NDQuesday: Odds, Ends, and Convergence

NDQuesday is always pretty exciting around here, and this week is even more exciting because NDQ is taking some some dramatic, but important steps to secure its future.

For now, I can’t really talk about it, but hopefully by next NDQuesday, they’ll be something cool to announce!

Meanwhile, we’re expanding our web presence a bit by rolling out some contributions from the last print issue 84.3/4 including a serialized version of a novella, To Acknowledge Distance  by Chris Wells. This follows up on last week’s post of W. Scott Olsen’s photo essay “The Speed of Nostalgia.” I love the idea of serialized essays and fiction both because it evokes the traditions of little magazines in the first part of the 20th century when leading authors would serialize their work over various issues of Harper’s or The Atlantic, and also because it encourages a kind of slow, reflective reading where each installment of a story becomes an object to contemplate and savor.

I’m also really excited to very quietly announce the print publication of the first NDQ Supplement published in collaboration with The Digital Press. Don’t tell anyone about this, yet because I want a more formal roll out, but this might be the start of something particularly exciting for both NDQ and The Digital Press. 

BillCaraher 2018 Feb 18

Finally, as I get ready to wander over to Corwin/Larimore Hall for the morning to do some archaeology of the contemporary world, I find myself thinking a good bit about the humanities (and the university) in the age of austerity. We received a nice little gaggle of contributions for this digital volume and I’m particularly excited to think about how my archaeological interest in these two buildings and my little essay fit together. Better still, Mark Sanford, the chair of the North Dakota legislature’s higher education funding committee, will come to my class on the UND budget cuts. Convergence!!

The Archaeology of Wesley College at the University of North Dakota: Some Preliminary Thoughts

On Friday, I did a walk through of two buildings on the University of North Dakota campus that are slated for demolition this spring. While their fate is sealed, I’m excited to collaborate with students and colleagues on documenting these buildings as part of a one-credit class. Our work will obviously focus on these buildings as historical structures associated with Wesley College, an experiment in co-institutional education from the early 20th century, and as examples of a Beaux Arts university plan that failed to materialize.

IMG 1826

The walk-through on Friday, however, reveled a different, and more archaeological, aspect to our research. The buildings are still filled with stuff (or to use a more appropriate term, borrowed from Philip K. Dick “kipple”). In the case of Corwin/Larimore and Sayre halls, built between 1908 and 1910, the departments and programs housed in this building departed before the start of the academic year. This has led me to several research opportunities:

1. Surplus. The departing departments and programs left behind a remarkable assemblage of “stuff” designed for institutional repurposing through centralized surplus. It just so happens that as part of a greater reorganization of UND’s space and campus services, centralized surplus storage and redistribution is no longer available at scale for UND’s campus. As a result, this material is stuck in limbo. It had so little value that it was simply discarded in place by the departing faculty and staff, and there is no institutional infrastructure for recycling or repurposing this material. At present, it simply remains in place, awaiting documentation as evidence for the abandonment of these buildings.

2. Trash. The rooms and spaces also contained a remarkable amount of material that has very limited value as recycled goods. We can best designate this material “trash.” The trash ranged from stacks of papers scattered across a table that hinted at their former order to damage furniture, obsolete equipment (VCRs, CRT monitors, tangled masses of cables, et c.), easily replaced personal objects like pens and pencils, posters, and articles of clothing.

While the presence of surplus equipment represents both institutional priorities and the intermediate character of the abandonment of these buildings, trash represents permanent discard. There is no intention of collecting this trash and it will likely remain in situ as the building is physically destroyed. Moreover it tells a different story of abandonment as a process.

3. The Percolating Past. The attention to the present and abandonment as part of the history of the building is not meant to obscure the past of these buildings, but to make it clear that the creation of the past in these buildings is part of an ongoing process that reshapes the structures through time. What we encounter as the historical aspects of these buildings, including the traces of their original floor plans, evidence for past modifications and updates, and hints of successive functions in each space, is the same as the evidence for their abandonment. The past percolates (as Shanks and Pearson once quipped) through the present and the present will see similar filtering practices to constitute a future. Our work to document the present and past of these buildings speaks directly to the complex system of interventions, priorities, and agents at play in shaping our material reality. While any hope of dis-entangling these networks of past and present agency, objects, and situations maybe misplaced, getting students (and myself) at least to recognize the various ways

4. Global Buildings. The buildings and their contents represent a dense network of relationships the span the continent and the world. Of course, it will only be possible to sketch out these relationships on a very basic level, but some of the most intriguing ties are between the funds to build these buildings and various west coast timber interests. Frank Lynch and A.J. Sayre both supported Wesley College, in part, through donations supported by their ownership of lumber rights in California and British Columbia respectively. Agricultural wealth from the Larimore and Sayre family likewise bolstered Wesley College coffers. The architect, Wallace McCrae hailed from New York City where he goes on to build brownstones for the wealthy and famous of the Gilded Age. The buildings themselves embraced the Beaux Arts tradition that was similarly cosmopolitan. The students who frequented these halls for over a century intersected with these global currents.

Today, the buildings participate in another network of global relationships the fill these spaces with objects that originate across the U.S. and the world to create functional assemblages only depleted by these building’s abandoned state.

5. Modernity. Finally, it’s hard not to think of these buildings as the embodiment of the long-20th century starting with their Beaux-Arts design and continuing to their eventual fate as victims of progress. As Kostis Kourelis has been teaching us, Beaux Arts campuses of the early 20th century represented the cutting edge of campus architecture, and the (largely unrealized) plan for UND, which by the second decade of the 20th century had committed to College Gothic architecture. There is something remarkably optimistic about these buildings.

The destruction of these buildings embodies a similar spirit that looks beyond the bricks-and-mortar and their persistent, draining expenses, and toward a leaner, more digital, more efficient university that leverages whatever technology we’ve decided to see as the solution to whatever problem we’ve decided to prioritize. As I’ve argued elsewhere the demolition of these buildings is fully in keeping with an effort to display the university as an efficient, forward looking, in unsentimental, institution. As the kids would say, “This is a ‘billboard move,‘ brah.” Whether it’s the right choice or not, will come out over the long term.

I’ve created a Wesley College category for these and other posts like it.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

After Wednesday was a balmy 33 degrees, today’s 2 degree morning felt downright disrespectful even for North Dakotaland. So I’m looking forward to spending some quality time in an unheated, soon-to-be-demolished building on campus this afternoon, but plan to hunker down for a weekend of books, writing, and NASCAR after today.

I find there’s almost nothing better to fortify me over a long weekend than a little gaggle of varia and quick hits:

IMG 1906The boys are ready for their shot at gold in tandem napping.
(There is a slight deduction in form).

Teaching Thursday: Two Old Buildings on Campus

I have come to realize that I’m more or less addicted to one too many things on my plate, one too many adventures to be had, one too many ideas, one too many books, and one too many causes to champion. Maybe it’s the adrenalin rush or the welling up of anxiety that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of losing it with your mind skipping from idea to idea like a rock skimming across a flat pond. In fact, for me, I suspect, it’s the tension between flat pond and the skipping rock that draws me back to being over-extended day after day, week after week (well, that and the prodding (and encouragement) of friends like Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, and Bret Weber. They all at various times feel like the academic equivalent of that friend in college who convinces you to start drinking at 1 pm on a Thursday.)

This is a long introduction, to introduce my first effort at a one-credit pop-up class.

HIST 300

History 300 will focus on two (actually four) old buildings on campus of the University of North Dakota: Roberstson/Sayre Hall and Corwin/Larimore. They’re both hybrid buildings with one part built in the first decade of the 20th century and one part built in the 1920s. They offered housing and classroom space for a hybrid institution: Wesley College. Wesley College grew out of Red River University which had branches in Fargo and Whapeton. In Grand Forks, it worked in symbiosis with UND and offered classes in music, art, and religion. Some of the most famous graduates from UND came through Wesley College in one way or another including Maxwell Anderson. The college functioned as a residential unit that also offered classes and in that way, it worked a bit more like today’s residential colleges in the UK and, say, at the University of Toronto. In 1965, it was absorbed formally by UND and since then, the buildings have served as the homes to various department and university units.

Earlier this year, both buildings were slated for demolition and Corwin/Larimore is empty. Robertson/Sayre is almost empty as well. Because I can’t resist the temptation to document, explore, and investigate, I created a one-credit class to get some students into these buildings before they’re are gone to study and document them. While the outsides of the buildings are on the way to becoming pretty well documented, I’m interested in getting the students to help me notice the traces of use left in buildings that have stood on campus for over a century. The class will focus on the history of the buildings based on archival documents in UND special collections, the history of the architecture of the buildings (and the UND campus, which Kostis Kourelis is already developing), and, more importantly for me, the careful autopsy of the buildings.

Since the class is only one-credit, I can’t expect too much from the students in terms of reading, but I can’t resist including some recommended readings (and I suspect that Richard and Kostis will add to this list!):

Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016).
Laurie A. Wilkie’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: a historical archaeology of masculinity in a university fraternity. (2010)
Timothy Webmoor, “Object-oriented metrologies of care and the proximate ruin of Building 500”in Ruin Memories ed. Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir (2014).
Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer, “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” in Modern Material Culture: the archaeology of us. Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer eds. (1981).

Two Abstracts for the European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting

My morning today was filled with finish abstracts from the EAA annual meeting. Since I can submit two and was kindly asked to contribute to two panels, I put together two abstracts that look to similar topics. These abstracts are pretty raw and the ideas should be both familiar to readers of this blog, but also slightly rougher and more incomplete. I’m thinking of them as prompts for me to develop as much as abstracts that summarize completed thoughts.

The first abstract is for Colleen Morgan, Catherine Frieman, and Marta Diaz-Guardamino Uribe’s panel titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies”. I blogged about it here.

Here’s the abstract:

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Recent research has emphasized the significant impact that digital technology is having on archaeological practice. Over the last decade, my work has tried to come to terms with post and transhuman archaeology. First, I proposed a “punk archaeology,” which looked to rawness and immediacy of punk rock music as a model for a disruptive interest in the performance of archaeological work. Later, I became intrigued by the popular “slow foods” movement as well as in the work of diverse scholars on the rapidly accelerating pace of modernity as a model for a “slow archaeology” that sought to trace both the rhetoric surrounding and practice of digital technology in field practice. Recent work by Eric Kansa and Ömür Harmanşah have pushed me to recognize that slow archaeology may well offer a solid foundation for critiquing the growing influence of neoliberal expectations in the use of digital tools in archaeological work.

This paper draws on field experiences doing intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean and the archaeology of the contemporary world in North Dakota to consider how digital tools mediate and transform not only archaeological information in the field, but also the experience of fieldwork. Critical reflections on these processes have shaped an archaeology of care that considers more than the efficiency, accuracy, and convenience of digital tools and analysis, and, instead, shifts the focus how the archaeologist and these tools creates a meaningful space of archaeological practice. Archaeology of care foregrounds the constitution of the archaeological field team, interaction between archaeologists and communities during field work, the location of archaeological analysis, and the experience of archaeological knowledge making to expand our sensitivity to the ways that digital technology is transforming our discipline.

~

The second abstract is for Rebecca Seifried and Tuna Kalayci’s panel and titled “”The “Geospatial Turn”: Critical Approaches to Geospatial Technologies in Archaeological Research.” I’ve blogged about it here.

And, here’s my abstract:

Slow Spaces: Big Data, Small Data, and the Human Scale

Fernando Braudel famously demonstrated in The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, that historical data analyzed at various scales are not necessarily comparable or commensurate. In other words, history written at the chronological and spatial scale of the longue durée need not inform history written at the scale of the individual or event. On the one hand, this appears to be a common sense conclusion and corresponds well to our experience of purchasing suggestions produced by algorithm, the music choices of Pandora, or any number of predictive models that falter when ground-truthed.

On the other hand, archaeologists regularly seek to work between scales as they both collect information in the field in a tremendously granular and detailed way and seek to use so-called “big data” to understand lived experiences. To make data collected at the small scale commensurate with both data and research questions articulated at a larger scale invariably involves standardization practices that obscure the agency of the individual archaeologist. In this way, our sense of scale in argument influences, in some ways, the limits of agency in practice.

My paper today will briefly explore the intersection of slow archaeology and space in archaeology. Slow archaeology offers a critical approach to digital practices in field archaeology and emphasizes the irregular and unstructured nature of archaeological knowledge generated through experience. These slow spaces represent a distinct form of archaeological knowledge making because of their incommensurability with the spaces of big data. These are not space that can or should be reconciled with the conventional approaches of spatial analysis.

NDQuesday: Hybrids

Anyone who has read this blog over the years know that I love hybrids and hybridity. It probably speaks to my fundamental lack of discipline or, perhaps my abiding insecurities, or, at best, my eclecticism but I’ve always been drawn to shambolic, hybrid beasts that shade in and out of clear focus.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve taken the helm at North Dakota Quarterly and struggled a bit to find my footing as the editor of a journal that is equal parts a public humanities magazine and literary journal. As one of our editors pointed out, the world of magazines divides in some ways into two types: (1) newspapers where a strong editor and editorial board (and writers) produce or solicit content for readers according to their tastes and priorities and (2) literary journals where the readers submit material to the editors who, in turn, winnow and shape the content on the basis of their reader’s (and their own) interest and tastes. 

As someone who prefers the hybrid to the dogmatic, I can see the value in both of these approaches. On the one hand, I believe that academics should have a voice in the public sphere (not just speaking to specialists) and that we should cultivate platforms for this voice. On the other hand, there is a tremendous appeal to the idea of an organic, generative, reciprocal space where readers and writers, write and read for each other. At their best, both models offer a space for collaboration and conversation, but at their worst, the former offers a vision of bleary monoculture dominated by a limited group of privileged, droning voices, and the latter, the tragedy of the commons where the symbiosis between audience and contributors falls out of balance. 

Moreover, varying interests and approaches on the editorial board also promote a kind of hybridized space. Some editors want a hands-on approach to soliciting material and others want to winnow a constant stream. Some want to incentivize submissions through the use of technology, contests, and personal appeals whereas others feel like content begets content.

There is also the challenge of presentation. My instinct, as the first-generation of born digital computer dwellers, is to build a robust, eclectic, dynamic, and bustling space on the web where quality content can thrive and writers and readers can build audiences. Other value the quiet churn of paper production where there’s space to think, to winnow, and to shape. (Lest one thinks I’m privileging the former at the expense of the latter, I’ve updated the NDQ website with a stable front page that emphasizes the paper version of the journal and moves the digital content to a “blog” tab. I also plan to promote more content from NDQ so that the web and the paper version coincide better (and this is in keeping with the interest of our authors to disseminate their work widely.) Check it out here.).     

The web produces another form of hybridity. There is a deep love for paper among NDQ editors and contributors (and me)! As a result, I’m committed to preserving the paper version of the journal, but I also want to make sure that we don’t shun the digital both because our authors want it and because it is an inexpensive and expansive way to expand our readership). At the same time, we need to make sure that the NDQ web presence and the larger mission of the journal do not diverge unnecessarily so that it ends up stifling our wildflower garden beneath a carpet of public humanities monoculture. 

The challenge, of course, is whether such a hybrid beast can survive. Can we simultaneously be a viable platform for the public humanities and a literary journal, a digital destination and a paper publication, a productive field of grain and a natural prairie… 

And last but not least, a financially sustainable project and an honest reflection of our shared to commitment to the little magazine.  

Pencils and Pixels: New Perspectives on Digital Illustration

On Friday, I read with great excitement Colleen Morgan and Holly Wright’s very recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology titled “Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording” (and here too). It’s worth reading for quite a few reasons, but I want to highlight a little gaggle of observations here (that don’t entirely reflect the scope and character of the article, but do represent my own interests in it).

1. The Heroic Archaeologists. A few years ago, I became enamored with the idea that there was a heroic age of archaeology based on a bit of a cheap parallel with the heroic age of science. These heroic archaeologists have names that are associated with their notebooks (Blegen’s notebook), their sites (Wheeler’s excavation at the Great Palace), and who game name and form to their discoveries (Schlieman’s discovery of Priam’s Gold). To this we can add, following Morgan and Wright, their plans and drawings like Aubrey’s drawing of Avebury and Wheeler’s illustration of Segontium.

Morgan and Wright complicate this, of course, by pointing out that these drawings did not always spring from the impartial pens of master excavators, but from rather less known draftsmen, associates, and even, as in Wheeler’s case, the archaeologist’s wife.  Indeed, the work of Pitt-Rivers, Piggot, and Wheeler was informed by industrial, or in some cases, military practices and organization of labor which involved specialists with specialized skills, but also preserved elements of the “heroic archaeologists” vision of both methods and the sites themselves. In other words, even my heroic archaeologists, with their elegant and idiosyncratic, and sometimes signed illustrations, represent an already industrialized organization of archaeological practice (one that nevertheless allowed for a good deal of latitude and imagination, as Kostis Kourelis has recently noted regarding Georg Vinko von Peschke’s work around Corinth). In fact, the tension between the elegant plans and industrial practices are a defining feature of early 20th century archaeology.

2. The Ethnography of Archaeological Practice. One of the key strengths to this article is that Morgan and Wright draw effectively on the small, but growing body of work on the ethnography of contemporary archaeological practices. By using not only their own experiences as well as the immensely valuable and overlooked work of Matthew Edgeworth and others (although oddly not Mary Leighton’s work, which I’ve found very useful), they enter into the every day practices that define archaeological knowledge make at the edge of the trowel or the click of the mouse. 

This kind of work is not only incredibly important for understand how the tools that we use shape the knowledge that we produce, but also lays bare the complex and – to my mind – often problematic world that our technologies inhabit. The affordances that condition our use of digital tools are increasingly complicit in dense entanglements of exploitative practices in ways in which writing in a notebook or drawing on a piece of graph paper are not. This isn’t to suggest that the latter is beyond reproach or innocent, but to point our that what we do and how we do it constantly forces us to embody a dense organism of political, economic, social, and cultural relationships that do have consequences. The shift from analogue practice in the field to digital practices may or may not be a paradigm shift in terms of the incommensurability of knowledge, but, I’d argue, does reflect a paradigm shift in terms of practice and the range of affordances that shape those practices. Greater attention to practice, then, in the field allows us to unpack these relationships in productive and, to me, socially responsible ways.

(What’s more, here, is that Morgan and Wright have some of the ethnographic details to back up the sort of idealized generalizations that have tended to inform my work on slow archaeology. What I write, seems “right” based on my memories and experiences, but it certainly doesn’t have the rigor to support it that genuine ethnographic practice would 

3. Embodied Knowledge. On Saturday, I read a copy of a paper that Ömür Harmanşah generously provided that, in thoughtful ways, explored the significance of embodied knowledge, informed by the senses, in archaeological practice (among other things). Morgan and Wright’s treatment of the embodied knowledge of drawing in the field articulates in really smart ways ideas that I’ve struggled to understand over the past five years. Not only is the act of drawing with a pen or pencil on paper an act with definable and distinct cognitive significant, but it also opens onto ways of seeing archaeological contexts that more efficient, more streamlined, and invariably more digital methods do not support.

I like this way of thinking because reflects my experiences, particularly after this summer when I spent time documenting a series of fortifications on the basis of drone photography and structure-from-motion and ortho-rectified photographs. In some of my 20th century archaeological work, I worked with archaeologists who taught me how to illustrate by hand and it was tedious, long, hot work that provided remarkable (and sometimes illusory) familiarity with buildings. In contrast, drawing from a ortho-rectified series of drone photographs allowed me to produce a detailed plan much more quickly than work in the field and also made it much easier to scale my encounter with the site (i.e. by zooming out for context or zooming in for a detail), but I certainly feel less familiar with the site. Again, some of this a sense of familiarity may not be real (and I can’t help but extend the sense of possession, paralleling, perhaps, the work of heroic archaeologists, of a site where I spent countless hours drawing stones), to my sense of detachment from a site that I visited 8 or 10 times to ground-truth plans drawn from drones. 

The sense of place that develops from the act of manual drawing and illustration goes well beyond (in probably crazy ways) what Morgan and Wright explore in their article and is probably an effort to make their article into something that I want to say, but to me, at least, it is a useful point of departure for continued musing on the rise of digital field practices.  

For my work on these topics go here and here.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

The cold is never ending here in North Dakotaland and according to our forecast the warmest it’ll be into the foreseeable future is 4. 

So, it’s a good excuse to stay inside and read and write and do wintertime things. To help that along, do check out the most recent book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, the first volume of the Epoiesen Annual. Check it out here.

If that’s still not enough, here’s little gaggles of quick hits and varia:

IMG 1771Personal Space Issues.

Teaching Thursday: Two Classes and a Textbook

I haven’t written a Teaching Thursday for a while, and this semester, my teaching has been particularly invigorating (aside from having to fix a million broken links in an online class!). 

Teaching the Controversy: The UND Budget

First, my class on the University of North Dakota’s budget cuts has been a joy to teach. (Here is my syllabus). In fact, I’m doing far less teaching and mostly working hard to stay out of the way as the students explore the complexities of higher education. They’ve already wrestled with the big picture issues related to state-supported higher education as a “public good” and the small scale complexities of the methods used to distribute funds on campus. They chatted with our budget gurus, a dean, and, this week, with UND’s Provost. Next week, we welcome a vice chancellor, the following, an important legislator, and then the VP of Research and the Dean of the Graduate School at UND. We’re working our way through Christopher Newfield’s book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Johns Hopkins 2016). As we gain momentum in the next six weeks, I’ll post some more substantial information here.

Abandoned Campus Buildings as Laboratory Classrooms

Second, because I just can’t leave well enough alone, I decided to teach a one-credit (well, this is pending our ability to create a class at his point in the semester and allow students to enroll!) class on two buildings on the UND campus slated to be destroyed this year. The buildings are hybrid structures and twins with the original buildings dating to the first decade of the 20th century and additions dating to the 1920s. They were originally part of Wesley College, a Methodist institution that from its early days was associated with the University of North Dakota and offered classes in arts, music, and religion. They are beaux arts classical in design. A. Wallace McCrea was the architect of at least Sayre and Corwin halls, if not the entire complex. They form the east and west sides of a lovely quad that opens onto University Drive and stand as a orderly counterparts to the college gothic of most of the UND campus. They’ll be missed! 

My plan to document these buildings currently involves three phases. First, we make sure that the architecture of the buildings is thoroughly documented – including plans, 3D scans, and photographs – and the location of the buildings and the surrounding space and situation is documented as carefully as possible. Second, we need to do some archives work and sift through the relatively extensive records on the history of Wesley College and these two hybrid-buildings. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, I’m going to put together a team to comb through the buildings looking for the traces of their past lives in both the building fabric and the things left behind. In short, the last intervention in the life of these buildings will be an archaeological one. 

Open Education Textbooks

The last week or so, I’ve been working my way through a pretty complete draft of an open access textbook on Late Antiquity. The book offers a compelling political and ecclesiastical framework for the Late Antique world. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that some of the author’s discussions of the religious controversies in Late Antiquity are among the clearest that I’ve ever encountered. 

What is intriguing to me is that Late Antiquity, despite being defined by political events and institutions (whether the fall of Rome or the reign of Diocletian, Constantine, Justinian, or Heraclius), has become increasingly described as a series of cultural phenomena ranging from the rise of Christian practices (and various forms of syncretism) to architectural forms, decorative practices (like spoliation), urban transformation, tastes in movable goods, literature, art, and even ritual practice. A political narrative is not necessarily outside the realm of culture, of course, but for Late Antiquity, the long shadow of Peter Brown and his amazing lineage of students has ensured that cultural issues have eclipsed political ones. The concept of the “long late antiquity” is almost always a culture one which argues that despite political and religious differences, certain aspects of the Late Antique world persist into the 7th, 8th, or 9th century. While this sometimes harkens to Pirenne’s old argument that the end of the ancient world occurred when the caliphate moved its capital to Bagdad and the Mediterranean moved from the front yard of both Western Europe and the Early Islamic world to their collective backyard, it also embraced similarities and connection around the Mediterranean that produces common cultural affinities. 

In the next month or so, I’ll be returning to this project and asking for folks to help me navigate this unique open educational resource into the public realm! Stay tuned!  

 

Scale, Spatial Analysis, and Slow in Archaeology: Some Scratchings

A week or so ago, I agreed to write a couple of papers for the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in Barcelona. The first, will be an effort to integrate thee concepts that I’ve been turning around in my head for the past half-decade: slow archaeology, punk archaeology, and the archaeology of care.

The second paper is less well figured out in my head, but it will have something to do with spatial analysis, scale, and slow in response to a prompt by Becky Seifried for her panel on the geospatial turn: critical approaches to geospatial technologies in archaeological research.

I think of slow archaeology periodically and always, but recently I’ve had to think about it more than I usually do thanks to a bunch of provocations. First, I re-read Brian Pickering’s classic work The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (Chicago 1995) thanks to a recent article in Internet Archaeology (which I always think of as the old grey digital lady of online, digital archaeology journals). Pickering emphasizes the temporal dimension to practice in science and looks to that temporality as the key understanding the interplay between human and non-human agents. Pickering has also nudged me to go back to some of Peter Gailson’s work where he notes “And further, following Fernand Braudel, Galison suggests that layers of contextual constraints have differing inner temporalities.”

Just yesterday, I received word of a new article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Colleen Morgan and Holly Wright titled “Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording.” I haven’t read it yet, but I need to, obviously.

Finally, thanks to a commenter on this blog, I started reading Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton 2015). It’s fantastic and reminded me to go back to Donna Haraway’s class Cyborg Manifesto (which I’ll likely read in the lovely re-set publication produced by the University of Minnesota Press in 2016: Manifestly Haraway. Look beyond the olde skool cover and check out the pages. It’s really gorgeous.).

Plus, I’ve requested a copy of a paper delivered by Ömür Harmanşah delivered at the University of Glasgow this week and titled “Remotely sensing: Ethics of fieldwork, military technologies, and archaeological practice in the Anthropocene” (for the flyer).

In short, there’s too much cool stuff going on that it’s hard to marshal it all into a coherent set of ideas for a 6 minute paper. (I love the idea of 6 minute papers because they play to my increasingly opaque and superficial understanding of everything. Six minutes BEG me to try to be profound.)

So here are my idea right now:

1. Scale, Time, and the Individual. One of the key concepts that seems to float very near the surface these day is as scale increases toward BIG DATA, so does the sense of alienation from the data. The fervent arguments that individuals trained in the humanities are needed to re-humanize BIG DATA, indicates that this anxiety over algorithms is not constrained to luddite social scientists desperately hoping to protect their heirloom gardens, but seeping into the public discourse as well.

As data gets bigger and the sense of scale gets bigger, individuals become more faintly traced. Braudel recognized this and his magnum opus carefully preserved the incommensurability between history at different chronological scales,removing individuals from the gentle arc of the longue durée. This isn’t to suggest that BIG DATA rejects individuals explicitly, after all the most common uses of BIG DATA analysis are geared toward improving the consumer experience (more, and more, and more) by individualizing recommendation at a massive scale. As an archaeological example, data at scale is necessary to create immersive 3D worlds that allow an individual to “experience” a walk through the ancient countryside or cities. At the same time, there is a substantive difference between a simulation of individual experience and the “real thing.”   

2. Scale and Aggregation. If the production of BIG DATA often involves the aggregation of datasets generated by myriad individuals with individual goals (or gathered via automated means through machine legible datasets or other forms of computerized harvesting). Whatever the value of this kind of analysis has (and to be clear, I believe that it has some value), the result of these systems of production is to marginalize the work of the individual archaeologist and to undermine the status of the “heroic archaeologist” of the 19th and 20th century and elevate the role of a kind of post-industrial archaeological logic.

Of course, I recognize the significance of large-scale data projects in archaeology, but I also worry about their impact on our field. As large scale geospatial analysis involves drawing datasets from a wide range of sources (satellite photos, aerial photos, various maps, various levels of survey data from intensive pedestrian survey to remote sensing, excavation data, legacy data, et c.), the autonomy of these sources becomes subsidiary to larger project’s goals. And, while such synthetic alienation is part-and-parcel of even traditional archaeological work, the digital medium for so much spatial and digital archaeological work seems to offer particular risk for the fate of the author and the context of various kind of knowledge. I genuinely worry that our increasingly interest in these kinds of projects will authorize us to overwrite the contributions of individuals. 

3. Scale and Production. My previous point being offered, I remain concerned that many of the individuals associated with the recent move toward digital practices in academic archaeology, whatever their skills and competencies, tend to be alternative academics, precarious professionals, or otherwise marginalized in the process of academic, archaeological, knowledge making. I’m not the first to observe this, of course, but I’m only now beginning to realize that standardized outputs of digital tools often work to obscure the real expertise of these individuals making it easier to marginalize them in practice and in the profession. 

Here, I’m drawing on some of the ideas that I’ve started to mess with in terms of academic work. Digital tools in archaeology require tremendous amount of skill and knowledge to manipulate. At the same time, their outputs are, in some ways, standardized. For example, maps produced by GIS software or line drawings manipulated and “inked” in Illustrator take on similar appearances, especially compared to hand-drawn maps or illustrations, even if the skill of the individual practitioner varies widely. These kinds of standardized products make an argument, through this standardization, for an industrial process of knowledge making rather than the intimate work of digital craft that often goes into producing finely tuned and nuanced analysis. In effect, the results push back into the production and argue for the marginalization of the individuals who produce industrial “data.” 

I’m sure that I’m wrong and muddled about this stuff, but how wrong can I be in six minutes?