Three Good Reads

There has been a pretty entertaining and perhaps useful conversation about the future of Classical archaeology over the last few weeks and the blog posts and chat across social media and email has prompted me to read some things that I wouldn’t otherwise. (For a start on that, check out Dimitri Nakassis’s two part blog series here and here.)

First, check out Severin Fowles, “The Perfect Subject (postcolonial object study)” in the Journal of Material Culture 21.1 (2016). Fowles argues that the recent shift to objects as the focus for study in anthropology (but this could be expanded across the humanities and social sciences) is really a response to growing anxiety that speaking about and for other people (whether formally colonial or simply colonized by our academic gaze) has become ethically challenging. The article is a compelling critique of our recent fetishization of stuff.

Then, check out Susan Pollock’s “The Subject of Suffering” from American Anthropologist 118.4 (2016). It was the Patty Jo Watson lecture AAA annual meeting. This article circulated as we discussed the need for a new sense of ethical responsibility in Classical archaeology. Pollock argues that one aspect of this is the archaeology of suffering. In her discussion of the archaeology of a Nazi era site she emphasized the unexpected impact of objects associated with abject human suffering in her excavations and how this challenged long held ideas that archaeology should be objective, detached and scientific. It is an interesting contribution to our recent thoughts about an archaeology of care.

From the same volume of American Anthropologist, check out Mark D. Flemming’s “Mass Transit Workers and Neoliberal Time Discipline in San Francisco”. Flemming riffs on E.P. Thomspon’s well-known 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” as he explores the plight of mass transit workers in San Francisco arguing that the city supported by local citizen groups used attitudes toward race, a widespread view of civic employees as unproductive, and unrealistic schedules to undermine organize labor. The result is more short-term and part time workers in the San Francisco mass transit system who do not receive the benefits as full-time union workers. For Flemming, this case study reflects a wider transformation of labor, time, and work-discipline to accommodate a set of neoliberal values that further commodify and fragment human labor. 

And, if you still need something to read, do check out the free download of our 2014 book in the ASOR Archaeological Report Series, Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coast Town that I edited with my friends David Pettegrew and R. Scott Moore. Here’s a link to download the book. Every download makes a puppy smile!

Philip K Dick and Archaeology

I’m beginning to think a bit about this crazy ASOR paper that I proposed last spring for the final installment of the session on object biography. My role in the session is to consider how technologies impact our ability to think of the life history of objects. To do this, I decided to think about the future of archaeological objects (both objects under study and objects that we use as archaeologists) and trace the fuzzy line to an archaeology of the future.

Here’s a first draft:

When I wrote my abstract for this session, I was thinking of William Gibson. For example, I indulged Gibson’s recent tendency to name everything, taking a cue from the cue from what Frederic Jameson called “postmodern nominalism.” Of course, naming things in our hyper commodified culture associated by Jameson and, surely, Gibson as well with the reach of global capital. At the same time, we recognized – as did Kopytoff – that objects can shed their status as commodities when they enter our world as artifacts. As artifacts, they go from being general types to things that have meaning in a singular way – a process Kopytoff calls singularization. Singularization transforms the commodity into something that has a life that can be narrated as a biography. 

In the three previous object biography sessions, the papers have generally focused on the life of these singularized things and have paid particular attention to the objects that archaeologists study or recover. In this context, there was significant concern for authenticity and the reality of archaeological artifacts.

In contrast to that, I’ve tended to reflect on the tools that archaeologists use and tried to understand how these objects intersected with the objects that we study. As technology has taken on a more central role in archaeological practice, archaeologists have embraced any number of branded, commodified, interchangeable tools. If archaeologists in the 1970s prized their trowels, today digital cameras, iPads, laptops, and branded software join traditional field gear as vital for the archaeologists work. Archaeology has been even more enmeshed in the commodified world of Gibson where products and brands intersect with archaeological things.

As I thought about this, I was drawn to the novels of Philip K Dick particularly as interpreted by Bill Brown in most recent book Other Things. Brown emphasizes what even the casual reader of Dick’s novels knows:  time and authenticity are central concerns for the author as he explores the future of the past. In Time Out of Joint, the idyllic surroundings of a 1950s American town slowly falls apart when the protagonist discovers a cache of magazines describing an alternative present that appears every bit as real as his surroundings. In Ubik, objects drift in and out of chronological focus in a netherworld between life and death. In The Galactic Pot-Healer, Dick contrasts the deeply-fulfilling, artisanal work of a pot-healer who repairs damaged ancient vessels, with the emptiness of modern existence. Authenticity plays a role in many other Dick novels as well. 

The tension between the commodified world of “named things” and the archaeological world of singular things gives birth the potential of object biography. I’m curious about whether this tension also provides us with insights into the issues of authenticity and time that frames both what we study (i.e. the authentic and singular) and the tools we use (the commodified, ephemeral, and inauthentic).  

Archaeological Context

I read with some interest an article by Robin Osborne in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 28.2 (2015) titled “De-contextualising and Re-contextualising: Why Mediterranean Archaeology Needs to Get out of the Trench and Back into the Museum.” 

The title is certainly provocative, and I was ready to disagree vehemently with much of what he said. Of course, conventional archaeology (and I am a conventional archaeologist) establishes the dominant context for any artifact. The place of an object within an archaeological assemblage establishes the all important provenience for a find, has the best potential for establishing a chronological context for the object’s deposition and offers key clues for the object’s function. Moreover, the trench or the survey unit offers a space for the object to work with other objects to establish the function and chronology for levels, buildings, events, spaces, and places. An artifact without provenience sitting on a museum shelf or in a storeroom somewhere has less of a chance to do any of this archaeological work because it lacks proper archaeological context. Finally, the primacy of archaeological context has taken on an ethical dimension. The unprovenienced artifact, frequently purchased on the antiquities market, represents the destruction brought about by looting, illegal, and undocumented excavations, which leads invariably to the monetization of heritage and the loss of vital historical knowledge about the past. In other words, archaeological context is where an object does the most work, makes the most meaning, contributes the most to our understanding of the past.

Osborne knows this, of course, and his scholarship throughout his career has shown great sensitivity to archaeological context and archaeological knowledge. At the same time, he recognizes that unprovenienced artifacts tend to be more accessible to scholars and frequently line the shelf of small museums – especially those at universities – around the world. For Osborne, these museum collections represent untapped resource for understanding the ancient world (and the blame for this rests largely on the shoulders of archaeologists who have privileged their methods to the exclusion of other approaches to objects). He then goes on to demonstrate how small collections of objects often invite greater scrutiny of details and offer the kind of limited and bounded assemblages that provide foundations for generalizations that other scholars can test with other groups of objects elsewhere. There are shades of a “slow archaeology” here which rewards the careful, patient, and critical scrutiny of an object over the collection of masses of data. 

This is all great and offers us a nice reminder that archaeological context represents but a single lens for understanding objects. More than that, though, I wonder if Osborne has in his sights a larger critique of context as a way of understanding the relationship between an object and its place in the wider world. In other words, if you argue that every object has a context and the relationship between other objects, various disciplinary methods and intellectual approaches define this context, then I think the term context becomes meaningless. (And this is not really my observation, but Foucault’s). It is inevitable, of course, that when we stop privileging context – any context – as the foundation for an object’s value, we will cast ourselves adrift amid a sea of endless relationships between objects. At the same time, Osborne’s article, whatever we think of the particulars, reminds us that contexts have a context and a critical scrutiny of an object’s in its place always presents an opportunity for the production of knowledge. 

Objects and Artifacts

Saturday was the deadline for submitting papers to the 2015 American Schools of Oriental Research conference. It dawned on me while I watched the big countdown clock, that I hadn’t given a conference paper in a few years so I put together an abstract for a workshop at the ASOR meeting in Atlanta next November.

The workshop is the second in a series that focuses on object biography. Here is the call for papers:

Object Biography for Archaeologists Workshop II: The Object as Magnet

Chairs: Rick Hauser, IIMAS The International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies and Nancy Serwint, Herberger Institute for Design & the Arts

Far from being inert and passive, the objects we excavate have a dynamic identity and significance not always noted in the record, but that must be recounted if we mean to set down the full description of any one item. As became abundantly apparent from papers presented in Year One of our workshop series, an object can take on new meaning and have multiple lives, affording the archaeologist opportunities to establish connections and parallels that extend far beyond field note or catalog description, enlarging the purview of interpretation and enlivening academic debate across disciplines. In Year Two, we aim to explore “The Object as Magnet”—through what agency objects modify their essence and accrue meaning, drawing unto themselves traces of varying states of existence and permutations of being. We particularly welcome imaginative proposals that consider object multivocality; and case studies that explain how the life history of objects becomes entangled in a web of transnational meanings across cultures in legal, ritual or mortuary context. We aim, in short, to explore the “enchantment” we experience when we encounter the archaeological object.

And, here is my abstract:

Objects, Clones, and Context

The first year of the Object Biography workshop demonstrated the “multiple lives” and meanings that an object can enjoy as it moves from ancient contexts into our modern world. In general, these papers recognized how the physicality of an object reinforced its integrity by introducing the metaphor of the object as magnet for meaning and experience.

This paper looks to the digital objects that archaeologists produce, clone, and reproduce endlessly across media, time, and space. 21st-century archaeological projects rely on database objects, 3D objects, and textual objects to construct distinct archaeological realities. The digital environment demonstrates how artifact can exist in multiple places and serve multiple functions simultaneously. These digital clones require different kinds of care in their maintenance, use, and archiving, but they are no less vital to the archaeological endeavor.

The difference between digital objects and physical artifacts reveals the complex role that materiality plays in archaeological discourses. Only through engaging with the social, economic, and disciplinary situation of these objects can archaeologists come to unpack the character and significance of our enchantment. The appearance of an artifact in a museum, in a database, and in a print publication (or even on the antiquities market) represent distinct forms of entanglement with materiality that complicates the notion of a single archaeological object. The elusive character of digital objects provides a convenient point of departure for interrogating the dynamic role of the artifact within our discipline.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been fooling around with objects and artifacts for the last couple years. Some of this has come from my interest in slow archaeology which focuses on the relationship between archaeologists and their various objects of study. Some of my interest has come through punk archaeology which, among many other things, seeks to defamiliarize the viewer from their modern material world. And, finally, some of this comes from my interest in digital practices in archaeology which have the potential – as this very recent article makes clear – to disrupt how we think about the physicality of archaeological artifacts.

In fact, my paper seeks to challenge the view that physical artifacts matter in 21st century archaeology. Almost any practicing archaeologist recognizes that most of our time is not spent fondling tenderly some ancient object, but pouring over digitized, aggregated, and pixelated data. As a result, the fundamental experience of archaeological discovery has moved from the trench side or survey unit to the laboratory, library, or office. This is not suggest that we don’t need ancient artifacts to do our work, but rather to point out that any search for agency in the networks of meaning that link archaeologists (or the general public) to artifacts should focus as much on the media through which artifacts acquire meaning as the physical reality of the artifact themselves. By focusing on the media through which artifacts manifest themselves in archaeological work, we can bring new attention to the objects that make archaeological knowledge possible. Frequently, the objects that produce archaeological knowledge are computers and various portable, data collectors (cameras, GPS units, 3D scanners) that serve to articulate ancient artifacts in various contexts meaningful to the archaeologists gaze. 

Objects, History, Conflict: Cyprus, Atari, The Bakken

This has been a hectic week, but I did have the chance to get a little bit of reading done. I particularly enjoyed Rebecca Bryant’s recent article in American Ethnologist 41 (2014), 681-697 titled “History’s Remainders: On Time and Objects After Conflict on Cyprus.” 

The article looks at objects looted, left behind, and sometimes returned after the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots in the 1960s and 1970s. The displacement of families from their homes on both sides and the occupation of new homes whose residents were displaced created a series of object biographies that traced the outlines of the conflict itself. Necessity often compelled Cypriots to loot commodities from the homes of their displaced neighbors during lulls and in the aftermath of the conflict. These objects represented the spoils of the conflict and rarely had lasting emotional value. These Bryant refers to as “remainders” whose everyday – mundane – existence communicated an uncanny quality for both the current and past residents of Cypriot homes. Their familiar, yet ambiguous and displaced existence, evoked a disturbed sense of home and belonging (from the belongings).

Bryant called “remains” objects that had clear and intimate connections to the home’s previous owner, and these objects tended to have less ambiguity and be treated with greater respect. Bryant describes photographs, dowry chests, and wedding gowns that evoked the shared humanity of both the resident and displaced “other”. In some cases, these objects were destroyed by the new residents who made efforts to suppress the humanity of their displaced adversaries. In other cases, these objects were preserved or even returned their displaced owners as a gesture of shared humanities.

Both remains and remainders carry with them the burden of history and objects often represent conflict both in a tremendously immediate way and through their complex associations with past events. This emphasizes the temporal character of these objects and their potential both to create a sense of belonging in history and to generate anxiety about an uncertain future. 

At the same time that I was digesting this complex and compelling article, I was following the auction of the games from the Atari landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Without trivializing the history of objects and experiences of people on Cyprus, these games also emerged through a moment of conflict and continue to carry the ambiguous potential of an uncertain future. For some, these games represent the folly of our hyperactive media cycle which can impart value almost instantly and withdraw it almost as quickly. They also invoke the tumultuous history of the gaming industry in the early 1980s. The history of these games, then, rests at the intersection contemporary media culture and the fragile economy of the early 1980s.

Today, I’m heading out to the Bakken oil patch one more time with an updated draft of my Tourist Guide in hand. I’ve been thinking a good bit with Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist (1976). He argues that one of the goals of tourism is to unify the fragmented world of modernity and the subvert the alienation so characteristic of the modern world. This is particularly the case of tourism focused on industrial sites, factories, and the like. The position of the tourist, above and outside of the fragmented experience of industrial labor, allows them to understand the universe of work and the production of objects as all part of the same experience. Rebecca Bryant regarded objects as uncanny owing their ambiguous relationship with time. Tourism must produce a similarly uncanny encounter with the world as the tourist stands outside of the fragmented temporal rhythms of everyday industrial life, but nevertheless still in contact with this experience and its products.

The temporal displacement encountered through tourism and through objects associated with conflicts, the fickle whims of the media, and booms (like the Bakken) makes for a good topic for reflection recently as I spent time in various timezones and observe the world from and increasingly distant and detached perspective. Strolling through airports, truck stops, or streaming by outside a car window has given me pause to consider whether the “unified” world view has any more relationship to our lived experiences than some cheaply made “souvenir”  from an airport gift shop.