Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s finally Friday and despite this being a short week, it somehow feels like the longest week in the semester. But the weekend is near and with it the chance to catch up on a little sleep, get some reading done, start on a top sekrit project, and unwind a bit. Tomorrow is scheduled to be downright balmy with high temperatures in the 20s. The dogs will get a chance to enjoy a long walk. 

As I contemplate what it must be like to live in a place where the temperatures are closer to 0 Celsius than 0 Fahrenheit, I’ll leave you with this little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

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A colleague sent me a fascinating little article in the Norwegian Archaeological Review by Stein Farstadvoll titled “Vestigial Matters: Contemporary Archaeology and
Hyperart” (h/t to Derek Counts). The article applies the concept of Hyperart, developed by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei, to the archaeology of the contemporary world.

Akasegawa defined hyperart as “material vestiges, things that have become detached from their intended purpose and function.” Farstadvoll’s article proposes that a red polypropylene snow stake found in the vestiges of the 19th century landscape garden fit this definition. The snow stake was out of place from a functional standpoint as it was not marking a road edge or feature that needed to be visible during deep snowfall. It was also out of place temporally standing in a landscape otherwise defined by abandonment. The rupture between the snow stake and its surroundings in both the time and the place render the object meaningless or at least profoundly ambiguous. Anyone who has done archaeological work – particularly archaeological survey – has invariably happened across these kinds of Hyperart.

Two little scenes from my work in the Western Argolid may well qualify as Hyperart. One is a Greek coffee cup that hangs from a nail in a wood cabinet in another wise ruined seasonal house (kalyvi) at the settlement of Chelmis.

It’s not so much that the resident of the house wouldn’t enjoy a cup of Greek coffee from time to time so that the object is out of place. It’s that the cup remains hung by its delicate handle from the nail in the wooden cabinet even after the roof of the house has long collapsed and the house no longer serves the function that would offer an appropriate context for coffee drinking. 



The juxtaposition between the coffee cup still in its place and the otherwise ruinous condition of its surrounding has never failed to attract our attention. In fact, this past summer my colleagues and I joked about how many photos we’ve taken of this forlorn coffee cup hanging by a nail in a house that is collapsing more and more every year.

The settlement of Chelmis is connected to the nearest village not be bonds of kinship or even, necessarily, regional economy, but by a road and electrical lines. The electrical lines take a more direct route than the road which roughly follows the slightly meandering path of an east-west running ravine. The electrical lines run along a straighter line and cut through olive groves and fields and often stand some 10 or 20 meters south of the road. They provide power to one or two houses that Chelmis that continue to be used and the church of the Panayia nearby. 


The posts that support the electrical lines also have street lights. These are strange because in many cases the electrical poles are not near the street. These lights do not light up the street. The might, of course, serve another function, for example, to show whether the power lines have current, but this seems unlikely. Perhaps at some point the road ran closer to the electrical poles. Maybe the electrical poles were supposed to be installed along the road, but for whatever reason were not. We know that during the spring when the Chelmis was occupied for threshing grain and in the winter when the flocks were present, children from would have walked from the settlement to the village for school. Perhaps they would have left in the morning when it was still dark the the streetlights, though misaligned, would have shown the way through the countryside.

Today, they don’t seem to serve any purpose and we’ve never been in that area at night, so we don’t even know if any of them work. Maybe they’re vestigial. Maybe they’ve always been out of place.    

Reading the Roman Revolution 7: The Consul Antonius

With the assassination of Caesar, the real consequences of the Civil War and the political resilience of Caesar’s party emerge, at least for a moment, in the ascendency of M. Antonius. In chapter 7 of his The Roman Revolution Syme’s description of Antonius finds once again in a more lyrical mode through which he balances his vivid description with doses of political theory and narrative. 

The will of Caesar was upheld allowing for both the liberators and the members of Caesar’s party to enjoy the rewards offered by the dictator. And, it almost appeared, for a moment, that Rome would return to a kind of constitutional rule. 

This was illusory: “Antonius had played his hand with cool skill. The Liberators and their friends had lost, at once and for ever, the chance of gaining an ascendancy over the Senate. The people, unfriendly to begin with, turned sharply against them. Accident blended with design.”

To Syme, the Antonius’s funeral oration for Caesar was just made the fate of the Liberators clear. They had little support and the assassination of Caesar was, in Cicero’s words: “animo virili, consilio puerili.” The ratification of Caesar’s laws two days after his death and the distribution of magistracies and provinces ensured that partisans of Caesar and of the Liberators both had reasons to preserve Caesar’s legacy.   

For whatever reason, I love this passage, maybe because I am a Romanist working in the Greek world: “The Liberators had not planned a seizure of power. Their occupation of the Capitol was a symbolical act, antiquarian and even Hellenic. But Rome was not a Greek city, to be mastered from its citadel.”

Antonius controlled the situation on the ground and revealed himself to be not lacking political skill. The absence of the old guard nobility, largely killed or discredited during the Civil War, created an environment for Antonius to wield considerable influence with few rivals. Even Cicero (in another brilliant passage): “Cicero, who had lent his eloquence to all political causes in turn, was sincere in one thing, loyalty to the established order. His past career showed that he could not be depended on for action or for statesmanship; and the conspirators had not initiated him into their designs. The public support of Cicero would be of inestimable value after a revolution had succeeded.”

Syme’s analysis of the Roman plebs is also likewise pessimistic: “Debauched by demagogues and largess, the Roman People was ready for the Empire and the dispensation of bread and games.”  The Italians were no more willing to support the Liberators, even after their flight to various communities in Latium, the wealthy equites were not willing to fund their resistance (“Demonstrations of sympathy cost nothing. Money was another matter”), and the legions were loyal to Caesar’s memory and Antonius.

And, in the end, despite the negative impression of Antonius (a Roman Alcibiades) left in the sources, Syme reminds us (mixing a bit of historical critique with some political theorizing): “He belonged to a class of Roman nobles by no means uncommon under the Republic or Empire whose unofficial follies did not prevent them from rising, when duty called, to services of conspicuous ability or the most disinterested patriotism. For such men, the most austere of historians cannot altogether suppress a timid and perhaps perverse admiration. A blameless life is not the whole of virtue, and inflexible rectitude may prove a menace to the Commonwealth.”

In other words, whatever the flaws of his character, “Chance and his own resolution had given Antonius a position of vantage. At first he seems harmless: before long he was seen as a resourceful politician presenting a double front, both Caesarian and Republican, and advancing steadily.”

The chapter ends with Antonius out of Rome working on the settlement of some of Caesar’s legions in Campania. “When he returned, it was to discover with dismay that a new and incalculable factor had impinged upon Roman politics.”



The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

Obsolescence (feat. Teaching Tuesday)

 This weekend I read Daniel Abramson’s Obsolescence: An Architectural History (2016). I mostly read it for fun, but I have also been thinking about issues of obsolescence, functionality, and space on UND’s campus, in our community, and in the context of an archaeology of the contemporary world, particularly in the context of our accelerated and accelerating world and sense of time.

The book argues that obsolescence in architecture emerged in the early 20th-century when the U.S. government changed the tax code to allow for deductions based on the depreciation of buildings. At the same time, the rapid development of U.S. cities – particular Chicago and New York – and the availability of capital in the first three decades of the 20th century led to the demolition of buildings that were often less than 20 years old and the building of new, larger, more sophisticated structures in their place. Finally, this coincided with a progressive view of the modern world that saw social, economic, and even political development of society as linear and the new overwriting the old as key to the process of perpetual renewal and improvement. 

This promoted a functional approach to architecture that influenced building and design throughout the 20th century. While this approach has seen critiques, most famously in Brutalism which offered forms that conspicuous resisted functionalist demands and the work of, say, Peter Eisenman which simply ignored function as a useful category for his architectural forms. In the end, however, the long tail of progressive ideas and function views of architecture has persisted although often redefined in terms of “adaptive reuse” or even sustainability which like the concept of depreciation was incentivized through both policy and a monetized view of architecture and space.

I got to thinking about obsolescence lately in three different contexts.

First, as I blogged about yesterday… 

Second, I serve on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This has given me a front row seat to thinking about the future of architecture in our community. As any small city, our urban fabric is undergoing constant change. Old buildings are being repurposed and demolished, new buildings pop up, and criteria and impressions for what is important, appropriate, and useful fluctuate. Determining what is obsolete and no longer necessary or desirable and what qualifies as important to the character of the community is on our monthly agenda. Functionalism and the representative value of architecture stand side-by-side. As Abramson noted, the concept of obsolescence shaped sometimes overzealous efforts toward urban renewal in the mid-20th century and what one person sees as blight, another sees as telling a story about the history of our community. 

In my neighborhood, there is an enthusiastic effort to slow and even reduce traffic flow down a residential street that has slowly become a significant thoroughfare. While the community efforts to slow the flow of traffic are legitimate expressions of anxiety about the impact of traffic in our neighborhood, there is also a historical element to their resistance. The street, they claim, is and was a residential street and was not designed to handle the greater flow of traffic. As a result, the flow needs to be re-routed to preserve the character of the neighborhood. 

The interesting counterpoint, of course, is that the function of streets and the character of neighborhood change through time and with use, what originally served one purpose, now falls short. This isn’t to suggest that we simply redefine the function of our beloved neighborhood street, but to demonstrate how the notion of preservation and obsolescence often go hand-in-hand.

Third, I’ve been thinking about classrooms a good bit lately. Last semester, I taught on an almost brand-new collaborative learning classroom. It was quirky and did not really fit the way that I taught my class. (I blogged about it here). The newness of the room pushed me to think about whether my teaching style was, in fact, obsolete and required updating to adapt to the new architectural koine in UND classrooms.

Fortunately (maybe), my history 240 (the Historian’s Crap) is in an older classroom that features, among other things, a real chalk board and a cart with a (chalk) dusty-laptop  computer and a digital projector. The room is clearly designed around the expectation that I will lecture to the students and the primary form of visual communication will be words on a chalk board. The active and collaborative learning room, in contrast, did not even have a central screen or a digital project, but instead has televisions arranged at each table, hung from the outer walls of the room. To show students anything visual involved drawing their attention away from the front of the room and redirecting it outward. The rooms we use shape not only how we teach, but how we learn and this, in turn, shapes our attitudes toward authority, toward the past, and to the experience at the university.

The idea that a room or a style is obsolete is a value judgement that is grounded in a linear view of time in which new presents are constantly overwriting and obviating outmoded pasts. Anyone who has taught for even a few years knows that even the most comprehensively research pedagogical technique, method, or procedure, is only as a good as the educator who handles and implements it. More than that, most of us are trained to view with intense skepticism any view of the present or future that is incompatible with the past. If Ambramson’s critique of obsolescence in architecture can teach us anything, it’s that contemporary calls for sustainability and reuse only make sense within a model of thinking about space (a discourse, if you will) that includes and, in fact, privileges obsolescence. 

It’s a good reminder not to get too hung up on progress and not to fret change.     


Wesley College Documentation Project: Hearing Corwin Hall

On Thursday, February 21st at 7 pm on the beautiful campus of the University of North Dakota, Mike Wittgraf will perform his “Hearing Corwin Hall” in the recital room in the Hughes Fine Arts Center. This piece developed from the Wesley College Documentation Project and, as I have blogged about before, is brilliant. It not only incorporates the acoustic signature from the now-demolished Corwin Hall recital hall, but also embodies the tension, anxiety, and conflict present on the University of North Dakota’s campus.


As part of the program on Thursday night, Mike has asked me to give a bit of background. Since I’ll only have about 15 minutes (and have a TON to say), I figured I need to write some of it down to help me prioritize my little talk and not detract from why people have really come to the event (to hear Mike’s piece).  I need to introduce Wesley College and the four Wesley College buildings. I also need to introduce the WCDP. Finally, I want to frame Mike’s piece within the history of the our campus, the history of architecture, and contemporary policies in higher ed both at UND and nationally. Here is my rough draft:


The performance tonight is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project. This is a project that I started with a group of students as a 1-credit Honors “pop up course” that ran in the spring of 2018. The goal of the project was to document in as many ways as possible, the physical fabric of the Wesley College buildings, their history, and the the process of abandonment. We worked in collaboration with UND Facilities, who provided access to the buildings and offered their considerable expertise concerning the physical fabric of the buildings. The Department of Special Collections at the Chester Fritz Library welcomed us to the UND archive and helped the students pour over the documents relating to Wesley College and the four buildings: Robertson/Sayre Halls and Corwin/Larimore Halls. Last but not least, the students themselves gave far more than 1-credit worth of time to the project and produced textual, photographic, and video documentation as well as energy, enthusiasm, and ideas for the project.

For those of you who might be familiar with the story of Wesley College, it was founded as Red River University in Whapeton, North Dakota and opened in 1892 in what is now the Old Main at the North Dakota College of Science. Funded by an ambitious group of largely local donors and affiliated with the Methodist church, the college realized that to grow and thrive, it needed to move to a more populous location in the state. In 1905, the college’s new president, Edward Robertson struck an innovative (and frankly revolutionary) deal with the president of UND, Webster Merrifield to move the Red River University to Grand Forks and to rename it Wesley College. The College entered in a co-education relationship with UND allowing its students to take courses at UND and Wesley College graduating with a degree in both. Wesley College specialized in elocution, religious education, and music courses which were likewise open to UND students.

Robertson was ambitious and a tireless fund raiser. In the first years of the 20th century he courted the successful businessman Frank Lynch (formerly of Casselton, ND, but whose various concerns, which ranged from investments to timber and railroads were based in San Diego) and bonanza farmer N.G. Larimore who had supported Red River University, and managed to attract the support of lumber magnate A.J. Sayre, Stephen Corwin, financier and long-time UND donor John Milton Hancock. He contracted New York City based architect A. Wallace McRae who planned a campus in the very contemporary Beaux Arts style. Sayre, Larimore, and Corwin Hall opened in 1908, 1909, and 1910 respectively. Robertson Hall, which completed the matched pair of the two-building compounds opened in 1929 having been funded by Hancock. 

Sayre and Larimore Halls were dormitories for men and women and housed some of UND’s most famous alumni from Maxwell Anderson and Aviator Carl Ben Eielson and to Hancock’s son and daughter who lived in Sayre and Larimore respectively. Corwin Hall housed the music conservatory with its impressive recital hall and pipe organ as well as Wesley College offices which eventually moved to Roberston Hall upon its completion. When A.J. Sayre’s son died in World War I, the building was renamed in his memory, and in the spring of 2018 we organized a ceremony to recognize that we are removing a memorial from campus.

Despite (or pehaps because of) its innovative character, Wesley College struggled financially and with enrollments in the post-war period and in 1965, the college leaders sold the buildings and property to UND. UND converted the buildings to classrooms, offices, and labs over the next 50 years and erased a good bit of what made these buildings unique. In 2017, it was decided that continued upgrades to these buildings and their maintenance were too expensive and unnecessary and scheduled the buildings for demolition. This happened in spring of 2018.

The demolition fo the Wesley College buildings offered an excuse to study the buildings both as dynamic architecture with over a century use and adaptation as well as structures undergoing abandonment. Through conversations with the Wesley College Documentation Project team, we began to recognize certain profound tensions present in these buildings and their history that resonated with campus life in the 21s century.

For example, the Beaux Arts style was the first distinctly modern and professional architectural style which emerged at the turn of the century and quickly became the hallmark of progressive buildings from college campuses to train stations. At the same time, the neoclassical references in the Wesley College buildings, from the monumental arches of their south facade to the prominent Greek key patterns in glazed brick on their cornices, evoked the permanence of buildings and architectural values. Progress and persistence juxtaposed.

The role of architecture in progress in the early-20th century promoted a growing awareness of certain buildings as obsolete. The depreciation of buildings was reinforced in the U.S. tax code and a new sense of practical functionalism came to define architecture in the 20th century. The practical requirements of buildings and their ephemerality belied their monumental and representational form. That UND found these buildings obsolete in the 21st century on the basis (in part) of “deferred maintenance” fulfilled a vision of early 20th century architecture that recognized depreciation and obsolesce as part of the fiscal and physical life of a building.

Of course, at universities we tend to celebrate both progress and persistence. The juxtaposition of the modern Beaux Arts of Wesley College and the college Gothic of the Joseph Bell DeReemer and Wells and Denbrook buildings on campus reflect just this tension. With the spiritual and mystical character of the college Gothic offering a charismatic critique to the rational and progressive style of modernity. That the Wesley College buildings stood apart from our campus reminds us that past futures litter the present.    

When the news spread that UND had the Wesley College buildings scheduled for destruction, several people marshaled some protests that emphasized both their distinctive architecture and their historical significance. At the same time, the buildings had been adapted over time to new functions. A fire stair case compromised the acoustic of the Corwin Hall recital room, the dormitory rooms on the fourth floor floor of Larimore were almost entirely removed for laboratory space, and the mosaic floors, coffered ceilings, and fireplace of the Sayre Hall parlor were obscured by wall-to-wall carpeting, drop ceilings, and institutional textured walls. In other words, the function of value of these buildings, in the past, overwrote the historical value of these buildings in the present. In abandonment, outdated computers, massive and dated steel desks, disfigured pastel-colored particle-board and plastic furniture, and the marks of thousands of student and faculty footsteps remained behind in the building.The worn and tattered character of the abandonment assemblage and the century of architectural compromises made it possible to think of these spaces less as symbols of the past and more as failures in the present. 

As both UND and universities around the country are facing the tension between their progressive, forward thinking missions and their grounding in historically constituted practices, traditions, and disciplines, the question of when and how much past practices can be adapted for new uses without losing their character resonates. The crass functionalism associated with the depreciation of architecture, deferred maintenance, and demolition, refract against the persistent values of the college Gothic buildings, the humanities, and the arts. Overwriting failed futures erases the memory of past progress in a way to keep the present unburdened. This tension between value, progress, tradition, and the past in the present, is part of what makes a college campus exciting and terrifying, dynamic and disconcerting, and at the core of how I understand Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall.”

Specifically, it evokes the tensions that we experienced in Wesley College and instead of the attempt to balance them in through some long-winded historical, architectural, or archaeological analysis, preserves them so that we can consider and communicate our experience without the need for reconciliation or resolution.   


Friday Quick Hits and Varia

It’s Friday and my list of things that I want to do, things that I should do, and things that I have to do are not at all compatible. I’m counting down the hours to the weekend, to the Daytona 500, and to sitting by the warm fire with a new book.

For next week, if you’re from here in North Dakotaland, pencil into your schedule Mike Wittgraf’s performance of “Hearing Corwin Hall” on Thursday, February 21st at 7 pm in Hughes Fine Arts on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota. Here’s the event info and here’s more on the piece which grew out of the Wesley College Documentation Project.

But for now, I have to do work on a frigid Friday and my work day starts with offering you some quick hits and varia:


Risk, Failure, and Privilege

A recent tweet and ensuing conversation got me to thinking about the relationship between risk (and failure) and privilege. The tweeter stated that “failure is privilege” and a colleague of mine, Shawn Graham, retweeted this sentiment in the context of a book project that he’s working on that explores the role of failure in his career. The conversation evoked a paper that I heard this fall at the EAA meeting that argued – persuasively – that our current celebration of risk-taking in the high tech industry, in higher education, and maker culture is a product of extraordinary privilege.

Many of the people encouraging others to take intellectual, financial, and educational risk enjoy a robust economic safety net, are operating from a position of social and political power, and, in the most cynical assessment, have limited responsibility for the mess that risk taking can often produce. Moreover, we tend to elide risk taking in general with our own fairly narrow definition of risk. Trying out a new piece of software or taking on a new project might be risky in certain situations, but it isn’t the same as existential or personal risk. For more vulnerable individuals and communities in our society, risk taking and failure can have dire consequences. 

Finally, and most importantly, the attitude toward risk taking, innovation, and entrepreneurship often assumes that the status quo is somehow broken and needs a radical solution. This justifies and valorizes all sort of transgressive behavior in the name revolution. It undermines the accomplishments of all those individuals and institutions that created the existing system and creates an “us versus them,” “new versus old,” “risk versus complacency” situation where the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Existing institutions do offer protections to some of the most vulnerable in society and innovation can involve exposing others to hazards that exceed our own.

[As an aside, I often advocate among friends for a kinder, gentler form of anarchism, and one particular colleague never tires of pointing out that any call for us to destroy the system exposes those whom the system protects particularly vulnerable. She’s right, of course, but only in so far as the vulnerable are not a rendered vulnerable because of the system rather than despite it.] 

In this context, the valorization of risk taking is almost certainly a sign of privilege. For individuals who can afford (in a literal and personal sense) to fail, who have the security outside the system that they’re challenging and who operate within an established discourse that allows failure to occur without persistent stigma or social harm, then failure is a privilege. Tenure, for example, allows for failure to happen with a minimum of consequences. American society has protections – from bankruptcy law to various social safety nets – that protect the literally insulate the affluent from catastrophic risk of failure and celebrates innovators who take risks and succeed.

This brings us back, then, to the question of whether we can argue that failure is privilege. I’m skeptical. 

I worry that the slide from risk taking as an act of privilege to failure as an act of privilege serves on of two narratives. On the one hand, it seems to evoke long-standing Christian narratives that see the fall from grace as a precondition for salvation. Embedded in the New Testament parable of the prodigal son or the Denial of Peter, failure allows for redemption and leads to an awareness of God’s limitless capacity for compassion and love. This same narrative trajectory appears in innumerable hagiographic texts that document the redemption of a fallen individual as a challenge along the path to true sanctification. There are other obvious parallels – the Exodus, Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, – but the basic story of failure and redemption remains the same. To my mind, this narrative does the work of privileging failure by linking it to salvation.

What worries me more, however, is that by seeing failure as privilege, we are perhaps unintentionally reinforcing certain elements of the neoliberal world view. To oversimplify a complex set of ideological assumptions, the neoliberal world view tends to see the state as a barrier to innovation and argue that the free functioning of the market will allow for growth that will ultimately benefit everyone. The champions of the free market are those victorious souls who are great personal risk have generate economic value for themselves (of course) and society. The enemies of this order are those who have failed and live “comfortably” on “government handouts” which reinforce the government’s role in sapping wealth, energy, and motivation from the market. The privilege of failure in the neoliberal economy is placed on the shoulders of government programs that are both practically and ideologically suspect.  

In the end, I accept that our drive to innovate and take risks is a privilege position. At the same time, I’m hesitant to see failure as part of a similar system of privilege. Failure sucks and few aspire to fail. The idea that failure represents privilege nudges it too close to the idea that failure is a choice. In this context, those who fail simply decided not to win and are content to be burdens on those who had the gumption necessary to achieve their dreams.

In this context, the association of failure with privilege is a clear moral critique. Privilege is seen as something that is a voluntary position capable of being “checked” at the door of fair play and meritocratic judgement. Failure then represents an unwillingness to check one’s privilege and accept the level playing field where defeat isn’t just the gently luxury of privileged failure but absolute. This view of the world expects the vanquished to suffer deprived of both success and privilege. 

It’s hard to say whether this view of failure serves to promote a market driven world where the winners really win and the losers genuinely lose, but it certainly reinforces this as a basic reality. It changes failure from being a consequence of social, economic, intellectual, and even physical limitations and transforms it to a choice.  

In the end, I just don’t like this. Taking risks involves understanding and accepting the possibility of failure, but not all failure comes from taking risks. Even if we accept risk taking as an act of privilege, we owe it to ourselves to view failure more magnanimously. After all, we can agree that a society that mitigates the consequence of our decisions so as to make risk taking very difficult might be desirable in some ways, but it seems to me that a critique of failure that regards it as an act of privilege confuses the decision to take a risk (and fail) with the inevitability of failure in our lives.  

Reading the Roman Revolution 6: Caesar’s New Senators

In the current political climate, an interest in how oligarchies function seems like a reasonable academic pursuit. Chapters 5 and 6 of Syme’s The Roman Revolution unpacked the Caesarean Party and Caesar’s Senate respectively. 

Chapter 6 starts with an insightful (and oddly contemporary) piece of political theory:

“When a party seizes control of the Commonwealth it cannot take from the the bitter and barren vanquished consolation of defaming the members of the new government. The most intemperate allegations thrown about by malignant contemporaries are repeated by credulous posterity and consecrated among the uncontested memorials of history.”

Syme then goes on to describe in his typical laconic and incisive style the “ghastly and disgusting rabble” who made up Caesar’s new Senators. This included “centurions and soldiers, scribes and sons of freedmen.” These men were known for their loyalty rather than any claim to membership among the ruling elite of Rome. Caesar also elevated “men from the provinces.” It is important to appreciate Syme’s irony here, and it’s helpful to remember that Syme himself hailed from Eltham, New Zealand. Despite the Syme’s playful critique of the new Senator’s character, “their proportion must have been tiny in an assembly that now numbered about nine hundred members.” And warns agains the “incautious acceptance of partisan opinions about the origin and social status of Caesar’s nominees.” We probably shouldn’t take too seriously that “Cicero shuddered to think that he would have to sit in the Senate in the sight and presence of the rehabilitated Gabinius.” And Syme pokes him “he could now see beside him a great company of bankers and financiers, the cream and pride of the equestrian order, old friends, loyal associates or grateful clients.”

Many of the Senators who appear to have unconventional origins may have entered the Senate after the Sullan proscriptions especially the descendants of Roman knights.

Caesar did recruit from the elite of Italy and perhaps was responsible for the final closing of the wounds exacerbated by the Social War. Caesar’s association with the memory of the Marian faction and his triumphs over the Gauls won him respect among the Italian cities which he rewarded with seats in the expanded Senate.

The better known receive biographies in Syme’s vivid style: 

“Most famous of all was P. Ventidius, the army contractor. All posterity knows Ventidius as a muleteer. His career was laborious, but his origin may have been reputable. History has record of a family of Ventidii, municipal magistrates at Auximum, enemies of the Pompeii. When the young Pompeius raised his private army, he had to expel the Ventidii from that city”

Despite these new members of the Senate, Syme reminds us that Caesar continued to advance the interest of the traditional Roman nobiles by naming them consuls and arranging for magistracies. As a result, they did not oppose Caesar even after the Ides of March and some, like M. Antonius and M. Lepidus become the heirs to Caesar’s party and the restored republic. 

Uncharacteristically, Syme concludes the chapter with a question: “When the tyrant fell and the constitution was restored, would Antonius be strong enough to hold party and government together?”

This is also a question that has a haunting relevance today.



The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

Defining the Contemporary in Time and Place

The final sections that I need to write for (first draft of) the introduction to my book on archaeology of the contemporary American experience serve to define the scope of the book. I’ve located the archaeology of contemporary America in its historiographical and, to some extent, theoretical contexts, but my book still requires some formal limits. In a practical sense, my book is going to be short (<80,000 words) and synthetic and invariably will not be all things to all people. 

As with most books on archaeology, its scope is both chronological and spatial.

For time and place:

The archaeology of the contemporary American experience exists at a dynamic intersection of traditional practices and innovative ways of understanding our relationship with the past and present. This means that any definition of the archaeology of the contemporary must be both provisional and flexible enough to reflect the range of contributions present under this broad banner. The chronological definition of the contemporary world will have less to do with some narrow period centered on the present, and more to do with the predominant economic, political, and social conditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This period saw the ascendence of neoliberal economic programs, the development of the internet and greater access to digital technologies, an accelerated pace of globalization with the end of the Cold War, and aa growing anxiety surrounding the human wrought changes in the environment. Moreover, many archaeologists working in the second decade of the 21st century experienced these changes first hand. It also coincides with material that falls within the last 50 years and outside of the conventional (and legal) definitions of protected heritage in the United States. This chronological definition, of course, does not limit our interest only to objects manufactured over the last 50 years or identified closely with this span of time. This book will also follow the lead of Shannon Lee Dawdy, Laurent Olivier, and Alfredo González-Ruibal in recognizing the role of the most distant past in the present and how the interplay between the past and the contemporary complicates the persistent linearity of the modern narrative.

As for the geographic definition of this work, most of the examples will derive from North America and the United States more narrowly. In this way, the book recognizes and seeks to trace a distinctive character of the American experience which in large part reflects the priorities present in the field of historical archaeology. At the same time, trends in globalization and the increasingly fluid movement of goods, capital, and individuals over the last 50 years has introduced significant complexity to traditional definitions of historically constituted regions. The concept of “late sovereignty,” for example, articulates the increasingly blurred boundaries that define the authority of sovereign states in the 21st century. The political and economic power of multinational corporations and the reach of the internet across national boundaries contributes to a declining sense of geographically defined cultures and experiences. The rise of non-descript non-places at a global scale and the the mass movement of populations displaced by political and economic forces has further eroded a sense of provenience and distinctly national experience. This book will still focus on the United States and North America, but it will also be attuned to the various courses of influence, capital and movement that transform the contemporary world.

Politics of Mass Digitization

This weekend I read and really enjoyed Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s The Politics of Mass Digitization (2018). The book considered the approaches, implications, and politics behind the early 21st century move to mass digitization. Thylstrup unpacks the responses, for example, to Google Books from the European Union and their Europeana portal or platform to the various shadow libraries that emerged to provide access to collections overlooked or paywalled by conventional digitization schemes. It is a sophisticated, but accessible primer to the main issues surrounding mass digitization from a range of perspectives and theoretical paradigms. It’s good.

As someone who has thought a good bit about digitization in archaeology – although certainly not at the scale of Google Books, for example – and is alternately drawn to the potential of large scale digital collections and worried about the ways in which these collections tie archaeologists to ways of thinking, working, and interpreting, the book offers some useful observations. 

There are four that I found especially compelling:

1. Assemblages. Thylstrup emphasizes that the work of digitization is far more than simply a technical challenge or even economic or legal one. Instead, a wide range of pressures, technologies, systems, social expectations, rules, governments, and objects interact to shape mass digitization projects. This cautions us from reading mass digitization as simply a technical challenge that must be overcome or a set of legal or political challenges that will invariably give way to progress. It was particularly interesting to understand how various project – particularly the European, Europeana project – situated itself as a response to Google Books – and, as a result, showed the imprint of this formation on how it sought to preserve and disseminate European culture. At the same time, different European copyright laws, priorities, and the organization of cultural institutions, also gave Europeana a distinct character.   

2. Standardization. Anyone who has read this blog knows that standardization is something that has fascinated me over the last few years. The need to prepare archaeological data in such a way to make it susceptible to linked open data standards, for example, links standardization of data with certain expectations of use. Thylstrup noted that the need to standardize data in mass digitization, however, resisted the rigidity of the Fordist assembly line and instead promoted interoperability. This interoperability promoted the “free range of actions” and “innovation” that are so central to neoliberal ways of thinking. In other words, standardization is a method of displacing and decontextualizing information that allows for it to exist within a world that values the flexibility of use and reuse over the restrictive notions of context. This has obvious relevance for archaeology as it seeks to leverage both the potential of largescale linked datasets and the tradition of provenience and context.  

3. Labyrinths, Flaneurs, and Serendipity. One of the more intriguing sections of the book considers the models of discovery present in mass digitization projects. In particular, Thylstrup considers the the social context for serendipitous discover or the leisurely and unstructured encounter of the flaneur who invariably is a white, able-bodied, male. The labyrinth, in contrast, speaks to intimidating character of the digitized and seemingly infinite library that always is expanding. The need for the ambivalent figure of the disinterested flaneur to tame the terror of the always expanding labyrinth presents a compelling counterpoint to the economic and cultural imperative for standardization and the need to create digital objects that can freely mingle in the service of innovation. This is a subtle but fascinating critique that suggests that the very structure of the digital world serves to simultaneously intimidate and liberate, to make information useful and to promote serendipity, and to ultimate to reinscribe the control within a new space of digital encounters.

For an archaeologist, this reality should give us pause. After all, the importance of context and structure to the archaeological encounter motivates most of the fundamental positions in disciplinary ethics from the need to maintain and preserve an archive to our understanding of repatriation and provenience. By presenting data as both susceptible to the unconstrained ambivalence of the flaneur as well as the structured world of fragmented data, we’re creating a tension that challenges some of the basic professional expectations of our work.       

4. The Politics of the Digital World. Finally, Thylstrup’s work emphasizes in both the micro and macro level the role of politics in shaping mass digitization projects. While there is always as risk (as she herself notes) of using the word politics so broadly to undermine its very meaning, by recognizing the political character of the assemblages responsible for our digital repositories, she offers a useful lens through which to consider the power relations that even the most utopian mass digitization projects create and reinforce. 

This reminder that our digital world is fundamentally political is not new, but its always a useful reminder in an age where it becomes so easy to use and celebrate the potential of digital tools and data without much critique.