Preview Friday at The Digital Press

I know that Friday is traditionally reserved for my quick hits and varia, but the last couple of summers, I’ve taken a bit of a break from that. 

I do want to send along something to read over the long weekend, though.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is offering a timely preview of a project that will appear this fall: Eric Burin’s Protesting on Bended Knee. This book brings together a diverse group of 30 voices writing about the roots, politics, history, and social impact of Colin Kaepernick’s protests. 

Check out the preview here and stay tuned for some more sneak peaks over the next couple of months!

PoBK Draft Cover

Surfaces in the Bakken

This week, I’ve been sneaking in some time to finish Maya Rao’s Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier (2018). It is a familiar book and echos many of the themes and characters present in Blaire Briody’s The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (2017). They’re both good reads.

But both books also bother me. Some of my complaints are the standard kind. Briody and Rao tend to focus on a particular cross section of the Bakken: people with troubled pasts who came to North Dakota during the boom either to strike it rich or, at least, to escape from their previous lives. Many deal with issues of addiction, violence, poverty, or other social ills, but their willingness to come to the Bakken offers a glimmer of redemption for these characters. Whatever difficulties that they have faced in life, Briody and Rao emphasize that individuals who trekked to the Bakken made their own decisions and retained their own agency. This agency, however, is a bit toxic in that it only establishes these figures as tragic heroes who cannot escape their own past despite their efforts. 

The tragic figures who populate these two books create a kind of tension. On the one hand, reading about the lives of these individuals is sufficiently removed from a kind of imagined suburban norm to represent some kind of economically, socially, or morally compromised “other.” On the other hand, their inability to escape their past remains us of destruction wrought by the Bakken boom on communities and the landscape. In other words, both authors push us to consider whether we can dismiss these individuals as damaged dreamers who came to the Bakken in an effort to redeem compromised lives or whether we are fundamentally similar to these individuals. Perhaps our thirst for fossil fuels, material things, and wealth has made us complicit in the both the social and environmental ruin that the Bakken seems to promise. 

If this argument runs through each of these book, it’s implicit. (Especially in comparison to Matt Hern, Am Johal, and Joe Sacco’s remarkable Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017)).

There is a superficiality to Briody’s and Rao’s books. That is not to say that they are not well-researched, well-written, or carefully arranged, but that their main interest is the surface. The descriptions Rao’s book are particularly intriguing. They trace the contours of the Bakken in great detail from the rugged badlands of McKenzie County to the featureless prairies of the US-Canadian border. The characters are likewise drawn in careful detail with drug dealing ex-strippers, struggling fathers, wealthy tricksters, and wary locals rubbing shoulders and weaving tales. The work of the oil fields also received sustained attention with drilling, fracking, wastewater disposal, driving trucks, and even “stacking” drill rigs described in detail. Truck stops, watering holes, restaurants, and RVs served as interview rooms and background for much of the book.  

The fascinating thing about Rao’s richly drawn landscapes and figures is that they were so gently superimposed on one another. They spaces and people produce exotic places that are as ephemeral as the boom itself. The surfaces glided seamlessly beneath each other without the creation of depth or substance like diaphanous drapery that only hints at its existence while leaving what it covers exposed. 

The expansiveness of these transparent – or at least translucent – surfaces eliminates any space for the kind of ironic revelations that are so familiar in academic writing. What you see is literally what you see. It does not stand in for something else. It does not craftily allude to its opposite. It barely trades in implicitness beyond the simple notion that in the 21st century we’re all tragic characters in the fight against environmental degradation, precarity, and exploitative practices inherent to capitalism and extractive industries.

I tend to think that the daily confrontation with the seemingly intractable challenges of capital, precarity, and climate change has revealed the variegated surfaces that these phenomena have produced. There is no larger lesson, there is not reality that lurks beneath these “structures,” and there is little to brook any deeper interpretation that goes beyond nuanced description. Even history itself succumbs to the expansiveness of this surface. The California Gold Rush, the Alaska pipeline rush, and the first boom are simply variations on the theme of booms, busts, and opportunism. For Rao, dreams and dreamers are just that. They don’t reveal some long suppressed wish, injury, or hope. Rao’s Bakken dreamers ARE these hopes, wishes, and scars. Interpretation is unnecessary and probably futile.  

In this way, Rao’s and Briody’s books stand as an explicit and familiar monuments that tells a well-known tale. The surfaces prepared by these authors offers the kind of complicated reflection that makes the possibility of othering the denizens of the Bakken impossible. We are what we see in the Borgesian surface that extends in all directions. There’s no need to dig any deeper because it’s just surface, all the way down. 

Summer Reading List

It’s almost summer here in North Dakotaland and while I continue to dream about wrapping up my various projects from the spring (and the winter and the fall and last summer). 

You can check out my past reading lists here: 20172016201520142013, and 2011. A quick read of these lists presents a litany of failed ambition rather than the story of my intellectual growth. Nevertheless, because I have to take most of my reading with me to Greece and Cyprus, there is a selection process that is less than simply random. In other words, once I have to plan, I might as well make a list.

First, there are two new books in my field that I need to read. In Cyprus, I plan to read Marietta Horster, Doria Nicolaou, and Sabine Rogge eds., Church Building in Cyprus (Fourth to Seventh Centuries): A Mirror of Intercultural Contacts in the Eastern Mediterranean. (2018). In Greece, I’ll like turn my attention to Amelia Brown’s new book Corinth in Late Antiquity: A Greek, Roman, and Christian City. (2018). The latest issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice is dedicated to digital data reuse in archaeology and that seems relevant as my various projects look ahead to investing some significant time into preparing our data for publication.

My reading in the historical archaeology of the American West and the archaeology of the contemporary world will take a bit of a pause this summer, although I’m keen to spend more time with Mark S Warner and Margaret Sermons Purser’s Historical Archaeology through a Western Lens (2018) and to revisit some classics of the field including Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer’s Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (1981), Cornelius Holtorf and Angela Piccini’s Contemporary Archaeology: Excavating Now (2006), Paul Graves-Brown’s Matter, Materiality, and Modern Culture (2012) and Sefryn Penrose’s (et al.) Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape (2010). In this same context, I’ll probably have to re-read David Beer’s Punk Sociology (2014) as I put together a draft of my paper for this fall’s European Archaeological Association annual meeting.

I’m going to putt off surfing the Edinburgh History of the Greeks until a bit later in the summer as I prepare my Greek history class for the fall. 

I also want to read some fiction. I was taken by a recent review of the republication of Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978), in part because reviewers gave it a bit of Under the Vulcano (1968) vibe. I’ve also Kindled up Andrew Sean Greer’s Less: A Novel (2017).

I’ve also queued up four of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel’s A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Lathe of Heaven. And on various recommendations from social media colleagues, I’ve added the first two novels of Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle

Finally, I read a little interview with the Peter Ginna in the Chronicle of Higher Education and picked up his new book on editing.

This reading will be in addition to a few other projects that continue to simmer away and require a certain amount of maintenance reading over the summer. For example, North Dakota Quarterly has reopened submissions and The Digital Press has an important work pretty far into the pipeline and literally begging for a first read!

Finally, I’ve been threatening my fellow editors at NDQ to start reading some poetry. The advantages of poetry books is that they’re small and while they might be heavy in content, they tend to be light in form. I’ll likely drop a couple in my bag for the odd evening read.

The Letters of Edward P. Roberston of Wesley College

This semester, I’ve been working with a remarkable group of students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. The goal of this project is to document the four buildings on campus associated with Wesley College, a unique co-institutional college that worked alongside UND to provide music, religious education, and housing for students enrolled in both UND and Wesley College. As part of that project, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Wesley College papers and have become transfixed by the work and personality of the College’s first president, Edward P. Robertson. I thought I might share some of his personality with a wider audience by putting together a dossier of his letters from 1935, five years after he had retired as president of Wesley College. The letters were written during the Great Depression when the fate of Wesley College was anything but certain. Robertson’s dedication, persistence, and charm comes through in these letters composed during these difficult times. 

Here’s the link. This is just a first draft of this work. Here’s my temporary cover with the preface below: 

LettersRobertsonCover6 01

The Letters of Edward Robertson, President Emeritus, Wesley College, from 1935

Preface

This collection of letters by Dr. Edward P. Robertson is the first draft of a hazy idea that I’ll attempt to explain in this short preface.

Dr. Edward Peter Robertson was the first president of Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was hired by the board of trustees of Red River Valley University in Whapeton, North Dakota in 1899. After a few years in Whapeton, he and the board decided that Grand Forks, North Dakota offered better opportunities for an institution of higher learning, and he successfully oversaw the moving of Red River Valley University from Whapeton to Grand Forks, where he rechristened it, Wesley College, in 1905. The reasons for this move are both complex and simple. Robertson felt that there was a better chance for the college to attract students and raise the necessary funds to operate if it were closer to the center of the state’s population which was largely concentrated in the Red River valley. From early on, Roberston recognized the importance of raising money from donors for Wesley College to succeed, and this understanding would shape his presidency and legacy.

This is not to suggest that he neglected the intellectual and spiritual aspects of running a Methodist College. In fact, the other reason that he founded Wesley College in Grand Forks was because of a remarkable arrangement he struck with the President of the University of North Dakota, Webster Merrifield. Merrifield and Robertson agreed that Wesley College would offer housing and courses for University of North Dakota students in religion, music, and elocution and expression and that these courses would count for credit at UND.

In 1908, 1909, and 1910, the first of three buildings at Wesley College opened, Sayre Hall, Larimore Hall, and Corwin Hall. The first two were men’s and women’s dormitories respectively and the third offered space for the music program and university offices. It is no exaggeration to say that in its first two decades, Wesley College moved from strength to strength with programs regularly enrolling as many as 400 students at various levels. They also maintained the attention of loyal and generous donors who ensured that the College had more than tuition and housing fees alone could provide.

The 1920s and early-1930s, however, were more difficult times. The agricultural crisis of the 1920s was bad for North Dakota, Wesley College students, and local donors. This did not discourage Robertson from securing funding from John Milton Hancock for the construction of what would become Robertson Hall which opened in 1930 and which completed a plan for the Wesley College first conceived in 1905.

The same year also saw Robertson’s retirement from the office of President of Wesley College, but the onset of the Great Depression and the worsening of the College’s financial situation, meant that his services were more needed than ever. Almost as soon as he had retired, the 70-year-old Robertson began to canvass his long-time donors for the increasingly urgent needs of the College. Unfortunately, many of these families suffered from the same economic woes as so many Americans and could no longer afford the same generosity that they had shown in the past. More troubling still is that some of the long-time supporters of the College had begun to question whether this undertaking would survive.

Frank Lynch, one of the more devoted supporters of Wesley College, withdrew his support and then agreed to donate more only if Wesley College could raise some funds first. Unfortunately, the details of this agreement remain a bit obscure (although some or another document may well emerge from the archives illuminating the agreement in detail). It appears as though Lynch offered Wesley College $150,000 in his will for an endowment in addition to $25,000 which he would make available immediately if College’s could manage to raise the necessary funds to pay its debt of $60,000 and to cover operating expenses. Using this offer, Robertson began a letter writing campaign to raise the needed funds.

The letters published here come from the Wesley College Papers (UA63, Box 1) currently housed in UND’s Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collection’s University Archives. They all date from the year 1935 and document Robertson’s efforts to raise money on the basis of the Frank Lynch offers and to manage or eliminate the College’s debt. They reflect both Roberston’s determination and passion for Wesley College as well as a kind of congenial and person style of writing. The letters reveal the economic challenges of the time, extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion, and even some of the mundane obstacles that face anyone attempting to do good. They also lay bare Robertson’s occasional frustrations, disappointments, and genuine concern surrounding the fate of the institution to which he devoted his life.

More than that, they’re touching to read.

This publication is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a multidisciplinary project to celebrate both the history of Wesley College and its unique place in the history of the University of North Dakota. In June of this year, the four major buildings of Wesley College are slated for demolition, but it is our hope that documenting these buildings and the Wesley College story will keep the College’s memory alive.

As I noted in the onset of this document, this is a draft publication which will hopefully develop over time and be joined by other works that tell the story of Wesley College. We hope the story of this college and the characters who shared its vision offers enduring perspectives that continue to have meaning today.  

Special thanks goes to the ten students who have worked with me on this project and the staff of UND’s Special Collections and UND’s Facilities Department who have facilitated our research throughout.

William Caraher

Associate Professor
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

The Dark Abyss of Time

This weekend, read Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (2011). It’s good. 

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been slowly drawn back to the topic of time and archaeology and history over the the last year. Some of this come from my recent, largely stalled, efforts to sort out what it means to produce an archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I am interested in understanding what it means for an archaeologist to be contemporary with a particular artifact, object, building, or event

Olivier does not comment on this directly, but as the title of his book suggests, he recognizes the past and the present as being distinctly separate with the position of the archaeologist and the position of an object from the past being incommensurate points. These points, however, are not necessarily on a linear continuum, but like objects in our unconscious that appear in the present but are clearly of the past. As archaeologists, our job is to make sense of these objects in our present world and to attempt to comprehend both their pastness and their nowness. 

This perspective is intriguing to me, in part, because it situates archaeological knowledge as a challenge to the assumptions of linearity that define the modern world. The modern concept of progress assumes that the present overwrites the past as it builds upon it toward a new future. The existence of the past in the present, however, whether through patina, the unexpected appearance of an object, or through traditions, monuments, or excavation, confound the linear progress of time and create the space of a discontinuous present. This kind of contemporaneity between the past and the present suggests that archaeological time is deeply anti-modern in its conceptualization of the world. 

This got me thinking about some of our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the buildings, Sayre Hall, is a memorial to Harold Sayre who died in the 1918 in World War I. Olivier’s book reminded me of the deep irony that this building will be demolished in 2018, in the name of modern progress. World War I was a truly modern war that both on display the horrible achievements of the modern Industrial Age and shook the confidence of a world that looked toward modernity as the end to the conflicts had defined the “barbarism” of the pre-modern world. It seems to me that nothing better highlights to dehumanizing cost of modernity that the destruction of a monument to a soldier who died fighting in modernity’s war.

On a less somber note, this weekend, I wrote an (overly long) email to my colleagues on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation in my ongoing effort to understand how the Atari games became archaeological artifacts.

Here’s more or less what I wrote:

As you can probably tell from some of my writing, I’ve increasingly seen the games themselves as a bit of McGuffin. After all, there wasn’t any great mystery regarding whether the games were actually there or not – that was pretty well-known and documented. Moreover, even if there are open questions concerning how many games were deposited and for what purpose, these questions are much more likely to be answered through careful archival work than excavating an entire landfill.

So the question that has been bothering me is why did these games become the object of archaeological work. After all, it’s pretty rare that archaeologists excavate something for no other reason than to check on archival records. This isn’t a super solid research question, of course, but we can get a pass because we didn’t properly speaking organize the excavation. From what I can tell, the excavation was designed to resolve the urban legend, but this simply changes the question a bit and asks “why did the urban legend emerge?” That question is to me, basically the same as “why did we excavate the games?”

Olivier’s book plays around a good bit with Freud, which I think is pretty helpful as Zak Penn’s documentary is [almost] explicitly Freudian and our “quest” for the games is essentially an effort to interrogate or critique modernity (or at very least demonstrate that despite modernity we can still create meaning in the past). Olivier likens the archaeological record to our unconscious in that it exists in fragments of the past that appear through excavation in the present. In other words, like Freud’s unconscious, the archaeological record – objects – are transposed from the past into the present. They mean something, but their meaning isn’t clear and direct and it’s always mediated by present concerns, but nevertheless “real.”

We create this unconscious in two ways. As an interesting aside, the Atari games, of course, were in secondary discard (in that they were cast aside and forgotten) but there were also pressures that sought to drag them into primary discard. For example, the site was called a graveyard or a burial (not on a literal sense). Their burial in Alamogordo both placed them out of sight (and memory) and located them in a known place for known reasons (laws against scavenging, cheap disposal rates, et c.). This tension, I supposed, served two functions: on the one hand, secondary discard attempted to push the games out of memory and into our “unconscious.” Efforts to mark the games as being located in primary discard, in turn, kept some of their memory alive.

By excavating the games in their ambiguous discard we can see how some aspects of the past of the games is, on the one hand, forgotten, and, on the other, partially remembered. It moved the games into the place of legend and the partially remember unconscious of our memories. This move, I’d contend, was important because it forgot certain specific aspects of the past of these games. Namely, that the discarding of these games represented an economic move. These games were commodities, were ubiquitous, and were not – in any real ways – special. That memory had to be overwritten or forgotten, if we were to reinscribe the games with something of value to the present. This overwriting and reinscribing is the stuff of archaeology and of psychoanalysis. It’s all about managing the gap between the object as a moment from the past and our own place in the present. And since the act of discard and our act of excavation exposed this gap, our work revolved around making the the games relevant and significant for the present.

The metaphor of the gap as producing meaning is a useful one. First, it’s similar to how films work (Olivier, 186). Films depend on the gaps between frames to create movement, of course.

More importantly, establishing the gap between the past and the present by archaeology allowed us to create a more innocent past for ourselves. We used this gap to overwrite the consumerist and capitalist past of the games – which is anti-romantic (in every sense) and exposes us to the harsh reality that our childhood and fantasy life was not pure and innocent, but a the commodified product of our late capitalist world. Here we can even follow a bit of Shannon Lee Dawdy and say that these game’s particular patina transformed them from commodities to artifacts (and this transformation allowed them to become revalued in distinctive ways in the ebay auction).

Zak Penn’s documentary sort of wraps up this reading of the Atari dig by making the Freudian leap from the present to our buried unconscious all the more explicit. The sense of closure for Howard Scott Warshaw, the E.T. game’s creator, at the end of the film and the parallel between “our” childhood fantasies and Warshaw’s coming of age at Atari is simply too good to be true. Even as Warshaw’s fantasy came crumbling down, the existence of the games in some far away landfill held out the hope that some aspect of his innocence could be buried safely, and recovered like a psychoanalytic treatment that finds the source of pain, reveals it, and returns the conscious mind to its tenuous equilibrium.

 

 

 

 

Random Thoughts on Publishing and The Digital Press

Over the next month or so, I’m going to roll out a new little imprint at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. It’ll be called, The Student Press, and it’ll to focus on student work or class projects that deserve a wider audience. 

The first two volumes that will appear in this series are the small book produced by my graduate seminar last year titled The Graduates’ Manifesto: Defending History. The second volume will come from a class that I’m teaching this semester on the the University of North Dakota budget and be called A Students Guide to the UND Budget

For some reason, I want to create a kind of thematic consistency in the book covers and draw on design cues used in 1960s-1970s book covers. Maybe it’s because these covers evoke my student days. 

I also have this not-so-great idea to publish a series of letters from the Wesley College archive as part of the Wesley College Documentation Project. In the 1930s, Wesley College was in dire financial shape. The regular flow of income from traditional donors, like Frank Lynch and A.J. Sayre, had suffered from the Great Depression and the the drought of the 1920s. Wesley College was in debt and was struggling to pay its bills. In 1931, Charles Wallace took the helm of the struggling institution replacing the first president, Edward Robertson. Roberston was a very hands-on president and have close personal relationships with both donors and creditors. As a result, he took the lead in negotiating forbearance for debts and balancing the generosity of donors with the understanding desire of creditors to be paid in full. 

The idea would be to produce a little book of these letters with a short introduction and to call it something like “A Study in Austerity: Donors and Debt in a Small College.”

Finally, how great are these cover sheets from the one-line drawings of buildings on UND’s campus?  

Buildings and Grounds  Floor Plans  Robertson Sayre Hall  NO 57  dragged

UA75 3 19 19  dragged

Two Book Tuesday: Atari Age and Artifacts in Silicon Valley

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of reading casually just a bit in two books. First, I’ve read most of Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT 2017), and at the same time, I discovered Christine A. Finn’s Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley (MIT 2001). Both books offer distinctive impressions of late 20th century digital culture and contribute in some way to my long term research trajectories.

The utility of Newman’s book is more immediate. He frames the emergency of video game in the 1970s and 1980s against the backdrop of the video arcade with its seedy reputation inherited from gaming parlors of the early 20th century. (In my own experience, I never really understood why my parents did not let me go to the Silver Ball Arcade as a kid. There was something seedy about it in my parents’ mind (and a waste of money) that placed that space out of bounds for me and my brothers). Atari’s success involved translating the thrill of arcade games while domesticating them. The early advertisements for Atari, then, emphasized their domestic setting and showed families playing the games together. By the mid-1980s, however, the idyllic family setting had taken on a more male slant as mothers and daughters disappear and fathers, sons, and brothers remained, but still in the relative comfort of the domestic environment. The domestication of the arcade took place in two stages with the first locating the games at home among the entire family and the second returning game play to a male realm while still safely ensconced in the home. The final stage involved transporting the players from the home to the fantasy world of the game which almost alway was encoded male. Sports, war, and adventure outside the home (in space, in fantastic worlds, or as the protagonist of a feature film) remained the male domain for most of the 1980s (and perhaps today) as the safely domesticated games invited players to engage in less mundane adventures in fantastic landscapes. 

Finn’s book was one of this books that I should have read earlier. Finn, an Oxford trained archaeologist who had a career as a journalist, traveled to Silicon Valley in 2000 to experience the most talked about landscape in late-20th century American geography. While the book isn’t exactly a tourist guide, like that offered by Forrest Mims Siliconnections (1986), Finn is clear that her work “is a kind of Cook’s tour of my own, a brief one, and from the perspective of an archaeologist as foreign correspondent” (xiii).

As someone who just wrote a tourist guide to a 21st century landscape, I was thrilled to find that someone else had had this idea before me. Finn is a better writer than I am, but she also views Silicon Valley less through the lens of the tourist and more as a journalist. In particular, she focused on the characters whom she met during her travels. More than that, though, she demonstrates a keen eye for history and change in the Silicon Valley landscape and the often ironic efforts to reclaim some of the historical landscape of the Valley, but in a way that does not disrupt development and a sense of progress. A historic cherry farm gives way to high end shopping that includes a shop that sells imported cherries and cherry themed gifts. A retired computer engineer recreates a rustic garden in his backyard including a writing shed to escape from the very bustle that allowed him this luxury. Historic buildings are celebrated and moved to more convenient locations for visitors coming to the region for technology related business or travel. The landscapes that Finn creates demonstrates the deep ambivalence toward the changes in our late-20th century world. Her book bridged the gap between William Least Heat Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map), which is filled with compelling characters, and my own book, The Bakken, where I tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to push the changing Bakken landscape to the fore.  

Byzantine Christianity and Little Books

This weekend, I read Averil Cameron’s new little book titled Byzantine Christianity (2017). At about 120, modest-sized pages, it’s a concise and easy read, intended, it would seem for a wide audience unfamiliar with Byzantine history and anything more than the basic outlines of Orthodoxy.

Cameron divides the book into two parts. The first part deals with the history of Byzantium and locates various controversies and crises from the Christological debates of the 5th and 6th century to iconoclasm, the conflict with Latin Christianity, and evangelism among the Slavs amid a narrative of Byzantine politics. The second chapter looks at the lasting legacy of Byzantine Christianity both in Byzantine society and today with short sections on Byzantine spirituality, the veneration of icons and relics, church law, relations with Jews and Muslims, the Philokalia, and – perhaps most interestingly – the role of Orthodoxy in the centuries after the fall of Byzantium in both national churches and in global Christianity.  

It would be pretty easy to pick apart a book like this with variations on “this is not the book that I’d have written.” For example, the book doesn’t deal much with the actual experiences of Byzantine Christianity and seemingly downplays the role of liturgy in organizing Byzantine time and framing the Byzantine encounter with both the church and the divine. Cameron tends to introduce theological topics from monasticism and miaphysitism to iconoclasm and the dualism without offering much substance on what these groups actually believed. The book is biased toward Early and Middle Byzantium and might leave the impression that the struggles of the Byzantine state in the 14th and 15th centuries produced a corresponding malaise in Byzantine Christianity, which I might suggest was not the case. This reflects a tendency to conflate Byzantine Christianity with the Byzantine Church (or churches) in a rather top down view of faith in the wider Byzantine world. That all being said, these critiques are not particularly valuable or helpful in a book of 120 pages. Certain things get left out and other things get emphasized by comparison.   

It might be more helpful to attempt to imagine the situations in which a book like this could be useful. For example, I could imagine that it would be vaguely useful in a Medieval History class, in which students know something about what’s going on in the Byzantine East and the basic contours of Early and Medieval Christianity, but perhaps aren’t completely familiar with the intersection of Byzantine politics, culture, society and faith. Perhaps the book would be a nice addition to a global Christianity class, but it would have to be contextualized as the book lacks much in the way of comparative material outside brief and largely superficial references to Protestantism, scholasticism, and the like.

This kind of critique got me thinking about a larger issue that has permeated my recent conversations with David Pettegrew (and my own thinking while writing a book proposal for a 200 page book). Over the past couple of decades, two obvious trends have occurred in academic publishing. First, academic publishers have embraced the BIG edited volume whether these are “handbooks,” “companions,” or whatever, they tend to be over 400 pages and include numerous contribution that survey topics related to a field. These big books tend to be destined for academic libraries or online circulation where each article receives its own DOI and can be sold via subscription or individual article cost. 

Second, and perhaps related trend, is toward very short, concise, brief, very brief, even more shorter and briefer introductions with brilliant, if standardized, covers and often idiosyncratic coverages by top tier scholars who attempt to wrestle a career worth of specialized and detailed knowledge into around 150 pages. These books are rarely reviewed and rarely cited, but – apparently – sell in sufficient volume to be useful to a publisher’s bottom line and perhaps, one can at least imagine, useful in the classroom and perhaps on the general reader’s bookshelf. To write a good very short or brief guide to a topic is hard, of course, and very few of them are genuinely significant works of scholarship. Most feel like they’re written and edited with care, but also to a murky specification set by an even murkier sense of audience. They tend to trade on their accessibility and being concise. 

Don’t get me wrong. I like these little books, and some like Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons are lovely short essays that share an appealing aesthetic and form more than anything else. At the same time, I do wonder whether our interest in these short introductions is part of our growing impatience – as both authors and readers – with the incremental pace and diffuse range of academic knowledge making. This may also be growing skepticism and impatience with academic expertise or at least the impression that such expertise can be tidily distilled into a short, accessible volume. To be clear, I understand and respect these works as an effort to expand the audience for specialized academic knowledge, but I wonder whether the recent outpouring of short books runs the risk of over simplifying (or at least over promising) the potential of subtle, dense, and careful academic knowledge making.   

In fact, I wonder whether for academics, writing for the public (or for a non-specialist audience) involves writing with a greater degree of certitude than we might write to our academic peers. This reinforces view of “factual knowledge” that obscures the importance of debates, disagreements, nuance, and complexity (even ideological and political) complexity present in academic writing and thinking. 

Patina Review: A First Draft

Over the last week or so, I’ve been pecking away at a review of Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016) for the American Journal of Archaeology. Writing a review has served as a useful way to become reacquainted with the book as well as to nudge me to think a bit more clearly about how university campuses function as patinated spaces

So here’s my first draft, warts and all:

Patina is a book about modernity. Shannon Lee Dawdy slim work offers a densely nuanced survey of patina in contemporary, post-Katrina New Orleans and argues that patina represents a material critique of modernity as signs of past use and wear relentlessly manifest themselves in world dominated by narratives of progress and commodity capitalism that seek of overwrite the past in the name of linear time.

For Dawdy, New Orleans offered a distinct and familiar group of case studies for her arguments starting with the appearance of the “Katrina Patina” in the aftermath of the hurricane, which left mud and recovery team marks on so many of the buildings in the city. She leverages her advantage of her long experience doing fieldwork in the city to demonstrate how the patinated past in pushes through into modern of New Orleans. She develops the idea of heterogeneous time in diverse assemblage of artifacts found in the excavations of the gardens around St. Louis Cathedral and in the remains of the Duplessis plantation house beneath the Maginnis Cotton Mill building. The stories of hauntings that have created both an opportunity for “haunted tour” operators, but also played a central role in the distinctly macabre atmosphere for which some older New Orleans neighborhoods have become known. Dawdy’s excavations at the Rising Sun Hotel site naturally attracted national attention, but the interplay between the subsiding ruins of the collapses and charred hotel and later structures on the site provided a literal example of the past pushing into the present. The historical interest in antiques and the interplay between objects and events in the ritually rich New Orleans streetscape demonstrates that the physical aspects of patina are bound up in the relationship between agency, objects, and memory. 

Interviews and conversation with a range of residents and archival research complement her field work and to produce perspective on the city’s patina that go beyond excavations and enter people’s homes, businesses, and everyday lives. Heirlooms go beyond antiques with recognized values and to include objects, whether a plain wardrobe or a “Chinese style chair,” with personal stories and distinct signs of wear. Personal narratives and objects created meanings associated with certain aspects of the city, for example so-called Faience rogue pots or French wine bottles, work to meld together the history of individuals, objects, and the community.

Dawdy’s interest in patina extends to the theorist who she invokes. Benjamin, Freud, and Durkheim serve as the foundations for an approach centered on critical nostalgia. While these early 20th century thinkers have perhaps fallen to the margins of contemporary theoretical debates in archaeology, Dawdy gives them new life in her work. Benjamin’s well-worn arcades project offers a point of departure for a sustained critique of modern capitalism and consumerism with the book’s subtitle “A profane archaeology” being drawn from Benjamin’s concept of “profane illumination.” For Benjamin, the profane illumination represented a radical and irrational view of the world infused with hashish smoke and surrealism (9). Freud’s concept of the fetish likewise restores an irrational and religious dimension to our grasp of the material world and produces a useful complication to the substantial influence of Marx’s commodity fetishism. Dawdy recognizes in the deeply personal character of the fetish an irreducible materiality shaped by contingent of events and social relations that produce a kind of spiritual aura surrounding the fetishized object. To understand this aura she calls upon Durkheim’s concept of mana which emerges as a coherent foil to understand how patina complicates the tidy rationality of the modern world. There is something ineffable in the way objects acquire and communicate patina that makes the restlessness of both the object and time itself so much more clear. The materiality of patina and its irrational significance offers a view of the past that resists the rather more linear and orderly idea of “invented traditions” in place of the dynamic and recursive time of embodied in patina.

The conclusion of the book presents Dawdy’s elaborate argument in its essence. In New Orleans, patina critiques commodification and commercialism, progress and modernity, and the linearity of time. It also bonds the past to the present and individuals and objects to objects. By doing so, patina conjures heteotopic spaces throughout the city. These are, following Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, realized expressions of utopian fantasies, set apart from everyday life.  Dawdy expands this to include chronotopic time which likewise stands as distinct from the banal world (148). That such places and times are unique to certain cities – New Orleans, San Francisco, Istanbul – where deeply ingrained practices and places push back against the relentless tide of commodity capitalism and progress perhaps constrains her argument unnecessarily. The accelerated pace of change in the contemporary world has subjected such ordinary objects as Atari games, long-playing records, and abandoned offices to similar forms of critical nostalgia that both infused even rapidly accumulating signs of wear with patina and questions the seemingly inevitable horizon of obsolescence associated with commodity capitalism. In short, patina might be more prevalent and visible in places like New Orleans, but the critique that it implies has a much wider significance.

This book might not seem professionally relevant to archaeologists of the ancient Mediterranean, but it serves as an important reminder that our linear view of time is bound up in the same narratives of progress that have contributed to our field’s disciplinary boundaries. The chronological complexities of formation processes represent just the most obvious example of how multiple pasts shape archaeological space and destabilize disciplinary practices overly committed to essentializing the character of cultural or social change in any one period.

Springtime Writing: Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

A few months ago, I started to try to write a book proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture for the University Press of Florida’s series The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective. It stalled a bit (ironically) because I started to work on documenting the historical and contemporary material culture associated with two buildings on the University of North Dakota’s campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre slated for demolition. Racing the bulldozer and asbestos mitigation has created some challenges and forced us to make some decisions as to what we planned to document, by what methods (photos, video, description?) and how intensively. 

But all this is somewhere between an excuse and some sense of priorities. To prove to whatever audience that this blog still has that I can follow through, I’m posting my proposed outline below. It’s in draft still and there are certainly ways for me to tighten up the coherence of the book particularly the interweaving of theory (particularly the opportunity for archaeology of the contemporary world to problematize certain key aspects of archaeological method and practice) and the important traditions embodied in American historical archaeology. Hopefully that’ll come through more in the final draft, but for a general sketch, this is how I envision the book.

The Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

This book will have two sections with each part anchored by on of my field project. Part 1 will begin with the excavation of Atari game cartridges from the Alamogordo landfill in 2014 and then focus on how objects in context create a distinct American culture. Part 2 considers the archaeology of contemporary American landscapes and concludes with an analysis of the industrial landscape of the Bakken oil patch.

Introduction

The introduction will explore the key aspect of archaeology of contemporary American culture by unpacking the concept of contemporaneity in recent archaeological thought and the tension between archaeology’s use of time to defamiliarize our past and present as well as considering how an archaeology of the contemporary world explicitly requires us to co-locate with the objects and landscape that we study. This intersection with contemporaneity opens up new space for the role that archaeology can play in addressing pressing social, economic, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities in American society as well as introducing new epistemological perspectives on how archaeologists produce meaningful knowledge.

Part 1: Objects and Contexts

Part 1 of the book considers the role of objects in the archaeology of the contemporary world. Starting with an analysis of our excavation of the famous Atari dump in the Alamogordo landfill and considering the role of abundance, discard practices, and various objects mediated by increasing digital means.

1. Atari

The Alamogordo Atari excavation were organized by a documentary film company and funded by Microsoft for distribution over their Xbox console. The work sought to “prove” the well-known urban legend that Atari had dumbed thousands of games in landfill of the dessert town of Alamogordo in the 1980s. The excavation of the landfill produced over a thousand Atari games as well as a wide range of household trash. The excavation located the games simultaneous in 21st century American culture with its accelerated sense of nostalgia, but also within a distinctive 20th century assemblage of domestic and consumer waste.

2. Garbology, Discard, and Trash

The practice of documenting and analyzing contemporary domestic discard originated with William Rathje’s garbology work in Tuscon, Arizona. The study of the archaeology of trash opened the door to new critiques of consumer culture, the formation of contemporary assemblages, and a persistent interest in determining how both patterns of discard and discarded objects produce meaning. Recent work on discarded material culture involves sociological studies on scrounging, scavenging, and informal recycling and curation practices that produced distinctive assemblages of material and practices. This chapter returns to the roots of archaeology in its interest in middens and trash and shows how contemporary American garbage presents the distinctive insights into consumer culture and values.

3. Objects

In one of the most famous essays in archaeology of the contemporary world is C. Tiley and M. Shanks (1992) analysis of beer cans from Sweden and England. They famous urge archaeologists rely less on empirical methods and engage objects through the lens of cultural studies and as part of a more complex system of meaning making. In recent decades the rise of a distinctive “material culture studies” informed by new concepts of agency has provided new approaches for studying objects as part of networks of human and material actors. This chapter reviews the diverse ways that archaeologists of the contemporary world have continued to reflect on the entangled nature of objects in creating the experiences of life in New Orleans, homelessness, or American childhood.

4. Media

Among the more dynamic and compelling hybrid spaces for archaeology of the contemporary world is media archaeology. Originally framed by work in media studies, media archaeology considers the materiality of media and the relationship between technology, form, content, and culture. Archaeologists, for their part, have come to recognize the significant of digital objects and media for their own work in both a practical sense and as a conceptual problem for unpacking contemporary culture. The materiality of an Atari cartridge or a Grateful Dead long-playing record, only tells part of their significance in an archaeological and cultural context. Michael Schiffer’s interest in transistor radios, for example, anticipated recent studies of the archaeology of computers and the internet. The development of digital archaeology and archaeogaming recognizes the extension of American culture into virtual worlds and digital spaces complete with digital objects that require documentation, curation, and preservation. This chapter, then, explores approaches to objects and media that have shaped American culture.

Part 2: Landscapes and Situations

The second part of the book examines particular landscapes that reflect certain situations in 21st century American culture. Starting along the margins and emphasizing the growing precarity of certain groups in America and proceeding to examine the institutional and industrial landscapes, this section will explore case-studies that trace the contours of archaeology at a scale intended to reflect the expansive and complex problems facing American society.

5. Precarity and Marginal Places: homelessness, borders, and squats

Archaeology of the contemporary world is particularly well-suited to documenting groups and individuals who produce particularly ephemeral artifactual signatures or fall to the margins of traditional documentation practices. Larry Zimmerman’s archaeology of homelessness and Jason De Leon’s detailed study of the distribution of objects associated with illegal immigrants demonstrate how archaeological methods can produce significant new understandings of historically and socially marginal groups. Similar interest in the material traces of short-term events ranging from Occupy Wall Street encampments to the remains of the Burning Man festival offer case studies for how archaeology can tell complicating stories that challenge and enrich conventional narratives. This chapter will demonstrate that objects, landscapes, and precarious places can reveal otherwise overlooked, marginal, or ephemeral events that constitute modern forms of community.

6. Institutional Landscapes: Campuses, Military Bases, and Parks

Institutional spaces offer archaeological landscapes often dominated by deeply inscribed expressions of authority or influence. University campuses, military bases, and public spaces and infrastructure define significant spaces in the American landscape that both function as markers of power, authority, and ideology and preserve traces of subversion, resistance, and re-interpretation. The archaeology of contemporary campus life, for example, leaves intriguing traces in abandoned buildings and in discard patterns along well-manicured campus walkways. The archaeology of military bases and outposts negotiates the tension between visible projections of power and the hidden work of military authority often best documented through satellite and remote images. This chapter emphasizes how the archaeology of contemporary institutional landscapes offers a critical and subversive approach to our manicured and manipulated material surroundings.

7. Industrial, Extractive, and Exploratory Landscapes

The emergence of ruin porn and the photographic documentation of extractive landscapes offers an accessible perspectives on the detritus of the modern world. The well-established field of industrial archaeology with its distinctive place in American historical archaeology overlaps with the tradition of mining archaeology in the American west. These fields are increasingly infused with approaches developed by environmental historians, landscape archaeology, climate criticism, and petroculture. This chapter focuses on recent work on how industrial and extractive landscapes – from the toxic Berkeley pit mine of Butte, Montana to the archaeology of space – excavate the roots of both our everyday modernity and our hopes (and fears) for the future.

8. The Bakken

The North Dakota Man Camp Project (2012-2017) documented workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota during both the height and decline of the Bakken Oil Boom. The rapid increase in drilling for oil and infrastructural improvement in the relatively remote and sparsely populated Bakken counties led to a significant influx of workers from outside the region. To house these workers, a wide array of short-term settlements emerged from prefabricated workforce housing units to motley camps of RV trailers towed to the region by the workers themselves. The penultimate chapter will consider the intersection of extractive landscapes, precarity, and a 21st century sense of home.

Conclusions, Prospects, and Problems

The concluding chapter seeks to trace the trajectories established in both parts of this book forward into the 21st century. An archaeology of and for the contemporary world both responds to and anticipates the challenges of climate change, economic precarity, virtual worlds, and new transdisciplinary spaces, methods, and approaches. Returning to the contemporaneity as