The Matter of History

I really enjoyed Tim LeCain’s first book, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet (2009) and that made me particularly excited to read his newest work The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (2017). LeCain pulls apart the recent interest in materiality in history and situates it as a response, in part, to the growing dissatisfaction with so-called constructivist views of the past. These views, championed by critical theorists of the 1970d and 1980s, “marginalized matter” by viewing the world as a cultural construct established by a dense network of relational ontologies. While this remains a tremendously influential method for understanding texts, historians and archaeologists have typically approached these ways of thinking with a bit of ambivalence. After all, historians and archaeologists build arguments from evidence and, as a result, view these pieces of evidence as somehow being sufficiently essential to support our arguments for a real past. 

For LeCain, this view of the past as real opens the door not to some kind simplistic epistemology that sets the past up as a kind of immutable reality to be mined by the historian for facts, but rather provides space for the place of matter – in all its myriad forms as objects, animals, buildings, landscapes – in our understanding of the world. For LeCain, the matter of history is quite literally matter itself. By allowing matter space in the world of the historian, LeCain recognizes that humans are material and the materiality of both human things and non-human things constrains and enables humans to act. 

While this might sound like the fairly heady (if increasingly typical) and philosophical stuff circulating widely in the world of new or neo-materialists, LeCain grounds his commitment to empiricism in a series of compelling case studies that range from the fate of long-horns in the Deer Lodge Valley in Montana when confronted by the polluting smoke of a smelting furnace to the role of the silkworm in modernizing Shimotsuke Japan. LeCain’s arguments develop from his significant understanding of copper mining and smelting on a global scale. In both Montana and Japan, the expansion of copper production compromised local agriculture and sericulture by introducing sulfur, arsenic, and other heavy metals into the local ecosystem. The conductive properties of copper were vital to the electrification of the modern world and advancing the ambitions of Japan on a regional and ultimately global scale. By interweaving humans, animals, industry, chemicals, and even the very much elemental cooper and downright molecular quality of electricity, LeCain works to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between aspects of the world frequently divided into categories of “nature” and “culture.”

Butte MT Berkeley Pit April 2005 Composite Fisheye View

Historians are nothing if not practical in their approach to the past. By challenging the divisions between the natural and the culture in our world, LeCain not only offers a compelling critique of the once-pervasive constructivism, but also establishes the practical value of the new materialism for historical work. Over the last decade, this critique has frequently come from scholars eager to recognize the agency of things. In many cases, this has resulted in making things oddly human with biographies and agency that frequently do little more than present the “life of things” as a superficial reflection of how we have traditionally seen ourselves. As a result, we avoid dealing with the “thingness” of things, but slotting them into an existing ontology that is ultimately derived from the very nature-culture division that we’re seeks to subvert. LeCain’s book avoids this common challenge in talking about things by both recognizing the humanity of humans as vital for understanding the world (there is, after all, a limit to our powers of empathy; it is pretty much impossible to feel for a hammer or an atom of copper), but not as something that exists outside the world. Things of all kinds – from silkworms and longhorns to arsenic – are allowed to thrive in LeCain’s narrative, but they do not bear the burden of a concept of agency built upon an assumption of human dominance of the material world.    

Instead, LeCain might be accused of limiting, in a cautious and deliberate way, the agency of humans in their control over the world. His book starts with a discussion of the symbiosis between various gut bacteria, mineral resources, and the long trajectory of human evolution to recognize the place of humans within a world that we frequently set aside as “natural.” He then engages R. G. Collingwood’s critique that all history is the study of thought (and thought is manifest, in part, in human action) and not the study of the unthinking material world of nature and things. LeCain’s book is in many ways a response to Collingwood’s views. He demonstrates that the division between the material and the human is illusory because we cannot separate thinking about things from thinking with things. If Collingwood celebrated the transcendent and even disembodied human mind as the locus of history, LeCain returned the mind to both the body and its place in the world. In his hands, this proposition seems less of a radical explosion of centuries-old divisions between mind and matter and more a commonsensical reminder of the real task of the historian is to unpack the complexities of human action in the world. 

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.

Denim, Gibson, and Archaeology

Over the holidays I read William Gibson’s newest book, Zero History. One of the main plot elements was a search for the creator of a secret brand of denim called Gabriel Hounds.  Without going into too much detail and giving the story away, the search for clues as to who produced Gabriel Hounds leads the main character of the book – the former punk rocker Hollis Henry – to the edges of the underground fashion world and allows the Gibson to indulge in a few of his famously detail-laden discussions of global merchandise. Denim represented a global product and even the secret Gabriel Hounds brand left traces of its secret existence in Australia, Japan, France, Italy, Canada, and the US.  Denim was a global phenomenon.  At the same time, the brand itself was hyper-individualized and almost custom made. Just to purchase it, you had to know people who knew people, so every example of a Gabriel Hounds product marked you as someone with a place in a very small circle of people in the know.

This past weekend, I read over D. Miller and S. Woodward, “Manifesto for a study of denim,” Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 15 (2007), 335-351.  This article calls for a approach to denim as an globalized social artifact that, nevertheless, functioned in very distinct, even individualized ways, on the local or personal level.  To collect data for a project that both affirmed the global reach of a particular commodity and affirmed its unique place in highly localized social practices, the authors called for a network of scholars to investigate local practices around the world.  Some of the facets of this Global Denim Project appear on the project’s website.  Like denim itself, this network of related projects are at once a manifestation of the spread of modern anthropology (and modern, western ways of describing our society) and intensely local practices. The individual practices of the collaborating scholars fit local conditions, individualized scholarly predilections, and

To say that work on material culture finds neat parallels with archaeology is to point out the similarities between a puma and a house cat.  That being said, this manifesto does offer some nice observations on the relationship between the personal, local, and global. Archaeologists confront the tension between the local and global every time they contemplate methods to document, produce, and study such highly localized phenomena as settlement patterns, resistance, or economic integration. They confront this issue again when they try to compare their results with results gathered from elsewhere in the world. As I have documented in this blog (here), archaeology is a global brand brought together by only the slimmest of professional and disciplinary affinities.

To bring this back to Gibson, I’ve blogged on Gibson before in the context of Punk Archaeology.  He was one of the founding fathers of the cyberpunk genre and has a brilliant eye for landscapes and objects in his work.  Punk rock with its fetishized anti-comercialism and radical individuality presents an ideal – if ironic – complement to the tension between local and global in denim, social anthropology, and archaeology.  In some ways, we’re all doing the same thing as we wrestle with the age-old tensions between the unique and universal. Most of Gibson’s work, seem to include characters who constantly push against the undifferentiated void which he variously identifies as “the sprawl”, the net, or even our globalized, commodified existence.

By projecting the tension between the local and global into popular culture, we take a long standing philosophical distinction and consider it against the backdrop of the lived space.  In effect, we take the abstract notion of the “universal” and make it real by adhering it to the limits of our world.  These physical limits allow us to apply the universal to objects and bring archaeology and the study of material culture into a venerable conversation.

Archaeology, Method, and Inequality

Most archaeologists know that there is a clear link between our the material remains of the past, the methods that we use as a discipline to document them, and our view of past social organization.  I’ve been thinking about this a good bit over the past two month as I work to revise for publication a paper that I gave at the Contrast in Contrast conference this past fall.  (For more on that paper see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  The subtitle for the conference was “Studies in Inequality”, and this got me thinking about how we understand inequality in the archaeological record of Late Roman Corinth.  In general, scholars have tended to emphasize discrete groups within Late Roman society (the church, the local elites, pagans, or even laboring classes), but with the exception of the relationship between pagans and Christians said little about the relationship between these groups.  As a result, it has been pretty difficult to understand social relationships and potential inequality in a Corinthian context.  In fact, the massive quantity of archaeological evidence produced by elite interests in the area of Corinth in Late Antiquity, has tended to dominate the archaeological discourse.  The tendency for elite landscapes to dominate the archaeological discourse is not, of course, unique to Corinth.

The most cynical view of this tendency understands the relationship between social standing and archaeological evidence as rooted in the historical development of archaeology (or even the humanities, more broadly).  In this view, elite white men studied archaeology to understand what their counterparts were doing in antiquity.  To do this, they studied monuments, elite art, elite texts, and the places named in these texts.

A less cynical (and maybe more naive) view holds that archaeologists are prisoners of their evidence. In other words, elite monuments, texts, and objects tended to survive better in the archaeological record.  Since our discipline is predicated on the study of material objects from the past, we are by necessity a discipline biased to the production of elite narratives, particularly for the ancient Mediterranean world where elite material seem so much prevalent.

As I revise my Corinth in Contrast paper, I am really struggling to extract from the archaeological evidence present in the Corinthia, a narrative of the 6th century that both accommodates the expansion of imperial power in the region and local resistance to this expansion.  My goal is less to argue that resistance occurred and more to find space for resistance among the archaeological remains of the region. There are few texts that describe what people were doing in the Corinthia during this time so the traditional routes to understanding how people responded to the 6th century building boom are blocked.

The relationship between various contemporary buildings holds forth some promise, as does various graffiti pressed into the wet mortar of an imperially funded building.  We may be able to argue that the productive landscape changed in some ways too, but subtle shifts in settlement do not speak directly to shifts in attitudes.  The more pressing question, however, remains whether these traces in the landscape, architecture, and epigraphy are sufficient basis for stimulating new kinds of questions from ancient evidence.  These new questions would seek to examine inequality by challenging the epistemological basis for archaeological knowledge. This may mean that arguments for inequality are less convincing by contemporary archaeological standards (and our standard of evidence is lower or different), but it could produce greater space for groups who traditionally excluded from narratives about the past.  And this could challenge methods and perspectives on the past that tend to reproduce the privileges of the dominant class.