Photo Friday and a Few Random Links

It’s the start of the “Frog Days of Summer” when it’s so hot, we all become a bit amphibious to beat the heat. 

The dogs are doing their best to keep cool and hydrated.

The Barge in Summer

and to endure the terror of summer thunderstorms.

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I still don’t have quite enough energy for a full on “Quick Hits and Varia,” but a few links to some late-summer reading never go astray. Do check out Carl Schiffman’s essay posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog or reminisce about a summer on Swan’s Island with the late Donald Junkins.

If you have a digital project that you love, do consider nominating it for the AIA Award for Outstanding Work in Digital Archaeology

If you’re looking for something at the intersection of poetry and photography, check out Kyle Cassidy’s Optimized for Likes: Kerning the Human Altered Landscape. It’s $3 and you can get the PDF here.

If you have itchy writing figures, do consider submitting something to this coming fall’s pilgrimCHAT conference. You can read the CFP here.

This is a neat little piece on jazz violinist Billy Bang.

I’m reading Rosemary Joyce’s The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material. Oxford 2020.

Two Abstract Thursday: pilgrimCHAT and Teaching and Learning Archaeology of the Contemporary Era

As my race to finish up lingering summer projects before so-called “vacation” and the start of the semester, this includes writing two abstracts with August 1 deadlines. The first abstract is for the November pilgrimCHAT conference and the second is for a book on “Teaching and Learning the Archaeology of the Contemporary Era” edited by Gabriel Moshenska

I generally suck at writing abstracts and usually struggle to produce papers that make good on what the abstract promises. That said, it is abstract time, so here goes.

Abstract the First: pilgrimCHAT [291]

In April 1997, the Red River of the North overran its bank and inundated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota forcing over 50,000 residents to evacuate and significant damage to both cities. In the aftermath of this flood, the two cities demolished a number of neighborhoods that stood close to the river, installed a series of massive floodways that run for nearly 15 kms along the course of the Red River, and constructed a new series of pump and lift stations. This work created a massive park, known as the Grand Forks Greenway, of over 8 square kilometers festooned with bike paths, river access, and recreation areas and separated from the residential and commercial areas of the city by a series of imposing earthen and cement flood walls pierced by gates.

This static presentation, supplemented with video, photographs, and possibly audio, seeks to explore the Grand Forks Greenway as a corridor for movement of water, animals, and humans that is defined by a series of walls. The text will consider the tension between walls and movement and the way in which the two co-create the experience, environment, and history of this distinctive landscape.

Abstract the Second: Teaching and Learning Archaeology of the Contemporary Era (502)

From the early 1980s, campus archaeology has represented a key element in the training of archaeologists. Controlled excavations and surveys have introduced students not only to the basics of archaeological methods and recording practices, but also the history of their campuses. A number of publications have also demonstrated the pedagogical potential associated with the systematic documentation of material culture associated with contemporary campus life. 

This contribution will document my experiences teaching a two month class focused on two abandoned buildings on the campus of the University of North Dakota prior to their destruction. Students in the class were given very basic instructions on how to document the buildings and the any post-abandonment contents. When they encountered the complexity of the buildings and the assemblages, however, our system of documentation broke down and in its place emerged a more organic and dynamic form of engagement with the content and architecture of these buildings. Rather than trying to impose structure this moment of anarchic adaptation, I let the experiment run its course. The results were a remarkable degree of student engagement, valuable instances of discovery, expressions of creativity, and successful outreach.

Islands of Abandonment

Over the weekend, I read Cal Flyn’s delightful Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape (Viking 2021). I read it, in part, because about five people recommended it to me and, in part, because it felt like the kind of quality non-academic non-fiction that maybe could appear in a class that I might teach in the spring: readings on things. I also had hoped that it might give me some ideas for a paper on the Grand Forks’ Greenway that I’m mulling over for Novembers CHAT conference.

More than any of that, the book is a really great summer read and can be consumed in just one or two sittings. Since it’s a fun and easy read, I’ll spare you the summary and just note a few points that I took away from the book.

1. A Taste of The Mushroom at the End of the World. One of my favorite books of the last few years has been Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton 2015). Islands of Abandonment offers an easy taste of one tiny aspect of Tsing’s work: Flyn explores the forms of flora and fauna that appear in land heavily damaged by human activities. From the disposal of arsenic based weapons in the aftermath of World War I to the coral reefs of Bikini Atoll and the massive shale slag heaps Five Sisters Bing in Scotland, Flyn demonstrates how certain plants and animals find ways to colonize even the most toxic and damaged landscapes. For Tsing, the matusake mushroom, which needs similar environments to thrive, represented both a real example of life in landscapes laid waste by human hands and a metaphor for communities that have emerged at the margins of the modern world. For Flyn, this is just a bit more literal and offers a view of Lovelock and Margulis Gaia Hypothesis which regards the earth as a self-balancing system tempered by the quip from Jurassic Park: nature finds a way. 

2. Corridors and Waypoints. One of the reasons that people recommended the book to me is that Flyn discusses the environment of the Green Line on Cyprus which has become an important corridor for wildlife including the elusive mouflon. During our time working just south of the Green Line in the Sovereign Base Area of the British Dhekelia Cantoment, we regularly encountered environmental scientists, naturalists, and botanists who were documenting the animals and plants that lived in the buffer zone between the built up southern coast of Cyprus and the British bases and along the Green Line. While the “rebounding” of nature in this area is hardly a dividend for the destruction, displacement, and tragedy of the Turkish invasion, it is a lovely example of how nature comes to occupy the interstices of the human world. 

A similar intriguing example is offered by the Salton Sea in California that appeared when the Colorado River overran an irrigation channel in 1905. For a half-century the Salton Sea was a resort destination for both humans living in Southern California, but also a wide range of birds who made the sea a waypoint in their migrations, fish introduced by humans and that found their way into the sea through other means, and various forms of plants and algae. Even in recent years where draughts, field run off, and various other hydrological challenges have turned the sea into seething environment disaster, certain forms of nature – including the seemingly indestructible desert pupfish – continue to thrive in its deoxygenated and toxic waters.

3. Managing Nature. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Flyn’s engagement with folks who are struggling to balance managing nature in the aftermath of catastrophic human impacts and allowing landscapes to follow their own course. For example, there is a team of residents in Detroit who go out and mow the grass in abandoned parks and blighted houses in an effort to stem the appearance of neglect and show the presence of care. Flyn visits an abandoned botanical research institute in Tanzania where non-native species have invaded the surrounding forest and appear to threaten its distinctive ecosystem. 

In Detroit, the lawn mowers observe that if you mow the grass three times, it becomes a lawn, showing how human intervention is necessary to bring nature to heel. In Tanzania, curiously enough, the initial rampant growth of non-native species seems to have stalled suggesting in some cases human management is not necessary and natural systems do have ways to self-balance.

~

Ultimately the book is long on description and short on universal observations. That said, it’s power comes from the kinds of metaphors that it offers. The book is a literal panarion of metaphors anchored in real encounters between humans and nature. Resilience, perseverance, happenstance, tragedy, and hubris play out across multiple landscapes, situations, and encounters. In Cal Flyn’s able hands, nature is more than a force that merely reacts and adapts to human interventions, but an independent agent that reward constant and careful observation. For Flyn, nature doesn’t follow a particular narrative or tell a single story, but offers abundant metaphors for understanding the human condition.

Defining the Archaeology of the Contemporary World

Yesterday afternoon, I received reader reports for my long gestating book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. The reports were, perhaps predictably, all over the shop which will make the volume an intriguing (and exciting!) challenge to revise.

You can check out the book here and download the bibliography here.

One of the key critiques is that I need to do more to define what the archaeology of the contemporary world is. In other words, my efforts to do this in my introduction were either not adequate or not particularly convincing (as an old advisor once quipped an argument can be “well made, but ultimately unconvincing. I imagine parallels the idea that a sentence can be grammatical, but ultimately nonsensical). Whatever the next steps with the book, the first thing that I need to do is tighten up my introduction and my definition of the field. Since this will be the first survey of the archaeology of the contemporary from an American perspective, there is reason to think that my definition could have an influence on how field develops.   

The reports themselves reflect a fissure in how scholars think about the archaeology of the contemporary world. Two of the readers recognized my effort to situate this emerging field (or is it a sub-field? This is another problem of definition that needs resolution) amid a wider global interest in the archaeology of the contemporary. This is unsurprising in light of my background as a Mediterranean archaeologists whose first work on the archaeology of the contemporary world happened in Greece and only later took place in an American context. That said, I can definitely understand how different conceptualizations of the “contemporary” as an experienced period of time can shape different approaches and definition of its archaeology.

For Europe, as one reviewer observed, my definition coincides neatly with the post-World War II period and includes the complicated questions of how to treat the legacy of the large-scale post-war rebuilding of the continent. This interest extends to include the detritus of the Cold War, for example, which shaped post-war architectural, cultural, political, and economic sensibilities on the continent. In this context, the rise in American-style consumer culture, for example, reflects the changing economic and political sensibilities of communities that sought to define themselves as much by their loyalty to capitalism as any sense of national citizenship (or in a similar way to Soviet style communism). In a post-colonial context, this created a range of complications and confrontations where wars over markets, resources, and supply chains played out on a global scale and in the name of the hearts and minds of various post-colonial populations.  

Of course, this kind of geopolitical definition of the contemporary is not a universal one.There are contexts where the end of World War Two or the end of the Cold War had little impact on their daily lives. In South Africa, for example, the contemporary world might reflect the end of the Apartheid era. In Cyprus, the Turkish invasion of 1974 represents a significant break. In Hong Kong, the end of British rule might define the contemporary situation in a more significant way than its post-war emergence as one of the four “Tigers of Asia.” 

Of course, the notion of the contemporary need not be defined by the political and economic lives of nation states at all. For example, among immigrant groups the arrival in a new situation or a new country could mark the beginning of the contemporary experience and the emergence of a new way of life (with a new material culture). Elsewhere, in the American “Rust Belt” industrialization (and de-industrialization) mark out profound changes in communities, institutions, and ways of life. While the rapid industrialization of certain areas in the US aligns with the post-war economic boom, its decline does not map as easily onto global geopolitics. On a more recent scale, various generations, Generation-X, Millennials, and Generation-Z, have perceived and experienced the uneven impact of the so-called “great acceleration” in ways that compress the contemporary into an era defined by new technologies, new forms of social organization, and new political, economic, and cultural expectations.

As the global climate change threatens to sweep everything before its path, there are those who see the Anthropocene as the most meaningful measure of contemporary existence. This is the widely debated term that many use to describe the most recent geological epoch which is defined by human transformation of the landscape and the environment on a global scale. On the opposite end of the chronological spectrum, the archaeology of COVID suggests that there might be an even shorter encounter with the contemporary defined by social distancing, new forms of social and economic priorities, and the increased visibility of certain kinds of objects (masks, gloves, ventilators). 

Any definition of the contemporary world, then, most do its best to accommodate the diverse ways in which groups encounter, experience, and mark their present. This kind of stratigraphic thinking is, of course, familiar to archaeologists who regularly navigate chronological boundaries defined broadly through typologies (of objects, architecture, styles) and narrowly through hyper local formation processes that appear significant in a site’s stratigraphy. 

That said, it was clear in many of the comments that in an American context, the contemporary world might be more productively expressed as an archaeology of the recent past. As American historical archaeology tends to define itself (albeit casually) as the archaeology from the start of European colonization to the early 20th century (when the 50-year rule formed an informal endpoint for the field as its development accelerated in the 1970s), there might be real value in defining an archaeology of the recent past as the archaeology of the “short-twentieth century” (sensu Hobsbawm) that began in, say, 1918 and ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many historical archaeologists have come to embrace research into events, experiences, and situations dating to the early- to mid- 20th century. Moreover, in an American context, this work often traces the impact of early and mid-20th century situations into the late-20th and early-21st century. Thus the archaeology of race, e/immigration, industrialization, technology, citizenship, and consumer culture in the contemporary era must be understood in the context of the interwar period during which so many of our social and cultural expectations emergence.

Needless to say, this latter volume, which embraces the long present, is a rather different book from the one that I proposed. As I mull over the two responses to my manuscript, what occurs to me is that I might actually have TWO book projects here. One is a reading of the American experience through the lens of archaeology of the contemporary world as defined (largely) by my European colleagues and the other is an archaeology of the recent past that coincides more neatly with expectations of American historical archaeology. In fact, a clever author could see the former as kind of oblique sequel to the latter which could be chronologically limited to the “short-twentieth century.” The former would likewise situate American archaeology and experiences within a global context and that latter, without being parochial, would consider an experience defined more by the economic, social, and political boundaries of the nation state. 

The idea of splitting this book in two is a genuinely intriguing (and frankly daunting) prospect that I look forward to mulling over. (Plus, there are real economic issues for the press at stake here. Would they see markets for both books? Would there be a more suitable candidate to write a history of the recent past (or the short-twentieth century)?) 

Music Monday: Whither Sun Ra?

I’m racing the calendar to get my various little projects done before the end of the summer writing season. I’m feeling just a bit hectic and a bit tired, but with a little luck, things will come together in time for a little vacation before the start of the semester.

This morning, I’m working on the conclusion to my little review of recent work on Sun Ra. I’ve ended up adding sentences and paragraphs throughout the review to flesh it out a bit and give it more cohesion. Now, I need to bring it in for a landing.

You can read versions of part 1, part 2part 3, and part 4 here.

Whither Sun Ra?

Sun Ra’s fascination with the impossible might seem irresponsible in light of urgency of the BLM movement, the rise of a strain of toxic and racist populism, and the persistent threat of violence. More than that, his appeals to Afrocentric ideas might seem naive and unsophisticated and his Afrofuturism too abstract and mystical to contribute in a meaningful way to contemporary society. After all, even modern Afrofuturist heroes like the Black Panther derived his powers from extractive industries organized by the state of Wakanda and performed his acts of daring in a world populated nation states and neatly etched notions of good and evil. In contrast, Sun Ra’s view of the future as the domain of the impossible distances it from our current fixation on the real potential of science and narratives set amid lightly reimagined contemporary institutions. In some ways, Ra’s fascination with a lightly defined impossible suits may suit our modern situation as we grapple with global crises of COVID and climate change. These challenges with distributing the COVID vaccine (and convincing individuals to receive it) reveals the limits of the possible when defined by scientific solutionism. Likewise, for all of our scientific understanding of climate change, economic inequality, the politics of nation states, and the rise of crass populism has hampered meaning global action. Sun Ra offered no easy solutions to the world’s problems. By situating the present at the intersection of myth and the impossible, he offered a view of the future decoupled from burdens of the past. The mythic power of Blackness produces a future that flagrantly defies the pragmatic gradualism of so much of the contemporary struggle for rights. In some ways, Ra’s blurring of the Black past and the impossible future anticipates Paul Gilroy’s famous reformulation of W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of the Black double consciousness. In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness (1993), Gilroy argues that Dubois concept of double consciousness continues to define the experience of Black people as they work to negotiate the tensions between being European and Black. Ra reconciled this tension by rejecting the temporal division between pre-slavery, pre-colonial, and pre-European Africa and the future.

The influence of Sun Ra’s music continues to flow in contemporary jazz and improvised music. The cosmic themes present in saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s music and performances certainly draw inspiration from Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and their mutual respect came out during a shared festival performance with the Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Pharoah Sanders in 2016. It may be, however, that the resurgent London jazz scene is where Sun Ra’s influence is the most visible today. Literal manifestation of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, the diaspora Black jazz community in the UK continues to explore Black music and identity with ensembles like the Heliocentrics making direct reference to Ra’s iconic 1965 album, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One. More obviously, however, is Shabaka Hutchings’ various projects which drawn upon both Afrocentric and Afrofuturist themes. His ensemble Sons of Kemet has produced two albums of music that blends scathing political critique with tightly arranged music influenced by Caribbean sounds, Afrobeat rhythms, and traditional jazz. The title of their 2018 album, Your Queen is a Reptile, evoked the reptilian conspiracy theories drawn from science fiction stories of alien invaders and bizarrely popular among Q-Anon followers. Hutchings’ ensemble, The Comet is Coming, is blends his saxophone with programed drums and keyboards. Its millenarian name, science fiction inspired song titles, and exuberant use of electronic instruments evokes the Afrofuturist sound of Sun Ra. Their 2019 album, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, hints at the potential mystical underpinnings of their endeavor.

While there is no doubt that Washington, Hutchings, and others continue to lace their music with themes influenced by Sun Ra’s work. This complements recent interest in Sun Ra’s music and broader thought in contemporary society. For a world increasingly constrained by the limits of technological solutionism, Sun Ra presents a figure even more foreign than he did to his time. He offered few solutions to problems that he traced with cosmic dimensions. As we confront a series of existential challenges in the 21st century that seem to exceed our imagination, it may be that we need Sun Ra now more than ever.

Smoke, a New Bed, a Hurt Paw, and Some Poetry

It’s smokey Friday morning here in North Dakotaland thanks to the Canadian wildfires.

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I’m easing my way into a short vacation before the bustle of the fall semester begins, but I’d be remiss not to celebrate the yellow dog’s eighth birthday (or that day that we celebrate his eighth birthday). We got him a new bed which he really enjoys (note his brother’s nose photobombing the scene in the background):

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Milo is in pretty good health, good spirits, and only occasionally feeling his age. Yesterday, for example, he’s pretty sure that he hurt his paw. I don’t doubt his assessment of the situation, but he was able to shake it off in time to lunge at a squirrel, stop abruptly to sniff a clump of grass, and track the scent of some deer.

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If you’re looking for something summery to read and my rambling about my dog and the weather doesn’t float your boat, check out some of the late Donald Junkins’s poetry over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog. His Swan’s Island Journal offers a chance to visit the Maine coast in July and August and settle into an Adirondack chair and indulge in some midsummer reverie.  

Thing Things Thursday: More Sun Ra, Sheffield, and Rivers

Every day it feel more and more like the end of the summer season and the beginning of fall. It certainly doesn’t help that smoke from the Canadian wildfires has filled the air giving the entire city a bit of autumnal light. As a result, my attention span is being dragging in multiple directions as I try to wrap up end of the summer tasks and gear up for the fall semester. It feels like a good time to do another three things Thursday.

Thing the First

With all this talk about sending billionaires into space, it was a great time to receive the collections of Sun Ra’s poetry recently republished by Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. The reprints are done with meticulous attention to detail and manage to reproduce the feeling of the these sometimes casual and often often simple publications.

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For example, the liner notes from Jazz in Silhouette from 1959 appear in their blurry and smudged mimeograph purple creating an intriguing contrast between their futuristic content and their reproduction which situates them in the past. In these poems Sun Ra reminds us that the future is the world of the impossible and that we have to “consider the negative plain of existence” and

The prophets of the past belong to the past
The space prophets of the greater future
Belong to the greater future.   

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It is great to see the poems reproduced in their original form. Two of my favorites appear his most famous book of poetry, The Immeasurable Equation (1972): “The Cosmic Myth,” and “Black Myth” which so clearly embody key aspects of Sun Ra’s worldview. “The Cosmic Myth” starts with the lines “A new name is always a great adventure | A cosmic name is a cosmic word …”

“Black Myth” engages with Ra’s challenging sense of myth and time declaring:

A better destiny I decree
Such tales and tales that are told
Are not my myths
But other myths of Black mythology
Radiate from beyond the
      measured borders of time.

Thing the Second

Like so many people in the world of archaeology, I’m quite distressed by the closing of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield. Flint Dibble offers a nice summary of the situation in this Twitter thread. As he and many other commentators note, the most challenging aspect of this closure is that this department was among the most important and successful in the English speaking world.

Like many people, I can’t help but feeling that its closure marks a new phase in the transformation of higher education on a global scale. The debate is no long about metrics for success, which Sheffield would appear to achieve without a shadow of the doubt, or the value of hard won intangibles such as prestige and brand recognition, but about something else entirely. The cynic in me makes it easy enough to attribute the closure to a crass power play on the part of the political leadership of the university. The archaeology program at Sheffield may well be a kind of tall poppy  cut down in a rather pure expression of power.  

It is hard to understand how it would be possible to resist gestures such as these. Over the past decade, in the long simmering crisis in higher education, faculty especially in the humanities and arts have worked to construct strategies designed to promote their programs on campus, to boost enrollments, to demonstrate the utility of their programs for the 21st century, and to extend their reach beyond campus.

At the same time, faculty have often critiqued past generations of faculty for not doing enough to anticipate the changing political, economic, and ideological landscape of higher education. This is often done in an oblique way through criticism of ivory tower faculty who were and remain out of touch with reality and incapable of adapting their programs. As frequent are criticisms of university administrators who are depicted as a hostile to the humanities, arts, and social sciences or simply incompetent. While these critiques have remained in the background surrounding the closing of Sheffield’s program, they often raise their heads when the conversations turn to the challenges facing humanities, arts, and social science programs more broadly.  

I can’t escape the feeling that the increasingly arbitrary cuts to programs will reveal the ultimate futility of well-meaning faculty efforts to preserve their programs and perhaps cause us to pull back from many of the least charitable critiques of faculty in the past. Perversely, it push us to ask much harder questions that do not involve sustaining our programs, our jobs, our careers, or our work and instead focus on what we should do when we know that our work will not matter to our institutions and our fields.

Thing the Third     

I’ve been chewing on an abstract that I need to prepare before the end of the month for the 2021 CHAT conference whose topic is movement. As I’ve mentioned before (somewhere on this blog!), I’ve wanted to write about the Grand Forks Greenway and to reflect on the tension between the walls designed to manage the flow and flooding of the Red River of the North and the river’s movement through the landscape, our engagement (and movement alongside the river’s course), and our ability to navigate over and around the walls put in place after the disastrous flood of 1997.

Unlike a traditional conference, the “pilgrim CHAT” will be a month-long festival open to all sort of multi-, trans-, and new media kinds of explorations of the topic of movement. This complicates my abstract all the more as it forces me to think about my topic not just in the sense of academic content, but also as media. I have almost no experience doing this kind of thing, but this project seems like a great opportunity to broaden my horizons a bit and develop a greater appreciation for how our new media world might change scholarly communications. 

Midcentury Housing in Grand Forks (A Final, Final Report)

As summer comes to a close (a few trees are recognizing the shorter days and starting to hint at their early fall transformations), I’m trying to wrap up a few projects. Yesterday, I posted an almost final draft of my paper on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

Today, I wanted to post the very much final version (actually the version that we submitted to the state) of our windshield survey of mid-century housing in Grand Forks, ND. My colleague, Cindy Prescott, once quipped that it was possible to understand the history of 20th-century housing in the US (or at least the Midwest) by driving from downtown Grand Forks to the south. This is indeed the case with each successive neighborhood containing slightly later material, architecture, styles, and arrangements. 

The report was co-authored with Susan Caraher who is Grand Forks’s Historical Preservation Commission Administrator. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, although I think there’s a good bit more to be done with the data that we’ve collected. 

You can download the report here

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

My blog is a bit late this morning because I was finishing an almost final draft of my paper on the Chrysochou Valley. It comes in just under the 6000 word limit (with the abstract and citations). I’m pretty happy with it. 

Here’s the abstract:

Abstract

This contributionconsiders the long Late Antiquity in the areas of EF2 and EF1 at the site ofPolis (ancient Arsinoe). By exploring the fuzzy edges of our chronologicalunderstanding of the Roman and Late Roman periods on the island, this articleexpands the length of Late Antiquity. The changes in the area of EF2demonstrate that the work of lengthening Late Antiquity on Cyprus may beginwith exploring the Romanization of the urban landscape in the century after apossible 2nd-century earthquake. At the same time, the ever later drift of ourceramic chronologies has required us to decouple episodes of destruction,abandonment, and recovery from major historic events such as Arab raids orbroader narratives of decline. The comparison of the ceramic assemblage fromthe small suburban site of EF1 to that associated with the second phase of theSouth Basilica suggests that the reconstruction, expansion, and elaboration ofthat building may well date to 8th century. This suggests that patterns ofurbanism established sometime after the 2nd century AD continued for over fivecenturies along the northern edge of the city of Polis. 

And here’s the paper itself.

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 4)

This weekend, I read and enjoyed two recent books on Black utopian thought that included chapters on Sun Ra: Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia 2019) and Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and Music of Other Worlds (Duke 2021). The two books follow a very similar organization and survey major Black thinkers of the 18th, 19th and 20th century who engaged with utopian themes: Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany, W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, as well as Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and Sun Ra. 

You can read part 1, part 2, and part 3 here, and below, the next part of my somewhat flailing effort to write a review of some recent contributions to our appreciation of Sun Ra.

Graham Locke’s Blutopia (1999) which considers the utopian visions in the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton, noted that Ra’s journey to space and his cosmic claims had parallels in African American experiences of heavily journeys associated with Christian revelation. Ra’s spaceship finds a scriptural parallel in Elijah’s chariot on which the prophet escaped escape from the earthly realm. Locke also recognizes allusions to spirituals and in the chants and dances of the Arkestra during their performances parallels to rituals in the Black church which evoked the Exodus or the incantations that brought down the walls of Jericho. Sun Ra, of course, was uninterested in explicit references to the Bible which he considered, at best, a book laced with secret knowledge accessible through cryptic readings and wordplay and, at worst, an obsolete icon in an age where spaceships replace flaming chariots (Locke, 41). His broadsheets from his Chicago days reflected a sustained effort to find new meaning in scripture on the basis of substitution and numerology, and he dismissed Christianity and organized religion as meaningless. At the same time, the often mystical references to scripture, parallels between his cosmic journey and Christian spiritual experiences, and the Afrocentric impulses that celebrated the accomplishments of the Egyptians create a public personal that simultaneously looks toward both the space age and a Black past. For Locke, the contradictory and ambiguous character of Ra’s utopian vision reflects part of the genius of his “Astro Black Mythology” situated at the intersection of specifics of history and the past and the universals of myth and the future.

Jayna Brown’s recent book on Black Utopia’s noted that Sun Ra once quipped “Me and time never got along so good—we just sort of ignore each other” (Brown 2021, 158). She goes on to argue that, for Ra, time represented a linear understanding of human experience and progress. For Ra’s utopian view, the concept of utopia as literally placelessness complements its timelessness. This created space for Ra’s commitment to the impossible and the potential for “radical alterity” (Brown 2021, 159). Nowhere is this embodied more clearly than in Ra’s identity which regularly defied definition. He was neither human, nor alien, he was not living in the past, present, or the future and his poetry, in particular, continuously sought to . This radical conceptualization of his own existence finds parallels in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany which feature creatures that defy our notions of personal identity and who exist outside of conventional time. For Alex Zamalin Ra’s willingness to operate at the level of impossible paradoxically pushed his audiences to ponder the limits and potential of new possibilities that could transcend the restricted notions of Black experience, planetary existence, and humanity itself. 

Kara Keeling’s starts her 2019 book Queer Times, Black Futures (NYU 2019), with a study of Sun Ra’s cult 1974 film, Space is the Place. Her chapter begins with a quote from an Arkestra performance in the middle of the film: “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” In the film, an extraterrestrial visitor played by Sun Ra arrives in late-1960s Oakland intent of leading Black people to a new planet in a spaceship powered by music. A mysterious antagonist called the Overseer, however, works to thwart Sun Ra’s efforts both in the present and in the past where he appeared in a Chicago club in the 1950s only to be vanquished by the power of Ra’s music. Scenes of Ra and the Overseer playing a kind of cosmic card game in a timeless and spaceless setting punctuate the film and have clear consequences for Ra’s efforts to rescue Black people on Earth. Throughout the conflict, the power of Ra’s music neutralizes the efforts of the Overseer as well as other forces, including NASA scientists, who seek to disrupt his plans. Ultimately, he manages to save Black people in Oakland by teleporting them onto his spaceship and departing the planet. Keeling notes that Ra’s vision a Black future is laced with impossibility from the music-powered space ship to the dream of colonizing another planet. Keeling’s discussion of Space is the Place opens the door onto critiques of the world anchored in progressive trajectories tied to capital and narratives political development which so often serve to deny Black people equality. By queering the tidy linearity of time, Ra creates space for new impossibilities and new pathways that are limited neither to the present nor the future. 

Sun Ra’s contributions to Black utopian visions find their embodiment in the Arkestra’s performances which were often simultaneously unstructured and highly disciplined, futuristic, yet anchored in the tradition of improvised and jazz music, and both humorous and sincere. The Arkestra’s recordings continues to combine music from across Sun Ra’s career demonstrating in practice how the rules of time need not apply.