Planetary History

As I’ve hinted for the last week or so, I’ve been reading Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). It’s a fantastically rich book that I neither have the depth of learning to review nor the time to digest even partially (and this appears to be my fate in life). The book takes as a point of departure, Chakrabarty’s seminal article “The Climate of History: Four Theses” from 2009, which he republishes in the book with some commentary.  

That said, I do want to offer some book notes if for no other reason than to tempt historians and archaeologists to pick up this book. As per usual, these are random and reflect things that stuck in my mind rather than a systematic review. 

1. Global versus Planetary. One of the main themes of the book is the relationship between our concept of the global, which Chakrabarty locates in the mid-20th century with the development of not only post-war economic and political networks, but perhaps as importantly the post-colonial move to modernize the “developing world” in political and economic terms. This view of the “global” forms the basis for the notion of globalization that has come to dominate certain kinds of late-20th century and early 21st-century thought and certainly has influences our experiences and the kind of history that we write. Of course, Chakrabarty recognizes that various moves – from Atlantic trade to post-war “neoliberalism” – contributed to the history of globalism in our contemporary world. 

Chakrabarty distinguishes the global from the planetary which he sees as a way of seeing the world developed by James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis and later by the field of Earth Systems Science. These theories seek to understand the planet Earth as a system with its own regulating mechanisms that operate on the scale of millennia rather than decades or centuries. Reconciling the historical notion of the global with the vast time scales indicative of the planetary systems is part of the challenge for history, the humanities, and even our experiences as humans.

2. Deep Time and Experience. One of the main issues that Chakrabarty addresses is how do we reconcile our distinctly human (even phenomenological) experience of time with the planetary scale. The latter Chakrabarty recognizes as “deep time” which intersects with our experience in ways ranging from our dependence on fossil fuels and the evolutionary scale of the development of species and the human mind. Climate change at a planetary scale forces us to confront the messy intersection between deep time and the immediacy of the present. 

One of my favorite dilations on this topic is Chakrabarty’s discussion of Reinhart Koselleck’s distinction between experience and expectations. Experiences are the “present past” and expectations are “the future made present” and “that which is to be revealed.” For Koselleck, experience and expectations coexist in humanity, but in the modern period, the gap between the two is ever expanding but at the same time it is this efforts to reconcile expectations and experiences that constitutes historical time. For Koselleck and Chakrabarty, this tension ensures that historical time is not simply reflect past experiences, but also embodies affect and emotions. In the context of planetary level climate change and our expectations of catastrophic change and efforts to avert it contribute to a sense of historical time that is infused with both hope and anxiety. Thus, the deep time of the planet influences the historical time in which the past and present co-create the present.

3. Labor and Time. One of the key elements of Chakrabarty’s thinking derives from his long association with the subaltern studies project and post-colonial historiography. This not only informs his view of modernity which he sees as a global project informed by both the traditional colonial metropoles and in the post-colonial world as it sought to improve and develop their communities and nations in way that respond to local needs, accommodate distinctive priorities and beliefs, and enable them to integrate into the globalized work.

Here Chakrabarty admits that his earlier concern for the post-colonial experience overlooked the planetary concerns of climate change despite being contemporary with its formulation. I’m particularly interested in how he thinks about the relationship between labor and climate change which he just starts to develop in the final section of the book in his dialogue with Bruno Latour. Here he develops a distinction between labor (in a Marxian sense) and work as energy and the extent of capital’s reach. And here conventional understandings of labor (even in the context of subaltern and post-colonial studies) breaks down and gives way to a theory of work redefined as the extent of capitalism’s reach into planetary stores of energy. Here, then, labor, work, energy, and deep time intersect in ways that require new paradigms to understand.  

4. Deep Time and Archaeology. One of the interesting oversights of Chakrabarty’s book is that it overlooks the role that archaeology can play in bridging the gap between deep time, history, and experience. Moreover, archaeology is situated in place where it can find ways to integrate approaches developed in science, social sciences, and the humanities. Indeed, archaeology’s intense interest in methods creates an opportunity to foreground the tensions that different time scales and different types of knowledge.

Even something as basic and routine as stratigraphic excavation involves understanding that soils are not necessarily contemporary with the human artifacts that are typically the objects of archaeological study. Without understanding the character of the soils present in stratigraphic excavation or even the surface of ground in surface survey, it becomes impossible to recognize the context for the human-made objects present in these contexts. 

I suspect this capacity for archaeology to contribute to our ability to reconcile the global and the planetary is part of the reason we’re seeing an outpouring of recent work on the archaeology of climate which not only brings together multiple sites on a global scale, but also planetary scale data that traces not only long-term processes, but requires us to understand both these processes as they occurred and the results of these processes to make sense of human scale activity.

I wonder, then, whether this is a missed opportunity for Chakrabarty and a vote of confidence in archaeology’s efforts to imagine new ways to reconcile deep time and history.

4. Finally, this book clocks in at about 230 pages. It is a long-weekend read, but it’ll take me months to unpack the implications of this book, however.

This isn’t a criticism, but a demonstration that short, intense, and compelling works continue to exist even as we weekly confront some or another 500+ page magnum opus from this or that ambitious senior scholar. And, I’d rather read a 200-odd page book than any of the recent crop of mega-tomes and spend time that I might have spent reading thinking though what the author had to say. 

Cyclonopedia and Non Linear History

I’ve been thinking more and more about how to write something on the archaeology of climate and at the same time putting the final touches on a paper on the archaeology of oil production and a seminar that looks to discuss Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) .

I’ve posted some fragments of this article herehere, and here.

This work got me thinking about the concept of supermodernity and how crushing weight of the supermodern present disrupts our relationship to the past. Any number of recent scholars have argued that the hyperabundance of the present has a tendency to overwhelm evidence for earlier periods and reduce our understanding and awareness of them to rounding errors and fragments. This line of reasoning preserves an echo of the old Enlightenment view that our evidence for the ancient world is so incomplete (compared the evidence for the 18th and 19th century “present”), that there’s very little hope reconstructing any meaningful or accurate sense of that era.  

The crushing weight of the present likewise has a tendency to compress time and disrupt the flow of the past into the future. Works like the Cyclonopedia hint at the impact of this compressed time on our perception of antiquity and experience of the modern world. In this chaotic example of speculative and philosophical fiction, the ancient past of Mesopotamia courses through the modern through the media of oil, dust, and nomads. The mystical ramblings of a renegade American special forces officer rubs shoulders with ancient deities bent on war and destruction and fueled by “hydrocarbon corpse juice” which flows from the Middle East via pipelines. The spiraling mess that is the Cyclonopedia makes it impossible to imagine any form of linear history or even causality in how we understand geopolitics and industrialization. In fact, Negarestani intentionally inverts the narrative that proposes industrialization and modernity created oil and violence on a global scale. Instead, the  power of oil is a primordial attraction and the recent eruptions of violence in the Near East have roots in the deep past that bubbles up through the present. 

The Cyclonopedia is a challenging texts so suffused in symbolism, visions, analysis, and narratives interruptions that it doesn’t model an especially useful way of thinking about the past. But in this mess of a work, there is a counter-modernity that resists the trajectories that have come to dominate the present. For example, it challenges the view, quite explicitly, that oil has somehow stunted the development of the Middle East by pushing it from premodern to postmodern without negotiating industrialization and the democratizing economic transformations associated with that trend. This view of development, of course, is not a real thing and serves merely as a justification for colonialism. But it does demonstrates how certain linear or developmental views of the past impair our ability to recognize different future (and even different presents).   

As I’ve started working on piecing together a fragmentary paper on the Bakken, Babylon, and climate change, I’m thinking more and more about how late modernity disrupts space and time. It seems like our inability to understand a future shaped by climate change has less to do with the absence of scientific data or even flaws in how scientists and policy makers have communicated that data and more to do with a reluctance to see the linear narrative of progress as inadequate for describing our present and future. A future shaped by climate change, for example, suggests the kind of catastrophe best associated with ancient states whose collapse created the opportunities for new beginnings. In this case, however, the event horizon of catastrophic social, political, and economic collapse prevents us from appropriating the future into our existing narratives. The apocalypse is foreclosed for all but science fiction writers, doomsday philosophers, and survivalists.

Without an acceptable and reliable guide to the future, we’ve doubled down on the present as the antidote for the past that exists primary as the prequel for our own catastrophism. Instead of a foundation for new ways of life or paths not taken, the past mostly lingers as a cautionary tale that subverts the potential of the present by offering a refuge for a kind of regressive (and repressive) nostalgia or is simply irrelevant beyond the specter of rising levels of atmospheric carbon, sea levels, and temperatures. Linear history can make the causal connection between industrialization and its promises of democracy, economic prosperity, and social equality and climate change, but for most, the details are irrelevant because, unlike the present proposed by Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, the modern present shaped by rationality, science, and capitalism, must provide solutions to the contemporary situation that reverse the conditions created in past. 

Corinth Excavations, Preliminary Reports, and Time

This week, I read the recently published report on the 2019 excavations at Corinth in Greece by Christopher Pfaff. The report is the second in his tenure as director of Corinth excavations and while this report is less amazing than the report on work at the site in 2018, the 2019 article is thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking. I would contend that if the report on work in 2018 is an intensive meditation on things in excavation, the report on work in 2019 begins a subtle exploration of the nature of archaeological time.

It’s worth noting that Corinth is a bit of an odd excavation. Started over a century age, it is now the major training excavation for American archaeologists in Greece. It operates as an extension of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and general excavates every year as much to address long term research questions relating, primarily, to the work of past excavators as to provide opportunities for graduate students in Classics, Ancient History, Art History, and archaeology an chance to dig at a site using stratigraphic, open area excavation practices. Five years ago, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published a version of The Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual, that provides a good survey of the methods and techniques used at the site. You can download that for free here.    

From the start, this report defies categorization. As with the report on the 2018 season, it is nowhere clear whether this is a preliminary report although the article hints occasionally throughout that further work and future excavations will clarify issues. I also have to assume that the rather fragmentary reports of archaeological contexts and assemblages will be expanded in the future. That said, Corinth publications tend to proceed at a rather deliberate pace with sites, classes of material, and contexts often taking decades to appear. The rapid publication of these annual reports, then, creates a kind of syncopation with their less complete analyses appearing regularly and larger, more comprehensive publications appearing at less frequent intervals. (Someone should sonify the Corinth publication history  with larger works being longer and deeper notes and shorter works being shorter and higher notes!)

The preliminary report is a strange beast in archaeology. I suppose they started as an effort to create a buzz about work and to keep a (general? Or academic?) public informed about progress at a site. Today, they tend to be more methodological papers or used to highlight especially significant finds that can stand on their own. Less frequently, preliminary reports offered broad overviews of the work that address a project’s major research questions albeit in a provisional way. The Corinth report represents the earliest tradition of preliminary reports which served primarily to keep stakeholders informed of the ongoing progress of work. In other words, the report lacks any attention to methodology or to a larger research question with significance beyond the site itself.

That does not mean, however, that the report should be relegated to the “news and notes” folder and read only as a friendly update from an interesting project. The publication of an inscribed magic ring, for example, apparently recovered in a Late Roman context is notable in its own right and offers yet another insight into the complexities of syncretic Corinthian religious practice in the Roman and Late Roman period. 

There are other intellectual opportunities that emerge from this report that are almost certain to engage the imagination of the reader. I love the element of ambiguity in some of the descriptions. For example, Pfaff suggests – almost with a shrug – that the status of a concreted pile of rubble as a wall is doubtful. Elsewhere depositional processes are proposed as possible. In some cases, there are likely contaminants. With these words, a reader can see the process of archaeological interpretation playing out as hypotheses emerge and resist resolution constantly blurring what qualifies as knowledge.

I think the nuanced language here offers an intriguing foil to the current efforts surrounding our knowledge of the COVID virus, vaccinations, and the social impacts of the pandemic. In this context, the provisional character of knowledge pops off the page and situates this publication in a continuum that spans for pure ignorance to absolute certainty. The role of narrative practices in constructing the temporal axis of this continuum supports assumptions that the future will resolve doubt, likelihoods, and possibilities. It marks out the present as a time of uncertainty that the future will resolve. It is hard to imagine that Pfaff wrote this article without the COVID pandemic in mind. His work resonates so strongly with how we are experiencing science at present this simply could not be unintentional.

More practically and materially, the work in the area northeast of the theater sets the stage for any number of interesting arguments regarding the interplay between various pasts and various presents in this area. The publication of part of a 19th century house is really intriguing because the house appears to sit atop a road with both Ottoman and earlier Byzantine phases. This suggests that the road network in the area was changing by the the 19th century, but also that the road itself continued to function as a surface within the house. Elsewhere wells cut the trenches left by robbed out walls and walls stand as assemblages of earlier material redeployed for new tasks. Scholarship in the late-20th century was particularly preoccupied with spolia and spoliation and the aesthetics and intentionality of reuse. It feels like scholarship in the third decade of the 21st century is interested in time and the relentless materiality of things, objects, and features. Pfaff’s article dispenses with our formalized fascination with spoliated material and returns us to the more gritty and basic material of the past. The archaeology of the area northeast of the theater is unlikely to tell us anything that we don’t already know about the city of Corinth, but what it does offer is detailed case study of how the past remains visible, active, and material.  

Perhaps it’s best to leave this mini-review with the observation that Pfaff is very deliberate with the interplay between the concept of “remains” and the use of the verb “to remain.” This reveals in vivid style the interplay between the provisional character of the present and the fragmentary nature of the past. Remains remain resolute.

Three Things Thursday: Fragments of the Future

An old friend of mine once told me that he wasn’t writing so much any more because writing with an act that assumed a future and he no long assumed that there was a future. At around the time he said this, he left academia and he and his partner left town. The entire sequence of events was not only depressing, but also convinced me that he was much smarter than I and academia (and our community) was going to be much the poorer for his and his partner’s departure. I really don’t know whether he writes any more and I’ve been a bit too nervous to ask.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the future. This summer, for example, I read (well, ok, I listened to) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (2020) and wrote about it here. I’ve been thinking a bit, on and off, about Afrofuturism and about how archaeology of the present exists in the space between a recognizable past and an anticipated future.

In the spirit of this musing, I offer three little fragments of the archaeology of the future here:

Fragment the First

One of the most interesting things about Sun Ra is his willingness to conflate the past and the future. For Ra this was a response to the excitement of the post-War moment when the potential of new forms of social and economic mobility met the dawning of the Space Age. At the same time, Ra understood that traditional forces in American society would continuously undermine and challenge whether Black people would have access to this new future.

This ambivalent attitude toward the future required Ra to both break with the traditional view of the Black past anchored as it was in their experiences of enslavement and legal, social, political, and economic marginalization. In the place of these experiences Ra imagined new pasts for Black people. He embrace of a wide range of Afrocentrist perspectives on the past allowed him to imagine Africa, and Egypt in particular, as the new foundation for both contemporary and future Black unity and power. His willingness to construct a new past that would allow Black people full access to a Space Age future may well represent an early and significant example of Laurent Olivier’s notion of presentism. For Olivier, presentism represents a view of the present that is no longer linear and is, therefore, no longer the product of the past. The break between the present and the past likewise allowed for the future to drift untethered from current existence. For Sun Ra this makes the future the domain of the impossible. Rationality, progress, and modes of change anchored in evolutionary or developmental ways of thinking no longer point toward a better reality in the future. This required a rewriting of the past and a reimagining of the present in ways that would support a future that could operate either outside the conventional limits of historical causality or despite these limits. The future because the space of the impossible.

Fragment the Second  

This week, while waiting for an evening meeting to start, I read a bit of Rebecca Bryant’s and Daniel M. Knight’s The Anthropology of the Future (2019) which has one fo the most accessible and compelling introductions to the growing interest in the future in the humanities and social sciences. Plus, both scholars have done work in the Mediterranean (Bryant on Cyprus and in Turkey and Knight in Greece). 

The motivation to explore an anthropology (history, archaeology, or sociology) of the future stems largely from the tensions between two attitudes toward the future. On the one hand, we hope that we are in a “late stage” of capitalism, nationalism, or modernism and that the next stage will somehow redeem the horrors that the main stage wrought (massive, global inequality, wars, and technologies with almost infinite capacity to destroy). On the other hand, we are increasingly come to realize that the paradigms established to take care of the future have made it difficult to imagine our way out of the looming existential crises fired by climate change, catastrophic inequality, and a limitless capacity for apocalyptic violence. In this context, there is a growing feeling that the future is foreclosed and that humanity or at least human society will invariably continue to amble toward its ultimate demise. 

It is hard to know what this means for disciplines like history and archaeology which perhaps emphasize the present as a lens through which to view the past more than the future. The 2019 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology offers a few visions of what an archaeology of the future could be, and as much as I like the articles there, I wonder whether we are open enough to new intellectual or discursive tools necessary to imagine a future that is increasingly impossible?

Fragment the Third

Yesterday on a boring treadmill run, I started the read Joy Williams’ latest novel, Harrow (2021). I’ve made it through the first chapter and it’s beautiful and haunting. I will resist the temptation to try to talk about the book already (especially since Williams has a seemingly limitless capacity to surprise), but I will say that there is something profoundly archaeological about the book. Williams interest in things, places, and landscapes, her attention to entropy and site formation, and her ability to think about how the present will appear from the vantage point of a dystopian, but more or less banal near future. 

At this point, I’m not sure whether the richly drawn setting for the story is merely a backdrop or whether it will serve as a character, but I’m intrigued and excited enough to move this book, delicately, from the “read for fun” to the “read for work” list. 

In short, stay tuned and I look forward to blogging about this book (and others) in the future.

Time and COVID (part 3)

A few months ago, I wrote a pair of posts on time and COVID. I reflected on the way in which working from home, not traveling to conferences, and being away from research sites has shaped our daily and professional realities. I also considered how the lag between COVID tests and their results created a kind of blurry present in which the situation, informed by empirical, scientific evidence, lagged slightly behind our daily experience. 

Today, some 10 months after those first two posts, I want to write a bit about how COVID has shaped my experience of time in another way. (This is absolutely influenced by my reading of Gavin Lucas’s Making Time: The Archaeology of Time Revisited (2021) this weekend.) 

This weekend, I was on a phone call with family members and I found myself uncontrollably impatient. The phone call was wandering from the point, people on the call were thinking out loud, and I was having trouble understanding whether this conversation would have any “actionable” results and what they could be. Needless to say, this did not make the conversation very enjoyable.

If this was the only time that I felt this impatience, I’d be willing to chalk it up to sibling relations which probably encourage all of us to regress a bit to our childhood roles. It’s not. At a faculty meeting a few weeks before I also felt impatient with my colleagues for no particular reason. The meeting was reasonable well run and no one was really wasting time. In fact, we had a pleasantly uncluttered agenda which gave us time to discuss some more complicated issues in a relaxed way. This is an opportunity that is all too rare in our department where we tend to be efficient to a fault. These two recent incidents have only reinforced a general feeling of impatience and of heightened time awareness.

To be transparent, I tend to be someone who is prone to a kind of exaggerated awareness of time. I collect watches, for example, and almost compulsively check the time on my computer screen, phone, and watch. I regularly note the time it takes to complete daily tasks from walking the dogs to my regular jogs, my drive to campus, and my writing and reading. Each book has a time per page rate that I note as I read and adjust over the first 20 to 50 pages to a representative average. I monitor carefully — almost compulsively— how long it takes me to grade a paper and then create a kind of rolling average that helps me understand how long grading midterms, for example, will take. I tend to be punctual and I like to do most tasks on time.

That said, I have always been able to control my fixation on time and relax into the moment during meetings, conversations, and various social encounters. Why was my control suddenly slipping?

It occurred to me that by working from home, the rhythm of work had increasingly intruded into the rhythm of non work. This isn’t the same as saying that work itself had intruded into non-working time or space. I feel like I’ve been able to manage my work/non-work balance fairly effectively during COVID (or as effectively as I ever have). Instead, what I’ve been encountering is the structure of work time invading the structure of non work time. 

It is easy enough to blame this on things like Zoom. On Zoom the meeting tends to start when the meeting starts and conclude when the meeting is over. In most meetings, even very efficiently run ones, there are opportunities for casual chit-chat or banter before and after the agenda. In my experience, most Zoom meetings lack the fuzzy starts and fuzzy ends because genuine social interaction via Zoom is stilted and uncomfortable. It’s hard to talk to the person “next to you” and inquire about their weekend or semester without it becoming the public epicenter of conversation. As a result, meetings get right to business and conclude when the agenda is over.

Efforts to use Zoom for more social get togethers was kind of fun at first, but then quickly disappointing. The time limits on non-institutional Zoom accounts meant that most social get togethers were “on the clock” and that was mostly for the best as the interactions often were just stilted and weird. These social uses of Zoom, however, did reinforce the structure of Zoom time, however.

The tendency to work from home invariably has led to work related activities, whether teaching or meetings or other scheduled things, abutting home time more directly. For example, I’ve been more and more willing to attend meetings on the weekends, not because I want my weekend interrupted by a Zoom call, but because for me weekends are a conveniently unstructured space that can easily accommodate an hour meeting (especially if it’s for something that I care about rather than a professional obligation). On a weekdays, I’ve noticed that the buffers offered by a commute or other transitional rituals have contracted or became unnecessary or inaccessible. As a result, the increasingly punctual routine of online professional interaction started, invariably, to structure non-work related activities as well. I realize that this might have been the pre-COVID reality for people who live busier lives than I do, but I only encountered this changing rhythm when the structure of my online COVID professional life inserted itself into the space of my non-work life. I suspect this has partly made me feel increasingly growing impatience with things that do not follow a well-ordered agenda. 

I wonder whether other people have felt like their sense of time has changed during COVID. Have other people felt like our days have become more relentlessly structure and activities previously allowed to wander have now become increasingly determined by the insistent arrival of scheduled events?

Has the ambiguity surrounding our present (exaggerated by the time lag between COVID test results and our face-to-face interactions and collective sense of security) led us to retake control by exerting more and more rigid schedules on our days? Perhaps this is also intensified by a sense of the future which seems shaped by the ebb and flow of the pandemic, the infection rate of COVID variants, and the effectiveness of vaccines, boosters, and social policies designed to mitigate its impact. As our sense of the present and future become blurry, we seek to hold onto all the more tightly what we can control. That means, Zoom meeting start on time and end on time and wandering conversations and lazy afternoons are best left for a situation where there is more certainty surrounding their costs.      

Three Things Thursday: Blogging, Archaeology and Climate, and Poetry

I’ve reached the point of the summer when all my projects seem to melt together into chaotic ball of deadlines, half-met expectations, and long bikes rides. Needless to say, it has not been very productive.

At the same time, I am having fun thinking about things to blog about and then stretching my morning blogging time well into my second cup of coffee. So this morning, I have three things that might, someday, mature into full blog posts.

Thing the First

Years ago (let’s say 2008), I wrote a piece on the archaeology of blogging (and blogging archaeology) for Archaeology magazine’s website. I returned to some of the ideas in that article with a piece co-written by Andrew Reinhard for Internet Archaeology which considered the place of blogs in the academic ecosystem.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how blogging has changed over the past five years. When I started blogging, I imagined an audience who would be interested in understanding how the [academic] sausage was made. Along those lines, my blog would serve as part idea box, part academic scratch pad, and part preview channel for my various research interests. At my most optimistic, I considered it to be living supplement to my academic CV (with occasional dog photo!) and as a way to move back the veil on how academics produce new knowledge. In any event, it may be that this was an optimistic program from the start, but I continue to think that it has relevance. I suspect that this is even more true for today as the general public has become increasingly invested in understanding how scientific knowledge forms the basis for public policy, authority, and expertise.

That said, I can completely understand how my blog is not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, it seems like public scholarship has two main areas of emphasis. One is works that approach historical problems with a journalistic flair for narrative, description, and analysis. Ed Watt’s recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic fits this category as do works by the likes of Eric Cline or my colleague Eric Burin. These works have the potential to attract the elusive crossover audience that includes both academics and the general public and have emerged as a revenue stream for publishers and scholars alike. This is important at a time when library purchasing power is in decline and faculty salaries have tended to stagnate.

The other major strain in public scholarship, and one that has particular prominence in the blogging community, is politically engaged outreach. This involves writing — often for blogs, but also in more established publications — on both academic issues that have an impact on contemporary society and in efforts to demonstrate how the contemporary political discourse has had an impact on what we do as researchers. I find the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, and the folks who blog at places like Everyday Orientalism (and previously Eidolon) compelling and important voices. At the same time, I recognize that this kind of public outreach often puts you in the crosshairs of the political outrage machine on social media. On the other hand, their work also attracts significant positive attention from readers within and outside the academy and if the goal of public outreach is actually reaching the public, then these authors have succeeded in spades. 

That said, it is a very different kind of blogging than what I envisioned when I started my blog and one wonders whether the changing political and cultural economy of academia has fundamentally transformed the character of outreach and public oriented scholarship? 

Thing the Second

I really enjoyed this article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Karim Alizadeh, M. Rouhollah Mohammadi, Sepideh Maziar, and Mohmmad Feizkhah titled: “The Islamic Conquest or Flooding? Sasanian Settlements and Irrigation Systems Collapse in Mughan, Iranian Azerbaijan.” It is another in the recent gaggle of articles interested in considering the role of climate change in the transformation of settlement and activity in the ancient Mediterranean (broadly construed) landscape. Alizadeh and colleagues look at evidence for fortifications and irrigation systems in the Mughan Steppe region of the Azerbaijan-Iranian borderland.

They argue that the Sassanians constructed a complex network of irrigation canals throughout the region that only faltered as a result of two major flooding events in the 7th century. These floods cut down the Aras River bed making disrupting its relationship to the steppe’s irrigation network. These flooding events may well be connected to changes in climate and hydrology precipitated by the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The subsequent abandonment of settlement in the Mughan Steppe in the late 7th century, then, may not be related to the Muslim Conquests and the arrival of Muslim military forces in the world. Or, alternately, the faltering irrigation may have made the regional less resilient in the face of political and military challenges. 

This kind of work has had me thinking more carefully about the settlement change in Greece in the 7th century and the relationship between climate change, changes in economic structures, and the evident reorganization of Greek rural settlement. While the data that we have for the environmental conditions at the local level remains fragmentary and inconclusive, comparisons with other regions of the Mediterranean give us another reason to resist assuming that political and military events precipitated changes in the settlement and economy.   

Thing the Third

Do go and check out the North Dakota Quarterly blog today. I’ve posted a poem by John Walser titled “Chronoscope 181: And that spot.” It’s a great example of how poetry (and music!) can do things with time that we struggle to accomplish in the more linear world of academic prose. Plus, it’s a perfect poem to read heading into midsummer and thinking about how long days can slow down time and make even the chaotic disorganization of summer feel like something significant… 


This weekend I finally had time to read Timescales: Thinking across Ecological Temporalities edited by Carolyn Fornoff, Patricia Eunji Kim, and Bethany Wiggin (2020). The book is exactly what I needed on a frigid weekend at the start of brutally cold week in the middle of winter. It also cut across any number of projects that have simmered in my brain for years often begging for more attention than my aging neurons can give them.

The book is a series of contributions that deal with the challenge of timescales in the context of ecological thinking about the Anthropocene. This summary, however, sells the book short. The contributions which range from conventional scholarly articles to more experimental pieces, summaries of theatrical performances, and artist statements, engage in meaningful meditations on the nature of time and time of nature, humanity, and existence. This emphasis on time explored the difficulties that we have juggling the multiple temporalities necessary to understand the seemingly catastrophic consequences of contemporary climate change. 

Jason Bell and Frank Pavia’s article encouraged us to explore pessimistic approaches to climate change studies. For the authors this involved bringing together scholars in the humanities and sciences without the expectation that they produce some kind of paradigm defining outcome. Bell and Pavia’s discussion of surf punk and oceanography did not result in a new way to understand the role of the sea in global climate studies. Instead, their article – suffused with “chitchat” – suggested that these kinds of inconclusive conversations initiated without even perfunctory optimism regarding outcomes offered a new way to engage with problems as intractable as articulating the myriad temporalities necessary to understand carbon life cycles, for example. How do we imagine a proleptic Anthropocene that will only be knowable long after the last human has departed? 

The connections between their call for pessimistic approach to transdisciplinary interaction has clear ties to my own interest in slow archaeology, but I had always insisted that slow archaeology was better way (or at least a more humane way) of achieving conventional results in archaeology. I wonder after reading Bell and Pavia whether an approach to slow archaeology that does not culminate in conventional archaeological knowledge, but instead values the process of collectively thinking through complex problems and the shared experience this engagement provides. Perhaps in its purest form slow archaeology is process for the sake of process and without the expectation of progress.

Other pieces that caught my attention were Mary Mattingly’s and Kate Farquhar’s articles on WetLand. Wetlands was a floating experimental garden, sustainable meeting place, and work of art docked on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Designed by Mary Mattiingly, the boat itself featured solar power, composting toilets and showers, a range of sustainable plants for food, and common spaces that hosted events, conversations, and other forms of public engagement. The goal of the boat was to bring attention to the Schuylkill River and its banks and wetlands which largely house industrial sites. In fact, the river is most frequently seen from highways and surface roads that run along its course or cross it around Philadelphia. The WetLand served as a way to bring people to the river as a place and to engage with the challenges facing this polluted, constrained, and often unpleasant waterway. The sinking of the WetLand in 2017 presents a tragic, but somehow suitable end to its role as a teaching and research site and perhaps suggests the recursive arc of time the river which constantly ingests new things which come to constitute its course, life, and flow.

The concept of WetLand is far beyond anything that I could imagine for Grand Forks, but I’ve been thinking more and more about engaging the Red River and its surrounding landscape in a more constructive way. The Red River lacks the industrial character of the Schuylkill, but one could argue that like the Schuylkill (and perhaps even more saliently) it defines not only our landscape, but also our community. The Grand Forks Greenway, which lines the banks of the Red River, embodies some of the same characteristics a WetLand. The Red River flood walls serve to delineate the wilds of the river from the city, land from the river’s course, and public from private space. Of course, they are also permeable and imprecise. The Greenway itself, for example, is not wild in any conventional sense, but the product of the flood mitigation strategies. The flood walls which constrain the flow of the river do not hamper the flow of people, sewage and rain, traffic, or even animals. Like WetLand, the Greenway could serve as a laboratory to consider the different flows of time from the post-glacial course of the river to the various sedimentary records of its annual floods, the rise and eventual removal of the riverside neighborhood of Lincoln Park, and the ongoing, seasonal and perennial vegetation along the river’s banks.   

Ömür Harmanşah’s article on deep time percolating into the present brought back to mind his compelling archaeological vision of the passage of time. I’ve encountered Ömür’s thinking in the past and even engaged with it in some casual papers on my research in the Bakken oil patch (you can read them here if you want). The notion of deep time forcing its way into our contemporary world is compelling in part because it offers such a literal metaphor for the flow of oil—itself a product of millennia-long processes—  into the present and the interplay of the deep, geological time of the subterranean strata of the oil patch and the contemporary life of communities, watersheds, and economies forces us to engage with the complexities of temporal rhythms mingling in unexpected and incommensurate ways.

The massive timescales involved in our imagining of the Anthropocene likewise intersect with our daily lives, governmental policies, and, of course, objects ranging from plastics to the technologies of hydraulic fracturing, deep reinjection wells, and the residual radioactivity of the earth itself. 

The book contains far more than my casual comments here suggest and deserves a close reading by anyone interested in the temporal challenges the shape how we imagine our future.

Time and COVID (again part 2)

Yesterday, I expanded a bit on some thoughts concerning how the COVID pandemic has shaped my professional sense of time. Today, I want to think a little bit about how COVID has shaped our collective sense of time. Again, these ideas are not fully formed and in a perfect world, I’d have more time to think about these things and maybe shape them into some kind of article.

In any event, this is not a perfect world and this blog is not a perfect medium, but I’m going to write anyway and leave it up to you whether you want to read it or not.

Part of the frustration that so many people have encountered surrounding COVID is temporal. Not only has COVID disrupted daily routines that have for a century contributed significantly to the spaces of work and private life, the experiences of travel and distance, and our understanding of social and political relationships, but it has also disturbed our sense of the present. 

The main way that this is possible is in the delays inherent in our encounters with the virus. On a day-to-day level, we encounter these delays whenever we look at the myriad daily dashboards that report COVID testing results. We are aware that these results represent not the situation on the day on which various organizations report and tabulate their test results, but several days earlier when they administered the tests. There is, however, a certain dissonance between the daily numbers and the process of testing and processing the tests that means the numbers on any particular day serve as an imprecise proxy for the present situation.

Making things more temporally murky is that exposure to the virus will not immediately result in a positive test. There seems to be an incubation period between exposure and having enough viruses in your system to trigger a positive result. This makes the daily results even more complicated to understand as they represent individuals who have tested positive over a span of time, probably a few days, and who were exposed to the virus over a span of time. The “point data” that the daily test results seem to imply (recognizing, of course, that most dashboards also present data as rolling seven and fourteen day averages) represents not a moment in time, but a complex amalgam of processes, events, and situations.

Various virus protocols recognize temporal imprecision of a positive test and typically reflect a conservative approach temporally to preventing the further spread of the virus. Thus quarantines are five or ten days anticipating the variability in time surrounding a positive test. If the modern world reflects a growing interest in precision and efficiency, the temporal world of COVID is maddeningly imprecise and inefficient. If we tend to think about the present as a point where the past and the future intersect, the COVID virus has created a much more blurry sense of the present that represents both the past and the future.

(I would love to think about the blurry present of COVID in the comparison to the speed at which capital moves in contemporary financial markets and were billions of dollars in value can appear or vanish in moments leaving increasingly precarious worker dependent upon rather imprecise (at least from a temporal standpoint) proxies for understanding the viability of their employment and livelihood.) 

Of course, this blurry present generates a fair degree of anxiety because most of us struggle to understanding the chaotic experience of multiple simultaneous temporalities. The roll out of the COVID vaccine seems to also create a sense of confusion as not only is manufacturing a slow process, but the distribution of the vaccine appears destined to proceed at different rates among different populations. Putting aside the remarkable achievement of developing a vaccine and beginning to distribute it at scale in the matter of months, it seems like the uncertainty surrounding access to the vaccine is causing as much concern as its efficacy or its safety. 

I wonder how much of this concern relates to the sense that our already blurry present is prolonged as we wait to understand when we will have access to the vaccine. Moreover, some parts of the population who are already being vaccinated must have started to live in a time defined by a notable different sense of the present. It is no longer defined by the blurry imprecision of daily test reports, but by the relatively secure familiarity of pre-COVID routines. 

It’s interesting that many of the popular depictions of pandemics emphasize the perils of a fast moving disease that would kill its victims both consistently and quickly. COVID appear to be fast moving, but its massive death toll only reflects one aspect of its impact on society. I would argue that the uncertainty surrounding its spread and the temporal imprecision of the instruments that we have at our disposal to understand its impact on our communities have had their own distinct impact on our world and lives.

Time and COVID (again)

Last Thursday, I posted a short “two things Thursday” where I mentioned that I had been thinking about time “in the time of COVID.” This is an extension of my interest in slow archaeology, in particular, and the role of both digital and modern (or better industrial)  processes in shaping our experiences of time and space in archaeological practices.

It occurs to me that the COVID pandemic has produced a prolonged meditation on time in contemporary society (whatever other tragic impacts it has had on us personally and our worlds). As an archaeologist, I have a professional interest in time and its materiality and if I had time (heh, heh) and the kind of sophisticated necessary to negotiate its theoretical and conceptual situation, I would write an article on time and COVID. Since that seems just too hard these days, I’ll write a blog post.

Time, Place, and Work 

In my daily life, I’m one of the annoying early risers who is often on my way to my on campus office by around 6 am. Today, I’m sitting in my home office and writing these words at 5:54 am. It’s early, but I have coffee that I made in the kitchen and have had a light breakfast which I pulled from a box in our pantry. I feel like my work day has started and I’m writing this blog. 

As an academic, it’s not too unusual for me to work from home. During my sabbatical year, for example, my routine was almost identical to what I do these days. But most of the time, I spend more than half my work week in my on campus offices. My day is punctuated by my short commute, where I listen to music, organize my thoughts, and either compress for work or decompress on my way home. I rarely work at home in the evenings.

Under COVID, I do go onto campus, but only to teach on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I don’t spend time in my campus offices which are largely reduced to storerooms for research material. I prep my courses at home, grade at home, do what passes as research and service at home, and write at home.

The slow archaeologist in me recognizes that this is not just a spatial shift, but also a temporal one. By working from home, my day is not punctuated by the industrial/post-industrial habit of going to work and its accompanying commute. As a result, work is just a bit closer to life, both physically and temporally. In this way, the COVIDs have shaken the division between work and private life that became such a benchmark for participants in the industrialized economies. I’ve found that it has also encouraged me to reflect on what parts of my work world bring joy to my personal life and draw me back to doing work that might otherwise be defined by a separate spatial and temporal rhythm.

To be clear, I recognize that this is a particularly male (and privileged) way of understanding the work/life divide and that many of my colleagues have long blurred the line between work time and private time as they juggled personal responsibilities and their jobs. I have the luxury of an office on campus, a relatively uncomplicated private life (without children or elder care and with a supportive partner), and a job that lends itself to fairly conventional rhythms (I only teach one night per week, for example). At the same time, I do think that my privileged position is both representative of a particular set of social expectations (judging mostly from the portrayal of working routines in the media) and not that uncommon among my colleagues.

The elimination of the buffer between work and private life is both spatial and temporal.    

Time and Travel

This week, I’m to attend a conference in the U.K. Of course, I won’t be traveling there in person and like most of the participants, will attend via zoom from my home office. The conference will start early in the morning and on the first day will begin before 6 am in my local CST. This minor inconvenience, however, pales in comparison to the disruptions that would have occurred had I need to travel to UK to present my paper. The trip alone would have been at least 12 hours through airports and on flights and then an additional 2 or 3 in the UK via trains, shuttles, and taxis. It would be possible, of course, for me to work on the flight, but since most flights to Europe from my part of the world are overnight, it’s not particularly likely that I would get anything substantive accomplished.  More than that, jet lag would have caused me to lose hours on my return to the US (not to mention my impaired performance at the conference itself). The three day conference would have effectively disrupted a week of teaching and research time. 

By attending via Zoom, I will certainly “lose” a few mornings this week to attend the conference, but this is a comparatively minor disruption (and undoubtedly a productive one as I’m sure that I’ll gain more than I lose from attending the conference!). 

On the one hand, it is tempting to imagine that the Zoom conference could be the way of the future for academic meetings. Saving in time (not to mention money) would open these meetings to individuals whose responsibilities make it impossible to take a week off to attend a meeting. They also offer a simple and more public way to make more visible the workings academic knowledge making.  

The Zoom format would also temper the social and professional anxieties associated with face-to-face conference and the tedium of stilted small talk, but also mitigate the dead time between papers, before and after sessions, between the hotel and venue, and necessary to find a restroom on an unfamiliar campus, to secure a meal in an unfamiliar city, and to demonstrate socially appropriate interest in a new or different place. While this dead time can be part of the fun of academic meeting, it is also part of the temporal disruption that marks professional travel. Even the most efficient traveler encounters this dead time that feels to me to be particularly resistant to being reclaimed for a professional or personal purpose.

Part of me has speculated that the temporal disruptions and dead time associated with academic meetings and professional travel is the way in which space pushed back against the relentless pressure of time to compress its dimensions. You can travel thousands of miles in a matter of hours now, but you can’t avoid the delays with finding a bathroom in an unfamiliar place or the disruptions associated with ordering coffee in a foreign language, locating the appropriate adapter for an electrical outlet, or entertaining the questions from a well meaning host about the weather “in Dakota.”

Time and the Site

As an archaeologist who works regularly in Greece and Cyprus, I have produced a nice set of well-trod paths that allow me to reduce a certain amount of the dead time associated with travel. More than that, over the last two decades, I have collected a massive quantity of “raw” data from the field much of which still requires analysis and interpretation. As a result, I have the luxury (and the privilege) to stay home and do archaeological work without actually visiting the sites themselves. More than that, I don’t anticipate getting back into the field until the summer of 2022, at soonest.

This luxury is the product of our increasingly digital world, of course, where field work involves recording our encounters with artifacts, our experiences in the trench or survey unit, and our impressions of the landscape and place in digital media that are easily transported and accessed from nearly anywhere in the world with a power supply and internet connection. 

In this situation, our distance from our sites may not necessarily disrupt our ability to produce new knowledge, but I do wonder whether the character of the knowledge that we produce changes when our work is displaced from our sites and landscapes for a prolonged period of time. Does our data expire not because it is no longer readable or understandable, but because it becomes less meaningful with time outside of its local context.

I also wonder whether the speed of our analysis will compromise our experience of the landscape, the trench, the site, or the artifact. How much does our memory of how a piece of data came to exist shape what it means? How much of our data is less a surrogate and more of a mnemonic for an experience or encounter that will fade with time?

Two Things Thursdays: COVID Time and Cyprus in Long Late Antiquity

There’s a lot going on the world right now. Between COVID, the events in Washington, the annual AIA/SCS meeting, and another pandemic inflected semester, there are plenty of things that are causing me some worry.

I also wonder, though, whether these things might also influence some new ways of thinking.  I guess that is one theme behind todays “Two Thing Thursday”:

Thing the First

I’ve been thinking a bit about COVID time. What follows here are some fragments of ideas.

Initially, I wondered whether the COVID pandemic has caused time to slow down for some of us. My own schedule has become no less dense with projects and activities, but as the COVID pandemic has drawn on, I feel far less urgency to complete tasks by externally or self imposed deadlines.

It’s curious how the lack of travel during the COVIDs (and the impossibility of planning for future travel) has encouraged me to live much more locally. There’s something about how my constricted horizons of home, local park, neighborhood, and office have created a new sense of routine that blurs temporal markers that depend on the unfamiliar or exceptional to create a sense for time’s passing.  

I’ve also found that Zoom time feels much slower than face-to-face time. Perhaps there are fewer opportunities for distracting pleasantries or that it is easier to become distracted while Zooming and this causes any sense of urgency to dissipate. But Zoom time is also far more immediate than visiting a friend in their home or walking to another building for a meeting, much less traveling to another city or country for an academic conference. 

I was also struck by the sense of futurity that the COVID pandemic has created. The lag between events – the Sturgis motorcycle rally, the arrival of college students in town for the start of a new semester, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, individual COVID exposure – and the report of the virus’s spread or a positive test seems to create this kind of temporal lag or this sense of borrowed time full of dreadful anticipation.   

It also feels similar to the gap between President-Elect Biden’s victory in November and his inauguration on January 20th. There’s a sense that we’re living in this strange buffer time between the moment where we understand what the future will hold and our experience of the future. Maybe it’s a bit like purchasing something online and receiving it in our mailbox?

At the same time, I’ve been struck by the sense of urgent frustration that contemporary society has created for itself. Maybe the gap between knowing and experiencing is the cause for this. The timelines for receiving the COVID vaccinations, for example, seem to be almost unrealistic. Not only were the vaccines developed at an unprecedented pace, but there is realistic hope that a meaningful percentage of the world – the entire world – could have access to this vaccine in the space of a few years. This seems amazing to me, but for many people, even this accomplishment is not enough. Any delay in getting the vaccine is marked as a failure that prolongs the state of uncertainty between any potential contact with an infected person and the results of a test. (This all being said, I do get that there is a difference between friction inherent in our system and poorly executed plans, incompetence, and colonial priorities.)

Anyway, COVID time seems palpably different from pre-COVID time. Maybe the exaggerated and uncertain experience of the gap between the present and the future requires us all to feel like we’re late and that this sense of lateness is heightened by the tension between a scientific sense of inevitability (e.g. the second wave, the surge, super spreader events) and the unsettled temporal rhythms of the present.  

Thing the Second

This is related, somehow, I think. Next week, I’m participating in a conference on Cyprus in Long Late Antiquity. It’s being hosted (via Zoom) by Oxford University and the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and the Cyprus High Commission in London.

You can check out the line up here. And you can read my paper here.

2021Poster A5 flat

I wonder if the sense of a long late antiquity will resonate with our sense of an unstable present in some way. It evokes for me the kind of pregnant time that resists slipping entirely into the future. While I realize that projecting our experience of time into the past is fraught, I can’t help feeling that we’re living in long-2020 these days rather than in 2021.