An Afterword for The Archaeology of the Contemporary Experience: A Second Draft

I’m not great at writing conclusions. More than that, I designed my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience without a conclusion. Instead, I planned an afterword that would bring the book “up to the minute” (and you can read that here), but my editors, rightly, noted that the publication process is a long one and that makes producing an up-to-the-minute afterword particularly fraught.

With this critique in mind and recognizing that my book is substantially longer than I originally proposed to the press, I’ve produced a shorter, more general, but also more “conclusive” afterword. I don’t dislike it and I hope you find it unobjectionable, shorter, and somehow still incisive and useful.


Acknowledging our contemporaneity with the planetary changes that constitute the Anthropocene transforms the scale and scope of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. In this context, it is tempting to lose site of what constitutes our experiences as “American” in a globalizing and globalized world. It is also challenging to consider how we should imagine the contemporary as a meaningful chronological periods. This book offered one perspective on what an archaeology of the contemporary American experience might look like. It endeavored to employ approaches and priorities manifest at the intersection of American historical archaeology and the archaeology of the contemporary past as practiced outside the United States to traces our American experiences within our growing sense of being part of a densely interconnected world. At the same time the book attempted to embrace a sense of the contemporary that recognized it as a challenging and sometimes even contested lens through which to focus archaeological inquiry. The previous chapter have proposed concepts of the contemporary that vary situationally. The concept of the contemporary among Native American communities struggling with the pain of residential school era burials or among African American communities who continue to endure the loss of life and generational wealth in the Tulsa massacre cannot be the same as the contemporary conceived in the ephemeral immediacy of the Burning Man Festival or in the multiple temporalities manifest in the Bakken oil boom.

That said, it remained difficult to ignore the most insistent aspects of the contemporary American experience which loomed over the writing of this book. I completed the first drafts of this manuscript against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and protests following the murder of George Floyd. I was checking citations while keeping one eye on the stunning events of January 6th, 2021 and worked on edits as the Russians invaded Ukraine. This afterword come into focus as the US Supreme Court has compromised women’s reproductive freedom and severe drought continues to wrack the American West. These events and our disciplinary response to them continuously provoke and expand my view of the archaeology of the contemporary world and the American experience. Awareness of contemporary crises infuses the discipline with a sense of persistent urgency as these flashpoints often reveal deeper fractures and structures in our society. The urgent and essential work by Maria Franklin and her colleagues (Franklin et al. 2020) while situated amid BLM protests nevertheless speaks to a century long struggle for racial equality both in the discipline of archaeology and in American society more broadly. Similar sentiments emerged in a recent article in American Antiquity, composed jointly by the editors, which situated the contemporary COVID pandemic in the long history of pandemics, marginal communities, and race (Gamble et al. 2020). By considering the uneven social impact of pandemics in the past, the authors push us to consider how our ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak can avoid further marginalizing groups who have historically suffered from inadequate medical care and economic opportunities. Like so many issues confronting contemporary American society, the COVID pandemic requires us to think beyond traditional disciplinary, national, and geographic boundaries (Angelo et al. 2021). The contributors to a special issue of the African Archaeological Review have similarly sought to situate our contemporary response to COVID to past practices and to understand the impact of long term change, indigenous knowledge, social resilience, and colonialism shaped how communities reacted to such traumatic events. Shadreck Chirikure (2020) calls for archaeologists to not just content themselves with the study of past pandemics, but to use this knowledge to collaborate with other disciplines and to shape policy in the present. Kristina Douglass (2020) considers how the disciplinary knowledge that archaeology produces about the past might form the basis for a more resilient present both for the communities where we live and study and for our discipline. As these examples show, the archaeology of the headlines contributes to how we understand and address the slow violence of situations that date to the start of the 20th century, to the beginning of modernity, or even emerge from deep time itself. In this context, the archaeology of the Anthropocene marks yet another example of how the proximate crises of climate change whether manifest in unpredictably violent storms or severe draught nevertheless depends upon ecological, geological, and structural limits expressed at a planetary scale and over deep time.

An archaeology of our contemporary experiences, then, reflect a range of temporal and geographic concepts at play. This book’s first case study emphasized discard, consumer culture, and the digital world which embodied the anxieties, expectations, and dreams of the turn of the 21st century middle class. These experiences were distinctly American in their particular their concern for garbage barges, Hummers, jazz and rock music, and, of course, Atari games, but these encounters, objects, and expression relied upon global networks and produced global consequences. The second case study, explored the role of domestic spaces, institutions, urbanism, protest, and extractive industries in shaping the late 20th and 21st century experience. To understand something as regional, if not parochial, as the short-lived Bakken oil boom, I considered the archaeology of national borders and homeless camps, college campuses and military bases, protest sites and urban landscapes. This suggested to me that the displacements, deployments, occupations and migrations that characterize a range of contemporary experiences often leave ephemeral or obscure traces in the material record, but reflect the often tense negotiations between the modern, national, and institution spaces and the supermodern, global, and transitory spaces. In the end, the archaeology of contemporary America frequently represents effort to place ourselves, our possessions, our trash, our habits, and ultimately our experiences in their local and planetary contexts.

Three Things Thursday: Pollen, Climate, and Grass

Today will be a hectic day toward the end of a hectic week. As we enter the “frog days” of summer, I think I’m feeling the start of the fall semester looming. 

As a result, all I have this morning is a very short three things Thursday, but maybe there’s a bit of thematic unity that extends across my posts this week!

Thing the First

My long time collaborator and friend, Dimitri Nakassis, sent some of his WARP colleagues a link to “Mid-late Holocene vegetation history of the Argive Plain (Peloponnese, Greece) as inferred from a pollen record from ancient Lake Lerna” by Cristiano Vignola, Martina Hättestrand, Anton Bonnier, Martin Finné, Adam Izdebski, Christos Katrantsiotis, Katerina Kouli, Georgios C. Liakopoulos, Elin Norström, Maria Papadaki, Nichola A. Strandberg, Erika Weiberg, and Alessia Masi in PLOS One.

As the title suggests, this article reports on the analysis of pollen in cores taken from bed of the now-drained Lerna Lake. It’s pretty technical, but offers a very readable “Interpretation and Discussion” section which offers some perspectives that while not entirely unsurprising are nevertheless useful: 

“During the Early Byzantine period from ca. 1480 to 1120 BP (470–830 CE) the increasing percentage and influx values of Pinus and Quercus robur type evidence the expansion of both pinewoods and oakwoods in the Lerna pollen catchment area. The Olea curve displays a severe drop and PI significantly increases, together with Artemisia, Cichorieae and Plantago undiff…pollen and archaeological data point out a reduced human pressure in the uplands and a more local food production in the plain, where olive groves contracted and pasturelands expanded following the collapse of the Eastern Roman control on the Balkans.”  

Thing the Second

It’s pretty rare that I’ll link to a book published by Springer on this blog, but I’ll make an (open access) exception today. I’m very much looking forward to reading Perspectives on Public Policy in Societal-Environmental Crises: What the Future Needs from History edited by Adam Izdebski, John Haldon, and Piotr Filipkowski.

The book, as its title suggests, look directly toward the relationship between environmental policy and history. More importantly, this book uses quite a few examples from Greece and the Medieval period, and includes chapters relating to how we narrate and tell stories about environmental history. I’m looking forward to checking this out over the next few days.

Thing the Third

As promised, this is a short post today, and the final thing for this “three thing Thursday” is a link to an essay by Judith Fetterley called “In Praise of Grass” which appeared last year in NDQ.  

It’s a brilliant little reminder that our lawns are both living things and vibrant ecosystems even if they’re very much cultivated by humans. 

Planetary History

As I’ve hinted for the last week or so, I’ve been reading Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). It’s a fantastically rich book that I neither have the depth of learning to review nor the time to digest even partially (and this appears to be my fate in life). The book takes as a point of departure, Chakrabarty’s seminal article “The Climate of History: Four Theses” from 2009, which he republishes in the book with some commentary.  

That said, I do want to offer some book notes if for no other reason than to tempt historians and archaeologists to pick up this book. As per usual, these are random and reflect things that stuck in my mind rather than a systematic review. 

1. Global versus Planetary. One of the main themes of the book is the relationship between our concept of the global, which Chakrabarty locates in the mid-20th century with the development of not only post-war economic and political networks, but perhaps as importantly the post-colonial move to modernize the “developing world” in political and economic terms. This view of the “global” forms the basis for the notion of globalization that has come to dominate certain kinds of late-20th century and early 21st-century thought and certainly has influences our experiences and the kind of history that we write. Of course, Chakrabarty recognizes that various moves – from Atlantic trade to post-war “neoliberalism” – contributed to the history of globalism in our contemporary world. 

Chakrabarty distinguishes the global from the planetary which he sees as a way of seeing the world developed by James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis and later by the field of Earth Systems Science. These theories seek to understand the planet Earth as a system with its own regulating mechanisms that operate on the scale of millennia rather than decades or centuries. Reconciling the historical notion of the global with the vast time scales indicative of the planetary systems is part of the challenge for history, the humanities, and even our experiences as humans.

2. Deep Time and Experience. One of the main issues that Chakrabarty addresses is how do we reconcile our distinctly human (even phenomenological) experience of time with the planetary scale. The latter Chakrabarty recognizes as “deep time” which intersects with our experience in ways ranging from our dependence on fossil fuels and the evolutionary scale of the development of species and the human mind. Climate change at a planetary scale forces us to confront the messy intersection between deep time and the immediacy of the present. 

One of my favorite dilations on this topic is Chakrabarty’s discussion of Reinhart Koselleck’s distinction between experience and expectations. Experiences are the “present past” and expectations are “the future made present” and “that which is to be revealed.” For Koselleck, experience and expectations coexist in humanity, but in the modern period, the gap between the two is ever expanding but at the same time it is this efforts to reconcile expectations and experiences that constitutes historical time. For Koselleck and Chakrabarty, this tension ensures that historical time is not simply reflect past experiences, but also embodies affect and emotions. In the context of planetary level climate change and our expectations of catastrophic change and efforts to avert it contribute to a sense of historical time that is infused with both hope and anxiety. Thus, the deep time of the planet influences the historical time in which the past and present co-create the present.

3. Labor and Time. One of the key elements of Chakrabarty’s thinking derives from his long association with the subaltern studies project and post-colonial historiography. This not only informs his view of modernity which he sees as a global project informed by both the traditional colonial metropoles and in the post-colonial world as it sought to improve and develop their communities and nations in way that respond to local needs, accommodate distinctive priorities and beliefs, and enable them to integrate into the globalized work.

Here Chakrabarty admits that his earlier concern for the post-colonial experience overlooked the planetary concerns of climate change despite being contemporary with its formulation. I’m particularly interested in how he thinks about the relationship between labor and climate change which he just starts to develop in the final section of the book in his dialogue with Bruno Latour. Here he develops a distinction between labor (in a Marxian sense) and work as energy and the extent of capital’s reach. And here conventional understandings of labor (even in the context of subaltern and post-colonial studies) breaks down and gives way to a theory of work redefined as the extent of capitalism’s reach into planetary stores of energy. Here, then, labor, work, energy, and deep time intersect in ways that require new paradigms to understand.  

4. Deep Time and Archaeology. One of the interesting oversights of Chakrabarty’s book is that it overlooks the role that archaeology can play in bridging the gap between deep time, history, and experience. Moreover, archaeology is situated in place where it can find ways to integrate approaches developed in science, social sciences, and the humanities. Indeed, archaeology’s intense interest in methods creates an opportunity to foreground the tensions that different time scales and different types of knowledge.

Even something as basic and routine as stratigraphic excavation involves understanding that soils are not necessarily contemporary with the human artifacts that are typically the objects of archaeological study. Without understanding the character of the soils present in stratigraphic excavation or even the surface of ground in surface survey, it becomes impossible to recognize the context for the human-made objects present in these contexts. 

I suspect this capacity for archaeology to contribute to our ability to reconcile the global and the planetary is part of the reason we’re seeing an outpouring of recent work on the archaeology of climate which not only brings together multiple sites on a global scale, but also planetary scale data that traces not only long-term processes, but requires us to understand both these processes as they occurred and the results of these processes to make sense of human scale activity.

I wonder, then, whether this is a missed opportunity for Chakrabarty and a vote of confidence in archaeology’s efforts to imagine new ways to reconcile deep time and history.

4. Finally, this book clocks in at about 230 pages. It is a long-weekend read, but it’ll take me months to unpack the implications of this book, however.

This isn’t a criticism, but a demonstration that short, intense, and compelling works continue to exist even as we weekly confront some or another 500+ page magnum opus from this or that ambitious senior scholar. And, I’d rather read a 200-odd page book than any of the recent crop of mega-tomes and spend time that I might have spent reading thinking though what the author had to say. 

Three Things on COVID

Like most of the world, I’m anxiously reading about the rise of the latest COVID variant, Ba.5, and worrying about how it will impact my health, the health of people in my community, and our daily life. I’m already hearing about the consequences of this new, highly transmissible variant, on the operations of summer programs, and on the fall semester.

This has spurred three poorly formed ideas that I’m sharing here mostly to get out of my system.

1. COVID and Compliance. To be absolutely clear, I’m vaccinated, boosted, prone to follow the various protocols and mandates, and inclined to express a kind of good-natured annoyance when I see people flaunting the rules, ignoring social distancing practices, or wearing the famous chin mask. 

That said, I have this growing feeling that the way we talk about COVID and compliance is evocative of how we talk about capitalism especially in the 20th century. In particularly, we are told that compliance with  the expectations of capital will led to not only personal prosperity but also economic growth and collective prosperity. Thus, in the so-called “neoliberal” regime that has emerged since the 1980s, the state has worked hard to eliminate policies and practices that run counter to capitalism even if this involves cutting away the social safety net, removing the guard rails from the market, and, at times, working to suppress alternatives that might offer viable ways of life outside of he capitalist regime. The inducement for these policies is that some social, economic, and political discomfort now will yield a better life for individuals and society in the future.  

It’s hard to know whether the continued roiling of the COVID pandemic will lead to renewed mandates and protocols as schools reopen in the fall. To be sure, we’ve been told that if we just comply with various policies, including vaccinations, masking, social distancing, and, if need be, lockdowns, the possibility exists that we can return to normal pre-COVID practices. Not only does this seem increasingly unlikely, but also calls into question whether “the science” behind efforts to reduce the spread of COVID provides a sufficient foundation for real world policy making.    

2. Migrant COVID. Over the weekend, I read most of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s latest book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). One observation that Chabrabarty makes is that displacements associated with modernity, capitalism, and globalization extend well beyond humanity. As the deer happily munching on the hostas in our garden know, displacements extend to local megafauna who often depart from habitats increasingly encroached upon by development and the privatization of property. As many local gardeners know, the only way to keep deer from grazing on delicacies destined for human palates is to fence off gardens. Thus the borders between human and “natural” habitats, if such a designation makes sense in the contemporary world, become increasing hardened. Traditional migration routes become “wildlife corridors,” traditional ranges become “preserves,” and living things that stray from their designated environments become invasive. 

Obvious the COVID virus is not the same as megafauna, but efforts to contain its spread seem in some ways to echo our efforts to constrain the movement of both fauna and, more tragically, humans displaced environmental destruction, climate change, economic and political colonialism, and war. 

It has become almost a bit cliche to speculate on how we might blur the division between the human and non-human world. It seems like our global response to COVID, that so often focuses on efforts to disrupt the movement of the virus between context, between communities, and between people, offers a vivid example of how various routes of displacement long used by more visible species are also suitable for less visible and less living creatures. 

3. COVID and Time. Finally, earlier in the pandemic, I speculated a bit on COVID and time (here, here, and here). One thing that reading Chakrabarty’s book has pushed me to think about is how much time makes a difference in how we experience crises in the contemporary world. For example, it is well understood that the rate of change associated with global climate change has made it difficult for political institutions much less individuals to make decisions and policies necessary to avert what is almost certain to be catastrophic climate change. 

COVID in contrast is doing what viruses do. It is adapting and surviving, but as we continue to struggle to keep pace with its changes and its movement. COVID testing often lagged behind outbreaks and new variants of the virus have outpaced our ability to produce new vaccines (much less policies). It is often imagined that the time of “nature” is slower than “human” time, but we also need to acknowledge that the time of nature can be much faster than human time. The COVID pandemic is a tragic reminder that our ability to understand and respond to our surroundings is as much a matter of time as a matter of conditions.

Roman Climate

As I get old, one of my great weaknesses as a professional is becoming more and more apparent. As my always modest synapses have slowed down further and my limited pool of energy has gotten shallower, I find myself increasingly driven by deadlines rather than genuine curiosity about the past (or the present or the world). This summer, for example, has become a prolonged exercise in shooting the wolf closest to the sled and this is both unrewarding and exhausting.

As an antidote to this tendency, I still try to read things that capture my interest or that contribute to a broader understanding of the past. As I look at the prospects of teaching a class on the “End of the Roman Empire” (or some such thing) in the spring (alas another deadline), I’m feel an even greater sense of urgency to read and think more broadly about the past (or at least Late Antiquity).

At present, I have a “back of the napkin” idea how to organize my class on the End of the Roman World and I won’t burden this blog post with that kind of nattering, but I do want to include at least a week on Roman and Late Roman climate. The archaeology of climate, climate change, and its impact on society has long drawn my interest. The challenge, of course, for antiquity is that the paleoclimate data is hard to understand. Not only does it involve understanding the science of climate, but also a certain amount of statistics, sampling, and regional geography. 

Over the weekend, I read “Settlement, environment, and climate change in SW Anatolia: Dynamics of regional variation and the end of Antiquity” by Matthew J. Jacobson, Jordan Pickett, Alison L. Gascoigne, Dominik Fleitmann, and Hugh Elton in PLOS ONE. I was initially drawn to this piece because I noticed that the region was not only near Cyprus, but that some of the points that define this region were further from one another than they were from northwest Cyprus where I work. I’m not especially sanguine that data from southern Anatolia is likely to correlate directly to the climate conditions during Antiquity on Cyprus, and one of the authors discouraged me from thinking that way via the twitters

At the same time, this article offers some remarkable conclusions that suggest, for example, that the Roman Climate Optimum, which some scholars have treated almost as a given, might not be as obvious in the regional level climate data as big picture discussions of the Roman world have tended to assume. In fact, in this articles’ SW Anatolia study area, there was no evidence from the RCO in the climate data and it was impossible, then, to correlate the increase in agricultural activity, building, or trade during the Roman period with a milder regional climate. Indeed, this is consistent with data from across the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. The Early Byzantine period (350-600) shows a predictable increase in settlement and a more or less continued investment in urban areas. That said, there’s little in the way of climate data from this specific region to correlate these investments and expansion of settlement with a pan-Mediterranean situation. Instead, there appears to be a regional patchwork moisture levels for example that likely contributed to the prosperity of the period, but perhaps did not represent a single transformative agent in the development of this period. 

As a result, the contraction of settlement and seeming decline in prosperity in the Middle Byzantine period does not emerge as the result of climate change, but similar to Roman and Late Roman prosperity, part of a more complex group of political, military, social, and environmental influences.

Returning to my class, this article has some real advantages for classroom use. Some advantages are clear, but go without saying, such as the robust footnoting and careful historical and archaeological contextualizing. Others are tacit, such as its open access status!

So, I’ve added it to my list! 

Bakken Babylon

When I first started working on Cyprus, in 2003 or so, and maybe up to 2008 or 2009, it was pretty easy to avoid being in constant contact with professional colleagues while “in the field.” With COVID accelerating our adoption of technology that allows for remote work, this year I feel like I’m constantly connected to my other responsibilities, for better or for worse, and entangled with other timelines and situations in other places.

This is not a complaint, necessarily. I like remaining involved in my various projects and hearing from colleagues and collaborators when I’m abroad. As I mentioned last week, the intensity of work during field seasons contributes as much to being exhausted as being away from home, eating different food, and having a new routine. Being in contact with my colleagues is a nice way to introduce a bit of home cooking and balance to my life when abroad.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the editors and contributors to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology on archaeology and climate change. This derived from a panel held at ASOR a number of years ago where I presented some of my research on the Bakken and suggested that it  could contribute to larger discussions on man-made climate change. At the end of the panel, which was quite stimulating, I felt concerned that my research didn’t really fit into what the other papers were trying to do. I was less interested in the climate change in the Near East, for example, and more interested in the social processes associated with the oil industry as a kind of surrogate (or a lens) through which we can consider contemporary climate change.

As part of the zoom conversation tomorrow afternoon, we’ve each been asked to talk for one minute on our proposed papers. I’ve been mucking about with mine over the last few months and have posted some fragments (which you can follow here). For my 1 minute precis, I need to wrangle these into something more coherent. Here’s my current plan:

My paper will use Reza Negrastani’s Cyclonopedia, a work of speculative fiction which offers a brilliant, if obscure meditation on the materiality of oil and the oil industry in the Near East, as a kind of cypher to unpack the relationship between the Bakken and Babylon. This aspect of my paper will be (hopefully) playful, but also have the goal of showing how oil conflates the Bakken and the Near East.

It sets the stage for the second part of my paper which makes this conflation a bit more explicit not only by tracing concepts like “dustism” (and the preoccupation with dust) between the two places but also figures like Thomas Barger, Frank Jungers, and Wallace Stegner whose work connected North Dakota with oil in the Persian Gulf.

The final section will suggest that this conflation of the Bakken (or North Dakota) and Babylon not only emphasizes the globalization of the concept of Babylon, which reverberates through critiques of capitalism and colonialism (and their role as the backbone of oil, climate change, and modernity) as well as a global approach to Near Eastern archaeology.

Cyclonopedia and Non Linear History

I’ve been thinking more and more about how to write something on the archaeology of climate and at the same time putting the final touches on a paper on the archaeology of oil production and a seminar that looks to discuss Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) .

I’ve posted some fragments of this article herehere, and here.

This work got me thinking about the concept of supermodernity and how crushing weight of the supermodern present disrupts our relationship to the past. Any number of recent scholars have argued that the hyperabundance of the present has a tendency to overwhelm evidence for earlier periods and reduce our understanding and awareness of them to rounding errors and fragments. This line of reasoning preserves an echo of the old Enlightenment view that our evidence for the ancient world is so incomplete (compared the evidence for the 18th and 19th century “present”), that there’s very little hope reconstructing any meaningful or accurate sense of that era.  

The crushing weight of the present likewise has a tendency to compress time and disrupt the flow of the past into the future. Works like the Cyclonopedia hint at the impact of this compressed time on our perception of antiquity and experience of the modern world. In this chaotic example of speculative and philosophical fiction, the ancient past of Mesopotamia courses through the modern through the media of oil, dust, and nomads. The mystical ramblings of a renegade American special forces officer rubs shoulders with ancient deities bent on war and destruction and fueled by “hydrocarbon corpse juice” which flows from the Middle East via pipelines. The spiraling mess that is the Cyclonopedia makes it impossible to imagine any form of linear history or even causality in how we understand geopolitics and industrialization. In fact, Negarestani intentionally inverts the narrative that proposes industrialization and modernity created oil and violence on a global scale. Instead, the  power of oil is a primordial attraction and the recent eruptions of violence in the Near East have roots in the deep past that bubbles up through the present. 

The Cyclonopedia is a challenging texts so suffused in symbolism, visions, analysis, and narratives interruptions that it doesn’t model an especially useful way of thinking about the past. But in this mess of a work, there is a counter-modernity that resists the trajectories that have come to dominate the present. For example, it challenges the view, quite explicitly, that oil has somehow stunted the development of the Middle East by pushing it from premodern to postmodern without negotiating industrialization and the democratizing economic transformations associated with that trend. This view of development, of course, is not a real thing and serves merely as a justification for colonialism. But it does demonstrates how certain linear or developmental views of the past impair our ability to recognize different future (and even different presents).   

As I’ve started working on piecing together a fragmentary paper on the Bakken, Babylon, and climate change, I’m thinking more and more about how late modernity disrupts space and time. It seems like our inability to understand a future shaped by climate change has less to do with the absence of scientific data or even flaws in how scientists and policy makers have communicated that data and more to do with a reluctance to see the linear narrative of progress as inadequate for describing our present and future. A future shaped by climate change, for example, suggests the kind of catastrophe best associated with ancient states whose collapse created the opportunities for new beginnings. In this case, however, the event horizon of catastrophic social, political, and economic collapse prevents us from appropriating the future into our existing narratives. The apocalypse is foreclosed for all but science fiction writers, doomsday philosophers, and survivalists.

Without an acceptable and reliable guide to the future, we’ve doubled down on the present as the antidote for the past that exists primary as the prequel for our own catastrophism. Instead of a foundation for new ways of life or paths not taken, the past mostly lingers as a cautionary tale that subverts the potential of the present by offering a refuge for a kind of regressive (and repressive) nostalgia or is simply irrelevant beyond the specter of rising levels of atmospheric carbon, sea levels, and temperatures. Linear history can make the causal connection between industrialization and its promises of democracy, economic prosperity, and social equality and climate change, but for most, the details are irrelevant because, unlike the present proposed by Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, the modern present shaped by rationality, science, and capitalism, must provide solutions to the contemporary situation that reverse the conditions created in past. 

Writing about Pompeii in the Age of Catastrophe

The last couple weeks have been a real struggle for me personally and professionally. I’ve been sort of drifting through my days in a post-COVID fog and have found it incredibly difficult to focus enough to write anything longer than a few sentences. This is particularly intense in the afternoons when I start to fatigue. I remain optimistic that this will pass eventually, but it has led me to shift some of my limited attention from longer and more concentration intensive work like revising book chapters to shorter work. In an effort to make a virtue out of a necessity, I prepared this short response to a pair of poems published in Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen last year. I wrote a rough draft of it last week, but after some reflection on Mark Bould’s recent book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso 2021) and an assist from Sarah Bond on Twitter, I was able to expand my short post into something a bit more substantive. Shawn has graciously accepted my response and I look forward to it appearing over at Epoiesen later this year. 

Here’s what I have to say:

Pompeii has an enduring place in our modern cultural imagination. Excavations at the site, and their often grisly discoveries, have come to stand in for any number of modern situations from the intimate pain of personal heartbreak to horrors of the Shoah, industrialization, and the looming climate catastrophe. I’d like to propose Mary K. Lindberg’s poems on Pompeii continue in this tradition.

The release of Cate Le Bon’s latest album titled Pompeii coincided with my reading of Lindberg’s poems and spurred my reflection. Le Bon’s album while refined, cohesive, and thoughtful, is not a concept album, and it doesn’t seem to connect with the site beyond including a song of the same title. In this song, however, Le Bon evokes a longstanding trope associated with Pompeii through a swirl of reverberating synths:

Get dressed
You’re a mess
You’re a sight Did you dream about Pompeii?
Your eyes always give it away
Cities built on monumental rage
Getting lost in the seminar…

The idea of dreaming about Pompeii invokes Sigmund Freud’s well-known treatise, Delusion and Dream: an Interpretation in the Light of Psychoanalysis of Gravida (1907) which interrogates Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gravida (1903) through the lens of psychoanalysis. The main character in Jensen’s novel, Harold, an archaeologists, fell in love with an ancient relief carving which he calls Gravida. After a dream about the destruction of Pompeii and Gravida’s demise, he traveled to the site and while there, he saw a woman who looks like Gravida, but was alive and well. The woman was, in fact, Zoë Bertgang, a former neighbor of Harold’s on whom he had a childhood crush. Freud in his treatise, Delusion and Dream, excavated Harold’s dream of Gravida and argued that it was, in fact, a manifestation of his sublimated love for his former neighbor who he just happened to encounter in Pompeii. Thus, Harold’s passion for the Gravida relief and archaeology as a discipline was an expression of his repressed passion for this woman. Zoë understood this and cured Harold by at times imitating Gravida and at other times gently directing Harold’s attention from his fantasy to reality. Freud’s work both revealed his longstanding interest in excavation as a metaphor for bringing the complex working of the unconscious mind to light and demonstrated the utility of his psychoanalytical methods for considering works of literature.

It is hard to escape this long Freudian shadow when reading Mary K. Lindberg’s first poem, “Book Lover.” The narrator in the poem is a freedman, Aristo, who survives the first shocks of Vesuvius’s eruption, but dies in the pyroclastic flow the next day. He was a librarian whose love for books surpassed that for even his family(or perhaps the family of his former master who also perished in the eruption. He was found by excavators still clutching his keys to the library. In another poem, “The House of the Deer,” a wealthy Roman family hoped to escape Vesuvius’s eruption by seeking shelter in the boathouses by the sea. As they fled they grabbed jewelry and coins, but in the end, even with their worldly goods, they died among the fishy nets of boats. Like Harold’s desire for the sculpted Gravida, the characters in Lindberg’s poems appear to displace their desire for family, safety, and home onto material things even as Pompeii crumbled around them. In both poems, Lindberg includes figures rushing about with pillows tied to their heads as if begging the reader to reflect on our dreamtime displacements. These desperate figures seem to embody our own pillow-headed efforts to capture our dreams as they flee the probing fingers of our conscious mind and solidifies the dream-like quality of the poems which capture individuals at the moment of crisis.

Reading these poems and listening to Cate Le Bon’s oneiric voice ask “Did you dream about Pompeii?” begged me to consider how “cities built on monumental rage” had became “lost in the seminar.” Primo Levi’s haunting poem “The Girl-Child of Pompeii” (1978 [1984 in Italian and 1992 in English]) offered a depressing clue. The poem juxtaposes the plaster cast of a child who died in the eruption of Vesuvius while clutching her mother with Anne Frank and the famous Hiroshima blast shadow of the girl jumping rope. This poem was brought to my attention by Joanna Paul’s chapter in Pompeii in the Public Imagination ((2011) edited by Paul and Shelley Halles). Pompeii’s monumental rage has made it a timeless vessel for the past horrors of the Holocaust and the looming anxiety of the nuclear age: “Since everyone’s anguish is our own | We live ours over again…” Cities built on rage reverberate across the centuries suffusing the seminar with displaced anxieties.

The anguished dreams of Le Bon, Lindberg, and Levi jarred me. I’ve never been to Pompeii, but I nevertheless feel like the city looms over our contemporary world in a million cautionary tales. Perhaps Malcolm Lowry’s short story, “Present Estate of Pompeii,” published in the Partisan Review in 1959 offers a perspective on Pompeii’s appropriate to our present time. In the story, Roderick MacGregor Fairhaven and his wife travel to Pompeii by train where she insistently takes her husband on a tour of the site. Roderick is distracted and finds the site’s “tragic because almost successful — effort at permenance.” And, in keeping with the Pompeii’s status as a place of displaced dreams, Roderick noted that “it looked sometimes as though the Romans here had made all their dreams come true in terms of convenience, wicked and good alike.” Pompeii was an ancient city reshaped by modern priorities.

The dream transported Roderick back to his home in British Columbia where his cabin stood across the bay from an oil refinery. As the Italian tour guide escorted him and his wife around Pompeii, Roderick recalled the violent explosion of oil tanker Salinas as it unloaded its cargo at the refinery. Mark Bould in his new book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (2021) argues that most contemporary fiction manifests our displaced anxieties about climate change. Lowry’s story appears to anticipate this. The ancient and ruined convenience of Pompeii collided with the mechanism of convenience in the contemporary age as the flames from the burning ship subsided and the ship itself slipped away sparing the refinery an even greater calamity. The dead sun of Lindberg’s Pompeii and Lowry’s sun “as the fiery hub to a gigantic black-disked wheel tired by a rainbow” of spilled oil traced the calamity’s global proportions. The ruins of Pompeii were the ruins of the refinery and the ruins of convenience, wealth, and arrogance. Pompeii, whatever else it was, can, or could be reminded Roderick that “Man had become a raven staring at a ruined heronry. Well, let him deduce his own ravenhood from it if he could.”

As the specter of the global climate change looms over contemporary society, the site of Pompeii takes on new meaning for contemporary writers and readers. It is impossible to escape the tragic futility of convenience, wealth, and “the countless words of thinkers who tried to understand human nature” in the face of horrible power of nature. The best we can do is displace it onto powerless, if not uncooperative sites like Pompeii. Restoring Pompeii reveals a city saturated with Levi’s recurrent anguish, Le Bon’s rage, Lowry’s ravens at the heronry, and Lindberg’s imperceptible move from the end of life to the beginning of death. Pompeii always reminds us of the final and inescapable end.

As Lowry’s Roderick departed the city he abruptly asked the question that perhaps haunts anyone who thinks about Pompeii for more than a moment: “What it amounted to was a feeling that there was not going to be time. Did you want to harrow yourself looking at what had been only temporarily spared, at what was finally doomed? And Roderick could not help but wonder whether man too was not beginning to stand, in some profound inexplicable scene, fundamentally in some such imperfect or dislocated relation to his environment as he.”