Degrowth and Archaeology

This week has been hectic, but I managed to find some time the read James Flexner’s recent article in Archaeological Dialogues 27 (2020) titled “Degrowth and a sustainable future for archaeology.” 

I have to admit when I first skimmed it, I was pretty skeptical that the degrowth movement had much to offer archaeology as a discipline. Degrowth, broadly speaking, calls for voluntary efforts to reduce productivity in an effort to produce a more humane and sustainable world. It sees capitalism’s constant need for growth as firing the ever increasing rise in consumerism which, in turn, demands more and more exploitative labor regimes and extractive practices, with their attendant damages, on a global scale. Flexner and others who champion degrowth advocate for practices that demonstrate that the situations brought about by capitalism are neither inevitable nor unavoidable. By emphasizing collective, convivial, and caring practices in the place of choices directed by capitalism and consumerism, the degrowth movement looks to model another kind of future. 

This is utopian, of course, but like most utopias, the ideas explored by advocates for degrowth are not entirely naive. In fact, Flexner’s piece is another in a recent surge of articles that critique (in their own ways) the character of labor practices both in academic and professional archaeology. Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed  Allison Mickel’s new book, Why Those Who Shovel are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor (University Press of Colorado 2021) which considers the colonial aspects of archaeological labor.  Mary Leighton has written about “performative informality” in archaeology which highlights how  certain informal practices — drinking, sexual liaisons, banter and bullying — within contemporary academic archaeology serve a gatekeeping function that excludes a wide range of individuals from professional advancement. Just this week, Barbara Voss has published her two part study of “cultures of harassment in archaeology.” I’ve not read these yet, but they’re atop my pile. You can check them out here and here. As someone who has spent the better part of 25 years doing archaeological field work each summer, I have yet to find any aspect of the recent critiques of archaeological practices as inaccurate or inconsistent with my experiences (and in some cases my own behavior over the years). I’d like to think that my work on slow archaeology contributes to this conversation as well. 

Flexner’s call for degrowth looks to the fundamental problems associated with work, and archaeology in particular, within a capitalist system. He notes the oft-critiqued relationship between CRM and Heritage management and development which has increasingly pushed archaeology into a supporting role for those who seek to commodify the past or eradicate it in the name of progress and profits. Academic archaeology is no more pure as the publish or perish world of the ersatz meritocracy masks vast inequalities in opportunity and obscures exploitative labor practices driven by an often desperate need to collect more data, do more work, and make more knowledge in order to achieve or maintain precarious professional status. Anyone who has worked in the field has heard stories of academic projects that engage in dangerous practices, that push volunteer workers and staff beyond the level of exhaustion by maintaining crazy work hours and expectations, and that use the specter of professional critique as a prod to always do more often at the expense of quality, the physical well-being of archaeologists, and personal relationships. Of course, not all projects are like this, and all projects (I’d contend) have their moments when fatigue, stress, and passion for the work blur our judgement. 

That said, it is easy enough to recognize in academic field archaeology a kind of Wild West of academic labor (which I’m sure is also common in lab sciences and other fields). In these situations, the pursuit of professional riches (usually metaphorically) promotes the breakdown of the kind of conviviality and care that might mitigate not only the exploitative labor regimes present in so much archaeological work, but also (and frankly) the erosion of human decency which these regimes tend to promote. My work on slow archaeology, whatever its flaws (and they are many), has suggested that the emphasis on efficiency in archaeological practices has reinforced the tendency of the discipline to think about field work as a kind of industrial production or even as logistical challenge. In some of these situations, the tendency to dehumanize workers is not bug, but a feature. Since academic archaeology lacks (even the faulty and porous) fail-safes that have developed to protect workers in professional archaeological practice, industrial production, and other forms of skilled and semi-skilled labor (e.g. unions or even OSHA, even as  professional ethical guidelines exist, there are rarely mechanisms to enforce them), there are few ways for volunteers, students, and other workers on academic projects to seek protection. (As a relevant aside, the stories of excavators digging in flip-flops or photos of diggers standing beneath massive unsupported baulks make my blood run cold.) 

Flexner’s article reminded me that the problems within archaeology are related to the problems of capitalism particularly when it intersects with academic practices that which blend, on the one hand, pressures to achieve (often moving) professional and disciplinary benchmarks and, on the other hand, environments where traditional hierarchies, remote locations, limited funds, and seasonal schedules make the enforcement safeguards difficult.  

So while I remain skeptical of degrowth as a “solution” to archaeological problems (and to be clear, Flexner is not naive), I think Flexner’s effort to show that many of archaeology’s problems stem from its deep engagement with capitalistic expectations of productivity are commendable. More than that, an awareness of the link between capitalism and the wide range of problems surrounding academic labor might offer ways to reform the discipline that strike to the root of these problems rather than simply trying to paper over the worst offenses with calls for increased professionalism, oversight, policies, and management. It might sound simplistic or silly, but Flexner and other degrowth advocates interest in de-emphasizing the status of “the project” (with attendant professionally defined goals) and considering more fully how the discipline benefits the individual participants and broader social goals might offer a more productive, if challenging route to reform.   

Why Those Who Shovel are Silent

This weekend, I read Allison Mickel’s wonderful new book, Why Those Who Shovel are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor (University Press of Colorado 2021). It’s pretty great and if the title appeals to you at all, then you’re best served by just going and buying a copy and reading it rather than mucking around with my blog post.

The book draws on ethnographic research at Çatalhöyük and the site of the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra in Jordan. She analyzed the role of local labor in the work that these projects undertook both in the past and the present and demonstrates how certain long-standing colonial attitudes among archaeologists and the organization of archaeological labor continue to shape local practices and attitudes toward field work.

Some of her conclusions are not particularly surprising. For example, excavators recruited workers — especially at Petra — for their value as manual laborers and treated them as movable cogs in their knowledge-making machine. The precarious and seasonal nature of archaeological work also mitigated the kinds of intellectual commitments that workers were willing to make to projects. Workers in the area around Çatalhöyük, for example, often found agricultural work more remunerative; workers at Petra found the history of harsh and often unpredictable treatment at the hands of the excavators as a disincentive to developing any strong attachment to work. Even as projects sought to involve workers more explicitly in the knowledge making process, whether as ethnographic and ethno-archaeological informants or as recognized authorities on excavation methods, situations, and processes, workers at both sites continued to feel alienated from the final interpretations produced by the excavators in part as a result of historical practices and partly owing to the continued hierarchical nature of archaeological organization. To be clear, Mickel’s analysis is far more nuanced and sophisticated than what I presented here, but it makes apparent that despite the differences between the situation of work at Petra and Çatalhöyük, both projects produced similar sense of distance between the understandings produced among local workers and the synthetic analysis of the site.

(One thing that this got me wondering about is how digital practices will, in the present and the future, create more distance from local workers and the conclusions. Mickel considers this slightly in the final chapter of the book where she notes that context recording sheets could contribute to the alienation experienced by workers (both local and academic). Digital practices which facilitates the collection of data and facilitates the displacement analysis from the trench side to computers and offices around the world might create even a larger gap between workers and analysis.)

The most interesting finding of Mickel’s work, at least to me, is the way in which local workers tended to downplay their expertise. This involved downplaying not only their ability as excavators (that is as expert laborers who could perform the specialized tasks of identifying and removing strata, exposing and recognizing artifacts, and contributing to the accurate recording of information at trench side)) as well their ability to analyze and interpret the results of their work. Mickel argues that this reflects long-standing practices of valuing local workers as pliable, laboring bodies, whose specific expertise could be held against them if it meant that they might appear arrogant or less willing to follow the lead of a trench supervisor or research archaeologist. It also reflected a view of local labor that emphasized their authenticity as sources of ethnoarchaeologial knowledge. This encouraged an attitude that rewarded individuals who possessed a body of knowledge that was separate and in some ways antithetical to archaeological knowledge. Again, Mickel’s reading here is significantly more subtle than what I’m presenting and worth reading.

Mickel is not afraid to propose solutions to the ethical dilemmas that contemporary and historical archaeological practices continue to pose. For her, adjusting the criteria for pay on projects so that it encourages and rewards not only labor, but also the expertise possessed by local workers who make the production of archaeological knowledge making possible. This adjustment to how projects treat local workers should extend to giving them opportunities to demonstrate and refine both their specific expertise, but also specialized skills associated with the interpretative and analytical work that often occurs outside of the context of labor in the field. This creates opportunities for “local knowledge” and “academic knowledge” (for lack of better terms) establishing a middle ground that disrupts the outmoded, but persistent dichotomy of indigenous versus scientific knowledge.

One thing that I did wonder about Mickel’s work how local labor in Greece might fit into the paradigms that she discussed at Çatalhöyük and Petra. She demonstrates clear parallels in South America, South Asia, elsewhere. Superficially, it would seem that local labor in Greece and Cyprus continue to provide ethnoarchaeological perspectives and basic manual labor to foreign projects. On the other hand, perhaps Greece and Cyprus have practices that anchored in distinctive experiences with colonialism, orientalism, and archaeological practices? 

This is in no way a critique. In fact, it demonstrates how Mickel’s approach and questions have fired my imagination. In particular, I appreciate her effort to shed more light on archaeological labor in the present. It seems to me that many of the issues that she discusses in the context of local labor here open onto the context of archaeological labor more broadly. There’s part of me that has come to realize that for archaeology to become more ethical, equitable, and fair a discipline, we have to remake fieldwork from the ground up. It also seems to me that this will force us to be willing to accept that this might mean fewer new academic excavations, more costly academic excavations, and greater attention to ethical practices that produce what we claim as archaeological knowledge.    

The Archaeology of Refugee Camps in Greece

This blog is all about conflicts of interest and, in that spirit, I want to recommend a really great article by my friend and collaborator Kostis Kourelis in the most recent issue of Change Over Time.

The article is called “Sites of Refuge in a Historically Layered Landscape: Camps
in Central Greece” and is part of an issue dedicated to the heritage of war, conflict and commemoration. Instead of the usual consideration of battlefields, cemeteries, and other monuments established to mark fixed places in the landscape, Kostis plots the movement of a group of migrants through a series of camps in Greece over the course of a single year (2016). The movement of this group of people (and their fragmentation at various points) and the ephemerality of the camps in which they lived offers a counterpoint to our conventional idea of imagining spaces of heritage or historical memory as fixed places. 

Of course, there is precedent for places of movement being recognized as national moments (e.g. various sections of the Oregon Trail, for example). At the same time, as Charles Hailey notes in his classic study of camps, ephemeral architecture may well represent the future of housing, work, and life. More than that, there is something particularly urgent in the need to mark the experiences of groups and individuals in motion and the artifacts associated with their lives. If the experience of forced migration and being a refugee involves reducing individuals to mere life (as Giorgio Agamben has argued), then finding ways to represent this process in a persistent way presents an opportunity for resistance. A heritage of the ephemeral, the intentionally marginalized, and the disenfranchised represents a critique of the power of the nation state as a source both of the past (as traditional heritage tends to assert) and of the privileges of life so frequently associated with citizenship and legal rights. 

Kostis’s article is more elegant and subtle than my assertions here. More than that, he does a nice job documenting the sites of camps and their features as well as their historical situations in Greece. Contemporary camps for migrants often stood alongside planned villages established in the aftermath of the exchange of population in the 1920s reflecting Greece’s long history of accommodating new groups. The movement of contemporary migrants also intersected with the longer history of Greece both as part of the Ottoman Empire and from the Classical period. These intersection reveal another key line of critique present in Kostis’s article in that it reveals the fragility of the national narrative itself. The presence of a 16th-century mosque of Sinan in Trikala, mere meters from one of the migrant camps connects the Greek city with the Syrian city of Aleppo from where many of the migrants hailed. These pre-national monuments in Greece which have only just begun to be incorporated into a coherent national narrative continued to offer some resistance the alienated state of the Syrian migrants. While they may lack legal standing in Greece, the mosques of Sinan remind us that not only is their current situation historically situated, but also that they move through a shared cultural world where heritage can serve to resist efforts to reduce individuals to mere life.

Kostis’s article got me thinking a good bit about how our work in the Bakken could provide a framework for a heritage of booms and busts not just in one landscape – that is western North Dakota, which in many ways reflects a history of booms and busts – but across the entire US. In fact, the mobile population drawn to North Dakota in the 21st century oil boom are often the same people who participate in oil booms elsewhere in the US or who move seasonally to work in regions with small populations and limited surplus labor. Marking the location of work force housing camps in the Bakken, for example, could serve not only to commemorate the ephemeral, but also to document the interconnected social, economic, and political worlds of 21st century labor.

By challenging the notion of the local as the source for political and ultimately human rights, a heritage of the ephemeral and the mobile whether labor of migrants fleeing from war and destruction, provides a way to resist the reduction of individuals to there mere humanity. 

Performative Informality in Archaeology

I really like Mary Leighton’s work and have found myself citing her work and referring to it regularly on my blog (e.g. here and here). Last week, I read her most recent piece in American Anthropologist on “performative informality” in academic archaeology and found it particularly compelling. She argues that the performance of informality marks many of the ways in which archaeology as a discipline functions. For Leighton, performative informality include practices that might appear benign or even admirable in our discipline – such as the familiar collegiality between faculty and students that emerges from hours in the field – to some of archaeology’s more toxic rituals such as binge drinking. Understanding the unspoken rules this informal behavior is often key to professional success within our field. Like many of the formal structures that dictate professional advancement in more formal academic settings, the rules of performative informality are likewise shaped by white, European, male privilege. Unlike the more structured environment of formal academia, however, the more shadowy informal world often operates in ways that escape critique, reinforces white male privilege, and serves as a gatekeeper function within academic circles. 

My little summary does not really do this article justice. Go read it.

Most field archaeologists are familiar with practices that Leighton describes in this article. These range from seemingly innocuous suggestion that, in the field, archaeologists use each others first names rather than academic titles to the deeply problematic rituals of late-night drinking, romantic liaisons between faculty, supervisors, and students, and moments of casual interaction that have real professional consequences for students seeking to receive a positive letter of recommendation, future opportunities for collaboration, or even just professional encouragement and professional. We all know far too well that a student or colleague that struggles with the informal world of archaeology — no matter how rigorous their formal scholarship — will often find themselves struggling to make the kind of informal connections that contribute to opportunities for career advancement. In fact, social awkwardness in the close knit world that emerges during field work often reflects an inability to discern the cues that shape the performance of informality that shapes field work relationships.    

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I have a growing distrust for many of the rules that structure our professional lives. I’ve complained about the assessocracy and the bureaucratized processes that reduce the complex work of research and teaching to measurable and comparable outputsI’ve worried about administrative structures such as colleges and departments, and their formal roles in keeping us siloed. I’ve worked on projects that seek to reject, or at very least complicate, the boundaries between various kinds of work in our field, especially publishing, and considered the potential of such abstract and elusive metaphors of flow as models for understanding relationship between the defined spaces of fieldwork, analysis, writing, and publishing.

Many of my critiques have drawn upon Ivan Illich’s ideas of conviviality as a mode of interaction that ostensibly sheds some of the social, institutional, and practical formality that dictates the maintenance of productive relationships in a world of (post)industrial capitalism. After reading Leighton’s article, however, I worry that so much of what I have tried to articulate is less about challenging practices in academia that seek to institutionalize forms of white, male, bourgeois privilege and more about finding new ways to act out these structural advantages by other means. While it is easy enough to critique the role of alcohol both in the field and in a professional settings, for example, as deeply problematic in archaeology, Leighton’s ethnographic study nudges us to see the drinking, overt and often physical performances of familiarity (my aversion to hugs is well-known), and cliquishness within our discipline as a kind of carnivalesque behavior designed not to subvert the existing structures institutionalized within policies at our institutions, but to reinforce them through their inversion.

(I really want to insert a long tirade against hugging here, but I won’t. Just don’t hug me. In fact, even before our virus-inflected new normal, I’d prefer that we not touch. A simple head nod will do just fine.) 

It may well be that my embrace of conviviality as a form of anti-modernism serves merely to reinforce the modern practices at the core of professional academic life. I’ve long conceded that “slow archaeology” (to which Leighton’s work contributed significantly) may well have its roots in privileged practices (as first called out by Shawn Graham). Leighton, of course, does not deal explicitly with my formulation of slow, but her article does suggest that my vision of a more egalitarian, “structureless,” and convivial discipline might do little to mitigate the kind of structural sexism, racism, and classism present in academia. In fact, Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (which I blogged about here) made a similar point by showing how both formal and informal expectations work together to create both administrative and social barriers for disadvantaged students.

Leighton’s article also got me thinking about the recent piece in History Australia by Yves Rees and Ben Huf (which I blogged about here) that proposes that historians work to create micro-utopias where we can both suspend the institutional practices that structure so much of our professional lives and create more inclusive spaces defined by new performative gestures and attendant relationships. Of course, the creation of such micro-utopias, even for a short lived period or under very specific circumstances, may do little to undermine structural inequalities that fundamentally shape our field if they rely too heavily on the simple inversion of more formal practices that define our professional relationships.

It seems to me that the formal/informal dichotomy that Leighton interrogates in her piece may be the relationship that most requires critique. This is not at all a criticism of Leighton’s important work. I recognize that heavy drinking, coerced familiarity, and other common forms of social inversion present on archaeological projects are deeply problematic. At the same time, I want to think that we can still challenge the institutional and policy-defined relationships that define our field and privilege individuals who can code-switch between manifestations of the same social structures whether manifest in the rules of performative informality, the unspoken formalism of “civility,” or policy mandated behaviors. I’d gently proposes that the problem with performative informality on archaeological projects is not that it the structures that shape the discipline with the “the tyranny of structurelessness,” but the opposite: performative informality make the ubiquity of these structures visible and reinforces their inescapability.

What I really want to understand is how do we move forward from the kinds of critique that Leighton offers? Her ambivalence throughout the article (especially at the end) demonstrates how deeply entrenched these structures are as they not only define professional communities but also give shape to how we perform such deeply personal acts as grieving. 

I don’t have answers, but I hope that it remains possible to construct communities in the field of archaeology that do not conform to the formal/informal dichotomy and, instead, create convivial and perhaps even utopian space for more a inclusive, meaningful, and productive discipline. 

The Bakken Hundreds (Almost Final)

Over the last few weeks, Bret Weber and I have been working to refine our “Bakken Hundreds” piece for a volume called Archaeology Out-of-the-Box. 

Since our invitation to be part of the volume was pretty vague, we took advantage of the freedom to do something a bit different. We previewed an earlier draft here a couple of weeks ago, here’s the final draft.

This introduction is below followed by a link to download the entire paper.  

The Bakken Hundreds

The Bakken Hundreds describe seven seasons of archaeological fieldwork in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch (2012-2018). The North Dakota Man Camp Project focused on workforce housing through archaeological documentation and authorized interviews. Here, the co-authors alternate 100-word statements from project notebooks, interviews, and publications loosely following Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s composition style in, The Hundreds (2019). Our assemblage reveals the material and social conditions of the Bakken by emphasizing the frenetic, dreamlike, precarity of boom times. For entries with specific dates, we also include the West Texas Intermediate Crude oil price per barrel as a rough indicator of Bakken prosperity.

Here’s a link to the entire paper.

Archaeology Out of the Box

This spring, Bret Weber and I were invited to contribute to a volume called Archaeology Out-of-the-Box edited by Hans Barnard. Over the past nine or ten months, we’ve turned some ideas around in our heads in an effort to find something genuinely creative to say about our now mostly concluded field work in the Bakken Oil Patch

During the summer, I had the chance to read Lauren Berlant’s and Kathleen Stewart’s book, The Hundreds. The book entirely consists of short (hundred words or so) essays that bounced back and forth between Berlant and Stewart during the book’s gestation. As one might expect from these authors, the fragments throughout the book are affective and elegant. They don’t so much produce an argument as draw the reader across a range of emotional states and entice us to peer through narrow windows into the complex emotional lives of others.

While the substance of this book probably is not suitable for archaeology (although recent arguments for an affective archaeology are compelling), the form continues to intrigue me. So much of archaeological work deals with fragments, and archaeologists spend most of their time organizing these fragments of and from the past into relationships. This got me and Bret thinking about whether we could present our work from the Bakken in a way that preserved some of the fragmentary nature of both our evidence and our understanding of the oil boom, the folks who worked there, and its material culture. 

Over the course of our field work in the Bakken we collected over a hundred hours of interviews with workers, residents, and officials. These interviews have largely been transcribed. We also have a series of notebooks describing individual “man camps” that include counts of units, the condition of the facility, and various other notes that allowed us to track the changing material landscape of the Bakken. These notes and interviews have resulted in a series of publications. We also have over ten thousand photographs and hours of video shot during our time in the Bakken as well as the art produced through various collaborating photographers and visual artists. 

A plan for our “Out of the Box” project will be a series of 100 word (or less) passages mined from our interviews, notes, and publications. Because of limits on the number of figures, we can only use 3 to 5 images. The editors have asked that our article be between 3000 and 5000 words. This means that we can have no more than 40, 100-word fragments, to allow space for bibliography and a short (100 word!) introduction. 

Part of the what made our work in the Bakken successful (or at least intellectually stimulating) is that the team travelled together between our often dispersed study sites and talked about what we saw and how we understood the changing landscape of western North Dakota. The back-and-forth between me, Bret Weber, and Richard Rothaus shaped our perspectives and ultimately our publications. To capture this interaction as part of how we constructed and understood the Bakken, Bret and I will offer alternating fragments. Just as our conversations bounced back and forth ideas, evidence, and perspectives, our “hundreds” will also show how our different ways of reading, experiencing, and expressing the Bakken create meaningful assemblages.

Unlike traditional archaeological publications which connect evidence through various arguments for causality, our approach will be to allow the reader to connect our fragment of evidence speculating on our thinking, in part, or supplying their own understanding of the relationship between the fragments. A brief introduction will present the notion of parataxis and how it contributes to how we understand archaeological assemblages. I’d like to argue that an archaeology of the contemporary world relies particularly on parataxis in assemblages because it locates the archaeologist in the same time as our evidence. Because our ideas of causality rely on the diachronic nature of evidence and our own position outside of the time that we study, situating objects as contemporary with ourselves and one another makes constructing the traditional patterns of causality impossible. In its place, we invite the reader to respond to our fragmented assemblage immediately, to empathize, to allow evidence and experience to affect our perspectives, and to see the contemporary world not as the culmination of the past or as basis for a particular future, but as a series of encounters that can be emergent as well as foreclosed. 

Our archaeology out of the box is both a critique of archaeological epistemology as well as an offering of an archaeology grounded in the shifting ground of personal and shared experiences.

Generous Thinking

This weekend, I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good (Johns Hopkins 2019). The book calls for scholars to think more generously as individuals, as a community, with the public, and through our institutions. The first pages of the book spoke immediately to me (and some of my growing concerns about how I act as a scholar in the 21st century). Fitzpatrick describes a seminar where a group of graduate students were asked what they thought about a text. The class responded by a period of boisterous critique and criticism. Alarmed, perhaps, at the class’s eagerness to tear the text apart, she stopped the conversation by asking the students, instead, to articulate the author’s argument. There was silence.

Anyone who has taught graduate seminars (or, indeed, participated in them) recognizes these moments and this mildly Socratic process. The assumption that almost any article or book that we read in seminar is flawed, outdated, or problematic encourages a kind of hair trigger response to any perceived shortcoming in a publication. This behavior allows us to show off our critical chops and finding weakness in even the most carefully argued texts, indulges the modern love of irony (this article may see brilliant and perfect, but BEHOLD!), and conditions the kind of hyper-critical attitudes that have created such beloved characters as “Reviewer #2” and infused scholarly conversations with a kind of pugilistic (or perhaps more charitably “agonistic”) approach to knowledge making.

To be clear, I’m as guilty as anyone of this tendency. In fact, my graduate seminars often centered more around tearing each other’s work down to the foundational assumptions than offering constructive critique. I’m still working on finding a more constructive, collaborative, and collegial professional voice particularly as a peer reviewer

Part of the issue, as Fitzpatrick notes, is the idea that competition provides a key way in the establishing of professional truth and academic expertise. The connections between having the ability to discern or establish truth and professional status as an expert starts in graduate school, continues on the job market, is central to winning competitive grants, gaining advancement and attaining recognition. In other words, the academic world encourages a view of truth and status that is dependent — to a very real extent— on other people being wrong as much as someone being right. 

This way of thinking has often created barriers between our professional discourse and the general public. The technical character of academic language which so often appears as jargon to the uninitiated has served as a way to distinguish the precision and accuracy of truth claims, to limit our audience, and to fend off challenges from less proficient scholars. More than that, it has encouraged academics to see public outreach not as creative work, knowledge making, or truth building, but as a lesser form of intellectual labor. While I do feel that the burden of outreach falls unevenly on scholars in the humanities (and some of this is tied to a deep skepticism that the truths produced in the humanities establish real expertise), Fitzpatrick does demonstrate the clear link between how we work as scholars and our ability (and willingness and attitudes toward) engaging with a wider public.

I was particularly taken by Fitzpatrick’s careful consideration of the role of empathy and, more broadly, care, in our work as scholars, readers, and writers. Avoiding the seemingly ubiquitous calls for a kind of banal (and frankly unproductive, mostly condescending, and often colonialist) empathy, Fitzpatrick encouraged scholars to recognize that empathy is a process, a struggle, and always necessarily incomplete. The slow, painful, and always incomplete work of empathizing forms the basis for new forms of compassion and scholarly care. This undermines Ricoeur’s famous “hermeneutics of suspicion” both in how we read texts, but also in how we engage with our larger community. We suspend our overdeveloped sense of modern irony and attempt to understand others for who they are rather than to suss out what they’re hiding.    

As importantly, she demonstrates that this does not involve a kind of facile naïveté or the an overdetermined sense of the authenticity of “the other.” Nor does it require us to suspend our critical skills or rationalize injustice. It does, however, require us to listen rather than just to hear. By listening, we demonstrate that we care and instead of rushing to undermine or counter views that we assume to be different from our own, we create a space for genuine communication, reflection, and dialogue. This seems like good advice to me.

But this isn’t just a book telling us how to use our academic training to create dialogue, expand understanding, and make room for other voices. Fitzpatrick also urges us to turn this kind of collaborative, caring, and generous spirit on ourselves and academic institutions. The subtitle of Fitzpatrick’s book is “the university and the public good,” and she argues that by embracing more generous thinking as individuals we can push our institutions to return to their mission of providing the public good. If the historical practices of academic competition have merged with capitalist and market ideologies that see truth and knowledge making as a zero sum game with winners and loser both on the epistemological and professional level, a more generous and empathetic approach might shift the center of scholarly work from the individual to the collective and the community. As a result, attention to the health of the larger community both within and outside the academy, a willingness to listen, and a spirit of care creates new spaces for new and good.     

Applying these perspectives on the public good requires that we work to change our institutions as well as our disciplinary and individual practices. By recognizing the university and our scholarly work as part of a larger public and its myriad and variously define communities, we push back against the prevailing view of higher education as an individual good and begin to construct arguments and establish practices that demonstrate how higher education is public work that leads to public good. This is particularly important in an era where funding to higher education is increasingly articulated by unsympathetic legislatures as a luxury or as a subsidy directed to support the personal advancement of a small percentage of the population (i.e. faculty and students).

Fitzpatrick notes that it is difficult to map out in concrete terms the changes necessarily to transform institutions, particularly at the scale of higher education in the U.S. This doesn’t really detract from the impact of the book, however. It’s clear enough that change has to happen at the level of the individual who, if we buy Fitzpatrick’s argument, can make a difference by modeling generosity in their personal practices and encouraging others to think generously as well. 

Concluding Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology and the Archaeology of Care

Today I need to put the final revising touches the article that I submitted a couple of months ago to the European Journal of Archaeology as part of a section on digital archaeology. You can read the original here.

One of the critiques of my paper is that the conclusion is a bit weak sauce (my language not theirs). In part, that’s by design. I don’t want to dictate how people use digital tools in their archaeological practice. The issues are complex and projects, pressures, and perspectives are diverse.

On the other hand, I do want archaeologists to think about how digital tools change the relationship between the local and the global, the individual and assemblage, and archaeological work and efficiency. I’m not sure that I communicate this very well in the conclusion, but here’s what I say:

Conclusions

Ellul and Illich saw the technological revolution of the 20th century as fundamentally disruptive to the creative instincts and autonomy of individuals because it falsely privileged speed and efficiency as the foundations for a better world. The development of archaeology largely followed the trajectory of technological developments in industry and continue to shape archaeological practice in the digital era. Transhuman practices in archaeology reflect both long-standing modes of organizing archaeological work according to progressive technological and industrial principles. The posthuman critique of transhumanism unpacks how we understand the transition from the enclosed space of craft and industrial practices to the more fluid and viscous space of logistics. In short, it expands the mid-century humanism of Ellul and Illich offers a cautionary perspective for 21st century archaeology as it comes to terms with the growing influence of logistics as the dominant paradigm of organizing behaviour, capital, and knowledge.

An “archaeology of care” takes cues from Illich and Ellul in considering how interaction between tools, individuals, practices, and methods shaped our discipline in both intentional and unintentional ways. If the industrial logic of the assembly line represented the ghost in the machine of 20th century archaeological practices, then logistics may well haunt archaeology in the digital age. Dividuated specialists fragment data so that it can be rearranged and redeployed globally for an increasingly seamless system designed to allow for the construction of new diachronic, transregional, and multifunctional assemblages. Each generation of digital tools allow us to shatter the integrity of the site, the link between the individual, work, and knowledge, and to redefine organization of archaeological knowledge making. These critiques, of course, are not restricted to archaeological work. Gary Hall has recognized a similar trend in higher education which he called “uberfication.” In Hall’s dystopian view of the near future of the university, data would map the most efficient connections between the skills of the individual instructors and needs of individual students at scale (Hall 2016). Like in archaeology, the analysis of this data, on the one hand, allows us to find efficient relationships across complex systems. On the other hand, uberfication produces granular network of needs and services that splinters the holistic experience of the university, integrity of departments and disciplines, and college campuses as distinctive places. This organization of practice influences the behaviour of agents to satisfy the various needs across the entire network. The data, in this arrangement, is not passive, but an active participant in the producing a viable assemblage.

Punk archaeology looked to improvised performative, do-it-yourself, and ad hoc practices in archaeological fieldwork as a space of resistance against methodologies shaped by the formal affordance of tools. Slow archaeology despite its grounding in privilege, challenges the expectations of technological efficiency and the tendency of tools not only to shape the knowledge that we make, but also the organization of work and our discipline. The awareness that tools shape the organization of work, the limits to the local, and the place of the individual in our disciple is fundamental for the establishment of an “archaeology of care“ that recognizes the human consequences of our technology, our methods, and the pasts that they create.

Punk, Slow, and the Archaeology of Care

This weekend, I received the reviewer reports for an article that I toiled on for over 6 months. They were generous and thought provoking reports, which is basically what you want from your peer reviewers and pushed me to make some of the operating assumptions behind my call for both a slow archaeology and an archaeology of care more obvious. 

In the spirit of getting my thoughts together, I thought I’d share some of the critiques and my responses to them. As with any article, the challenge is to incorporate critiques without unbalancing the article or adding another 1000 words to an article that is already at the maximum length. At the same time, I feel like my reviewers offered honest critiques that will make my article stronger in the long run and any efforts to incorporate them will make the piece better.

So here’s what I need to work out:

1. Punk, Slow, and Archaeology of Care. One thing that the reviewers found a bit unclear is the relationship between punk archaeology, slow archaeology, and the archaeology of care. This is, in fact, something that I’ve struggled a bit with over the past few years and while I wanted to understand the development of my own thinking, I was also concerned that being too explicit about this was unnecessarily solipsistic. In the end, I need to include at least a paragraph explaining how the concepts relate. Here’s what I’d like to say (if words and length were no object):

In many ways, punk archaeology was a naive predecessor to slow archaeology. My reading of punk archaeology celebrated the performativity of archaeological practice and the do-it-yourself approaches to both in-field and interpretative problems. Adapting off-the-shelf software to archaeological purposes created subversive and critical opportunities for the discipline and pushed back against a view that structure of the tool, of process, or of method should dictate the kind of knowledge that we produce. Moreover, my interest in punk and archaeology shaped by critique of technology. The proto-cyberpunk and cyberpunk dystopias of Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, and John Shirley informed a skeptical and and anxious reading of technology which, in turn, motivated a call for slow archaeology. Slow archaeology sought to articulate the subversive impulse in archaeological practice by aligning it with various anti-modern “slow” movements that have appeared in 21st-century popular culture (e.g. slow food). While the slow movement has endured criticism of its privileged character of the popular slow movement, these criticisms have tended to focus on the consumerist luxury of slow products, slow time, and the social, economic, and political cost of inefficiency. In response to this, I have suggested that slow practices in archaeology are not a privileged indulgence of the white, tenured, grant funded, and secure male faculty member, but part of a larger conversation in archaeology that emphasizes a more human, humane, reflexive , and inclusive discipline. My colleagues and I have described our interest in this conversation as “the archaeology of care” which seeks not only to understand how our archaeological methods, particular the use of technology in the field, shape the structure of the discipline and produce the potential for both social conditions in practice and knowledge of the past that dehumanize individuals.  

2. Transhumanism and Posthumanism. One of the things that I totally botched in my paper was understanding the complexities of trans- and post-humanism. The latter represents a rather expansive and dynamic field from Donna Harraway’s cyborgs to the bioethics of Joanna Zylinska and the assemblage theory of Manuel DeLanda. My paper doesn’t engage much with post-humanism largely because my interest and the object of my critique involved field methods, technology and social organization in the discipline. It would be superficial to argue that post-humanism doesn’t address the relationship between technology, society, and knowledge production. It does, but transhumanism more frequently foregrounds the practical relationship between digital technology and social “progress.” This has parallels with arguments within the archaeological discourse (that I cite in the article) that celebrate the potential of digital tools and practices to increase efficiency, resolution, and the dissemination of archaeological knowledge. 

I do, of course, recognize that certain strands of technological solutionism from transhumanism are relevant for an understanding of posthumanism and, perhaps more importantly, vice versa. I try to recognize this through my reference to several scholars who have been associated with posthumanist thinking (Bruno Latour, Anna Tsing, and Gilles Deleuze), but their work isn’t really the object of my critique. More than that, it would be irresponsible to attempt to critique their work (which obviously informed what I argue in my article) in 6000 words. I would do well to acknowledge this.

3. Slow and Privilege. I’m not gonna lie. This critique stung me the most. On the one hand, I can’t help but feeling that some of it represents my own failure in making the case that knowledge produced through  a“slow” approach to archaeology needn’t take longer or be incommensurate with traditional archaeological practices. And, I certainly never meant to suggest that slow practices in archaeology produced “better” or “truer” knowledge. I’d like to think that slow practices and embodied knowledge and reflective reactions to our place in the landscape, the discipline, and our work produce meaningful knowledge (and I try to show that in my little book: The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape.) 

The one thing that bothers me the most is that by seeing “slow archaeology” as privileged, we are effectively normalizing the industrial methods that define mainstream “disciplinary” archaeology. On the one hand, I appreciate the argument that industrial archaeology is democratizing and part of a process of professionalizing of archaeology, by rendering the knowledge produced by archaeologists “scientific,” “impersonal” and “objective.” To my mind the impersonal nature of certain kinds of archaeological knowledge is at least partly to blame for those who obscure the work of all but a few individuals on a project (and creating a divide between data “collectors” and interpreters). In other words, the way I conceived of slow archaeology was as the basis for a less professional, but more inclusive archaeological practice. In fact, taking the time to allow for individuals to reflect on the experience of archaeological work, to inscribe their experiences in more idiosyncratic and less standardized ways, and to resist the accelerating urgency of more efficiency, more technology, and more data to my mind is a more humane and more human approach to understanding the past.   

 

 

Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care: Prepublication Draft

Readers of my blog know that I’ve been struggling with an article that comes from a paper that I delivered at this fall’s European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting. The paper brings together a number of different strands of thinking and the broader concept of transhumanism to speak to the potential implications of a digital archaeology.

For those of you familiar with my work, much of this will seem familiar, but I also hope that I’ve added some nuance to my thinking incorporated the works of Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Gilles Deleuze.  

The paper is also punk rock. It’s rough. The ideas are not fully formed and sometimes it will read like a concept album that was scrapped during production and then released anyway, because no one really gets concept albums anyway. Other times, it’ll read like a dystopia fueled by a teenager’s fascination with Philip K. Dick. The only thing I will stand by, however, is that this article is honest. It represents my thinking at this moment in time with its inconsistencies, feedback, and distortion. 

I’m not sure when, or if, I’ll get back to these topics in such a focused way (if ever), but if you want to know how punk archaeology and slow archaeology turn out … download the paper here.