I Let My Tape Rock ’til My Tape Popped: Music and Media in the 21st Century

A couple weeks ago my friend David Haeselin posted a nice review of Deerhunter’s Double Dream of Spring on the North Dakota Quarterly page. I’ve been wanting to write a response, and this is my first draft. 

The most curious thing about the Deerhunter album is that it was only released on cassette tape. 

Cassette tapes have always fascinated me (and some of this, I’ll have to admit, is simple nostalgia). They anticipated in so many ways the release of compact discs, but carried with them some of the same limitations of vinyl records. First, the were portable and ideally suited to mobile playback in such iconic devices as the Sony Walkman and in cars. Second, like vinyl LPs, they were relatively fragile and deteriorated over multiple plays (and were susceptible to oxidation over time). Third, compared the the compact disc it was possible for a tape to sound really good with suitably expensive playback gear and high quality tapes, in most cases, tapes sounded pretty bad and, in this way, they reflected the character of vinyl records, which could and can sound divine, mostly didn’t because most records were cut poorly and played back on mediocre equipment. (The final iteration of Dolby noise cancelation for tapes “Dolby S” was apparently almost CD quality). Finally, cassette tapes could be dubbed either completely or into mix tapes initiating an entire culture of dubbed, bootlegged, and pirated content that continued into the CD era and has structured, in many ways, our engagement with online digital music. 

Compared the vinyl records and tapes, compact discs represented an amazing leap forward in sound quality and durability and offered enhanced portability. Deerhunter’s release of a cassette tape reflects the negotiation of a number different affordances and different historical attitudes. On the one hand, cassettes offered a convenient portable medium for distributing their new EP and people who wanted to listen to the music would, at first, be limited to a small group of individuals who had access to working cassette players. The physicality of the tape itself stood as a immediate barrier to the circulation of the music and a badge of exclusivity. On the other hand, Deerhunter knew that copies of the EP would soon enter the digital realm and circulate widely on forums and Reddits and other places where Deerhunter fans congregated. This would, of course, reinforce, in the short term, access to a community of Deerhunter fans. In this way, a tape like this parallels the circulation of bootleg recordings prior to the internet which found their audiences in fan magazines, pre-concert festivities, and word of mouth.

About a month after Deerhunter released Double Dream of Spring, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released their first album as The Carters, Everything is Love. The single from the album was titled “Apeshit.” Like Deerhunter, the single was released in an exclusive way, but rather than on nostalgia-inducing cassette, on the streaming music service Tidal of which Beyoncé and Jay-Z are part-owner and which has a significant number of African American subscribers compared to other streaming services. The single itself likewise defies convention in its lyrics and title which would limit its radio play. (The old relationship between the single and the radio seems to be almost completely over thanks, in part, to the challenging lyrics and popularity of hiphop music.) The lyrics themselves celebrate this flaunting of convention with Beyoncé demanding “pay me in equity” which would certainly resonate with Tidal listeners aware that the service is owned at least partly by artists, many of whom are African American. The iconic music video for “Apeshit”, also premiered on Tidal and its setting in the Louvre emphasizes how the reception of art is as mediated by class and race. Unlike the ephemerality of the cassette tape, “Apeshit” stakes its claim to museum quality permanence.    

At the same time, Tidal has its limits. Kanye West released his album The Life of Pablo exclusively on Tidal in 2016 which famously led to wide spread pirating of the album as fans attempted to get access to the album without paying the service’s fees. West’s departure from the Tidal ownership group has sometimes been attributed to the mishandling of The Life of Pablo launch (and that Tidal owned him money), but its hard to separate that album with its changing list of songs, versions, and order from the streaming medium. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the album would have been pirated less had it been released as a conventional download. 

Without this little essay devolving to yet another case study of how the “medium is the message,” Deerhunter, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West demonstrate how the current moment in the music industry sees the medium as far more than simply a passive method for disseminating creative works but as the co-creator of the art itself. This isn’t new, of course, as artists have long recognized the relationship between their music and album covers, the color of vinyl, music videos, and even the ironic reminder by Tom Petty “Hello, CD listeners, we’ve come to the point of his album where those listening on cassette or records will have to stand up or sit down and turn over the record or tape.” I do suspect, however, that, today, that the intersection of technological and music has an explicit relationship with a growing awareness of the significance of fan communities, inequality within the music industry, as well as issues of race and social class.  

Lakka Skoutara: (Almost) 20 Years at a Rural Site in Greece

This past week, David Pettegrew and I revisited the rural site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinth. This is a settlement that developed over the course of the  first half of the 20th century with around 15 houses loosely clustered around a rural crossroad with a church dedicated to Ay. Katerini. There is also the crusher base for what must have been an olive press that likely dates to before the 20th century settlement, a number of impressive threshing floors, and series of cisterns providing water to this dry upland depression. Residents from the nearby village of Sophiko had occupied the houses in this valley periodically over the course of the 20th century usually during the harvest. There were periods when residents lived more or less full time in these houses in an effort to escape from the mid-century disruptions of World War II and the Greek Civil War. In 2001, we visited the valley and found that the houses were in various states of abandonment that ranged from total abandonment to occasional use and seasonal re-use.

The goal of our visit yesterday was to see how houses that we have documented (somewhat) regularly over the last 19 years were holding up. The initial goal of the project, when we started it, was to use these houses to think about formation processes in the Greek countryside. This visit was our first since 2009 (although we seem to recall a visit in 2012, but so far we can’t seem to find the photographic evidence for that trip). Having decade between visits meant that we had to get re-oriented to the area, but after a bit we were able to find our study houses, take some (but not nearly enough) photographs, and think about change (while) in the Greek countryside.

We have three snap impressions from our day wandering this settlement:

1. Houses fall down at an irregular pace. One thing that we certainly noticed is that relatively little had changed for buildings whose walls had collapsed prior to our first visit in 2001. In some cases, the walls were more visible because of changes in vegetation. But the general character of the collapse and associated material appeared more or less unchanged with some of the same scatters of artifacts present collapsed houses being more or less stable over the past 10 years.

House4 image3 2009 72a097aa232009

P10202662018

The reasons for this are, of course, obvious. The largely collapsed houses are less the focus of human activity and, as a result, less susceptible to various curation strategies and various other intentional and accidental human interventions. The remains of these houses are more resistant to various natural processes as most of the vulnerable elements in the houses have already given way, collapsed, or otherwise deteriorated. The remains, for example, of a brick and tile oven look essentially the same after 10 years.  

House4 image15 2009 74a4b36d1f2009

P10202642018

2. Wall plaster disappears quickly. When we first encountered House 14 in 2001, it had some of its roof intact as well as plaster on its exterior walls and on a plaster-and-lathe dividing wall that originally separated two rooms. By 2009, the roof had collapsed and exposed the walls and the plaster-and-lathe wall had fallen to the floor. In 2018, most of the plaster had melted from the exterior walls and the plaster on the lathe wall had vanished to the point where the wall was no longer visible.

BillCaraher 2018 May 302009

BillCaraher 2018 May 30 12018

3. Continuous Change. One of the less surprising aspects of Lakka Skoutara is the continuous change to the region and to its buildings. In one house, that appeared to be maintained but not in significant use, a plaster-and-lathe dividing wall was carefully removed. 

House10 image18 2009 5b5c28b2b32009

P10203592018

Another house, constructed of cinderblocks in rough courses received a new balcony and a series of nicely built patios suggesting a transition from a kind of rough functionality to perhaps a more recreational purpose.

 House13 image2 2009 dd52d4ebad2009
P10203362018

The western part of the Lakka has seen the development of all sorts of new structures.

P1020300

These include some curious examples of reuse.

P1020310

Lakka Skoutara remains a dynamic landscape even in “abandonment.”

Wesley College Wednesday

Over the last week or so, the Wesley College Documentation Project has shifted its attention from the buildings themselves and their physical fabrics to their history in the University of North Dakota archives where the Wesley College papers reside. The students have eagerly moved through archival collections for clues as to the history of the buildings. 

IMG 2060

They’ve found some great stuff that speaks to the day-to-day lives of students residing in Sayre and Larimore Hall, of students who were charged for new rugs after rendering theirs “too dirty to clean without being destroyed,” of damage to hallways from impromptu dormitory hockey games, and of Steinway pianos and of new electrical fixtures.

UA63 Box1 Correspondence1935  page 47 of 310 2018 04 18 06 50 45

At the same time, I’ve been patiently working to describe the rooms in Larimore Hall and will soon move on to Corwin, Sayre, and Robertson. I’ve been using our remarkable archive of photographs, my drawings, and a collection of plans which show Corwin/Larimore Hall in various phases of renovation in 1970s. 

UA75 3 19 19 pdf 2018 04 18 06 41 33

So far, I’ve focused on describing the second floor of Larimore Hall (or the 3rd floor depending on how you count!) and primarily on the architecture and furnishings rather than the small finds or objects present there. Writing up this stuff in tedious detail has really helped me wrap my head around the changes to the building and the complex interplay between its original and later form. This interplay demonstrated the tension between the 21st century building and its 20th century bones and preserved the physical memory of its past function even as its abandoned 21st-century form. For example, rooms used at in 21st century GTA offices saw the least modification during the 1979 remodeling demonstrating a kind of persistence of use over 30 years. Research spaces on the fourth floor featured more older furnishings than office spaces did on the second floor showing a greater tendency toward curating older objects. 

Part of the goal of this project has become to use intensive documentation as a way to commemorate these century-old buildings and to recognize their entire history from their origins with Wesley College to their 21st century demise.  

This is obviously still a work in progress, but you can download some fragments of my preliminary report here

The Dark Abyss of Time

This weekend, read Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (2011). It’s good. 

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been slowly drawn back to the topic of time and archaeology and history over the the last year. Some of this come from my recent, largely stalled, efforts to sort out what it means to produce an archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I am interested in understanding what it means for an archaeologist to be contemporary with a particular artifact, object, building, or event

Olivier does not comment on this directly, but as the title of his book suggests, he recognizes the past and the present as being distinctly separate with the position of the archaeologist and the position of an object from the past being incommensurate points. These points, however, are not necessarily on a linear continuum, but like objects in our unconscious that appear in the present but are clearly of the past. As archaeologists, our job is to make sense of these objects in our present world and to attempt to comprehend both their pastness and their nowness. 

This perspective is intriguing to me, in part, because it situates archaeological knowledge as a challenge to the assumptions of linearity that define the modern world. The modern concept of progress assumes that the present overwrites the past as it builds upon it toward a new future. The existence of the past in the present, however, whether through patina, the unexpected appearance of an object, or through traditions, monuments, or excavation, confound the linear progress of time and create the space of a discontinuous present. This kind of contemporaneity between the past and the present suggests that archaeological time is deeply anti-modern in its conceptualization of the world. 

This got me thinking about some of our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the buildings, Sayre Hall, is a memorial to Harold Sayre who died in the 1918 in World War I. Olivier’s book reminded me of the deep irony that this building will be demolished in 2018, in the name of modern progress. World War I was a truly modern war that both on display the horrible achievements of the modern Industrial Age and shook the confidence of a world that looked toward modernity as the end to the conflicts had defined the “barbarism” of the pre-modern world. It seems to me that nothing better highlights to dehumanizing cost of modernity that the destruction of a monument to a soldier who died fighting in modernity’s war.

On a less somber note, this weekend, I wrote an (overly long) email to my colleagues on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation in my ongoing effort to understand how the Atari games became archaeological artifacts.

Here’s more or less what I wrote:

As you can probably tell from some of my writing, I’ve increasingly seen the games themselves as a bit of McGuffin. After all, there wasn’t any great mystery regarding whether the games were actually there or not – that was pretty well-known and documented. Moreover, even if there are open questions concerning how many games were deposited and for what purpose, these questions are much more likely to be answered through careful archival work than excavating an entire landfill.

So the question that has been bothering me is why did these games become the object of archaeological work. After all, it’s pretty rare that archaeologists excavate something for no other reason than to check on archival records. This isn’t a super solid research question, of course, but we can get a pass because we didn’t properly speaking organize the excavation. From what I can tell, the excavation was designed to resolve the urban legend, but this simply changes the question a bit and asks “why did the urban legend emerge?” That question is to me, basically the same as “why did we excavate the games?”

Olivier’s book plays around a good bit with Freud, which I think is pretty helpful as Zak Penn’s documentary is [almost] explicitly Freudian and our “quest” for the games is essentially an effort to interrogate or critique modernity (or at very least demonstrate that despite modernity we can still create meaning in the past). Olivier likens the archaeological record to our unconscious in that it exists in fragments of the past that appear through excavation in the present. In other words, like Freud’s unconscious, the archaeological record – objects – are transposed from the past into the present. They mean something, but their meaning isn’t clear and direct and it’s always mediated by present concerns, but nevertheless “real.”

We create this unconscious in two ways. As an interesting aside, the Atari games, of course, were in secondary discard (in that they were cast aside and forgotten) but there were also pressures that sought to drag them into primary discard. For example, the site was called a graveyard or a burial (not on a literal sense). Their burial in Alamogordo both placed them out of sight (and memory) and located them in a known place for known reasons (laws against scavenging, cheap disposal rates, et c.). This tension, I supposed, served two functions: on the one hand, secondary discard attempted to push the games out of memory and into our “unconscious.” Efforts to mark the games as being located in primary discard, in turn, kept some of their memory alive.

By excavating the games in their ambiguous discard we can see how some aspects of the past of the games is, on the one hand, forgotten, and, on the other, partially remembered. It moved the games into the place of legend and the partially remember unconscious of our memories. This move, I’d contend, was important because it forgot certain specific aspects of the past of these games. Namely, that the discarding of these games represented an economic move. These games were commodities, were ubiquitous, and were not – in any real ways – special. That memory had to be overwritten or forgotten, if we were to reinscribe the games with something of value to the present. This overwriting and reinscribing is the stuff of archaeology and of psychoanalysis. It’s all about managing the gap between the object as a moment from the past and our own place in the present. And since the act of discard and our act of excavation exposed this gap, our work revolved around making the the games relevant and significant for the present.

The metaphor of the gap as producing meaning is a useful one. First, it’s similar to how films work (Olivier, 186). Films depend on the gaps between frames to create movement, of course.

More importantly, establishing the gap between the past and the present by archaeology allowed us to create a more innocent past for ourselves. We used this gap to overwrite the consumerist and capitalist past of the games – which is anti-romantic (in every sense) and exposes us to the harsh reality that our childhood and fantasy life was not pure and innocent, but a the commodified product of our late capitalist world. Here we can even follow a bit of Shannon Lee Dawdy and say that these game’s particular patina transformed them from commodities to artifacts (and this transformation allowed them to become revalued in distinctive ways in the ebay auction).

Zak Penn’s documentary sort of wraps up this reading of the Atari dig by making the Freudian leap from the present to our buried unconscious all the more explicit. The sense of closure for Howard Scott Warshaw, the E.T. game’s creator, at the end of the film and the parallel between “our” childhood fantasies and Warshaw’s coming of age at Atari is simply too good to be true. Even as Warshaw’s fantasy came crumbling down, the existence of the games in some far away landfill held out the hope that some aspect of his innocence could be buried safely, and recovered like a psychoanalytic treatment that finds the source of pain, reveals it, and returns the conscious mind to its tenuous equilibrium.

 

 

 

 

Contemplating Contemporaneity

I’ve been thinking much more systematically about contemporaneity lately. This is in part because I’ve sent off a proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture. While I have no idea whether it’ll be accepted, writing it, and my long-paused Atari article, stimulated me to think a try to wrap my head around recent work on contemporaneity.

What has intrigued me the most is how clearly debates about the nature of a contemporary archaeology represent a critique of modernity. In many cases, the archaeology of the present or the contemporary offers a counter method and narrative challenge to the persistent authority of periodization schemes which tend to fortify narratives of progress. These narratives of progress, of course, are intimately bound up with our modern understanding of capital and, as a generation of postcolonial and subaltern studies scholars have shown, colonialism.

The insistence on a gap or a “break in tradition” between the present and the past grounds archaeology in the modern era which sought to replace arguments for tradition (and the political baggages associated with them) with a new source of authority. Excavation was a particularly apt metaphor and method for revealing a past that past practices sought to overwrite and obscure. Layers of tradition, legend, and other “tainted” views, were pealed back by specialists in a performance that both produced new authority and grounded it in new knowledge. Modern geology developed stratigraphy to argue for an Earth that was much older than religious traditional would allow. Historians culled archives to produce new narratives that undermined (literally) the authority of the ancien regime. Psychology, as Julian Thomas has expertly shown, likewise looked to excavation and stratigraphy to articulate both the layers of the mind that create the individual, and ultimately, the interleaving of individual and societies. Similar efforts and metaphors appeared in the work of ethnographers who demonstrated that traditional folk tales often preserved truths about both specific pasts and universal pasts that later accretions have obscured. 

While it is easy enough to see the significance and value of insisting on barrier separating the present and the past, it likewise reasonable to understand how this divide provided a significant impetus for narratives of progress in which the contemporary authority overwrites tradition. Projected globally, the chronological divide translated to a spatial and political divide with the present of the West being represented as the ultimate future for “traditional” societies whose present will, in turn, be overwritten by a more rational, “advanced,” capitalist, and democratic future.  

Recent interest in contemporaneity between the present and the past looks to complicate and critique the relationship between archaeological work and modernity. As Rodney Harrison and others have observed, scholars have recently appreciated how incomplete or “unfinished” the project of modernity is, or to put it in less teleological terms, how uneven the surface of modernity is. As part of the effort to recognize and survey this unevenness in archaeology, archaeologists have increasingly sought to produce an archaeology of and in the present. In this way of thinking, the contemporaneity of the archaeologist and the archaeology challenges the view of the past as something “out there” to be uncovered but rather something co-created in the relationships between the archaeologist and the objects and situations and narratives that they organize as knowledge.

By drawing attention to the contemporaneity in archaeology, archaeologists of the present are in a place to trace the surface of the modern world and through the metaphor of the surface assemblage to understand how the interplay of the past and the present produces meanings that have distinctive meaning to the present. By doing this, an archaeology of the contemporary or, perhaps better, an archaeology of contemporaneity, offers two opportunities for the discipline (and, I’d suggested for society). First, it resists the practice of seeing the past a series of presents that invariably and inevitably led to our own world. By recognizing that a wider range of pasts can lead to a wider range of potential futures, it shifts our attention as archaeologists to the complexities of formation processes that embrace both past and present events, values, expectations, and narratives. Second, to understand the complexities of these assemblages, archaeologists have to move beyond disciplinary epistemologies, methods, and practices and to embrace a wider view of what constitutes archaeological knowledge. 

As I work to complete a draft of an article based on my experiences at the Alamogordo Atari Expedition, I’m increasingly struck by how our contemporaneity with both the objects of study (and their excavated context) and their larger cultural context revealed new narratives enmeshed at the intersection of popular views of archaeology and our own disciplinary biases.    

Two Book Tuesday: Atari Age and Artifacts in Silicon Valley

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of reading casually just a bit in two books. First, I’ve read most of Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT 2017), and at the same time, I discovered Christine A. Finn’s Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley (MIT 2001). Both books offer distinctive impressions of late 20th century digital culture and contribute in some way to my long term research trajectories.

The utility of Newman’s book is more immediate. He frames the emergency of video game in the 1970s and 1980s against the backdrop of the video arcade with its seedy reputation inherited from gaming parlors of the early 20th century. (In my own experience, I never really understood why my parents did not let me go to the Silver Ball Arcade as a kid. There was something seedy about it in my parents’ mind (and a waste of money) that placed that space out of bounds for me and my brothers). Atari’s success involved translating the thrill of arcade games while domesticating them. The early advertisements for Atari, then, emphasized their domestic setting and showed families playing the games together. By the mid-1980s, however, the idyllic family setting had taken on a more male slant as mothers and daughters disappear and fathers, sons, and brothers remained, but still in the relative comfort of the domestic environment. The domestication of the arcade took place in two stages with the first locating the games at home among the entire family and the second returning game play to a male realm while still safely ensconced in the home. The final stage involved transporting the players from the home to the fantasy world of the game which almost alway was encoded male. Sports, war, and adventure outside the home (in space, in fantastic worlds, or as the protagonist of a feature film) remained the male domain for most of the 1980s (and perhaps today) as the safely domesticated games invited players to engage in less mundane adventures in fantastic landscapes. 

Finn’s book was one of this books that I should have read earlier. Finn, an Oxford trained archaeologist who had a career as a journalist, traveled to Silicon Valley in 2000 to experience the most talked about landscape in late-20th century American geography. While the book isn’t exactly a tourist guide, like that offered by Forrest Mims Siliconnections (1986), Finn is clear that her work “is a kind of Cook’s tour of my own, a brief one, and from the perspective of an archaeologist as foreign correspondent” (xiii).

As someone who just wrote a tourist guide to a 21st century landscape, I was thrilled to find that someone else had had this idea before me. Finn is a better writer than I am, but she also views Silicon Valley less through the lens of the tourist and more as a journalist. In particular, she focused on the characters whom she met during her travels. More than that, though, she demonstrates a keen eye for history and change in the Silicon Valley landscape and the often ironic efforts to reclaim some of the historical landscape of the Valley, but in a way that does not disrupt development and a sense of progress. A historic cherry farm gives way to high end shopping that includes a shop that sells imported cherries and cherry themed gifts. A retired computer engineer recreates a rustic garden in his backyard including a writing shed to escape from the very bustle that allowed him this luxury. Historic buildings are celebrated and moved to more convenient locations for visitors coming to the region for technology related business or travel. The landscapes that Finn creates demonstrates the deep ambivalence toward the changes in our late-20th century world. Her book bridged the gap between William Least Heat Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map), which is filled with compelling characters, and my own book, The Bakken, where I tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to push the changing Bakken landscape to the fore.  

Patina Review: A First Draft

Over the last week or so, I’ve been pecking away at a review of Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016) for the American Journal of Archaeology. Writing a review has served as a useful way to become reacquainted with the book as well as to nudge me to think a bit more clearly about how university campuses function as patinated spaces

So here’s my first draft, warts and all:

Patina is a book about modernity. Shannon Lee Dawdy slim work offers a densely nuanced survey of patina in contemporary, post-Katrina New Orleans and argues that patina represents a material critique of modernity as signs of past use and wear relentlessly manifest themselves in world dominated by narratives of progress and commodity capitalism that seek of overwrite the past in the name of linear time.

For Dawdy, New Orleans offered a distinct and familiar group of case studies for her arguments starting with the appearance of the “Katrina Patina” in the aftermath of the hurricane, which left mud and recovery team marks on so many of the buildings in the city. She leverages her advantage of her long experience doing fieldwork in the city to demonstrate how the patinated past in pushes through into modern of New Orleans. She develops the idea of heterogeneous time in diverse assemblage of artifacts found in the excavations of the gardens around St. Louis Cathedral and in the remains of the Duplessis plantation house beneath the Maginnis Cotton Mill building. The stories of hauntings that have created both an opportunity for “haunted tour” operators, but also played a central role in the distinctly macabre atmosphere for which some older New Orleans neighborhoods have become known. Dawdy’s excavations at the Rising Sun Hotel site naturally attracted national attention, but the interplay between the subsiding ruins of the collapses and charred hotel and later structures on the site provided a literal example of the past pushing into the present. The historical interest in antiques and the interplay between objects and events in the ritually rich New Orleans streetscape demonstrates that the physical aspects of patina are bound up in the relationship between agency, objects, and memory. 

Interviews and conversation with a range of residents and archival research complement her field work and to produce perspective on the city’s patina that go beyond excavations and enter people’s homes, businesses, and everyday lives. Heirlooms go beyond antiques with recognized values and to include objects, whether a plain wardrobe or a “Chinese style chair,” with personal stories and distinct signs of wear. Personal narratives and objects created meanings associated with certain aspects of the city, for example so-called Faience rogue pots or French wine bottles, work to meld together the history of individuals, objects, and the community.

Dawdy’s interest in patina extends to the theorist who she invokes. Benjamin, Freud, and Durkheim serve as the foundations for an approach centered on critical nostalgia. While these early 20th century thinkers have perhaps fallen to the margins of contemporary theoretical debates in archaeology, Dawdy gives them new life in her work. Benjamin’s well-worn arcades project offers a point of departure for a sustained critique of modern capitalism and consumerism with the book’s subtitle “A profane archaeology” being drawn from Benjamin’s concept of “profane illumination.” For Benjamin, the profane illumination represented a radical and irrational view of the world infused with hashish smoke and surrealism (9). Freud’s concept of the fetish likewise restores an irrational and religious dimension to our grasp of the material world and produces a useful complication to the substantial influence of Marx’s commodity fetishism. Dawdy recognizes in the deeply personal character of the fetish an irreducible materiality shaped by contingent of events and social relations that produce a kind of spiritual aura surrounding the fetishized object. To understand this aura she calls upon Durkheim’s concept of mana which emerges as a coherent foil to understand how patina complicates the tidy rationality of the modern world. There is something ineffable in the way objects acquire and communicate patina that makes the restlessness of both the object and time itself so much more clear. The materiality of patina and its irrational significance offers a view of the past that resists the rather more linear and orderly idea of “invented traditions” in place of the dynamic and recursive time of embodied in patina.

The conclusion of the book presents Dawdy’s elaborate argument in its essence. In New Orleans, patina critiques commodification and commercialism, progress and modernity, and the linearity of time. It also bonds the past to the present and individuals and objects to objects. By doing so, patina conjures heteotopic spaces throughout the city. These are, following Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, realized expressions of utopian fantasies, set apart from everyday life.  Dawdy expands this to include chronotopic time which likewise stands as distinct from the banal world (148). That such places and times are unique to certain cities – New Orleans, San Francisco, Istanbul – where deeply ingrained practices and places push back against the relentless tide of commodity capitalism and progress perhaps constrains her argument unnecessarily. The accelerated pace of change in the contemporary world has subjected such ordinary objects as Atari games, long-playing records, and abandoned offices to similar forms of critical nostalgia that both infused even rapidly accumulating signs of wear with patina and questions the seemingly inevitable horizon of obsolescence associated with commodity capitalism. In short, patina might be more prevalent and visible in places like New Orleans, but the critique that it implies has a much wider significance.

This book might not seem professionally relevant to archaeologists of the ancient Mediterranean, but it serves as an important reminder that our linear view of time is bound up in the same narratives of progress that have contributed to our field’s disciplinary boundaries. The chronological complexities of formation processes represent just the most obvious example of how multiple pasts shape archaeological space and destabilize disciplinary practices overly committed to essentializing the character of cultural or social change in any one period.

Springtime Writing: Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

A few months ago, I started to try to write a book proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture for the University Press of Florida’s series The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective. It stalled a bit (ironically) because I started to work on documenting the historical and contemporary material culture associated with two buildings on the University of North Dakota’s campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre slated for demolition. Racing the bulldozer and asbestos mitigation has created some challenges and forced us to make some decisions as to what we planned to document, by what methods (photos, video, description?) and how intensively. 

But all this is somewhere between an excuse and some sense of priorities. To prove to whatever audience that this blog still has that I can follow through, I’m posting my proposed outline below. It’s in draft still and there are certainly ways for me to tighten up the coherence of the book particularly the interweaving of theory (particularly the opportunity for archaeology of the contemporary world to problematize certain key aspects of archaeological method and practice) and the important traditions embodied in American historical archaeology. Hopefully that’ll come through more in the final draft, but for a general sketch, this is how I envision the book.

The Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

This book will have two sections with each part anchored by on of my field project. Part 1 will begin with the excavation of Atari game cartridges from the Alamogordo landfill in 2014 and then focus on how objects in context create a distinct American culture. Part 2 considers the archaeology of contemporary American landscapes and concludes with an analysis of the industrial landscape of the Bakken oil patch.

Introduction

The introduction will explore the key aspect of archaeology of contemporary American culture by unpacking the concept of contemporaneity in recent archaeological thought and the tension between archaeology’s use of time to defamiliarize our past and present as well as considering how an archaeology of the contemporary world explicitly requires us to co-locate with the objects and landscape that we study. This intersection with contemporaneity opens up new space for the role that archaeology can play in addressing pressing social, economic, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities in American society as well as introducing new epistemological perspectives on how archaeologists produce meaningful knowledge.

Part 1: Objects and Contexts

Part 1 of the book considers the role of objects in the archaeology of the contemporary world. Starting with an analysis of our excavation of the famous Atari dump in the Alamogordo landfill and considering the role of abundance, discard practices, and various objects mediated by increasing digital means.

1. Atari

The Alamogordo Atari excavation were organized by a documentary film company and funded by Microsoft for distribution over their Xbox console. The work sought to “prove” the well-known urban legend that Atari had dumbed thousands of games in landfill of the dessert town of Alamogordo in the 1980s. The excavation of the landfill produced over a thousand Atari games as well as a wide range of household trash. The excavation located the games simultaneous in 21st century American culture with its accelerated sense of nostalgia, but also within a distinctive 20th century assemblage of domestic and consumer waste.

2. Garbology, Discard, and Trash

The practice of documenting and analyzing contemporary domestic discard originated with William Rathje’s garbology work in Tuscon, Arizona. The study of the archaeology of trash opened the door to new critiques of consumer culture, the formation of contemporary assemblages, and a persistent interest in determining how both patterns of discard and discarded objects produce meaning. Recent work on discarded material culture involves sociological studies on scrounging, scavenging, and informal recycling and curation practices that produced distinctive assemblages of material and practices. This chapter returns to the roots of archaeology in its interest in middens and trash and shows how contemporary American garbage presents the distinctive insights into consumer culture and values.

3. Objects

In one of the most famous essays in archaeology of the contemporary world is C. Tiley and M. Shanks (1992) analysis of beer cans from Sweden and England. They famous urge archaeologists rely less on empirical methods and engage objects through the lens of cultural studies and as part of a more complex system of meaning making. In recent decades the rise of a distinctive “material culture studies” informed by new concepts of agency has provided new approaches for studying objects as part of networks of human and material actors. This chapter reviews the diverse ways that archaeologists of the contemporary world have continued to reflect on the entangled nature of objects in creating the experiences of life in New Orleans, homelessness, or American childhood.

4. Media

Among the more dynamic and compelling hybrid spaces for archaeology of the contemporary world is media archaeology. Originally framed by work in media studies, media archaeology considers the materiality of media and the relationship between technology, form, content, and culture. Archaeologists, for their part, have come to recognize the significant of digital objects and media for their own work in both a practical sense and as a conceptual problem for unpacking contemporary culture. The materiality of an Atari cartridge or a Grateful Dead long-playing record, only tells part of their significance in an archaeological and cultural context. Michael Schiffer’s interest in transistor radios, for example, anticipated recent studies of the archaeology of computers and the internet. The development of digital archaeology and archaeogaming recognizes the extension of American culture into virtual worlds and digital spaces complete with digital objects that require documentation, curation, and preservation. This chapter, then, explores approaches to objects and media that have shaped American culture.

Part 2: Landscapes and Situations

The second part of the book examines particular landscapes that reflect certain situations in 21st century American culture. Starting along the margins and emphasizing the growing precarity of certain groups in America and proceeding to examine the institutional and industrial landscapes, this section will explore case-studies that trace the contours of archaeology at a scale intended to reflect the expansive and complex problems facing American society.

5. Precarity and Marginal Places: homelessness, borders, and squats

Archaeology of the contemporary world is particularly well-suited to documenting groups and individuals who produce particularly ephemeral artifactual signatures or fall to the margins of traditional documentation practices. Larry Zimmerman’s archaeology of homelessness and Jason De Leon’s detailed study of the distribution of objects associated with illegal immigrants demonstrate how archaeological methods can produce significant new understandings of historically and socially marginal groups. Similar interest in the material traces of short-term events ranging from Occupy Wall Street encampments to the remains of the Burning Man festival offer case studies for how archaeology can tell complicating stories that challenge and enrich conventional narratives. This chapter will demonstrate that objects, landscapes, and precarious places can reveal otherwise overlooked, marginal, or ephemeral events that constitute modern forms of community.

6. Institutional Landscapes: Campuses, Military Bases, and Parks

Institutional spaces offer archaeological landscapes often dominated by deeply inscribed expressions of authority or influence. University campuses, military bases, and public spaces and infrastructure define significant spaces in the American landscape that both function as markers of power, authority, and ideology and preserve traces of subversion, resistance, and re-interpretation. The archaeology of contemporary campus life, for example, leaves intriguing traces in abandoned buildings and in discard patterns along well-manicured campus walkways. The archaeology of military bases and outposts negotiates the tension between visible projections of power and the hidden work of military authority often best documented through satellite and remote images. This chapter emphasizes how the archaeology of contemporary institutional landscapes offers a critical and subversive approach to our manicured and manipulated material surroundings.

7. Industrial, Extractive, and Exploratory Landscapes

The emergence of ruin porn and the photographic documentation of extractive landscapes offers an accessible perspectives on the detritus of the modern world. The well-established field of industrial archaeology with its distinctive place in American historical archaeology overlaps with the tradition of mining archaeology in the American west. These fields are increasingly infused with approaches developed by environmental historians, landscape archaeology, climate criticism, and petroculture. This chapter focuses on recent work on how industrial and extractive landscapes – from the toxic Berkeley pit mine of Butte, Montana to the archaeology of space – excavate the roots of both our everyday modernity and our hopes (and fears) for the future.

8. The Bakken

The North Dakota Man Camp Project (2012-2017) documented workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota during both the height and decline of the Bakken Oil Boom. The rapid increase in drilling for oil and infrastructural improvement in the relatively remote and sparsely populated Bakken counties led to a significant influx of workers from outside the region. To house these workers, a wide array of short-term settlements emerged from prefabricated workforce housing units to motley camps of RV trailers towed to the region by the workers themselves. The penultimate chapter will consider the intersection of extractive landscapes, precarity, and a 21st century sense of home.

Conclusions, Prospects, and Problems

The concluding chapter seeks to trace the trajectories established in both parts of this book forward into the 21st century. An archaeology of and for the contemporary world both responds to and anticipates the challenges of climate change, economic precarity, virtual worlds, and new transdisciplinary spaces, methods, and approaches. Returning to the contemporaneity as

Four Things on a Wednesday Morning

I had four more or less random thoughts on my drive onto campus this morning. 

1. Famae Volent. There has been a good bit of buzz around the Classics job-hunter site Famae Volent this month. Most of it stems from the increasingly toxic, relatively un-moderated, and thoroughly angst-fill comments section. The tone lately has been hostile with attacks, incendiary language, and lots of blaming.

I can’t help but thinking that this is, in part, the result of the general state of the humanities and particularly proximate sense of dread created by the growing momentum for various austerity projects at both private and public colleges. You’ve undoubtedly read enough about austerity on this blog, so I won’t rehash my arguments. What got me wondering this morning is whether (1) Famae Volent has been archived (it was only captured 17 times by the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine) and whether the language of the comments section has been analyzed systematically. I’d be curious whether the language in the comments has, in fact, become increasingly polarized (as some have suggested and I agree with instinctively), by what measure we could understand this, and whether the language in the comments has parallels with, say, our political discourse or various larger intellectual (or anti-intellectual) trends. 

This seems like it would be a cool project for a digitally inclined historian or Classicist. 

2. Re-Reading. I almost never re-read things. I mean, I will go back to a text to look for something or to check my notes or confirm a citation or even to make sure that I understood a complex passage correctly, but I rarely sit down and re-read an academic book. Last week, I agreed to review Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016), for the American Journal of ArchaeologyI even blogged on it briefly a couple of years ago, but to be honest I was a bit overwhelmed by the book and struggled to formulate a coherent critique. 

But now I have to! And what makes this review even more of an adventure is that the book has been pretty thoroughly reviewed across a wide range of literature. More than that, the AJA is aimed at Mediterranean and largely “Classical” archaeologists for whom this book should be relevant, but isn’t instinctively so. Stay tuned.

3. Racing the Bulldozer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working to document the two Wesley College buildings at UND: Corwin/Larimore and Roberston/Sayre Halls. I learned just this week two bits of news. First, Corwin/Larimore is slated to begin asbestos mitigation later this month and second that the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office is going to require Standard II recording for both buildings. The former will speed our work up and require us to set some new priorities. The latter will involve us having to collaborate with UND to find the ideal partners to complete the necessary documentation.

The good thing about the decision of the ND SHPO is that it will require a basic history for the two buildings and a technical architectural description and we hopefully fold this into our more comprehensive analysis of these buildings, their change over time, and their abandonment. 

4. Rejections. I’m sitting in the morning light that rakes through the garden level windows of the NDQ offices and facing the unpleasant task of writing my first little gaggle of rejection emails. While I know this is part of the business, I still find it depressing. The sunlight is helping a bit though. Maybe it’s even symbolic. Something about the darkest and the dawn or whatever. 

Back to work… 

Update on the Wesley College Documentation Project

After about 5 partial days of fieldwork, we’re beginning to get a grasp on the Wesley College Documentation Project. For those unfamiliar with this project, a team of students, faculty, and staff are working to document the two original Wesley College buildings on the camps of the University of North Dakota. With the exception of Robertson Hall (1930), these buildings were built in the first decade of the 20th century to serve Wesley College, an innovated Methodist College associated with the UND. Larimore and Sayre Halls served as women’s and men’s dormitories, respectively, and the Corwin and Robertson Halls provided space for music and religious studies classes as well as college offices. In 1965, Wesley College became officially part of UND. Corwin/Larimore Hall underwent significant modifications in the late 1970s to accommodate faculty offices and research spaces. Robertson/Sayre has been transformed in a less systematic way, but served similar functions in recent times. 

So far, the team has focused on Corwin and Larimore Halls and hopes to move to Robertson/Sayre by mid-March. The project has been shaped by a sense of urgency in documenting the buildings before asbestos mitigation begins and the buildings are razed in late May or June. So far, we’ve documented most of the third and fourth floors of Corwin/Larimore hall in a fairly detailed way with over 500 photographs and dozens of carefully described spaces. This data collection, however, has moved a bit ahead of our interpretation, but the latter is catching up as we have become more familiar with the spaces. 

Several ideas have begun to crystalize as we’ve made our way through these spaces. 

1. 50 Objects. I’ve asked the field teams to identify 50 objects that tell the story of Corwin/Larimore Hall. We will photograph and document each object in greater detail and prepare a catalogue that reflects the diverse history and functions of these spaces. We will also include a brief description of why this object is significant to the history of the building. 

2. Hearing Corwin Hall. In the original design, Corwin Hall 300 was a recital hall for Wesley College and designed with this acoustic function in mind. After the 1978 modifications to the space, in which an enclosed stairwell was added that encroached upon the stage area of the recital hall and comprised the acoustics of the space. Even after that modification, there remains a distinct sound to the room and we’ve arranged for one of the old “punk archaeology” colleagues, Mike Wittgraf, to bring his keyboard rig and some microphones to capture the sound of both Corwin 302, but also the rest of the Corwin/Larimore hall.

3. Documenting Abandonment. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Wesley College Documentation Project is that we are witnessing the building in the brief gap between abandonment and demolition. The distinct character of the assemblage produced by Corwin/Larimore Halls speaks to complex network of relationships that shape decisions to move, recycle (through officially surplus objects for reuse or resale elsewhere), or abandon everyday objects in academic spaces. Moreover, the assemblage is historically constituted as the decision to discard or keep obsolete or outdated objects over time produced the assemblage preserved in the building. While archaeologists have rightly rejected the so-called “Pompeii Premise,” the assemblage present in Corwin/Larimore does represent a frozen moment in time that embodies a series of short and longterm historical decisions. Unpacking this assemblage and attempting to recognize the reasons for its form provides a useful commentary on the role of objects in our everyday and institutional life.   

4. History and Memory on the UND Landscape. The longterm plan for the space left behind by the Wesley College buildings is to move the Stone House (also called the Oxford House) to the space. The Colonial revival building was designed by Joseph Bell DeRemer in 1902 and originally served as the home of UND’s presidents, and as a billboard for the university. In the early 1970s, it received a systematic restoration and then it became the home of the UND alumni association. During my time on campus, it has served as an all purpose reception space. By erasing the physical memory of Wesley College and overwriting it with the Stone House, UND is rewriting the historical landscape of campus at a moment when it is also reimagining its own future.  

5. Performance. The Wesley College Documentation Project team generally agrees that documenting these buildings is more than just a historical or archaeological task and is part of larger effort to demonstrate that we care about the history of UND’s campus. As part of that, we’re trying to figure out ways to make our work public that go beyond the typical websites, articles, or presentations that scholars have long used to present their work. My hope is that we do something public and performative to demonstrate our interest in these buildings and to mark their place on campus for the public and future generations of students and stakeholders. The Wesley College experiment was a distinct and unique one that had a marked influence on the early history of UND. There is something worth commemorating here.