Revenge of the Analog

Over the holiday break, I read David Sax’s Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (Public Affairs 2016). It’s a popular book and Sax is a journalist who write on culture and technologies for a range of periodicals. His book is was intriguing to me not because he has an answer to why there is a persistent interest in the analog (or at least a simulacrum of the analog), but because he identifies a number of seemingly incongruous places where the “analog” practices appear to running counter to the prevailing trends of digital life.

In some ways, his book has parallels with recent popular move toward the “slow moment” as a antidote to the speed of life (and particularly capitalism) in the contemporary world. At the same time, Sax is clear that the analog isn’t a challenge to capitalist practices. In fact, one of his examples in Shinola which is a Detroit based company that specializes in luxury watches, leather goods, bikes, and, now, turn tables (of course). Another example is Moleskine notebooks which he recognizes as both a practical tool for members of the “creative class” as well as deliberately crafted corporate product. While the small time book seller appears in the books pages as does the owner of vinyl pressing factories and entrepreneurs looking to profit on the resurgence of film, these figures aren’t marginal or radical figures looking to scratch out a living at the margins of the global economy, but rather figures who recognize the potential to find profits among communities who embrace technologies and experiences that run counter to prevailing trends in our digitally mediate world.

Sax’s classic example of this is recent resurgence in vinyl records. He looks beyond audiophile arguments for the superior sound of vinyl (which may be valid, but only at price points way beyond the means of the average vinyl record buyer), and considers the rituals associated with the use of vinyl. The removing of a record from its dust cover, the cleaning of the surface, the placing of the stylus on the grooves and the endless fussing with tracking, tone arms, and cartridges. Even the need for separate components and cables and space for the records and the gear involves a spatial commitment to the experience of playing music that goes beyond what is required for digital or streaming music. In other words, the analog, at least for Sax, is physical. Books require bookstores, records encourage record stores and vinyl pressing factories, and film requires bulky manufacturing plants. Sax explores the world of board game cafes, the Detroit based workshop of Shinola watches, and cafes of Milan during fashion week where cognoscenti sip Peronis and sketch notes in their Moleskine notebooks. 

This link between spatiality and the analog while not explicit in Sax’s book got me thinking about my own ill-defined anxieties concerning the growing role of digital practices in archaeology. Increasingly, I have started to recognize that digital practices offer archaeologists ways to de-spatialize both their practices and their objects of study. High resolution digital models, for example, take up virtually no space and can move without particular ceremony or ritual from one computer to the next instantly. The modern digital storeroom is distributed across multiple computers, servers, and disks and is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  The analog, in contrast, whether it’s a physical notebook or an object or a site, is explicitly spatial.

This spatiality gives archaeologists, national governments, and communities a sense of control and command over their objects of study. The analog world described by Sax is one shot through with these moments of control and possession. We can hold a vinyl record, destroy a Moleskine notebook, and watch chemical entropy slowly transform a prized photograph. So perhaps our desire for the analog has more to do with our desire to hold and control and act as physically defined agents in a world increasingly mediated by elusive digital data and technologies and seem to dance just beyond our grasps.

Philip K Dick and Archaeological Futures

I have this mediocre idea of reading a bunch of Philip K Dick and then using it to think about the future of archaeology. Bill Brown’s recently sweeping study of things in literature spurred my interest in Dick’s work and particularly his concern for the relationship between objects and things. Since this reading is for a paper that I am scheduled to give toward the end of November at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting in a panel on object biography, I thought that anything I could do to complicate the idea of objects having a biological trajectory through reality would make my paper an interesting contribution. 

This weekend, I made my way through Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959). The main character in the novel lived in a town constructed to appear just as it was in 1959. In fact, he was not aware – at least consciously – that the year was not 1959, but 1998, until he discovered some buried magazines that described events and people with whom he was not familiar and started to discover slips of paper labeling the location of objects in his complex stage-managed surroundings. This provided material evidence that complicated his present by simultaneously providing glimpses of the real 1959 and the construction (literally!) of his own reality and led the main character to question the authenticity of his own surroundings. The tension between the present constructed to accommodate the main character who – as if anticipating the plot of Enders Game – played a newspaper strategy contest daily which allowed the world government to destroy incoming nuclear missiles fired from the moon. The reconstructed 1950s town represented a kind of delusional utopia constructed to manage the main character’s anxiety and the pressures of protecting the world from nuclear catastrophe. Dick’s work creates a tension between the perfect town with its past and the complicated, messy, and dystopian reality of the year 1998 with its real past.

In 200 pages, Dick offers a clever (and untheoretical in his particular way) perspective to the idea that time and things have a uncomplicated relationship. Pasts and presents exists simultaneously and in incompatible ways as archaeology offers glimpses of both unrealized futures (and presents) as well as impossible pasts. For the characters in the Dick novel, time does feel out of joint, but it speaks to a more disjointed experience of reality that archaeology encounters on a regular basis.

Our obsession with chronology and dating, in this context, is about trying to put time back into joint and to putting the world into an order that is recognizable and that makes sense. Philip K Dick’s Time Out of Joint, challenges us to wonder whether the 1950s town of the main character with its superficial consistency and manufactured is out of joint or the ostensibly more authentic reality of 1998. 

On Booms and Peripheries

In my efforts to revise a recent article for a well-respected journal, one of the peer reviewers suggested that the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota might not fit a traditional definition of a global periphery. Of course, this reviewer is right. When we think about the periphery we think about radically disenfranchised populations, very low levels of local capital, and a cultural and social institutions that are often ill-suited to negotiate on equal footing with  the political, economic, and technological power of the core. After all, the Bakken is part of the United State which is universally regarded as a core. Within the United States, however, we might be willing to regard the Bakken as a peripheral region comparable to Alaska or parts of the desert southwest.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that the idea of global periphery might be increasingly tied to the speed of global capital instead of the location of global capital. It is hard to avoid the conclusions that the state of North Dakota and the communities of the Bakken region have struggled to embrace the opportunities presented by the tremendous concentration of people and capital in this region. Part of that struggle has been the difficulties associated with adapting public (and private) institutions to sudden change. 

Housing provides a good case study for this. The rapid ebb and flow of population and capital in the region outpaces the ability of the housing market to expand and contract without hemorrhaging profits. As a result, housing starts have tended to lag behind the boom in an effort to suss out its trajectory and minimize risk. For individuals who have come to western North Dakota to work in oil and oil related industries, however, the lack of housing means that they need to provide their own accommodations. Readers of this blog know that this has resulted in the growth of workforce housing sites colloquially known as “man camps.” The reluctance of the housing market to accelerate at the same speed as extractive industries has a knock on effect in the region. Communities have found it difficult, if not impossible to provide either long term housing for social service providers, teachers, and law enforcement, or even short term accommodations for state employees with grants to document the boom. State salaries and rates for accommodations lagged far behind the growing cost of living in the Bakken and state officials were slow or just unwilling to risk of action. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the slow response of the state in this region is not simply political but systemic. 


Housing inventories, salaries, and the actions of state institutions are relatively slow to adapt to the needs to extractive industries. Extractive industries, ever vigilant of the price of commodities, labor, and technology on a global market, have become increasingly able to deploy or withdraw resources on short notice, on a global scale in the pursuit of profit. Their ability to function quickly on a global scale suggests that traditional spatial peripheries are vanishing as particular forms of capital, labor, and technology can now appear in nearly any location around the world. This is a “realtime” manifestation of the increasingly decentered financial markets which depend less managed systems associated with the traditional core, like the New York Stock Exchange, and, instead, operate continuously in distributed, digital worlds. So, if a core does exist, it is not a spatially defined one, but rather a system of links, processes, expectations, and operations that allows one set of resources to outpace others in order.

It is worth contemplating whether the speed of these extractive industries is a response exclusively to the global market for these raw materials or also served as a strategy to avoid potentially costly or complicating entanglements with localized forms of authority. In fact, it seems like the traditional dichotomy of core and periphery has been overtaken by the dichotomy between fast global and the slow local. These two phenomenon are not characterized by their respective spatial extents, but rather by their velocity. 

At the end of last year, Jo Guldi and David Armitage published a slim volume called the History Manifesto. I blogged about it here. The argument that they make is the historians have to once again embrace the challenge of big data to study large-scale, long-term, and often slow moving, phenomena. Clearly they appreciated the global scope of much history in the modern era and the need to develop skills and discourses that accommodates history on an unprecedented scale. As I’ve thought more and more about their book and our work in the Bakken, I’ve wondered whether a history of global phenomenon is possible for our contemporary era. The speed and scope of events like the Bakken boom almost certainly taxes the tools that historians have at their disposal. In fact, historians have largely relied upon physical, spatial structures to focus our research. Even as we have worked to pay increased attention to events at the periphery (and embraced the contingency of the countryside), we’ve continued to rely on the resources of the core to guide our work as the core preserves archives, political texts, and economic data upon which big history can be constructed. With the rapid pace of a globalized work and the decentering of capital, decision making, markets, and data (distributed data!), the historians gaze has to both expand to capture “the ghost in the machine,” but to focus in order to describe sequences of events that occur so quickly as to approach simultaneity. 

A new semester and a new year…

The new semester begins tonight at 5 pm (or something). This is my first semester with tenure which I officially received on August 15.  It felt a lot like my team winning the World Series (which I have experienced) or the Super Bowl.  I woke up the next day expecting things to be or feel different and then was disappointed when they were the same. My coffee tasted the same, the sky looked the same, my office did not become larger or smaller.

And my teaching and research loads did not change either. So here’s my fall semester:

1. Two old classes. I’m teaching two classes that I’ve taught every semester for the past four years. I love the routine, the opportunity to tweak the classes minutely and judge the results the next semester, the battle with boredom of going through the same material each semester (which I liken to acedia, a kind of monastic boredom), and the chance to compare students in very similar situations. And I often think of it as a kind of cricket match (as I watch Sachin Tendulkar in what is likely his last at bat in England). The patience to do the same thing over and over, but also the flexibility to adjust to variables and changes. The two classes are: History 101: Western Civilization I (online) and History 240: The Historians Craft, which is the required course for our majors.

2. A new class. I am also teaching a new class of sorts. I am teaching a digital and public history practicum. This course will focus on developing a boutique-y collection of digital artifacts to celebrate the Chester Fritz Library’s 50th Anniversary (The Fritz @ 50: 1961 to 2011).  I have a class of four diligent but inexperienced graduate students, some good allies in the Department of Special Collections, a Gigapan, a brilliant tech advisor, and a bunch of good will.  Like my effort in the Spring, our goal is to produce a small, well-curated digital exhibit, for the library using off the shelf components as much as possible.

3. Got Papers? I have somehow committed to four (?) conference papers this fall and winter. I have no idea how this happened. I’ve posted a rough draft of the first one here already. I’ll be giving “Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greece and the Aegean” at the International Anchoritic Society Conference here in Grand Forks. At the American Schools of Oriental Research Conference, I’ll be (co-)authoring a paper on our ongoing work at the site of Pyla-Vigla on Cyprus. (I might also be involved in a paper on my work on Polis at this conference, although this is not at all clear). Finally, in January I’ll be giving a paper with David Pettegrew at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting titled “Producing Peasants in the Corinthian Countryside“. This paper will draw on our decade old survey data from around the Corinthia.  (To make my life easier, I’ve decided not to actually attend ASOR or the AIA.)

4. Publication Projects. I also have four ongoing publication projects. The first and most pressing one is to shape my paper, “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth” from the Corinth in Contrast Conference into publication shape. I’ve received really good feedback from the editors of a volume that will come from this conference, and now I need to take it all in. I also need to push into final form my short encyclopedia article on Early Christian Baptisteries. I’ve also (more or less) committed to writing up a piece on post-colonialism in Byzantine Archaeology.  This will develop from a paper I wrote years ago, with every intent of publishing, and gave at a working seminar at the Gennadius Library in Greece. The last publication project involves the results of our survey on Cyprus. We have finally decided to publish the results of the survey aspects of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Survey separate from the results of our excavations at the site. We have a completed draft of this manuscript more or less prepared and have submitted a book proposal to the American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports Series.

5. And the other stuff:

So it should be a fun semester!!!

Rough Draft: Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greece and the Aegean

The scholarly process can be a source mystery for students and the general public. Even I occasionally wonder how my peers transform ideas into provocative and sophisticated final products. Part of the goal of this blog was to make my scholarly process a bit more transparent. Typically my ideas begin as blog posts, I develop them into conference papers, and then, if they seem like they have potential, I attempt to mold them into some kind of publishable shape. Often my best ideas languish between conference papers and lectures.

In the spirit of transparency, I’m posting a rough draft of a paper that I will deliver at the International Anchoritic Society Conference here in Grand Forks.  The paper’s title is “Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greece and the Aegean”. I’ve blogged on the paper here and here.


Time after Time

This summer I am working on three separate projects: one on peasants in the landscape of the ancient Corinthia, one that looks at marginal time in Middle Byzantine hagiography from the Peloponnesus, and one that considers potential avenues for post-colonial critique in Byzantine Archaeology.  All three projects intersect in crucial recent discussions on time in archaeology.

Peasants, of course, represent a particularly ahistorical category of individual in the anthropological, historical, and archaeological record (see here and here). Defined by economic and social relationships to the means and modes of production, any study of peasants has to balance a desire to place this group of producers in specific economic, political, and social relationships relationships against the need to preserve the integrity of a widely-recognized transhistorical category.  The crucial issue, then, is whether a peasant of the 5th century BC is substantially the same as a peasant of the early 20th century. In other words, we need to ask whether peasants and their material signature exist within a specific historical time or merely as the products of particular transhistorical circumstances.  Scholars have typically regarded peasants as part of the latter and identified them as indications of a pre-industrial or pre-modern condition. In this case, peasants represents a condition of life outside of a normalized industrial or modern modes of production.  Variation among peasants and their material conditions remains secondary to assumptions regarding their fundamental character. Time for the peasant stands still as they await the liberation of inevitable modernity and industrialization.

This approach to the time and the archaeological character of groups like peasants is often regarded as typical of the modern archaeological methods and interpretations. One antidote to this kind of interpretative determinism comes from an effort to document other methods for understanding time in the past. By re-historicizing time, we can begin to escape from assumptions rooted in our periodization schemes, chronologies, and disciplinary structures. I am giving a paper later this summer looking at evidence for indigenous archaeological practices in Middle Byzantine saints’ lives.  In particular, I am interested in how Middle Byzantine saints understood ruins. In several cases these saints went into the wilderness (into liminal or marginal space) and discovered the ruins of churches or other religious buildings.  They frequently would rebuilt these structures and re-integrate them within the life of the community (variously defined).  These buildings represented the ragged edge of the present for the saints. They simultaneous recognized the past as alien (the past is a foreign country!), but also as part of their wilderness.

This effort to recognize the radical alterity (as the kids say) of the ruins and to integrate it into life of the community coincides with what G. Lucas describes as a “double temporality” in archaeology. As such archaeology “fragment[s] time as much as it restores it.” (G. Lucas, The Archaeology of Time. (London 2005), 130-131).  In the Byzantine period, the understanding of time and archaeological practice should perhaps be set against liturgical notions of time, particularly when the context is overly religious in character.  The Byzantine liturgy is meant to both collapse time through the simultaneous performance of the liturgy on earth in the eternal time of heaven, as well as to remind the participants of the very historical character of the salvation narrative.  Temporality then frames two important forms of truth in the Byzantine tradition : historical (in the salvation narrative which took place in a particular time and place) and spiritual (which happens outside of time entirely). My paper will look particularly at how saints negotiated the margin of time as they encountered ruins located at edge between the present and past.

Finally, time has played a key role in how we understand Byzantine archaeology. The debates centering on continuity or change in the Early Byzantine period emphasize two different notions of archaeological time.  Advocates of change recognize the potential for significant, substantial breaks in the archaeological narrative. Scholars who look for change observe emphasize incremental transformation and the continuous flow of history connecting the past to the present. The location of Byzantium and Byzantine history in the master narrative of the West makes the debate surrounding its relationship to Antiquity particular urgent. The tendency to see a break between Byzantium and the Ancient World allows scholars to regard Byzantium as something outside of the Western tradition. On the other hand, arguments for continuity have tended to stress Byzantium as the culmination of numerous ancient practices.  An approach to Byzantine archaeology that draws on post-colonial critique can foreground the indigenous practices and take Byzantium out of time by challenging the assumptions of the Western master narrative.

Anchorites in Grand Forks

The conference website is up, so it must be official! The University of North Dakota will host the International Anchroitic Society conference this fall (September 16th-18th).  In my effort to shatter a personal record for conference papers in a single semester (my personal best is 4), I have submitted an abstract for consideration at this conference.

Also, the Cyprus Research Fund is one of the sponsor (check us out on the sponsorship page!). It seemed like a really good thing to have Cyprus Research Fund support this conference as the Cypriot St. Neophytos ranks high on any list of dedicated anchorite saints.


So here is my hastily written abstract. If you can make anything of this, I hope you can see my shift from an interest in space (e.g. my work on St. Theodore of Kythera, in particular) to an interest in time (e.g. my recent reading and comments on Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty.)  The paper has not been accepted and the abstract is a bit on the raw side, but it is not dissimilar to some ideas that have been contemplating lately.

“Margins of Space and Time in Hagiography of Middle Byzantine Greece”
Abstract for the 2011 International Anchoritic Society Conference

The early Middle Byzantine Era in Greece is a dynamic period in both the history of the region and in the literature of Byzantine monasticism. In general, scholars have argued that this period saw a shift from individualized asceticism to practices oriented around more coenobitic forms of monasticism. At the same time, the region of Greece and the Aegean witnessed significant shifts in population that produced new areas of wilderness in which various monastic vocations could engage. The activity of Arab raiders in the Aegean depopulated islands making them into deserts, coastal regions went from being literally liminal to politically liminal, and geopolitical shifts re-opened for Christian settlement territories abandoned as too exposed to the Muslim raids.

This paper looks at several locally produced saints’ Lives from the Aegean basin and considers the role of the wilderness and liminality in the interplay between Byzantine monasticism and Byzantine society. In particular, this paper will argue Middle Byzantine hagiography from the Peloponessos played a key role in the re-occupation and appropriation the margins of both space and time. Unlike better-known saints associated with the Imperial capital of Constantinople, the lives of more obscure and often neglected local saints, like St. Nikon, St. Luke of Steiri, St. Theodore of Kythera, and St. Ioannis “the Stranger”, engaged a local landscape at a moment when Byzantine institutions were undergoing a significant change.

Spatially, the middle Byzantine saint – through their authors – sought to re-center the profane world by traveling out into the wilderness. By focusing their sacred activities in the margins, the Byzantine saint created a spiritual counter-weight to the populated centers of institutional authority in the towns and cities under Byzantine control. The demographic, political, and economic changes of the so-called Byzantine Dark Age and the revived fortunes of the Byzantine state and local communities stimulated the need to reinforce social and institutional centers. Sacred margins implied profane centers and bonded human to the divine by spatializing this fundamental Christian duality.

The authors also discovered in these liminal spaces evidence for the margins of local time. Local saints wandered not only the depopulated spaces beyond the edge of local settlement, but also among the ruins left by the earlier inhabitants. By setting their sacred dramas among these earlier buildings, largely in ruins, the authors and their holy men and women marked out not only the end of inhabited space but also the edge of the present. The visible remains of past prosperity reminded local residents of the disruptions of 7th and 8th centuries and located the sacred world of the saint on the ragged edge of the local present. Reclaiming the ruins of the past for the present re-established local continuity and like the monastic occupation of the wilderness, re-centered the profane world through contact with the sacred.

By focusing largely on local saints, this paper is able to contextualize the efforts of those authors in a specific time, place, and historical circumstances. In these narratives, holy men and women incorporate the margins into a renewed Byzantine landscape by appropriating it for the sacred center. The profound division between sacred and profane in Byzantine Christianity paralleled the distinction between the wilderness and the reviving profane centers of Byzantine society, economy, and administration. The activities of local saints to reclaim the margins for the sacred landscape reinforced profane centers by establishing the limits in time and space of their opposite.