Objects, Symmetry, and Care

I was pretty enthralled by the conversation between Ian Hodder and Gavin Lucas in the most recent issue of Archaeological Dialogues. Not only do Hodder and Lucas model scholarly a collegial, yet probing scholarly interaction, but they offer a useful primer on the complex web of concepts, theories, and practices associated with the “new materialisms.

The main focus of the article is an effort to understand the utility of symmetrical archaeology by probing the limits and character of symmetries and asymmetries in human-thing relations. Ian Hodder’s concept of entanglement features prominently in the discussion (as does C. Witmore’s well-known framing of the issue in his article “Symmetrical Archaeology – Fragments of a Manifesto”). The conversation centered on the so-called double bind created when humans depend on things and, as a result, things take on part of the burden of caring for humans. This bind creates certain kinds of relationships that archaeologists (among others) have regarded as either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Hodder and Lucas propose here that characterizing relationships between humans and things as symmetrical or asymmetrical is best recognized as a continuum with true symmetry between humans and things being rather harder to understand (at least within western ontologies) than extreme examples of asymmetry. The challenge is, as Lucas pointed out, understanding how to evaluate the extent of asymmetry. If the extent of measure of symmetry relies exclusively on existential issues, then human-made things always exist is a rather extreme state of asymmetry from humans. If the measure of asymmetry has to do with power, then we on more familiar, if no better defined territory of power in social life (sketched out, to my mind, more effectively by Foucault). The value of approaching human-thing relations without the expectation to a functional asymmetry (things are only ever tools that are used or discarded based on their immediate utility) continues to hold even if the pole of radical asymmetry remains far more easy to understand than the continuum that extends toward a putative symmetry between humans and things.    

The significance of this debate becomes clear in their discussion of entanglement. For example, Lucas and Hodder (as well as some of the respondents to their dialogue) consider whether elites are more densely entangled with things than the poor and whether elites are more or less trapped in their relationship with things. This might suggest a greater degree, for example, of symmetry as being an elite (at least an elite in terms of wealth within a capitalist regime) in almost all cases depends upon particular relationships with particular packet of things. Such things might range from currency itself to property, certain prestige objects, articles of clothing, modes of transport, and forms of energy. In fact, these things often provide the means for the elite to wield power to such an extent (again, how do we measure extent?) that eliteness could not exist without these things. Non-elites, on the other hand, require nearly nothing, that is no things, to be non-elite, and outside of the (increasingly) rare cases of radical asceticism (which even then is perhaps more dependent on relationships with certain kinds of things than such ascetics might readily admit), the non-elite are less entangled with things. That being said, individual objects might still exert significant power over non-elites because although non-elites are less dependent on particular assemblages of things for their status and power, they are no more free from the existential dependency upon things such things as food, shelter, and protection. 

As the world confronts the twin dangers of increasingly disparities of wealth (which is nearly always defined by particular relationships with things) and the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, the understanding the relationship between humans and things becomes all the more urgent. It is clear to me, at least, that instrumental or crassly functional understandings of our relationship to the world around us have produced what may well be irreversible damage to the earth. As global non-elites increasingly feel the existential consequences of such attitudes, one wonders whether the social consequences of our modern entanglement with things, especially their key role in defining the elite, serves in some ways to liberate the non-elites, because ultimately they are more prepared to adapt their relationship to things to their changing realities, or among elites whose existence will become increasingly circumscribed by challenges associated with maintaining social and political power that is much more entrenched and entangled in particular relationships with things. To be more blunt, the elites have much more to lose than non-elites as a result of climate change and less flexibility to adapt while still maintaining the status and power as elites. (And, yes, I realize that this is a bit tautological.)

Concerns such as these offered a context for a discussion of care. It is clear, for example, that human entanglements with other humans – symmetrical or otherwise – often involve the issue of care. This further complicates the issue of symmetry because, at least in our Western ways of knowing about the world, things lack the capacity to care. On the other hand, humans can care about things and things can provide care to humans. In fact, care seems to be a vital aspect of entanglement perhaps to the extent of making entanglement possible. 

In this context, then, the archaeology of care takes on a distinct new dimension. When Richard Rothaus and I first started to think about an archaeology of care, we emphasized the role of the archaeologist and archaeological method as demonstrating that people and their things mattered to marginalized groups. Not only can archaeology offer a distinctive way to document life in the Bakken man camps – or in Greek refugee camps – but it also demonstrated that individuals and the fabric of their existence had value, meaning, and significance far beyond their own context. 

An expanded archaeology of care could encompass the ideas of care unpacked in the Lucas and Hodder dialogue and the vital role of care in creating conditions for material entanglement. Valuing other people and things in both symmetrical and asymmetrical ways creates the lines of entanglement which constitutes the fabric of our relationships with things and other humans. An archaeology of care could document these bonds.

More Punk Archaeology

I was pretty excited to read the most recent issue of World Archaeology dedicated to “Counter Archaeologies.” I blogged about Lorna-Jane Richardson’s intriguing article on punk archaeology this past summer, and while I guess my critique of it rubbed some folks the wrong way, I still think her article moved the conversation forward in important ways. And it was incredibly gratifying to see scholars engage the work I did with Kostis Kourelis and Andrew Reinhard a few years ago serious. (Download Punk Archaeology from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota here or buy a copy here!)

This past weekend, I read John Schofield’s introduction to the volume, “‘Deviants, punks and Pink Fairies’: counter- archaeologies for unreasonable people.” He approaches punk and counter archaeology in a deeply personal way. He located his own interest in counter or even punk archaeology in his experiences in the field in the 1970s and 1980s. Like many of us, he found the tension between the socially conservative character of archaeology as a discipline (and particularly as a practice) and its progressive goals jarring. The tendency to privilege the traditional forms of knowledge making, namely excavation, and periods of study, namely the preindustrial past, limited the scope and influence of archaeology as a discipline. Schofield found himself drawn to landscape practices, to marginal and understudied regions, and ultimately to the modern period which often fell well outside the archaeologist’s gaze. For Schofield, this has as much to do with his own resistance to authority and reluctance to be told what to do as any grandiose intellectual goals. I found this admission refreshing, perhaps because it describes my own attraction to punk archaeology. The more people pushed me to do conventional archaeological or historical work, the more I felt the need to do things and think about things differently. (And it should be clear that just thinking about things in a different way is not the same thing as actually producing new knowledge or contributing to the discipline…)

Schofield then goes on to propose a few principles of punk archaeology practice grounding in C. O’Hara’s Philosophy of Punk (1995) and D. Beer’s Punk Sociology (2014). For these scholars and, indeed, Schofield, punk practice opposed conformity, embraced the DIY, and – perhaps most importantly – valued individual freedom and responsibility.

This last point struck home for me. Recently, I’ve returned to thinking a bit about anarchism (and my recent book, The Bakken: [An archae]ology of an industrial landscape (2017) offers a little play on words that hints at some of my thinking) both as a way to undermine certain structural barriers that seem to limit how archaeology functions both in practice and in the broader area of method. While I’m not entirely sure that I have the ability or energy to reconcile the tendency for archaeological knowledge to be generalized, structural, and diachronic with the individualized character that defines some aspect of anarchic thinking, I do find appeals to undermine traditional practices and our increasingly bureaucratized (and Taylorist) approach to archaeological knowledge making provocative and potentially useful. At the same time, I’d like to think that my interest in archaeology of the contemporary world emphasizes the differences and disjunction between a world created by rules, convention, and expectations, and a world created by myriad individual decisions and practices. I look forward to reading Stuart Rathbone’s article in the same volume “Anarchist literature and the development of anarchist counter-archaeologies.”

Extending this view of the past to our work as archaeologists seems to be a key component of a punk archaeology and perhaps finds a useful, in unintentional, parallel with our concept of an “archaeology of care.” Of course, it would be profoundly un-punk for us to simply replace the orthodoxy of conventional archaeological practice with a model grounded in a different set of expectations and replace one conformity with another. And perhaps that’s the most appealing thing about Schofield’s introduction. By locating his understanding of counter archaeology in his own practices and in an intellectual tradition, he allows us to recognize the personal and the collective and disciplinary in punk practice and allows it to be “a thing” without having to conform to any one set of rules.

One last thing, it was a drag to see that a volume on counter archaeology did so little to engage with the fact that academic publishing not only promotes certain kinds of conformity of practice (both good and bad), but also limits access to our work. In recent years, private companies who seek to monetize the impact of our ideas and work, and this volume of World Archaeology is no exception. We can do better than this.

More on Codex: Books, Performance, and Archaeology

I was initially drawn to Micah Bloom’s Codex project because it combined two elements that have become more or less central to my life: books and archaeology. At our book launch event last Friday, I realized that Bloom’s project had even more in common with my interests than I had initially recognized. In a short presentation Bloom unpacked the process of developing both the Codex book and short films that came from his efforts to document the books scattered about the Minot landscape.

If you don’t know Micah Bloom’s Codex, do go and check it out now.

In a brief back-and-forth in Minot, I asked Micah if he was inspired by recent work in “archaeology of the contemporary world.” I was inspired to ask after he discussed the particular care that he and his team took to document the scattered books both in situ and to number, label, preserve, and photograph the collected books systematically. Moreover, his team donned hazmat type as you can see in this clip from his film, and approached each artifact with extraordinary care

He admitted that he wasn’t particular familiar with this frequently theoretical (or at least conceptually ambitious) branch of archaeological work. He was inspired, however, by various manuals and technical literature that he found on for dealing with toxic objects, biological waste (including bodies), and other potentially contaminated (and contaminating) detritus. In other words, he used technical literature as a guide to performing real archaeological fieldwork, not in order to produce a thoroughly and systematically documented record of the 2011 Minot flood, but capture the particular sanctity of the books left behind in its receding waters. Performing archaeological work demonstrated care.

Archaeologists like Michael Shanks have long recognized the confluence of archaeological work and performance, and, indeed, theater. Without delving too deeply into this inspiring, if complex set of ideas, I have always struggled a bit to understand the relationship between the superficiality of theater – that is the concession in theater that the actors and the audience both have to suspend disbelief and recognize the actors as acting their parts – and archaeological methods, which ideally guide actions even when no one is looking. This isn’t meant to denigrate the work of actors and the depth of the characters that they portray or the promote the idea of the archaeologist as a singularly and consistently principled practitioner (but I’m sure most of us say that we try to be). The desire to keep our scarps straight is not just a cosmetic act that reinforces the scientific (scientistical?) precision of our work, but a practical way to make the stratigraphic relationships between various depositional events more visible. An actor may embrace certain aspects of a character off the stage (perhaps as part of an approach inspired by method acting), but this is fundamentally secondary to role played on the stage. There is always a risk, then, in emphasizing the performative in archaeology that we succumb to the artificiality of the aesthetic and as Michael Shanks has realized “abstracted from what is being represented, removed in an escape from social and historical reality, from anonymous popular masses, from the messy vernacular human and natural detail…”

Micah’s work offers an intriguing complication to this risk. Not only did he document his work to bring order to the messy chaos of flood recovery speak to a particular moment in time (and an effort to resolve what must have been a pervasive feeling of disrupted existence), but he also documented the books themselves in ways that are not immediately visible in his published work. For example, he disclosed that he has photographs of hundreds of books in situ and once he and his team collected and documented them. He also has a database (technically a spreadsheet) of close to 800 books recovered, identified, photographed, and documented from his work. Unlike the public facing work of the film and book and installation, these aspects of the Codex project, like the method actors behind the scenes routine, remains out of sight (at least, for now). 

Since Micah’s presentation, I’ve been turning around in my head how to make at least some of this archive available. Whether this archive will produce new archaeological, historical, or cultural knowledge is difficult to say, but it does reveal the depth of Codex as a form of authentic archaeological engagement with the world. 

#IrmaSyllabus, #HarveySyllabus, #HurricaneSyllabus

As I watched Hurricanes Harvey and Irma surge through the Gulf of Mexico, I got to thinking about the environmental, historical, political, and academic context for these “megastorms.” We can easily add Sandy, Katrina, Rita, Irene, Andrew, Matthew and various other “natural” catastrophes to this list. This year, in particular, we can expand our view of disasters to include flooding in Southeast Asia which have killed over a thousand people and displaced a million and the fires in Montana that have caused millions of dollars in damage and covered the western U.S. in smoke.

Among the more intriguing developments in recent years has been to put together syllabi that allow the public to explore the complexity of recent events. These syllabi are often generated quickly and produced by collectives of scholars and public intellectuals and have accompanying hashtags. The best known of these being the #StandingRockSyllabus and the #CharlottesvilleSyllabus.

I rarely do this on the blog, but I am wondering what a #HurricaneSyllabus would look like?

My interests are historical rather than climatological or even strictly environmental, and, as a result, I’m interested in the historical circumstances that shaped the impact of these events and their local and global contexts. My instinct would be to divide the syllabus into five weeks:

Week 1: The environmental context for Harvey and Irma.
B. Fields, J. Thomas, and J. Wagner, “Living with Water in the Era of Climate Change: Lessons from the Lafitte Greenway in Post-Katrina New Orleans,Journal of Planning Education and Research 37.3 (2017), 309-321.

Kevin Fox Gotham and Joshua A. Lewis, “Green Tourism and the Ambiguities of Sustainability Discourse: The Case of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward,” International Journal of Social Ecology and Sustainable 6.2 (2015).

R. J. Niven and D.K. Bardsley, “Planned retreat as a management response to coastal risk: a case study from the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia,” Regional Environmental Change 13.1 (2013), 193-209.

R.A. Pilke, The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change. Tempe 2014.

Week 2: The geographic context for storms: settlement, economics, race, and history.
Check out some of the material tweeted by Prof. Andrea Roberts at Texas A&M with the hashtag #HarveySyllabus.

Federick C. Cuny, Disasters and Development. New York 1983

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London 2017.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed. New York 2014. 

Daniel A. Farber, James Ming Chen, Robert R.M. Verchick and Lisa Grow Sun, Disaster Law and Policy. 3rd Ed. New York 2015.

Lafcadio Hearn, Chita: A Memory of Last Island. 1889

Week 3: The storm timeline: preparation and first responses.

Week 4: Rebuilding
D. Haeselin, Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997. Grand Forks 2017.  

Anthony Loewenstein, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. New York 2017. 

Week 5: History and Archaeology of the Storms
M. Bagwell, “After the Storm, Destruction and Reconstruction: The Potential for an Archaeology of Hurricane KatrinaArchaeologies 5 (2009), 280-292. 

M. Bloom, Codex (forthcoming, but preview available here).

S. Lee Dawdy, Patina: A Profane Archaeology. Chicago 2016. 

Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.  

Timothy H. Ives, Kevin A. McBride & Joseph N. Waller, “Surveying Coastal Archaeological Sites Damaged by Hurricane Sandy in Rhode Island, USAThe Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology (2017), 1-23.

Obviously my syllabus has some massive gaps, but please help me flesh this out in the comments section below or with the Twitter hashtag #HurricaneSyllabus.

Archaeology of Refugee and Forced Migration

I spent some time this weekend reading Y. Hamilakis’s edited forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Since Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I contributed to the forum, we received an advanced copy and it’s my impression that the forum will be available very soon. The papers consisted of a wide range of reflections on the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrations. Most of the papers dealt explicitly with refugees, but a few, including ours on the Bakken in North Dakota, deal with other forms of undocumented migration which are more difficult to categorize.

The articles are short and painfully evocative of the plight of modern migrants. Even if you don’t care about archaeology or are skeptical of its value in illuminating the modern world (which you shouldn’t be, but whatever!), the stories presented in this forum are worth reading and contemplating.

There are some themes as well that extend far beyond the archaeology of forced and undocumented migrations and impact all archaeological work that intersects in a meaningful way with contemporary communities.

1. Ethics. Almost all of the essays in this forum reflect seriously on the responsibilities and obligations of the archaeologist and ethnographer when studying vulnerable communities. Without explicitly outlining specific ethical positions or practices, the contributors demonstrated how their own encounters with refugees or the material culture of migration was both emotionally and intellectually demanding. From objects like the Tu Do ship in the Australia and the Lampedusa Cross in the British Museum, to maps of migrant movements, clothing, and graffiti, the challenges of using archaeological approaches to unpack the real lives of individuals courses through these essays in a raw and disquieting way. There are no simple imperatives or solutions presented here.

2. Objects. I found the abundance of relatively un-theorized objects particularly refreshing. This isn’t to mean that objects weren’t considered carefully, respected, treated ethically, or placed within a historical, social, or cultural context. They were by all means. What was absent, however, from these short contributions was the intensive theorizing that objects have recently received from some archaeologists (and I’ll admit that I find the rise of “thing theory” and the material turn tremendously seductive. The objects in these contributions generally shied away from making claims to agency, from demands of symmetry with the archaeologist, and from entanglement in complex discursive ontologies.

I’m not pointing this out to celebrate the absence of theory or as a critique. Instead, I wonder if the rawness of the this kind of archaeology makes objects somehow less susceptible to agency? 

3. Methods. The contributions here – with a few exceptions – were also free from lengthy discussions of methods. Some of this is undoubtedly do to the relatively short length of the articles, but I wonder if some of it is also because the approaches to archaeology of the contemporary world are so relatively fluid. As people, objects, and places move, disappear, transform over short periods of time, methods become increasingly ad hoc as efforts to document the material experiences of refugee and migrants requires an acute sensitivity to the complexities of a particular situation.

This isn’t to say that the contributors were not systematic and careful in their approaches, but, again, the intersection of object, places, and people seems to drive these contributions forward rather than a preoccupation with methods or methodology.

4. Placemaking. Among the major themes in these essays is the challenge of placemaking in a condition dominated my placelessness or non-places. As the archaeology of the contemporary world approaches the supermodernity of contemporary existence, the challenge of understanding the contours and characters of non-places or places whose existence blinks on and off at the absolutely edge of archaeological awareness.

Places like refugee cars, camps that are obliterated, coastline or offshore encounters, and ephemeral traces in the desert challenge archaeological resolution and practices (as well, of course, as methods). Whenever I think too hard about what archaeology can do in an era of placelessness I can’t avoid the fear that the tools and techniques associated most closely with the careful and reflective approaches of the humanities might require some modification to contribute to 21st century existence. The contributions included in this forum are a reason for hope, but also, for continued awareness that the past and the present are very different countries. 

5. Archaeology of Care. Finally, I was really excited to see Richard Rothaus’s term an “archaeology of care” appear periodically in the volume (well, at least in our paper, Kostis Kourelis’s paper, and Y. Hamilakis’s introduction). I could’t help but notice throughout this forum that there were plenty of places where the interest of archaeologists in the lives and material reality of individuals gave as much to refugee and migrant communities as a well argued scholarly article or book. In other words, there were signs that a mutual understanding existed between scholars and migrants that their experiences were significant and important.

If this forum does nothing else, I hope that it communicates this recognition. 

Call for Papers: Archaeology and Social Justice

I was pretty excited to see the theme of this year’s Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology and the Ancient World workshop: archaeology and social justice. Here’s a link to the call for papers or, if you’re too lazy to click on a link, you can read it below!

It would be very cool to see something at this conference on the archaeology of care or even the recent discussion about the value of punk archaeology as an ethical critique. 

So check out the call for papers below: 

State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice

Friday, March 2 – Saturday, March 3, 2018
Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World will host a workshop called State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice on March 2-3, 2018. The workshop will be the culmination of two years of discussion on this theme, and is also intended to raise new issues, ask new questions, and encourage ongoing dialogue. Our gathering builds on a tradition of “State of the Field” workshops hosted by the Joukowsky Institute to reflect upon trends in archaeological work, each year focusing our discussion on issues impacting an area of particular interest to our faculty and students. While previous versions have dealt with a country or region of archaeological significance, this year’s event will focus on archaeology’s relationship to ongoing movements for social justice.

Within the context of archaeology, we conceive of social justice as pertaining to issues of privilege and opportunity that affect the makeup of scholars in the field, efforts among archaeologists to engage with the public and with broader social and political discussions, and the degree to which archaeological scholarship and pedagogy intersect with or impact these issues. It also refers to the asymmetries of power and structural inequalities in society at large. This choice of topic has been inspired by recent global social and political concerns, responses from universities and academia that seek to address issues of representation and access, and, most importantly, grassroots movements for social justice.

This workshop thus seeks to engage primarily with the role of archaeology in contemporary social justice movements, while insisting that discussions of diversity in the past can inform experience in the present. We welcome papers that explore the relationship between archaeology and the present political climate, with the intention of addressing the challenges currently facing the field of archaeology and the academy more broadly. We also seek to engage in conversations about the biases and structural problems that make archaeology more accessible to some than to others, in order to help the discipline reach a broader and more inclusive public.

The workshop will include four sessions, each addressing issues of the relationship of archaeology to ongoing struggles for social justice and/or the role of archaeology in those struggles. Rather than predefining the content of these sessions, we intend to shape them with contributions from this call for papers; we wish to offer an open space for discussion of the following, and other, relevant issues:

· The materiality and temporality of current social issues
· Disciplinary decolonization
· Archaeology’s role in discussions of “diversity and inclusion”
· Identity and inequality in the past and present
· Structural and practical access to archaeology and the academy
· Activism and engagement within archaeology
· Archaeology in/of social justice movements
· Archaeology’s relationship to white nationalism
· Archaeology in moments of crisis

To submit a proposal for a paper of approximately 20 minutes, please send an abstract of 350 words or less to Joukowsky_Institute@brown.edu by October 1, 2017.

For questions about this CFP, or about the conference, please see our conference website or email Joukowsky_Institute@brown.edu.

Three Things Wednesday

I’ve been writing a bit frantically lately, and this morning, I don’t really feel it. So instead of some (in)coherent blogpost rant, I’ll offer three quick things that occupied my mind on my drive to campus this morning.

Forty Book February

This month was the first month in the history of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota that we sold 40 books (actually 41)! Selling paper books has always been a rather small part of what I do at The Digital Press, but as recent, middling figures for the sale for ebooks have shown, people love paper. (That being said, downloads of our books outpaced sales by about 10:1).

The strong February sales were driven in part by Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College, but almost every book in our catalogue got some love this month. 

What is more interesting (at least to me) is that Visions of Substance: 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology edited by myself and Brandon Olson is the only book that did not sell a copy, despite being the most widely cited book in The Digital Press catalogue with close to 10 citations in a wide range of books and journals (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Antiquity, Journal of Field Archaeology, Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization). I suspect the price ($24) has something to do with it and this was an unavoidable consequence of the color printing. Maybe the topic of the book, which was meant to capture a particular moment in time, made the book easily dated?

Immigrants and Emerson 

Here in the Northland, we’ve heard an alarming number of stories about immigrants crossing the rural border between the U.S. and Canada out of fear of deportation. Crossing the border by foot in the winter has cost some of these individuals fingers and toes and nearly their lives. This terrifying new reality has put a profoundly human and local face on the global refugee crisis and got me and my colleagues, Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis, thinking about whether an archaeology of these crossings could help us (and our communities) understand what we need to do to help people so desperate and afraid that they’d risk their lives to be free. Taking a page from Jason De León’s Undocumented Migration Project and our own experience working on the archaeology of the contemporary world, we’ve just begun to imagine ways in which we could realize an archaeology of care here in North Dakota.

We don’t have plans yet and recognize the need for collaboration on both sides of the border and the time and space to develop a thoughtful, humane, and systematic approach to the local side of a global problem. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that will help frame archaeology’s role in the ongoing crisis.

Threshold Concepts

The next big thing in pedagogy (at least here in North Dakota) seems to be threshold concepts. While I won’t pretend to understand the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of the idea, it seems to have something to with the idea or concept in a class (or even a discipline) that pushes a student from superficial bafflement to deep understanding. I like the idea because it so neatly describes the breakthrough point that most of us have experienced when studying, say, an language or a particularly tricky text that allows us almost suddenly to wrap our heads around what an author or even a culture is saying. The idea behind threshold concepts, from what I gather, is to recognize and foreground the understanding that creates this breakthrough experience.

A colleague got me thinking about the threshold concepts for history and how students think about arguments, facts, evidence, and theory. For many – even some of our M.A. students – history is about combining “facts” into arguments. This is a fine basic understanding, but runs the risk of essentializing historical evidence as static facts and viewing arguments as self-contained entities that do not rely on larger (and more complex) standards for their validity. After all, an argument is only as good within a particular regime of authority, style, discourse, and even political standing. 

Three Good Reads

There has been a pretty entertaining and perhaps useful conversation about the future of Classical archaeology over the last few weeks and the blog posts and chat across social media and email has prompted me to read some things that I wouldn’t otherwise. (For a start on that, check out Dimitri Nakassis’s two part blog series here and here.)

First, check out Severin Fowles, “The Perfect Subject (postcolonial object study)” in the Journal of Material Culture 21.1 (2016). Fowles argues that the recent shift to objects as the focus for study in anthropology (but this could be expanded across the humanities and social sciences) is really a response to growing anxiety that speaking about and for other people (whether formally colonial or simply colonized by our academic gaze) has become ethically challenging. The article is a compelling critique of our recent fetishization of stuff.

Then, check out Susan Pollock’s “The Subject of Suffering” from American Anthropologist 118.4 (2016). It was the Patty Jo Watson lecture AAA annual meeting. This article circulated as we discussed the need for a new sense of ethical responsibility in Classical archaeology. Pollock argues that one aspect of this is the archaeology of suffering. In her discussion of the archaeology of a Nazi era site she emphasized the unexpected impact of objects associated with abject human suffering in her excavations and how this challenged long held ideas that archaeology should be objective, detached and scientific. It is an interesting contribution to our recent thoughts about an archaeology of care.

From the same volume of American Anthropologist, check out Mark D. Flemming’s “Mass Transit Workers and Neoliberal Time Discipline in San Francisco”. Flemming riffs on E.P. Thomspon’s well-known 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” as he explores the plight of mass transit workers in San Francisco arguing that the city supported by local citizen groups used attitudes toward race, a widespread view of civic employees as unproductive, and unrealistic schedules to undermine organize labor. The result is more short-term and part time workers in the San Francisco mass transit system who do not receive the benefits as full-time union workers. For Flemming, this case study reflects a wider transformation of labor, time, and work-discipline to accommodate a set of neoliberal values that further commodify and fragment human labor. 

And, if you still need something to read, do check out the free download of our 2014 book in the ASOR Archaeological Report Series, Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coast Town that I edited with my friends David Pettegrew and R. Scott Moore. Here’s a link to download the book. Every download makes a puppy smile!

Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World

Every now and then I start to worry that my interests are diverging and running away in every direction and leaving me adrift. With budget cuts, possible changing in our teaching/research balance, a shift away from graduate education, and many of my field archaeology projects entire their final seasons, I find myself like many “mid-career” faculty bereft of morale, motivation, and, frankly, direction. So I get to thinking about convergence.

Every now and then, I read something or turn an idea around enough in my creaking, void-filled, mind that I get what other people have often described as an “idea.” This weekend, I had a glimpse of how several tracks in my academic and intellectual development might actually be converging around a theme (or two maybe?) that a few blog posts this weekend helped me to recognize more fully.

I’m going to try to trace these out this morning and to make sense of what my various projects are trying to do and say.

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have had some entertaining, and I hope useful, conversations centered on three concepts in archaeological research:

1. Punk Archaeology
2. Slow Archaeology
3. Archaeology of Care

I can’t take credit, really, for any of these, but I probably am as responsible as anyone for coining terms to describe them, and promoting the use of these terms.

Punk Archaeology celebrates the performative, DIY, and improvised aspects of archaeological field work and thinking. It has tended to focus a bit more on the archaeology of the contemporary world because this is where archaeological methods and practices have tend to break down when confronted with challenges such as modern abundance leading archaeologists to innovate on the fly, our work is less bound by the formal limits of the site and more publicly accessible, and contemporary observers are more willing to offer dissonant, alternative, and conflicting perspectives. As a result, punk archaeology – at its best – defamiliarized the familiar in everyday life (much like punk takes the basic structure of pop song and makes it something else) and familiarizes the unfamiliar in archaeological practice by putting it on display. In short, it can turn archaeology inside out.

Slow Archaeology is a critique of the role of technology in archaeological practice. I’ve argued that the Taylorist drive for efficiency has produced field practices that tend to fragment both how we describe material culture but also our experiences. At its most perverse, field work is reduced to “data collection” and digital tools are celebrated as ways to make the harvesting of “raw data” more efficient. There is no doubt that field work should be efficient and that technology will improve not only what we collect from the field, but also how we collect archaeological information. Slow archaeology, however, calls for us to maintain a space in archaeological field practice for analysis and interpretation and to be patient with these processes. Moving forward, I’d like to see slow archaeology celebrate integrative practices in archaeological field work that both bring together our fragmented techniques in the field and the information that these techniques produce.

Archaeology of Care. The archaeology of care is a term coined by my colleague Richard Rothaus and, like slow and punk archaeology, it offers a critical reflection on the practice and performance of archaeology. It stemmed from the observation that people who we encountered in the Bakken were genuinely moved by our archaeological and archaeological interest in their world and lives. While neither Richard nor I conceived of our project as a gesture to the people (or objects) that we studied, it became pretty obvious that archaeological work became a medium through which shared understanding of the past and the present are formed. For us at least, the archaeology of care was de-theorized and reflected our very practical experiences doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world.

It has taken me a while to recognize that these three moves in my archaeological thinking have focused on a number of shared themes centered largely on our practices in the field: (1) a focus on archaeology as performance and experience, (2) a tendency to recognize these experiences a bringing together people, data, and objects, and (3) a preference for DIY and an aversion to “technological solutionism” in its various forms.

These ideas have started to come together with another couple of “projects” that I’ve been slowly working on over the last few years. As readers of this blog know, I’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This emerged directly from my interest in punk archaeology (which became the first book from the press). It started as an experiment in DIY publishing and has slowly expanded into a project designed to the traditional fragmentation of the publishing process that separates the authors from the publishers. At my little press, we create an environment where authors, editors, and publishers work together to produce books at a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing, but with opportunities for more experimentation and control for the authors.

I’m pretty upfront with my authors that I am not a conventional publisher. As my more critical colleagues point out, my books tend to be a bit rough around the edges, my distribution channels remain a bit uncertain, and everything is essentially experimental. But for my authors and editors, this seems to work. If anything, I have more than enough books to keep my enterprise afloat, to hold my interest, and to keep me feeling that this is a meaningful extension of my approach to archaeology and archaeological knowledge production.

What prompted this sudden bout of introspection was a little article titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump” by Audrey Waters. Go read it (and comment if you want; there is the start of a little Hypothes.is comment thread). To summarize a complex argument, trends in Ed-Tech data collection are troubling for a number of reasons. First, Waters critiques the basic philosophy that if we collect enough data on our students we can customize our educational practices to produce particular outcomes. Most thoughtful educators realize that this is not how teaching or learning works just as most thoughtful archaeologists do not think that intensified scrutiny and technologies in how we collect “all of the datas” will produce better archaeological knowledge more efficiently. (Do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s refinement of my critiques of data at his blog especially here and here and here.)

At the same time, we are lured by the temptation of easy digital data collection especially in online courses or in courses with substantial online components. Universities have developed sophisticated data collection schemes as their infrastructure has become digital and student interactions with almost all services is mediated by tools that collect data to produce increasingly comprehensive digital profiles of students. Even with the protections offered by FERPA, universities have vast quantities of data on students that can be leveraged internally to encourage practices that “better” serve students. Students are consumers and the university has indulged in all the conceits of online consumer culture. In place of a culture of care grounded in complex experiences of teaching and learning, the university as an institution has fragmented students into bundles and clusters of data that can be arranged to anticipate and serve student and administrative expectations. This has particularly toxic potential as calls to “reinvent education” often look to technologies to create the appearance of doing more with less, while obscuring the reality that less almost always means less in education.

What is more troubling for Waters is that the calls to “reinvent education” or to “innovate” almost always rest on the assumption that current practices are flawed. The temptation is to identify the problems with education through scrutiny of “big data” rather than attention to small, daily practices. With the lure of big fixes residing in big data issues of security and privacy abound. What is more terrifying still is that for public universities, this data could easily fall into the hands of politically motivated leaders either on campus or at the state or local levels who could use students and faculty data for purposes that run counter to many of our values as educators, scholars, and public servants. Waters evokes the always chilling specter of Nazi data collection as an example for how the state can mine “big data” for nefarious purposes.

To be clear, I don’t see slow archaeology, punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, or The Digital Press as a bulwark against Nazism or as explicitly political statements, but I would like to think that the common aspects of these projects represent a kind of resistance to some of the more troubling trends in academic practices and higher education these days. Calling for greater scrutiny of practice in a time of big data, promoting DIY among students and colleagues, and demonstrating how integration, and care, rather than fragmentation and “analysis” can produce meaningful and significant results. 

Lots to Read, just not here

These are busy days here in North Dakotaland. I’m working on the massive introduction that David Pettegrew drafted for the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, putting the finishing touches on the paper version of Eric Burin’s Picking the President, maintaining some momentum on Codex, and trying to keep an eye on the news, navigate budget issues on campus, and generally remain sane.

The upshot of this is that I haven’t anything to write about today on the new blog. But fear not, if the constant flow of worrying news in your social media feed isn’t enough to get your restless eyes consuming words, go and check out what my long-time collaborator Richard Rothaus has to say in his review of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America  Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, editors. (North Liberty, Iowa: Ice Cube Press, 2016) posted on the North Dakota Quarterly page. This book definitely has a place on our “Bakken Bookshelf” next to the Bakken Goes Boom and my forthcoming The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) as well as recent Bakken classics like Lisa Peter’s Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil (Minneapolis 2014) (my review here) and After Oil from the Petrocultures Research Group (my thoughts here).

I’d be remiss if I also didn’t point to my other professional commitment, Eastern Mediterranean archaeology, and thank Susan Ackerman and the staff of the American Schools of Oriental Research for making a clear statement on recent moves my the new administration to hinder the movement of people – including numerous ASOR members – from countries where we have experienced hospitality, collegiality, and friendship. She and her staff also voice their support for both the NEH and the NEA which are at risk of defunding.

Please take the time to read the full statement by Prof. Ackerman and the ASOR staff and check out Richard’s review of Fracture. I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled blogging soon!