Three Things Thursday: Survey Archaeology, Western Literature, and Poetry from a Former Student

My body is gallantly fighting off a cold the week, so I don’t quite have the energy for a long involved post. So, instead, I’ll offer a little “Three Thing Thursday” as I try to keep the balls in the area down the stretch run of the week.

First Thing.

A colleague shared this article with me over the weekend: Kimberly Bowes et al. “Peasant agricultural strategies in southern Tuscany: Convertible agriculture and the importance of pasture” from The Economic Integration of Rural Italy. Rural Communities in a Globalizing World, ed. G. Tol and T. de Haas. (Brill 2017): 165-194. The article uses examples from her Roman Peasant Project to explore the interplay rural land use and the interplay between pastoralism and more settled agriculture. This team of scholars excavates five sites known from intensive survey archaeology from small ceramic scatters. Two were small seasonal or short-duration “work huts” and combining the modest architecture with botanical, palynological, and faunal material collected from the excavations, they were able to suggest that these structures served land that was likely used as pasture. Pasture plays a key role in strategies associated with ley agriculture which allowed fields to go fallow for years in order to restore the soil and stabilize yields. These small structures (and the small ceramic scatters), then, which a survey might have suggested represented the intensification of conventional agriculture, may, in fact, represent a less intensive strategy associated with ley farming.

Among the more interesting observations from this article are a two sites identified by low-density artifact scatters which produced no structures, but did reveal field drains dating to antiquity and probably the Roman period. These field drains consisted of cobble filled trenches. This is exciting to me both because I was unaware that field drains were used in the Roman period, but more importantly, there is relatively few publications that discuss drain building practices in the Roman period. The use of cobbles to slow the flow of water and to prevent the drains from carving deep channels in the fields offers some evidence for why the builders of the “South Basilica” at Polis may have created a “French drain” on the uphill, south side of the church to keep the rush of water down a natural drainage from undercutting the south wall of the basilica. It’s not a perfect analogy but suggests that my argument may not be entirely wrong.

Second Thing.

I’ve been reading John Beck’s Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (Nebraska 2009). I really like the book. Whatever it’s academic merits (and I’m not really qualified to judge that), it has intrigued me. Beck uses literature to explore the character of the post-war, Cold War Western landscape through an emphasis on Japanese internment, the militarization of the landscape (and the Mexican border), the use of the west as a dumping ground for toxic, nuclear, and otherwise unpleasant waste, and the almost simultaneous emergence of the suburban ideal (cf. J.B. Jackson’s “The Westward Moving House”). Beck makes clear that works like Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian while situated in the past (in this case, the mid-19th century) nevertheless speak to the present situation in a Western landscape shaped by Cold War militarism and its consequences. Elsewhere he weaves together the critiques of Rebecca Solnit, Ellen Meloy, and Terry Tempest Williams which emphasize the role of industry in the refashioning of the Western landscape. While I am embarrassed not to know these works well, I can’t help but wondering whether they influenced somehow my own effort at a similar critique in my The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscape. Don’t be surprised to see these works appear in the ole bloggeroo over the next few weeks. Solnit and Meloy remain priorities for my weekend reading list.

One of the reasons that Beck has excited me so much is that he has pushed me from thinking about archaeology of the contemporary world as a historical and social scientific window onto the contemporary American experience, toward thinking about the archaeology of the contemporary world as a distinctly cultural engagement with late-20th and early-21st century American life. This isn’t meant to deprecate the important work done by people like Jason DeLeon or Shannon Lee Dowdy or Bill Rathje, but to reframe their interventions as much as part of a much larger current of cultural critique. Instead of archaeology treating the contemporary experience as the object of study, archaeology of the contemporary world is (or at, very least, represents) the American experience. If we prioritize the notion of contemporaneity and suggest that it subverts the most common forms of disciplinary and historical detachment, then it makes sense that we can’t study or locate archaeology outside of American culture in the present. This, of course, remains a work in progress.

Third Thing.

I’m very excited to redirect your attention to the North Dakota Quarterly blog this morning. The blog features a poem from Amalia Dillin. Our hardworking poetry editor, Paul Worley, selected this poem for publication without knowing that Amalia was one of my former students at UND where she majored, I think, in Classics but also took history classes. She’s put those classes (and a bunch of her own hard work) to good use as a writer. You can check out her stuff here (although it’s very different from her poem)!

Go read the poem, it’s pretty great and I think summarizes neatly the anxiety that many of use feel in our media saturated lives. 

Contextualizing the Garbage Project

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a chapter dealing with Bill Rathje’s Garbage Project as part of the origin story of the archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I’ve been trying to put this project in its cultural context and this is pulling me back to thinking about the American West and its place within our historical imagination.

Most archaeologists are familiar with its academic context. The conversations between Rathje and Michael Schiffer and Jefferson Reid link The Garbage Project to the developing middle range theory of behavioral archaeology, systematic understanding of formation processes, and the study of modern material culture. Rathje himself unpacks some of this history in his conversation with Michael Shanks published a few years ago and Michael Schiffer unpacks this further in a 2015 article in Ethnoarchaeology dedicated to Rathje’s work and memory

What I’m interested in, however, is the broader cultural context for Rathje’s work. This is as much because the book that I’m writing is focused on the archaeology of the American experience (rather than the history of archaeology or archaeological methods) as it is because I’m not sure that I’ve seen the Garbage Project located within a distinctly American cultural landscape.

My argument is still rough, but it’s centered on three main points.

First, the Garbage Project is part of a larger critical engagement with consumer culture in post-war America. If the interwar period introduced Americans to the desirability of disposable goods, the post-war decades offered the first critique of so-called throwaway culture. The best example of this comes from Vance Packard’s series of influential books in the 1950s and early 1960s emphasized the close tie between consumption, the economics of production, and waste. In the introduction to his 1960 book, Waste Makers, he presents a series of fancifully wasteful anecdotes about futuristic “Cornucopia City” where the abundance of disposable goods produces a parallel abundance of trash. Heather Rogers’ has called the 1950s, the “golden age of waste.” It goes without saying that archaeologists have long connected waste – whether in middens or in other “systemic” contexts, with consumption patterns. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, this connection emerges in the context of contemporary American culture. By redirecting attention to garbage, which tends to be moved out of sight (and out of mind), authors and critics hoped to redirect attention to practices associated with post-war consumerism that likewise have escaped our attention. Michael Roller’s recent article in Historical Archaeology, while not uncontroversial, emphasized some of the mechanisms that produced the rapid transformation of American consumer practices in the mid-century.

Second, Rathje’s Garbage Project starts in Tucson, Arizona before branching out to other cities in the U.S. and abroad. It’s origins in the “New West,” however, are significant. The rapid growth of urban centers in the American West established the region as the most economically, socially, and culturally dynamic parts of the U.S. Tucson itself grew by over 340% between the 1950 and 1960 census expanding from 45,500 to 212,900 people in a mere 10 years. By the start of the Garbage Project in the early 1970s, Tucson was approaching 300,000 people situated in a series of sprawling suburbs extending to the southeast along the Santa Cruz River. The West, and the southwest in particular, was the vanguard of settlement change in the U.S. 

This Western urban growth influenced some of the work done by a group of artists loosely associated with a movement called the New Topographics who often used austere black and white photography vaguely reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams to document settlement change in the post-war American West.   

If the 1950s and 1960s saw the rapid acceleration of American consumer culture, then, the expansion of the western American cities made manifest these attitudes in settlement as rapidly growing western cities literally consumed the western landscape. The changing character of American urbanism, however, created new challenges. One of the most relevant for the Garbage Project is the so-called “Garbage Crisis” that Martin Melosi charted in his book, Garbage in the Cities (1981). As Melosi (and many others since) recognized the so-called Garbage Crisis of the 1970s was as much a crisis of politics as a infrastructure or economics. (And I owe Bret Weber a debt of thanks for introducing me to the changing political landscape of American cities in the 1960s and 1970s). The formulas which allocated federal funding for certain services in cities changed at the same time that the growth of suburbs fundamentally altered the urban tax base. Many cities were faced with the dual challenges of reduced funding for essential services and higher costs associated with more dispersed suburban settlement. As development expanded from the traditional urban core, the rise of NIMBYism and the need to locate landfills and waste processing centers at ever further remove from suburban and ex-urban settlement brought into relief the realities of solid waste disposal in a changing political, demographic, and racial landscape. The growth of cities in the West, then, was part of a larger national narrative concerning new forms of settlement which required a rethinking of basic urban infrastructure. 

Finally and most intimidatingly, the Garbage Project emerged as a distinctive way of viewing the process of occlusion and visibility in post-war American society. Once again, so much of this is situated in our view of the American west. During the Cold War, the American West became home to numerous installation that operated secretly or with greatly restricted access from the infamous Area 51 to White Sands Missile Range and the Trinity Test site. The west is pockmarked with ICBM silos, home to NORAD, and frequent setting for conspiracy theories, UFOs, and top secret military projects which are both known and obscured under a veil of Cold War secrecy.

The interplay of the known and hidden likewise manifests itself in sites like the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site and WIPP or, on a more mundane and banal level, the Atari dump in Alamogordo (for the connection between these sites, go here). The burying of waste in the west, has parallels with a view of the west defined by the hidden costs of extractive industries. Timothy LeCain’s compelling work on sites like the Berkeley Pit in Montana, for example, make clear that the vastness of the West effectively hides the scars left by the extraction necessary to feed our consumption in the same way that it removes from sight the waste associated with our disposable culture. 

My observations here are not new and largely follow paths made by Rebecca Solnit, Lucy Lippard, Ellen Meloy, and others. In fact, this characterization of the American west is so fundamental that has shaped post-war western fiction (as John Beck makes clear in his book Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (2009). Don DeLillo makes, Nick Shay, the main character of his epic Cold War novel Underworld a waste management executive who at one point relocates to Phoenix. Cormac McCarthy’s haunting narratives often play out against Western landscapes subtly shaped Cold War anxieties and understandings. 

As the legacy of the Garbage Project infuses the archaeology of the contemporary world today, it is hardly surprising that the Jason DeLeon’s amazing work along the U.S.-Mexican border relocates our post-war and Cold War anxieties in another western landscape: the Sonoran Desert. The Land of Open Graves documents the material culture, desperate conditions, and human cost of Mexicans entering the U.S. through this desert landscape. The remoteness of this landscapes allow Americans to project their militarism onto an “enemy” safely removed from the public gaze. Like Cold War installations, waste disposal sites, and the lasting scars of extractive industry, the American west of the Garbage Project was a place where Americans could both project their military and economic power and obscure its ultimate costs.   

Freud in the Garbage Dump

One of the project that I’m committed to re-energizing this semester is my book on Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. It’s been a bit slow going, in part, because I’ve had to reacquaint myself with historical archaeology more broadly and, in part, because I’ve had other demands on my time.

Anyway, I’m making progress these days, and can’t resist working into my chapter on garbology, some references to Freud. I was particularly charmed by an article by Raymond H. Thompson on A.V. Kidder, who famously excavated Pecos and was instrumental in creating policies that set the groundwork for NAGPRA. Kidder spent some time around the Andover, Massachusetts dump. The opportunity for my two-penny Freudian musings was simply too much to resist.

Here are two paragraphs from my chapter: 

In the field of archaeology, the study of contemporary or nearly contemporary trash is as old as the discipline itself. Dietmar Schmidt, for example, argues that preeminent German anthropologist Rudolf Virchow’s accidental discovery of rubbish pits in Berlin represented a crucial moment in the understanding of archaeology as both a practice and metaphor for modern social science (Schmidt 2001). In the late 1860s, Virchow thought he had discovered the remains of an Iron Age pile dwelling in the middle of the modern city, but soon realized that the deposit of bones, shells, and kitchen pots was discarded rubbish from the previous century. Despite his disappointment, he documented the deposits carefully and presented a number of papers arguing that this deposit of 18th century kitchen waste revealed a good bit about the culinary habits of the German aristocracy and their predilection for oysters and mussels in particular. When Virchow goes on later in the century to visit Heinrich Schleimann’s dig at Troy, he comments on the discarded refuse. Moreover, Virchow’s work led to periodic investigations of modern sewers and other nearly contemporary refuse deposits elsewhere in Europe. Schmidt suggests that Virchow’s and others’ interest in the mundane trash rather than simply the glorious inspired Freud’s use of the archaeological metaphor to characterize his exploration of the human consciousness. Both trash and Freud’s construction of the unconscious represent objects that are hidden but also poised to reveal their formative and foundational influence on contemporary life.

A similar early examination of a nearly contemporary garbage dump comes from A. V. Kidder early exploration of the dump in Andover, Massachusetts. In 1921, Kidder, who is better known for his systematic excavations at Pecos, New Mexico, found himself in Andover caring for his aging mother. Over the summer, he made regular visits to the dump initially attracting the attention of the local police who thought he was either a vagrant or an escaped resident of a psychiatric hospital. While we have little direct records of his observations in the Andover dump, the various bits of information that Raymond H. Thompson gleaned for archival sources demonstrated Kidder’s fascination with both the depositional processes that created the landfill as well as the sequence of lamps that mapped the shift from whale oil to lightbulbs. Over the course of regular observations, Kidder recognized that the process of dumping material on the landfill mound influenced the distribution of artifacts with objects like baby buggies and garbage can lids rolling to the bottom of the slope. He also collected an assemblage of lamps during his observations at the dump and was able to developed a typology that anticipated the well-known Mayers-Oaks (1955) illustration of lamp seriation. Kidder’s initial inability to recognize a number of flattened metal bands which his mother identified as metal corset bones, and made clear, as Thompson observed, that his study of the garbage dump offered insights into women’s underwear to which Kidder would not have otherwise had access. In fine Freudian fashion, Kidder’s time caring for his mother opened a marginal and hidden world to him in the Andover dump. Kidder’s himself endured marginalization when he was misrecognized as a vagrant or as someone escaped from an institution explicitly linking the dump to individuals and circumstances meant to be invisible.

Ghosts Signs

I serve on our small town’s historic preservation commission. Mostly, this commission advises of the historic impact of projects funded through various federal programs. We also request funds and supervise work under a state block grant that usually supports documenting some part of the community’s historical heritage. In a few cases, we’re asked to weigh in on a preservation issue. Recently, the topic of Grand Forks’ small assemblage of ghosts signs has appeared on the agenda.

Ghost signs are signs painted on buildings that have over the years faded. In some cases, they’re on sides of buildings that are no longer visible because of more recent construction. In others, they face roads that no longer serve as major thoroughfares because of the traffic pattern changes. In many cases they are no longer relevant to the businesses that occupy the buildings or advertise for a specific business or even industry that is no longer present in a community.

The issue that came up in our committee was whether we should do anything to preserve these signs. Should we explore ways to stabilize their deterioration? Should we consider repainting some of them to bring them back to life? Should we find other strategies, like the creative use of high powered projectors in Winnipeg, that brings these signs back to life, even just for a few hours?  

Thinking about what we should do – if anything – with these ghosts signs preoccupied me on a few frigid walks around town lately. I also started to wonder whether these signs have particular or distinctive value for how the community. Not everything that is old is heritage.

I came to three tentative conclusions (happily and loosely inspired by Cailin Desilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (2017)).

First, ghost signs offer material evidence for the passage of time. Their faded and distressed appearance as well as the walls on which they appear embody the past in ways that our tendency toward a kind of sanitized heritage does not. Like the past itself, they are not neat, tidy, or clear. They often physically resist interpretation as multiple layers of paint and sometimes multiple signs confuse their legibility. In other words, they make the buildings on which they appear look old, but not in a simple way. They remind us that time wears on the fabric of buildings, that people intervene in the process of aging, and that the past is never simple. The stratigraphy of these signs communicates the past not as a single place, but as the overlapping sequence of events that often cut into, overwrite, and efface earlier interventions. Their variable preservation also makes us recognize how their location, exposure to light, and easy of access shaped their current state. The better preservation of certain colors, almost certainly because of their lead-based paint, presents a materiality at the chemical level. 

Second, to understand a ghost sign requires attention. Unlike modern media which so often blare its message in colors, sounds, and light, their age has mellowed ghosts signs. They often slip into the shadows, hide around corners, and whisper their message in alleyways or back streets. They also require us to get out of our cars and look up beyond the busy urban facades framed by our car windows. Our attention is more than just looking carefully, but also moving in different ways. Only by walking on foot, craning our necks, and slowing our pace, are we able to see what ghost signs are trying to say. In contrast to the relentlessness of mechanized movement, ghost signs are slower, calmer, and far less insistent in their message. To read them, we have to pay attention.

Finally, ghost signs are uncanny. They are disconcerting because they both require our attention and defy our ability to understand them clearly. In an era where it has become almost cliche to demand “the facts” and “the truth,” a ghost sign refuses to give either of those up easily (if at all). There is no factuality in a fading and pealing ghost sign. The coats of paint, signs of age, indeterminate message, and obscure location reminds us that most of the past is not arrange in neat categories of facts and truth. Instead, signs of the past remind us that a real past existed with vivid colors, sharp letters, and a clear messages, but today, what is left is much more difficult to discern. 

The Bakken Hundreds (A Draft)

Over the last week or so, Bret Weber and I have been working on a little article for an edited collection called “Archaeology Out of the Box.” Our work has been inspired by Lauren Berlant’s and Kathleen Stewart’s book, The Hundreds and, as I blogged about last week, it involves 100 word insights into our field work drawn from our field notes, interviews, published pieces, and photographs.

The piece isn’t done, but it’s far enough along to share, I think. To my mind, this piece is among the most compelling that we’ve put together. At the same time, I suspect we’ll work to balance the sensational with the everyday as we add a few more “hundreds” to assemblage, but the rhythm of encounters presented here feel quite authentic to me.

 

The Bakken Hundreds

The Bakken Hundreds is an experiment in understanding six seasons of archaeological fieldwork in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch (2012-2018). Our study focused in particular on workforce housing during the Bakken boom and involved both archaeological documentation and hundreds of hours of interviews. The authors alternated presenting 100 word statements from our notebooks, interviews, and publications loosely following the method of composition used by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart in their book, The Hundreds (2019). The passages offer a window into the material and social conditions of the Bakken as well as the authors’ reading of these conditions. 

(MC 65) Riker Brown, Camp Owner, August 21, 2013, ($106.42–West Texan Intermediate Crude Price per Barrel at that time)

RB :Right. So we went with the RVs and actually, this is like a family park. We have kids on bikes and dogs. We promote families, dogs, kids. So it’s temporary housing but some of these people bring their families for the summer and they’ll go back for the winter, but they’ll stay here.

Bret Weber (BW): Mom and the kids are here when school’s out?

RB: Right.

~

(MC 40) Camp Manager, July 31, 2015 ($47.12)

The owner was interested in transitioning the RV park to a more permanent mobile home park. This involved fixing significant code violations – especially the water and sewage pipes being in the same trench – and installing a $500,000 septic system. Camp makes no money. Despite the optimism, the camp appears rather rough with abandoned RVs, lots of abandoned equipment, and a run down playground. Some trash. Owner noted the difficulties in keeping the camp clean. Thinking of installing wind breaks, trees, and snow fences. – Caraher Notes on Blaisdell RV Park 

~

(MC 75) Diane Skillman, camp resident, October 4, 2014 ($89.74)

DS: Well I think everybody keeps a bit of water running just to keep it from freezing. Although, they did freeze up there at the other end.

BW: Is that the water tank over there?

DS: No, that’s the poop tank. [laughs]

BW: Oh, so where do you get your water from then … it’s ground water?

DS: Yeah, he has a well and everybody is pumped into that, and then he’s got, well last year that froze 

~

To enter Stanley proper, turn left from old US 2 onto MainStreet. About a half mile south, Main Street passes beneath the Highline, which is carried on a deck-girder concrete bridge dating to the 1930s. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, reflecting the importance of rail to this part of the state. Today, Amtrak’s Empire Builder continues to serve Stanley from a small, modern railway station on the east side of Main Street. Farther south on Main Street is the Two Way Inn and Bar, which offers a delicious patty melt in authentic surroundings for the oil patch.

Caraher and Weber 2017, 41.

~

(MC 14) William Nelson, camp resident and ‘fisherman,’ Aug 11 2012 ($85.38)

WN:  I’m a consultant and my specialty is fishing. When they lose things in holes, I fish

it out. It’s not everybody’s favorite but… people on rigs don’t want to see me coming but when they need me, then there it is.

~

(MC 14) Don Ashton, owner of the land under the camp, Oct 28 2016 ($48.70). 

Well, I bought the land in ’85. I’ve been living here since ’81. All the investors come out of

South Dakota, Rapid City, to see if I wanted to do kind of trailers … they said they were gonna put in water and sewer for ‘em, and that never happened … They had big dreams and everything. I gave them a longer term lease, cause they said, oh they wanted long, you know, maybe do it a motel or a hotel, so they figured maybe 10 acres or so … Then I found out they were trying to sell this 110 acres out from underneath me and I got pissed off and took them to court. 

 ~

(MC 77) Juan Gonzales, camp resident, May 3, 2015 ($59.15) : 

It’s not easy, you know, living out here, but, I mean it is a good way- me, for example, I’m

young, I started out at a young year, it’s a good way so I can get a good start at life and then, invest in a home where I’m going to be able to live and move on later as soon as everything calms down here. I think a lot of people are taking advantage of it and making the best of all this stuff and they’re gonna-whoever’s taking good advantage of it is gonna be making- is gonna have a good future.

 ~

P1090664

MC 77, March 6, 2015 ($49.61) Photo W. Caraher.

~

(MC 10) Eugenio & Adelina, Camp residents, Feb 9, 2013 ($95.72)

Eliseo- For people that want to just work and come home and sleep, you know it’s a nice little place to stay at, but you know, there’s, you have to watch out who you live around, you know, you can’t trust a lot of people— 

Ariel- It’s good money but everything else is so dang expensive that you can make the same anywhere else—

~

(MC 10) David Donaldson, camp resident July 11, 2015 ($52.74). 

I heard there used to be a lot of meth out here, but you know, nothing that I ever really had a problem with [it], so. But yeah, you know, just a million different personalities and people living with their kids and family, and a lot of drinking and fighting, just, I’ve seen pretty much everything you can possibly think of out here, that just random stuff. You come home and everybody’s just got chairs set up around your camper having a fire outside your camper, and you can’t get any sleep and, blowing flames out of their mouth with alcohol in front of the little kids… 

~

Gene Veeder, Executive-Director McKenzie County, Jobs Development Authority, August 11, 2014 ($97.65)

your law enforcement and your sheriff’s department are all transporting so it’s pretty hard for them to, if they have to go to even Bismarck, you know, it’s an all-day trip and their entire trip is spent transporting prisoners so it’s way more costly than we originally thought.

BW: What’s the local police force, the size?

GV: We have city and county. We have gone from 6 sheriff deputies to 19. Police force went from 2 to 9. We’ve always got openings of course too.

~

(MC 40) Donny Bringwatt, camp resident–just arrived from Texas, January 16, 2016 ($29.42)

BW: Right. So when the work starts what will the work cycle be? How many days on, how many days off?

DB: [inaudible] 

BW: I don’t know what that means.

DB: It means you start in the mornings, and you work till, however many hours a day you can work … seven days a week

BW: Yeah

DB: We’re here to work, we’re not here to, you know

BW: … well right now, you’re not working, so you’re cooking a ham, what else do you do when you-?

DB: [inaudible] [laughs] I’m just cookin’ a ham, I’m gonna eat it [laughs] Play dominos, play poker.

~

(MC 28) Will Oldman & his roomate, Feb 19 2013 ($93.13) 

WO: As long as you don’t go to the strip clubs from what I hear (laughs) I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories about some strip club, I think it was in Watford, closed it down because guys were getting raped in the bathroom, viscously I mean— 

Roomate: Crime has gone up almost 100% around here, compared to what it ever was, just a quiet town where you could leave your keys in your door open, keys in your car and stuff like that, nowadays you can’t do that and uh not only that but the women that are here fear for their lives …

~

(MC 11) Description of the material outside two units, August 10, 2012 ($92.87).

Massive built deck, grill, plants, fence, dog run. stone, satellite tv, ramp leading to deck, potted plants, hanging plants, plywood around the base of a planted tree. Scrap wood underneath various garden features, propane tanks, table set on cinderblocks, outdoor bed, tarp, pallets, trashcan.

Pallet deck, kids toys, wading pool, small table, camp chairs (some kids sized), potted plants, plywood, small fence between unit and road, toy truck, strange tubs, propane tanks, water jugs, grill, cooler, satellite TV.

~

(MC 11) Angela & Bob Williams, December 13, 2014 ($57.81) 

AW: Lots of insulation. That, you’ll find a ton throughout the park. Any insulation, any wood. If you can get their hands on it they’ll take it. So many people skirting and mudrooms are built from recycled materials. You know, it’s just used over and over and over.

Ben W: It’s like, ‘well I’m moving if you want it, and make a little modifications,’ you know.

AW: If it’s coveted, everyone wants a mudroom. If you leave behind a mudroom…

Ben W: But now they knock the mudrooms down, they don’t give people opportunity to take them anymore.

~

Mudroom Guidelines

1. Mudrooms require plans be submitted to Park Management.
2. Mudrooms smaller than 5×10 may be made and will require no deposit.
3. Any Mudrooms larger than 5×10 will require an additional $300 clean-up deposit.
4. Maximum Mudroom size is 20×8.
5. Maximum height of Mudroom is no higher than the RV.
6. No Mudroom additions may fully enclose the trailer (may not extend over the top).
7. RV must be able to be removed from lots without obstructions (no part of any mudroom may extend behind or in front of RV).

Posted at MC 11, dated November 7, 2012 ($86.07)

~

Barb Bendle, Aug 10, 2012 ($92.87) MC11

Mudrooms yeah. We do check them out and make sure they meet the fire code and that they’re not built shoddily, so that if the wind comes up 80 mph, it’s not going to blow away. That’s what we do. Right. So it’s safe for people. So it’s not blowing down and hitting the next trailer or anything. My husband looks at their plot plans that we have them draw. Little plan telling us what they want to do and then we usually okay it because you know, we want them to have a little piece of land.  (trying to light a lighter/cigarette in the wind)

~

MC0902CROPPED

~

Roy Harrison & Garfield Washington, July 11, 2015 ($52.74), the RV Graveyard

BW: So you’re bringing trailers when people abandon them?

RH: Yeah, when people abandon their vehicles and whatnot… We had other things we were doing, but this was the most cost effective way. We were taking an excavator and we were crushing them and cycling the metal and the wood out and putting them in different dumpsters and just having them hauled off that way, just picking them all up at once and just shoving them in a dumpster and trashing it.

MW: Well during the wintertime if we are lucky we burn them.

BW: Who- Does the county allow you to do that?

MW: They did let you burn, when you know, when you can, with the snow, and (when) the wind’s not gonna affect it, and the land around it…

~

IMG 2951

Battery tank explosion near Alexander, ND from March 7, 2015 ($49.61).

~

Bret Weber, first trip to the Bakken, Jan 31, 2012 ($99.56)

We drove west out of town on Hwy 23, went south on 22, and then looped back west (probably on hwy 73), then north eventually turning east again on hwy 23.  We seemed to pass a number of smaller, ad hoc ‘man camp’ areas with various vehicles and RVs. The main thing that we witnessed was the night sky illuminated by dozens of flares—15-20 foot flames that burst straight into the air to burn off the natural gas that wells produce.

~

P1140668Photo of a memorial set up to Brendan Wegner who died in a well blow out in September 14, 2011 ($87.96) (photo from August 1, 2015 ($47.12)).

~

Clark Brewsman Feb 2013 ($95.72)  MC4 “The longest I ever worked was 57 hours, with a two hour nap. You don’t want to do it, but when the oil’s coming out of the ground it won’t stop and it needs to be tended to.”

~

(MC 16) Sally Burnick, camp resident October 28th, 2016 ($48.70)

SB: When the oil, when the oil tanked up there, and the oil went away, I lost my job, his overtime got cut, so our primary home, we couldn’t afford the big mortgage on it anymore, so that got foreclosed on, and we had another little rental house that we sold at a huge loss.

BW: So, how much stuff did you bring with you?

SB: We got rid of a lot of our stuff, like almost, we had a 3,000 square foot house, we got rid of almost all the furniture, almost all the artwork … Most of our stuff is in a storage shed packed into our horse trailer, um, we kept a couch, TV, entertainment center, DVDs, you know, knick knacks we were really fond of, family heirlooms … Everything else went, so we’re down to what’s in the horse trailer, our storage shed, our boat, and our camper [laughs]

~

Mark, Aug 9, 2012 ($92.87), MC8

M: They guaranteed 60 hours a week and holiday pay. 

BW: You’ve been here a month, have you ever worked 60 hours a week?

M: No. I’ve only worked 1 week so far. One full week.  I can’t stay much longer because I’m going broke. When I show up every morning, they give me 2 hours for showing up. And this week, so far, I have 6 hours. So I can’t make it. I’m buying my own food and paying rent and trying to pay bills at home … I’m getting the hell out of North Dakota.

~

Camp 8 August 2012 aerial  72 of 232

A kite photograph of MC8 outside Tioga, North Dakota. Note the regular arrangement of units, the elevated walkways between units, and the small common building with a flat roof in the center right of the image. (Photo by R. Rothaus, 2012.) 

~

Claudia Nielsen Aug 10 2012 ($92.87) MC10

CN: He’s from San Antonio, Texas. I met him while I was bartending, of course, I wasn’t drinking but I was working. What else do you do out here besides work and drink? So we just hung out a couple times and actually he proposed to me after about a week so, it happened really really fast. But when you know, you know.  We’re both out of 6-year marriages and I have actually, my kids are in Helena, Montana. Yeah he’s a very successful man so it’s going really well. He was in a mancamp actually so he’s enjoying the freedom of sharing my camper with me now.

~

(MC 65) Riker Brown, Camp Owner near Watford City, August 2, 2015 ($41.80)

BW: Are you seeing changes in the people who are living here now from a couple years ago?

RB: I’d say a lot of change. A lot more families, a lot more couples. 

BW: More permanent?

RB: More permanent. Or there’s, like the guys been out here so the next time he can bring his wife out, he’s kind of got it figured out, he’s got it like, he’s got an RV park, so then they bring, or have their wives come on out. Yeah. But first it was way more, you know, single guys, three guys living in a trailer, you know, but now, we’re seeing way more families.

~

Sue Christiansen Aug 9 2012 ($93.36) MC6

SC: Like the living conditions are terrible here. Like people are shitting behind, in the trees, past the trees right there. There’s flies everywhere… We’re like brothers, like a family, brothers and sisters out here, like a family. We’re close, tight-knit family. Like all my men, like I owned, I own a construction company called Christianson Construction so we were working, we were all contracted in Idaho but a bunch of just got together. My husband and his boss decided to uh come up here by themselves in the winter last year. It was terrible in the winter too. Terrible fricking conditions.

~

(MC 10) Richard Scrum, Camp Owner in Wheelock, ND, August 10, 2012 ($92.87)

RS: Well I had to put in power and water and sewer. The campers had full hookups here. It took me a while. I did it all by cash. I don’t use credit so I did everything in cash. Anything you do is really expensive out here. They want, for example, my well is bad here. They messed it up, the previous owners messed it up one night and I uh put $6,000 into fixing it and didn’t get it fixed yet. They said I have to put another $10,000 into just drilling a new well. I haven’t done it. I just put in a holding tank and I haul my water from Ray. It’s uh, there’s no city services here. The power’s the only city service and gas, I guess, we do have natural gas which is nice. But as far as water and sewer, you’re on your own.

~

With the collapse of oil prices in 2014, our work in the Bakken has come to focus increasingly on various forms of abandonment, as the number of temporary workers in the Bakken declined concurrently with the oil-rig count. Numerous coffee-makers in an abandoned RV revealed signs of methamphetamine use, trashed trailers smeared with human feces showed frustration and anger, and squatters’ occupying empty rooms at defunct crew camps reflect a shifting reality.

Caraher, Weber, Rothaus 2017, 200.

~

(MC 16) Shana Berritt, newcomer and camp resident, October 28, 2016 ($49.72)

SB: Um, don’t count on the oil field.

BW: Don’t count on an oil field?

SB: Don’t count on it, um, when it’s good it’s great, but when it tanks, it affects an entire community, if you haven’t been smart about it, you haven’t squirreled any money away, you’re going to be in trouble when it all drops off. [laughs] we learned the hard way, um, you know, my dad has seen the oil field rise and fall a couple times, and he kinda tried to warn us, but, you know, we said the oil field is so big, it’s going to last forever [laughs]

~

Our approach to documenting workforce housing drew on recent directions in archaeology and architectural history. First, archaeology of the contemporary world informed our work, and particularly this subfield’s interest in sites of short-term or ephemeral occupation. Zimmerman’s (2010) archaeology of homelessness, the archaeology of contemporary protest sites, photographic documentation of graffiti, and the archaeology of tourism collectively demonstrate how archaeological approaches to contemporary sites of contingency have the potential to inform issues of immediate social and political concern (Schofield and Anderton 2000; Graves-Brown and Schofield 2011; Kiddey and Schofield 2011, 2014).

Caraher, et al. 2017.

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.

Short Writing: A Book Cover, a Class Description, and a Random Thought

This week, I’m grinding away on a conference paper that I have to give next week. I’m also trying to wrap up a few odds and ends as the end of the semester and the holiday conference season approaches. These little odds and ends, tend to be short writing projects mostly (aside from the usual administrative trivia that goes along with publishing, editing North Dakota Quarterly, serving as my department’s director of graduate studies, and being a generally good doobie around campus.

Here are two short writing projects and some editorializing:

First, I’m trying to teach a little 1-credit class on Montgomery Hall. The course will be called Making Montgomery Hall. Here’s the blurb:

Making Montgomery Hall is a 1-credit class focusing on the now-abandoned building on the UND Campus. This will be the last class held in one of the oldest standing buildings on campus before it is demolished next year.

This class will support a wide range of engagements with the building from archival work, to the study of archaeology, material culture, campus history, and architecture. The class will also encourage students to consider opportunities for creative approaches to an abandoned building on campus. The goal of the class is to think together about how we remember, preserve, and mark campus history while simultaneously celebrating innovation, progress, and change.

NOTE: Because we have to get special access to this building, we do not have a scheduled meeting time. Once students enroll in the class, we’ll work out a meeting time or times that work for everyone.

Second, I’m putting the final touches on Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays which is due to drop on December 1. One the hardest things to do (and one of the things that I never feel very good about) is writing the back cover description of the book. I think this one is pretty decent:

Please, you gotta help me. I’ve nuked the university.

Failing Gloriously and Other Essays documents Shawn Graham’s odyssey through the digital humanities and digital archaeology against the backdrop of the 21st-century university. At turns hilarious, depressing, and inspiring, Graham’s book presents a contemporary take on the academic memoir, but rather than celebrating the victories, he reflects on the failures and considers their impact on his intellectual and professional development. These aren’t heroic tales of overcoming odds or paeans to failure as evidence for a macho willingness to take risks. They’re honest lessons laced with a genuine humility that encourages us to think about making it safer for ourselves and others to fail.

A foreword from Eric Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta engage the lessons of Failing Gloriously and consider the role of failure in digital archaeology, the humanities, and social sciences.

Here’s the cover:

Failing Gloriously Cover Draft 2 01

Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the recent vogue for “short work week” movements and the persistent buzz about work-life balance. A recent report from Microsoft Japan suggested that a four-day week improved productivity by 40%. While not doubting Microsoft’s research based on anything substantial, I often wonder how much the miracle of the short work week rests on the years of long work weeks that helped employees discover the efficiencies, processes, and practices that made shorter work weeks possible. In other words, short work weeks are great for employees who focus on well-established processes (which make measuring productivity meaningful) and perhaps those who do work in a highly modular way. They probably are not as ideal for folks whose work is more episodic, unpredictable, and irregular.    

Montgomery Hall

This morning, I’m going on a little tour of Montgomery Hall with both thee Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and representatives of University of North Dakota’s facilities department. The plan is to run another one-credit course on the history of this building, its place on our campus, and most interestingly for me, how the physical fabric preserves signs of adaptation and reuse.

Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is an example of the Tudor Revival architectural style The hall was designed by architect Joseph Bell DeRemer and built in 1911 to be the dining hall for students

The original building dates to 1911, and unlike most of the campus from the 1920s on, this building is in the Tudor Revival style. It stands set back from University avenue and represented a nice example of the first major wave of campus expansion under President Frank McVey. Originally, it served as the Commons for the university, but in 1929, it was adapted for use as the university library which had outgrown the contemporary Carnegie Library. It served as the library until the opening of the Chester Frtiz Library in the late 1950s. After that time, the building, presumably rechristened Montgomery Hall, served as faculty offices, classrooms, and in the 21st century, as the deanery first for the College of Arts and Sciences and then for the Graduate School.

Today, the building is mostly empty and ready for its ascent to the great campus plan in the sky. The University is planning to build the new business school on the lot to take advantage of the frontage onto University Avenue and the proximity to Gamble Hall which currently houses the College of Business and Public Affairs. As part of the mitigation efforts, the University is doing the equivalent of a HABS level-2 documentation on the building before it demolition (and I can’t say enough about the current administration’s willingness to take historical documentation seriously). I plan to work with a group of students to understand the traces of history left on the building’s fabric over time following a model that we developed with the Wesley College Documentation Project.  

The challenge for me, though, is to also think about how to make this project different from what we did with Wesley College. Recent work in the archaeology of the contemporary world has shaped my recent ways of thinking about how we document and understand campus buildings. The kind of archaeological documentation that I prefer (because I luv data) can subordinate our understanding of these buildings to the routine of our method and rob the experience of being in the spaces of vitality, foreclose a certain amount of creativity, and narrow our view of how buildings make meaning. 

Because these buildings are slated for destruction and no longer “living buildings” on campus, it seems like we have opportunities to do things that celebrate the liminal state of these structures: no long in use, but not yet destroyed. Rather than looking at all aspects of what is inside these buildings as evidence for the past, we can try to find ways of understanding these buildings as they exist in the contemporary. How are they changing? How are they producing meaning? Literally, what are these buildings doing

I know this sounds a bit slippery and elusive, but I hope that by asking these kinds of tricky questions and maybe even thinking about these buildings in different way and with different notions of time will open some productive possibilities. 

A Draft of a Response to Andrew Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory”

This past week, I offered to write a response to a piece by Andrew Reinhard over at the journal Epoiesen. Having the opportunity to write a response there had been a recent bucket list thing for me since I started to work with the journal’s editor Shawn Graham to publish the paper and paginated version of the journal through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Reinhard’s piece is titled “Assemblage Theory” and it consists of a short essay and an album of music based loosely on an assemblage of found sounds. In my response, I want to probe the rest of the assemblage as a way to think about the way in which archaeology works to produce knowledge. Nothing I’m going to say is new on profound, but I hope it at least works alongside Andrew’s ideas and takes on some of what the first response to this piece (Jolene Smith, which you can read here) and Neville Morley’s noted on his blog here.

As a final note, this is just a draft. My original idea was to produce a series of statements on the piece that form an assemblage both on their own and in relation to the piece itself. As with most of my clever ideas, that one gave way to the limits of my creativity and energy, but hopefully, some parts of it persist in this roughest of rough drafts of a response.

~

Andrew Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” is a remarkable experiment in thinking and performing an assemblage. Sculpted from found sounds on the internet, Reinhard’s album – and the work that preceded its release (and indeed, the article that introduced it on Epoiesen) – makes visible the work of a musician, archaeologist, or individual in bringing order to the fragmented realities that surround us. The seamlessness of Reinhard’s beats does not intend to represent or reproduce the cacaphonic character of the original group of samples, but to project a kind of order on this chaos.

The smoothness of Reinhard’s final production serves as much to obfuscate the original character to the samples as it does to bring them into meaningful relationships. His description of this process evoked for me Elizabeth Freeman’s interpretation of Frankenstein in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). When I read this work, albeit in another context, I mused that archaeologists continue to work in Victor Frankenstein’s tradition of practice: to creates a smooth digital reality that is both indistinguishable from our experience of time and inauthentic as a way of recording, understanding, and ultimately re-experiencing the past. In fact, we can argue, following Freeman, that modernity sought to create a past that eliminated the abrupt and affective character of its pastness created through awkward and profoundly human assemblages and replace it with a smooth and seamlessness experience that largely looked to the present as a point of reference, or, at very least, suggested a kind of familiar, future utopian reality (a Foucauldian heterotopia). Reinhard’s selective remixing of these samples offered an approach to smoothing our disjointed encounter with the past. In fact, out ability to recognize constituent parts of these songs is lost entirely as Smith has already noted in her response. This, however, is a common feature of our  diverse, digital, post-industrial and post modern world which so often seeks to eliminate the jarring disjunctions that the seams between parts of the assemblage become all the more intense and, as the tragic humanity of Frankenstein’s monster demonstrates, real.

Reinhard, like Victor Frankenstein, is honest about how he shaped and presented his assemblage; he drew on traditional pop song structure and accentuated the sounds that evoked contemporary guitar rock, beats drawn from trap, house, and EDM, as well as other sonic conventions. These various structures are part of this assemblage as well, and it is probably safe to assume that these structures allowed Reinhard to anticipate his music while identifying sounds on the internet. Hayden White, for example, famously argued that a series of tropes and forms of employment shaped the way that historians produced narratives, explained causality, and produced assemblages of evidence. Neville Morley’s response to Reinhard’s piece reminded us that pop sensibilities are only one potential way to emplot this assemblage.  

Despite Morley’s critique, which Reinhard invited by making his original assemblage available for examination, Reinhard’s arrangement still models our own approach to archaeological knowledge making. Narratives of all sorts prefigure the assemblages that we encounter in archaeology. These narratives and processes constitute parts of these assemblages the same way that a traditional pop melody or familiar sound on the web prefigured the songs possible at Reinhard’s deft hands. As Neville Morley has show, different hands introduce different elements to the assemblage and Reinhard’s generosity with his samples has resulted in at least one new encounter with some of the same basic elements. This reading of Reinhard’s project accepts the ontological integrity of the samples that Reinhard used in his songs. We can all agree that they exist and that they are things and as such they can be combined with other things which range from narratives, song structures, technology, and experiences.

By making the samples of one song available, Reinhard allowed us to play along with him and to create our own music from a common pool of sonic artifacts. Among archaeologists, however, this kind of generosity remains relatively rare; the fact that Reinhard only released the artifacts from ONE song parallels neatly the tendency among archaeologists to feint toward transparency and openness in analysis while holding back certain key elements of the interpretative process. Historically, archaeologists were loath to release their notebooks which were often the personal property of the scholar. More recently, archaeologists have acknowledged that their deep experience in the landscape, with particular methods, and across the social relationships that shape fieldwork formed as vital a part of the archaeological assemblage as the carefully documented ceramic sherds and stratigraphic relationships.     

Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” also invites us to think about the elements in the assemblage that served to mediate our encounter with it. In fact, the emerging field of media archaeology considers the way in which both the physical and conceptual structures of media impact our engagement with our environment, the past, and the present.  

When I first read Reinhard’s piece, I clicked through to Spotify and dutifully clicked on the first track. The website played the first 30 seconds of the song and then went to the next song on the album. I didn’t think much of it because I wasn’t really that concerned with the length of the songs. After two or three tracks, however, I discovered that because I don’t have a Spotify account, I could only hear the first 30 second of each song. That was a bummer, and apparently this also influenced the first responder to this article’s listening to the tracks

I then emailed Reinhard and he let me know that the album was also available on on Tidal. I then played it on my MacBook Pro and though it sounded interesting enough to cue it up on the stereo that lives in my main room. Through by much larger and more sophisticated stereo the sound seemed a bit muddled: the big bass in a few songs (like “Trappist”) seemed smear across the other sounds on the track, and the entire album just felt too damn loud. To be clear, I was listening to the album over an Auralic Mini music streamer that outputs to a Schiit Bifrost DAC through a pair of Audioquest RCA cables into a 60 watt vacuum-tube Audio Research Corporation amplifier that drives a pair of Zu Omen Defs, which are paper-cone, full range driver speakers flanked by a pair of super quick, 400 watt Zu Undertone subwoofers. This system loves small ensemble jazz, carefully recorded rock music, and acoustic stuff. In fact, sometimes when I play loud, boomy music especially through the streamer, the bass get a bit sloppy for some reason. To try to listen to the music more carefully, I also played it over my little office system which consists of two powered Yamaha studio monitors and a thumpy little subwoofer that sits under my desk. It sounded tighter and every bit as loud as on my home system, but perhaps not as big. When I played the version of the album that Reinhard sent to me as .wav files through my Sony music player (a HAP-Z1ES). It cleared up most of the boomy-ness for whatever reason.

All of this is to point out that this sculpted assemblage of samples also consists of a complex series of technologies, services, and environments that mediate our encounter with all parts of the assemblage from their transmission to the relationship between the various component parts. We can probably assume that the sound that we hear is similar enough to what Reinhard created to form the basis for a meaningful conversation, but even across my various listening environments there is plenty of room to quibble about how the assemblage actually works. At the same time, we can recognize in the LOUDNESS of the tracks (their compressed dynamic range) a sonic artifact of the late-20th and early-21st century. Reinhard’s album has a dynamic range of around 6 db, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was around 8 db, but could be as high as 13 on vinyl. The most flagrantly loud album in my playlist is Oasis’s 1995 What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? with a dynamic range of about 5db.

What we can understand, however, is how companies and individuals have succeeded at monetizing various elements in this assemblage. Sometimes this is overt, such as when we have to sign up to listen to a particular music service which then records our listening habits to compensate (barely) musicians and to serve us advertising. At present, we only have access to this music through a series of music services whose future is far from certain. The formats through which this music is distributed – whether in the rather more “raw” .wav file or through such compressed formats as FLAC, ALAC, or MP3 – may prove as ephemeral as 8-track tapes, DATs, or mini discs, or as persistent as LPs. Archiving these tracks so that both Reinhard’s and this article makes sense in the future is not as simple as saving the music files to a repository, but must also extend to preserving the various subsidiary formats and even devices through which these songs could be heard. As Raiford Guin’s has shown with video games, playing these games is more than just the source code, but involves the experience of the arcade or the home gaming system, the haptics of the controllers, the look of the CRT monitor or television, and even the art on the game cartridge or cabinet.    

Sometimes this is imbedded within longer history of music making. The samples that Reinhard used in his songs were all free and open access, apparently, but even this is a response to the growing scrutiny of samples used in hiphop music. Hanif Abdurraqib, in his recent meditation on the oeuvre of Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, reflected on the change in hiphop in the mid-1990s when record labels discovered they could require permission and payment for samples used in songs. By 2001, the use of paid for samples becomes a point of pride for rappers. Jay-Z, famously attacked Nas by claiming that he didn’t even own the right to his own songs so when Jay-Z sampled them, Nas didn’t make any money:

So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong
You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song
And you ain’t get a coin, nigga, you was gettin’ fucked then
I know who I paid, God – Serchlite publishin’

In this context, Reinhard’s use of free samples explicitly detaches himself from the commercial aspects of the music making process. At the same time, he didn’t release his entire assemblage of samples explicitly. There is no ceramic catalogue, nor did he make his data available by crediting his sources. In fact, his tracks aren’t available for free download and only appear on paid streaming services. We can imagine that maybe Reinhard is getting “a coin,” but his sources are, in Jay-Z’s words, “gettin’ fucked.” 

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Reinhard’s place in the media ecosystem, but to demonstrate how the flow of objects through various media create relationships that define their value. The easy fluidity of digital space emphasizes the instability of assemblages especially at their margins and the push and pull of efforts to stabilize how they produce meaning. We do this through controlling access, through various strategies of narration, and  through the leveraging of various media affordances.

Reinhard starts his discussion of assemblages with Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. I suppose that I’m trying to nudge swap lenses and considering his work in light of Delanda’s earlier work, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines which expanded and developed the notion of machinic phyla from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus. The idea of Delanda (and Deleuze and Guattari) emphasizes that assemblages form not merely through conscious decisions or even discursive rules (like narratives or the pop song), but also through affordances of the objects themselves. These scholars were particular intrigued by the notion of flow and the ways in which the movement of material, manufactured objects, and individuals mediated by their materiality produced value within the capitalist system in ways that appeared to be nearly autonomous. Michael Roller has adapted this notion archaeological assemblage as evidence for the emergence of mechinic consumerism in the 20th century. This is a kind of consumerism that is as much a product of producers and production as the manufactured objects. 

In some ways, excavating Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” embodies both one potential relationship between the disparate fragments of found sound collected from internet as well as the ways in which 21st century digital assemblage exist within an ecosystem that not only allow us to experience them but also monetizes our access. 

<more soon…>