Ephemera

I’ve been thinking a good bit about ephemera lately and how to distinguish between things that should be kept and cherished and things that have value in the moment, but there’s no particular reason to keep them in our lives and world. I always think of newspapers and magazines as ephemera. They are useful to read on a lazy Sunday, but are best kept (and slowly altered and recombined and sifted) in our memories than on the end table in the living room or in a stack near the most comfortable chair in the house.

A few things promoted me to think about the ephemeral.

First, one my goals for North Dakota Quarterly was to make the entire run of the journal available on various online platforms. The idea is that people could delve back into the Quarterly and find overlooked gems or return to reflect on an essay or story. To that end, I’ve linked to a bunch of the NDQ archive online and made it available via the HathiTrust, the archives has seen a good flow of traffic, which is heartening, but only about 5% of the visitors click through. 

One of the things that I’ve come to realize about little magazines is that they have an ephemeral quality to them. The desire among some members of my editorial board to produce NDQ in paper was grounded not in the persistence of the medium, but, in someways, in its ephemerality, in parallel with magazines and newspapers, compared to the easy persistence of digital formats. 

Second, I read a few posts lately about the carbon footprint of websites and the emerging low-tech green web. I’ve toyed with the idea refashioning my blog as a static site. This is partly because static sites are lightweight, quick to load, and widely compatible with even the most simple devices and use less energy. I also wonder whether I a very lightweight static site would complement a version of my blog where I produce a single post per day and that post to overwrites the previous days post. This would create a more ephemeral quality to my web writing. The ideas and text would be accessible for a day and then vanish (or move onto a more permanent home in an article or a conference paper or something else).  

An experiment like this would both be liberating for me (as I could be more provocative when I am less worried about the archive of my site being easily accessible forever), but I also could write more in the moment with less responsibility to trace some kind of coherent arc of thought.

Less selfishly, it would also celebrate the vibrancy of media ephemerality not as producing idea that don’t persist, but as a way to create ideas that only persist within the person who reads them and are not burdened by reference to a particular text. 

Finally, I started think more about the tension between possessions and things. The idea that we possess a thing implies its persistence. An embrace of the ephemeral, on the other hand, privileges the momentary utility of an object. As various popular voices have urged us to minimize our possessions and maintain a trim and tidy personal space, it seems to me that they’ve drawn greater attention to the value of ephemeral objects that are useful and then passed on or discarded once they’ve served their immediate purpose. On the one hand, this might create a world where there are fewer things encroaching on our space. On the other hand, personal austerity rarely is possible without access to a wide range of services and objects that are ready to use, but also at arm’s length. Useful and ephemeral things appear in our lives and disappear back into the margins when their purpose is fulfilled. (I’ve argued, playfully, that pickup trucks are like that. Despite being a symbol of bourgeois excess, they are often useful, and truck owners often share their vehicles with a community of friends and neighbors who, for various reasons, do not want to burdens of truck ownership.)   

Continuity and Discontinuity: Rome and Greece

This weekend I read a couple of cool recent articles on Roman Greece: Anna Kouremenos “Ρωμαιοκρατια ≠ Roman Occupation: (Mis)perceptions of the Roman Period in Greece” in Greece and Rome 66.1 (2019) and Sarah James’s “The South Stoa at Corinth: New Evidence and Interpretations” in Hesperia 88.1 (2019).

Kouremenos’s article looks at how museums, in particular, depict the Romaiokratia or the Roman period in Greece and suggests that not only does this run counter to prevailing scholt early attitudes toward the Roman period in the East (and Greece), but it reflects an approach deeply rooted in the Greek national narrative that understands it as yet another imposed discontinuity between the modern and the Classical era. James’s article is more technical and presents the results of her excavations in 2015 beneath a Roman period mosaic floor at the South Stoa at Corinth. These excavations produce more evidence for the dating of the South Stoa as well as the phases of activity in this area more broadly.

The issue of continuity and discontinuity remains a topic of fascination for archaeologists and historians alike. The notion that the Roman period, in some way, marks a break in continuity in Greek history has deep roots in both national narratives of Greek history as well as archaeological narratives that sought to distinguish the Greek from the Roman and inscribe value judgements on the two periods.

Kouremenos’s article demonstrates how this discontinuity has shaped national narratives (and vice versa) where continuity with a pre-national past serves to define the character and potential of the national community. James’s article offers a more detailed and site specific approach. She notes that the Roman period mosaic far from destroying or producing discontinuity with the Greek past of the South Stoa, actually preserved Greek levels beneath it. At the same time, the construction of the South Stoa and the careful layering of floor packing and subfloor preserved evidence for earlier, pre-South Stoa, activity at the site. More than that, James suggested an alternate explanation for what appeared to have been evidence for the burning of the South Stoa during the Roman sack of the city in 146. The blackened roof tiles might have been caused by their proximity to iron nails and water in post-depositional contexts rather than the destructive fire caused by the Romans. 

To be clear, the goal of James’s article was not to argue for continuity or discontinuity on a grand scale but to provide a nuanced analysis of the history of a well-known building using new evidence. At the same time, her work offers a compelling way to think about the interplay between archaeological evidence and historical arguments. The persistence of aspects of the Greek phases of the stoa into the Roman period and the interplay between the Roman mosaic floor’s preservation and the earlier levels beneath are reminiscent of Shannon Lee Dawdy’s interpretation of the relationship between the destroyed and buried “House of the Rising Sun” hotel in New Orleans and a later parking lot. The sinking and relatively uncompacted levels of the destroyed 19th century hotel caused drainage and subsidence problems with the 20th century parking lot. The parking lot and its infamous predecessor might appear offer a model of discontinuity in site function and significance, but the former continued to exert its influence over the latter. In the same way, the interplay between the Roman mosaic floor and earlier construction phases in the South Stoa effectively made the Greek period visible and made possible arguments for continuity between the Greek present and pre-Roman periods. In other words, the Roman past whatever discontinuity it provides narrative of Greek identity plays a key role in this case in allowing those arguments to occur.

Assemblages, broadly construed, do strange things with time. They make both discontinuity and continuity visible and possible. While we tend to define assemblages in archaeology according to depositional context, it is clear at sites like the South Stoa that the sequence and character of deposition is deeply embedded within earlier and later activities at the site. The residual character of earlier period material in the South Stoa assemblages and the role of later periods including the early 20th-century valuation of a Roman mosaic produced conditions in which arguments for time are possible. Whatever distain exists for the Roman period material in the popular Greek imagination, this material often preserves traces of earlier periods. The chronological continuity of archaeological and depositional time (exemplified by the clunky utility of the Harris Matrix) complicates and provides a foundation for cultural arguments for discontinuity. 

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care

Over the last week or two, I’ve been trying to figure out a paper for a panel at the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona in September. The panel is titled “Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies” and the abstract looks for papers that: 

“… evaluate the growing paradigm of digital archaeology from an ontological point of view, showcase the ways digital technologies are being applied in archaeological practice—in the field/lab/studio/classroom—in order to critically engage with the range of questions about past people and worlds into which digital media give us new insights and avenues of approach.”

It’ll be a good panel and the folks proposing it are both cutting edge and super smart.

Obviously, this is something that deeply interests me, but it also has demoralized me in some ways. Whenever I read the latest paper on the use of digital tools, technologies, and practices in the field, I feel a bit anxiety. The language geared toward efficiency, accuracy, precision, and seamlessness in archaeological work doesn’t make me happy and to think that the archaeology of the future will be better, that the knowledge that we produce will be better, that the discipline that defines us will be better, and that the society that we inhabit will be better. I don’t like the feeling that – to paraphrase any number of recent dystopian science-fiction plots: “humanity is a bug” and technology is the solution.

Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care.

I’m not sure that humanity is a problem to solve and challenge to overcome and somewhat is begging to be enhanced, augmented, or virtualized. I actually like just normal reality. I don’t really want to click here to save everything. I’m not comfortable with the idea that symmetrical archaeology requires symmetrical practice, and I don’t enjoy the realization that the varied abilities of humans are affordances that constrain the functioning of tools.

I’m not saying that we don’t all need a little BLOCKCHAIN in our lives or that I haven’t adapted to the keyboard on my space-grey MacBook Pro. I mean, I wear and Apple Watch and it has nudged me to exercise more regularly. I used a drone to map a hilltop fortification this summer in probably 20% of the time that even a bad conventional survey map would take. I now stream cricket, the NBA, television shows, movies, and most importantly for me, music. Running my high-resolution, streamed music through a vacuum tube amplifier that drives full-range, paper drivers makes me feel a little better, but only because it obscures how deeply embedded I am in the internet of things. I mean, I think my dogs are real. I’m pretty sure. I’ve asked them repeatedly if they dream of electric squirrels. The bigger, yellow dog, just tilts his head.

What also causes me anxiety is that technology is also a problem to solve. Perfect music forever has become high resolution audio has become high definition audio has become vinyl spinning on turntables. The portable digital document in portable document format has become obsolete in the age of linked, machine readable data. Text mining offers ways to strip meaning from the tangled clutter of language or to strip language from the page or mine meaning from the ore of style or something. Mountains of text are now laid low, but the slag heaps of un-mineable documents threaten to bury the town. The codex discarded on a riverbank becomes an object rather than a source.

In fact, everything is an object now. We catalogue objects, collect objects, objects become database objects, objects orient toward ontologies. Things fall into line or create lines or become lines or push us to fall into line. Sometimes, I feel like I just can’t deal with it all.

And all the while, the churning hum of technology of data of objects pushes us people – symmetrically – to become data too. Uberfication. Archeology isn’t about the past. It’s not about people. It’s not about societies or buildings or art or identity or even the archaeologist. It is about data. Archaeology is a data problem to be solved. Uber is really a data analysis company. So is archaeology these days. 

To be clear, I’m part of the problem. I use the word workflow, I’ve talked about data, I’ve thought about blockchain (but not really), and I’ve even considered efficiency and inefficiency as metrics to evaluate practice. Even if I admit that good practices are inefficient, the friction in the system contributes energy to creativity. Industrial and post-industrial metaphors saturate my prose and introduce seams to the smooth contours of experienced reality.

Maybe it makes sense. After all, books have pages. Archaeology is a discipline born from industrial practices. Schliemann was an industrialist. The tools of the industrial and the post-industrial revolution – the railway, the assembly line, specialization, the manager, the spreadsheet, the database – have coevolved (and it been compounded by the university). It’s hardly surprising that archaeology is post-industrial these days and data driven. 

Even craft and slow and punk these days stands apart more and more as a response or a reaction. Craft beer isn’t less manufactured somehow and mechanical watches use silicon balance springs and were designed in AutoCad and 3D printed. Vacuum tube amplifiers have integrated circuits to balance the tubes.  Vinyl records are produced from digital masters. Craft and slow are an affect. There is no outside the digital.

Anyway, I’m spiraling now. I’m going to give a paper in September and it’s going to try to say some of these things in a way that embodies my very human anxiety. Digitally mediated anxiety. Craft anxiety. Intentionally imperfect to remind us that perfect data forever used to not be a thing.

Objects, Symmetry, and Care

I was pretty enthralled by the conversation between Ian Hodder and Gavin Lucas in the most recent issue of Archaeological Dialogues. Not only do Hodder and Lucas model scholarly a collegial, yet probing scholarly interaction, but they offer a useful primer on the complex web of concepts, theories, and practices associated with the “new materialisms.

The main focus of the article is an effort to understand the utility of symmetrical archaeology by probing the limits and character of symmetries and asymmetries in human-thing relations. Ian Hodder’s concept of entanglement features prominently in the discussion (as does C. Witmore’s well-known framing of the issue in his article “Symmetrical Archaeology – Fragments of a Manifesto”). The conversation centered on the so-called double bind created when humans depend on things and, as a result, things take on part of the burden of caring for humans. This bind creates certain kinds of relationships that archaeologists (among others) have regarded as either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Hodder and Lucas propose here that characterizing relationships between humans and things as symmetrical or asymmetrical is best recognized as a continuum with true symmetry between humans and things being rather harder to understand (at least within western ontologies) than extreme examples of asymmetry. The challenge is, as Lucas pointed out, understanding how to evaluate the extent of asymmetry. If the extent of measure of symmetry relies exclusively on existential issues, then human-made things always exist is a rather extreme state of asymmetry from humans. If the measure of asymmetry has to do with power, then we on more familiar, if no better defined territory of power in social life (sketched out, to my mind, more effectively by Foucault). The value of approaching human-thing relations without the expectation to a functional asymmetry (things are only ever tools that are used or discarded based on their immediate utility) continues to hold even if the pole of radical asymmetry remains far more easy to understand than the continuum that extends toward a putative symmetry between humans and things.    

The significance of this debate becomes clear in their discussion of entanglement. For example, Lucas and Hodder (as well as some of the respondents to their dialogue) consider whether elites are more densely entangled with things than the poor and whether elites are more or less trapped in their relationship with things. This might suggest a greater degree, for example, of symmetry as being an elite (at least an elite in terms of wealth within a capitalist regime) in almost all cases depends upon particular relationships with particular packet of things. Such things might range from currency itself to property, certain prestige objects, articles of clothing, modes of transport, and forms of energy. In fact, these things often provide the means for the elite to wield power to such an extent (again, how do we measure extent?) that eliteness could not exist without these things. Non-elites, on the other hand, require nearly nothing, that is no things, to be non-elite, and outside of the (increasingly) rare cases of radical asceticism (which even then is perhaps more dependent on relationships with certain kinds of things than such ascetics might readily admit), the non-elite are less entangled with things. That being said, individual objects might still exert significant power over non-elites because although non-elites are less dependent on particular assemblages of things for their status and power, they are no more free from the existential dependency upon things such things as food, shelter, and protection. 

As the world confronts the twin dangers of increasingly disparities of wealth (which is nearly always defined by particular relationships with things) and the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, the understanding the relationship between humans and things becomes all the more urgent. It is clear to me, at least, that instrumental or crassly functional understandings of our relationship to the world around us have produced what may well be irreversible damage to the earth. As global non-elites increasingly feel the existential consequences of such attitudes, one wonders whether the social consequences of our modern entanglement with things, especially their key role in defining the elite, serves in some ways to liberate the non-elites, because ultimately they are more prepared to adapt their relationship to things to their changing realities, or among elites whose existence will become increasingly circumscribed by challenges associated with maintaining social and political power that is much more entrenched and entangled in particular relationships with things. To be more blunt, the elites have much more to lose than non-elites as a result of climate change and less flexibility to adapt while still maintaining the status and power as elites. (And, yes, I realize that this is a bit tautological.)

Concerns such as these offered a context for a discussion of care. It is clear, for example, that human entanglements with other humans – symmetrical or otherwise – often involve the issue of care. This further complicates the issue of symmetry because, at least in our Western ways of knowing about the world, things lack the capacity to care. On the other hand, humans can care about things and things can provide care to humans. In fact, care seems to be a vital aspect of entanglement perhaps to the extent of making entanglement possible. 

In this context, then, the archaeology of care takes on a distinct new dimension. When Richard Rothaus and I first started to think about an archaeology of care, we emphasized the role of the archaeologist and archaeological method as demonstrating that people and their things mattered to marginalized groups. Not only can archaeology offer a distinctive way to document life in the Bakken man camps – or in Greek refugee camps – but it also demonstrated that individuals and the fabric of their existence had value, meaning, and significance far beyond their own context. 

An expanded archaeology of care could encompass the ideas of care unpacked in the Lucas and Hodder dialogue and the vital role of care in creating conditions for material entanglement. Valuing other people and things in both symmetrical and asymmetrical ways creates the lines of entanglement which constitutes the fabric of our relationships with things and other humans. An archaeology of care could document these bonds.