I Like Short Books: The Anthropocene Unconscious

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I have grown weary of big books, proposing big ideas, and written by big name scholars. They stimulate debate, in part, because of their ambition and their flaws which is a consequence of their length. Of course, an overly long, complicated, and problematic book often attracts the kinds of readers and critics that leads to wider awareness and stronger sales. When I’m done a long book, I often feel like it not only monopolized my head, but my interest in the book contributes to the publication of other books that will, in turn, monopolize my head and the heads of others. 

One way, for me to get out of this dreadful cycle, is to just read a small book and talk about. This weekend, I read Mark Bould’s The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso 2021). Superficially, the book is a response to Amitav Ghosh’s famous observation in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago 2017) that the modern novel, with its preoccupation with the mundane and even internal lives of characters, has proven itself uniquely incapable of helping us understand and think through climate change. Bould argues cleverly that this is a choice on our part as readers and critiques as well. If we chose to read the modern novel as a commentary on climate change, it can be in much the same way that applying a queer lens to a piece of literature both opens new ways of thinking about plot, character, and setting and mitigates against a heteronormative view of the world.  

He then goes on to apply the lens of climate change to a range of both popular and classic literature including (so very cleverly) Ghosh’s novels which he reveals to offers perspectives which can provoke productive insights into climate change and its consequences ranging from rising sea levels to displacements, changing notions of home, and a growing sense of alienation from a world that we can never recover. Similarly incisive critiques of everything from J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) to the Fast and the Furious film franchise make the case that everything may well be about climate change. In fact, for Bould the climate catastrophe lurks throughout the modern unconscious and factors into the very anxiety that makes the reflective and banal world of the modern novel so gripping. 

This got me thinking about history and archaeology, of course, and how our preoccupation with periods of rise and collapse in the past saturates our confidence in the inevitability of our own society’s inevitable demise. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to see in this a kind of Freudian death drive or a deeply fatalistic awareness that our efforts to avoid short term catastrophe through violent and aggressive war just represents their conversion into the long term destruction of our species through the market. Because we lives with the expectation that every boom has a bust, we find ourselves unwilling or unable to imagine a sustainable future. 

Bould makes this sweeping argument in about 140 generously spaced pages that took me a couple of hours to read. This gave him plenty of room to dive as deep as was necessarily into individual works and to reiterate his larger points without belaboring them or indulging in distracting displays of erudition. There is plenty to chew on here as we face down the end of the world.

Three Things Thursday: Books, Teaching, and the Red River of the North

I’m just over 60% done with my first week of classes, and I’m settling into my new weekly scramble. As per usual, buy the half way point of the week, we life has started to fragment as I desperately flailed to capture the bits and pieces of the time, ideas, and work that had been so neatly arranged earlier in the week. 

In other words, it’s a good time for a Three Things Thursday:  

Thing the First

Because we all decided that we weren’t busy enough, Richard Rothaus, who might just be the MOST busy, decided to restart our moderately unsuccessful podcast: Caraheard. As we awkwardly come to realize, this would be our fourth season and as our tradition in the past, we kicked off the year with a discussion of our favorite books of the year with our very special guest Kostis Kourelis. 

My favorite books read during the past year were Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series published by The Dorothy Project. These books are amazing and I blogged about them last February. I also talked a bit about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, which I blogged about here. Finally, any survey of my annual, pandemic inflected reading had to include something about Sun Ra. I talked about the wonderfully reproduced copies of some of Sun Ra’s poetry by the Chicago gallery Corbett vs Dempsey. I’ve blogged about them here.  I’m going to need to spend some time tracking down the past seasons of  Caraheard and maybe getting them up in the Internet Archive or something. So, stay tuned.

Thing the Second 

I’m teaching a lot (for me) this semester. In fact, I’m almost teaching “for the cycle”; that is teaching a 100, 200, 300, and 500 class. I’m teaching this semester as a bit of a “teaching sabbatical” in which I prioritize these four classes over my other contractual responsibilities. In fact, I’ve reduced the percentage of my contract designated for research to almost nothing and have controlled my service responsibilities by rotation off a pair of particular onerous committee. While I know that many faculty teach four or more classes year-in and year-out, and so I want to be clear that I’m not trying to valorize by teaching load or anything of the sort. For me, however, teaching more classes and more preps creates a chance for me to shift my attention to teaching in a way that sometimes gets lost when I find myself juggling my classes as just another facet of my professional responsibilities. 

There’s something about the constant pressure that four preps places on me that keeps thinking about teaching in the forefront of mind. This has made me wonder why teaching sabbaticals aren’t a thing? Why do we tend to assume that faculty want to spend a year immersed in the research grind and freed from responsibilities to teach and to do service, but we don’t offer the same for faculty who have a significant commitment to teaching? I would love to institutionalize the opportunity to take a year away from service and research and really focus on the craft of teaching. More to the point, I also think it would emphasize the importance of teaching not only to faculty, but to the institution itself. I could imagine a teaching intensive schedule paired with opportunities to be mentored by teachers in other departments and disciplines, there could be a retreat prior to the start of the semester where faculty could focus on installing new methods, approaches, or curriculum. There could be opportunities to refresh tired classes or to emphasize major changes in medium – from in-person to on-line, for example, or from small section to big? 

More importantly, departments and colleges would not only not be penalized for faculty taking a teaching sabbatical, but be rewarded. For example, colleges and departments would still receive the full percentage of research funds allocated on the basis of that faculty member’s typical research contract. Service responsibilities will be entirely eliminated for the year as would occur during a typical research sabbatical, but departments would be given support to incentivize other faculty stepping into service roles for the duration of the sabbatical.

Thing the Third

I serve on our community’s historic preservation commission as the commission’s archaeologist, and at the past meeting, in a not entirely spontaneous gesture, I raised my had to take on a small project that was sent out to bid and did not receive any interest. I’m going to investigate whether any parts of the 1950s era flood wall still exist along the course of the Red River in Grand Forks. Fortunately, we have already done a bit of research and received the Army Corps of Engineers maps showing the 1950s era wall. I also have a copy of Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch’s book, The Raging Red: The 1950 Red River Valley Flood (1996).

This work will be a little more salient this year as the community looks back 25 years to the 1997 Red River flood which overran the earlier flood walls and led to the massive installations that we have installed today. While many people won’t be interested in looking back at the 1997 flood (if for no other reason than it represents a time when community cohesion, resilience, and state support provided a foundation for recovery), I feel like we have an ongoing obligation to think about how our decision to make our home on the river has shaped the landscape. 

Graeber and Wengrow or I Like Big Books

My holiday reading consisted of wading my way (almost!) through David Graeber and David Wengrow’s massive book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). I like the book and I like their argument and I’m hoping that it spurs a wide ranging discussion of how our views of the past shape how we imagine the present and the future.

I’m not going to review this book in part because people much wiser and more engaged than I am have already started to think about its arguments. In short, Graeber and Wengrow argue against the idea that early societies developed from small, egalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers into larger, hierarchical societies organized around settled agriculture and settled in towns and cities. The demonstrated that evidence exists, often from indigenous sources and archaeology, that reveals a far wider range of social, political, and economic organization than the linear narrative of development would suggest. In fact, they argue that the linear narrative which situated egalitarian societies as precursors to more rigidly organized hierarchies derived from Enlightenment encounters with indigenous peoples who Europeans deemed inferior. As a result, European thinkers located absolutist monarchies and other forms of authoritarian governments as superior and more developed than the more egalitarian forms they encountered in the Americas. And, making a long story rather shorter (and more on this later), Graeber and Wengrow argued that this initial conceit effectively suppressed evidence for the wide variation in forms of political organization in the past. More egalitarian forms of social organization often appeared side-by-side with more autocratic forms either seasonally within the same society or amid different groups who occupied the same region.  

It is clear that a book of this size and scope, written by authors of such significant standing, will generate debate. In fact, my social media feed is already simmering with comments from people engaging with this book at present. One of the more intriguing questions centers on the intended audience for a book like this. I suspect that readers like me are the intended audience. While I have some experience as a field archaeologist, I’m hardly a specialist in the periods and regions that Graeber and Wengrow discuss. As a result, I understand how archaeology works as a discipline both on the ground and in terms of the discourse, and this understanding reinforces the plausibility of their arguments and emphasizes the subversive character of their approach.

More than that, the book is long. While the writing style is accessible, it requires both time and patience to wade through their arguments and explore their citations. This is not a casual book or one that lends itself to recreational reading necessarily. In fact, I’d argue that its length is both a strength and weakness. 

As a weakness, it is clear that the book was not necessarily well edited. I don’t mean that it wasn’t edited well at the level of copy editing. It feels as polished in this department as one might expect from a trade book. Instead, I mean that the book proceeded casually and without any clear impulse for efficiency in argument. It was not quite discursive, although at times you could almost feel the authors pulling back from a thread that they would have liked to pursue, perhaps to the detriment of their larger argument. But it wasn’t an efficient book and in that way resembles the inefficiency of books like Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome (2019)

In this reflects a choice by the authors and publishers. Part of this is likely a choice on the part of the authors to publish the book when it was done rather than when it was finished (and as someone going through revisions right now, I understand that). It was also probably the product of David Graeber’s untimely death and the desire to preserve a sense of the moment in the book (which emerged from conversations between the authors over the course of decades). There is no doubt that a lightly edited book is more economical to produce than one that requires a series of significant interventions. This is true both for authors and publishers.

On the other hand, it might be that long books also have other values as well. They do impart a kind of seriousness to an argument through their scale alone. A book the purports to write a new history of humanity should be big as humans have been around for quite a while and existing histories of humanities would fill an entire library. For a non-specialist reader (like myself) the size of the book reinforces the scale and scope of the authors’ argument and for a casual reader it serves to communicate the utmost seriousness and weightiness of this topic.

Big books, however discursive and loosely bound they may be, remain an appropriate outlet for weighty ideas produced by major and serious scholars. Thus, they not only offer a model of efficient scholarly production, but they also present an icon of serious, substantial, and important scholarship (which unsurprisingly come from two major, male, senior scholars).  

Trash and Modernity

This weekend I read Rachael Graff’s Disposing of Modernity: The Archaeology of Garbage and Consumerism during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (2020). This is obviously a book that I should have read about a year ago, but for some odd reason, did not.

I really enjoyed the book and admired Graff’s ability to balance between intimate and highly specific details and more expansive conclusions. She handled issues of particular significance to both historical archaeology – namely the emergence of consumer culture – and to archaeology more broadly as a discipline – namely time and modernity – with brilliant common sense and this will almost certainly open up these often tricky and abstract debates to a wider audience.

Graff’s book looks at two site which she and her colleagues excavated in Chicago. One is in Jackson Park which was the site of the 1893 World’s Fair and the other is on Chicago’s Gold Coast and associated with the Charnley House (now the headquarters of the SHA) designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Both the World’s Fair and the Charnley house represent major statements of modernity in the United States. The Fair celebrated progress and the coming of age of mass consumer culture. The triumphant parade of convenience, innovation, and capital at the Fair established Chicago’s place in the constellation of major American cities and distinguished contemporary American (and European) culture from its more exotic, “primitive,” and “undeveloped” peers. In this context, the “closing of the American frontier” represented a coming of age for American society where the science, industry, and technology has established American culture on a new and radically different trajectory. 

The Charnley House is often considered the first “modern house” in the United States. It’s clean lines, modern conveniences, and open plan represent an important example of a kind of domestic architecture that severed the relationship between the space and design of elite homes and their traditional functions. Graff’s work is not very interested, however, in the architecture of the Charnley house and instead focuses on a rather substantial midden discovered adjacent to the house and filled with trash deposited between the last decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century. In other words, just as the World’s Fair was showing off the amazing creations of industrial science and technology, the various residents of the first modern house were disposing their trash in same way that had occurred for centuries (if not millennia). That the trash deposit consisted of a wide range of modern manufactured products simply reinforced the notion that modern and “non-modern” behaviors existed side-by-side in the city of Chicago as it negotiated its own place in the narrative of progress.

Graff reinforces the tensions between the egalitarian promise of the “modern” with the realities of life in Chicago with detailed prosopographies of the organizers of the World’s Fair and the society in which folks like the Charnleys circulated. In contrast to the shadowy lives associated with the individuals who worked at the World’s Fair, collected the trash from its massive venue, and manufactured the goods so proudly displayed, Chicago’s elite pop from the page in high relief and parade about as vivid reminders that the progress and modernity associated with closing the frontier were unevenly distributed.

There are a few things in this book that directly relate to my research interests and made me regret not reading this book until now.

1. Garbage and Modernity. One of the first chapters in my book is on garbology which I connect to the development of archaeology as a modern discipline. Of course, Graff’s book makes this point amazingly well as it situates the excavation of trash as more than simply attempting to uncover a window into late 19th and early 20th century Chicago, but the excavation of the modern world itself. This connection between modernity, archaeology, and trash offers a nice way to emphasize how a growing awareness of a disposable culture informed how archaeologists connected their discoveries to what people did in the past. 

2. Ephemerality of the Modern. One of the most remarkable things about the 1893 World’s Fair is that the entire site consisted of ephemeral buildings. They were built, wired, connected to plumbing, and then removed within a few years. The ephemerality of the fair in many ways represented the disposable culture of the trash heap projected on a monumental scale. Ironically, however, the things that made the fair work proved in some ways to be the most persistent. The infrastructure of pipes, wiring, and foundations likely remains below the level of Jackson Park and preserve, in some ways, the lives of the more monumental world above ground.

The relationship between pipes and wires and infrastructure and the monumental, if ephemeral, traces of modernity embodied in the World’s Fair is a brilliant metaphor for the contemporary situation where we struggle to erase the visible reminders of humanity’s hubris and irresponsibility (or never ending quest for profit and progress), while leaving behind the traces (scars?) of what made this all possible. I can’t but help think about the ephemerality of work force housing in the Bakken oil patch and how much of the the subsurface remains will persist. Or, more to a point, the flow of capital might not be particularly visible, but the impact of this capital and the networks of colonialism, violence, and power that make it possible will last for centuries.

3. Time and the Fair. The ephemerality of the fair ground reveals the way in which the fair used a sense of time to contrast ideological arguments. The disappearance of the fair paralleled the growing understanding of materiality as ephemeral and promoted obsolescence as a driver of  consumption in an economy whose capacity to produce was constantly bumping up against the limits to the capacity to consume. 

The constant coincidence of past practices (such as dumping trash in an alleyway next to an elite residence), future hopes (in the promise of progress) and the fleeting present (embodied in the disappearance of the fair) created the kind of temporal pastiche that has come to characterize our experience of the modern world. The various temporal encounters that celebrated in such works as Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina or her notion of “clockpunk” archaeology suggested that the modern world’s relentless commitment to progress would obscure the persistent values of the past for the sake of the past. Instead, the 1893 fair suggests such “residual” features are not some form of irrepressible patina that challenges our commitment to modernity, but rather a feature of the modern appropriated by its totalizing discourse and presented to reinforce the potential for the next iteration of the present to make available past pleasures in new and improved form (now with MORE NOSTALGIA ™). 

As someone fascinated by mechanical watchmaking and vacuum tube stereo amplifiers, the concomitant rise in vintage watch market and the efforts by watchmakers to produce upgraded and improved versions of vintage designs demonstrates the recursive need to preserve the past as both a baseline for progress and as aspirational goal. The continuous efforts to capture the “vintage sound” of vacuum tube stereo components with the latest technology is not some form of anti-capitalist critique, but part of a larger process of commodifying the past in the present. The ephemerality of the present, then, is part of a larger strategy to create “instant classics” in which memory itself becomes a fungible commodity. It goes without saying that the rise of archaeology is part of this same effort to turn the past into something that can be sold.  

Music Monday: Nina Simone’s Gum

This weekend, I read Warren Ellis’s Nina Simone’s Gum. My punk archaeology buddy Kostis Kourelis sent it to me as a holiday gift and for that I’m immeasurably grateful. It’s really a genius book and one full of such unguarded earnestness and emotion that I’ve decided to add it to my class on things next semester. 

The book tells the story of a piece of gum (and a towel) that Warren Ellis, a musician and long-time collaborator with Nick Cave, retrieved from a piano after a Nina Simone concert in 1999. He had kept the gum in his possession for nearly 20 years before deciding to include it in an exhibition that Nick Cave had somehow coordinated in Copenhagen. The decision to include this prize possession in the exhibit pushed Ellis to think about this precious relic in a much more expansive way. The gum not only became a reminder of his experience at a Nina Simone concert, but also his own journey which began with a cast off accordion retrieved from an Australian dump and continued through his own development as a person and musician. In the hands of Ellis the piece of gum became a talisman that protected his journey and creativity and was somehow at least partly responsible for his success.

When the gum leaves his hands, he discovers that its power to inspire care, compassion, and empathy travels with it. From the artist who made a mould of the gum to the jeweler who turned the mould into silver mementos, the couriers who traveled with the gum on its way from London to Copenhagen, and the curators who ensured that the gum remained safe and secure while they prepared for its exhibition, the gum seemingly drew people into its orbit. This is partly because Warren Ellis was such an earnest curator of the object and believed so much in its power. This belief imbued the gum with a kind of sanctity that others experienced as well. The significance of the gum both to Ellis and others was documented across the book in a series of text messages, emails, photographs, and anecdotes. They walked the fine line between sincerity and incredulity, but always seems to lean slightly toward the former. There’s something amazing about witnessing a world with just a bit less irony.

At first, I reckoned that Ellis, the gum’s protector, was especially susceptible to the kind of emotional energy that objects like Nina Simone’s gum conveyed. After all, the book details a few encounters that he had with Beethoven’s ghost that left him rattled and transformed. 

The more I read the book and thought about it, though, I came to understand Ellis’s almost spiritual attachment to the gum.

So, this will sound weird, but I’ve been a bit bothered lately by how I got rid of my old grey Ford F150. I moved quickly when I bought my new truck last year. It was the beginning of the great used car inventory crash and the truck that I wanted was available at a decent price. As a result, I had move efficiently to ensure that I could get the truck I wanted at the price I could afford. When everything came together, I was offered $1000 for my 15 year old F150 and just walked away from it parked in a customer parking spot at a local car dealership.

Of course, my old truck has none of the sentimental and little of the associative power of Nina Simone’s gum. In fact, in 2004, Ford sold over 900,000 of them and even today they remain common sights on the roads of our small town. But the truck did carry with it significant memories: research trips in The Bakken oil patch, cruising around town with my yellow dog, pulling a two cars from a ditch during a snowstorm, and myriad conversations with friends and my partner across the now-vintage bench seat. 

These memories were enough to make me think about the truck a bit differently and regret leaving it without any ceremony and without so much as a photograph. I recognize, of course, that sentimentalizing a truck or a piece of gum can lead to a kind of commodity fetishism that risks obscuring the processes and people whose labor our material world represents. At the same time, there is no doubt that objects – from ancient relics to modern conveniences – provide us with nodes in complex networks of human relationships, temporalities, and memories. 

Ellis’s book doesn’t aspire to be a theoretic treatise on the significance of things or our entanglement or how they work, but it offers a personal and disarmingly wholesome view of how one object – a piece of gum – created a window into what makes us human. 

New Book Day: Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist

The best days of the year are new book days! The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is thrilled to announce the publication of Rebecca J. Romsdahl’s book, Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist.

This book was a particular pleasure to publish because I’ve known and admired the author and her work for so many years as a colleague at UND. This book captures her thoughtful and reflective voice so well and offers compelling personal reflections on complex problems. In this way, the book sits alongside Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously in the Digital Press catalogue as ways to open up the complex negotiations of academic thinking to a broad audience.   

As with all books from The Digital Press, Mindful Wandering is available as a free open access download or as a low cost paperback. Download a copy here.

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Mindful Wandering is an inspiring blend of memoir, travelogue, and environmental manifesto. As a translational ecologist, Rebecca Romsdahl is trained to ask critical questions about how we can improve our human relationships with the natural world for a sustainable, resilient future. As a farmgirl, she learned how to observe nature and life through the changing seasons. In this collection of essays spanning two decades, Romsdahl weaves these ideas together as she travels our changing world. From a Minnesota farm to the mountains of Peru and the edge of the Sahara Desert, she explores strategies for sustainability and resilience, and advocates that we (especially those of us privileged enough to travel) must expand our mindful considerations to include all the other inhabitants of this beautiful Earth. Romsdahl practices, and preaches, mindful wandering to reduce her impacts on the natural environment, and to encourage us all to be better global citizens. She implores us, through the eyes of a farmgirl scientist, to ask soul-searching questions: How do we reconnect with the local, seasonal rhythms of life, while learning how to care about the whole Earth as our home?

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, PhD, is a translational ecologist, educator, writer, and professor in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy at the University of North Dakota. Her research and teaching examine links between social, ecological, and policy factors when scientists, stakeholders, and decision makers work together to solve environmental problems. 

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Here’s the formal press release:

You can take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm from girl.

Dr. Rebecca J. Romsdahl’s Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist takes the reader from a Minnesota farm to England, Morocco, Peru and beyond. Part travelogue, part book of essays, and part scientific manifesto, Romsdahl blends her experiences growing up on a Minnesota farm, studying and teaching environmental policy, and traveling extensively as both a professional and a tourist. The resulting book is a guide to the environmental challenges we face as a global community and a provocation to do better.

Romsdahl said, when asked about her motivation to write a book like this: “Traveling to new places has opened my mind to see environmental problems and solution ideas, like sustainability and resilience, from different perspectives. I want to share those and inspire people to explore our beautiful planet more thoughtfully.”

Mindful Wandering masterfully combines Romsdahl’s encounters not only with creatures and landscapes, but as importantly with people. These encounters prompted her to not only ask new questions, but also seek new answers.

She relates “I am constantly wrestling with the psychology concept ‘cognitive dissonance,’ or as I adapt it ‘environmental guilt.’. How can I get past feeling like I am just part of the problem so instead I can contribute to being part of solutions? I’m also constantly thinking about how different cultures value the natural environment. What environmental problems are people in different places facing and what can we learn (or share) about how they are trying to solve them?”

The beauty of glaciers in Alaska, the quirky splendor of the denizens of the Galapagos island, the radiant landscapes of the Moroccan desert, and the cozy fellowship of an English pub provide just a few of the backdrops that frame her reflections and entice the reader to think differently.

Her goal is to inspire: “boundless curiosity, a sense of wonder about the natural world, and a mindfulness to pay attention to what we can learn from the people and the changing world around us.”

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, PhD, is a translational ecologist, educator, writer, and professor in the Department of Earth System Science & Policy at the University of North Dakota. Her research and teaching examine links between social, ecological, and policy factors when scientists, stakeholders, and decision makers work together to solve environmental problems.

Mindful Wandering is published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and available as a free download from https://thedigitalpress.org/Mindful/ or as a low-cost paperback from Amazon.com.

Free Books for Cyber Monday!

I can think of no better way to spend the digital hellscape that is Cyber Monday, than downloading and reading free stuff from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

To make this easier and a bit more fun, we’ve put together some download bundles full of good books that you can download absolutely free:

First, you can grab all of our archaeology titles with one click here including Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Siegfried’s latest book, Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean. Download it here.

Then, you can grab all our titles that have to deal with North Dakota with one click here including Kyle Conway’s innovated volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018. Download it here.

Then, you can check download all of our books that deal with critical issues including Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s historical and savory edited volume Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook! Download it here.

Finally, if you want to think more broadly and creatively about our world, check out this packet of books from The Digital Press and our creative partners at Epoiesen and North Dakota QuarterlyDownload it here.

Oh, and if you just want all the books that we’ve published ever. Click here for a 1.6 GB megapack.

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If the very idea of cyber anything gives you hives, you can always get books from The Digital Press at Amazon.com and most of our titles are available from Bookshop.org as well.

Bookshop.org allows you to support local bookstores when you buy a copy of Deserted Villages, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust, and One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920.  

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Finally, if you want something really cool to make you cyber Monday less obnoxiously consumer, check out this preview of Rebecca Romsdahl’s Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist.

Mindful Wandering is an inspiring blend of memoir, travelogue, and environmental manifesto. As a translational ecologist, Rebecca Romsdahl is trained to ask critical questions about how we can improve our human relationships with the natural world for a sustainable, resilient future. As a farmgirl, she learned how to observe nature and life through the changing seasons. In this collection of essays spanning two decades, Romsdahl weaves these ideas together as she travels our changing world. From a Minnesota farm to the mountains of Peru and the edge of the Sahara Desert, she explores strategies for sustainability and resilience, and advocates that we (especially those of us privileged enough to travel) must expand our mindful considerations to include all the other inhabitants of this beautiful Earth. Romsdahl practices, and preaches, mindful wandering to reduce her impacts on the natural environment, and to encourage us all to be better global citizens. She implores us, through the eyes of a farmgirl scientist, to ask soul-searching questions: How do we reconnect with the local, seasonal rhythms of life, while learning how to care about the whole Earth as our home?

Get it here.

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Live Blogging Music, Reading, and Cooking on Thanksgiving

I’m going to try a bit live-blogging this morning to document my Thanksgiving day adventures. There’s nothing particularly exciting about my morning, but there is something vaguely archaeological about the intersection of reading, cooking, and listening to music. Hopefully this live blog will bring some of that out. 

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6 am

The turkey is in the smoker and sitting at about 210°. 

I’m hunkered down by the fire reading Krysta Ryzewski’s Detroit Remains and listening to Lee Morgan introduce the band for the Friday, July 10th 1970 performance at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California.

I’m reading with significant interest Ryzewski’s account of how her work at the Ransom Gillis house in Detroit involved negotiating with an HGTV program for access and collaboration. While I’ve just started reading this chapter, it’s struck me as not entirely dissimilar to the negotiations conducted by Andrew Reinhard to get us access to the Atari excavations at Alamogordo. 

I’m aware that Lee Morgan does not have any particular connections to the Detroit jazz scene, but the 7.5 hours of music (starting with pianist Harold Mabern’s “The Beehive” which features a scorching “post-Coltranesque solo by Bennie Maupin, one of the underrated voices of late-1960s saxophone. Morgan’s solo is so slick and smooth.)

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6:15 am

As Morgan introduces the band members and heads into the Bennie Maupin number “Something Like This,” a quick check on the smoker shows that the temperature has dropped to about 160°, so I reopened some vents. It’s about 2° F outside so keeping the heat up today might be a challenge!

It seems fitting that I’m fussing with the grill temperatures as reading about Pewabic pottery manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century in the stable behind the Ransom Gillis house in Detroit!

6:30 am

A quick update shows the temperatures have settled to about 210° F and another Bennie Maupin composition “Yunjana” is on the stereo. It’s quieter and a bit more settled which makes it an appropriate complement to the stabilizing temperatures on the grill.

7 am

I’m cutting out on Bennie Maupin’s lovely flute solo on the first track of the second set from July 10th, “I Remember Brit” to check the heat and maybe start some more coals. It’s now 1° outside!

It looks like no new coals are needed and while I missed most of Lee Morgan’s lyrical solo, I’m thoroughly enjoying Harold Mabern’s piano work on “I Remember Brit.” The long tail of bebop makes a great backdrop to Ryzewski’s chapter on the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit where bebop found a home in Detroit’s musical landscape in the late 1940s.

7:20 am

The temperature is still a steady 210° and there’s been a car accident outside our house. The cops are on hand and they have a dog working to try to find the driver of the car, which was apparently stolen. It’s a bit dramatic, but the cops seem very intent on getting it sorted.

Jymie Merritt’s bass solo at around the 15 minute mark in his “Absolutions” is pretty great. 

I’m enjoying reading about Paradise Valley in Detroit and its vibrant music scene and thinking about it also as the place of origins for the Nation of Islam which would developed in the decade before the bebop heyday of the Blue Bird Inn, but which would go on the exert an influence over music (and especially jazz) in its own way especially when it relocated to Chicago in the early 1930s.

Now, I get to fret about when to start a fresh batch of coals. There’s no need to add them if the temperature hangs at 200°-ish.   

Wrapping up the second set of July 10th with another rollicking version of Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” before the 3rd session of the night begins with Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet on his “416 East 10th Street.”

8:00 am

I had some breakfast and started a new chimney full of coals. The temperatures are dropping from 210° to 200°. hit the turkey with the first round of smoke. I’m going with cherry wood and a just a bit of hickory. 

I’m listening to Lee Morgan’s classic “Sidewinder” from the 3rd set of July 10th. It’s scorching and the absolutely outer fringes of hard bop just as it should have been in the 1970!

Back to reading about the Blue Bird Inn and the state of both Black owned entertainment venues, recording, and music in late 1940s Detroit.

8:30 am

Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” from Set 4 on Friday, July 10th feels even a bit more “out” than the version at the end of Set 2. It was hard to drag myself away from it to check on the bird in the smoker. Temperatures are still around 210° with the addition of wood chips adding just about 5° to the heat. I probably started the additional coals prematurely, but better to be prepared, I guess.

The work of various stake holders on the Blue Bird Inn is fascinating. I appreciated the performance of music in the venue once again by some members of the Wayne State music program and would have loved to hear a recording of their set. I wonder how it would compare to live recordings made in the venue in the 1950s (with Phil Hill’s band apparently). My work in the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus included working with Michael Wittgraf to record in the Corwin Hall recital space and to think of these recordings as a way to preserve not only the original use of the space, but its changes over time. It was a small offering to the debates 

I’m now onto Set 1 from July 11th with begins with Mabern’s “Aon” which is very much hard bop and feels just right to get the audience ready from the more adventurous offerings to follow.

9:00 am

I finally had to add some coals to the fire to keep the heat closer to 210° than to 180°. Temperatures outside were about 2° so this seems reasonable. 

Fortunately, it’s warm by the fire inside and Bennie Maupin’s lyricism is on full display during his opening solo on his “Yunjana” from the first set on July 11th. Lee Morgan’s reflective solo complements Maupin’s perfectly and keeps the mood going.

The slow, but not sluggish lyricism of these songs is a lovely backdrop to Ryzewski’s work of “slow archaeology” at Gordon Park in Detroit where she and students conducted repeated pedestrian surveys to chart how the park established to mark the start of the 1967 uprising in the city changed over time and endured episodes of neglect and revitalization.

9:30 am

There’s a point my operating the smoker where I can’t quite figure out if the best way to keep the heat up is adding more coals or adding more air by opening the vents. I opted to add a bit more coals and restrict air flow right now with the hope I can open the vents and stretch the coals until close to noon where I’ll take the first temperature of the turkey. 

The second set of July 11th opens with Mabern’s “I Remember Brit” and it’s lovely round based on “Brother John” (or Frère Jacques) that eventually gives way to steady dose of a hard bop melody. You can similarly hear the musicians trying to manage the heat of their sets. You need to keep it warm enough to pull in the listener, but too much fire and the entire show begins to combust too soon and too hot. “I Remember Brit” does just that and it’s a suitable backdrop to the start of coal management work in my smoker. Of course, things get hotter after that with Mabern’s “busy” track “The Beehive.”   

10:00 am

Temperatures are cruising along at around 210° and Lee Morgan’s quintet is finishing Set 2 on July 11, 1970 with “Speedball,” before starting Set 3 with Maupin’s bass clarinet on his “Neophilia.”

I’m just getting into Ryzewski’s chapter on the Grande Ballroom in Detroit which witnessed a wide range of remarkable shows. She’s focusing on its history as a rock music venue and its subsequent history of neglect, abandonment, and deterioration. I’m just getting into the chapter and was pleasantly surprised to see the reference to “punk archaeology”! I’m looking forward to reading about the kinds of archaeological documentation deployed in working to understand and interpret this significant building.

The first temperature check on the bird will happen at around noon, and until then, we’ll be in coals management mode!

10:30 am

The heat is too high!! So I closed some vents and opened the ones on the lid to bleed some heat, but this is a good sign for the rest of the morning because I can conserve coals and cut the heat down to low and slow.

Bassist Jymie Merritt’s “Nomo” appears in Set 3 of the July 11th performance of Lee Morgan’s crew. It has a loose, but deep groove and Morgan really shines on his solo midway through the track. It’s clear that funk, soul jazz, and the spirit of late hard bop come together in this track. 

The chapter on the Grande Ballroom in Detroit is really remarkable. Not only did the work from Ryzewski’s crew show how survey methods can be adapted to document standing buildings in ways that reveal their transformation over time, as well as their main phases of use. Interweaving the discoveries from the building and its history helped me appreciate the role of John and Leni Sinclair in the musical history of Detroit. I’ve appreciated Leni Sinclair’s photography of jazz musicians and her work for Strate Corporation on their cover art and now I can connect her and her husband to the rock and proto-punk scene fueled by the MC5 (who John Sinclair managed) and bands like the Stooges who performed regularly at the Grande Ballroom.

11:00 am

The heat has settled back into the acceptable range, and I’ve added a bit of cherry wood to add some smoke. I’ve also recalled a certain yellow dog from his turkey guard duty as the temperatures outside hang around in the single digits.

Lee Morgan’s guys are into Set 4 on Saturday night and playing Bennie Maupin’s “Peyote” with a kind of comfortable intensity that feels like it should naturally lead into Jymie Merrit’s “Absolutions” as the final number of the night.

I’m also onto the final chapter of Detroit Remains which involves documenting a 19th century log cabin which was quietly preserved in the frame of a 20th century house in a Detroit neighborhood.  

11:30 am

The smoker is just chilling at 200° and my hope is that we’re well on out way to a smoked turkey. Stay tuned for a temperature check in about 30 minutes.

Set 1 from Sunday, July 12, 1970 begins with Bennie Maupin’s “Something Like This.” While this set’s performance may lack the fireworks of those recorded on the 10th and 11th, it certainly has a copious amount of feeling and soul. It was worth the wait.

The final chapter of Detroit Remains, likewise offer a healthy dose of feeling as it deals with the demolition of the log house discovered in Hamtramck by the Detroit Land Bank despite efforts made to preserve and move the building. As someone who has seen any number of significant historical buildings demolished in my community, I can empathize with the disappointment expressed by the authors and stakeholders.     

12 pm

The first temperature check and, miracles of miracles, the bird is done: 165° on the dot.

IMG 6899

Happily, my reading of Detroit Remains is done for the day too. Ryzewski’s reflections on Section 106 reviews in the aftermath of the Hamtramck log house demolition resonated with my own experiences on the State Historical Review Board and our local Historic Preservation Commission. While locally we continue to see innumerable 106 reviews, we also recognize how much these remain dependent upon the collective good will of the city, contractors, developers, and the community. Raising awareness of historical preservation issues always involves threading the needle between being outspoke about the value of the past in general and navigating the complicated interests that establish the value of specific pasts to specific communities and stakeholders. 

Finally, “I Remember Brit” from Set 2 on Sunday, July 12 is playing in the background and I sort of feel like pressing pause on this track and listening to the final performance during dinner in an hour or so. And this probably means pressing pause on this bizarre experiment in live blogging.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Archaeology of Temperature

This weekend, I finished Scott W. Schwartz’s new book, The Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape (2022). It’s really good and offers as compelling a contemporary critique of number and “numeracy” as anything that I’ve read in recent years. In fact, it will help me bring together some of my illformed ideas about how “slow archaeology” can contribute to a critique of the field, how our national response to COVID has fallen short, and the role that numbers play in our current conversations about global climate change. 

This is a dense and thoughtful book so no blog post is likely to do it justice. Schwartz looks at the practices and technologies associated with measuring temperature to unpack the way that these quantitative practices have traced the dehumanizing forces of global capitalism and colonialism. By transforming the experience of temperature into an abstraction, the development of the tools required to measure heat or cold have played a part in an effort to quantify, analyze, and ultimately predict (or forecast) the future for economic advancement. It goes without saying that I’ve condensed a complex and compelling book into a slightly inaccurate historical summary here, but if it feels even a little interesting to you, I’d encourage you find it and read it.

As per usual, I’ll let the author’s work speak for itself, and just hit on a couple little points.

1. It’s Cold. One thing that really struck me about this book is that the approach to temperature (which is really amazing) doesn’t consider too deeply the experience of temperature. Superficially, I might say that this reflects the experience of someone who lives and works in New York City, a fairly temperate urban environment (more sympathetically and accurately, I’d suggest that it reflects the author’s decision to emphasize the quantitative).

In any event, this week was the first week where the temperatures struggled to get above freezing and I ended up spending time outdoors and feeling cold. Knowing it’s cold outside is one thing and this is often communicated through numbers (it’s 25 degrees) but feeling cold is quite another. At some points, however, the numbers representing the cold tell us more about the temperature than our body can. For example, once our bodies become acclimatized to being outside in the wintertime weather, it is difficult to tell the difference between, say, -10 and -20, but the risks associated with the latter (for frost-bite, for example) is considerably greater than the risks associated with the former. In other words there are these blurry spaces where quantitative measurement of temperature inform experiences in distinctive ways. To be clear, Schwartz isn’t denying this, but his emphasis on the numerical values of temperature as abstractions (and their development) tends to overwrite the places where these abstractions actually meet the human skin. 

2. Documenting with Numbers. The idea that numbers are useful ways to make experiences susceptible  to generalization. One of the points that I try to make in slow archaeology is that numbers are often inadequate representations of archaeological experiences. Of course, no one honestly believes that archaeological work in the field could be reduced to numbers and even in the most hardcore intensive survey head would stress the importance of descriptive fields in contextualizing numerical descriptions of finds. 

At the same time, the experience of being in a landscape and does offer certain ways of understanding artifact patterns that are sometimes lost when we convert the distribution of artifacts into numerical counts and densities. For example, it is pretty common to get the impression that the quantity of artifacts increase or decrease across an area, but when the area is sampled, the “data” reveals patterns that are far less pronounced and visible that on the ground impressions. Finding ways to blend these two impressions is, of course, the work of archaeology, but as the scale of a survey areas get larger it becomes harder balance the need to generalize against the granularity and particularity of individual observations.

I got to thinking about practices of distant versus close reading throughout this book and how distant reading techniques so often rely on text mining and quantitative practices. The relationship between these practices and those associated with big data techniques which have ways of dehumanizing the intimacy of experience like reading.     

3. Numbers as Material. For me the most compelling chapter in the book is Chapter 4 where Schwartz locates ten instances of public temperature in New York. He connects these examples not only to their immediate material environment, but also their larger place without the global economy. In this way, he shows that the practice of measuring temperature has a material context that its ubiquity and communication as a number (that has universalizing aspirations) seeks to obscure. By digging deeper into the economic and technological practices that support public temperature displays, Schwartz shows how these seemingly innocuous conveniences represent small gestures that banalize evil by making convenient numbers so common. From the dangers associated with mining nickel and mercury to the carbon required by the technologies necessary to “forecast” the weather. More than that, these technologies trace the networks of colonialism and capitalism that have long committed to undermining the present in the name of future profits and wealth. So forecasting the weather is part of a larger cluster of strategies that consume the present in an effort to maximizing future profits by anticipating the relationship between the weather and the needs of business.

This chapter makes these connection clear by unpacking the specific complexities of public displays of temperature in New York. In fact, I’d have liked to see more of these case studies which were fascinating and compelling in their own right.   

4. COVID and Climate Complaisance. It is easy enough to see the relationship between the numbers associated with temperature than those associated with COVID pandemic and developing climate catastrophe. In the case of COVID, the constant stream of numbers – positive tests, positivity rates, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccination rates, vaccination effectiveness, and so on – do less to humanize the cost of the pandemic and more to emphasize the scale of the disaster. This sense of scale seems so typical of modern ways of understanding our world. Much like GDPs, reported costs of disaster that run into the millions or billions of dollars, casualties in war, and election results, these numbers quickly exceed our ability to connect them to a human experience. At the same, they are increasingly touted as vital to understanding our present and the future. 

It is hardly surprising, in this context, that people are finding COVID and climate change to be hard to understand beyond the personal level. The debate over vaccination, for example, has frequently devolved to personal appeals and networks of social knowledge rather than the kind of quantitative data that public health experts use to formulate policies. Climate data is even more complex as the reams of data produced by scientists often represents obscure (and often contested) proxies for the impact of humanity (and frequently capitalism) on the Earth.    

5. Numbers and Postmodern Fiction. One of the most intriguing observations that Schwartz makes is that the shift in the current discussion toward the production and consumption of “energy” rather than fossil fuels reflects the argument that energy, unlike coal, oil, or gas, cannot be created or destroyed. Energy is effectively infinite and it forms a convenient parallel for the capitalist conceit that economic growth is effectively infinite. Thus, our efforts to understand the physics of the universe is bound in some ways to the development of capitalism.

It is hardly surprising that postmodern authors have taken a particular interest in this confluence. Schwartz notes Thomas Pynchon especially his novel V and The Crying of Lot 49 (although I’d also add Gravity’s Rainbow) and the interplay between physics, numbers, the economy, and the banal materiality of everyday life. More compelling might have been a reference to Don DeLillo especially his masterpiece Underworld and some of this more recent works. DeLillo’s interest in time, space, and physics is well known as is his eagerness to critique the capitalism and dehumanizing character of the modern world.

~

This review-ish post has not done this book justice. It’s replete with subtle and compelling observations for how archaeology can contribute to a more critical engagement not only with abstractions like numbers and temperature, but also to the structures that seems like common-sense in our contemporary world even as they obfuscate tremendous violence and injustice. It’s worth a read. 

American Way of Death

This weekend (literally 5 minutes ago!), I read Shannon Lee Dawdy’s latest book: American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the 21st Century (Princeton 2021). The book is good, as one might expect from one of the most well-known and respected archaeologists of the 21st century, but I will admit that the book was not quite what I expected. It is not, as the author admits in its first pages, an academic book, but a companion to a documentary that she produced with Daniel Zox. I’ll think a bit about that in my book notes to follow, but it means that the book doesn’t set out to make a single academic statement, but to consider the practices surrounding death in contemporary American culture more broadly.

Just a few weeks ago, two of my friends sat on my front porch talking about their respective fathers’ relatively recent passing. As someone whose father is still living, the conversation was uncomfortable for me especially the sometimes matter of factness about the role that they played both in the end of their fathers’ lives and also the rituals associated with the final arrangements. To be clear, nothing that they said was inappropriate or shocking. In fact, it made clear to me that death was, in fact, part of everyday life. This has got me thinking about my own death and the death of those close to me. I keep hoping that I’ll have some profound revelation that will help guide me to making some dramatic statement or profound plans about what should happen to my body when I die. I have a friend who doesn’t want her body to stay in North Dakota. I find myself far more ambivalent. Dawdy’s book helped me, in some ways, realize that this too was a fine way to view death. I needn’t have plans for my body to be launched into space, or my ashes scattered at some scenic vista, or some kind of party or somber event to serve as a memorial. Water will find its own level when I die largely because death is part of everyday life.

As per usual, I don’t have a review for this book, but I offer a handful of observations. It’s a good book and one well worth reading.    

1. Books and Media. My fiction editor at North Dakota Quarterly, Gilad Elbom, made the observation once that most fiction is becoming the scripts for movies or TV shows. In other words, stories are adopting the pacing, the preoccupation with setting, the neatly defined characters, and the narrative arc preferred by the mass media. Even a casual engagement with recent fiction exposes the reader to any number of cringe worthy moments where the author attempts to describe a scene as if it were already on the screen rather than as something destined for the reader’s imagination and fleshed out by our common experiences. 

Dawdy’s book is one of the first scholarly works that felt as if it were a podcast or documentary. This isn’t a complaint or criticism. It is not just that the Dawdy introduced the reader to vivid characters, individually described, as this is a feature of any number of well-written works of thoughtful, creative, and journalistic non-fiction. Maybe it has to do with the vivid settings of some of the interviews or her personal anecdotes or even the sense of movement through the book which seems readymade for NPR style voice overs. In any event, I expect to see more of this in the coming years as podcast, documentaries, and other forms of popular media serve to shape spaces of transmedia scholarship 

2. Death as an Object. Dawdy brought her archaeological sensibilities to the book through her intense interest in the material aspects of death. Dawdy considers a wide range of American ways of disposing of bodies from traditional practices of embalming to custom made urns, the growing vogue for biodegradable shrouds, the option to have one’s ashes blended with paint, mixed with glass, or even compressed into diamonds or even the mixed with powder and shot off as fireworks!

On Friday, as I was out for my run, I passed by a man paying his respects near the edge of the river where several years ago a body was found. The body belonged to a local resident whose family and friends maintained a little memorial for the individual there with colored ribbons tied around the trees and they sometimes left plastic flowers, balloons, or other mementos. A few years ago, they sponsored a memorial park bench which had a little plaque with the name of the deceased on it. Someone pried the plaque free from the bench, but the bench is still there.

Dawdy’s interest in death rituals (broadly construed) maybe tends slightly toward the formal practices (no matter how idiosyncratic or personal). She doesn’t really consider the impromptu memorials that appear so regularly in small towns: on roadsides, riverbeds, on the backs of cars, and in parks. I’ve often wondered about these and how they worked for the individuals who set them up and people who pass them every day. I can’t help but feeling a tiny bit of kinship with the people who set up these memorials and feel like I have a tiny role to play in the preservation of their memories.

3. 9/11, Katrina, and COVID. The  historical backdrops to this book are the three tragedies that will likely define the first quarter of the 21st century. The 9/11 attacks and the concern shown for the recovery of human remains from the mangled ruins of the World Trade Center seemed to draw people’s attention toward issues of what to do with the body of the deceased. The devastating effects of Katrina on the city of New Orleans and the efforts of the community to recover are essentially synonymous with Shannon Lee Dawdy’s career. In this book, the streets of the French Quarter and New Orleans cemeteries literally frame the book which begins with Dawdy and Zox’s first interviews among revelers in New Orleans and toward the end spends time in Holt Cemetery, the public cemetery in the Crescent City. This framing ensured that the reader understood the book as part of Dawdy’s larger academic and professional project. I wonder whether 9/11 and Katrina marked a watershed in American attitudes not just toward our individual lives but also toward how we understand the social lives of our bodies after death. In the final pages of the book, Dawdy notes that it may be that the imagined community of the United States is dissolving and one of the ways that this is visible is the growing diversity of ideas surrounding death. Maybe these events somehow catalyzed these trends by pushing the debate to the forefront of our minds.

Finally, she recognized that writing (and reading) this book against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic meant that thoughts about death were once again in the forefront of our collective consciousness. And, once again, we reflected on how we want our bodies treated after we die and once again, we’ll discover how these practices strengthen and test social bonds made all more fragile by pandemic itself.

4. Time. It seems like the afterlife of the human body does something weird with time. For example, practices like embalming seem to be an effort to slow time down. The rituals of burial, scattering of ashes, or other end of life rites seem to blur the past of the individual with the present of the mourners. The traditions of celebratory and deeply respectful funerals – of paying respects – especially among marginalized groups who were often not treated with respect in their daily lives. In other words, practices associated with end of life rituals offered a time where the deceased could receive the respect that they did not get in their life. At the same time, there is this intense desire to commemorate and communicate with the future. In fact, the epilogue of the book features future (?) archaeologists discovering the remains of a burial shroud during their excavation. 

I’ve been thinking more and more about the idea of a foreclosed future. A future foreclosed or truncated by the economic uncertainties of late capitalism, the looming climate catastrophe, and the struggle to imagine a future from a present that seems to be accelerating beyond our control. I wonder how the realization that the social, economic, and environmental context for memory is changing will exert an influence over how we treat the physical remains entrusted to our care or plan for our own. It seems so much of the death industry depends on us being able to imagine some sort of a future.