Philip K. Dick, Memory, and Managing Utopian Data in Archaeology

With some kind of winter superstorm barreling up the I95 corridor, I’m skeptical that I’ll make to the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston to present a paper at 8 am on Friday in a panel on “Probing, Publishing, and Promoting the Use of Digital Archaeological Data.” (Here’s the program, but there’s no way to link to the specific panel.)

I’ve been tasked with speaking to the “ways and means of managing digital data in archaeology” and I think I have something to say about that, but only a weird, Philip K. Dick kind of way. For more on my interest in Philip K. Dick and archaeology go here and do check out Andrew Reinhard’s more comprehensive consideration of the most recent Blade Runner.

So here’s the short, 5-minute paper that it seems unlikely that I will deliver on Friday: 

Last week I saw the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which, as you know, was based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Both Scott’s film (and the reboot directed by a less subtle Denis Villeneuve) and Dick’s novel, played with the ideas of memory, materiality, and reality in a dystopian future. These are common themes in Dick’s works which, as a number of commentators have recently observed, have an explicitly archaeological character to them that anticipated the current fascination with the so-called “new materialisms.” He is also interested in memories and the challenge (and impossibility) of parsing false memories from the real.

(And here the Villeneuve’s version of Dick differs from Scott’s. In Villeneuve’s film, the replicant Blade Runner knows that his memories are fake implants but acts on them because they represent someone else’s authentic reality, whereas Scott’s Deckard is never really sure and acts on the memories because they are nevertheless HIS irrespective of their broader place within a shared reality.)

In some ways, managing digital archaeological data is like managing memories. Without trivializing a century worth of archaeological theorizing and epistemology (and here I’ll tip my hat to Adam Rabinowitz and Sarah and Eric Kansas who have written with more perspective on these topics), I think most archaeologists realize that digital data is not (and never will be) the same as archaeological objects, excavation, field survey or landscapes. Instead, they offer us a way to reconstruct a practical and useful memory of the field work that forms the basis for archaeological interpretation. Looking hard at data especially in anticipation of analysis and publication, however, almost always reveals the shortcomings of data as ubiquitous “total recall.” In fact, even the most granular, tidy, and even realistic digital data offers us a view of archaeology through “a scanner darkly.”   

In other words, the hard scrutiny associated with producing “slow data” (to use Eric Kansa’s phase) opens up a dystopian, or perhaps better heterotopian, world where the archaeologist is constantly sensing a glitch between the nature of our data and its utility for the kind of analysis and interpretation that we want to perform (or in a more Dickian turn, the reality that we want to create). This sense of glitching is rarely more clear than in the horrors of running finds and excavation data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus through Google’s open refine and finding all sort of un-normalized and even un-normalizable fields to recognizing the limits of our data when attempting to analysis the Medieval period from a field survey over 30 sq. km of the Western Argolid and recorded by nearly 20 different field teams over 3 years. Reading notebooks from the 1980s and 1990s excavations at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus and converting this unstructured information in queryable and generalizable field and tables compounds the feeling of glitching further.

This experience is, as Dick captures so vividly, as uncomfortable as it is uncanny. While neat tables, graphs, maps, and statistics offer one way to suppress the feeling of discontinuity, those of us cross over from the field, into the lab, and, then, in our offices managing this data are rarely spared this relief for long. I’ll leave it to other people on this panel to speculate on whether this uncanniness and discomfort contributes to the reluctance of some archaeologists to publish their data or whether it aligns in neat parallel with the unease that many of us feel when we move from our data – our codified memories of the field – to analysis in an effort to bridge the so-called “broken tradition” between the present and the past.

Of course, the presentation of archaeological evidence – even in its most conventional forms – has always required a willingness to construct memories of the field and filter the rough and ready documentation from notebooks, photographs, plans and drawings and forms into the elegant refinement of published catalogues and descriptions. I wonder, though, whether the ability to collect digital data at the edge of the trowel or transect and the growing expectation that this data will be published generates an additional burden for those of us tasked with mediating between the collective experience of archaeological fieldwork and the end-user, consumer, or fellow scholar, who may expect to enter into that space for themselves and transcend the uncanniness to “remember it wholesale.”

Dick’s dystopian fantasies are hardly a reassuring lens through which to view our archaeological future, but I wonder whether they do speak to some of our anxieties about digital data recording (note my slow archaeology in Averett, Gordon, and Count’s Mobilizing the Past), digital data management, data publishing, 3D reconstructions, and the endless panels on digital approaches, strategies, and best practices. As America becomes increasingly anxious about the specter of “fake news” and systematic campaigns of mis- and disinformation, perhaps it’s worth considering whether some of this anxiety comes not from our fear of being tricked or misinformed, but our own gnawing insecurity when faced with the task of navigating the glitchy experience of managing the data of our own memories.

The Mezzanine and Kipple

Last year, I was obsessed (or at least very interested) in Philip K. Dick and his view of the material world and archaeology. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he introduces the word “kipple” to describe the proliferation of useless objects that reproduce in the absence of human presence. For Dick, kipple was the side-effect of useful actions that produced useless objects. Opening a stick of gum produced the useless gum wrappers, reading a newspaper produced a day old newspaper, and drinking milk produced an empty milk carton.

Nicholson Baker offers a different perspective on kipple. In The Mezzanine, Baker details a single moment in the life of the narrator as he as ascends the escalator to his mezzanine level office after his lunch break. The narrator contemplates his varied intersection with people, but more importantly objects which led him to be ascending the escalator with a small bag containing shoelaces purchased at a nearby CVS.

For the narrator, the inaction with objects proceeded along three lines – and these lines more or less echo how archaeology of the contemporary world (and perhaps all archaeology?) engages with objects. For Baker, some objects are merely functional. For example, his broken shoelace (and the one that had broken two days before), demonstrate the relentless pressure of consistently and repeated actions. These actions are not specifically or narrowly defined. For example, it remained unclear whether the shoelace broke because of how the narrator tied his shoes or how the shoe was designed and flexed during walking. Objects in the narrator’s life likewise seem both to resist and to accommodate human interaction from vending machines to drinking straws, and the affordances offered by these objects, in due course, shape human actions. At one point the narrator contemplates whether there was a quantifiable way to understand how his two laces broke within a day or two of each other. Elsewhere, he considers the periodicity of thoughts to determine how frequently he would need to think about a particular things or topic for it to be “often” or “rarely.” The idea of quantifying regular actions is hardly foreign to archaeologists.  

There are also objects that have greater ritual significance for Baker. While these objects are indistinguishable from other every day objects, they nevertheless carry special significance for the narrator. For example, the narrator’s tie evoked his father’s tie collection draped over the door knobs in his childhood home. The narrator’s shoes reminded him that his parents bought him those shoes before his first day at work. Ritualized acts from tying his tie to lacing his shoes let loose a stream of memories that connected him with his childhood and other individuals. In another passage, the narrator contemplates the little rituals associated with riding the escalator from the technical character of the escalator itself to how you place your foot when you step onto it. The connection between objects, routine acts, and specific memories mark the intersection of ritual and the mundane objects of the contemporary world.  

The narrator’s ride up the escalator (and his long meditation on the escalator and on every day life in his office) provides a compelling context for his reflection on objects. The narrator recognizes this, of course, and the mundane character of the act of riding the escalator to a middle class job provides a backdrop to his reflections on the nature of things. At one point the narrator notices how even the messy hulk of a trash truck barreling down the highway has particular beauty when set against the blue sky. The rusted form of a railroad spike takes on a different meaning and appearance when set on the swept floor of a garage.

Baker’s work reminded me of the importance of context, ritual, and routine in the material world of contemporary society. The mundane and banal world of everyday, “office life” of the narrator is no less materially rich and significant than ritual life of the premodern world or places set aside for our engagement with the sacred. 

The Man in the High Castle

Over the weekend, I continued my quixotic exploration of Philip K. Dick’s work by reading The Man in the High Castle (1962). It seemed like a fitting read on a weekend when most of our minds were on protests and the threats to American democracy. The book is pretty well-known, if only through the recent Amazon-produced that used it as an inspiration. Dick sets his story in a world where the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II and divided the U.S. into three parts. The novel is set in the Japanese controlled Pacific States of America and the Rocky Mountain States, a neutral buffer between the P.S.A. and the German controlled Eastern States of America. 

Like so many of Dick’s novels, the plot centers on issues of authenticity and the role that objects play in constructing our relationship with real world. One of the main characters, for example, Frank Frink is a jewelry maker and another, Robert Childan, is a seller of American antiques. Childan is a particular unappealing character who is alternately terrified of the various elite Japanese customers who he encounters and scornful of individuals of lower status than his own. He invariably despairs when he discovers that some of this stock of antiques are forgeries, and later in the novel agrees to sell some of Frank Frink’s jewelry on consignment and he and some of his Japanese clients become enamored with their authenticity. In one of the key sequences in the story, a Japanese functionary who is also one of Childan’s clients, kills two German agents with what may well be a forged 19th-century Colt .44 pistol when they tried to arrest a Nazi defector who had come to the P.S.A. to disclose plans of a German attack on the Japanese home islands. In his anguish after this traumatic event, he staggers around San Francisco clutching a piece of Frink’s jewelry. In his despondency, the alternative history of the book falls away for a moment and he enters the historical reality of the reader. As quickly as this glimpse of our own world appears, it vanishes.

The man in the high castle is a novelist who in Dick’s story wrote a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which describes a world where the U.S. and British defeat the Nazi’s and Japanese. The book attained popularity in post-war P.S.A. and E.S.A. and one of the characters in Dick’s novel travels to meet the author who was rumored to live in a highly protected “castle” in the neutral Rocky Mountain States.

Without disclosing more of the plot, the book proves particularly intriguing for an archaeologist and a historian because it compels us – in an entertaining way – to recognize how the present (even a fictional alternative present) shapes the past. Dick shares the conceit of archaeologists and the historians that our situation in the present creates value in the past (and past objects). At the same time, his fascination with authenticity and the human engagement with craft (whether it be throwing pots, fixing pots, or making jewelry) offers Dick a location to play with ideas of transcendence. Dick often looks to characters who make things to break through the plots of his novels (I’m sure there is a technical literary term for that!) and to evoke what he sees as the fundamentally human experience of making. For archaeologists increasingly interested in the interaction between individuals and objects, this emphasis on authentic experiences rings particular clearly in our digital age.

Moreover, the palpable anxiety of Dick’s novels especially when confronted with worlds warped by (what we now know to be) “alternate facts” resonates strongly these days. The world of The Man in the High Castle and the constantly fear and stress on the various characters in the book is not without hope, of course. The man in the high castle, himself, for example, is at ease recognizing that despite being surrounded by injustice, true peace comes from recognizing the limits of the alternate reality rather than attempting to navigate and engage it.

(For the record, I’m not suggesting that I find it acceptable to ignore injustice, even present in a world constructed on the flimsy foundation of “alternate facts.”)  

More Philip K. Dick and Archaeology

I spent a little time over the holidays continuing my trek through Philip K. Dick’s substantial oeuvre looking for insights into the archaeologists’ craft. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this, but as I explain in earlier posts, I was inspired (for lack of a better word) by Bill Brown’s recent book Other Things and using Dick’s work to spice up an otherwise ordinary paper for the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting.

Anyway, I read two of Dick’s more tightly regarded works, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). The latter book was loosely adapted as the movie Blade Runner. Both books deal with typical Dickean themes of dystopian future worlds. In both cases Earth has become a challenging place to live. In Palmer Eldritch, global warming has made it the planet so hot that being outside is dangerous. In Androids, the final war has laced the entire planet with radioactive dust that has killed or damaged almost all life on Earth. In both books, the future of humanity depends on the colonization of other worlds, but, for most humans, this has proven to be less than satisfactory. In Palmer Eldritch, life on Mars or Venus has become dominated by the use of the drug Can-D which transports user for a short time to an immersive virtual, fantasy world. In Androids, the government uses androids as an incentive to promote emigration from Earth, but their ability to control androids and the level of happiness on the Martian colony seems in doubt. In fact, the main character in Androids is a bounty hunter who de-activates androids who escape and return to earth (as people who have seen Blade Runner know!).

Androids provides an archaeological setting for the story. Far from the bustling world of Blade Runner, the setting is an abandoned earth with empty buildings filled with “kipple.” Kipple is Dick’s word for the abandoned stuff that emigres left behind on Earth. In one of the most archaeological musing of Dick, he has one of the main characters in Androids describe the encroachment of kipple into every corner of their every day lives. Anticipating the cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and our contemporary fascination with post-industrial ruin porn, the derelict apartments form a chilling post-human backdrop to the confrontation between the bounty hunter and his prey. The deterioration of this world is palpable and the spread of kipple is inevitable. 

The plot of Palmer Eldritch is too complicated for me to attempt a concise description (check out Wikipedia for that or just read the book). Dick maintains his persistent interest in things, however, even as he explores the drug-induced virtual world of Can-D and, its competitor, Chew-Z. For Can-D to work, it requires miniaturized “layouts” that provide a setting for the virtual world of Perky Pat and her wealthy friends. One of the characters in the book, for example, produces ceramic pots that are miniaturized to be included in these layouts. Ceramics appear throughout Dick’s novels as a anchor for physical reality. To throw a pot is the ultimate life-affirming act and to handle a pot connects you with the experience of haptic reality. Not a few characters in Dick novels are drawn back from the edge of despair, depression, and delusion through the intervention of a ceramic object. In Palmer Eldritch, the risk that Can-D competitor Chew-Z poses is that it does not require a layout. The drug immerses the user in a completely unreal or virtual world. To make matters worse, the immersive experience in the world encountered under the influence of Chew-Z does not require the passage of time in the real world. So the layouts of Can-D users anchor experience not only in a physical place, but also in human time. Objects and time, like the inevitable spread of kipple in Androids, are linked. The human reality requires the experience of entropy.

For archaeologists this connection between time and objects may seem almost too basic to deserve mention, but it remains fundamental to how we understand the creation of the past. At an archaeological site, objects -whether made by humans, geological, or organic – provide our only contact with the passage of time and the past. Dick’s novels make this connection so profoundly clear. 

Pots and Reality in Philip K Dick

Just because my paper is done – you can read it here if you want – doesn’t mean that my fascination with Philip K Dick’s novels has ended. On the flight and various layovers to San Antonio for the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting, I read Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974).  The novel tells the story of Jason Taverner, a celebrity in a futuristic 1988, who suddenly finds his entire identity erased. The setting for the novel will be familiar to anyone who has seen Ridley Scott’s dystopian film Blade Runner (based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)). Flying cars, constant surveillance, identification cards, and a global government provide backdrop to a novel that explores where reality is not so much a point of reference, but a source for paranoid confusion.

In the novel, Jason Taverner does more than simply lose his formal identity (or discover that it has been deleted), but finds himself completely erased from his own reality. In other words, the world that Taverner inhabits is not the world that he remembers and recognizes. His celebrity is gone, his wealth and privilege are gone, and most importantly, his personal relationships are gone. He remembers those things, but no one else in the world does. His girlfriend hangs up on him, his lawyer will not take his calls, and addled old lovers only recognize him through a haze of booze and faked memories. He awakes in a dirty hotel room missing all forms of identification which is a crime worthy of deportation to a forced labor camp. To avoid this fate, Taverner descends into a gritty underworld to get forged papers, to negotiate his bizarre status with the police, and to find some vestige of his former life.

Like many Dick novels, the book leaves the reader confused as to what is real. For Taverner, his reality only returns after a horrendous mescaline trip that results in the death of the sister (and paramour) of a police chief who had been dealing with the Taverner case. Taverner becomes aware that his celebrity reality is returned after he meets a local potter, Mary Anne Dominic, who is both sympathetic to his drug-induced confusion, but also simply kind. He offers Taverner a gift of a pot, after he accidentally drops one of her creations. Like so many Dick novels, the hands of a artisan restores reality. 

In the final section of the novel, Dick explains that the policeman’s sister, Alys, had taken a drug that not only caused her death, but also distorted reality. Taverner had been unwittingly drawn into Alys’s reality which she was under the influence of this drug causing him to be disconnected from his own experiences and memories and injected into hers. Her death released Taverner from her reality, but the encounter with the authenticity of artisans things – the hand-thrown pot – is what cemented his return. 

Dick’s fascination with ceramic pots echoes our archaeological dependence on these kinds of objects to establish a kind of authentic reality in our work. Endless catalogues, exempla, and typologies structure so much archaeological knowledge as they form a bridge between the encounter of the archaeologist (or the craft of archaeology) and human actions in the past. The unmistakable signs of human intervention in the world of things anchors a reality so firmly that Dick, like so many archaeologists, looks toward these objects as fixed points in his novels around which he arranges the kaleidoscopic realities of modern life.

Archaeology Mediated by Technology: Gibson, Dick, and Archaeologies of the Future

Last week, I posted a draft of my ASOR paper, and today it is more or less done. It think I originally titled the paper “Excavating in the 21st Century: A Fictional Biography Mediated by Technology,” mostly because it rhymed. 

Enjoy.

OB III THE OBJECTS

For my brief remarks today I’m intentionally misunderstanding the assignment for this panel. Rather than discuss the artifacts presented in the pdf file that Rick and Nancy circulated, I want to consider the pdf document as an archaeological artifact. As I looked at the pdf file and its metadata, I recognized that the pdf format was introduced by Adobe System around 1990 and this pdf file appears to have been created using Microsoft Word apparently on a MacIntosh using Apple’s Quartz PDF and running OS X 10.10.5. So we know something of the provenience of this digital artifact. 

OB III THE OBJECTS2

I knew a good bit less about the artifact visible in the pdf document. So I wrote an admittedly fanciful abstract for this session thinking about all the companies and brand names associated with this single digital document and channeling my inner William Gibson. In particular, I indulged in Gibson’s recent tendency to name everything, which perhaps found its most pervasive expression in his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. Frederic Jameson called this tendency “postmodern nominalism” in his 2007 collection of essays on science fiction titled (aptly enough), Archaeologies of the Future. Of course, the naming of things is not new, but it takes on special visibility in our hyper-commodified culture. The naming of things is significant for the concept of object biography because, we recognized – as did Igor Kopytoff – that objects initially exist with general names as commodities (even in our late capital world) – before 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 social life, which gives rise to a biography. 

OB III THE OBJECTS3

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. As the papers in these sessions have recognized, for archaeologists, the process of commodification is more complex as objects are commodities, have lives, and are then discarded (and become rubbish and striped of all value to use Michael Thompson’s imagining of that term) before once again entering the world of value and life. 

OB III THE OBJECTS4

In my contributions to these sessions, 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. I’ve thought about technology and been impressed by some recent work by Eric Kansa who has emphasized the role of branded, commodified, interchangeable tools in archaeological practice. If archaeologists in the 1970s prized their (branded!) trowels, today digital cameras, iPads, laptops, and 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. 

OB III THE OBJECTS5

As I thought about this, I was drawn to the novels of Philip K Dick particularly as interpreted by Bill Brown in his most recent book Other Things. Brown emphasizes what even the casual reader of Dick’s novels knows: the authenticity of objects is a 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. For Dick, the authenticity of an object – its shift from a commodity to a singularity – depends on time.

OB III THE OBJECTS6

As commodities like iPad, software programs, and drones become increasingly ubiquitous in archaeological practices but also more remote, disposable, and depersonalized, archaeological work becomes mediated by “things out of time” (to use a Dickian phrase). It is strangely alienating for archaeologists to come to depend so fully on objects that barely have biographies. It would seem that archaeologies of the future and the future of archaeology is only more enmeshed in this commodified world through which we give objects life.

OB III THE OBJECTS7

Life on Mars in the 1960s

Since many of my friends and colleagues are contemplating leaving the planet this week, I thought it might be a useful time to reflect on life on Mars. Earlier this year I allowed myself to become completely immersed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Red Mars stands as one of my favorite reads over the past year and that we before we had the opportunity to chat with Stan Robinson on the Caraheard podcast.

708773main PIA16453 sol64 from Rocknest WB

Over the last month or so, I’ve been working my way through Philip K Dick’s massive and engrossing corpus of work largely motivated by a paper that I have to give next week on archaeology, object biography, and technology. I’ve been fascinated with Dick’s interest in how the authenticity of objects (not just their tangible reality) anchored humans in time. This weekend, I read Dick’s Martian Time-Slip (1964) which deals less with objects and more with time and the human mind. Dick’s meditation on autism and schizophrenia are outdated and set on a wonderfully dated view of Mars filled with ample oxygen to breath, running water through ancient canals, and mystical aboriginal Martians who struggle to survive the encroachment of immigrants from earth.

Like Robinson’s Mars, the red planet is governed by an unease combination of the United Nation, national interests – concentrated in particular settlements – and folks engaged in particular kinds of work. One of the kingpins in Martian politics, for example, was Arnie Kott, the head of the Water Workers’ Union. Repairman, like the protagonist Jack Bohlen, were in high demand as the links to Earth remained tenuous despite regular contact. The Martian landscape was dry and the modest farms depended on water provided by the ancient network of canals that were maintained by officials from the U.N. The rugged FDR mountain range represented the margins of settlement, but were targeted by the U.N. for a massive co-opt style housing complex that would further displace the indigenous Martians and transform the local political scene. Arnie Kott looked to harness the power of autistic or schizophrenic minds (which Dick conflates) to see into the future or perhaps change the past. Unfortunately, the future of this complex witnessed by Jack Bohlen’s autistic neighbor was a beyond terrifying failure. 

The landscapes offered by Dick reflects an archaeology of a Martian past that offers an obvious prelude to the Martian landscapes of Kim Stanley Robinson. This is hardly surprising as Robinson wrote on Dick’s work for his dissertation.

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).  

Pot-Healing as a Metaphor for Everything

I’m still reading Philip K Dick and still be amazed by the richness contained in his short novels. As I keep turning ideas about time and objects and how his fictional meditations on in the future of the past can inform how I think about archaeology, his 1969 novel, The Galactic Pot-Healer, would seem to be the most blatantly archaeological. In some ways, it is archaeological, but for me, it did more to underscore the anxiety of archaeological “progress” than reveal profound truths about artifacts or time.

In his The Galactic Pot-Healer, Dick tells the story of a pot-healer named Joe Fernwright who was living a life of quiet desperation in a future world dominated by a benignly totalitarian global government. Fundamental to his despair was that he hadn’t worked for seven years because no one had pots that required healing. He spent most of his time playing something called “The Game” (which has echoes of the contest played by Ragle Gumm in Time Out of Joint). In The Game, contestants consult over the phone any number of translation computers which retranslate into English translations of common book titles until they are barely recognizable nonsense. Apparently Fernwright is good at The Game, but otherwise his life is bleak until he is invited by a strange alien called the Glimmung to come to his planet to work as the pot healer on an intergallactic team assembled to raise a mysterious cathedral called Heldscalla. This task is eventually completed when most of the team combines with the Glimmung to help it raise the cathedral and restore some kind of mystical old order.

As with many Dick novels the plot itself is a thinly disguised McGuffin and the novel’s main themes of the alienation and despair of modern world. The mission proposed by the Glimmung represented an antidote to a world which increasingly marginalized the pot healer’s skills and job and the unfulfilling tedium of unemployment in world dominated by automation, secularism, and conformity. The final scenes of the book show the pot healer attempting to throw his own pot and being rather less than successful. Fulfillment is elusive. 

Readers of my blog and my work know that I have been expressing a growing anxiety about the change in my discipline. Like the pot-healer, I’m increasingly worried that my archaeological skills – such as they are – will be usurped by a generation of increasingly tech-savvy scholars who have little time for my deliberate pace, outmoded methods, and peripatetic practices. I’ve voiced this anxiety in my calls for a slow archaeology, but I must admit that I’ve struggled to turn my angst-ridden prose into a compelling call for a new method. Like Joe Fernwright, I know what I learned to do is no long as relevant as it was before, but I despair that the archaeology of the future will not offer me the same kind of professional fulfillment.  

Like so many of Dick’s novels, The Galactic Pot-Healer is filled with anxiety and despair that is ultimately unresolved. The future isn’t a place of happiness, and progress does not bring humanity fulfillment, but only anesthetized conformity. The future of the past may be very grim indeed.

Ubik and Archaeology

As part of my ill-considered project to work through Philip K Dick’s novels in search for some kind of archaeological inspiration, I read Ubik this week. Largely regarded as among his most ambitious books, Ubik describes a future where the living and the dead can interact, individuals with special mental powers could read minds, predict the future, and even change the past, and it was a viable business to coordinate the labor of individuals who could block humanity’s expanded mental powers.

More prescient still is Dick’s world of autonomous things that constantly demanded payment for even the most routine functions like opening the door, turning on the television, or cooking food. While the “internet of things” promises world where every device from our refrigerators to our light fixtures and cars are seamlessly connected, Dick’s world is the dystopian vision of that reality. His integrated world allows for devices to conspire against their human owners and to negotiate and even deny their services. As technology creeps into everyday life from tractors to coffee makers, we are at the mercy of devices which are largely outside our control and mici-payments that nibble around the edges of diminishing income.

The story is convoluted. It involves a firm that employs individuals who can block psychic abilities. A specially assemblage group of the firms top agents was tricked into traveling to the moon to fulfill a lucrative contract. There, the group experienced a massive explosion which seemingly killed the firm’s president Glen Runctier. Joe Chip, Runciter’s right-hand man, tried in vain to discover Runciter’s murderer, but over the course of his grief-wracked investigate, reality began to change. First, Runciter’s image and name began to appear on objects including currency. Then, time began to slip in strange ways as the modern world (of 1992) begins to give way to earlier periods. First the the present started to give way to the relatively recent past, but then, the 1940s and 1930s. Like Dick’s alternate world in Time Out of Joint, the flickering past of Ubik created a world in which authenticity is always in doubt. Objects present the most obvious manifestation of this time slippage, although it also effected humans. The only remedy was the mysterious Ubik and only in the form of an aerosol spray. The novel concludes with Joe Chip pursuing Runciter’s murderer through 1930s Des Moines as his own life is subjected to the same chronological entropy as the world around him. Protected only by Ubik, Chip finally realizes that this slippage of time around him is evidence that he is, in fact, dead and Runciter is alive. The only complication to this is that, at the end of the novel, Runciter begins to find coins in his pocket with Joe Chip’s face on it.

Despite the convoluted plot, the continuous juxtaposition of the past and the present reflects Dick’s fascination with authenticity as a archaeological problem. For Dick, objects ground us in the world and anchor us in time, and distorted reality is not simply arbitrary hallucinations, but the displacement of objects in time. There is something archaeological here, of course. The relationships between objects and time structures reality and our ability to locate objects chronologically allows us to discern the authentic from the illusory.