The Next Chapter: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

This week I’m going to try to start to write the next chapter in my little book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. You can check out my first three chapters here. This chapter will survey on media archaeology, archaeogaming, and digital archaeology. I’m pretty far outside my comfort zone on the first two areas, but, as I blogged about last week, I have some good guides.

My current preoccupation is how to make my chapter have some flow. The previous chapter of the book deals with “Things, Materiality, and Agency” and to continue along these line, I think that I’ll start this chapter by attempting to define media archaeology This is not entirely simple because it is as much a method for approaching the place of media in contemporary society and communications theory as a clearly defined (sub)discipline. In the context of media archaeology, the term “archaeology” draws not as much on the the practices associated with the disciplinary practice of archaeological work, but on Foucault’s use of the term to describe the unconscious rules that govern systems of knowledge which he developed in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). In other words, “media archaeology” need not have anything to do with the material culture of media studies, but rather with the metaphor of excavation below the surface of conscious practice. 

At the same time, the “German School” of media archaeology, characterized by the work of Friedrich Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst, came to emphasize the key role that the materiality and technology played in communication practices. In fact, Kittler famously noted that our media shape how we view the world from our dreams, our memories, and our feelings. This line of argument is not unfamiliar to archaeologists who have long recognized that archaeology is a mediated discipline that relies on a range of media practices – from texts, pen and pencil drawings, photography, and, more recently, video and 3D visualizations, to translate physical relationships into arguments for the past. In a broader sense, the rapid diversification of media technologies and their ubiquity in the modern society has made it all the more important that we understand the impact of media technologies on the contemporary world. As a result, understanding the physical characteristics of media as well as their ability to regulate the body, create sensation, and produce knowledge plays a key role in unpacking our experience of the contemporary world.

Media archaeology also has emphasized matters of time and temporality. This not only involves the practical aspects of living and “dead media” but also the ability of media to manipulate time in new ways. Digital media has made it simple to create new expression by mashing up old and new images, we can slow the passage of time by slowing media down or speeding it up, and we can even combine old and new technologies to create hybrids that complicate and defy linear narratives of progress. The emergence of “steampunk” and “cyberpunk” genres of fiction, for example, likewise offer critiques of progress and, by extension, consumerist expectations of innovation. The steampunk aesthetic developed by authors such as Bruce Sterling and Phillip Reeves, explicitly combines the old and new technologies to create hybrid forms that exist outside of time and trajectories of progress. The “cyberpunk” genre of fiction pioneered by William Gibson takes place in a futuristic, media-rich universe that his characters negotiate through a series of do-it-yourself practices meant to subvert a dystopian society structured around rampant consumerism and enhanced methods of control.  As Shannon Lee Dawdy has noted in her article “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity” (2010) the critiques of progress, capital, and consumer culture present in these authors has useful parallels with Walter Benjamin’s critique of the culture of consumption in the decaying shopping Arcades of Paris.

Scholars like Jussi Parikka has extended media archaeology to include the critical attention to the materiality of digital devices. By looking at the Geology of Media, he connects the discourse of the media to the slow, grinding time of geology and deep temporalities that continue to shape contemporary practices. At the same time, he refers literally to geology by demonstrating how digital devices rely upon mineral and metals from around the world to perform their functions. Jennifer Gabrys’s and Joshua Lepawsky’s recent books consider and critique the course of digital trash and e-waste as our media technologies continue to circle the globe, are reused, and reenter geological contexts long after narratives of progress and innovation declares them obsolete. This intermingling of the mineralogical, metallic, and material contents of devices, the slow geological time of media, and the recursive routes of objects from the consumer, into reuse and recycling, and eventually back into the ground as discard creates a kind of multitemporal surface similar to that encountered by survey archaeologists where artifacts dating to multiple periods commingle. 

The dense networks of things, places, and individuals which constitute digital media allow us a position to return to Michael Schiffer’s 1991 book on the portable transistor radio and see it more than a revisionist case study for national narratives of innovation, but opportunities to understand how media technologies and practices created and relied upon complex networks of relationships that functioned on a global scale. In this context, media archaeology whether stressing the material aspects of media or their role in contemporary communications practices, locate the American experience within much broader geographic context than defined by national boundaries. 

Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience: Three Chapters

A couple of years ago, I watched one of buddies here at the University of North Dakota write his book. When he completed a chapter draft, he dutifully hung it by a binder clip on a bookshelf in his office. This gave him a nice visual reminder that he was making progress toward his goal. 

I’ve struggled a bit to embrace this feeling of progress with any project lately. The COVID-19 situation hasn’t helped, but even before then, I felt a bit like I was stuck on a treadmill writing the same thing over and over just using different words. I suppose this is part of what happens when the desire to write exceeds the time, space, or ability to produce ideas. In any event, in place of an impressive display of dangling chapters, I’ll post chapters here to my blog from time to time. 

In any event, I have completed three chapters of a book that I’m writing titledThe Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience.These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete (I work up this morning feeling vaguely anxious for not having cited Paul Mullins’s work in Chapter 2 and 3!) and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. There are also new books and articles on many of the things that I discuss in these two chapters appearing all the time (and a few books are still en route via ILL). 

You can read a very rough outline of my book proposal here. The book is about 60% survey and 40% a cultural and methodological study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. As a result, a significant part of the book will tend toward the descriptive. My hope is that the 40% of the book where I try to do some cultural history isn’t so far off the mark (or so mundane) to be uninteresting or, worse still, produce an archaeology that is merely illustrating well-known history from texts.  

I’ve completed a draft of the introduction (or Chapter 0) and the second chapter on Garbology (Chapter 2). The case study based on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation should be pretty easy to write and since this chapter and the one on my work with the North Dakota Man Camp project in the Bakken are “anchor chapters,” I’ll write these last. I also plan to write some kind of mini-chapter which connects the first part of the book to the second based on my work with the Wesley College Documentation Project.  

Here are the two of the first three chapters:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

As always, if you have observations, constructive criticism, or just unmitigated hatred of everything that I’m doing here, please do let me know!

(W)Reading Week for Social Distancing

I feel like my comfortable and predictable teaching-writing-reading has been quite upset lately. First, there was spring break, now there’s this move to online teaching, and finally, there’s the uncertainty of what will come next. It’s almost certain that my early summer field plans are cancelled, my later summer plans are in limbo, and various other local fieldwork projects remain in the balance.

In light of all, this and as a deeply personal effort to seize control of my life in some way, I’ve declared this week a “reading week.” The hope is get on top of a few reading projects and set myself up to write the final chapter of the first part of slowly developing first part of a book that I’m trying to write on archaeology of contemporary American culture. This chapter will focus on three things:

1. Materiality and Media Archaeology.
2. Archaeogaming.
3. The Archaeology of Digital Archaeology. 

As you might gather from reading this blog, the second and third parts of this chapter will be rather easier to write than the first. At the same time, the first part of this chapter will allow me to segue neatly with my previous chapter on “Things, Materiality, and Agency.” (I’ll post a rough draft of this chapter later in the week). To get there, though, I need to sharpen my understanding of the major currents in media archaeology. To start, I’ll re-read the useful forum in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology on media archaeology and make my way through Jussi Parikka’s useful survey of media archaeology as well as his A Geology of Media (2015). I’m also going to read Jennifer Gabrys’ Digital Rubbish (2013), Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot edited volume Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (2014), Josh Lepawsky, Reassembling Rubbish: worlding electronic waste (2018) and Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter’s Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (2009). I’m also going to push myself to read two novels. First, Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials (2008) and, then, Thomas Pynchon’s The Bleeding Edge (2013). We’ll see how this all goes. I’ve tried to be ambitious before and it ended up a total failure.

The rest of the chapter feels – for now – a bit more straightforward. I’ll lean mightily on Andrew Reinhard’s book Archaeogaming (2018) for the middle section of the chapter and the usual suspect for a critical engagement with digital archaeology that considers both its materiality and the way in which digital media and tools have come to shape archaeological practices. 

It’s been a very long time since I’ve taken a week or so just to read and while I’m as horrified and terrified by the swelling number of coronavirus cases both in my community and around the world, I wonder whether immersion in something other than problems beyond my control will be therapeutic. It goes without saying that I will continue to work to transition my classes to online, work to revise a few papers that have re-appeared after a time in the wilderness, and keep nudging various longstanding projects forward (e.g. NDQ, various books with The Digital Press, and some curriculum initiatives). At the same, taking a break from writing and, instead, invest in something that has a more tangible conclusion like reading a book.  

Things and Assemblage: Codex in Retrospect

Because my trip to the UK was cancelled, I’m back to working on my book on archaeology of contemporary American culture. When last I left it, I was wrestling with a chapter on things, agency, and materiality. This chapter, in turn, was part of the first part of the book which sought to unpack and generalize some of the lessons that I learned from the Alamogordo Atari Excavation. This section involved three chapters: (1) garbology, (2) things, materiality, and agency, and (3) media archaeology as archaeology.

Right now, I’m wrapping up chapter two with a section on assemblages and a concluding case study drawn from Micah Bloom’s Codex project (and the resulting book that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published in 2017).

Here’s what I say.

The final part of this chapter will reflect on a recent multimedia project developed by the artist Micah Bloom in Minot, North Dakota. His work, which was not archaeological in a proper sense, documented the aftermath of the Souris River flooding which devastated the small city of Minot in 2011. The floods caused the evacuation of over 4000 homes, the construction of almost 2000 shelters by FEMA, and a final cost of over $1 billon. Bloom’s work captured the tremendous impact of these floods by photographing the books left behind by the receding waters over the course of 2011. He also collected some of the books and created an instalation that traveled to several venues across the U.S. In this exhibit, he arranged some of the waterlogged and disintegrating books on shelves annotated with a series of inventory numbers. He also displayed the Tyvek suits, masks, and plastic gloves and scientific paraphernalia that his team used when collecting and examining the recovered books. Finally, his installation featured a graveyard where Bloom arranged books in neat rows on a carpet of earth awaiting burial. On the walls surrounding this cemetery hang photographs showing the find spots of books with forensic clarity. The published book associated with this project includes essays from a range of scholars who respond to his work. These essays make explicit many of the

Bloom is hardly the only artist approaching books with archaeological sensibilities. In fact, a number of municipal waste disposal centers developed artist residency programs (San Francisco, Philadelphia) as a way to capitalize on the long standing recognition that everyday objects take on new meanings when discarded as waste and repurposed as art. Bloom’s photographs of books abandoned by the retreating Souris River and disintegrating emphasizes the materiality of paper slowly returns to pulp when exposed to water. Their unnatural entanglement with the wooded banks of the river further suggests that the flood reversed the process of book manufacturing by returning the books to pulp and then to vegetation. The status of books as treasured objects (Prugh 2017; Sorensen 2017), carefully curated in libraries, in homes, and in institutions, made these images of regression even more haunting. By playing on books as personal things, always in the process of construction and decomposition (Liming 2017; Haeselin 2017; Kibler 2017), the disembodied state of the decaying books makes the absence of humans all the more visible. The absence of clear human intervention in the fate of these books offers a salient reminder that agency is not limited to individuals. The interplay between the books, the flood, and their post-deluge deposition reveal evidence for the work of insect, animals, microbes and the inherent fragility of any single material state.

Finally, Thora Brylowe’s contribution to the book dedicated to the Codex project recognized in this assemblage of books the interplay of forces on the global scale. The weather patterns, for example, that produce the 2011 Souris flood occurred as part of the larger El Niño-Southern Oscillation when the cooling waters of the equatorial Pacific produced a La Niña weather pattern which caused wetter than normal winter and spring in the Northern Plains as well as the East Asian drought. Climate change will likely make El Niño and La Niña events more intense, and the 2011 La Niña was the warmest on record. Brylowe notes that industrial practices, including paper production which both removed old growth trees from the landscape at a massive scale and relied upon fossil fuels not only allowed for the emergence of books as an affordable, personal commodity, but also spurred global climate change. The entanglement of books, climate, humans, microbes, weather, and history demonstrate the dispersed character of agency across assemblages. These assemblage not only spanned continents, but also centuries emphasizing the immediacy of Bloom’s photographs and installation as interventions which, like archaeology, seeks to provide some limits on how we see the interplay between objects.

Brokenness and Repair

Over the last week or so, I’ve been carrying around Francisco Martínez’s and Patrick Laviolette’s book Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses (Berghahn 2019) in part to keep my fingers in the book that I’m trying to write on the archaeology of contemporary America and, in part, because I thought it might speak to me about the headlines these days that emphasize the brokenness of, say, the US health systems. (That there are case studies involving the Pantheon clock and Swiss watches is just a happy bonus!). 

The essays largely focus on the materiality of brokenness and repair. The case studies from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia offered particularly compelling case studies. In these contexts, brokenness largely represented the transition from state-controlled and centrally administered regimes of maintenance to a system grounded in the market economics. Tamta Khalvashi’s ethnography of brokenness and maintenance in the elevators of Georgia, for example, provided insights into the strategies used to ensure that the elevators in Soviet era apartment buildings continued to function once the centralized maintenance systems became privatized. From coin boxes to the contributions of residents (and the various efforts from folks to game the system or to avoid paying their share of elevator maintenance costs), Khalvashi maps the adaptive strategies of various communities in their effort to preserve the material manifestations of an earlier regime. Similar ethnographies of roads, holes, and buildings in other former communist block countries demonstrated similar trajectories where brokenness represents discontinuities within the history of these places and repairs present efforts both at preserving experiences and utility of objects and places as well as marking the passage of time.

As someone who has spent most of my adult life on university campuses and some recent time exploring and documenting soon-to-be-demolished buildings, I found the exploration of brokenness and repair a useful way of understanding the fabric of these buildings. More than that, it helped me appreciate the materiality of their history and how their fragmented and discontinuous pasts challenge the kinds of cohesive narratives that institutions cultivate. If the two tensions of traditional and progress define university campuses, then the visibility of repairs complicates a present constructed as an uninterrupted expression of past values. It also suggests that progress does not follow a continuous and rational trajectory from the flawed and imperfect to the improved and perfected. Repairs indicate recursive and imperfect encounters with tradition and the halting and discontinuous working of progress.

On our campus, then, the buildings most scarred with repairs the first buildings that ambitious administrators seek to erase with new constructions. These new buildings embody progress by overwriting the past and suggest tradition by creating a purified version of the architectural styles present across campus which then stand is as pure examples of an uninterrupted past.

In short, brokenness and repair create problematic ruptures in the way in which communities understand their past. At the same time, preserving evidence for repair, in turn, preserves the ruptures in the past that reveal agency in ways that the rather disembodied or heroic narratives of progress and tradition attempt to overwrite. 

Slow Archaeology and Slow Media

This weekend, I read Jussi Parikka’s little book, The Contemporary Condition : A Slow, Contemporary Violence: Damaged Environments of Technological Culture (Sternberg Press 2016). I had also started to think a bit about slow archaeology (again) because I had agreed to be on a panel on slow archaeology at the now-cancelled TAG conference. Finally, next month, I need to start working on a chapter that considers media archaeology for my little Archaeology of the Contemporary American Culture project. These three things sort of converged in my mind as I walked the dogs over the weekend.

These streams sort of coalesced into three proto-ideas.

First, when I first started thinking about and writing about slow, it was in response to calls for greater efficiency and speed that had become typical in digital archaeology (and in American culture more broadly). I figured that slowing down might offer a way to escape from the pressures of efficiency and automation during field work and return our attention to the things, landscapes, and experience of fieldwork.

Reading Parikka’s book, however, reminded me to think a bit more about Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence (2011). Nixon demonstrated that the idea of slow was not just an alternative to modern calls to efficiency but also could be applied to the violent results of our need for efficiency in the modern world. In this context, slow was a way to describe the process of environmental degradation, the breakdown of toxic chemicals, and the impact of these forces on the lives, in particular, of the poor. 

In this case, I started to wonder whether a slow reading of the material world would also allow us to see more clearly the slow violence of the contemporary situation.

The second thing that this brought to mind was the Alamogordo Atari excavation. It’s been over 5 years since we went to Alamogordo to watch a landfill get excavated in search for a “lost” cache of Atari games. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I learned from that experience. It seems to me that thinking about the Atari dig as an example of slow archaeology makes sense. The landfill itself slowed the decay of material preserving green grass clippings, newspapers, food, and, of course, the Atari games.

More than that, the Alamogordo landfill may have been the destination for a number of mercury-laced pigs. In 1969, Ernest Huckleby had accidentally fed some of his pigs with mercury treated grain, and his family, including his eight children and pregnant wife, at some of the pork. The results were horrific and with three of his children and a his infant son were seriously mentally impaired, rendered blind, and paralyzed. Mercury survived in the pigs which passed it onto the children where it caused havoc in their developing nervous systems. Three of the children never recovered full physical or mental function or vision. The photo of Ernestine Huckleby that appeared in National Geographic in the aftermath of this incident was gut wrenching. 

Alamogordo is also, of course, well known for being the largest town near the Trinity Test site where the atomic bomb was tested. Some 30 miles to the east of the town is the WIPP site where nuclear waste from across the US is being stored. The nuclear history of this corner of the American southwest offers another locus for both slow violence and for the attention of slow archaeology. 

(In fact, I’ve increasingly come to realize that my experiences at Alamogordo were almost a parody of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997).)

Finally, I got to thinking more seriously about the source of the material in our digital devices (and for some of Parikka’s thoughts on this, I’ve begun to read his A Geology of Media (2015)). My initial thinking about a slow archaeology was as a kind reflexive practice. I wonder whether this could extend to more critical attention to the materiality of the tools that we use.

Often I think about an archaeology of archaeology which would consider the ways that archaeologists shape the landscape. For example, parts of the ancient city of Corinth are now buried beneath the backfill removed from excavating the Roman forum there. This same way of thinking, however, could extend to understanding the materiality of our digital (and analog) tools from the lithium ponds in Bolivia to rare earth mining sites in China and Australia, petroleum extraction and refining sites (for plastics) in the Middle East and the US, and various manufacturing centers with their global supply chains. It would also be valuable to think about the movement of our post-consumer and industrial waste which now is on a global scale. In short, a slow archaeology transformed into an archaeology of slow and slow violence could consider how our desire for efficiency and speed makes it all the more difficult to understand the gradual impact that our choices has on the earth. Moreover, the emergence of global supply chains which complicate the provenience of artifacts associated with archaeological knowledge making rely on the same speed that they themselves mediate. In fact, the instantaneous character of most engagements with digital tools works to obfuscate the complex processes, spatial contexts, and origins of the mediating technologies. A slow archaeology, with its attentiveness to the interplay between between archaeologists and their tools could bring some of the slow violence of contemporary society into view.  

The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond

This weekend, I read Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet’s Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond (2019). The book was written as a companion to an exhibit of the same name at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. It was a short, nuanced, and compelling read that considered the potential of archaeology of the contemporary world to understand the series of migrant camps constructed at Calais near the mouth of the Channel Tunnel. The object of the book, however, was less that camps themselves, which were primarily documented through a series of uncaptioned, but arresting photographs, but the larger project of “borderwork.” The Calais camps demonstrate how borderwork mobilized culture, the environment, the landscape, and even time itself to produce inequality. As such the authors situate their work in Calais amid a very pressing contemporary concern with walls and borders and their role in creating the status of the refugee on a global scale. The camp is not just an architectural statement or a new form of urbanism. Sites like the camps in Calais, the US border wall, refugee camps in Greece, and the Sonoran desert create the environmental, temporal, spatial, historical and political situations necessary to dehumanize migrants and to then leverage this dehumanization to produce national, regional, and racial identities.  

The book is complex and at time elusive, but it should become required reading for anyone interested in the potential of an archaeology of the contemporary world to diagnose the global situation and offer perspectives that form the basis for resistance.

As per my usual methods, I’m not going to offer a full review of this book. Instead here are some almost random thoughts:

1. Environmental Hostility. For Hicks and Mallet, the concept of environmental hostility is a broad one involving everything from physical violence visited on the migrants from police, Neo-Nazi groups, and human traffickers to the violence of walls, fences, razor wire, and intrusive searches, sleep deprivation, poor sanitation and other tactics. Creating a hostile space, often in the name of humanitarianism, for migrants by replicating many of the violent situations that led these people to travel to Europe provides a chilling reminder of close connection between colonial practices and legacies and humanitarian claims.

The authors repeat the statement “The humanitarian dismantling operation is over.” at the start of almost every chapter as an effort to remind the reader through simple repetition that the cloak of humanitarianism serves to occlude and, in many cases, reinforce the dehumanizing practices of colonialism. That these practices exist right up to the borders of the former colonizers is hardly more surprising than they use the same rhetoric and tactics used to justify colonial violence.  

What intrigued me, in particular, is how the uses of fences, the marginal location of the camps, and the tensions between local communities and the migrants mapped onto so much of the rhetoric and practice of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch. Of course, the temporary workforce in the Bakken were generally not transnational migrants and residence in workforce housing was far more voluntary that in the camps of Calais. At the same time, the careful delineation of spaces of living using fences and controlled access points, the conflicts over the rights of residents to customize their spaces, and their temporary nature (see my next point), ensured that the environment and their residents remain provisional, marginal, and somehow less than the longer term residents in the community. 

By using space and the environment as a way of reinforcing the alterity of the Bakken workforce, it followed the logic of capitalism that, in some ways, seems to support the rhetoric used against migrants who are (as the ironic meme tells us) somehow both too lazy to support the economy and also likely to take jobs from permanent residents. 

2. Temporal Violence. The notion of environmental violence was familiar to me through the work of Rob Nixon’s award winning book Slow Violence (2011). I was less familiar with the concept of temporal violence. The idea that the temporal contingency of a place like the Jungle is central to the creation of a sense of permanent emergency. The temporal relationship between the time of progress and modernity at the center and the timelessness of the colonized “savage” at the periphery reproduces itself at the border with the continual rebuilding of the temporary camp which makes it always provisional.

The parallel between the dehumanizing rhetoric associated with workers in the Bakken, whose uncontrolled masculinity represented a constant source of fear for communities in Western North Dakota. Temporal violence reduced the residents of temporary workforce housing to the status of savage in much the same way that impermanence of migrant camps works to render  displaced people outside of the dominant narrative of progress and modernization. That many of the temporary workers in the Bakken had lost property or homes in the recession of 2008 emphasized all the more their status outside of the economic time of capital appreciation. 

3. Giving Time. Finally, Hicks and Mallet propose that their book offers an example of “giving time” which they describe, a bit obliquely, as a commitment to fighting falsehoods with facts which “depends on the degree to which we believe that the political imagination has the ability not just to misinterpret the world, but to enact its nature in new ways.” 

By giving time to understand the “Jungle” at Calais and the situation of migrants and contemporary borderwork, these archaeologists of the contemporary world offer a path of post-colonial resistance and protest. Their work highlights the failure of contemporary systems to live up to even the most banal definition of humanitarianism and the failure of our current regime to recognize that the functioning of capitalism, colonialism, and the academic fields of anthropology and archaeology have created ethical obligations toward the migrants sequestered at the borders. 

This book is worth reading because it explicitly recognizes the potential for archaeology to “enact the world in new ways” by using its critical apparatus to critique and to dismantle the dehumanizing practices that support the current system of borders and power. It’s also free and open access.

Materiality and Agency

I’ve had to move forward my self-imposed deadline for the chapter on “Objects, Materiality, and Agency” for my slowly developing book in the Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture to give me some space to shift gears and return to the archaeology of Late Antique Cyprus. As a result, my current chapter will be very rough around the edges. 

At the same time, the topic of the chapter — thing theory, materiality, and agency — are not particularly prominent in the archaeology of the contemporary US. Shannon Lee Dawdy’s work in post-Katrina New Orleans perhaps being the most prominent exception, but even this drew more heavily on critiques ground in North American historical archaeology than the critiques of agency and ontology favored by European archaeologists.

There are a few exceptions, however, and the second half of this chapter will discuss the “ontological turn” in archaeology of the contemporary world and introduce two case studies: Timothy LeCain’s work at the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, and the work of photographer Micah Bloom in Minot, North Dakota after the 2011 Flood.

As with the other chapters, this is my morning work. Stay tuned for updates.  

Updated 1:45 pm 2/19/20

Dawdy’s work blends currents in American historical archaeology with attention to the role of capitalism and perspectives on the consumer culture rooted in the work of Daniel Miller and his students of modern material culture. Her interest in complicating and challenging Marx’s idea of the fetish, for example, echoes efforts among scholars of the things to demonstrate that things are more than simply vulgar distractions meant to obscure the social working of labor. At the same time, Dawdy’s insistence that material culture in New Orleans represents a critique of consumer culture, rather than simply a distinctive expression of how things serve to construct social relationships, suggests a continued hostility toward things as they exist within consumer culture mediated by contemporary capitalism.

Dawdy’s interest in the material signs of patina on old things in New Orleans, however, speaks to a growing interest among archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists into the materiality of things. In geographer Caitlin DeSilvey’s book, Curated Decay, she discussed her work to document the deteriorating remains of a century-old Montana farmstead which had been abandoned in 1995 (DeSilvey 2017; 2006). Looking through over a century of objects, she observed the multiple processes and agents that have shaped the assemblage of material associated with this farmstead and described evidence for the nesting habits of rodents, patterns produced by hungry insects, and the play of humidity, microbial action, rust and rot on the fabric of the farm and its contents. She speculatively proposes the potential for collaborative curation with animals, microbes, and chemical processes that continuously transform the materials that make up our contemporary world. Any one who has stepped foot in an abandoned building recognizes that the evidence for abandonment has less to do with the absence of human activity as it does the visible presence of a wide range of non-human agents and processes.

The DeSilvey’s work offers a compelling North American example of recent efforts to consider the materiality of our world in ways that challenges the long-standing dichotomies between humans and nature and humans and things that have defined the social sciences and humanities for the last two centuries. Many of these approaches center on critiques of the working ontologies that allow us to group objects into categories of ”things.“ These critiques have often emphasized flat ontologies which reject the hierarchical divisions that rank humans, animals, and things at different levels. Flat ontologies, often loosely described as “object oriented ontologies” offers a paradigm for understanding the interaction between things, between things and humans, and between humans as fundamentally similar. In this approach to objects, things have a kind of agency in their interaction with humans and other things. Archaeologists have introduced these and similar ideas in a diverse range of ways from calls for a “symmetrical archaeology” (Witmore) to the concept of “entanglement” (Hodder xxxx) and new or neomaterialism (for a survey of these approaches see LeCain 2017). Michael Shanks and Bjørnar Olsen, for example, stress that things are not a separate category (Shanks, et al. 2012, p. 8-9). Many of these ideas continue ways of thinking reminiscent of Donna Haraway’s idea of the cyborg, in which the blurry division between humans and things extends to recognizing the heterogeneous character of objects in our everyday life (Haraway 1991?; LeCain 2017, p. 80). Tim Edensor observes that ruins likewise blur the difference between human and non-human agency making it impossible to keep tidy ontological divisions when confronted with elusiveness of human efforts to create order in the world (LeCain 2014, 64; Edensor 2005). Breaking down the purity of categories like things and humans undercuts co-constructivist views in which things create society and, more importantly, provides a way to consider the commingled meshwork of existence that makes human life on earth possible (Latour xxxx; Ingold xxxx).

Timothy LeCain’s study of the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana demonstrates how some of these ideas can shape new understandings of the world (LeCain 2009; LeCain 2014). While LeCain is a historian, not an archaeologist, his attention to materiality and matter offer a compelling perspective for the discipline of archaeology and an opportunity to connect the discipline to environmental history. The Berkeley pit was a massive open pit mine created by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in 1955 after conventional mining methods using tunnels and shafts became less effective. The massive pit excavated by equally massive machines eventually extended for 1800 feet below the surface and was near 1.5 miles wide (LeCain 2014, 71). In 1982, mining ceased at the pit and when the pumps that served to keep pit dry stoped operating, it filled with acidic water laced with a toxic combination of heavy metals. The copper mined from this pit served to conduct electricity, make guns, produce components for TVs and Michael Schiffer’s portable radios. It also provided jobs to generations of residents of Butte, Montana. The pit changed the local landscape and introduced toxic chemicals to the water table. The toxic water interacted with residents and wildlife.

LeCain starts his 2014 article on the “ontology of absence” with the arresting story of a flock of migrating snow geese who landed in the pit in 1995 and were killed by its toxic waters. The interplay between the geese, the mining, the metals in the acidic waters, the rhythms of migration, and the weather conditions that night led to their demise. LeCain concludes with the observation that humans created the pit, but the absence presence of the pit remains a persistent and independent agent in the global landscape, technologies, and even migratory patterns that shape our world.

Things and Patina

This weekend, I spent some quality time with Bjønar Olsen’s In Defense of Things (2011). It had been a few years since I had read this survey of “thing” studies in archaeology and I having read a bit more broadly and intensively on things lately, I found it even more useful and insightful. (Hat tip to Federico Buccellati’s comment on my post last week and suggested I return to this book!).  

Re-reading Olsen has prompted me to do three things which I’ll post over the course of the next few hours (so, do check back if any of this interests you!).

First, I think that I want to add a brief introduction to my chapter that frames how many scholars respond to my interest in both contemporary and past things. I’ll write that and add it to this blog post.

Update 1: 8:47 am 2/17/2020:

When people here that I am an archaeologist and have worked in Greece, they frequently assume that my work involves temples, museum quality artifacts, and, just maybe, precious metals. When I reveal that I’m a survey archaeologist and most of my favorite finds involve broken and abraded sherd found in olive groves or an isolated and humble hilltop fort, there is inevitably a kind of disappointment. The modest or even mundane character of the things that I find fails to resonate with popular expectations of archaeology which still tend toward sensation and singular objects and monuments. Cooking pots and storage vessels, rural installation and forts, and seasonal shelters and roof tiles are often the stuff of archaeology, especially in the Mediterranean basin, the ordinary character of these things rarely evokes any interest among the general public and the most common response is a kind of incredulity. “You’re just studying sherds?” (See Holtrof 2006 for a review of popular attitudes toward archaeology).

If the mundane character of survey archaeology produces public incredulity, the work of archaeologists of the contemporary world often creates professional confusion. As Bill Rathje related, when he first started the Garbage Project, colleagues questioned whether his work was archaeology (Shanks et al. 2013: 358). Sorting modern garbage seemed too close to the Start with references to the bewilderment met by many people when I described my interest in the Atari dump. Not only was my interest in a landfill seen as unusual, but many of my colleagues saw the experience as repellant. As Rathje noted in his conversations with Michael Shanks and Christopher Witmore, discarded things, despite being the typical object of archaeological research, the abject character of contemporary trash situated it at the furthest margins of public interest. Moreover, our interest in a deposit of Atari games also garnered a certain amount of suspicion. After all, the fate of the Atari games themselves seemed primarily of interest to nostalgic “fan boys,” the dig itself was little more than an elaborately staged effort to sell Microsoft products, and it seemed possible to discover the fate of the Atari dump through some careful documentary research. The skeptical attitude toward the archaeological value of this excavation stemmed in no small part from the status of these games as such obvious commodities. Both our interest in the Atari games and the global media attention that the dig attracted appeared like a particularly egregious example of Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism (Olsen 2011, 92-94; Dawdy 2016, 137-142). For Marx, our fetishization of things obscured the alienation of labor in their production. This attachment to things, then, overwrote out attachment to people and concern for social relations and contributed to further alienation of the worker. An interest in things necessarily represented a lack of interest in people, social relations, and reality. The prevalence of this attitude toward things in contemporary culture makes understandable the response of my students, when initially encouraged to document the objects left behind in faculty offices and labs in an abandoned building on campus: the offices were filled with “just stuff.”


Next, I need to clarify the significance of the work of Ian Hodder, Daniel Miller, Michael Shanks, and others in the early 1980s. I recognize that their work created a more robust context for understanding things as constitutive of culture and social relations, but I don’t really mark out how different that was from, say, the work of Deetz, where things were essentially the manifestations of culture and society.   


Finally, I feel good about my decision to move from Schiffer’s work on the portable radio in the 1990s to Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina (2016). While this is a significant jump chronologically, many of the themes introduced in the first chunk of this chapter find a place in Dawdy’s work. I’ll post what I write on that below here later this morning.

Update 11:09 am 2/17/2020

Shannon Lee Dawdy’s demonstrates the enduring significance of the social readings of contemporary material culture in her study of post-Katrina New Orleans (Dawdy 2016). Dawdy’s work takes a critical interest in the concept commodity fetishism in contemporary New Orleans and seeks to rehabilitate the concept of the fetish to understand the role that things have in creating social relationships in “antique cities.” By expanding the concept of the fetish from its narrow use in Marx as a veil which obscures the labor and social relations necessary to produce an object, to include concepts developed by Freud and the work of historian William Pietz (Dawdy 2016, 138-139), she argues that the status of certain objects as fetishes serves not to obscure labor but to transform them into objects that exist outside of commodified experience of consumer capitalism. Dawdy develops the sacred character of fetishized antiques and “Granny-had-ones” against the backdrop of the social displacement of post-Katrina New Orleans to show how old things created a sense of community and resilience in the face of the profound devastation of Katrina and the remaking of the city through new arrivals. Following Kopytoff (1986), Dawdy drew upon a wide range of interviews and objects to demonstrate that the personal stories and histories attached to objects as well as the physical signs of age, the literal patina in the book’s title, allowed them to shed their status as commodities and reemerge as objects of singular value. A plain wardrobe owned by a long-time white resident of New Orleans took was meaningful because it evoked the story of its purchase by the interviewee as a teenager as well as certain physical characteristics that marked it as a piece of traditional furniture (129-130). The singular nature of this object parallels the celebrated ”throws“ distributed by participants in Mardi Gras parades which have themes and markings identifying them to particular years and groups. These cheap plastic novelties are not only valued through their association with a specific occasion, but also serve as a blatant critique of capitalist culture. Mardi Gras throws often imitate currency, jewelry, and table wares made of precious metals and by doing so critique the acquisitive character of capitalism by not only giving these “precious” objects away, but by doing so at such quantities that they saddle many long-time New Orleans residents with bags of throws from the parade season. While residents discard most of these objects, some of Dawdy’s informants kept a few from each year as distinctive souvenirs of particular parades, themes, and experiences.

Dawdy is careful to note the difference between white and black attitudes toward the antiques and old objects. Her black informants rarely had the same attitude toward old things as her white informants. The reasons for this were socially complex. On a simple level, Dawdy noted that many black residents had difficulty finding stable housing where they could collect, store, and display old objects. More subtly, she argued that remembering New Orleans past also evoked memories of slavery, Jim Crow, and systematic discrimination which negatively impacted generations of black New Orleans residents. Dawdy also develops further Kopytoff’s comparison of the commodified object to an enslave individuals. Kopytoff argued that the movements of enslaved people into commodified status in the slave market is only temporary. Enslaved individuals soon re-establish agency, personalities, and individuality both in bodily form and in relation to others over the course of their time as slaves. Objects likewise have moments of commodification which then give way to more diverse and dynamic “biographies” that leave a physical imprint. Dawdy suggests that commodification of objects with biographies that give them special significance to individuals may evoke the experience of the slave market in ways that are deeply uncomfortable for New Orleans’ black residents (151).

Dawdy’s study of objects in contemporary, post-Katrina New Orleans allowed her to argue that the patina on objects in New Orleans offered a material critique of consumer culture. The desirability of objects effaced by time and embedded with stories from the past subvert consumer culture by valuing the old and singular more than the new and improved. The fabric of old things preserves and communicates the evidence for their age and experiences and gives these objects a kind of material agency that refuses to obscure their life histories and reminds us that objects exist within a dense network of social relations between both individuals and things. The central role that such old things play in the social, material, and culture fabric of New Orleans both makes this city as visible reminder of contemporary resistance to the our of capitalism and also shows how the character of old things construct these cultural and social attitudes.

Three Thing Thursday: Multitasking, Jazz, and NDQ

Whether Three Thing Thursday is becoming a tradition or a routine depends, I guess, on your point of view. But once again, my week has become hectic and strangely the end of the week is more busy than the start. As a result, my world is pretty fragmentary and all that I have left are snippets of ideas, thoughts, and projects that swirl about my feet as I race from meeting to meeting.

Thing the First

One of the things that I love most about academia is the opportunity to multitask. By this I don’t mean having to flip back and forth between a bunch of open tabs in a browser and a stack of grading while preparing a class and writing an article (although that can also be fun!). What I mean is the inevitable overlap between projects that is so productive for new ideas. For example, I have learned a good bit about how archaeology works in practice through my work as a publisher. Thinking about the technical aspects of making a book has helped me to think more clearly about archaeology as a process of knowledge making that extends not just from the “survey unit” through the database to analysis and interpretation, but continues through the presentation, distribution, and reception of our arguments and data. Without working simultaneously on data collection in the field, computer aided analysis, writing, and publishing, I wouldn’t have entirely grasped this. Working both in the Bakken oil patch and in Greece and Cyprus has likewise informed my thinking on both projects, pushed me to read more widely, and muddied many ideas that I would have confidently said that I understood had I not tried to transfer them from one context to another.   

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to have to deal with just this kind of overlap as I continue to plod ahead with my book on the archaeology of the contemporary world and write a paper for a conference on “Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity: History and Archaeology between the 6th and the 8th centuries.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it harder to switch gears between project without a good bit grinding and clunking, but maybe that makes the need to switch gears all the more important.

Thing the Second

Recently, I’ve been very quietly working on new project for The Digital Press. What I write here doesn’t really constitute an announcement as much as an acknowledgement that this is something that might very well happen.

Over the past two years, I’ve discovered that I really like jazz. As with so many things in my life, this has slowly grown beyond a kind of casual interest or the vague appreciation of the odd John Coltrane or Charles Mingus album. My interest in jazz is on the very of becoming a full fledged obsession. To be clear, when I get obsessed with with something, it rarely follows a orderly trajectory. I’m not someone who tends toward the exhaustive. Anyone who knows me will admit that I’m a flâneur even when I should adopt a more rigorous approach. Fortunately my flânerie often leads me down some pretty interesting corridors and my interest in jazz led me to try to understand Sun Ra. 

Sun Ra’s discography is particularly baffling. It’s not only immense, but also complicated as his career spanned a range of labels including his own “El Saturn Records” label, Impulse!, and about 40 others. When I first started listening to San Ra’s music, I quickly became baffled especially when I encountered the myriad of re-releases and dodgy bootlegs of his live shows. One of my regular stops as a Sun Ra fan, however, became a series of blog posts called “Sun Ra Sundays”.  

This week, I’ve started a project to publish formally the Sun Ra Sunday blog in collaboration with its author Rodger Coleman (and thanks to some help from Irwin Chusid and Sam Byrd!) I’m pretty excited about being able to bring this to a wider audience, to give it a bit of a formatting, to get it circulating in paper, and to give it a good copy and content edit. Stay tuned.  

Thing the Third

It’s almost time to submit NDQ issue 87.1/2 to the University of Nebraska Press for typesetting and layout. That means this weekend, I get to spend time reviewing and re-reading the amazing contributions to the next issue. It’s one of the absolute best parts of my job at the University of North Dakota, and while I love to work on my own stuff, it’s never as rewarding as promoting the work of others. We posted the first peek at some of the 87.1/2 contents today over at the NDQ blog. Go check it out and stay tuned for more!