appear on the transparent glass screen, they make manifest the distributed nature of contemporary culture. The Atari games excavated from the Alamogordo landfill, then, tell the story of the supply chains, e-waste, and a small town dump create the backbone of the late 20th-century American experience.

Discard practices and the distributed character of American experience represent the material components of the Atari deposit in Alamogordo, and in many ways, this emphasis coincides with archaeology’s traditional interest in things and materiality. When most of us think about Atari, however, we tend to think about the digital worlds that video games created. Even with the comparatively primitive graphics of the E.T. game and its unforgiving gameplay, the Atari game allowed players in the 1980s to transform the passive experience of watching television or films into an active encounters with characters, plots, and settings. The emergence of media archaeology explicitly considers how the games themselves operated at the intersection of various media forms. This relationship between the games and the blockbuster film E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark amplified their significance and generated excitement in anticipation of their release. Moreover, the excitement surrounding these transmedia artifacts coincided with a growing interest in blurring of boundaries between media experiences and the physical world in movies such as Tron and novels such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer. The excavation of the E.T. games in a project funded by Microsoft and streamed through the company’s X-Box gaming console leveraged the nostalgia for Atari games to promote the latest transmedia platform. The work of archaeogaming specialists both at the excavation and in the wider field of video game archaeology demonstrated how both the physical and digital artifacts associated with contemporary media co-constitute the distinctive experiences. Whether these encounters in digital space traced by the global reach of the internet are sufficiently spatialized in the physical world to constitute a distinctly “American experience” remains to be seen. What is more clear is that manufacturing, discard, and our interconnected digital world presents new opportunities for archaeology to interrogate the present and future of physical and digital objects.

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