The Matter of History

I really enjoyed Tim LeCain’s first book, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet (2009) and that made me particularly excited to read his newest work The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (2017). LeCain pulls apart the recent interest in materiality in history and situates it as a response, in part, to the growing dissatisfaction with so-called constructivist views of the past. These views, championed by critical theorists of the 1970d and 1980s, “marginalized matter” by viewing the world as a cultural construct established by a dense network of relational ontologies. While this remains a tremendously influential method for understanding texts, historians and archaeologists have typically approached these ways of thinking with a bit of ambivalence. After all, historians and archaeologists build arguments from evidence and, as a result, view these pieces of evidence as somehow being sufficiently essential to support our arguments for a real past. 

For LeCain, this view of the past as real opens the door not to some kind simplistic epistemology that sets the past up as a kind of immutable reality to be mined by the historian for facts, but rather provides space for the place of matter – in all its myriad forms as objects, animals, buildings, landscapes – in our understanding of the world. For LeCain, the matter of history is quite literally matter itself. By allowing matter space in the world of the historian, LeCain recognizes that humans are material and the materiality of both human things and non-human things constrains and enables humans to act. 

While this might sound like the fairly heady (if increasingly typical) and philosophical stuff circulating widely in the world of new or neo-materialists, LeCain grounds his commitment to empiricism in a series of compelling case studies that range from the fate of long-horns in the Deer Lodge Valley in Montana when confronted by the polluting smoke of a smelting furnace to the role of the silkworm in modernizing Shimotsuke Japan. LeCain’s arguments develop from his significant understanding of copper mining and smelting on a global scale. In both Montana and Japan, the expansion of copper production compromised local agriculture and sericulture by introducing sulfur, arsenic, and other heavy metals into the local ecosystem. The conductive properties of copper were vital to the electrification of the modern world and advancing the ambitions of Japan on a regional and ultimately global scale. By interweaving humans, animals, industry, chemicals, and even the very much elemental cooper and downright molecular quality of electricity, LeCain works to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between aspects of the world frequently divided into categories of “nature” and “culture.”

Butte MT Berkeley Pit April 2005 Composite Fisheye View

Historians are nothing if not practical in their approach to the past. By challenging the divisions between the natural and the culture in our world, LeCain not only offers a compelling critique of the once-pervasive constructivism, but also establishes the practical value of the new materialism for historical work. Over the last decade, this critique has frequently come from scholars eager to recognize the agency of things. In many cases, this has resulted in making things oddly human with biographies and agency that frequently do little more than present the “life of things” as a superficial reflection of how we have traditionally seen ourselves. As a result, we avoid dealing with the “thingness” of things, but slotting them into an existing ontology that is ultimately derived from the very nature-culture division that we’re seeks to subvert. LeCain’s book avoids this common challenge in talking about things by both recognizing the humanity of humans as vital for understanding the world (there is, after all, a limit to our powers of empathy; it is pretty much impossible to feel for a hammer or an atom of copper), but not as something that exists outside the world. Things of all kinds – from silkworms and longhorns to arsenic – are allowed to thrive in LeCain’s narrative, but they do not bear the burden of a concept of agency built upon an assumption of human dominance of the material world.    

Instead, LeCain might be accused of limiting, in a cautious and deliberate way, the agency of humans in their control over the world. His book starts with a discussion of the symbiosis between various gut bacteria, mineral resources, and the long trajectory of human evolution to recognize the place of humans within a world that we frequently set aside as “natural.” He then engages R. G. Collingwood’s critique that all history is the study of thought (and thought is manifest, in part, in human action) and not the study of the unthinking material world of nature and things. LeCain’s book is in many ways a response to Collingwood’s views. He demonstrates that the division between the material and the human is illusory because we cannot separate thinking about things from thinking with things. If Collingwood celebrated the transcendent and even disembodied human mind as the locus of history, LeCain returned the mind to both the body and its place in the world. In his hands, this proposition seems less of a radical explosion of centuries-old divisions between mind and matter and more a commonsensical reminder of the real task of the historian is to unpack the complexities of human action in the world. 

The Seventh Century

Just a short post for today. Over the last few weeks here in the Western Argolid, Scott Gallimore, Guy Sanders, and I have talked a good bit about the seventh century A.D. The three of us are working with Sarah James to publish an assemblage of seventh century material from the Helleniko pyramid near Myloi in the Western Argolid (initially published by Louis Lord in 1938) as well as a growing body of seventh century material from the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

When I was working on my dissertation in the late-1990s and early 21st century, the number of seventh century monuments in Greece was tiny, and they were mostly ignored or considered with skepticism. 

Over the past decade, the number of 7th century sites has slowly increased. Some of these sites appear to be associated with political, military, or economic disruptions (like the Andritsa Cave and the Tunnel at Nemea), but sites like the island the island of Dokos and the the tower at Helleniko suggest that the seventh century assemblages represented more than just cowering communities in a time of disruption. There seems to be an emerging 7th century landscape that show some signs of continuity with the previous two centuries in contact between regions, persistent prosperity, and the beginnings of change in both material culture and settlement structure. There are hints at ethnic change as well. On WARP, our ceramicist, Scott Gallimore, are piecing together a dynamic and diverse 7th century landscape that defies simple categorization as refuges or farmsteads or even settlements.  

So over the next few years, I’m going to spend some time working through the evidence for 7th century change in Greece with my colleagues on WARP.  

Fragments of Ivan Illich in the Bakken Oil Patch

Over the past week or so, I’ve been making my way slowly through Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973) over the last few weeks, and it has really helped me refine (let’s say?) some of my ideas on work in the Bakken and (wait for it…) slow archaeology.

For Illich, the expansion of technology, professionalization, and institutions have undermined the fundamental conviviality of human society. This conviviality involves making space for independent creative acts and a commitment to work that modern, industrial society has stripped away. Illich sought to promote tools that allowed individuals and communities equal access to productive processes. His classic case study is learning: convivial tools allow for a freedom to experiment and encounter without institutional sanctions or limits whereas non-convivial tools limited access, reinforce the exclusivity of knowledge, and develop expertise and restrictive institutions like schools, factories, and professions. Technocratic society promotes inequality among its members through tools that grossly amplified the labor of the individual through increasingly technical means. Thus, the individual’s labor became increasingly estranged from their access to the rewards of the system which institutions meted out unevenly and in ways that were increasingly distinct from the work of the individual. The rise of fossil fuels accelerated the dominance of non-convivial tools and created a hard break between individual work and effort and consumption. 

During my research in the Bakken oil patch, I consistently noticed this curious curious tension that I was at pains to understand or describe. On the one hand, extractive industries especially modern fracking and deep drilling, represent an apex of industrial technologies and have value not in anything visible or tangible, but in the monetary reward that individuals receive for their work and society received from fossil fuels. In other words, the individual is separated from the fruits of work by myriad institutional and technological barriers ranging from the complexities of the modern financial structure of extractive industries to the hidden infrastructure of drill bits,  pipelines, and wells. Opportunities for expression within these institutional frameworks are profoundly limited for the safety of the worker, the efficiency of the process, and the control over the product. Worker wear uniforms, live in company housing, come to the area exclusively to work, and have hyper specialized skills.

There are, however, more convivial spaces in the Bakken, particularly in the informal workforce housing sites where some of the same workers (or the workers who support them) live. Amid the deeply unconvivial space of extractive industries that feeds the dense network of unconvivial tools that dominate the exclusionary space of modern society, there are these informal, ad hoc, convivial space for living that stand out as a space of resistance against the very regimentation of society that petroculture demands and requires. For example, these camps are filled with ad hoc mud rooms often built of found material present throughout the industrialized area. These rooms expand the living space of the RVs where workers live, protect the door from the cold and dirt of the patch, and offer an opportunity to show off individual building skills. These are expression of conviviality and the ideas for these improvised extensions circulate via conversation at these camps and stand in contrast to the more regimented life and work on the oil rigs.

This contrast produces a chilling irony. Advocates for the Bakken oil patch have presented it as a pathway to energy independence. If we follow Illich’s thought, however, the need for the fossil fuels produced from the Bakken constitutes a much more densely constituted web of dependence. 

Despite romantic views of the American West as a space for rugged individualism, the reality of work in the Bakken is more consistently manifest as the “wage earners frontier” with oil patch worker depending on a dense web of government, capital, and institutions to thrive. In fact, the risks associated with oil field work, the structured spaces of workforce housing, the technocratic organization of 21st-century extractive industries, and even the increasingly conspicuous collusion of the state and the oil companies locates the oil patch worker (as well as any consumer of fossil fuels) amidst multiple and rarely competing systems of control. Parts of this system from the economic networks that fund the work to the infrastructure that moves oil and water throughout the patch are conspicuously occluded as if to hide these patters of dependency. In fact, little about the Bakken and the Bakken oil boom constitutes genuine independence, but the space of man camp provides a rare exception.

It is hardly surprising that local government has cracked down on both mudrooms and informal workforce housing sites, and promoted superficially tidier superficially tidier apartment blocks that despite their more rational and regular design are now unoccupied. The result is a simple case study for Illich’s ideas. The informal conviviality of RV parks in the Bakken produced housing that was flexible, dynamic, cost effective, and left little impact on the landscape. The less convivial constraints of modernity produced produced a superficially more humane and rational housing system that has, at least for now, failed and will cost communities and future workers into the future.

Agency and Object Biography

Last week I heard that a paper proposed by Scott Moore and myself had been accepted for a panel on object biography at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting. I posted the call-for-papers and our abstract here.

Since writing that abstract, I’ve read or re-read some of the seminal articles on object biography and some of the more recent critiques. As readers of this blog know, I’m sympathetic to the notion that objects can have agency in an archaeological context and that archaeologists are constantly confronted by incredibly resistant physical realities. For many archaeologists, these physical realities push back at our efforts to coerce them into tidy schemas suitable for the production of 21st century knowledge. Archaeologists have recognized in this contest many similarities with craft production. The experienced craftsperson (is this a real word?) has gained a deeply embodied understanding of a particular medium and specialized tools, has recognized the strengths and weaknesses of this medium and tools, and has come to appreciate the willingness of the medium and tools (the medium and tools have a will) to accommodate the needs of the craft, the community, and the production process. In other words (and in a very simplified way), the craftsperson’s intimacy with tools, material, and production has created a symmetrical bond between the knowledge of the craftsperson and the various tools, media, and social environments that result in the production of a completed object. The line between the craftsperson’s body, his or her personal agency, and the various tools and objects has disintegrated into a dense web of interdependencies.

This broad definition of agency is particularly compelling in our (post-)modern era where so many of us feel like the complexities of the contemporary society have deprived us of control over our environments. The limits of our ability to control our world is nowhere more evident than in our relationship with technology. Our everyday lives are filled with objects that perform functions according to rules that we cannot control. At the same time, the corporatized relationships that define our productive and social worlds limit the control over our own economic destiny. While I’ll acknowledge that there have always been limits on human freedom imposed through our engagement with technology, social and economic structures, and the physical reality of being human, the complexities of the 21st-century, Western world, has made many of us feel these limits more acutely. 

 By expanding the concept of agency to include objects, scholars have sought to reimagine agency in a way that both explains how objects limit human agency and – perhaps paradoxically – to suggest that these limits have always existed and the our 21st-century feeling of helplessness is more a product of expectations exaggerated by Enlightenment claims for human freedom than a genuine devolution of the power of the human will. In short, if objects can be agents, so can even the most constrained individual. At the same time, our sense of helplessness when confronted by a recalcitrant piece of technology reflects an authentic contest between two equally endowed tools committed to performing incompatible tasks. The square hole, round peg, and frustrated peg-pusher are all equally responsible for our 21st century frustrations.

To return to the paper that I’m writing for the ASOR meeting in November, I want to think about how our expanded notion of agency can follow an object through the tangled web of interactions that it encounters as it moves through what we  call (using Michael Schiffer’s terminology) “archaeological context” (that is the context in which an object functions after it has passed from its “systemic context”).  Almost as soon as the object emerges from the trench or the survey unit, it encounters other objects and other forms of agency that extend from the field walker or excavator to the various components of a digital camera, image processing programs, databases, the clustered existence of the web, and the old pulped-tree paper of final publication. During this time, the object itself is transformed, copied, we might even say “cloned” to facilitate insertion into an ever expanding web of new agents. At some point in this process the idea of an object biography takes on a tinge of science fiction as copies of the object circulate widely without any visible impact on the object itself. The ease with which this process takes place calls to question the continued utility of the biographic metaphor in our increasingly digital world.  

More on this paper over the next few months as I refine my ideas and take more time to comprehend the key scholarship on this topic!