Waste

I’m totally enamored by the little series from Bloomsbury Press titled Object Lessons. The books are small (and I have a thing for well done, small books). The feature eye-catching covers with relatively simple graphic designs. The name of the series is printed at the top of each cover in all caps, in a simple sans serif font with the word “Object” in white and “Lessons” in grey and no gap between the words. The title of the individual books appears in a different sans-serif font, lower-case letters below the graphic in bold white against the cover’s black background.  The authors name is below the title and shares the primary colors of the cover graphic. 

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Brian Thill’s book, Waste, is beautiful little essay on the role of waste in our lives. He documents through vivid case studies some of the physical, digital, and chemical waste that we produce every day and that infiltrates our lives. The chapter titled “Million Year Panic” caught my attention because I’m thinking a bit about a short chapter on the American West for our little book on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. Thill makes explicit the link between sites like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico and the dump of Atari games in Alamogordo. (His work echoes many of the sentiments in Lippard’s Undermining, which I discuss here).  

Thill locates WIPP and the Atari dump at the intersection of our desperate realization that when we’re gone, our waste may no longer have meaning. He recounts how the designers of the WIPP facility solicited suggestions from around the world on how to mark this site as dangerous and toxic for tens of millions of years. The result was the “Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the WIPP” (.pdf) which produced numerous recommendations on how to mark out the site as deadly. Conversely, the excavation of the Atari games looked to recover our “wasted” youth and to determine whether it still held meaning. 

Both the WIPP and the Atari dump fall in part of the world which contemporary society has tended to see as a marginal. In the last 70 years, we have dropped atomic bombs, buried radioactive material, and dumped high tech waste in the deserts of the American West (not to mention mining, syphoning of water, and selling off of land), and this activity has generally neglected the delicate ecosystems and, more importantly, disregarded the rights of indigenous communities in this area. In other words, the discarding of waste in the southwest, reflects not just increasingly outdated views of the desert ecology, but also views of race and culture propelled forward by the seemingly inexorable pace and priorities of capitalism.

Archaeogaming, Red Mars, and Future Archaeology

Last spring, Richard Rothaus and I had a few conversations with with Andrew Reinhard about the idea of archaeogaming. Andrew has loosely described archaeogaming as archaeology in and of video games and talks about it at great length on our podcast here.

This past month, I’ve done the unthinkable. I decided to read a novel. I know, this is usually something I do in the summer, while trying to fall asleep after a long field day, in an unfamiliar bed, surrounded by the sounds of a Greek or Cypriot village. This mid-year departure for my normal routine was prompted by the announcement that Kim Stanley Robinson would participate in this years University of North Dakota Writers Conference. So I decided to pick up his Mars trilogy and (re?)read the first book – Red Mars – over the last couple of weeks. 

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For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it details the first human efforts to colonize Mars in the early 21st century. The main characters are the “First Hundred” of permanent human residents of Mars who established the first colony there, argued about the future of human habitation on the red planet, and continued to shape Martian politics and policies once the planet became open to more extensive immigration and exploitation. This drama is set against a well-researched and engaging topographic and scientific backdrop which convincingly establishes the potential character of Martian colonization (within the constraints of mid-1990s technological imagination…. in other words, very little internet, but rather extensive use of robots, artificial intelligences, and transnational corporate influences). The book covers the first 20 years of life on Mars.  

Reading Robinson’s detailed descriptions of Mar got me thinking that his novel could represent a nice venue to extend the idea of archaeogaming. Robinson take immense care in his description of the Martian landscape. A number of the main characters spend weeks at a time traversing the sparsely populated planet and describing both natural and man-made features on their trips. Moreover, the 20 year span of life on Mars and the rapid development of technologies necessary to establish sustainable and permanent settlement there left behind a significant quantity of objects. Robinson clearly has archaeological sensitivities in his work. Certain objects appear periodically even after they no longer feature in the plot of the book. For example, Sax Russell’s solar-powered windmills (scattered across the planet’s surface in a failed attempt to increase surface temperatures) continue to appear in the book long after their initial purpose (both in the plot line of the book and in the Martian landscape) had lapsed. The first settlement on Mars, Underhill, undergoes formation processes as larger settlements with more amenities arise across the planet. The apartments that the “First Hundred” occupied at Underhill are turned over to storage and sections of the settlement are repurposed as research, habitation, and industrial sites spread across the Martian landscape.

Red Mars will undoubtedly resonate with folks in North Dakota as a major aspect of the plot involves the exploitation of the planet by transnational companies who bring thousands of short term workers to Mars. The living conditions for these workers are functional, but modest, and most workers (at least initially) accept these conditions because their goal is to work hard, make money, and return to an increasingly restive Earth with the additional security of wealth. At the same time, there are those among the First Hundred who have grave reservations about those who are exploiting the Martian environment and work the thwart efforts to turn Mars into a massive industrial zone. 

The idea of archaeogaming is that the objects and landscapes present in video games represent a way to engage with challenging ideas in archaeological method, ethics, and practice. Documenting fictional artifacts in a novel as detailed and panoramic as Red Mars is not substantively different from exploring a fictional world of a film or video game. Whatever autonomy is lost because the reader has to follow the authors narrative (rather than the relatively more user-centered experience of a video game) is made  in Robinson’s use of subtle detail that presents an elaborate backdrop of archaeological detail without quite allowing the reader to engage fully with objects or the landscape. The elusiveness (and allusiveness) of Robinson’s landscapes feels far more real than the detailed, cartographic, and hyperreal landscapes of video games. This does not discount the potential of archaeogaming, but perhaps expands its scope to include the textured landscapes of the science fiction novel as the immersive realm of pixels.  

Go read the book and mark the UND Writers Conference on your calendar. 

Undermining the Global in the American West

Over the long weekend, I relaxed a bit and read Lucy Lippard’s newest book, Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (The New Press 2013). The book is quite wonderful and thought provoking and brings together art and argument in visually appealing ways. Lippard’s book considers the political ecology of the American West by focusing on the intersection of the local and global.

The book begins with gravel pits in New Mexico and considers the role these pits play in the production of roads. Road, in turn, open up the settlements, sacred landscapes, and delicate ecologies of New Mexico to development. At the same time, gravel provide a source of prosperity for isolated communities which frequently have limited resources, but also involves engaging those communities with a global economy that shows little interest in the local. Lippard’s use of gravel as her first case study evoked images of gravel pits across the Bakken and reminded me how important gravel has been to creating the infrastructure necessary for extractive industries in western North Dakota.

Lippard’s New Mexico shares many characteristics with the Bakken. Indigenous communities, small towns, and natural resources lace a sparsely populated and geographically and economically “marginal” landscape. Extractive industries, industrial development, and discard reflect patterns of use for marginal landscapes as local residents negotiate integration with the larger economy. Ironically the appeal of integration is that it can often provide access to resources necessary to preserve local ways of life. In New Mexico, gravel provides roads for the extraction of uranium, water, coal, and exploration for gas and oil.  

Lippard’s book also provided some parallels and local context for events like the dumping of Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill. Lippard discussed the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) near Carlsbad, New Mexico where radioactive waste from reactors around the US is deposited and ideally isolated for 10,000 years. The radioactive history of New Mexico extends to the earliest days of the nuclear warfare as the Trinity site at White Sands witnessed the first detonation of an atomic bomb. The radioactive plume from that detonation billowed northeast up the Tularose valley contaminating the air and the soil. The rural West with its isolated, poor, and minority communities seems particularly susceptible to dumping toxic material beyond the gaze of the urban world. In the documentary made about the dumping and excavation of the Atari games, Zak Penn, the director, asks the mayor of Alamogordo if he’d be willing to open the city’s landfill to another dump of video games. He answered in the affirmative, making explicit the link between local attitudes and global networks.

Lippard concludes her book with a meditation on the role that art can play in negotiating the fraught political ecology of New Mexico. While she recognizes that art also participates in the global market especially spectacular landscape works, she hints that local artists, embracing DIY approaches might find ways to leverage their access to specific landscapes, communities, and experiences to offer distinctly local solutions to global problems. 

Finding ways to mediate between the specific and the global remains a key challenge for articulating a political ecology that is simultaneously sensitive to the specific and generalizable to the global. My effort at writing a tourist guide to the Bakken oil patch fits into this larger project of making a distinctive landscape part of the universal, modern experience of tourism.    

Books by their Cover

You can’t open Facebook these days without seeing a profile picture superimposed with a French flag. A year ago, profile pictures had multicolored hues in support of equal marriage rights or gay marriage. At various times of year, social media profiles sport pink for breast cancer, mustaches for prostate cancer, or various other regular designs to demonstrate solidarity or sympathy with this or that cause. Invariably, there are columns that comment or complain about a particular practice, the uncritical and uncomplicated adoption of potentially fraught symbols, and the deleterious effects of “slacktivism.” Most worry that a changed profile picture will substitute for political or social action and superficial expressions of sympathy, solidarity, or awareness will replace genuine engagement with issues. These concerns are so pervasive that they constitute part of the discourse of representation on social media and are in no ways less hackneyed or superficial than the practice that they critique. 

Personal branding on social media is no less complicated than personal branding in any medium and criticizing its simplicity is, in itself, a failure to understand the complications associated with branding and interpretation of branding across various media in our image rich society. My November mustache might be ironic, it might show I’m participating in “Movember,” or it might be that I genuinely like how I look with a mustached lip. Or it might be all these things. Most of us recognize the ambiguities present in these simple personal branding exercises (and even relish the potential for an un-ironic mustache!) and even appreciate the earnestness of people’s efforts to celebrate a cause, negotiate the political landscape, or just to show preference for one brand over another.

When it comes to branding a larger enterprise, we are less tolerant of this kind of ambiguity. I’m waist deep in type-setting a new book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota right and beginning to think a bit about cover designs. I’ve been fortunate that my collaborators on this project have offered images and designs for the cover and these designs are all visually arresting. The book is titled The Bakken Goes Boom and it should appear early next year, but the cover design project represents another chapter in the larger Branding the Bakken project. From Alec Soth’s black-and-white images of the oil smeared worker to Sarah Christianson’s The Skogens’ bedroom window, images have dominated our apprehension of the Bakken boom. It is hardly surprising that my own work documenting workforce housing in the Bakken has generated over ten thousand of photographs and videos. 

The image-driven nature of our engagement with the Bakken means that selecting the cover of the first book-length academic study of the Bakken boom takes on particular significance. Each cover represents a different aspect of the Boom and a different point of emphasis in the book (as well as a different style). 

My co-editor Kyle Conway created an arresting cover image that shows a drill rig situated near his families property in Williston.

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Photographer Kyle Cassidy who has worked with our team in the Bakken and has a contribution in the volume offered several fantastic cover designs:

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Comments and feedback are appreciated!

Agency, Ontology, and Archaeology of the Recent Past

A couple of weeks ago I posted a draft of a review essay that I prepared for the American Journal of Archaeology on a gaggle of recent books that deal with “the ontological turn” in archaeology, agency, and archaeology of the recent past or contemporary world. 

After the paper was written, I was asked to enshorten it by about 1,000 words (or so). So I hacked away at it, took into account critiques from colleagues, and tried to generate a bit more focus. 

The result is posted here.

If I had to do it over again, I would have made it an essay on the growing interest on those three topics in archaeology rather than a clumsy attempt to review 6 books over 4000 words! That being said, I think my review (despite itself) provides a basic overview of some key trends in archaeological thinking and demonstrates the significance of recent work on the archaeology of the contemporary world. If historical and industrial archaeology have historically been rather traditional in their approach to material, archaeologists interested in the very recent past and contemporary world have located themselves more on the edge of the discipline. Prehistorians have always pushed the field forward, so it’s hardly surprising that two of the books draw on similar prehistoric material as case studies. Traditional Mediterranean archaeologists, for better or for worse, continue to enjoy a rather more insulated existence from recent theoretical trends. 

Anyway, I hope there’s something useful in the review! A revised version of this review essay will be published sometime next year.

Some Recent Works on Archaeological Theory: A Review Essay

If my blogging has been a bit sporadic lately, you can thank the review essay that I’m previewing in this post. It looks at a number of recent works that deal with archaeology of the recent past or archaeological theory. 

The article below runs about 5000 words, but it looks like I’ll need to cut about 2000 more before publication. If you’re interested enough to read the piece, you’ll see that those 2000 words are there for the cutting, but it’ll also make it a bit less of a review and probably a bit more of an essay.

Enjoy and as always, any comments, observations, or brutal assaults with logic or reason are greatly appreciated.

Some thoughts on Archaeology after Interpretation

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been pounding away on a review essay that brings together a few recent books on archaeological theory together. In late August, I blogged on Andrew Martin’s Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity, and today, I’m going to share the section of my review essay that deals with Benjamin Alberti’s, Andrew Meirion Jones’ and Joshua Pollard’s eds. Archaeology After Interpretation (Left Coast Press 2013). This little summary is rough around the edges and will likely make more sense (and gain more focus) in the context of the entire review essay, but it’s a start:

Whatever the limitations of Martin’s Latorean archaeology, there is no doubt that Bruno Latour is among a group of scholars who have pushed archaeologists to become more attentive to materiality and ontology in their understanding of archaeological assemblages and objects. Benjamin Alberti and colleagues recognize an archaeology after interpretation. With this provocative title, they urge archaeologists to move away from a view of objects as representing or symbolizing other things, like culture, and advocate a shift toward “ontological concerns” which focus way the properties of materials contribute to the interplay between materials and humans (24). This interplay expands the idea of assemblages to emphasize the role of relationality in the production of ontology (236). This explicitly undermines the notion of context in archaeology as the overarching framework that allows for the interpretation of archaeological objects, and, replaces it with the study of assemblages of objects that work with archaeologists to produce meaning (28). The dendritic relationships between objects, people, and places follow dendritic paths that shape new archaeologies that owe more to Deleuze and Guttari or even Foucault than what one encounters in traditional archaeological interpretation. 

The first and second section looks to “relational ontologies” and materialities as ways to offer new interpretative strategies for archaeology and offers a more conceptually daring approach to understanding archaeological assemblages than Martin. The contributions to this section range from critiques of the concept of the miniature in northwest Argentina to redefining the role of the archaeologist at the intersection of field work and activism among mining communities in Ecuador. Miniatures are only miniature versions of full sized pots if we assume a scale of measurement based on the human form, rather than the less corporeal body of spirits. At the the south-central California site of Chumash, appeals to the ambiguous concept of the shaman may do less to inform the rock art than a critical examination of this images in relation to their local environment, in comparison to other similar representations, and with a sensitivity toward the materials that the artists used. In the second section, Chantal Conneller presented a small taste of her pathbreaking work on the relationship between materials and forms in the upper Paleolithic with particular attention to skeuomorphs which use one material to depict another an object in another material. The other contributions to this volume likewise explore the relationship between the materiality of objects and the way in which theoretical models of change or practice have impaired archaeologists ability to sort our complicated and multiple transformations like the shift from the mesolithic to the Neolithic in England. The diversity in fourth millennium BC assemblages in England reveal multiple rates of technological change that vary over time in in different locations.

The third section of the work shifts the focus from understanding the relationship between the material and social change. The authors explore the various ways in which the relationship between human actors and object interact. This expansive view of assemblages which include both objects and human actors both echoes Latour’s view that objects can “object” to ill-fitting interpretative schema, and by extension that objects have agency in complex relational networks. Much of the work in this section focuses on the animist ontologies that structure the relationship between objects, landscapes, and practices and open up new ways to understand the production of objects and monuments. Joshua Pollard’s contribution considers the dense network of processes that emerged through the construction of stone and earthen monuments in Avebury in the U.K. and in Polynesia. Sarah E. Baires and colleagues explored the web of movement that shaped both the encounters with and the production of monuments among the Woodlands groups in North America. Chris Fowler’s important contribution emphasizes the role of time in how we understand the relationships throughout assemblages. Events are objects within assemblages that play a role in producing meaning. Fowler makes a key point: social change does not impact the assemblage but emerges from changing relationships between objects.

The final section of the book considers the role of representation in an archaeology that engages ontological questions in a serious way. These contributions share the previous section’s interest in production. For example, Ing Marie Back Danielsson considers the practices used to produce and then to discard Iron Age Scandinavia gold-foil images rather than simply considering their representation, and Frederik Fahlander’s careful reading of coastal rock art in Bronze Age Sweden demonstrates how various phases of inscription relate to one another bringing time, expression, and materiality into the production of an assemblage. Andrew Conchrane likewise demonstrates a sensitivity to time in his study of abstract imagery in the Neolithic passage times of Fourknocks, Ireland which endured both remodeling and archaeological interventions. Sara Perry’s narrative history of the building of models and dioramas by the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London and the role that these objects played in developing observational literacy among archaeologists as well as revenue for the Institute.

The final contribution to the book comes from Gavin Lucas whose work on time, materiality, and archaeological methods looms large in recent reconsiderations of the archaeological practice. Lucas approaches the “ontological turn” through a consideration of the “ontological purification” that has traditionally divided reality into “humans or things.” Returning to the main focus of the book, Lucas argues that for archaeology to do more than simply reify this division, and other dependent divisions like that between nature and culture, archaeologists must find new ways of understanding the dense relational network that include a diverse range of objects. This shift not only marks archaeology’s ongoing move toward the kind of Latourian natural science considered by Martin, but also reflects a growing awareness of our own networked world.

The War with the Sioux: The Book

It’s a good day! The English translation of Karl Jakob Skarstein’s The War with the Sioux is finally published. Go here for the links to download the book.

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The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce the publication of the first English translation of Karl Jakob Skarstein’s The War with the Sioux: Norwegians against Indians 1862-1863. Associate Professor of Norwegian Melissa Gjellstad and UND alumna Danielle Mead Skjelver translated the text and Dr. Richard Rothaus and Dakota Goodhouse provided new introductory material.

Skjelver noted that “”I first encountered Skarstein’s riveting narrative on the US-Dakota War in 2007. I had never read anything like it. Translating this work was fascinating and rewarding because of the book’s unique focus on a specific immigrant population, and because Skarstein admirably attempts to get at the action and emotion of the many sides of this conflict.”

Skarstein’s narrative focuses on the Dakota War of 1862-1864 which stands as one of the most overlooked conflicts in American History. Contemporary with the American Civil War, the Dakota War featured significant fighting, tactical brilliance, and strategic savvy set in the open landscape of the Northern Plains in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Karl Jakob Starstein’s The War with the Sioux tells the story of the Norwegian immigrants, American soldiers, and Lakota and Dakota Indians as they sought to protect their ways of life. Skarstein drew upon largely untapped Norwegian-language sources for life on the Northern Plains during these tumultuous years.

Prof. Gjellstad remarked “The American experience of Norwegian immigrants has been a red thread that has woven through my scholarship and teaching in Scandinavian studies. It began early in my childhood, growing up in rural North Dakota, and has spun into rich, new connections thanks to the collaborations of fellow scholars from the Northern Plains as we worked to bring Skarstein’s volume to an American audience.”

The translation of the book was funded by the Norwegian government’s NORLA: Norwegian Literature Abroad program and is available as a free download or as a paper book on Amazon.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is a creative reimagining of the traditional university press. It publishes innovative and timely works in archaeology and on topics intersecting with life in North Dakota and the Northern Plains.

To get the book go here.

Some Thoughts on Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity

I read Andrew Martin’s relatively new book, Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity with great excitement! His book promised to provide “a stout defense of an archaeology based on the ideas of Bruno Latour.” Since I have been particularly interested in Latour’s work lately and, particularly, his positions as an alternative to the turn of the (21st) century fascination with Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens. As readers of my blog know, I’ve been curious about Latour eagerness to look at the way in which the tools we use in our research – as well as the complex network of social relations and the objects of scientific study – collude to produce scientific knowledge. Latour seemed extraordinarily attuned to the interplay between various actors (both human and otherwise) and this seemed ideally suited for both archaeology as a discipline and the archaeology of the discipline.

On a more practical level, I’m reading this book along with a few others for a multi-book review article on recent trends in archaeology. Last winter, I posted on Bjørnar Olsen’s and Þóra Pétursdóttir’s Ruin Memories for an individual review, but, now, this review will be rolled into this larger project.

The first half of Martin’s book is a relatively careful examination of Latour’s important early works – Science in Action (1987) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993) – oddly missing is any discussion of his slightly later work Aramis, or the Love of Technology (1996). For Martin, the key contribution of Latour is his critique of the division between nature and culture. Latour’s careful study of scientific procedures in a Nobel prize winner’s laboratory led him to argue that the division between nature and culture obscured the real work of science by reducing scientific arguments to descriptions of a natural “fact” rather than arguments based on expansive, but ultimately defined observations. Science works through the continual adjustment of definitions serving to define expansive bodies of observations rather than the testing of some pre-conceived hypothesis as suggested by Karl Popper.

If Latour’s science is the work of description, rather than hypothesis testing, then the reality of nature is not subjected to a “thought up” theory, but rather the product of a set of objects arranged according to shared characteristics. This understanding of science removed culture as an organizing principle, and, instead, relied upon empirical characteristics to define relationships. Objects, in other words, can object to groupings that do not produce compatibility. As a result, objects form an active nexus in the relationship between the scientist, other objects, and whatever tools the scientist uses to document, describe, or measure the object. The mutual compatibility of all these objects, persons, tools, spaces, and relationships is necessary for a coherent network of knowledge to exist. For Latour, the hypothesis, then, is description of mutual compatibility between all parts of the experiment which is periodically – and artificially – published in scientific papers.

For Martin (and Latour) this approach is radically different from what social scientists do in the production of knowledge. Instead of patiently gathering observations and arranging groups of similar objects, events, and combinations to create large complex, but compatible datasets, social scientists attempt to reduce natural complexity by explaining objects, events, or relationships through preconceived theories which they associate with culture. By maintaining a divisions between the conceptual and abstract world of culture and the natural world of objects, social sciences not only rendered objects passive, but also departed from the practices fundamental to scientific work. When Latour famously claims that “we have never been modern” he refers directly to the premodern failure to separate the cultural from the natural that persists in modern science. The difference between “modern” science and its premodern predecessor for Latour is simply the vast scale and number of observations possible in modern science, but not in the basic operation. The myth of a modernity made up of passive objects understood only through universal theories applies only in the social sciences which, then, falsely grant their work authority through appeals to the scientific method. So far, this is great stuff. Anyone interested in how and why Latour constructed his symmetrical view of scientific knowledge production should spend a day reading the first 100 pages or so of this book.

In the second 100 pages or so witness the application of these theories to two archaeological data sets: burials in the Wessex culture of Early Bronze Age England and in North American Hopewell Indians. Both of these contexts have certain “controversies” or inconsistencies in the material culture that defy traditional efforts at analysis. For Martin, “controversies” (which is a Latourian term) appear in archaeology when objects resist being reduced to patterns established by existing systems of explanation or, in the case of the social sciences, structures.  

This part of the book was less convincing in large part because, as Martin admitted, there was no room really to develop the observations and objects that he intended to present as case-studies for applying Latour to archaeology. As a result, Martin does very little with the process of archaeology and more with the objects themselves and their archaeological “context.” The main point that he attempts to make is that the “entire context” for archaeological objects must be considered by the Latourian archaeologist: not just typology or sub-groups of artifacts selected according to pre-existing notions of kinship, ethnicity, or social structure. Order comes to these assemblages not through an existing theory but through statistical combinations which produce patterns that suggest social, political, and economic relationships. As he presents this in practice, there is little new here or exciting. Archaeologists are always looking for new ways to understand objects and assemblages and while we often approach sites with preconceived ideas of the processes that create artifact assemblages, I question whether we are as enslaved to “cultural” explanations as Martin supposes. 

What I will admit, however, is that we tend to see objects and relationships as the object of study and very much separate from the tools, people, and organization of archaeological work. Martin’s book replicates this separation by presenting the archaeological material with very little commentary on how it was produced. As a result, objects associated with the archaeological method were not given space “to object” to the arguments and relationships formed by the artifactual assemblage. This is consistent with the arbitrary break between the publication of scientific knowledge and the methods used to produce it, but this arbitrary split does little to break down the division between nature and culture that Latour and Martin regard as so problematic for social scientific knowledge. If the book’s goal was to produce a genuinely Latourian approach to archaeological knowledge production, then Martin needed to unpack both the social and the physical objects in archaeology. Objects in archaeology fit into both ancient (or, in Martin’s terms “original”) context which reflect their production, their distribution, and their use in a primary context, but also through their place in the context of archaeological practice. For objects to “object” to archaeological interpretation they have to intersect with the work of archaeological practice in a meaningful way.  

What is required to produce a Latourian archaeology, then, is not just a published study of an archaeological assemblage (which suggests Latourian practice, but does not really demonstrate it), but a new ethnography of archaeological work. 

Books and Libraries

Over the last month or so, the fate and future of the Mighty Chester Fritz Library has been the topic of much discussion on the beautiful campus of the University of North Dakota. 

One of the great things about having a relatively long running blog is that I have some ready-made made content from the archive about libraries. You can read my thoughts here, and a response here, and my response to that response here.

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If you’re in North Dakota, I would also urge you to check out Micah Bloom’s exhibit titled Codex at the North Dakota Museum of Art (and more here). Without giving too much away, the exhibit is a collection of books collected after the Souris River flood that ravaged Minot, North Dakota in 2011. Bloom has arranged with archaeological precision. The exhibit calls on us to question the nature of books as objects by looking at them in a range of contexts from a clinical lab-like installation to a book cemetery. The answers that the exhibit provides are not neat and tidy, but range from the sentimental absurdity of the book cemetery to overly detached and clinical space of the laboratory. The death of books is strangely moving, but also reassuring. The disappearance of the codex, like the scroll before it, will not mark the end of civilization.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love books. In fact, I love books enough to have spent most of my adult life reading them, writing them, and most recently publishing them. At the same time, I can relate to Bloom’s ambivalence toward books as objects. As we barrel through the so-called “Digital Age,” people have begun to see books as endangered objects and begun to venerate them not only as a convenient form for the transmission of knowledge, but as sacred objects whose very physicality (touch, smell, and even sound) infuses them special authority. 

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Some of the ideas explored in Bloom’s exhibit parallel those that Richard Rothaus and I discussed in our podcast last month in the context of looting and destruction of antiquities in Syria. The sight of destroyed antiquities rouses even the most clinical archaeologist from their well-ordered laboratory and forces them to engage with objects on an emotional level.

The conversation about the future of the library has caused a similar kind of emotional response from faculty, students, and the administration. Our library, like the books destroyed by the Souris River flood, is an ambivalent place. It is not strong enough (in the humanities at least) to be a research library, but is too large and too traditional to be seen as simply an undergraduate library. Moreover, the library is dated. It has the stuffiness of a traditional research library and lacks the amenities common to most campus main libraries. We don’t have a coffee shop, climbing wall, many group study spaces, or the laid back environment that has transformed libraries into the new student union. Our library wants desperately to be a serious place set apart from the frivolous needs of the ephemeral undergraduate student, but this seriousness is a front largely designed to encourage students, faculty, and visitors to take knowledge seriously. 

The Might Chester Fritz should not try to hard to be a serious place. It is not a research library, but it has value for campus as a place to gather and as a source of access to a world knowledge set apart not by its appearance in sacred codices, but by copyright restrictions, hyper-abundance, and complex search algorithms. The library of the 21st century (which is still the future here in North Dakota) will encourage students and faculty to wrest knowledge from this complex network of sources, combine it in new ways, and break old limits on how knowledge containers are used, disseminated, and preserved. 

In short, the library of the future has to be a place of PLAY. It must be a place where students and faculty feel comfortable transgressing the staid mores and serious comportment of traditional knowledge preservation and dissemination. If that means that the old, solid walls of the library must give way to campus wide access or that shelves of scarcely read volumes must give way to collaborative study areas, climbing walls, and coffee shops, then back up the moving trucks, applaud the contractors, and contact Micah Bloom to document and study the remains of Library As Book House.