Flow and the Digital Press, Part 2

Last week, I presented part of a final, albeit working, draft based on a paper that I gave last spring at the annual IEMA conference at Buffalo. It’s due at the end of the month, and right now, I’m starting to feel deadline pressure.  

Here’s the final 1000 words or so of the paper, where I try to bring The Digital Press into conversation with the larger conversation about workflow and flow in a digitally mediated environment. It’s starting to take some shape.

As the fluid world of digital archaeology is creating new opportunities and challenges for publishing the results of our work, it also seems likely that it will transform entrenched attitudes toward publishing in our discipline. Digital Press at the University of North Dakota offers one example of how new boundaries between publishing and research emerge from the growing interest in digital workflow and its impact of the social organization of disciplinary practice within the field. To be clear, scholar-led projects such as the Princeton/Stanford Working Papers (Ober 2007) offered models for publishing that depended upon the digital affordance of production and distribution. The emergence of platforms like University of Minnesota Press’s Manifold which supports the transparent and interactive production of academic work likewise relies on the interoperability of digital flows from author’s laptop to the print-on-demand book. The digital affordances of our current scholarly workflow can be as simple as the practice of most academic papers taking shape in word processing software which can be easily converted for distribution on the web. Scholar-led platforms such as Open Context, which publishes peer-reviewed archaeological data, essentially makes artifacts of the digital flow susceptible to review through close attention to metadata and linked data standards.
The Digital Press is a rather more conventional project in comparison, but perhaps the conventional character of its work reflects the maturing of digital practices and a tipping point in how these practices shape professional relations within our discipline. Our current publishing model is fluid, but follows certain relatively consistent conventions. First, we use digital tools to produce and distribute our books at a low cost using print-on-demand printing for paper books, we distribute also through PDF downloads on a low cost website running WordPress, and finally, archive our books at UND’s institutional repository and the Internet Archive. Second, we publish mainly under various open access licenses. This eliminates some of the institutional friction that limits the circulation and distribution of our works. Finally and most importantly for this paper, we strive to collaborate closely with authors on all aspects of a publishing process. While none of these things are particularly radical or innovative, we feel like we are harnessing the flow of the the digital world and territorializing it as a conventional and familiar looking book. The involvement of archaeologists in the production of publishable data at the edge of the trench opens the door to a more dynamic model of archaeological publishing.

The Digital Press is almost entirely run by academics who lay out manuscripts, prepare marketing materials, use their own and their colleagues’ social media reach to promote the books, and manage acquisition, peer review, and copy editing. We even try our hand at cover design (with varying results). Our ability to perform these functions is possible largely because the basic publishing tools common to most presses – Adobe InDesign, the PDF format, Adobe illustrator – are available for relatively minor costs and they are increasingly simple to use. It is now possible to link descriptive text to discrete pieces of archaeological data, to create familiar and portable media rich documents, and to produce and archive these digital objects easily. In short, the development of digital infrastructure allows archaeologists to extend their workflow from trench side to final publication while remaining involved in all aspects of knowledge making. To be clear, my work at The Digital Press does not, necessarily, emphasize the creation of standardized, linked data. We leverage the kind of interoperable data the flows freely across the discipline only inasmuch as our works are largely open access and available for disaggregation. Instead, it leverages the breakdown of certain barriers present within the discipline, particularly between research and publishing, to expand the process of knowledge making and complicate the traditional black boxing of the publication process.
In short, we emphasize to our authors the opportunity to see knowledge making as extending from the earliest work in the archive or in the field all the way to its final presentation as a publication. In some cases, the Press is invited to participate as a publisher from the first efforts to conceptualize a project in much the same way that data archiving or publishing is now an expected part of a data management plan for any new research project. This integration allows us to work with authors to understand how best present their research and acknowledges that issues of presentation often have a direct impact on the perceived value of academic work.

Conclusions

To conclude, The Digital Press – and digital publishing practices in archaeology (and I’d propose in academia more broadly) – offers at least one way to think about the tension between the fragmenting of digital archaeological data and social practices at the core of knowledge making. The concept and practice of archaeological workflow in a digital environment has a social impact on our discipline. In publishing, digital tools and practices have contributed to a collaborative environment that is not grounded simply in the relative ease of using mainstream professional design tools and the basic interoperability of digital wordprocessors, but in the concomitant transformation in the social and professional context for creating new archaeological knowledge. Following the fragments of digital knowledge along the rhizomic streams connecting field practices to final publications challenges some of the traditional forms of organization that define archaeological work. The ease with which objects, human remains, and even buildings can move through digital media demonstrates, at some level, how digital workflows can transform the social and disciplinary limits on archaeological practice. This work to reterritorialize the digital workflows goes beyond producing a digital object with the familiar form of a book and extends to attempting to re-create the convivial spaces of premodern craft in an effort to wrest archaeological knowledge from the flow of fragmented data. In the end, the Digital Press aspires to contribute to the creation of new critical models for digital archaeology that both unpack by the black box of publishing and create a new, digitally mediated model for the production and dissemination of archaeological knowlege.

More on Islands in Late Antiquity

Yesterday evening, I finished reading Miguel Angel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit’s new edited volume, Change and resilience: the occupation of Mediterranean islands in late antiquity (2019). It’s pretty good and filled with things that I should follow up on as I try to reconstruct a bit of what I used to know about Late Antiquity.

As I noted yesterday, most of the contributions don’t so much explicitly address the interpretative potential of insularity (change or resistance, for that matter), as offer case studies on the archaeology of various Mediterranean islands from the Balearics in the west to Cyprus in the East. The book represented a few interesting trends in how we think about islands in Late Antiquity, but these trends have to be sussed out across various contributions. I try to do some of that here:

Islands as Islands. In most cases, the authors took the integrity of the insular space for granted. In other words, even when contributors considered the coastal islands like those along the Adriatic littoral of Croatia, the islands themselves remained the primary interpretative lens through which to understand the history of settlement in the Late Roman period. It is assumed, for example, that the Cyclades or the islands of the southern Adriatic enjoyed similar historical trajectories, which is fair enough, but that these played out in similar ways over the varying landscapes. 

Island Refuges. Anyone who has worked on Late Roman Greece has undoubtedly thought a bit about Sinclair Hood’s famous “islands of refuge” theory. He argues that small islands near the coast often served as refuges for a cowering population faced with the Slavic depredations of the 6th century. By the mid-1990s, scholar had begun to challenge Hood’s arguments and instead suggested that coastal islands in the Saronic and the Gulf of Corinth were the opposite of refuges. Instead, these islands represented a last gasp of economic expansion where mainland dwellers sought to utilize marginal lands – such as the waterless and desolate near coastal islands – to feed their flocks and to engage in other activities best conducted at a distance from more productive lands. This interpretation accounts for the significant quantities of Late Roman ceramics often found on these islands and the presence of church, cisterns, and other buildings perhaps best suited to the needs of a season community. Whatever the interpretation, these islands were understood in a context that depended, at least in part, on the nearby mainland and their insularity was less a concern per se, than the absence of water and limited vegetation. 

Churches. At one point, I had considered including the Cyclades in my dissertation which I ultimately decided to confine to the mainland of southern and central Greece. I am glad that I didn’t do that. The Cyclades have well over 100 known churches. Islands have so many churches and both Crete and Cyprus have over 100 as well. The density of church building across a diverse range of island communities in the Eastern Mediterranean (simply because am not sufficiently familiar with the island of the Western Mediterranean) clearly mark economic prosperity as well as the emergence of new religious and political institutions across the region. If these buildings reflect the needs of congregations (either as space of worship or as a expressions of piety by other means), there is reason to suspect a diversity of communities both on the larger islands of Cyprus and Crete, and across the smaller islands of the Aegean. Whether this reflects fragmented identities on these islands that either complement or complicate notions of a larger insular identity is difficult to know.     

Identity. Cau and Mas offer the observation in their brief introduction that islanders often have a sense of identity that ties them closely to their island homes. Unfortunately, few of the contributors take their personal perspectives explicitly to heart when considering the character of Late Roman islands. That being said, its intriguing to speculate whether the reuse of Nuragic structures on Sardinia, for example, represents an explicit effort a cultural continuity and Sardinian identity. Do efforts to build churches in places that are visible from the sea reflect efforts to announce an identity defined by the insular landscape? Are the political claims of large islands like Crete or Cyprus distinct results of their insularity and do they leverage a sense of identity?    

Historicizing Islands. It’s hard to divorce discussions of insular identity from modern concepts of culture and politics. For places like Cyprus, there is no doubt that its insularity formed part of strongly articulated political claims over the course of the 20th century. It may be that Crete and Sardinia explored similar claims to political sovereignty – if not outright independence – during their long histories. While it is easy enough to fall back on essentialist claims that assert islands have similar political, social, economic, and even cultural characteristics, I wonder how much of this is shaped by political aspirations in the modern era. 

~

Whatever the complications surrounding the notion of insularity, resilience, and change in the Late Roman Mediterranean, the book represents a useful survey of the island landscapes of Late Antiquity. The references throughout will add significantly to my “I feel a need to read” pile and probably shape future posts here on the ole bloggeroo!

Epigraphy and Late Antiquity

Anna Sitz’s recent article in the American Journal of Archaeology is currently my favorite thing (sorry Scott!). It not only takes the archaeology of Late Antiquity seriously, but also considers the complexities of understanding Late Antique practices through the lens of modern scholarly conventions.

There’s a ton to think about in this article, but three things stand out to me.

First, Sitz looks at the re-use of a 1st or 2nd century inscription at a baptistery preserved in the Burdur Museum in Turkey. Traditional publications of this inscription attempt to reconstruct the text despite some damage to the stone. Sitz, in contrast, considers the damage as part of the complex history of reuse and shows that it was probably an intentional reworking of the stone to remove pagan associations from the inscription and to change the name preserved in the original text to that of local benefactor. While the resulting text is not, of course, perfect. The modified letters introduced some grammatical ambiguities, but these were within the scope of Late Antique practice in the region and the reworked name was consistent with the name of other local donors in the area as well. In other words, but considering how Late Roman folks read and wrote inscriptions, a stone originally seen as damaged become a deliberate part of local epigraphic practice and entirely appropriate for use in an Early Christian baptistery.

Second, Sitz considers the monumental inscription of Augustus’s Res Gestae immured in the wall of the Temple of Augustus and Roma at Ankara. She argues that the the presence of this text and a few others on the wall of the temple ensured that this building continued to be used into the Late Roman period. She argues that the temple was converted into a church sometime in Late Antiquity on the basis of a careful reading of the urban change in Ankara and critical examination of the structure itself (and the work of scholars who have tried to understand the various modifications to this building over time).

Returning to the Res Gestae, she noted that Augustus had a largely positive reputation in Late Antiquity. This was in part because Christians associated his reign with the birth of Christ and, in part, because Justinian, among others, presented himself as a new Augustus. Moreover, the temple to Augustus and Roma also had inscriptions naming Galatian priests at the temple. These texts would have both reinforced the Galatian identity of the city of Ankara, as well as connected them to the imperial family and office. This established both the antiquity of Galatian identity and its close tie with the imperial house. 

In short, Sitz suggested that these two earlier texts resonated with the Late Roman community at Ankara and may have motivated them to both preserve the building, but also convert it into a church. Thus the preservation of these inscriptions was not by chance, but owed itself to the practices of reading and sense of identity common among Late Roman Galatians. Unlike older views of spolia or architectural reuse which tended to see such practices as opportunistic or even antagonistic, Sitz demonstrates that these practices also reflect the process of translating the past into a meaningful present.

Finally, and perhaps more provocatively, this article appears in the American Journal of Archaeology, which defines its scope as “the art and archaeology of ancient Europe and the Mediterranean world, including the Near East and Egypt, from prehistoric to Late Antique times.” 

This policy, of course, has received considerable criticism in recent years and reflects the tendency for policies to persist much longer than attitudes and practices among scholars. As a result, most archaeologists would understand this policy as both unnecessarily restrictive, considering the mission of the Archaeological Institute of America in general, and incompatible with the interests of most Mediterranean archaeologists which is increasingly diachronic. Old policies, however, die hard.

It is hard not to see this article as an effort to soften the AJA’s stance in practice. Not only does Sitz have to deal with the Byzantine and even Ottoman archaeology of Ankara to date the Temple of Augustus and Roma, but she argues that deliberate cultural attitudes in later periods have shaped the archaeological record. This is common sense for most archaeologists brought up on Schiffer’s famous N- and C-transform in formation processes. The significance of diachronic regional survey projects over the last 50 years has further strengthened the diachronic interests of most Mediterranean archaeologists and has introduced renewed energy into big picture questions in archaeology that sit awkwardly with traditional periodization schemes.

My suspicion is that the AJA can’t just change its policy (which is upheld by the ancient luminaries who sit on the esteemed “Governing Board of the AIA” (to be clear, I have no idea who sits on the Governing Board, but I suspect they’re big cheeses.)), but they can use its pages to construct arguments for why this policy is no longer useful or relevant for the kind of work that the journal seeks to publish. For those of us who work at the margins of the Late Antiquity world, this is a good thing and it’s great that such a careful and creative piece of scholarship can support the journal’s editors. 

Refined and Revised: A Response to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory for Epoiesen (part 2)

This weekend, I worked on refining and revising my response to Andrew Reinhard’s piece, Assemblage Theory, on Epoiesen. The response is a bit long so I’m breaking it into two pieces. Below is part 2. Check out part 1 here.

My response is also a bit complex (and a bit like a cat attacking a sofa), but by playing with these ideas, I’m hoping it’ll help me refine my thinking for an article that is due at the end of the month. Last Spring, I gave a paper at the annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The paper was titled “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” (plus this coda) and it marks my first effort to create an academic argument what I’m trying to do with The Digital Press

 

You can read It’s a bit rough around the edges, but as always, I’m more than open to any criticism or feedback! 

~

Reinhard is aware that his assemblage is hyperreal and makes the samples of a track available for us to play along with him and to create our own music from a common pool of sonic artifacts. It is worth noting that in archaeology, this kind of generosity remains relatively rare. Historically, archaeologists were loath to release key elements of archaeological assemblages often preserved in excavation notebooks which often remain the personal property of the scholar. More recently, archaeologists have acknowledged that their deep experience in the landscape, with particular methods, and across the social relationships that shape fieldwork formed as vital a part of the archaeological assemblage as the carefully documented ceramic sherds and stratigraphic relationships. These limits, of course, shape Reinhard’s willingness to share as well. He is not only adept at manipulating the tracks in Audacity, but also has a workflow, a distinct set of gear, and experience as a musician to guide his encounter with these songs. Recognizing this, I was at first, inclined to critique that Reinhard for only releasing the artifacts from one song and to note that it neatly paralleled the tendency among archaeologists to feint toward transparency and openness in analysis while holding back certain key elements of the interpretative process. This was uncharitable, though, because by offering one song from Assemblage Theory, he pushes us from thinking about the artifacts present in the songs and toward thinking about the broader assemblage of artifacts that served to mediate our encounter with his music. Our own efforts to manipulate the provided tracks primarily demonstrate the impossibility of recreating Reinhard’s songs.

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

I then emailed Reinhard and he let me know that the album was also available on on Tidal. I then played it on my MacBook Pro and though it sounded interesting enough to cue it up on the stereo that lives in my main room. Through my much larger and more sophisticated stereo the sound seemed a bit muddled: the big bass in a few songs (like “Trappist”) seemed smear across the other sounds on the track, and the lack of dynamic range made the entire entire album just feel too loud and heavy. To be clear, the system that I was using to play the album was not optimized for loud music. I was streaming the album over an Auralic Mini music streamer that outputs to a Schiit Bifrost DAC from which it then runs through a pair of Audioquest RCA cables into a 60 watt vacuum-tube Audio Research Corporation amplifier that drives a pair of Zu Omen Defs speakers. The Omen Defs are paper-cone, full-range-driver speakers that I’ve paired with a two super quick, 400 watt Zu Undertone subwoofers. This system loves dynamic music: small ensemble jazz, carefully recorded rock music, and acoustic stuff. When I play loud, boomy music especially through the streamer, the bass makes the entire scene a bit sloppy for some reason.

The next day, I also played it over my little office system which consists of two powered Yamaha studio monitors and a thumpy little subwoofer that sits under my desk. It sounded tighter and every bit as loud as on my home system, but not as big and more precisely rendered. This little system encouraged me to look deeply into the mix as one might expect from studio monitors.

Finally, I returned home and played the version of the album that Reinhard sent to me as .wav files through my Sony music player (a HAP-Z1ES) and from there into my ARC amplifier and into my big speakers. For some reason this cleared up most of the boomy-ness. It was still loud, but it felt a bit more carefully wrought and exact. This version of the album preserved more of the digital character of the music despite it running through vacuum-tube amplifier and paper cone speakers. At the same time, it communicated a sense of scale. 800 watts of subwoofer and four paper-cone woofers ensured that I felt the music.

All of this is to point out that this sculpted assemblage of samples also consists of a complex series of technologies, services, and environments that mediate our encounter with all parts of the assemblage from their transmission to the relationship between the various component parts. The more that I listened to his album (and right now, I’m listening to it on my MacBook Pro, through an Audioquest Dragonfly Red DAC, a ALO Rx MC3-B+ headphone amplifier and a pair of Audeze LCD-2C headphones), the more I wondered how close what I was hearing was to what Reinhard created. My various listening environments created plenty of room to quibble about how the assemblage actually works.

~

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

Reinhard is away of the commercial concerns associated with the dissemination, use, and reuse of audio and their place within the longer history of music making. The samples that Reinhard used in his songs were all free and open access, apparently, and this, presumably, was an economic and political decision, but also an artistic one. Thirty years ago, however, the landscape of sampling and the assemblages available to recombine look much different. Hanif Abdurraqib, in his recent meditation on the oeuvre of Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, reflected on the change in hiphop in the mid-1990s when record labels discovered they could require permission and payment for samples used in songs. By 2001, the use of expensive samples becomes a point of pride for some rappers and embarrassment for others. Jay-Z, famously attacked Nas by claiming that he did not even own the right to his own songs so when Jay-Z sampled them, Nas did not make any money (this point was later disputed by Nas and his representatives):

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

In this context, Reinhard’s use of free samples explicitly detached himself from one of the commercial aspects of the music making process. At the same time, he did not release his entire assemblage of samples explicitly and, curiously, there is no equivalent of the ceramic catalogue, or concordance where he credited the original sources of his samples. Moreover, he distributed his music via commercial services that even at the free tier require registration as a way to monetize plays and listeners, and his tracks are not available for free download. We can imagine, then, that maybe Reinhard is getting “coin,” but his sources are, in Jay-Z’s words, “gettin’ fucked.” In the 21st-century, moreover, it is clear that as listeners, we are, like his samples, also a resource to be monetized.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Reinhard’s place in the media ecosystem or his right as an artist to benefit however modestly from his work, but to demonstrate how the flow of objects through various media create relationships and value. Recent attention to media in the production of archaeological knowledge (Gartski 2018; Morgan and Wright 2018) and in its presentation and reception (Perry 2018; 2019) has revealed the complexity of the relational systems that shape how sites, artifacts, and encounters create opportunities for ethical actions and shared knowledge. The easy fluidity of digital space perhaps emphasizes or even exaggerates the instability of the kinds of 21st-century assemblages accessed through Assemblage Theory. The interplay of the physical and virtual continuously destabilize how our experiences of digital worlds produce meaning. In this way, Assemblage Theory is a valuable companion to Reinhard’s longterm project of archaeogaming (Reinhard 2017). It also reminds us that the relationships that constitute knowledge—even in the dusty corridors of Ivory Tower archaeology—are always being monetized through access, citation, reading, and remembering.

~

Reinhard starts his discussion of assemblages with Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. By the time I had finished listening to Assemblage Theory for the third or fourth time, I was more drawn to considering his work in light of Delanda’s earlier text, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. In this book, Delanda expanded and developed the notion of machinic phyla from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze and Guattari emphasizes that assemblages form not merely through conscious decisions or even discursive rules (like narratives or the pop song), but also through affordances of the objects themselves. These scholars were particular intrigued by the notion of flow and the ways in which the movement of material, manufactured objects, and individuals mediated by their materiality produced value within the capitalist system in ways that appeared to be nearly autonomous. Michael Roller has adapted this notion archaeological assemblage as evidence for the emergence of mechinic consumerism in the 20th century (Roller 2019). This is a kind of consumerism that is as much a product of producers and production as the manufactured objects. Roller reminds us that the assemblages that reproduce the experiences of 20th- and 21st-century consumer culture are fraught with contradictions and map onto our experiences as both producers and consumers. The tolerance for these contradictions both within assemblage and within our lived experience reflects the growing willingness to accept “the intervention of corporations in their lives” (18) and an opportunity (if not obligation) for archaeologists to untangle the complexities of 21st-century assemblages and unpacks “the plurality of forces that produce the present world” (19). It is worth noting that despite Roller’s radical and activist rhetoric, his article appears in the journal Historical Archaeology which is published by the commercial publishing conglomerate Springer Nature who monetized access to his radical arguments.

An archaeological investigation of Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory goes beyond the playful parataxis of distinct samples and sounds and reveals traces left behind by the technological, political, economic, intellectual, and social flows that establish value and define culture in our contemporary world. Haggis has argued that the assemblages of ceramic objects and sculpture excavated from a Hellenistic pit at Vergina or a Late Archaic well in Athens (Haggis 2018) constitute a context for considering archaeological questions that arise at the intersection of methods and the functional, chronological, and typological relationship between objects, space, and place. Isolating these objects from their archaeological context through their display in a museum or appearance in a catalogue, for example, transforms (and some would argue even impoverishes) the potential value of these objects to speak to the widest range of questions about past practices that from the basis for larger statements on past culture. By locating Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory in a series of different context, we open it up to speak most broadly to questions at of pressing concern in contemporary society.

I hope my response has shown, how our encounter with this album traces a number of elements of 21st century economic and social life. First and foremost, the album celebrates the potential of art gleaned from the surplus sounds scattered about the internet. The growing fascination with modern spolia (Meier 2012), the surplus of material and meaning that surrounds contemporary life (Akasegawa 2009), and the economic and creative activity of scavengers (Ferrell 2006) speaks to a society increasingly defined by the reciprocal acts of production and consumption.

Reinhard’s trap-inspired EDM relentlessly encourages us to connect our movements to his music through a tempo encoded in an invisible “click track” and to embody the precise pulses of our digitally mediated world. In some, indistinct ways, this prepares us for the hyperreal loudness of Assemblage Theory. The vividness and immediacy of the album seems to anticipate its seamless distribution through commodified, ubiquitous, and increasingly invasive services. The same connections that both allowed Reinhard to harvest found sounds and us to enjoy his creative work creates value for capitalistic concerns who profit from the flow of data throughout our connected world. At my house, Assemblage Theory was further mediated through an arcane and expensive set of stereo equipment. In my most optimistic moments, I pretend that the carefully arrangement of components in my stereo system creates a unique sound through which I can assert some individuality. In reality, I am probably the same as a club kid whose body sways to a hidden click track while pretending that the latest styles make me distinct enough to stand out and recognizable enough to be part of a crowd.

Refined and Revised: A Response to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory for Epoiesen (part 1)

This weekend, I worked on refining and revising my response to Andrew Reinhard’s piece, Assemblage Theory, on Epoiesen. The response is a bit long so I’m breaking it into two pieces.

It’s also a bit complex, but by playing with these ideas, I’m hoping it’ll help me refine my thinking for an article that is due at the end of the month. Last Spring, I gave a paper at the annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The paper was titled “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” (plus this coda) and it marks my first effort to create an academic argument what I’m trying to do with The Digital Press

It’s a bit rough around the edges, but as always, I’m more than open to any criticism or feedback!

 

 

Responding to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory is difficult on a number of levels. The greatest challenge, for me, is recognizing in Reinhard’s work a response to the recent attention to the assemblage in archaeological thinking (see the various contributors to 2017 special issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Harrison 2011; Martin 2013; Fowler 2013; Haggis 2018). This work is remarkably diverse and theoretically informed. Much of taps into the vital current of thought concerning the limits of material agency both in the past and in our own work as researchers. At its most exciting, critical engagements with the concept of assemblages, relational ontologies, and scientific practices (especially in the hands of thinkers like Karen Barad (2007)) offer new ways for understanding the “social life of things” (Appadurai 1988), “stuff” (Miller 2009), and “vibrant matter” (Bennett 2010). Bruno Latour has explored how in its broadest definition, the concept of the assemblage can inform how we think about our world in the fits of the Anthropocene (Latour 2017). This is heady and important stuff.

At the same time, I was drawn to Reinhard’s album and article because of my interest in music. In the past, I’ve thought about how music can inform archaeological thinking (Caraher 2019; Caraher, Kourelis, and Reinhard 2014). I also just really like music. In fact, as I write these words I’m listening to Ornette Coleman’s “Monk and the Nun” which was originally recorded in 1959 during the same session as his iconic The Shape of Jazz to Come. “Monk and the Nun” did not appear on that album, and resurfaced only on some compilations released in the 1970s. This afternoon, however, I was listening to it on Ornette Coleman’s box set of recordings from his year on the Atlantic label (1959-1961) called Beauty is a Rare Thing and released in 1993. The tracks on this box set are arranged in the order that they were recorded rather than in the order that the tracks would appear on any of Coleman’s Atlantic albums. This means that they only they loosely follow the organization of the albums and do not follow the order of the tracks as they were originally released. Coleman’s well-known track “Lonely Woman” is track 5 on the first disc of Beauty is a Rare Thing and comes immediately before “Monk and the Nun.” It originally appeared as the string first track on his The Shape of Jazz to Come. To my mind, this is important: the bass line, then drums, and finally, those magically awkward, melancholic, and deeply engaging lines from Coleman and his long-time collaborator Don Cherry introduce their new approach to jazz featured on this album and definitive for Coleman’s long career.

While the box set offers an exhaustive survey of Coleman’s work during his most exciting and productive period. It is markedly different from the assemblage offered by the six albums released over this same period (The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), Change of the Century (1960), This Is Our Music (1961), Free Jazz (1961), Ornette! (1962), and Ornette on Tenor (1962)). The different order of the tracks alone give the 1993 box set a different vibe and the faithfulness to the order of recording provides new opportunities for insights into the development of the songs and albums that world make Coleman famous. Reading Reinhard’s reminded me to think about albums as assemblages, and to think (and eventually write) about music.

Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory is a remarkable experiment in thinking and performing an assemblage. Sculpted from found sounds on the internet, Reinhard’s album—and the article that introduced it on Epoiesen—makes visible the work of a musician, archaeologist, and individual in bringing order to the fragmented realities that surround us. The seamlessness of Reinhard’s beats does not intend to represent or reproduce the cacophonic and discordant character of the original group of samples. Instead, he seeks to resolve their differences through the cutting away and carefully arranging the sounds into recognizable songs. Reinhard makes one group of his found sounds available for us to understand his process, and this is a generous way to make clear the methods that Reinhard used, in general, to produce order from the chaos of even his opportunistic assemblages. Reinhard’s work reinforces a point made by Rodney Harrison (2011): assemblages are “assembled” rather than discovered and while the act of finding sounds on the internet playfully mimics the modern serendipity of excavation, it does nothing to detract from the obvious work of assembly that is crucial to Reinhard’s piece. We can safely assume that he discarded and rejected sounds that were not suitable for his project making the act of finding even less about revealing something that existed and more about creating something that was necessary.

The goal of my response is explore the nuances of Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory as he created it and as I have encountered it and to trace the limits of his assemblage beyond the bounds of the album into the sinews of our culture. In this way, I want to emphasize an Assemblage Theory as a point of entry into a wider meditation on the ways in which assemblages provide a medium for the critical engagement of our contemporary world. In this way, Reinhard’s project reflects his (and my own) longstanding interest in the use of archaeological methods and metaphors as a way of excavating and constructing critical perspectives on the contemporary world.

(I’m now listening to The Comet is Coming’s Complete Studio Recordins 2015CE-2017CE. The tracks on this album, through some accident of markup lost their metadata and even their original order, when I uploaded this album to my Roon music software library.)

~

Reinhard is an archaeologist and like so much archaeology, the smoothness of his final production serves as much to obfuscate the original character of his assemblage of samples as the methods and practices that brought them into seemingly meaningful relationships. His description of this process evoked for me Elizabeth Freeman’s interpretation of Frankenstein in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). In a short digression, Freeman considers Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a model for understanding the role that time played in the processes used to create verisimilitude in media. She argues that in creating his creature, Victor Frankenstein’s aspired to assemble a being whose seamlessness manifests the experience of reality in the present. His creature, however, was characterized by its seams and sutures that combined the assemblage of scavenged parts necessary to bring it to life. The visible seams demonstrated that it was impossible to eliminate the abrupt and affective character of its pastness that is intrinsic to awkward and profoundly human assemblages. In effect, the seams made Frankenstein’s creature authentic and, ironically, alive. Our modern efforts to create a smooth and seamlessness experience from found things, at best, mimics our experiences of the present, but more likely anticipates a perfectible utopian future that disregards our own encounter with the past. The discipline of archaeology with its debt to modernity (Thomas 2006) consistently attempts to create seamlessness from the disparate fragments assembled from past experiences. This echos the modern promise of seamless integration in the internet of things, of augmented and virtual reality, and in various transhuman fantasies of technologically enhanced humans.

Reinhard’s selective remixing of his samples to produce a smoothly contoured present ensured created a juxtaposition that both located the samples in the past but also created their pastness. The dissonant, discontinuous, and found character of the samples defined them as something other than the contemporary experience. This distancing made the act of re-assembly possible and, indeed, necessary even through we realize that the digital samples at the core of Reinhard’s songs are from an archaeological strata that could also be contemporary with the songs themselves. As Smith has noted in her response to this album (2018), Reinhard’s effort to assert and demonstrate the disparate parts of these songs while simultaneously obscuring how these parts fit together to create a sonically consistent whole is a key role in locating Reinhard’s creative power in the present. The tension between an asserted pastness and recognizable present is a common feature of our diverse, digital, post-industrial and modern world in that we often seek to eliminate the jarring disjunctions between parts of the assemblage that remind us of the past’s messy abruptness. The tragic and all-too-human character of Victor Frankenstein’s monster made it the deeply sympathetic victim of the modernity’s distain for the incongruity and flawed character of the past and the false hope for a seamless and perfected future.

~

To his credit, Reinhard, like Victor Frankenstein, is honest about how he created his assemblage. He arranged his found sounds according to the structure of traditional pop songs and accentuated the sounds that evoked contemporary guitar rock, beats drawn from trap, house, and EDM, as well as other sonic conventions. These various structures are part of this assemblage as well, and it is probably safe to assume that these structures allowed Reinhard prefigure his album in the sounds on the internet. Hayden White, for example, famously argued that a series of tropes and forms of employment shaped the way that historians produced narratives, explained causality, and produced assemblages of evidence. Neville Morley’s response to Reinhard’s piece reminded us that pop sensibilities are only one potential way to emplot this assemblage. As long as pop music has existed, there have been those who have sought to challenge the self-evident character of its structure.

(I just put on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime which was famously recorded and mixed for $1100 (Azzerad 2001, 82). Despite the effort to make this into a concept album, it still retains the band’s anti-commercial, rambling style of the band which was the very antithesis of pop music.)

Despite Morley’s critique, which Reinhard invited by making his original assemblage available for examination, Reinhard’s arrangement still models our own approach to archaeological knowledge making. Narratives of all sorts prefigure the assemblages that we encounter in archaeology. These narratives and processes constitute parts of these assemblages the same way that a traditional pop melody or familiar sound on the web prefigured the songs possible at Reinhard’s deft hands. Different hands introduce different elements to the assemblage and Reinhard’s generosity with his samples has resulted in at least one new encounter with some of the same basic elements.

There are other elements present in Reinhard’s assemblage that offer more insights into the process that produced the final album. Two struck me as immediately visible.

First, the album has the unmistakable character of contemporary music making in its unfailing and precise rhythmic structure. Generally, a “click track” imparts this structure on a song. The click track is a tool that allows a musician to precisely synchronize sounds in various recordings. The click track is eliminated during the production process, but the regularity of the beat that it imparts persists. Damon Krukowski, the former Galaxie 500 drummer, has recently observed that the “click track” regularizes the interplay between musicians in recordings. Prior to the use of click tracks and in live performances, musicians would listen to one another and adjust their tempos in minute ways that allow a song to hold together. Musicians also would be influenced by live audiences to accelerate or slow their tempo in response to the crowd, the moment, and the shared experience of the performance. Thus the audience and performers responded to one another and the listener’s response to a performer would follow the performers responses to one another in the process of music making.

I’m now listening to Cannonball Adderley’s album Something Else (1958) and as I bob my head in time to their version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves“ waiting for the entry of Miles Davis’s muted trumpet, I’m literally moving in sync with the musicians as they listened to each other. I’m locked into the interplay between Art Blakey’s drums, Sam Jones’s bass line, and Hank Jones’s sparse piano. These are real musicians whose subtle cues and gestures I attempt to imagine as I listen deeply into this classic album. Reinhard’s album is a different affair, but it would be an odd effort to seek human interaction in the mechanical regularity of the click. Krukowski has suggested that lack of intimacy in contemporary recorded pop music comes from the standard use of the click track which has eliminated the subtle variations that may be undetectable on a conscious level, but nevertheless draw us into the experience of music as a human art. Whether one agrees with the argument of a former dummer is less significant than the more obvious observation that when we move our body in time with Reinhard’s thumping beats, we are not sharing in the generative interplay of the musicians who recorded the song, but falling in sync with precise beats of a machine.

The other artifact of Reinhard’s assemblage that captured my attention was the driving beat of trap music. Over the last decade, the rhythms of trap have become essentially synonymous with hiphop. Trap is usually associated with the beats that emerged in the South, and particularly Atlanta, in the 1990s and by the early 21st century these beats became increasingly common in the EDM. Essential to the style of trap is the sound of the Roland TR-808 drum machine which became so closely associated with this style of music that hiphop duo Outkast recognized it by name in their 2003 hit “The Way You Move” which connects the 808s distinctive cymbal and bass that is characteristic of trap.

So click-it or ticket, let’s see your seat belt fastened
Trunk rattlin’, like two midgets in the back seat wrestlin’
Speaker box vibrate the tag
Make it sound like aluminum cans in a bag
But I know y’all wanted that 808
Can you feel that be-A-S-S, bass

Outkast here is making fun of the 808-produced trap so typical in early-21st-century Atlanta hiphop by describing how it sounds played through a car stereo with its powerful subwoofer rattling the license plate and the poorly attached plastic trim. The reference to it sounding like “aluminum cans in a bag” is not simply an innocent simile but a playful suggestion that the sound of thumping base evokes the image of the urban scavenger with his assemblage of recyclable cans in plastic trash bag. In the hands of Outkast, the ubiquitous sound of trap and the Roland TR-808 slyly evokes the lower class near-suburbs of Atlanta and the “dirty” neighborhoods which made this sound famous. This superficial reading of trap does not do the complexities of this genre justice (see for example, McCarthy 2018; Kaluža and Študent 2018), but since Reinhard’s album is not so much trap as trap-inspired EDM, the relationship between his beats and the assemblage of trap driven hiphop is probably distant enough for us to abandon it at this point in my review.

The more proximate context for trap inspired EDM is, of course, is the club. As I have already noted in my discussion of the “click track” in contemporary electronic music, the use of trap beats in the club creates a bodily response not just to the beats, but to the automated processes which order the beats into a systematic tempo. The club is also a place of consumption and display where music is not only consumed, but individuals produce distinctive assemblages to manufacture both group and individual identities. EDM is social music designed to be played in public places and a constituent part of the assemblages that define club culture identity (Classically explored by D. Hebdige 1979; more recently Jackson 2004; Wilson 2006).

The intersection of style, music, and the movements of bodies in the club locates Reinhard’s album amid a larger assemblage of manufactured experiences that define identities within consumer culture. A particularly intriguing aspect of our experience with Assemblage Theory is the loudness of the album. Loudness in this context does not refer to the volume of the tracks which the user can control, but the relationship between the quietest and loudest passages on any track. The compressed dynamic range of the tracks on Assemblage Theory is a sonic artifact of the late-20th and early-21st century. Reinhard’s album has a dynamic range of around 6 db, which is consistent with the 5 db present on Migos platinum-certified album CULTURE and slightly less dynamic than Daft Punk’s 8 db range on Random Access Memories. To put this in perspective Orbital’s highly regarded second album (often called “The Brown Album”) released in 1993 had a dynamic range of 13 db. Tribe Called Quest’s iconic Low End Theory from 1991 had a range of 12 db. The recent increase in loudness has its roots both in the desire or record labels to have songs that stand out on the radio, but it also ensures that tracks sound hyperreal when played through highly amplified sound systems at dance clubs. The flattening of dynamic range ensures that all frequencies and passages are equally audible above the throbbing bodies of a dance club. On home systems, particularly low efficiency speakers and headphones, this loudness creates an impression of fidelity that has little in common with the sound of live instruments. In many ways, the loudness of EDM contributes to hyperreality of the genre (and increasingly of all pop music) that has no or few referents in performed music. Our encounter, then, with loudness, the regimented experience of the click track, and the seamless integration of the found sounds in the assemblage offers an experience of the real with only the barest of relationships with our lived experiences. To use Baudrillard’s language, the structuring of this assemblage offers a simulacrum that lacks a clear point of reference (Baudrillard 1994).

(Part 2 tomorrow!)

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<more soon…>

Time and Change on Roman Crete

This weekend, I read my colleague Scott Gallimore’s recent paper in the American Journal of Archaeology titled “An Island in Crisis? Reconsidering the Formation of Roman Crete.” The article is the model of careful interrogation of various ways of understanding the Roman conquest of Crete “on the ground.” By focusing on the material changes on the island (and the appearance of Cretan amphora, in particular, across the Mediterranean), Gallimore has a metric for understanding how the integration of Crete into the Roman Empire shaped the economic life of the island.

What makes this article unique, though, is that he intentionally considers three time scales – the event, short term change, and long-term change. For the event, Gallimore considers the idea of “eventful archaeology” but argues that the initial conquest of Crete by the Romans did little to immediately change the material and economic life of the island. Crete remains relatively isolated economically with few imported ceramics and little evidence for large-scale exporting of goods in the Roman East. In short, the evidence from Crete is inadequate to see the Roman military actions on the island as a trigger for greater integration in the Roman world. In this case the model of  “eventful archaeology” lacks compelling explanatory power. 

The other possible impetus for change on the island and its graduate Romanization was the investment of the emperor Claudius in harbors across the empire. Claudius’s work at the Roman harbor of Portus is well known. Rothaus has argued that Claudius may have also invested in large scale improvements in the Corinthian harbor of Lechaion. Gallimore, however, demonstrated that while it is possible that the reign of Claudius saw an increased investment in infrastructure to support trade on Crete, it did not have an immediate impact on the assemblages produced by the island or in the Mediterranean more broadly.

In the end, Gallimore argues that the globalization of Crete was a gradual process that undoubtedly started with the island’s integration into the Roman world and became visible as the island’s population adapted the new range of opportunities and investments at different rates and in different ways. He notes that some areas that may have had reason to resist Roman inroads, may have taken longer to integrate into the economic and social world of the Roman state. Other areas, like around Knossos, appear to have integrated more quickly into the Roman world.

Gallimore’s article does a nice job digging into the archaeological assemblages across Crete and in the wider Mediterranean and demonstrates how the simple (and all too common) efforts to look for events or policies in archaeological evidence often creates interpretative problems. Events – particular destruction layers – tend to draw evidence toward them like magnets, and only careful and critical analysis of deposits, typologies, and chronologies can shake the material evidence free. Gallimore’s article does a nice job to demonstrating how to assess the impact of events, policies, and longer term trends in archaeological assemblages.

Finally, Gallimore’s paper is particularly useful for me as I think about the island of Cyprus and the issue of insularity in Early Byzantine archaeology. He notes that processes like Romanization occurred at an uneven rate across the island and that part of the reason for this is both the potential for a given region to enjoy connectivity within a given system as well as the willingness of local communities to adapt to Roman social and economic stimuli. Untangling the variable that shape globalization in any place remains a challenge, but as we’ve argued in a few places attempting to exclude economic motivations for variation across assemblages might be a way to reveal elements more probably influenced by a community’s sense of identity or values. As always, these are messy arguments to make especially as it often depends on the ability of other scholars to identify, quantify, and assess ceramic assemblages in a way that makes them comparable between sites and across regions. By offering arguments, however, we propose hypotheses that can be tested and can shape the efforts of other projects to quantify and publish their data.   

Teaching Thursday: Revisiting Clark’s History, Theory, Text

This semester, I’m teaching a small graduate seminar that is a combination historical methods, theory, and historiography. The syllabus is uncomplicated and involves only 10 or 11 books, a couple of short paper, and a draft of a prospectus.

The third book on the syllabus of Elizabeth Clark’s 2004 classic, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Reading the book this weekend and it evoked a serious case of nostalgia. I remember how excited I was to read this book in 2004 when I was just a year out from my dissertation and still waking from over two years of focused research at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I largely spent my time in Greece finishing my dissertation, trying to understand how to publish Hellenistic fortifications, and getting my first archaeological project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, started. It was great fun, but it also saw a real narrowing of my perspectives on how to study the ancient world. My years in Athens helped me become more technically and methodologically proficient. 

At the same time, I grew increasingly distant from the conversations taking place in the larger field of history. This probably started long before I decamped from Ohio State’s history department to the American School in Athens, but my time in Athens exaggerated this feeling. When I read Elizabeth Clark’s book some 6 months after returning to the U.S., I felt like I had some catching up to do.

For those unfamiliar with this book, it stands as a survey of the “linguistic turn” in the humanities with particular attention the study of Late Roman Christian literature. The book remains as fresh as ever, in part, because the potential of critical theory is still being unpacked, negotiated, and debated in the humanities and because so many of the key works were already decades old by the time that Clark’s book arrived. The books is not casual. It’s dense, articulate, careful in its intention to open the linguist turn to scholars who were steeped in other traditions or downright skeptical of its applicability to Christian texts of Late Antiquity. 

Today, the main reason that the book feels dated is that so much of the linguistic turn has been internalized over the last 15 years. Clark, along with Averil Cameron, Virginia Burrus, and others whose work introduced critical theory to the study of Late Roman Christianity have produced students, inspired the peers, and led to a sea change in our field. 

At the same time, the book also feels oddly apolitical. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a refection both on our own politically age and the increased intermingling of the critical theory with its concern for language with social theory and its concern for institutions, communities, individuals, and agency. While these bodies of theory are, by no means, mutually exclusive (and tend to intersect in the work of Bourdieu, Foucault, Althusser and others), they tended occupy different places in our critical tool kit. As an archaeologist, I think its safe to say that we’ve tended to be drawn more closely to social theory and its direct applicability the kinds of problems that our work explores: development and change in states, social organization, identity formation, etc. 

It seems to me that this integration of the critical  theory with social theory has provided the most effective foundation for the most recent generation of powerful and overtly political scholarship on the ancient world. I’m staring at a copy of Dayna S. Kalleres City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity (2015) for example, sitting on my “to read” list. And was incredible impressed with Kristina Sessa’s The formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere (2012) (blogged about here.) These are but two books in a massive stack of impressive work over the past decade that considers authority, poverty, ethnicity, and social order at the end of the ancient world. 

I’m looking forward to walking through this book with my little seminar this afternoon and thinking about the linguistic turn and its impact on how we think about texts from the past. It’ll bring back good memories too and remind me how little I’ve done to keep my fingers on the recent trends in my field.  

Is Cyprus an Island?

With the lovely fall weather, I’ve been taking the dogs on some long walks lately. This has not only given me the headspace to solve the world’s problems (if I only had a pen to write down the solutions before I forgot them all) and to work on a few papers that are looming in the near future. 

The one paper that has troubled me the most is one on the archaeology of Byzantine islands that I’m scheduled to give at a conference called “The Insular World of Byzantium” at Dumbarton Oaks in November. The question that I keep circling back to is whether it makes sense to think about Cyprus as an island during the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period. In other words, I’m thinking more and more about insularity as a historical situation rather than a geographic reality. 

This is not some kind of massive mental leap. After all, since the 1980s, folks have referred to Cyprus as a “matchbox continent” (Held in the 1989 RDAC seems to be the first use of this term in this context; it seems to be used to describe Madagascar as well) as a way to challenge its insularity and, instead, see it as a more or less self-sustaining entity. In this context, it might even be desirable to see the cities on Cyprus as a kind of archipelago gracefully defined by the regular distribution of cities along the southern coast. In the kind of connected world proposed by Horden and Purcell, for example, insularity may best define the microregion that could be more or less autonymous parts of proper islands or even represent groups of closely interdependent islands or units of islands and the mainland (in the case of near coastal islands in, say, the Peloponnesus).

On the other hand, places like the Peloponnesus could be easily seen in many periods as an island (as its name implies!). Watford City, North Dakota, was once known as the “Island Empire” (defined evidently by the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers) despite its location near the geographic center of North America. Likewise, Cold War-era West Berlin was sometimes thought of as “an island of freedom” surrounded by “the sea” of the DDR. 

These observations are not meant to diminish the significance of islands as an interpretative category, but to suggest that the concept of insularity is only as useful for any particular situation (whether formally an island or not) as it serves an interpretative function. For a place like Cyprus, this means thinking seriously about what aspects of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine history and archaeology of the island (or matchbox continent) would benefit from an approach that emphasizes their insularity and which do not. For example, understanding the claims of Cypriot ecclesiastical autonomy benefit from understanding the insularity and particular history of the island and its relationship to the Holy Land and the Levant in Antiquity. Insularity also plays a obvious role in considering the arrival of bishops on the island. Barnabas and Lazarus, to the most important and apostolic bishops on Cyprus, hail from the Levant. The 4th century bishop, St. Epiphanius of Salamis died on a sea journal as he was returning to Cyprus from Constantinople. St. John the Almsgiver, retreated to Cyprus across the sea, when his See of Alexandria was lost to the Persians in the 7th century. The sea both defined the island’s autonomy and became a medium through which the island received sanctifying visitors.

If one was to consider the material culture of Cyprus on a more granular level, however, insularity feels less compelling. For example, the ceramic artifacts preserved the sherds scattered in the plow zone or in buried strata produce assemblages that appear to vary as much across the island as between the island and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Does thinking about Cyprus as an island help us understand this variation any more than thinking of a coastal site as part of a larger landmass or as a node in a dense network of connections? 

In the end, the concept of insularity is only as good as the questions that it helps to answer. This then brings me back to the basic struggle that I have with this paper: how does the concept of the insular help me understand Early Byzantine Cyprus?

Understanding Artifact Distributions in Survey Archaeology

One of the things I’ve been working on for the last 2 (or 10 or 15) years is how do we understand the distribution of artifacts produced through intensive pedestrian survey. In fact, thinking about the distribution of artifacts and how our methods of survey and analysis shape the kinds of conclusions we can reach has been a major element in my career. 

For my current project, the Western Argolid Regional Project (and any of these survey really), there are a few obvious challenges. First, the basic spatial unit is the survey unit, but in our survey (and many surveys) these units are irregularly shaped and sized. Second, the units produce a good many interdependent variables that, in turn, shape artifact recovery. These range from surface visibility and vegetation to less obvious influences on site formation like terracing, ploughing, or various kinds of fills. Third, there are a good many variables that impact the distribution of artifacts that occur outside of what we can understand and record within the units themselves. These includes the presence of ephemeral paths and roads through an area, access to water or other changeable resources, the proximity to the edge of the survey area or highly disturbed units, and many other archaeological and historical features that might impact how we understand an artifact scatter.  Finally, we understand that various periods and types of artifacts have different levels of visibility in the landscape. This is the result of different historical processes that produce horizons visible on the surface as well as the character – and visibility – of the artifacts themselves.

In short, there are many variables that shape the distribution of artifacts on the surface and it’s hard to imagine a statistical model that would accommodate all these various.

There are, however, ways to start to smooth the distribution of artifacts and in an article that’s due in October, I’ve proposed the following method, which both attempts to produce understandable clusters of units with artifacts from the same period plotted across the landscape. These clusters are based on two measures of proximity between units with material from the same period: 20 m buffers and near analysis based on the “near” function in our project GIS. More important, however, this work is only the start. Because buffers and the near function do not adapt to changes in the landscape that range from steep slopes, modern roads, the course of the Inachos river, fenced plots, or the edge of our survey area, we need to scrutinize these simple clusters, particularly the discontinuities between clusters, to determine their historical and geographical probability. 

Here’s what I wrote:   

The following analysis is based on clusters of units from across he wider WARP survey area that produced Late Roman material. We identified groups of units on the basis of analysis done using the projects GIS platform, ESRI’s ArcGIS. We produced aggregated clusters of units by grouping any units that fell within a 20 m buffers of a unit with Late Roman pottery. We then assessed the relative isolation of the clusters using the “near” function in ESRI ArcGIS. Groups of clustered units that were statistically “near” one another could be aggregated further. Finally, we also allowed our familiarity with the topography of survey area to shape how we defined the clusters described below. Buffering, near analysis, and familiarity with the survey area helped to smooth some of the variations in surface visibility, local site formation, and recovery rates. These clusters also produced larger and more complex assemblages of artifacts than would appear in single or adjoining units, and these larger assemblages offered the opportunity for more nuanced reading of the material. These clusters, however, should not be confused with sites and their attendant assumptions regarding function or settlement rank. Instead, the larger assemblages allow us to retain the ambiguity inherent in the functional analysis of surface assemblage, while also constructing arguments for chronological and spatial differentiation at the scale of our survey area.