Over the last two weeks I’ve been working on the introduction to a book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. It’s pretty exciting, like any new project, but it’s also proving to be much harder than I imagined.
The biggest change for me is adjusting how I write. In general, I write for articles that run <12,000 words or blog posts which tend to be <2,000 words. In these contexts, I tend to use a good bit of shorthand to advance my argument which mostly involves gesturing to other texts and implying “these other pieces will help connect the dots in what I’m trying to say.” I also don’t spend much time trying to entice my audience to read my piece. Basically, I figure that my article is what it says on the box (or in the abstract). If that’s of interest to you, then read my piece. If not, move on.
As I started writing my book, I’ve come to realize that while I’ll never be someone who is good at writing “creative non-fiction” or will lure an expecting reader into the wonderland of my prose, I do need to be a bit more attentive to drawing my reader into my text. Moreover, I also have the luxury of space to do this.
So here’s the first draft of my first few pages of my new book. Again, I’m no Bill Shakespeare (la-dee-frickin-da), but I’m trying:
In April of 2014, I stood with a team of archaeologists at the side of a landfill at the edge of the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. We were joined by a film crew, contractors, consultants, minor celebrities, and a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers as a massive bucket loader tore into the stratigraphy of a abandoned landfill and extracted loads of household discard from the 1980s. The goal of this excavation was to confirm the urban legend that the video game maker Atari dumped truckloads of game cartridges in the Alamogordo landfill in 1983 as it struggled to remain solvent. The excavation attracted international attention and was the climax of a documentary film that framed the dig for the Atari games as the excavation of an era in both video game development and American consumer culture.
Some 350 miles to the west lies the Sonoran Desert. Each year hundreds of undocumented migrants attempt to cross this arid and unforgiving terrain to enter the United States. Jason De Leon’s Undocumented Migration Project documented and analyzed the material culture and forensic evidence for migrant border crossing. He interweaves the archaeological evidence with ethnographic accounts of the harrowing crossing of this lethal landscape. The goal of this work is both to humanize the cost of national borders and immigration policies which relies, in part, on the Sonoran desert as a deterrent. By documenting traces of immigration across this landscape, De Leon’s work reveals how U.S. policy and deeply seated attitudes push to the margins of American consciousness. The resulting book, the Land of Open Graves is a penetrating and vivid critique of U.S. border policy and demonstrates how material culture reveals both movement and policies that are meant to be invisible.
In Shannon Lee Dawdy’s study of contemporary New Orleans, in contrast, considers the visible evidence for time’s circuitous route through the city’s past. Her book, Patina, unpacks how residents of post-Katrina New Orleans understand the multiple temporalities visible in the historical fabric of the city, in heirlooms, and in the rituals present throughout the city. In Dawdy’s hands, the value of visible patina offers a material counter argument to modern, linear progress and consumer culture that speaks to the complicated and recursive history of New Orleans. Some 1,500 miles to the north, in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota, oil patch workers gather for a Southern style meal in the dinning hall of a temporary “man camp” built to house the influx of people during the 21st century Bakken oil boom. Some of the units across the region installed to house temporary labor had sheltered families in Louisiana who had lost their homes from Katrina. In many ways, the contingent, boom-time Bakken reflects a quintessentially modern landscape shaped by the flow of people, capital, and fossil fuels.
If Dawdy’s sense of patina in New Orleans emerged from decades of careful work in that distinctive city and revealed narratives that exist outside of the flow of modern time, the archaeology of the contemporary Bakken oil boom represents a necessarily more ephemeral undertaking designed to capture the moment of boom and a landscape defined by the global flow of people and capital. The archaeology of undocumented migration in the Sonoran desert speaks to the transnational tragedy of the global refugee crisis. The Atari excavation, for all its sensationalism and frivolity, reflects the key role that technology – particular video games – played in both our collective experiences of childhood and subsequent sense of nostalgia. These contexts and the many others archaeologists of the contemporary world produce a past in the present which goes beyond the the ephemeral, the hidden, and the overlooked, to include the visible, material features that define the contemporary American experience. As Richard Gould observed in one of the earliest arguments for an archaeology of the contemporary world: “modern material culture studies have shown us that we are not always what we seem, even to ourselves.”