Three Things Thursday: Fragments of the Future

An old friend of mine once told me that he wasn’t writing so much any more because writing with an act that assumed a future and he no long assumed that there was a future. At around the time he said this, he left academia and he and his partner left town. The entire sequence of events was not only depressing, but also convinced me that he was much smarter than I and academia (and our community) was going to be much the poorer for his and his partner’s departure. I really don’t know whether he writes any more and I’ve been a bit too nervous to ask.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the future. This summer, for example, I read (well, ok, I listened to) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (2020) and wrote about it here. I’ve been thinking a bit, on and off, about Afrofuturism and about how archaeology of the present exists in the space between a recognizable past and an anticipated future.

In the spirit of this musing, I offer three little fragments of the archaeology of the future here:

Fragment the First

One of the most interesting things about Sun Ra is his willingness to conflate the past and the future. For Ra this was a response to the excitement of the post-War moment when the potential of new forms of social and economic mobility met the dawning of the Space Age. At the same time, Ra understood that traditional forces in American society would continuously undermine and challenge whether Black people would have access to this new future.

This ambivalent attitude toward the future required Ra to both break with the traditional view of the Black past anchored as it was in their experiences of enslavement and legal, social, political, and economic marginalization. In the place of these experiences Ra imagined new pasts for Black people. He embrace of a wide range of Afrocentrist perspectives on the past allowed him to imagine Africa, and Egypt in particular, as the new foundation for both contemporary and future Black unity and power. His willingness to construct a new past that would allow Black people full access to a Space Age future may well represent an early and significant example of Laurent Olivier’s notion of presentism. For Olivier, presentism represents a view of the present that is no longer linear and is, therefore, no longer the product of the past. The break between the present and the past likewise allowed for the future to drift untethered from current existence. For Sun Ra this makes the future the domain of the impossible. Rationality, progress, and modes of change anchored in evolutionary or developmental ways of thinking no longer point toward a better reality in the future. This required a rewriting of the past and a reimagining of the present in ways that would support a future that could operate either outside the conventional limits of historical causality or despite these limits. The future because the space of the impossible.

Fragment the Second  

This week, while waiting for an evening meeting to start, I read a bit of Rebecca Bryant’s and Daniel M. Knight’s The Anthropology of the Future (2019) which has one fo the most accessible and compelling introductions to the growing interest in the future in the humanities and social sciences. Plus, both scholars have done work in the Mediterranean (Bryant on Cyprus and in Turkey and Knight in Greece). 

The motivation to explore an anthropology (history, archaeology, or sociology) of the future stems largely from the tensions between two attitudes toward the future. On the one hand, we hope that we are in a “late stage” of capitalism, nationalism, or modernism and that the next stage will somehow redeem the horrors that the main stage wrought (massive, global inequality, wars, and technologies with almost infinite capacity to destroy). On the other hand, we are increasingly come to realize that the paradigms established to take care of the future have made it difficult to imagine our way out of the looming existential crises fired by climate change, catastrophic inequality, and a limitless capacity for apocalyptic violence. In this context, there is a growing feeling that the future is foreclosed and that humanity or at least human society will invariably continue to amble toward its ultimate demise. 

It is hard to know what this means for disciplines like history and archaeology which perhaps emphasize the present as a lens through which to view the past more than the future. The 2019 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology offers a few visions of what an archaeology of the future could be, and as much as I like the articles there, I wonder whether we are open enough to new intellectual or discursive tools necessary to imagine a future that is increasingly impossible?

Fragment the Third

Yesterday on a boring treadmill run, I started the read Joy Williams’ latest novel, Harrow (2021). I’ve made it through the first chapter and it’s beautiful and haunting. I will resist the temptation to try to talk about the book already (especially since Williams has a seemingly limitless capacity to surprise), but I will say that there is something profoundly archaeological about the book. Williams interest in things, places, and landscapes, her attention to entropy and site formation, and her ability to think about how the present will appear from the vantage point of a dystopian, but more or less banal near future. 

At this point, I’m not sure whether the richly drawn setting for the story is merely a backdrop or whether it will serve as a character, but I’m intrigued and excited enough to move this book, delicately, from the “read for fun” to the “read for work” list. 

In short, stay tuned and I look forward to blogging about this book (and others) in the future.

Music Monday: Science Fiction, Jazz, and Urban Myth

This weekend, I listened to Nicole Glover’s latest album, Strange Lands. It’s pretty great. I wasn’t particular familiar with Glover’s work, although I knew her as part of the Eric Dolphy inspired group Out to Dinner and have found the music of that group intriguing, but not particularly compelling (but I’d have to listen to it more to say for certain).

Glover’s album is more interesting to me. She not only shows off her saxophone playing chops throughout — and a number of critics have associated her tone with late Coltrane — but more importantly and interesting she demonstrates a pretty deft hand a lyrical passages. From the sound of dusky smoke filled bars on “Twilight Zone” to agile and attentive playing with George Gables on Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and the lyricism of her version of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” Glover’s performances are just fantastic.

More importantly, for my current projects, she’s an huge science fiction fan and her most recent album is full of allusions to science fiction classics. The title of album, of course, is a nod to the Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land. Her reference to “Strange Land,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Hive Queen,” evoke classic science fiction motifs. The result is an album that blends an occasionally nostalgic sound with glimpses of a future that now feels just a bit threadbare.

While enjoying this album (and Play On by the aforementioned Out to Dinner) I read Yusuf Nuruddin’s 2006 article titled “Ancient Black Astronauts and Extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic Science Fiction as Urban Mythology” in Socialism and Democracy 20.3. I don’t usually blog about 15 year old articles, but Nuruddin’s piece brought together a bunch of loose ends that I had been struggling to tie up lately. He explores the development of various kinds of urban myths that involve science fiction, UFOs, Afrocentric themes, and various interpretations of Islam and Christianity starting in the early 20th century. For Nuruddin the persistence of certain themes in Black urban culture for over 100 years suggests more than just a set of recurring popular ideas, but the emerging structure of an urban mythology that consisted of a “scathing social critique” that sought to redress many of the longstanding inequalities that face Black, poor, urban residents. The Moorish Science Temple (1913), for example, the Nation of Islam (1930), and (I’d add) various strains of Black Masonic experiences, contributed to the development of the Five Percenters (1964) and Nuwaubian Moors (1970) in the post-war period which attracted both formal acolytes and a whole range of more casual adherents who have adopted various aspects these groups’ believes and cosmology. While it is easy enough to dismiss these groups, and particularly troubled history of the Nuwaubian Moors, whose former leader is now serving a prison term for a range of sexual and financial misconduct, Nuruddin makes it clear that these groups continue a process of re-imagining Islam by incorporating science fiction motifs including ancient aliens to create a new form of urban mythology. For Nuruddin, these ideas did not exist in a vacuum, but drew on long-standing motifs, stories, and ideas shared across the Black urban experience. Their status as myth was not meant to dismiss their importance, but to validate their formal significance as a set of religious ideas worthy of formal study. Just as ancient myths derive meaning, in part, through the social milieu in which they circulated, so did these Black urban myths which seek to offer hope and history to communities alienated from their past first by the Middle Passage and the Great Migration in the 20th century and enduring poverty, racism, and political disempowerment in the present.    

David S. Anderson’s far more recent piece in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religion, “Crafting a Mysterious Ancient World: The Effects of Theosophy and Esotericism on Public Perceptions of Archaeology,” likewise takes the experience of mystical, esoteric, and New Age searchers seriously as a way to engage with a public whose interest in archaeology is often met with contempt and ridicule. More significantly, Anderson suggests that some of our ham-fisted efforts at re-education reflect fundamental ignorance of the values, practices, and interests of these groups. This, in turn, obscures the relationship between long held beliefs among these groups and popular culture which both reflects and, as Nuruddin argues influences, their attitudes toward antiquity.   

The value of these two articles to my work on Sun Ra (see here for a recent summary) is that they bridge the gap between popular culture, especially science fiction, esoteric beliefs, and the antiquity in the contemporary world. Against this backdrop Sun Ra becomes less of an idiosyncratic (pseudo?) intellectual and more of a fellow traveller who makes visible world views that academics rarely encounter, much less understand. The fruitful intersection of jazz (and more popular music, as the influence of the Five Percenters on hiphop is widely known), antiquity, religion, and Afrofuturism (or more broadly science fiction, as in the Nicole Glover album) represents one avenue through which Black, poor, and otherwise disenfranchised groups presented a social critique of academic, religious, and social institutions that they saw as repressive.

As archaeologists we should be aware of these connections and they should make us a bit more careful and deliberate with how we talk about ancient aliens and other popular beliefs in public.

Pilgrimage CHAT: Walking the Grand Forks Greenway

Next month, I’m presenting a little paper in the form of a blog post at the 2021 CHAT conference devoted to pilgrimage. I don’t remember what my paper is titled, but here’s the abstract: In April 1997, the Red River of the North overran its bank and inundated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota forcing over 50,000 residents to evacuate and significant damage to both cities. In the aftermath of this flood, the two cities demolished a number of neighborhoods that stood close to the river, installed a series of massive floodways that run for nearly 15 kms along the course of the Red River, and constructed a new series of pump and lift stations. This work created a massive park, known as the Grand Forks Greenway, of over 8 square kilometers festooned with bike paths, river access, and recreation areas and separated from the residential and commercial areas of the city by a series of imposing earthen and cement flood walls pierced by gates.

I don’t think that’ll be the paper that I write though. In fact, I’m thinking more and more about how I might integrate the notion of pilgrimage to the space of Lincoln Park, a large urban park that is part of the Grand Forks Greenway.

Here’s my first effort to say something compelling.

Daily Pilgrimage, Movement, and Place on the Grand Forks Greenway

Almost every day for the past four or five years, I’ve gone for a walk through Lincoln Park on the Grand Forks, North Dakota Greenway. The walks aren’t terribly long, usually between 3 and 6 miles, and they follow a fairly standard course. They happen all year around from the heat of the summer to all but the coldest days in the winter. My walks take place in the rain, the snow, and the wind. I’m almost always accompanied by one of my two dogs: Argos (aka Argie “The Bargepole”) or Milo (aka “Milsey”). If the dogs were to tell it, they’d say that the walks are for them, but I do remind them that I make these trips without them sometimes and sometimes on my bike. In other words, these walks aren’t just a routines for the dogs, but fundamental to my daily routine.

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Pilgrimages, like most rituals, are types of routines that wrench one out of mundane existence and push one into a different space defined by movement, reflection, and even spirituality. In some cases, of course, a pilgrimage might be a once in a lifetime event, such as the Hajj, but in many cases, pilgrimages can happen more regularly. It seems to me that the key characteristic of a pilgrimage is not its frequency, but its relationship to the mundane aspects of daily life. As such, pilgrimages, as a type of experience, represents a particularly vivid example of the kind of relational category that archaeologists have increasingly used to think about their world.

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My everyday life is deeply embedded in the digital world of screens, emails, documents, and data. My time on walks in the park is distinctly analogue. My mundane world varies relatively little depending on seasons, despite living in place where the seasons are intense. Even during the most bitter cold or the hottest late-summer, during draughts or floods, in the raking light of the winter or the dusty harvest clouds of autumn, emails continue to arrive, text continues to require editing, students continue to want guidance, and colleagues consultation. My daily pilgrimage disrupts my tendency to immerse myself in such mundane tasks and forces me to confront the variability of the seasons and weather, happenstance of encounters in a public space, and my own thoughts as they wander over the course of an hour without the advantage of regular professional (or household) distractions that would allow them to take purchase.

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Part of what allows for the distinction between my daily pilgrimage and what I’ve called my “mundane world” is the space of my daily sojourns. My walk begins ordinarily enough in my backyard and then I head due east down 8th avenue which is interrupted after about 200 meters, by the 8 m tall bulk of a flood wall that forms the western edge of the Grand Forks Greenway. The Greenway runs for nearly 15 km on both sides of the Red River of the North which snakes its way though our small community of around 100,000 people on its way to the Hudson Bay some 1000 km to the north. The river floods regularly as it runs along the bottom of the long vanished Lake Agassiz, a massive glacial lake that discharged some 9,000 or 10,000 years ago, and in 1897 and again in 1997 massive floods nearly destroyed the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The second of these floods prompted the evacuation of the cities and this constituted the largest peacetime evacuation of an American city prior to Hurricane Katrina landfall in New Orleans in 2005.

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My daily pilgrimage passes a pumping station that serves to maintain the back pressure on the Grand Forks sewage and storm drain system and prevent flood waters from flowing through the drains and entering the city. It is here that pipes run beneath the flood wall and through the pump station that I go over the flood wall to enter the Greenway. This part of the Greenway is called Lincoln Park. It’s the largest park in the Greenway system and includes all the amenities common the an American park: walking and cycling trails, a frisbee golf course, some open fields for sports, a dog park, a warming house and, in the winter an ice rink and cross-country ski trails. There are places for picnics and a boat ramp for access to the river. Just south of Lincoln park is a small golf course. 

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This rather ordinary setting seems like a hardly appropriate setting for a pilgrimage, but Lincoln Park does had a somewhat hidden past. Prior the 1997 flood, Lincoln Park was a thriving neighborhood but the creation of the Greenway and the the new network of flood walls required the razing of the homes and an elementary school here which would have stood on the “wet” side of the walls. The remains of this neighborhood, however, haunt the park. Trees continue to mark the routes of roads, the regular pattern of depressing in the park’s well mowed grass follow the rhythms of razed houses, and from time to time bricks, concrete pavement, and gravel paths peak through the grass to remind us of this place’s past. There is a small sculpture and a map made of inlaid bricks commemorating the lost neighborhood, but someone not familiar with the story behind these features might miss their meaning.

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The visible and invisible history of Lincoln Park presents a compelling backdrop to my daily pilgrimages which takes me onto a path that follows the course of the river between the endemic cottonwoods that inhabit the water’s edge and the ornamental cypress and crab apple trees, the elms that line the now vanished streets, and the pine trees that stood at the edges of properties. White tail deer, squirrels, foxes, songbirds, hawks, eagles, owls, and the occasional human runner, canine companion, and occasional park employee, patrolling police officer, and metal detectorist stare my pilgrimage space. The initial, post-flood planning stages for the Greenway emphasized its potential to act as both a recreation area and as a riparian corridor for local and migratory wildlife. At the same time, the various environmental studies of Greenway acknowledged that many of the species present along the river’s course had a long history living in urban environments and sharing their space with both people and our domesticated animals. Like the pipes managed to control the flow of river water back into the city, the riparian corridor does not end at the edges of flood walls, but extends into the neighborhoods that flank the river. 

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The landscape of Lincoln Park contributes to its status as a pilgrimage site by emphasizing that it defies easy definition. It is neither a purely natural space, if such places are indeed possible in the Anthropocene, nor a space dominated entirely by humanity. The visible remains of earlier human activities overgrown and obscured by both natural and cultural processes transform Lincoln Park into the sort of liminal place that characterizes pilgrimage routes. Its temporal state as a place in transition from a tidy small-town neighborhood to corridor designed to both accommodate the spring flood waters and the movement of wildlife ensures that the landscape explicitly resists simple definition. Like so many discussions of time in archaeology, Lincoln Park makes clear the past is not distinct from the contemporary and both exist in a space of blurry boundaries.

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By complicating our every day expectations that the human and the natural occupy tidy categories and the past and contemporary are distinct, the park encourages us to establish a sense of communitas, to use Victor Turner’s fortuitous concept, not only with past and contemporary individuals (and my canine companions), but also with those non-human features of the landscape, from the raking light of the winter sun to the unseen scurrying creatures on the riverbanks or the depressing depressions marking out overgrown roads.

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My daily pilgrimage, then, introduces me to a complicated time and space that is distinct from the tidy definitions traced by the imperious modernity of our daily lives. 

Two Draft Articles on Sun Ra

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a couple of projects that bring the musician, thinker, poet, and performer Sun Ra to bear on archaeology. In fact, I’ve been obsessed enough with Sun Ra to create a category on my blog dedicated to my musings on this artist.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure where any of this work was going, but by the end of the summer things started to come into focus. 

My first Sun Ra project was a review of a bunch of the new scholarly publications which include some analysis of his work. It’s going to appear in North Dakota Quarterly probably this fall.

It’s called “Whither Sun Ra?” and you can read that review here.

The second piece is more of a work in progress and I’m at the stage of really needing some good feedback on it. I initially had the idea that it could appear in Near Eastern Archaeology and straddle a popular and scholarly audience, but as I wrote it, it inevitably gravitated to a more scholarly vibe. Now I’m wondering whether it might fit better in an academic journal, perhaps one dedicated to Global Antiquity or even Classical Reception (or maybe, in a pinch, an archaeology journal interested in this kind of oblique disciplinary critique).

It’s called, for now, “Not All Ancient Aliens: Black Alternative Archaeologies in the 20th Century” and you can read it here.

I’d love feedback on the second article, which probably benefits from being read alongside the first.

Three Things Thursday

For some reason this week is taking forever. It might be just that time in the semester. I also wonder whether finally getting a bit of writing momentum back has led me to overdo it a bit and maybe burn a bit too much energy for only modest gains. Whatever the reason, it feels like a good time for some good news. So here are three things for your Thursday.

Thing the First

I really enjoyed Dante Angelo, Kelly M. Britt, Margaret Lou Brown, Stacey L. Camp recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Titled “Private Struggles in Public Spaces: Documenting COVID-19 Material Culture and Landscapes,” it offers a window into one of the few, maturing archaeological studies of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many archaeological projects on the very edge of the present, it’s conclusions are modest, but the methods, challenges, and data offer a window into the potential for archaeological projects that emerge at the very onset of a crisis rather than work to understand a crisis long after it unfolded.

I was particularly impressed by the transnational scope of article and the recognition that contemporary archaeology (and the study of contemporary problems and situations) is not much interested in national boundaries. An archaeology of contemporary climate change, of migration, and of production and consumption habits would follow a similar pattern. The article also negotiates the tension between private and public spaces not only in how we do our work as archaeologists, but also in how we live our lives. In this way, archaeology once again follows tensions present in society as the rise of surveillance culture where even conversations in our home are monitored (and monetized) by ubiquitous digital devices and personal medical choices (and short comings) continue to be matters public debate blurs our expectations of privacy. While Angelo et al. maintained a conservative approach toward documenting private lives in public places and continued to respect traditional notions of public and private, the title of the piece made clear that this continues to be an open question rather than a resolved standard of practice or method. 

Finally, the photo essay itself represents both the tip of a larger archival iceberg and I’m excited to understand how ongoing efforts to document the COVID pandemic will open the door to future analyses and interpretations. It reminds me how important archaeology of the contemporary world is for building the archive of the present and even if our research questions (and goals) applying the rigorous methods developed by archaeology as a discipline will contribute to how future researchers see our world.

Thing the Second

This thing is a form of completely gratuitous self-promotion. As editor of NDQ, I have the privilege of publishing a wide range of authors from undergraduates to grizzled veterans of the writing business. We are pleased to announce that we will publish to the winner of the Colie Hoffman Poetry Prize which goes a woman poet from Huntery College-CUNY. 

Here’s our little announcement.

NDQ is excited to announce our partnership wih the Department of English at Hunter College-CUNY, to pubish the winner of the department’s yearly Colie Hoffman Poetry Prize. Named for Colie Hoffman, an alumna of Hunter’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, the award goes to a female poet in Hunter’s MFA Program who has shown an exceptional blend of imagination and craft in her poetry. Given our admiration for Hoffman and the vibrant pulse of her work, we are thrilled to collaborate with Hunter College in honoring her.

Thing the Third

Last week, the good folks at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota got word that FOUR of their titles were nominated for the North Dakota State Library Association’s  Notable State Government Documents Award. This is the first time that any of our books have been nominated and I feel the press is being recognized for its solid work in the state. The books nominated are: Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook, Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean,  Calobe Jackson, Jr., Katie Wingert McArdle, and David Pettegrew’s One Hundred Voices, Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920and Kyle Conway’s Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018

We’re up against some pretty tough competition, particular from our friends at the NDSU Press who celebrated three nomination for the same award!

This is an exciting time for publishing in the Red River Valley!

Writing Ra for Real 2

This week I’ve been working on my article on Sun Ra and archaeology with the goal of having a completed draft to submit somewhere by the end of the month. It is tentatively titled “Not All Ancient Aliens,” and I posted the first part of the paper on Monday and you can read it here.

It was supposed to be a pretty breezy article that was anchored in a playful (or at least puckish) critique of certain kinds of public archaeology which began with a pair of longwinded responses to a twitter dust up a few weeks ago. You can check out that bloated bloviation here and here

I’m hoping to write some kind of conclusion to this so that it is at least a single cohesive “thing” (which for me is slightly below the level of a manuscript) and maybe circulate it to some readers this fall. It obviously lacks full citation, but that’s in the works too!

“Not All Ancient Aliens” (con’t)

Sun Ra’s efforts to tie together the space age with ancient Egypt represents a distinctive view on the role of ancient (and contemporary) extraterrestrials on our understanding of the past. As a number of critics have observed, however, Ra is not unique in conflating his experience of alien abduction with Biblical narratives especially those relating to Elijah’s chariot and Ezekiel’s celestial vision. Indeed, Graham Locke connected Sun Ra’s abduction narrative to the conversion narratives told by enslaved people in the American South. These narratives frequently involved hearing voices, traveling to celestial destinations by chariot, and a sense of spiritual liberation (Locke 1999: 52-57). The conversion stories of enslave people often served as an image for their own liberation from weight of sin, oppressive circumstances, and, at times, from slavery itself. Elijah’s chariot carried the converted from the painful circumstances of Earthly existence to their divine reward. Henry Blount adapted these narratives and his conversion to Sun Ra to the space age when he replaced Elijah’s chariot with intergalactic travel and voice of God with those of alien visitors. As William Sites noticed that during Sun Ra’s days in Chicago, he interlaced imagery of interplanetary travel with that of Chicago’s EL and adapted the familiar call of the EL conductor announcing stations to interplanetary destinations. As the concluding chant in a Chicago-period recording of his track “Rocket Number 9” announces: ”next stop, Venus!” Sites argued that conflating dreams of interstellar travel with the more mundane experience of riding the El translated the Arkestra’s hopes for interstellar liberation onto the topography of Chicago. Trips to distant planets become trips to the predominantly white middle class suburbs that held out the promise of both racially integrated housing as well as home ownership with the modern amenities promised in Chicago’s new subdivisions.

More powerfully still, the image of spaceship in Ra’s abduction story, in his music, and in his film Space is the Place, appropriated the memory of the slaveship and transformed it from being a vehicle of Black subjugation, to an image of Black liberation and freedom. In the case of Space is the Place, this connection is quite literal as the Sun Ra pilots a spaceship to Earth to rescue its Black population. This conflation of the spaceship and the slaveship takes on even more powerful overtones when Sun Ra combines it with Egyptian and other Afrocentric imagery. In this context, the spaceship becomes a vehicle that can not only open the solar system to Black exploration, but also restore Black people to a legacy which is both celestial and African. Ra’s efforts to connect African culture to extraterrestrial intervention works to bridge the gap between the potential of the space age present (and future) and a pre-enslavement past. His concept of an “Astro Black Mythology” links Blackness to outer space and the timelessness of both myth and the cosmos.

While there might be a tendency to see Sun Ra’s cosmology as it unfolds over his music, performances, and writing, as a kind of utopian fiction, it is important to recognize that connection between space, Biblical narratives, and mythic and historical Black pasts appears in other mid-century contexts as well. For example, it is tempting to see the rings of Saturn as a version of Ezekiel’s wheel tamed by modern astronomy. This allowed Ra to encounter the dreadful power of the heavens and recognize it as benign. Michael Leib’s work on the changing role of Ezekiel’s vision in modern world stressed the role that it played in the eschatology of the Nation of Islam (Leib 1998). The coincidence of Elijah Muhammed’s organization in Chicago during Sun Ra’s tenure apparently led to some interaction between Sun Ra and Nation of Islam members in Washington Park. Paul Youngquist’s reconstruction of these encounters, based apparently on reminiscences of Sun Ra, suggest that these interactions involved debates about cosmology and society and involved mutual respect. Elijah Muhammed took Ezekiel’s great wheeled apparition in the sky and transformed it into a spaceship that would arrive at the end of days. This shapeship represented part of Elijah Muhammed’s view that the Nation of Islam developed from a scientific understanding of reality (Curtis 2016). He promoted his distinctive form of good scientific knowledge produced by Allah and revealing both the best way to live on Earth and a vision of the divine that was not beholden to metaphysics. This profoundly material view of human existence and divinity extended to a literal view of end time and transformed the dreadful vision of Ezekiel into a real spaceship, called the Mother Plane, invented by Allah, and piloted by sentient beings. The spaceship’s mission on Earth was to fire bombs which would kill white people and lead Black believers to a new life. The parallels between Elijah Muhammed’s vision of the Mother Plane and Sun Ra’s visions of spaceships are not precise, but they are sufficiently similar with their Biblical roots and modern inflection to suggest that Ra’s view of interstellar beings shaping both the past and future of Black existence is not the idiosyncratic musings of a modern Menocchio.

Moreover, Sun Ra’s conflation of Egypt with the pan-African origins of Blackness, reflected long-standing notions of Afrocentrism that continued to enjoy prominence in the mid-20th century. While archaeologists and historians have viewed much of this work as problematic, it nevertheless represented a significant tradition in Black thought that continues to have a foothold in both popular and academic works (Howe 1999). As Sun Ra’s album Atlantis demonstrated, New York, the Black Arts Movement, and radical voices such as Amiri Baraka formed an important backdrop to Sun Ra’s view of a transnational Black identity. Baraka, in particular, remained an important collaborator and support of Sun Ra and while Ra rarely spoke explicitly about his political commitments, Baraka vocally championed various Pan-African and Black nationalist programs throughout the 1960s and 1970s (Simanga 2015). Sun Ra’s relationship with Baraka crystalized during his time in New York, where Baraka published some of Sun Ra’s work both in his magazine The Cricket and in Black Fire the influential anthology that he edited with Larry Neal in 1968. The Arkestra also performed for Amiri Baraka’s play Black Mass in 1966, which explicitly combined ideas of racial history present in the Nation of Islam and Sun Ra’s cosmic themes, including his well-known track “Satellites are Spinning” (Szwed 2000: 211-212). Baraka also offered what might be best-known eulogy for Sun Ra after his death in 1993. Even when the Arkestra departed New York for Philadelphia, where the Arkestra made its home from the late 1960s until today, Sun Ra frequented the museum at the University of Pennsylvania and the library at Temple University which emerged as an important American center for Afrocentric thought in the US and through its outlet the Journal of Black Studies (Howe 1999:xxxx).

For archaeologists, this reading of Sun Ra offer a lens for understanding how Black views of extraterrestrials allowed certain thinkers to blur the division between the past, present, and future. This had particular significance in an African American context. Paul Gilroy adapts W.E.B. Dubois’s notion of the “double consciousness” to argue that in the Black Atlantic, Black people continue to renegotiate the tensions of being both European and Black (Gilroy 1993). This tension is manifest in some ways within the disciplines of archaeology and history as certain groups lacked indigenous or national status deriving from a putative premodern existence, especially in a North American context, and have also stood outside the normative, white, male, elite, European standard of being modern. In this way, certain discursive limits within our disciplines reified the dislocation of the Middle Passage, the period of enslavement, and, even the Great Migration of urban and rural Blacks to the north by excluding them from paradigms that anchored identity in a persistent past capable of sustaining the weight of progress. Sun Ra and other Black thinkers, however, turned this exclusion on its head by conflating the past, present, and future into explicit, if fanciful, new identities that likewise defied the modern notion of place by merging an ahistorical Egyptianized Africa with an extraterrestrial existence. Sun Ra explicitly admits that his relationship with time itself is simple or not unproblematic. Without adherence to modern concepts of time and place, comparative measures of progress from some kind of essentialized place of origin falter. An Egyptianizing astronaut piloting a spaceship destined to transport Black people to a new world become possible as part of a “Astro Black Mythology.” These are not efforts to revise or critique archaeological or historical discourses. Moreover, Sun Ra’s ideas do not represent a pseudo-archaeology that derives authority from forensic similarities to academic or professional archaeology. Instead he offers a far more radical alternative.

Writing Ra for Real

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a project that considers how the idiosyncratic musician, intellectual, writer, and visionary, Sun Ra fits into the our understanding of both popular and academic archaeology. It’s a weird and rambling and emergent project that tries to make sense of my interests and my eclectic reading.

For most of the last year or so, I was a lost project, wandering around in some blog posts, reading notes, and play lists. This last month, however, the little dust up between Flint Dibble and the directors of a new documentary on Atlantis gave my work some new life. Here are two blog posts that I wrote in response to the Dibble Dust Up: here and here. You’ll notice some recycling (and some revision on a factual level) in what I’ve written below, but this just shows you how the sausage is made.

Here’s the first 2500 words or so of what I’m working on. I’m not sure what this will be exactly, but more and more I think my goal is to recover the stories of ancient alien visitors from the “enormous condescension” of academic archaeologists. 

Working Title: Not All Ancient Aliens

In 1971 Sun Ra arrived in Egypt for the first time. This is not an early example of the repatriation of some artifact looted in the colonial past nor is it a metonym for a future archaeological discovery. This Sun Ra was an American jazz musician, poet, philosopher, and filmmaker. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, by 1971, Le Sony’r Ra or Sun Ra, had already spent over 20 years developing his view of the Black past and future. During a brief time as a student at Alabama A&M, he experienced an alien visitation or abduction and visited Saturn where he had a meeting with a group of extraterrestrials and, at least in one account, given a vision of his own future (Szwed 2000: 29-30). This encounter initiated a transformation in Herman Blount’s life which led him to change his name to Le Sony’r Ra and to a successful career as a musician and band leader in Chicago, then New York, and finally Philadelphia. While he remains best known for his career as a jazz and avant-garde musician, recently scholars have turned their attention to his literary career which served to inform his larger than life personality and musical legacy. Sun Ra’s band, the Arkestra, melded flamboyant stage shows with free and avant-garde jazz, recordings and performances in which futuristic sounds conjured equally futuristic visions, and poetry, film, and public statements that appear to represent Egypt as the wellspring of global Black culture. At once committed to utopian Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism, Ra mid-century attempts to articulate a vision of a Black past combined the social and technological optimism of the post-war space age with long-standing efforts to imagine a Black past freed from the stains of colonialism and slavery.

The views of Sun Ra, and his fellow travelers, offer a distinct counterpoint to the recent spate of popular documentaries purporting to reveal hidden or suppressed archaeological knowledge. In many cases these documentaries, especially the History Channel’s Ancient Alien series, argue that contemporary archaeologists have overlooked evidence that extraterrestrials visited the Earth in ancient times and constructed monuments in Egypt, Central America, and elsewhere. According to these program, aliens may have contributed to the development of sophisticated technologies, science, and culture. In other cases, these programs revealed how archaeological sites unlocked profound mystical or spiritual truths or revealed previously unrecognized connections between cultures. In general, the claims made by these programs follow predictable trajectories and rely on a blend of real archaeology, conspiracy theories, flashy production values, and fuzzy conjectures (Turner and Turner 2021 for a recent survey of these ideas). More damning still, these programs often both rely upon and reinforce racist assumptions that various past societies, especially those that emerged in what is sometimes called the Global South, could not have developed technology or monumental structure without outside assistance. Many of the ideas trotted out on these programs rely on theories developed over the first half of the twentieth century and rejected by generations of archaeologists.

In the last decade, with the growth of social media, efforts to counter pseudo-archaeology and alternative archaeologist have redoubled. Some of this stems from a growing frustration with pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Archaeologists see this as related to the declining status of experts and higher education at a moment in history where the problems facing human society are not only complex, but also existential. Racial injustice, political and economic inequality, forced migration, and, most of all, climate change present a formidable slate of global challenges only exacerbated by the contemporary pandemic and the rise of conspiracy-driven anti-science. Archaeologists have seen nefarious consequences to the tendency for pseudo-archaeologists to simplify complex situations by offering monocausal explanations, such as the influence of ancient aliens, against a backdrop of often racist assumptions about the capacities of ancient people. Oddly enough, the eagerness to counter the most visible examples of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media has led to a tendency among professional and academic archaeologists to simplify some of the complex contexts where the idea that extraterrestrials introduced ancient technology or architecture developed. In particular, this paper will explore the appearance of alternative archaeologies and histories in mid-20th century Black culture with a particular emphasis on the work of Sun Ra. In some mid-century Black contexts, arguments for extraterrestrial interventions and other unorthodox imaginings of the Black past represented efforts to adapt traditional knowledge to the modern world, to subvert contemporary racist power structures, and to construct identities independent from the painful legacy of slavery and colonialism.

There is a growing realization among archaeologists that the discipline of archaeology has not served Black communities well. This has contributed to a sense of urgency behind calls to recognize the distinct character of a wide range of Black knowledge of the past as well as to reform archaeology as a discipline. In many cases, distinctive Black reinterpretations of the past developed alongside similar white understandings, but had fundamentally different goals. Ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of pseudo-archaeology in the popular media and on the internet, however, have often failed to recognize the diverse legacies of ideas associated with ancient extraterrestrial visitors and mystical homelands. These same ideas produced different legacies: in one context they lent support to racist and far right ideologies, and in another fueled utopian visions of racial justice and real gains in social, economic, cultural, and political power in Black communities. This article will excavate a test trench through the work of Sun Ra with the goal of sampling some of the roles that ancient aliens and the myth of Atlantis played in certain Black alternative archaeologies that emerged in the mid-20th century.

Sun Ra’s personal account of abduction by extraterrestrial did not produce an entirely consistent set of beliefs or understandings. It appears, however, at various times that he understood that ancient Egyptians were not only the wellspring of Black civilization, but that Black people and possible Black Egyptians were also extraterrestrials. This conflation of Afrocentrism and ancient aliens informed Ra’s onstage personal where he combined futuristic jazz and outfits that evoked both a pastiche of ancient Egyptian motifs and futuristic garb that hinted of space travel, UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. It seems certain that Ra developed his interest in the origins of Black society in Egypt, often called Afrocentrism, the work of authors such as George G.M. James, whose book Stolen Legacy: the Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians appeared in 1954, but who had taught at Alabama A&M for a time before Sun Ra’s arrival there as a student. James was not the only scholar making claims that Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern civilization, so privileged by white scholars, derived from Egyptian civilization, but his book appeared in Sun Ra’s library and was widely enough to read and republished to attract an attack from no less than Mary Lefkowitz some 40 years after its appearance. In late 1940s and 1950s Chicago, Sun Ra gathered around him a group of seekers who called themselves the Thmei Society and this group read voracious and discussed ideas found in works as varied as the 19th century anti-Catholic Alexander Hislip’s The Two Babylons, or Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship o f Nimrod and his Wife (1853), various diffusionist and hyperdiffusionist world views such as Grafton Elliot Smith’s The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe (1911) and Children of the Sun (1923) by his sometime collaborator W.J. Perry, and Albert Churchward, who wrote Origin and Evolution of the Human Race (1920) and whose brother would advocate for the lost continent of Mu in the Indian Ocean. Also present in his library were the works of E.A. Wallis Budge, William M. Ramsay, and James Henry Breasted as well as the mystical writings of Helena Blatavsky, Egar Cayce, and others who sought to reveal the undiscovered capacities of human intelligence from past cultures (Szwed 2000; Youngquist 2016). The Thmei Society produced a series of provocative broadsheets which they circulated in Chicago’s Washington Square Park where a cross section of the city’s Black community congregated to enjoy the outdoors, socialize, proselytize, and engage in debates (Sites 2019). In this space, Sun Ra and his Thmei Society colleagues would have had conversations with a wide range of groups including members of the Nation of Islam who frequented the park after their transfer of their headquarters from Detroit to Chicago in the late 1940s.

By the late 1950s, Sun Ra and his band, dubbed the Arkestra, had started to perform and record their unique form of interstellar jazz across the city. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inaugurated the Space Age and drew the Ra’s alien abductors even closer to Earth By the early 1960s and Ra and the Arkestra’s relocation to New York City, where he and his band continued to work the probe the ambiguous origins of both Sun Ra himself and Black people. This was an incredibly active period for Sun Ra who not only continued to release music from his Chicago days, but also rehearsed, performed, and recorded almost continuously with the Arkestra. As a sample of significant albums released during the 1960s that demonstrate Sun Ra’s interest in both cosmic and mystical. For example, in 1966, tracks recorded in the late 1950s in Chicago were released as the Nubians of Plutonia in 1966. From 1961-1963, Sun Ra recorded albums such as Bad and Beautiful, Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, and When the Sun Comes Out which combine improvisational music inspired by cosmic themes often marked by electronic instruments with exotic percussion and instrumentation. The names of tracks likewise reveal a blend of Egyptian and cosmic inspiration: “Ankh,” “Solar Symbols,” “The Nile,” and “Infinity of the Universe.” This massively productive period in the Arkestra’s history culminated in their 1965 album Heliocentric World of Sun Ra, which many consider Sun Ra’s masterpiece and the most concise introduction to his distinctive form of cosmic jazz.

In 1969, a number of recording made toward the end of the decade were released as Atlantis. The B side consists of a 21-minute long track titled “Atlantis” that was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji was a Nigerian immigrant who came to the US for college and became immersed in the vibrant Black music and cultural scene in New York City while studying at NYU. His influential use of drumming and African rhythms had exerted a significant influence of Sun Ra’s use of percussion and, according to Szwed, the two musicians often exchanged band members. Olatunji was well known among New York jazz musicians and had performed with John Coltrane and influenced contemporary recordings of Archie Shepp (especially his album The Magic of Ju-Ju). Atlantis also witnessed one of Sun Ra’s most ambitious efforts to integrate electronic instruments, such as his famous “Solar Sound Organ” and the Clavinet into his recordings. The merging of the futuristic sounds of electronic instruments and the polyrhythmic African drums reflected Ra’s commitments to both Afrocentric views of the past and Afrofuturist views.

 It might come as some surprise, then, to learn that Sun Ra’s invocation of Atlantis likely derived, at least in part, from his reading of a wide range of pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-historical, theosophical, and mystical works on Atlantis.  This is not subtle. For example, track titles on this album evoked various visions of Atlantis: “Mu,” for example, refers to the lost continent proposed by Augustus Le Plongeon, whose 19th century work in the Yucatan involved trying to connect the Mayan to Egypt and Atlantis. His works influenced the theosophical thinking of Helena Blavatsky and Minnesota politician and lawyer Ignatius L. Donnelly, whose late-19th century writings on Atlantis represents an important landmark in 20th century pseudo-archaeological writing about the “lost continent”  (It is worth noting that throughout his political career Donnelly was a Radical Republican and later a Agrarian populist). The second track is titled “Lemuria” which evoked work of zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) who argued that Lemuria once stood between Africa and India before sinking into the sea. His ideas both anticipated theories of continental drift and found favor as the home of humanity in the works of Helena Blavatsky. “Yucatan” and “Bimini” likely refer to various ideas of Atlantis in the work of the influential medium Edgar Cayce (1876-1945) whose books, including On Atlantis, appear in Ra’s library and who advocated for racist theories of polygenism for humanity (which cast a shadow over Ra’s thinking on race as well).It may be that the greatest influence on Sun Ra’s vision of Atlantis came from the Alsatian mystic and pseudo-archaeologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961).

Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that academic archaeologists have condemned. He argued that the weathering on the Sphinx and its enclosure was the result of water and this suggested some of the monuments in Egypt should pre-date the Biblical flood and connected them with the destroyed continent of Atlantis. This allowed some readers (and many pseudo-archaeologists) to connect an Egypt and the construction of its great monuments to a much more ancient culture that was destroyed by the flood. This, like so much pseudo-archaeology, this argument sought to disassociate the Ancient Egyptian known to archaeologists (and by extension contemporary Egyptians) from many of its greatest monuments. In the hands of some, this served to sever the Egyptian cultural achievement from a Black, African past and contribute to racist arguments for the primitive and subordinate character of Black culture in the contemporary world. 

In this context, the 1968 English translation of Erich von Däniken’s Erinnerungen an die Zukunft which appeared in the year of its publication as Chariots of the Gods, seems almost superfluous, as does the fleet of late 1960s and early 1970s books on Atlantis that spurred Impulse! records to re-release of Sun Ra’s 1969 album of the same name. Sun Ra’s impromptu 1971 tour of Egypt where he encountered an Egyptian audience that was as ambivalent regarding his views on history as they were enthusiastic about his music, did little to discourage his theatrical explorations at the intersection of the space age and antiquity. Ra and members of the Arkestra filmed themselves in full regalia dancing among Egyptian ruins. During a visit to the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid the electricity failed, but Sun Ra was able to lead his party back to daylight. One of the members of his party, the German musician, poet, and philosopher Hartmut Geerken recalled Sun Ra saying: “Why do we need light, Sun Ra, the sun is here“ (Szwed 2000: 293). Earlier in the same year, Sun Ra was living in a house in Oakland provided to him by the Black Panthers and teaching a class at the University of California-Berkeley titled “The Black Man and the Cosmos.” The course featured a combination of esoteric readings, lectures, and musical performances and attracted more Black community members than Cal students. It would appear that Sun Ra’s ongoing performances, teaching, and travels complemented the growing interest in alternative archaeologies in the mainstream media, but did not appear to derive from them. They nevertheless combined to form a compelling backdrop Sun Ra’s 1974 cult classic film Space is the Place. In this film, Sun Ra clad in Egyptianizing costumes and flying a spaceship comes to Earth to save Black people from the daily injustices and inequality by transporting them to another world through the use of music. At once campy and breathtakingly earnest, Space is the Place reveals that Sun Ra’s blending of futurist and ancient iconography is more than just the playful juxtaposition of opposites, but part of a wider view of Black culture existing outside of the boundaries of time and space.

Three Things Thursday: Rhys Carpenter, Digital Archaeology, and Work

It’s been a long week and I’m looking at a day filled with meetings, teaching, and other adventures. In light of this, it seems like a good time for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Last week, while having a conversation with one of my old Greek archaeology buddies, he casually mentioned that Rhys Carpenter had written poetry. I suppose this not a secret to the cognoscenti, but I didn’t know. Of course, I knew Rhys Carpenter as an architect and an archaeologist who had worked at Corinth and contributed in a powerful way not only to the development of a rigorous and diachronic American archaeology in Greece, but also in the systematic study of post-Classical and Byzantine remains. During my first year at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens as an aspiring archaeologist, I enjoyed the Rhys Carpenter fellowship (although I only gradually came to understand how cool a privilege to have his name associated with my career (albeit posthumously) was). 

In any event, a couple books of his poetry, published in the 1910s, is available via the Internet Archive. Check out The Sun-Thief and Other Poems (Oxford 1914) and The Tragedy of Etarre: A Poem (New York 1912)  The poetry falls just shy of feeling stuffy to me, but it is perhaps a bit too formal for contemporary tastes and it is unlikely to appear in a standard 20th century poetry survey course. That said, it does feel palpably modernist in its rather impersonal aspirations to the universal, in this case, cloaked in its Classical allusions and formal structures. Perhaps this style is appropriate for an architect and archaeologist who recognized the value in all periods (and even the beleaguered Byzantine) while still privileging Classical period. My colleague Kostis Kourelis, who introduced me to Carpenter’s poetry, make a similar argument in an article that he wrote several years ago now on the role that the archaeology of the Byzantine period in Greece played on Modernism and the avant garde. You can read it here

Carpenter also wrote a travelogue of a trip he took to Central America in the early 20th century. So it appears that his quest for the modern world in antiquity was not limited to areas and cultures traditionally articulated as the antecedent to modern European civilization. 

Early Candle Light (1914)

The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.
When autumn falls and withers every leaf,
When daylight shrinks and stormy nights grow long,
When winter-wind and winter-cold are strong,
And sorrow holds the weary heart in fief,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

When golden love lies bound with iron thong,
And noble tales but mock our dull belief,
When mirth has garnered every radiant sheaf
And all the sickly world is harsh and wrong,
The low sweet melody of ancient song
Kisses asleep the heavy eyes of grief.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his invocation of the seasons seemed appropriate today as I look out the basement window of the NDQ offices onto the Collegiate Gothic quad and watch the timeless movement of students against the fading green of summer.

Thing the Second

About 20 (almost 25!) years ago when people talked about “The Digital Archaeology,” I, like many people, assumed that this was simply a temporary trend that traced our collective effort as a field to negotiate technological change. But here we are.

This past week has produced a bumper crop of works on the use of digital technologies in archaeology. These range from field oriented considerations of low-cost and DYI approaches to digital tools. Check out Edouard Masson-MacLean and colleagues’, “Digitally Recording Excavations on a Budget: A (Low-Cost) DIY Approach from Scotland” or in the JFA. For an approach to field recording that is more prog than punk, check out the most recent from the FAIMS team in the same journal: “Deploying an Offline, Multi-User, Mobile System for Digital Recording in the Perachora Peninsula, Greece.”

For a less field oriented perspective, I’m excited to tuck into the recent Debate in Antiquity surrounding John Aycock’s article, “The coming tsunami of digital artefacts” which includes responses from some of my favorite thinkers about the digital tools and practices in archaeology: Sarah and Eric Kansa, Colleen Morgan, and Jeremey Huggett

The interplay between increasingly sophisticated perspectives on the theoretical side of digital archaeology and the practical challenges associated with data collection in the field, management during publication and dissemination, and curation après le déluge (as the kids say) continues to be worth watching and a source of inspiration.

Thing the Third

Rebecca Futo Kennedy wrote a blog post this week that really struck a chord. You can read it here. She basically argues that it is hard to get anything done. I can’t help but think of Yogi Berra’s quotable critique of a famous New York City restaurant: “Nobody goes there any more —it’s too crowded.” Despite feeling like I’m working all the time, I never feel like I’m getting anything done.

For a long time, this felt like running on a treadmill, but then I realize that most running (even when it meanders through the local park or streets in my small town) is running on a treadmill. The goal isn’t to get somewhere (or get away from something), but to endure the challenge and maybe improve (or at least hold station!). This isn’t meant to be a critique of Futo-Kennedy’s blog post, but it prompted a personal reflection. I feel like my own happiness is not connected to how much I work. I can write and read and “think” (or whatever passes for thought) day and after day and still wake up excited to do it all again. If I get bored or burned out on one project or task, I can shift my attention to something else: from research to teaching, from reading to writing, from writing to book production, from scholarship to creative work, and so on. 

My happiness and satisfaction with my job has increasingly come to revolve around process. When I’m doing what I’m doing, even if it doesn’t lead immediately to a “deliverable” result, I find that my life settles into a satisfying routine which, almost by its own volition, leads to things that the bean counters (and my colleagues) can discern as results. In other words, not getting things done seems, for me, to result in things that appear as accomplishments for those who care about such things.

This has got me thinking about the strange economy of the work-life balance industry and their occasional argument that working less often results in getting more done. This seems to assume that for most individuals, the product is more important than the process which is only good insofar as it can be minimized. For academics, I’d contend, the process is generally more appealing and satisfying than the product or outcome which tends to be ephemeral and contingent. Process, in contrast, is persistent and even when practices changed, continuously defined by certain disciplines, attitudes, affects, and experiences. Thus, the call for people to rebalance home life over work life as a way to become more efficient in their work misunderstands the appeal of work life and creates a scenario that, at least in some industries (such as academia), is likely to produce greater apathy toward work.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the rise in rhetoric surrounding “life hacks” designed to make home life more efficient leads people, ironically, to change their attitudes to work. When the alternative to the efficient home is a place where individuals can experience process and certain attitudes toward tasks that bring a kind of satisfaction, efficiency oriented home life with its rhetorical emphasis on outcomes and accomplishments (the tidy lawn, the clean kitchen, the efficiently prepare meal, or the completed home repair) becomes strangely unappealing. I’d rather read another article, write another page, meet with a student, or reflect on a class than mow the lawn, do laundry, or complete some household chore even if these are made more efficient by labor-saving tools or other life hacks.

For me, at least, it’s telling that the most pointless work in my life — walking the dogs, going for a jog, riding my push-bike, or writing my blog — are also times when I think about work the most intently and with the greatest pleasure. I recognize that it is a luxury to have time to do pointless things and to think about my work and practice it in a positive and open way, but perhaps recognizing this privilege is a way toward revising how we think about work itself. Rather than celebrating models of work (and work/home balance) that look to improve the efficiency of our work life, perhaps we should re-examine how our attitudes toward work and expectations of accomplishments, efficiency, and product impact the quality of the work experience for people across society. Maybe the key to doing more is actually thinking about what gets done less. Making a kind of productive inefficiency at work a more appealing alternative to home will do more to address not only concerns of work/home, but also the anxieties that come with feeling like we’re never getting anything done.      

Graffiti

A correspondence with Justin Walsh of the International Space Station Archaeological Project nudged me to return to Susan A. Phillips’s work on graffiti in Los Angeles. I had read some of her articles on graffiti and its relationship to Los Angeles history and late-20th-century gang culture, but for reasons that are hard to understand I had neither integrated this into my chapter on cities in my book, nor had read her rather recent book The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti.

It goes without saying that Phillips work is fantastic especially as she traces the intermingling of Los Angeles urban history (and ecology) and the practices and places of graffiti. It gets even more intriguing when she tracks the history of urban writing (up through tagging) — in the era before large scale graffiti mitigation and the rise of massive, roller assisted, street art — through the 1990s and anchors these in the significant subcultures in the Los Angeles area. The role of hobos, railroad workers, punks, immigrants, military men, neighborhood kids, queers, and various other vibrant subcultures made their marks on the urban landscape. 

As a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, I had always been fascinated by the graffiti that I saw especially on schools that had been mothballed around north Wilmington. (I remember vividly the massive cruciform graffito of The Who on the side of Forward Junior High School as a kid and wondering about it). Most of this graffiti was mystifying to me. I didn’t understand tags, street art, or any of the other conventions, but I did admire the appearance of names and art across the landscape that I knew so well. 

One of the really curious things about my community here in North Dakota is that there is almost no graffiti anywhere. There are a few odd marks on the Washington Street underpass and of course the rail yard ensures that we have a constant flow of decorated train cars through town. I’ve heard there was some painting on the tunnel under Route 2 near Wilder School years back, but my impression is that it’s gone. There is an occasional tag or stencil in the tunnel under Columbia Road on UND’s campus, but that’s usually painted over. Remarkably the city is defined by its flood walls, but I’ve never seen any graffiti on these wall (and I frequent the the parks created by the flood walls). As Mos Def quipped: “there’s a city full of walls to post complaints at.” But, maybe the lack of graffiti suggests that there is very little reason for the kind of pent up anxieties that manifested in graffiti or that the youthful exuberance that supported the desire to make one’s name known has been channeled into other, undoubtedly more “wholesome” (or at least more closely supervised) activities. 

One place where I did recognize graffiti was on UND’s campus, particularly in the Wesley College building sand I’m still kicking myself for not documenting it as intensively as we should have. Some of it we did photograph, such as these inscribed bricks found on the east wall of Robinson-Sayre Hall and these inscribed widows pains from Sayre Hall

Some of the best graffiti however was found inscribed into the solid wood furniture that had made its way into the soon to be demolished buildings. The graffiti here followed conventions and practices tracked by Phillips in many situations across Los Angeles. The writers, almost certainly students, carved their names, their initials, their feelings, and an assortment of dates into the table top along with band names and lyrics, fraternity and sorority names, and various other sentiments common to college students.

P1010220

P1010226

The earliest graffito on the desk dates to 1956.

P1010232

But the most interesting is a sequence of dates starting in 1975 and updated into the 1990s (and the last date added was 2012).

P1010228

This table most likely was destroyed during the demolition of the building but it represents a remarkable find demonstrating over 60 years of continuity in student practices on campus. In an era replete with invented traditions, it is curious that we didn’t find anything more remarkable (or worth saving) in this far more authentic example of student culture.

What makes it all the more painful is that the rapid transformation of our campus over the last few years has made such long-lasting artifacts more and rare. Solid wood tables, chairs, and surfaces continuously visible for decades have become a rarity on our campus. In their place is an assortment of quickly discarded fiber board furniture, hard plastic chairs that have shorter lifespans than even the technologically dependent classrooms where they stand, and new, unblemished modern surfaces. These clean and disposable surfaces and contexts are obviously ironic. They offer new and prospective students the feeling of recently renovated hotel, prepare just for them, while obscuring the real marks of generations of students, faculty, and staff. They mimic the historical architectural forms of collegiate Gothic buildings with their suggestions of continuity and persistence, while replacing decades-old furnishing with the latest in laminated particle board and moulded plastic. In short, campus leaders eagerly transform the materiality of their institutions into the kind of benign (and sanitary) non-places expected of their short term residents (and their parents), while assuring the students that they can, figurative, make their mark on campus as part of a peerless tradition (that is neatly erased in time for the incoming class’s arrival).

I had the good fortune of attending Ohio State in the 1990s before the campus and its surroundings had become gentrified. Some of my fondest memories revolve around encountering the burry division between campus and the gritty surrounding community and realizing two contradictory things. First, the patina on campus reminded me that I was just a visitor here and one of many such visitors who had lived, studied, worked, and played in this place. But then, this also encouraged me to recognize that my ephemeral marks on campus — whether graffito or a well-trod path or a memory deeply inscribed in a particular place — contributed to its material form in a persistent way. This created a sense of connection which parallels some of Susan Phillips work on graffiti and one that I worry that I not only failed to document rigorously when I did see it on UND’s campus, but also sorely miss here at UND.   

Gravel Riding

This spring, I upgraded my 30 year old steel road bike with a gravel bike. As someone who had been an on-again, off-again road cyclist for most of his life, I had no idea what a gravel bike was, much less what to expect. In the distant past, I had owned a mountain bike and done a bit of mountain biking on the East Coast, but it had never really grown on me. I had also witnessed the “hybrid” commuter bike craze of the early 21st century and while those bikes interested me as someone who might enjoy a casual peddle through my neighborhood, they didn’t seem very serious, durable, or (to be honest) fun.

That all said, my trusty steel road bike had begin to look worse for wear and I knew that I probably needed to get a new bike if I was going to continue to ride. So when I received my Biden-Bonus, I headed down to the local bike shop with the plan to buy a mid-level road bike that would hopefully last another 30 years or so. After an hour of conversation, I left the shop with an entry level gravel bike.

For those into technical stuff, it’s a Specialized Diverge in aluminum. It’s not particularly fancy, but feels really solid on both the road and on less technical trails. It has drop handlebars, disc-brakes, and I’m still riding it with its original 700×38 Specialized Pathfinder Sport tires. With this set up, its real happy place is on gravel roads and I thought that I should introduce the readers of my blog to this happy place.

1. Riding Gravel. First and foremost, riding on a gravel road is its own kind of thing. As someone who grew up riding on the neatly pave roads of northern Delaware and Southeastern Pennsylvania and around Richmond, Virginia, I was not prepared to understand gravel.

In my experiences, for example, macro-topography was usually the greatest concern for planning a ride. Growing up my cycling buddies and I often considered elevation change, climbs, and descents as closely as we considered distance when we planned a ride. A 20 miler full of wickedly steep climbs was actually worse than a 40 miler over gently rolling hills. Gravel riding in North Dakota is more like surfing. Where I live, the only macro-component to ride planning is the direction and intensity of the wind (which consistently ranges between 3 and 4 on the Beaufort scale with some riding days approaching 5). Otherwise, the main concern is not the topography (which is flat) or distance (which varies depending on the wind strength and direction) but the gravel itself. 

Riding gravel involves a pretty intense attention to the area 3-5 feet in front of your bike. Finding a way to navigate the changing consistency and depth of the gravel and avoiding washboard ridges and ruts in the road is crucial to both a comfortable, efficient ride and staying upright. And the difference between good and bad gravel is the difference between humming along at 17 or 18 mph and bogging down and desperately searching for a higher gear (and then falling off your bike). Allowing a car or truck to pass often involves a delicate process of leaving enough room and finding a section of road hard enough prevent bogging down. Taking a drink from a water bottle or riding side-by-side involves anticipating paths through the gravel that extend further than the 3-5 feet in front of you and then making sure that you can snap your attention back to the road ahead. I’ve found that when I’m in the groove, there’s nothing quite like it. I’m discovering how to cross ridges of deep gravel and catching my back tire as it slides around. I’ve also learned to negotiate the one sweeping turn on my ride without scaring myself and intersections where ridges of gravel wash out your front tire. Yesterday I managed a ride with my tires at about 70 psi, which is pretty hard for a gravel bike tire, and managed to stay upright. I’ve also had the opposite happen; on a bad gravel day, I fall down a lot.   

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2. Formation Processes. One of the great things that this attention to the road in front of my front tire has brought to my attention is the formation processes involved in the making of gravel roads. As the photo above indicates, North Dakota gravel roads use a mixture of dirt and crushed stone. Each spring the roads receive a new level of gravel which appears to be poured on the center of the road and serves to accentuate the road’s crown (and facilitate drainage, one would imagine). Riding gravel in the spring is like riding through sand and tough going, but earlier season’s road bed often remains visible on the shoulders of the road and is often harder than the new gravel, but moving from the firmer shoulders to the emerging groves in the center of the road is not always easy. 

Over time, on a lightly trafficked road, a two grooves tends to develop where the gravel is both ground down into a hard surface and pushed to the side of the road by car tires. On more heavily travelled roads, three groove develop with cars sharing the middle groove of the road and leaving one path marking the tire tracks of cars traveling in either direction. For a cyclist, riding along this groove can be as easy as riding on a paved road and the soft shoulders are nearly impossible to negotiate. When traffic passes, it is sometimes possible to find the very edge of the soft gravel and to ascend and then slide down the gravel ridge back into the groove. This is strangely satisfying. 

Intersections are often scarred by washboarding where cars and trucks under braking have worn a washboard pattern into the road surface. The intersection itself tends to be a veritable miasma of dragged gravel which likely accounts for why many intersections are higher than the roads that enter it. Negotiate the loose and often deep ridges of gravel at intersections is a real challenge and turning across is often harrowing (heh, heh, see what I did there?). 

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3. Local Landscapes of Gravel. One of the paradoxes of riding on gravel is that it requires a good bit of concentration on the road immediately in front of you and taking in the scenery is sometime rewarded with the of bone jarring surprise of washboard ruts or the slushy sound of deepening gravel. That said, gravel roads are the only way to really appreciate the landscape around my home town. There are only two paved roads (that aren’t interstates) in and out of the town and the rest of the landscape is only accessible by the neat grid of paved section line roads set 1 mile apart. 

In the rare moments when its possible to enjoy the scenery, late summer and fall landscape is pretty interesting. There are the very first hints at next year’s winter wheat crop and the rustle of corn and the low broad-leafed acreage of sugar beets, which are just now seeing the very first “pre-pile” harvest.

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And of course, rural churches and their cemeteries which punctuate the countryside reminding us that there were once settlements here that have all but disappeared.

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It’s hard to fathom what it must have been like to live on the Northern Plains in the decade before statehood and the railroad but the grave markers offer a quiet reminder of that life.

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