After Discourse

This past weekend, I read After Discourse: Things, Affects, Ethics edited by Bjørnar J. Olsen, Mats Burström, Caitlin DeSilvey, and Þóra Pétursdóttir. The entire book is worth a perusal, if you’re familiar with the work of the editors and their typical host of collaborators and colleagues. 

I want to focus on two specific parts of the book that attracted my attention. 

The first section of the book was titled: “Things: Writing, nearing, knowing” and it brought together a series of articles that considered how we write about the archaeology of the contemporary world. The contributors to this section address something that I too have recognized as a problem (and to be honest I was likely inspired as much by reading the contributors and editors fo this volume as works by scholars such as Amitav Ghosh, Lauren Berlant, and Rebecca Solnit). I’ve started to wonder about the limits to the language, genre, and forms of writing that we use to think and write about our own place within the deep past (whether articulated as the Anthropocene or something else), within the climate crisis, and within the incredibly (and increasingly) fleeting moment that is the contemporary.

It was particularly exciting to read Bjørnar J. Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s explicit critique of the IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) style of academic (and, in particular, archaeological) writing. Scholars have long argued that its concise form and easily recognized and understood style of organization evokes an idealized form of the scientific processes that produce the article’s specific conclusions. At the same time, this this idealized form suppresses the complexities, ambiguities, and openness of the research process in the name of legibility and efficiency. While there is no doubt that it is easier for an academic to read and process an article written in IMRAD style, but, as we’ve seen with the recent wave of the anti-science movement, the clarity of expression may not be the only and best measure for effectiveness of knowledge production. Our unwillingness  

[I’m increasingly interested in the role that fiction can and should play in academic knowledge production.]

As Robert Macfarland pointed out in his essay, the complexities of the archaeological record and our current cocktail of crises (COVID, capitalism, racism, virulent populism, climate change) resist resolution or reduction in a tidy linear package. Tracing the contours of the contemporary may involve embracing a styles of writing that moves abruptly across scales, embraces fragmentation, doubles back on itself, and reifies the inherent ambiguity of processes whose outcomes are not yet clear.

I was likewise taken by Chris Witmore and Curtis L. Francisco’s journey through the environment surround the Jackpile-Paguate uranium mine in New Mexico. The mine was the largest open pit uranium mine in the world and functioned from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. The Laguna Pueblo people live in the lands surrounding the mine and many worked in the mine itself. The impact of the radiation unleashed from the exploitation of the mine into the region has been catastrophic for this community, as their lands, their homes, and the local landscape itself has become radioactive. While the mining company made an effort to remediate the mine, the site remains a superfund site, but mitigating the damage that the radiation has caused to the surrounding area seems impossible.

The contribution by Witmore and Francisco is not a straight forward discussion of the mine and its history and impacts, but a trip through the landscape surrounding the mine. By tracing the impacts of the mine on the ground through places, stories, and encounters, the deep integration of the radiation and the mine with the area becomes not clear —because this isn’t a story that requires or rewards clarity—but apparent against the shifting backdrop of the history, environment, and economy of the Pueblo community.

To be clear, Witmore and Francisco do not present their argument for the impact of the Jackpile-Paguate mine through some kind of radical or chimerical generic exploration. Their article is simply the synthesis of a series of trips and conversation through the area surrounding the mine. This approach to communicating and exploring the issues surrounding the impact of the mine, the ubiquity of the radiation that the mining unleashed, and the future of the people, animals, and plants that live in this tainted landscape, however, leads the reader away from any simple solution and toward a deeper appreciation of the complexities associated with life in the Anthropocene.

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In any event, this book is good and well worth the read even if the themes and participants publish almost as frequently as William Parker releases albums. There will be something familiar in this book and the work of these authors does not exist outside of the contemporary academic economy where production is measured in pages published and citations counted. That said, there is enough thought provoking here to be worth our time.

Romanland, Ethnicity, and Science Fiction

I’m running a little mini-seminar (not even a normal-sized mini-seminar!) on Late Antique and Byzantine history and hagiography this fall for a single student in the English department (“o tempora! o mores!” as the kids say). As I fumble around trying to get up to speed with my own reading in this area, I figured Anthony Kaldellis’s recent book Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (Harvard 2019) was as good as place as any to start in no small part because he had only recently prepared translations of a group of 9th and 10th Byzantine saints from Greece.

Kaldellis’s book has been out for long enough now that it’s seen any number of incisive and thoughtful reviews. So, I won’t bore you with another by someone who has been at the margins of the field for over a decade. Instead, I’ll offer a few observations on points that spoke to me.

1. Ethnicity, Armenians, and a Postscript. One of the most intriguing things about the book is the personal postscript appended to the end of chapter 5. Chapter 5 was a systematic critique of the what Kaldellis has called the “Armenian Fallacy,” which he defined as the tendency to search for and ultimately find Armenians throughout Byzantine history. Kaldellis argues that many of the individuals identified as Armenians or individuals of Armenian descent had assimilated into the Roman Empire to such a degree that they no longer possessed any meaningful Armenian identity. In other instances, he argued that in the discipline’s zeal to find Armenians in the highest ranks of the Byzantine state we’ve simply misidentified individuals as being of Armenian descent who were not. 

Kaldellis makes clear in his postscript that this chapter was not meant as a specific critique of Armenian scholars, who have historically led the charge to identify ethnic Armenians in Byzantine texts, but as a broader critique of the discipline’s overzealous efforts to identify particular ethnicities without the Byzantine state while overlooking the overwhelming evidence for individuals asserting their Roman identity and ethnicity. The personal postscript is a good indication of how high the stakes are in this work. As Kaldellis argues throughout the discourse surrounding ethnicity in the Byzantine world is not at all separate from efforts of 19th and 20th century nationalists to use their ties to Byzantine history to justify their cultural and political autonomy. In other words, Kaldellis, a Greek scholar who is very aware of the ties between Byzantine history and Greek irredentist movements in the 19th and early 20th century (and their tragic outcomes), anticipated that Armenian scholars and nationalists might see his critique of the “Armenian Fallacy” as an attack on their ethnic and national identities. This seems like a justifiable anxiety on Kaldellis’s part as not a week goes by without some article appearing on the status of Armenian churches within the territories contested between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan.

For Byzantinists, efforts to excavate national histories from the long-lived Roman Empire are not just pious mythologies with a certain outdated charm, but ongoing concerns that echo in contemporary geopolitics. 

2. Texts, Archaeology, and Material Culture. It would be unfair to say that Kaldellis has never been a particularly interested in or engaged with archaeology. After all, he has a book on the history of the Parthenon in the Medieval period and an early work that considers both the history and material culture of Byzantine Lesvos. That all said, he knows the limits of his expertise and doesn’t dive into the archaeology of ethnicity in this book. This is probably not a bad decision, but, if he did engage more fully with this discourse, I think there would be meaningful overlap with his work (and I suspect strongly that he knows that!). 

For example, the effort to find Slavs in the Peloponnesus on the basis of their ceramics, grave goods, and architecture has proven to be complicated. This is not because no Slavs existed in Greece, but because the Slavic “invasion” or migration was most likely gradual or episodic and involved considerable intermixing with the Roman population who had long lived in Central and Southern Greece. The presence of “Slavic” objects – whether hand-made pots or the infamous belt buckles – may well represent groups who had certain artistic and craft traditions, but  linking this neatly with ethnicity has proven pretty challenging especially as “Slavic” material often appears alongside material typically associated with long-standing Roman traditions. Whether this suggests the emergence of hybrid identities that shift constantly to leverage advantages associated with one or another group or the assimilation of the ethnically Slavic with their Roman neighbors remains a challenging question to explore and would, I suspect, complicate some of Kaldellis arguments. At the same time, he is right in observing that integration ultimately does produce a population that represents itself consistently as Roman well into the post-Byzantine period. How this transformation occurs, on the ground, is probably something best studied at the ground (or even subsurface) level!

3. Ethnicity in Science Fiction. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first two books of Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series. The books is set against the backdrop of the massively powerful Teixcalaanli empire which rules thousands of planets linked by jump gates. One of the main characters is Mahit Dzmare an ambassador from the tiny, but independent Lsel Station which drifts along just outside the borders of Teixcalaani space. Large parts of the narrative involve the negotiations of ethnic differences between Dzmare and her Teixcalaani liaison Three Seagrass.

What makes this relevant for Kaldellis’s book is that Martine was trained as a Byzantinist and studied, in particular, diplomatic and cultural relations between Byzantium and the Armenian Kingdom of Ani (Bagratid Armenia). This got me wondering whether her novels could function as an intriguing fictional cypher for understanding cultural relation during the Byzantine period. Her books are certainly more engaging reads than the average monograph on Byzantine studies and allow for Martine to explore in the ways in which groups defined themselves in relation to one another in both more overt and more subtle ways. The ability to explore the inner life of her characters, for example, allows her to consider the way in which individuals can to realize and negotiate personal identities in relation to “the other.” Martine does a really great job demonstrating how individuals felt ethnic differences and reading this against Kaldellis’s book which is naturally more interested in groups and texts than individuals.

In any event, Kaldellis’s book is worth reading (as is Martine’s Teixcalaan series). Both make compelling arguments for how societies and individuals constructed their identity in relation to “the other” (variously defined).  

The Future of Nuclear Waste

This weekend, I read Rosemary Joyce’s The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material (2020). It’s a pretty good book and I’ll almost certainly add it to my syllabus for the course I want to teach in the spring on “Things” (or something similar).

The book examines the efforts to develop a system of marking the location of nuclear waste deposited in deep storage designed to last for 10,000 years. The two major waste repositories, the WIPP site in New Mexico and the now stalled Yucca Mountain site, would receive some kind of marking which would discourage curious humans from excavating the site and releasing the radiation. Joyce’s work examines the assumptions that the two committees assembled by the US government used to make their arguments on the best way to mark out these sites. To generalize a complex process (and a complex and dense assemblage of documents) the two main considerations. The first thought it might be possible to mark out these sites through certain archetypal forms of expression that can serve as warning to humans even 10,000 years in the future. The other approach looked to past forms of monumentality and well-preserved objects and sought to incorporate durable material and forms into any project. Other considerations included the use of language, certain arrangements that would express warning or discourage curiosity, and even those that might ensure that might express the dangers of the site through the use of mutated vegetation.

Joyce was not especially interested in whether any of these proposals would work. After all, it is impossible to know how human society 10,000 (or even 2,000) years in the future might understand the monuments left behind. Instead, Joyce explores the common sense, cultural assumptions, and sometimes bizarre misapprehensions of archaeological knowledge that led various experts (although none of them are archaeologists) to assume that fired clay tablets might be the best way to communicate a message over millennia, that granite is the most durable stone available, and that past societies constructed monuments with the expectation that they would persist for thousands of years.

Joyce offers a detailed and nuanced primer for how sophisticated (and at times, just basic) archaeological knowledge throws into relief the assumptions that guide how we understand the past in the present. I was struck by Joyce’s thoughtful discussion of the tension between how archaeologists understand ancient monumentality and non-archaeologists engage with what we often call “heritage.” As someone who works on a local historic preservation commission alongside members of the community as well as historians, architects, archivists and other specialists, the issue of permanence or at very least persistence comes up in discussion. This often reflects an assumption that things worth preserving in our community have a kind of material persistence or permanence that connects them physically with the past. This is reinforced by an interpretation of National Register of Historic Places standards that emphasize “integrity.” While the National Park Service interprets integrity in a relatively broad way that goes well beyond the physical or material character of the building or structure, there is a tendency to conflate the material or even architectural integrity of a building with its ability to convey its historical significance. 

This, in turn, contributes to an assumption that the persistence of the old buildings and features into the present connects the present with the intentions of the past builders. (One can see how connecting the intention of those seeking to mark out the site of nuclear waste disposal with future groups would be a vital concern for the committees studied by Joyce). Of course, the understanding that people in the past and the present worked to maintain and adapt buildings to a wide range of needs complicates any view that past structures preserve a kind of physical integrity that persists over time (even if this is a narrow and overly literal reading of the National Register criteria). That said, it also pushes our committee to view more favorably structures built of materials perceived as being durable. In this situation, we sometimes imagine that the durability of the material itself communicates the persistence of the builder’s intentions. This, in turn, creates the illusion that we can experience a past that is not complicated by myriad episodes of subsequent interventions. 

The role of materiality, our interest in origins and intention, and our tendency to inscribe the (experience?) of the past itself on durable objects created the conditions that shaped the various approaches to the future on the committees tasked with marking out the nuclear waste deposits. While the book will not break any new ground for people who think about heritage, materiality, and the past in the present, the careful attention to the work of these committees will serve as an important reminder that these matters are not settled (even if they feel settled among archaeologists) and our discipline continues to serve an important role in informing not just what we know about the past, but how we mediate between the past, the present, and the future.

Fiction for History

Last week, I listened to my first audiobook: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. It was lavishly produced (I think) and featured numerous actors and accents to enliven a story with a genuinely global reach. It is worth reading (or listening to). 

The book tells the story of climate change the role of a ministry established by the Paris Climate Agreement and designed to represent future generations as well as all those living entities on the Earth that could not speak or represent themselves. What interested me more than the plot (which is a Robinsonian plot if there ever was one) was the way in which Robinson wrote the book. It consisted of 106 chapters, most of which were short. Some chapters were narrative, others were vignettes, some were short research briefs, and others were odd first person descriptions of various inanimate objects such as blockchain or a carbon molecule. As a result, the book had a intriguing rhythm to it (especially as an audiobook). Robinson did not rely upon the rather typical (especially in science fiction and fantasy) device of intertwined parallel narratives (and, indeed, Robinson used in, say, his book Red Mars), but rather produced a book that is fragmented, constantly interrupted, and comprised of related, but non-narrative fragments.

This style of writing got me thinking (once again) about how dependent we have become as academic authors on FORM. In fact, most academic books in my field are essentially the same form as most other academic books. This is convenient because it allows us a scholars to digest them quickly and focus our attention more on matters of evidence and argument than on the book’s organization or, for lack of a better word, narrative. This is appropriate because most academics have the skills and knowledge necessary to evaluate evidence and argument not only based on their internal arrangement (which as I’ve said tends to be more or less the same with every book), but also and more importantly based on the relationship of the evidence and argument to other external pieces of evidence and other arguments. As a result, it is pretty hard for someone who is not familiar with evidence and arguments at the core of a particular field to assess the validity or significance of an academic book or argument.

When historians and archaeologists attempt to adapt their writing to more popular audiences, we tend to default to forms of linear narratives derived from popular fiction and journalism. This produces texts that are familiar to a wide audience and that follow predictable arcs which tend to emphasize various kinds of heroic discovery or other tragic or comedic forms of emplotment that modern fiction (and non-fiction) has honed to a fine and familiar point. Authority in these works tends to rest, then, not on the quality of the story (although a fine storyteller can make even an old tired story come alive again), but usually on the authority of the storyteller. This is as much because a popular (that is non-scholarly) audience will probably struggle to assess the validity of specialized evidence (or be uninterested) as the form of the book is so typical and familiar to be rather indistinguishable from other books. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the argument or setting or time is the same, but that the general organization of the narrative follows a common and predictable trajectory populated with characters recognizable from elsewhere in our media saturated landscape.

In short, academic writing tends to be conservative whether intended for other academics or for a popular audience. This not only makes our work familiar and easy to digest and assess, but also supports our claims to a seriousness of purpose. When academic authors stray too far from the conventional forms, they are frequently accused of not being sufficiently serious or professional in their approach and this makes it easier to dismiss their arguments.

Robinson’s book, of course, is fiction and therefore removed from the constraints that shape scholarly work. By blending research and narrative, Robinson creates space to consider the social, political, and economic situation of a near-future existentially challenged by catastrophic climate change. The disrupted narrative embodies the poly-vocal (and at times cacophonic) discourse that emerges at the end of the world.

At the same time, the main narrative that runs through the book is a retelling of one of the most familiar stories in the world: the Gospels. The main character is Mary, a diplomat, who transforms the Ministry for the Future into a major force for global change. This occurred after a conversion experience. She is taken hostage by Frank, a man who survived a catastrophic Indian heat wave that killed 20 million people by sheltering in a pond surrounded by thousands of Indians who were dead or dying. This horrific baptism led Frank to period of wandering (in deserto) and growing radicalism that culminates in his abduction of Mary.

Maybe Mary is more like Jesus. Or maybe she is more like the Virgin. In some sense it doesn’t matter because she’s a familiar character whatever her analogue is in the Gospel narrative. She is surrounded by  apostles, who make up her staff, and include figures who are like Peter, Thomas, and the others (even if there is no conspicuous Judas) and some of whom become martyrs for the cause. Her Ministry (pun intended) introduces new laws designed to address not only the deteriorating situation but also to create new institutions that will replace those that are no longer adequate for the new world. To make sure that the daft reader, distracted and disconcerted by a narrative interrupted by fragments, digressions, and changing perspectives, doesn’t miss the explicitly millenarian arc, the final scenes of the book take place on Mardi Gras, the last big party before the rigorous preparation of Lent. This leads the reader to understand that this is not even the beginning, but really the end of the end, and the moment when the real hard work in anticipation and in preparation for the Resurrection starts.

Robinson’s book is a hard, serious, and uncomfortable read. It asks hard questions: are we ready to think about our future differently now or will we have to experience unthinkable horrors to make the necessary changes? 

As importantly, do contemporary academic and popular narratives have the necessary power to change hearts and minds? Or do we have to find new ways to communicate new ideas? 

A Few Travel Notes on a Tour of the COVID-Cooridor

It’s catch-up day on the ole bloggeroo. My apologies for the somewhat erratic posting over the last two weeks. Now that I’m back home from a 5000+ mile road trip through the heart of COVID country, we will return to regularly scheduled programming. 

As part of that, I’d like to offer a few somewhat playful (but also honest) notes about my travels these past few weeks.

1. COVID Conscious. We did not spend the same amount of time in every state that we passed through, although we did spend at least one night in Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama. Of those five states, Alabama was the most mask conscious. In fact, several fast food restaurants where we stopped for some road food had their dining rooms closed to limit the spread of COVID. We ate in places that required masks and most service personnel wore masks. The same was true in St. Louis, but not the case in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. 

2. Traffic. I was really surprised by how little traffic there was on the roads and generally how easy it was to travel through the southeast (with the exception of South Carolina). One of the more amusing things was noticing that drivers of Nissan Altimas and Chevy Tahoe/Yukons were by far the most aggressive and (to my mind) reckless drivers.

3. Landscapes. Perhaps it’s living in a place that is among the flattest in the world, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the diversity in the landscapes that we saw on our travels. Even traveling by interstate, I became fascinated by the subtle changes in topography and vegetation on our travels. The undulations of central Virginia, the jagged hills of around Birmingham, Alabama, the highway cut into the mountains of West Virginia, and the flat expanse of the Missouri valley in Iowa all struck me as particularly distinct, and while not unexpected, I feel like I appreciated the topography more after over a decade of traveling back and forth across the country largely in an airplane.

4. Seascapes. One of the coolest experiences that I had on my travels was a couple of boat tours of the Roosevelt Channel which runs between the islands of Captiva and Pine Island on the west coast of Florida. In particular I enjoyed a tour given by Brian Holaway who not only demonstrated a remarkable ability to read the landscape of low-lying barrier islands and, as impressively, the seascape of sand bars, channels, and buildings.

For example, I was fascinated by the Punta Gorda Company Ice House in the Safety Harbor off North Captiva Island (PDF of the National Register registration here). Set out on stilts, fishermen would bring their catch to the ice house, which would give them credit and transfer the fish to the mainland for sale. 

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We also cruised by the “Fish House” owned by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and built originally by J.N. “Ding” Darling. Darling who was a political cartoonist and conservationist, built the house in 1942 and the surrounding land as a base for his conservation efforts. It was purchased and is maintained by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation as part of an artist-in-residence program. 

He also took us to a shell mound on the island off Cayo Costa. I assumed that this shell pile might be a midden of some description, but our guide suggested that its size and the uniformity of shells might hint a ritual or ceremonial function. In any event, the site was impressive with large shells tumbling down the mound into the sea:

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5. Listening and Driving. For the first time in my life, I listened to an audio book!! Don’t judge me!! I downloaded Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, The Ministry for the Future (2020). I feel like this book deserves its own blog post, but the audiobook ran for over 20 hours of my 30+ hour drive and provided a distinct soundtrack to the low rumble of my truck’s big diesel engine.

It’s a bit odd not to have a paper (or even digital) book to fall back on for plot points or to check spellings. So I’m not entirely sure what my review will look like, but it probably won’t be any more impressionistic than my usual reviews!  

The Swamp Peddlers

This week, I’m vacationing in Florida with my family and it seemed like a good time to read Jason Vuic’s new book, The Swamp Peddlers:  How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream (UNC 2021). Some readers of my blog might remember my long-standing fascination with the huge platted communities here in Florida. Places like Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Golden Gate, and Port Charlotte. That said, I really didn’t know the history of these places and why their sprawling street grids often lacked homes and seemed to be fading into the Florida wilderness. 

Vuic’s book answers this question in style. Most of the places that had so fascinated me were schemes by developers, lots sellers, and land scammers to attract money from middle-class retirees in the north and midwest by offering them lots on installment plans. In some cases these lots were simply not buildable owing to the seasonal flooding or inadequate infrastructure. In other cases, these lots were undesirable because they formed parts of sprawling developments that lacked room for commercial development, lacked amenities, and fell far short of the promises made by developers. In other words, these neatly platted, but empty developments represented a combination of areas never suitable for building, failed ambition, and inadequate planning. Vuic’s book unpacks the various schemes, scams, and personalities that led to this distinctive landscape.

The archaeologist in me is fascinated by the history of these marginal places. They don’t represent traditional example of abandonment in that they were never really used intensively. At the same time, these spaces did see uses ranging from intermittent development to illegal marijuana farming, land strips for small airplanes, or, in the case of River Ranch Acres, as hunting, camping, and squatting grounds.

There is something about these spaces at the very edges of capitalism. In many ways, they’re shaped by capital, but they also somehow exist at the edges of what capitalism sought to project onto the landscape. Squatters, drug runners, hermits, and loners have founds a sense of place in these strangely marginal places in our landscape. A project designed to document the use of these spaces would shed light on how places carved out of the Florida wilderness through dodgy land schemes mapped out the rough edges of capitalism. These places sought to create ambivalent futures that were suspended between the dreams of the post-war suburban middle class and the avarice of developers.

Needless to say, I’ll likely never pursue this project, but the more I read about these developments in Florida the more fascinated I am about their potential to reveal something about how we negotiate our relationship with not only the future, but also capital.

Photo Friday and a Few Random Links

It’s the start of the “Frog Days of Summer” when it’s so hot, we all become a bit amphibious to beat the heat. 

The dogs are doing their best to keep cool and hydrated.

The Barge in Summer

and to endure the terror of summer thunderstorms.

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I still don’t have quite enough energy for a full on “Quick Hits and Varia,” but a few links to some late-summer reading never go astray. Do check out Carl Schiffman’s essay posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog or reminisce about a summer on Swan’s Island with the late Donald Junkins.

If you have a digital project that you love, do consider nominating it for the AIA Award for Outstanding Work in Digital Archaeology

If you’re looking for something at the intersection of poetry and photography, check out Kyle Cassidy’s Optimized for Likes: Kerning the Human Altered Landscape. It’s $3 and you can get the PDF here.

If you have itchy writing figures, do consider submitting something to this coming fall’s pilgrimCHAT conference. You can read the CFP here.

This is a neat little piece on jazz violinist Billy Bang.

I’m reading Rosemary Joyce’s The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material. Oxford 2020.

Islands of Abandonment

Over the weekend, I read Cal Flyn’s delightful Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape (Viking 2021). I read it, in part, because about five people recommended it to me and, in part, because it felt like the kind of quality non-academic non-fiction that maybe could appear in a class that I might teach in the spring: readings on things. I also had hoped that it might give me some ideas for a paper on the Grand Forks’ Greenway that I’m mulling over for Novembers CHAT conference.

More than any of that, the book is a really great summer read and can be consumed in just one or two sittings. Since it’s a fun and easy read, I’ll spare you the summary and just note a few points that I took away from the book.

1. A Taste of The Mushroom at the End of the World. One of my favorite books of the last few years has been Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton 2015). Islands of Abandonment offers an easy taste of one tiny aspect of Tsing’s work: Flyn explores the forms of flora and fauna that appear in land heavily damaged by human activities. From the disposal of arsenic based weapons in the aftermath of World War I to the coral reefs of Bikini Atoll and the massive shale slag heaps Five Sisters Bing in Scotland, Flyn demonstrates how certain plants and animals find ways to colonize even the most toxic and damaged landscapes. For Tsing, the matusake mushroom, which needs similar environments to thrive, represented both a real example of life in landscapes laid waste by human hands and a metaphor for communities that have emerged at the margins of the modern world. For Flyn, this is just a bit more literal and offers a view of Lovelock and Margulis Gaia Hypothesis which regards the earth as a self-balancing system tempered by the quip from Jurassic Park: nature finds a way. 

2. Corridors and Waypoints. One of the reasons that people recommended the book to me is that Flyn discusses the environment of the Green Line on Cyprus which has become an important corridor for wildlife including the elusive mouflon. During our time working just south of the Green Line in the Sovereign Base Area of the British Dhekelia Cantoment, we regularly encountered environmental scientists, naturalists, and botanists who were documenting the animals and plants that lived in the buffer zone between the built up southern coast of Cyprus and the British bases and along the Green Line. While the “rebounding” of nature in this area is hardly a dividend for the destruction, displacement, and tragedy of the Turkish invasion, it is a lovely example of how nature comes to occupy the interstices of the human world. 

A similar intriguing example is offered by the Salton Sea in California that appeared when the Colorado River overran an irrigation channel in 1905. For a half-century the Salton Sea was a resort destination for both humans living in Southern California, but also a wide range of birds who made the sea a waypoint in their migrations, fish introduced by humans and that found their way into the sea through other means, and various forms of plants and algae. Even in recent years where draughts, field run off, and various other hydrological challenges have turned the sea into seething environment disaster, certain forms of nature – including the seemingly indestructible desert pupfish – continue to thrive in its deoxygenated and toxic waters.

3. Managing Nature. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Flyn’s engagement with folks who are struggling to balance managing nature in the aftermath of catastrophic human impacts and allowing landscapes to follow their own course. For example, there is a team of residents in Detroit who go out and mow the grass in abandoned parks and blighted houses in an effort to stem the appearance of neglect and show the presence of care. Flyn visits an abandoned botanical research institute in Tanzania where non-native species have invaded the surrounding forest and appear to threaten its distinctive ecosystem. 

In Detroit, the lawn mowers observe that if you mow the grass three times, it becomes a lawn, showing how human intervention is necessary to bring nature to heel. In Tanzania, curiously enough, the initial rampant growth of non-native species seems to have stalled suggesting in some cases human management is not necessary and natural systems do have ways to self-balance.

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Ultimately the book is long on description and short on universal observations. That said, it’s power comes from the kinds of metaphors that it offers. The book is a literal panarion of metaphors anchored in real encounters between humans and nature. Resilience, perseverance, happenstance, tragedy, and hubris play out across multiple landscapes, situations, and encounters. In Cal Flyn’s able hands, nature is more than a force that merely reacts and adapts to human interventions, but an independent agent that reward constant and careful observation. For Flyn, nature doesn’t follow a particular narrative or tell a single story, but offers abundant metaphors for understanding the human condition.

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 2)

Yesterday, I began to work on a little review essay that considers some of recent work on Sun Ra including last year’s Arkestra album Swirling, the re-release of Sun Ra’s 1979 classic Languidity, and the recordings from the Arkestra’s 1971 tour of Egypt. Today, I turn to William Sites’ book Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) as a way to give some background to Sun Ra’s career and personal philosophy and set it against the backdrop of mid-century American urbanism and the Black experience.  

Sun Ra’s legacy, in many ways, is split between his idiosyncratic, larger-than-life personality and his music. Born Herman Blount, he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra in the 1940s when he moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Chicago. William Sites’ book Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) traces Herman Blount’s journey from the steel town of Birmingham to Chicago. Sites suggested that Blout’s upbringing and early career in Birmingham provided one key for understanding his later development as a musician and thinkers. In that city, Blount developed musical discipline at the city’s industrial high school designed, in part, to prepare Black youth for jobs in Birmingham’s industrial sector. From these encounters Blount developed his famous commitment to discipline which shape the expectations that he had for his musicians. It also instilled within him a commitment to personal betterment and advancement that was consistent with efforts in the Black community to leverage industrialization as a way to develop social, economic, and political power.

During his time in Alabama, he also had his first encounters with Afrocentric thought. Sites notes that Birmingham had Moorish Science Temple with its connections to the Masons and its distinctive blend of Afrocentric mysticism and Near Eastern lore. After high school Blount briefly attended Alabama A&M, whose founder and longtime president, William Hooper Councill (1848–1909), composed several tracts tracing the history of the Black race during his time as president of the institution. Bount’s time there may have overlapped with the Guyanese writer George G. M. James, whose Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (1935) was a rather widely circulated Afrocentric text that appeared in Sun Ra’s personal library.

It is also during his time at Alabama A&M that he was abducted by aliens and experienced an epiphany. While the exact details of his abduction remain unclear, it appears that his encounter confirmed in his own mind that he was set apart for special things. In some accounts, this encounter make him recognize that he is from outer space. Whatever the precise details of this event, it transformed Blount’s view of himself and it shaped his musical identity as well.

By the time he relocated to Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood in the late 1940s, he had has begun to develop his interest in an Afrocentric view of the world which he ultimately melded with his distinctive form of Afrofuturism. In collaboration with Alton Abraham his longtime business partner with whom he co-founded Saturn Records, Sun Ra developed the Thmei Institute. This loosely organized group of intellectuals published a series of partly mystical and partly historical broadsheets that blended theosophy, Egyptology, numerology, Christianity, and philosophy. These works set out a path for enlightenment and liberation for Black people by appealing not only to the potential of an expanded spiritual life which often drew on mystical readings of the Bible, but also to various stripes of pan-Africanism and more conventional Garveyite overtones. 

Sites argued that Sun Ra’s philosophy in the 1950s and early 1960s developed in the spatial context of post-war Bronzeville, Chicago. Concepts of urbanism changed in the post-war period as white cities increasing viewed with suspicion the growth of a prosperous and independent Black communities of the interwar period. At the same time, an increasingly disillusioned Black population realized that the promises of post-war prosperity and expanded rights grounded in the shared sacrifice of military service would not be forthcoming. In fact, Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s was characterized by aggressive efforts to limit the expansion of Black neighborhoods, through urban renewal projects that often targeted low-cost housing and Black businesses. This complemented the growth of new ideas and expectations of middle class life anchored in a rapidly developing halo of suburbs. For Sites, the growing discontent played out in Washington Park where various groups, from the Nation of Islam to Sun Ra’s Thmei collective, offered new visions of a Black future as well as new perspectives on the Black past.

Swirling draws heavily on Sun Ra’s legacy as an Afrofuturist thinker highlighting his vision of the future more than a vision of a Black past. Sites connects “Rocket No. 9” with a series of pieces that traces the route of a futuristic version of Chicago’s elevated railway across an interplanetary landscape (Sites 198-199). The call “Rocket No. 9 take off for the planet Venus” mimics the departure call of a future shuttle complete with departure tones that would sound appropriate on a modern subway. The version of the song recorded toward the end of Sun Ra’s time in Chicago included a final verse with the chant “The second stop is Jupiter” that further reinforces the connection between the rocket and a railway. Sites suggests that these pieces superimpose intergalactic imagery on the expanding suburban landscape of Chicago with the El taking Black riders not just out of the increasingly circumscribed Black neighborhoods but outward toward the newly emerging middle class suburbs. The absence of the final verse in the most recent arrangement of the piece perhaps reflects a bit of pessimism in the current situation and circumscribes some of limitlessness of the outer space and perhaps the aspirations for a contemporary Black middle class.   

Three Things Thursday: Blogging, Archaeology and Climate, and Poetry

I’ve reached the point of the summer when all my projects seem to melt together into chaotic ball of deadlines, half-met expectations, and long bikes rides. Needless to say, it has not been very productive.

At the same time, I am having fun thinking about things to blog about and then stretching my morning blogging time well into my second cup of coffee. So this morning, I have three things that might, someday, mature into full blog posts.

Thing the First

Years ago (let’s say 2008), I wrote a piece on the archaeology of blogging (and blogging archaeology) for Archaeology magazine’s website. I returned to some of the ideas in that article with a piece co-written by Andrew Reinhard for Internet Archaeology which considered the place of blogs in the academic ecosystem.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how blogging has changed over the past five years. When I started blogging, I imagined an audience who would be interested in understanding how the [academic] sausage was made. Along those lines, my blog would serve as part idea box, part academic scratch pad, and part preview channel for my various research interests. At my most optimistic, I considered it to be living supplement to my academic CV (with occasional dog photo!) and as a way to move back the veil on how academics produce new knowledge. In any event, it may be that this was an optimistic program from the start, but I continue to think that it has relevance. I suspect that this is even more true for today as the general public has become increasingly invested in understanding how scientific knowledge forms the basis for public policy, authority, and expertise.

That said, I can completely understand how my blog is not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, it seems like public scholarship has two main areas of emphasis. One is works that approach historical problems with a journalistic flair for narrative, description, and analysis. Ed Watt’s recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic fits this category as do works by the likes of Eric Cline or my colleague Eric Burin. These works have the potential to attract the elusive crossover audience that includes both academics and the general public and have emerged as a revenue stream for publishers and scholars alike. This is important at a time when library purchasing power is in decline and faculty salaries have tended to stagnate.

The other major strain in public scholarship, and one that has particular prominence in the blogging community, is politically engaged outreach. This involves writing — often for blogs, but also in more established publications — on both academic issues that have an impact on contemporary society and in efforts to demonstrate how the contemporary political discourse has had an impact on what we do as researchers. I find the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, and the folks who blog at places like Everyday Orientalism (and previously Eidolon) compelling and important voices. At the same time, I recognize that this kind of public outreach often puts you in the crosshairs of the political outrage machine on social media. On the other hand, their work also attracts significant positive attention from readers within and outside the academy and if the goal of public outreach is actually reaching the public, then these authors have succeeded in spades. 

That said, it is a very different kind of blogging than what I envisioned when I started my blog and one wonders whether the changing political and cultural economy of academia has fundamentally transformed the character of outreach and public oriented scholarship? 

Thing the Second

I really enjoyed this article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Karim Alizadeh, M. Rouhollah Mohammadi, Sepideh Maziar, and Mohmmad Feizkhah titled: “The Islamic Conquest or Flooding? Sasanian Settlements and Irrigation Systems Collapse in Mughan, Iranian Azerbaijan.” It is another in the recent gaggle of articles interested in considering the role of climate change in the transformation of settlement and activity in the ancient Mediterranean (broadly construed) landscape. Alizadeh and colleagues look at evidence for fortifications and irrigation systems in the Mughan Steppe region of the Azerbaijan-Iranian borderland.

They argue that the Sassanians constructed a complex network of irrigation canals throughout the region that only faltered as a result of two major flooding events in the 7th century. These floods cut down the Aras River bed making disrupting its relationship to the steppe’s irrigation network. These flooding events may well be connected to changes in climate and hydrology precipitated by the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The subsequent abandonment of settlement in the Mughan Steppe in the late 7th century, then, may not be related to the Muslim Conquests and the arrival of Muslim military forces in the world. Or, alternately, the faltering irrigation may have made the regional less resilient in the face of political and military challenges. 

This kind of work has had me thinking more carefully about the settlement change in Greece in the 7th century and the relationship between climate change, changes in economic structures, and the evident reorganization of Greek rural settlement. While the data that we have for the environmental conditions at the local level remains fragmentary and inconclusive, comparisons with other regions of the Mediterranean give us another reason to resist assuming that political and military events precipitated changes in the settlement and economy.   

Thing the Third

Do go and check out the North Dakota Quarterly blog today. I’ve posted a poem by John Walser titled “Chronoscope 181: And that spot.” It’s a great example of how poetry (and music!) can do things with time that we struggle to accomplish in the more linear world of academic prose. Plus, it’s a perfect poem to read heading into midsummer and thinking about how long days can slow down time and make even the chaotic disorganization of summer feel like something significant…