Over the weekend, I was working to put the finishing touches on an article for an edited volume on teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world. I also had a chance to read my friend and former UND colleague Sheila Liming’s latest book: Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time.
As a result, I found myself thinking of a mash-up between the two as a kind of short coda on my article (which is almost done). I don’t know whether I’ll include this more speculative conclusion in my paper or not, but it was moderately fun to write and think about.
One of the reviewers of this manuscript scolded me for its self-congratulatory tone. This stung a bit at least as much because this reviewer was right as because I had not intended my chapter to be self-congratulatory. This latter sting represents a lack of self-awareness that is not unusual in my writing. I’ve never been especially good at anticipating how my ideas will be received.
Lest this becomes a kind of confession of my own solipsism, I think there is something here that might contribute to how we understand teaching archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m writing this coda amid reading my colleague Sheila Liming’s book Hanging Out, which celebrates the role that casually spending time together plays in disrupting the surging currents of professionalization, balancing the pressures of work against the pleasures of life, and mitigating the sometimes crushing weight of simply getting by.
In chapter three she discusses the role that “hanging out” plays in musical improvisation. She speaks authentically as someone who is an accomplished musician, a scholar who knows something about the theory of improvisation, and someone who is skilled at hanging out. She makes clear that hanging out has the potential to be generative, but this potential in not just latent in the experience of spending time with one another. Instead it requires practice, in some cases training, and in many cases preparation. It draws on the kind of studied spontaneity that a chef displays when whipping up a meal from left overs, a photographer draws upon when making a photograph, and a journalist leans on when filing copy minutes after a game has ended. The effortlessness of these actions, like those of the improvising musician, relies on years of repeated engagement with similar situations and resources.
The Wesley College Documentation Project, as this chapter has shown, was largely improvised. For my part, I understood the range of possible situations present in the building and knew the resources at my disposal and the skill required to use them. The students, however, were far less prepared, but curious and open to instruction. The most generative aspects, however, of our time in the Wesley College buildings were those when the students and I interacted and puzzled over a situation, the architecture, or an assemblage. In these cases, my students’ reaction to their material surroundings served as a foil for whatever expertise I had developed as an improvisor. This conviviality presented a context for creating knowledge from the detritus of our contemporary world.
It also posed a significant question: what kind of practice and training does archaeology of the contemporary world require? In conventional archaeology, we typically argue that rigorous adherence to precisely defined methods allow us to overcome the temporal difference between the present and the past. Moreover, our methods ensure that the production of archaeological knowledge replaces the damage done to the traces of the past by excavation and collection.
Archaeology of the contemporary world, of course, doesn’t attempt to bridge the gap between past and present, nor is it overly preoccupied with the damage to the past as a finite resource. As a result, the archaeology of the contemporary world has emerged as a space for experimentation and improvisation. Our improvisation, however, in the Wesley College buildings did not emphasize the professional competences of archaeologists built up over decades of field work. Instead, it involved students who were not familiar with conventional archaeological methods other than those picked up on the fly during field work. They were, of course, familiar with the material culture of a college campus and their contemporary experiences. In fact, whatever they lack in historical understanding of the buildings and disciplinary understanding of archaeology, they more than made up for in their descriptions and interpretations.
This leaves archaeology of the contemporary world in a distinctive place in the discipline. It neither requires for ethical reasons the methodological rigor of conventional archaeological practices, nor does it appear to rely on the studied improvisation at the center of so much convivial disciplinary knowledge making. Much like the buildings described in this paper, it would appear that archaeology of the contemporary would can exist on the very edges of the discipline where professionalism, methods, the past, the present, the student, the teacher, and the public exist all at once. It may be that in some cases at least, archaeology of the contemporary world is less about producing knowledge and more about producing the kind of conviviality that makes even everyday experiences meaningful. In other words, whatever else archaeology of the contemporary world does, it is a type of hanging out.
Do you mean it was different from (archaeological) fieldwork as a form of hanging out; there must be improvisation in field survey, too? Or does improvisation in field survey is most pronounced in the encounter with remains from the contemporary or recent past? Is archaeological fieldwork really about bridging the gap between the past and present? I do like it, though, any thoughts how this relates to the reasons why the students enrolled in the project; did they experience it as improvisation, or wanted to hang out?
These are great questions. I think this project was different from conventional archaeological work in that I didn’t have an outcome in mind. We didn’t do the work to produce a report, publication, or presentation. Instead, we billed the class as an opportunity to explore and understand these buildings.
I agree that most archaeology depends on improvisation to some extent (although, as you know, we tend to downplay the improvised and center the methodological). This paper, however, tried to center the improvised as a way to foreground the convivial aspects of archaeology (and perhaps, suggest, at least indirectly, that outcome oriented archaeology and its dependence on method to produce useful truths is the by-product of the more “anarchic” practices in the field).
Thank you. this somehow opened a new perspective on my own fieldwork experiences long before my autism diagnosis. I wanted to hang out, but also suffered from it. And maybe that’s the reason why I didn’t share in the thrill of discovery, finding what you don’t expect. The unexpected is everywhere in my form of autism: my coping mechanism is a form of contemporary archaeology, which makes the distinction with conventional fieldwork less pronounced.