Reviewing An Archaeology of Structural Violence

Over the weekend, I re-read Michael Roller’s book, An Archaeology of Structural Violence, for a formal book review. I excitedly blogged on this book a couple of years ago, but I didn’t exactly read it with an eye toward writing a formal review. 

It turns out that writing a formal review is much harder than reading a book for my own research and this book was especially challenging for some reason. Here’s my first effort at it:

Michael P. Roller’s An Archaeology of Structural Violence: Life in a Twentieth Century Coal Town is a provocative and compelling study of, Pardeesville and Lattimer, two former company towns outside of Hazleton, Pennsylvania in the heart of the state’s middle anthracite coal fields. The book has two goals. The first is specific and focuses on the particular history of these communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. For this, Roller draws on archival material, oral histories, and archaeological field work. The second is more general and perhaps more significant. Roller uses the specific history of these communities to elucidate the various forms of structural violence that have shaped the 20th century more broadly. In this way, the book contributes to a long-standing and important theoretical conversation in historical archaeology that explore how racialization and labor, capitalism and consumerism, and heritage and suburbanization broke down collective forms of life and create modern individuals susceptible to exploitation. Roller frames his goals with the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, an episode of lethal violence by deputized citizens and law enforcement against striking immigrant union members protesting unjust labor practices in the anthracite mining industry. This moment of subjective violence offers a foil to his diatonic treatment episodes of structural violence across the remainder of the twentieth century.

The book is complex and and its precisely articulated and expansive theoretical framework resists easy review. After a perfunctory introductory chapter, Roller concedes to convention and makes an initial effort toward framing the history of the anthracite coal mining region of Pennsylvania within a more expansive theoretical framework. Roller anchors his definition of structure violence in various Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers as well as critical theory, psychoanalysis, and literature. Giorgio Agamben and Hannah Arendt inform Roller’s understanding of the connection between nationalism, race, and capital long twentieth century. In this context, the immigration process striped new arrivals of their rights as citizen or subject and reduced them to “bare life.” This created conditions where they could form pools of inexpensive and surplus labor which capitalism, and the vagaries of national coal markets, required for profit. Roller draws upon Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin to articulate a concept of governmentality which both subjects individual freedoms to the state and accelerated the creation of citizens as consumers. This process involves breaking down their collective ethnic, religious, and social identities and replacing them with individual rights defined in relation to state and to capital as both producers and consumers. This change did not occur all at once, through over “nuanced periodicity of structural violence” across the longue durée of the twentieth century.

Roller continues to refine and adapt his model of structural violence through the following chapters which consider both singular episodes of physical violence and violence associated with everyday life in the the coal industry, in company towns, and in the region’s struggling post-war economy. Chapter two provides a brief survey of the history of the Pennsylvania anthracite coal industry which emphasizes the key role of waves of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Chapter three drew upon archival evidence and archaeological prospecting in an effort to untangle the events of the Lattimer Massacre which left 19 striking miners dead and forty more injured when law enforcement and deputized citizens fired into the marching miners in an effort to disperse the unarmed crowd. From an archaeological standpoint, the recovery of three or four fired bullets dating to late-19th century adds very little to our understanding of the events.

Archaeology plays a larger role in chapter three which Roller dedicates to the study of the two company towns, Lattimer No. 1 and Lattimer No. 2 (now Pardeesville) and the development of neighborhoods of “shanties” adjacent to the neatly organized rows of company housing. Roller argues that these shanty towns developed contemporary with the company towns and represented a deliberate strategy by the companies themselves to maintain a supply of low-paid immigrant workers as a surplus labor supply necessary to ensure the maximum profitability of the coal mines during the early twentieth century. Historical maps and aerial photographs, oral histories, and a targeted excavation of one now-demolished home offered a narrow glimpse into the ephemeral histories of these buildings. Chapter five focused on the analysis of privy deposits excavated from the home. The deposit was the product of a single clean up event in 1959 and consisted of household material dating from the middle decades of the twentieth century. Rollers uses this material to explore the development of machinic mass consumerism. At the very moment when the mining economy of northeastern Pennsylvania falters and the company towns released to become private property and public institutions, the residents of these towns demonstrate their own place in American society by consumption habits explicitly developed by the state and the private sector. The ideas explored in this chapter are among the most significant in the book and produced a stimulating debate in volume 53 this journal.

The final two chapters consider the moments of structural violence that occurred after the decline of coal. The chapter six deployed psychoanalytic theory to considering how the strategies developed by the communities who continued to live in the former company towns allowed them to find enjoyment in the emerging post-Fordist economy. Roller emphasizes the existence of surplus enjoyment present in communities fortified through their shared struggle to survive in the mining economy and is manifest through the self-sufficiency earned through backyard gardens to religious festivals and a deep sense of community. The final chapter considers the breakdown of these strategies in the face of the relentless pressures of late-twentieth century post-Fordist individualism which dissolves the tightly knit coal-patch communities and reconstitutes them as atomized suburbia while paradoxically seeking to benefit from a nostalgia for the region’s industrial past.

Roller’s book offers a rich theoretical template for the diachronic study of structural violence over the long twentieth century. Readers looking for a detailed study of the archaeology of extractive industry in Pennsylvania coal country will likely be disappointed by the relative lack of attention to the industrial archaeology of labor in the various aspects of coal production. The book likewise lacks discussions of comparanda outside of a narrowly regional context nor does it explicitly contribute to recent surge of interest in community archaeology. These limitations should not overshadow the book’s contribution to the history and archaeology of capitalism and structural violence in the twentieth century. Roller’s work offers a nuanced and sophisticated template that should exert an meaningful influence in the discipline for years to come.

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