1000 Words of Summer

I’ve always been a bit jealous of my friends and colleagues who do participate in intensive writing sessions, regular writing groups, and other collective efforts to make writing easier, more fun, and more productive. 

Usually by this time in the summer, I’m in Cyprus studying material from Polis and writing in little chunks between work in the storerooms and on site. This work is almost always productive, but tends to be a bit raw.

This summer is different, of course, because I’m not traveling to Cyprus or Greece so I won’t have the time or the environment to churn out raw text (which isn’t to say that I don’t have a freezer full of raw text that is just waiting to be cooked). I’m also barreling full speed out of a very disrupted spring semester where my priorities and schedules was turned upside down and it became hard both to find blocks of time to write or to know for certain what I should be writing when. In fact, suddenly all my writing projects look so tantalizingly possible over the next nine months and my inbox is filled with exciting, “almost ready” manuscripts from collaborators and plans to finish this or that unfinished project.

All of this is happening with a deadline for a book manuscript barreling down on me in January of 2021. I suspect that my publisher and editor will be understanding if my manuscript is late, but knowing that I can be late doesn’t really help me get pages written or somehow make the steady flow of other commitments more manageable. At best, I am displacing one responsibility for another.

All of this is to say that I’m going to participate in the #1000WordsOfSummer writing event starting on Friday. I think I’m going to work on two chapters of my book project. The first chapter should be a very gentle revision and expansion of an article that I wrote which for some reason never got submitted. The second chapter will be new start. I’m hoping the time that I spend tweaking the first chapter will give me a bit of space to do the reading that I need to do to write the second chapter in a reasonable way.

This will also prompt a few changes here on this blog. Rather than my random daily posts, I think I’ll turn the blog over to my #1000WordsOfSummer and see if I can write for two weeks straight and churn out words that advance my various writing projects.

More than that, I want to spend the next two weeks thinking seriously about how I write and what I write. Every now and then, I try to focus on my writing as craft, but this almost always get overrun by the pressure of some deadline, on the one hand, or the simple (and mundane) pleasure of putting words on the page (as an escape from the more painful work of editing, revising, reading, and research). I recognize intellectually that writing is a creative process, but in practice I’m always too ready to relegate writing to manifestation of ideas and creativity generated elsewhere. Maybe the 1000 words of summer will help change this.

Writing Fast and Writing Well

When I finished graduate school, I was a passable writer. By this I mean that I usually could make myself understood, but I was no one’s definition of eloquent or elegant. At the time, I considered this a win, because I was a pretty terrible writer as an undergraduate and through most of my graduate school career. 

For me, the path to becoming a passable writer was slowing down, revising drafts, and being deliberate. As a result, my dissertation, which was not terribly long, took close to 5 years to finish. This was in no small part the result of a conscious decision to slow down and revise every chapter very carefully.

Immediately after graduation, I spent a couple of years writing an article that was never published (although part of it were spun off into other publications. I still rather like the article, but it never really got traction with anyone else. Fine, whatever.) As I got my first job and contemplated my career on the tenure track, I began to realize that a deliberate approach to writing, while rewarding, was hardly sustainable if I planned on producing enough publications for tenure. To this end, I decided to train myself to write more quickly.

To guide this effort, I attempted (with varying success) to follow three rules: (1) write every day, (2) write in active voice, (3) keep my sentences simple.

Everything else would be more or less gravy. For example, I recognized that I should, whenever possible, follow the rules of grammar. I also paid some attention to my style, (such as it was) in much the same way that I pay attention to my lawn. I assume that my lawn will develop in a way most suited to its purpose. In other words, it’ll become the best lawn it can be if left to itself. Finally, I still revise, but my revisions are usually mechanical rather than writerly. 

The blog was a key tool in my effort to write more and more quickly. By waking up every morning and writing 500-1000 words while I drank my coffee, I developed some kind of writing muscles which helped me write more efficiently over the course my day. As readers of this blog know, the emphasis on speed and efficiency over quality ensured that my blog was usually basically comprehensible, if not stylistically appealing. Even I realize that I use too many adverbs and rely on too many particles (however, of course, in other words, that is to say…) to try to breath life into my otherwise moribund style.

Over the past few years, I’ve been reading more good writing in my capacity as editor of North Dakota Quarterly. I not only read submissions to the Quarterly, but subscribe to a number of little magazines and literary journals that regularly feature some of the best non-fiction writers working today. I’m regularly amazed by their ability to turn a phrase, their elegance of both sentences structure and argument, and their vast vocabulary. The more I read their work, the more I want to emulate their prose.

I also have spent a good bit of time with various guides to good academic writing and editing (especially the series published by University of Chicago). Many of these works have helped me think more clearly about writing (and research) as a process with useful attention to matters of organization, but few of them offer substantive insights into matters of style. It’s clear, as one might expect, that style is something that comes from reading and writing deliberately. I need to read with greater attention to how others write and then attempt to apply these lessons to my own prose.

The downside of this is that it requires me to write less quickly and probably less often and to shift time each week from “writing practice” (where I am now probably just reinforcing bad habits) to the craft of reading. Like most academics, I read about 50-70 books per year. About 10% of those are now fiction. I suspect that I’d become a better writer if I added to that list another 5-7 quality non-fiction books. This seems like a reasonable goal, but, as always, change is hard. 

Three Things Thursday: Digital Stuff, Underworld, NDQ

It’s been one of those weeks where nothing seems to get traction. From Monday at the keyboard to Tuesday in the classroom, Wednesday amidst articles and books, and now it’s Thursday and I have so very little to show for it. 

As a result, I’m back to doing another Three Things Thursday, which I suppose are fine for what they are, but aren’t really the kind of blog posts that I like to write. They’re just stuff, but I guess when life gives you stuff, make a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

I really enjoyed reading Fernando Domínguez Rubio and Glenn Wharton “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility” in Public Culture 32.1 (2020), 215-245. You can read it here.

Rubio and Wharton explore the challenges associated with born-digital art. These range from questions about what exactly a museum acquires when they acquire a piece of digital art. What constitutes their exclusive rights to a work of art? The files? The technology? The hardware? And how do these exclusive rights intersect with other rights expressed by hardware, software, and even other content makers? 

More complicated still is how to preserve a work of digital art. What constitutes preservation when even updating the format of a work so that it’ll continue to function as intended constitutes changing the underlying code as well as the media in which a work is displayed or experienced (think about the demise of CRT televisions or the improvements in video projectors, the capacity to playback uncompressed audio and the like). 

Obviously this article summarizes a bunch of scholarship and they’re not the first to observe this, but, on the other hand, it’s a great piece that has implications for how we think about archaeogaming, media archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world. I’m going to check out Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s book Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum (Chicago 2020) this spring.

Thing the Second

I have to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld. It’s super long (800+) pages and its reputation makes it pretty intimidating and I have to admit that my motivation to read it is as much because I should read it as because it will add any particular nuance to what I’m working on. 

To be more clear, Underworld is situated at the intersection of the American West, garbage, and critiques of consumer culture. My current delusion is to just commit myself to reading this book over a single week. In part, because I need a break from the grind of writing right now. I’ve been working on a chapter for the last month and for some reason writing is feels like it’s making me think deeper and deeper into my own way of thinking (rather than helping me expand how I understand something).

I also need to re-read (or finish reading) Mike Davis’s City of Quartz which is also a bit longer than I usually like to read. Retraining myself to understand the American West is hard, and for whatever reason, it’s taken my a long time to realize the writing the kind of cultural history that I want to write will involve reading broadly as well as deeply. When writing makes me sink deeper into narrow ways of thinking, I’m going to have pull back from writing to read to make sure that I don’t get too sucked into the murk of my own way of thinking. 

Thing the Third

More reading, but this isn’t as daunting. Today I posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog a short story by Jim Sallis called “Scientific Method.” You should go and check it out. It’s less than 1500 words. 

What’s cool to me (being a total novice to editing a literary journal) is Sallis was first published in NDQ in 1983 and then in 1985 and in the 1990s. His essay “Making up America” from 1993 is really great too (and connects to my efforts to think about the archaeology of the contemporary American West). You can read on his site or from the NDQ archive:  “Making up America.” 

I’ve added Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels to my summer reading list. There’s something comforting about noir.

Writing First Page

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.”  

Writing the Archaeology of Contemporary American Experience

This spring I want to draft at least two chapters for a book that I’m writing. Yesterday was my first writing day and it involved paste 132 words from one document into another. It was almost like writing.

Here are the words that I pasted from my proposal:

The introduction will do three things. First it will provide a basic definition of archaeology of the contemporary world in terms of both American and European practice. Next, it will unpack the concept of contemporaneity in recent archaeological thought (e.g. Harrison 2011; Lucas 2010) and the tension between archaeology’s use of time to defamiliarize our past and present as well as considering how an archaeology of the contemporary world explicitly requires us to co-locate with the objects and landscapes that we study. Finally, it will frame the remainder of the book by exploring how contemporaneity opens up new space for archaeology to articulate and ultimately humanize the pressing social, economic, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities in American society as well as introducing new epistemological perspectives on how archaeologists produce meaningful knowledge.

~

The phrase “archaeology of the contemporary world” or, as some have framed it, the archaeology or archaeologies of “the contemporary past” strikes many as oxymoronic. After all, the study of archaeology is the study of the “archaios” or the ancient or, more literally, the origins or the beginnings. In contrast, the term “contemporary” means at the same time (con+tempus). Combining archaeology and contemporary, to say nothing of the word “past” would seem to offer a temporal mishmash.The study of the past, of ancient things, or even origins explicitly would seem to mark the object of archaeological inquiry as fundamentally different from the contemplation of the contemporary.  

This tension does not stop the archaeology of the contemporary world from existing as a significant field of study. In fact, archaeologists committed to the study of contemporary society have recognized the tensions between the concepts of contemporaneity and archaeology or the present and the past. Michael Schiffer and Richard Gould subtitled one of the earliest efforts to articulate an archaeology of  contemporary American society as “the archaeology of us” (1981) and situate the field amid a diverse range of perspectives from practices of historical archaeology to anthropology and methodological and pedagogical concerns in the discipline.  In that volume, William Rathje articulated “an archaeology of us” in a “manfesto on modern material-culture studies” which emphasized how an archaeology of the recent past could make four contributions to the field: “(1) teaching archaeological principles, (2) testing archaeological principles, (3) doing the archaeology of today, (4) relating our society to those of the past.” These wide ranging contribution do little to problematize the tension between archaeology and the contemporary, but they do establish the potential of an archaeology of the recent past. Rathje developed these ideas over the course of his famous “Garbage Project,” which marked the first sustained program of archaeological research into contemporary American culture. Initiated in 1973, the project documented the garbage from a number of neighborhoods in Tucson and by the mid-1980s had started to conduct systematic excavations of landfills. This work both allowed Rathje to make a wide range of conclusions regarding modern discard and household behavior and popularized archaeological approaches to assemblages of modern material that were adapted from in well-established principles, methods, and practice. For Rathje, the archaeological methods and principles could be separated from their focus on the past.  

By the early 21st century, Buchli and Lucas make explicit that concept of contemporaneity offered significant opportunities and challenges to archaeology (2001, 8-9). On the one hand, they acknowledge that historical archaeologists can and do substitute the term “recent past” for the archaeology of the present, and, like for Rathje, the use of well-established archaeological methods offer a way to distance ourselves from our object of study. On the other hand, archaeologists of the contemporary world recognize the value of contemporaneity as a way to disrupt the distancing effects of archaeological methods and push the archaeologist to experience, viscerally in some cases and intellectually in others, the uncanny, decay, and the abject character of the material world. Contemporaneity, then, emphasizes the role of the archaeologist in making the familiar unfamiliar, “constituting the unconstituted,” or “making the undiscursive discursive” by making texts that represent and communicate the experience of materiality in the modern world.

Writing WARP

Over the last few months, I’ve been hiding from a line in a minutes from an early June meeting of the Western Argolid Regional Project: Preliminary Report… “ideally ready for submission by Christmas.” I had volunteered to take the lead in writing it and to marshal the contributions from various other folks on the project including two case studies. Needless to say, this hasn’t happened.

What makes it worse is that I’ve been thinking a good bit about how archaeologists write and archaeological publishing more broadly. Just this weekend, for example, I re-read Rosemary Joyce’s “Writing historical archaeology” in the Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology (2006). I also read Rachel Opitz’s recent contribution to the Journal of Field Archaeology titled ““Publishing Archaeological Excavations at the Digital Turn” (which I blogged about here), Amara Thortons,  Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People (UCL 2018)  (blogged here) and thinking a bit about Ian Hodder’s well-known article from AntiquityWriting Archaeology: Site Reports in Context.” While these works all offer different angles on the archaeological writing and publishing, they did reinforce to me that archaeological writing and publishing are undergoing some pretty significant changes, but that these changes are also situated grounded in the goals of archaeological work. (In fact, I’m going to try to marshal some of my ideas on that in a paper that I’m giving at a conference at the University of Buffalo next year.) 

At the same time, I spent a few hours wrapping up the layout of volume two of the Epoiesen annual which should appear from The Digital Press before the end of the year. The Epoiesen annual is an interesting challenge because it is publishing a web publication in paper (and PDF form). Instead of thinking of the paper format as a degraded representation of a web version, I’ve tried to think of it as a transmedia opportunity to take something that was originally imagined in one media (i.e. the web) and reproduce in another. While we don’t take many risks in how we present Epoiesen on paper, the potential is certainly there and the very act of translating from one media to the next forces us to think about how entangled ideas and material are and how the paper (or even PDF version) of Epoiesen will offer readers a different experience than the online version.

Advertisement! You can get the first volume of Epoiesen at the low, low price of $6. SIX DOLLARS. That’s cheaper than a beer in New York City or about half the things on the Starbucks menu. 

A similar challenge will face my little press as we work on our next major project – a volume in collaboration with ASOR that presents a digital catalogue of votive figurines from Athienou on Cyprus. We will present these artifacts both through a traditional catalogue and high-resolution 3D scans presented both as a 3D PDF and through an online catalogue published by Open Context. It’ll be a big project full of challenges at the intersection of the paper codex and dynamic media.

While this might not seem immediately relevant to writing a preliminary report for WARP, it will push me a bit think about what kind of information is most appropriate for a print report and what kind of information is better to publish as data later on. 

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On top of that, I took a couple nice long walks with the dogs this weekend and those always give me a chance to think about big and small picture stuff. I started to think about the challenge of writing a preliminary report as a problem of definition. When is a project sufficiently complete for a preliminary report to offer provisional, but relatively secure, observations on method and results? On WARP, I get pretty anxious when I think of all the work we have left to do to make sense of our data; at the same time, I know that the artifact and main data collection phase of the project is over. What we have now is going to be the basis of both what we say in the final report and future analysis. Preliminary reports are hard to think about because of their liminal status. Archaeologists like to be authoritative in what they say about their work and analysis, and a preliminary report acknowledges that this is not the final word on the area and its material. 

Finally, there is a fear of the blank page. Fortunately, WARP has published a good bit already – here and there – so there is a kind of basis of already-written material upon which the preliminary report can draw. At the same time, there is the additional pressure of taking our analysis and presentation to the next level. This means more bibliography, more analysis, and more conclusions. This also means making sure that the voices of everyone on the project (and to be clear, folks will help me with this report!) will have space in the report even when we don’t all agree on how and what our analysis mean.  

Five Minute Version of “Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care”

Because one of the panels that I’m on at the EAA meeting has pre-circulated their papers, they’ve asked us just to give 5 minute versions of our ideas.

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As you might expect, the ideas in my paper have continued to develop since I wrote it in July and it was pre-circulated in August, but I think the major contours of the paper remain more or less intact.

Here’s my effort a sub-5 minute summary.

This paper is an expression of anxiety more than anything. I’m particularly anxious about the growing role of digital tools in archaeological work both in the field and during the analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of archaeological knowledge. 

My paper considered the role of digital tools and processes particularly through the lens of archaeological practice (punk archaeology) where technology has expanded the range of human perception, memory, organization, and analysis. While my arguments were rather diffuse, I pursued a line of thinking that began with a consideration of two mid-century Christian anarchists, Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul, who argued that technology, and modernity more broadly, have undermined the organic creativity of conviviality by emphasizing efficiency and convenience in the name of human interaction, embodied knowledge, and a respect for place. It is hardly surprising that these anti-modernist thinkers would offer a potentially useful critique of the modern discipline of archaeology.  

The second point I try to make, then, is that Ellul’s and Illich’s critique aligns with a recent strand in the discussion of digital tools in archaeological practice. Digital tools represent improvements in efficiency and accuracy, as well as the transparency and portability of digital (or digitized) archaeological information, but often rely on the fragmentation of archaeological knowledge into streamlined and integrated workflows. These practices, however, are not particularly surprising considering the significance of the assembly line on the organization of archaeological work where the regimented adherence to methods and procedures incrementally build new knowledge. The term “raw data” is analogous to “raw materials” that form the basis for industrial production. The influence of a modern, industrial approach to archaeology presents a counterpoint to archaeology as craft (and slow archaeology). 

Finally, and this point did not appear in the paper that I precirculated, I suspect that the mobile, modular, and granular nature of digital data anticipates a shift away from the assembly line and toward a very 21st century form of industrial organization: logistics. The assembly line manufactures a valuable product, whereas logistics involves the streamlined and decentralized distribution material, services, and goods that produces values through their relationship across space. These are both transhuman forms of producing value, but the former tends to structure the relationship between humans and machines in a linear way organized around a particular place, and the latter attends to a diffuse and decentralized relationship between objects, movement, standardization, while challenging or even just overwriting the notion of place and relationships that have long remained important to our idea of community and disciplinarity.

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The goal of my paper is to offer a more focused critique of the role of recent digital trends on the rhetoric, structure, and organization of archaeological practice, and to attempt to articulate some of the risks associated with these trends not just to the knowledge that we produce but to the kind of discipline that archaeology wishes to become. 

On being Prolific

For some reason this week, I got to thinking about people who are prolific. I think it was probably triggered by the release of Ty Segall’s double album, Freedom’s Goblin, or maybe the recent release of King Gizzard and Lizard Wizard’s fifth album in a year. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been immersing myself in the wonderful catalogue of Sun Ra who was remarkably prolific over his long career.

Needless to say, I’m not terribly prolific as a writer or as a publisher, but I’ve admired for some time now scholars like media theorist Henry Jenkins who described himself “as prolific as hell.” And my interest in Philip K. Dick is, partly, owing to his prolific output. He published 44 novels and over 120 short stories in a 30 year career.

I still get a bit uptight about prolific artists, writers, and musicians. I started to wonder whether people could produce something meaningful when all they’re doing is producing. There is no doubt that prolific production causes confusion; Sun Ra’s discography is baffling and wildly variable. At the same time, I came to understand artists like Ty Segall as releasing albums as a way to perform for an audience. (And to be clear, this my reading of his catalogue, not necessarily anything that he has said). In some ways, his most recent album is another iteration in his trajectory as a musician with all its variability and dissonance.

Like jazz musicians who frequently release multiple iterations of the same song, I tend to imagine prolific musicians embracing the performativity of their craft. This isn’t to say that Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie isn’t a better album than the complete(ish) recordings of those sessions released as Sunday at the Village Vanguard, but to argue that, for music, at least, the performance of multiple versions of the songs each with their own character diminishes the value of any one performance?  

With writing, this all seems a bit less straightforward. I’ve recently been thinking about writing a third paper on “Slow Archaeology” which has a chance to be published. Part of me worries that playing the same song again in different ways will dilute my original idea (such as they are) or confuse someone looking for an essential version of my thinking. Maybe, like this blog, writing another version of my slow archaeology paper will move my thinking, but necessarily toward some more perfect version of the idea. I don’t think that one slow archaeology paper will necessarily supersede the other.

Perhaps being prolific is a way to embrace the iterative character of life, writing, and thinking. We can avoid thinking of being prolific as a way to achieve terminal expertise through some version of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, but instead consider being prolific in the same way that jazz musicians were prolific or pulp fiction writers were prolific. Practicing in public celebrates the variability of our craft, its unevenness, and the interplay and transformation of ideas over time. It mitigates against the idea that the publication is the last word on a topic or offers something perfected.

At the same time, being prolific allowed musicians and writers to monetize their outputs in an efficient way. The threat of a poor recording or publication diminishing the value of other works offered a bit of a brake on being prolific, I suppose. I recognize, of course, that the ability to profit from a single work isn’t the same for academic writers, but maybe there persists the idea that a bad article or mediocre publications run the risk of offsetting the impact of a good work. Maybe the risk of an “uneven catalogue” could have a significance for a scholar’s career inasmuch as the impact of our work is a measure that contributes to how effectively we gain promotion, win grants, and other monetary aspects of our careers.

I don’t really know how to balance these risks and benefits well or to understand whether we should aspire to be prolific, but I really like immersing myself in Sun Ra’s catalogue.

[As an aside, I’ve recently applied Gladwell’s rule to my to dogs who are awake and active for approximately 6 hours each day. If they follow Gladwell’s rule, it will take them about 5 years to be really good at being a dog. This seems to actually hold true. Argie, who is almost 2, is very good at being Argie, but at being a dog, he seems a bit confused still. Milo on the other hand, who is almost 5, is really good at being a dog. He’s a dog’s dog.]

NDQuesday: The Humanities in Age of Austerity: A Case Study from the University of North Dakota (Complete Draft)

Four weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth part hereLast Tuesday, I had hoped to have these combined into a single document by around noon. Let’s say that I’m around 130 hours late (I hope you’ll still accept my work!).

This morning I put together the introduction.

So, you can go and read the introduction below or go and read the entire paper here. If you’re feeling generous, I’d love some comments. Here’s a link to the document in Hypothes.is allowing for annotations.

If you’ve been just reading along over the last few weeks and down really want to see how this train wreck of an essay turned out, but are a bit of a completist, you can just read the introduction below:

Introduction

In January 2018, I took the helm of North Dakota Quarterly, a public humanities journal housed at the University of North Dakota. In the previous year or so, we had seen our budget eliminated including the funding for our long-serving managing editor and our subscription manager. This occurred amid a series of budget cuts across the university, a change in university leadership, and a new budget model backed by a new strategic plan and a newly clarified set of institutional priorities.

The changes at the University of North Dakota were both predictable and shocking. On the one hand, the cuts to North Dakota Quarterly were not a surprise. We had been operating on borrowed time for at least a few years and had struggled to adapt our venerable publication to the changing landscape of publishing and higher education. On the other hand, the increased scrutiny of the budget across campus, academic programs, and the work rhythms of faculty and staff were unsettling and threw the largely peaceful culture of university life into tumult. As someone who had worked at UND for almost 15 years, I can honestly say that nothing prepared me for how quickly campus culture changed.

I was not prepared to compete with my colleagues in other colleges for resources and students. The sudden attention to such minutia as the percentages in faculty contracts, enrollment numbers in upper level classes, and the square footage of offices seemed misplaced and distrustful. The growing use of digital tools to measure and document faculty productivity and student progress seemed intrusive and, at best, redundant with longstanding practices and, at worst, reductionist or crassly corporate. It felt like certain members of the administration had committed to stifling the longstanding North Dakota practice of doing more with less, by insisting instead that we do what the administration expected with less. Whatever collective spirit and camaraderie that the former developed, the latter undermined. In just under two years, the university culture seemed to shift from one of creativity and collaboration to one of compliance and coercion.   

Like many of my colleagues, I looked both locally and nationally to understand the context for these changes. I read widely in both the latest and classic books on higher education policy, criticism, and history. I even agreed to teach a class on the budget cuts and to serve as chair of the Graduate Committee and to represent the Graduate School on the Senate Budget Committee. My hope is that engaging the budget cuts as a intellectual problem, I could come to understand the shifting culture at UND and nationally and find ways to turn the soured campus culture into the refreshing lemonade of field study.

The following essay is my first effort to understand systematically the changes at UND within the wider context of reform in the academy. The essay is grounded in three approaches. First, I was guided by the work of Christopher Newfield in the higher education budgeting and finance (Newfield 2016); Louis Menand (2010), David Labaree (2017), and Stefan Collini (2017) on university policy and rhetoric; and John Thelin (2010), Laurence Veysey (1965), Charles Dorn (2016) on the history of higher education. Next, David Harvey (2005), David Graeber (2015), and James C. Scott (2009; 2012) have helped me to grasp the interaction of neoliberalism, bureaucracy, and the creative freedoms of anarchy. The various critiques of Taylorism and in the market offered by these scholars resonated with my experiences studying the Bakken oil patch (Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2017), critiques of technology (Morozov 2013; Kansa 2016; Caraher 2016), and general despair for life in a modern world wracked by eviction (Desmond  2016; Bruder 2017), expulsions (Sassen 2014), and borders and refugees (Jones 2016; Andersson 2014). Two works in particular motivated me to think harder. Mark Fleming’s critique of neoliberal time discipline among mass transit workers in San Francisco (Fleming 2016) and Gary Hall’s book on the “uberfication” of the university (Hall 2016). These two works helped crystalize in my mind the complex intersection of rhetoric, neoliberal practice, and the deeply entrenched commitment to see the world (as well as the university) in terms of winners and losers. 

My essay is a product of this motley reading list, my experiences as a spectator and participant in the recent changes at the University of North Dakota, and conversations with students, colleagues and administrators. My hope is that even if I’m wrong in my reading of our current situation at UND, my essay will still do good.

Writing Wednesday: Atari Excavations, Narrative, and Media Archaeology

I’ve had a terrible time putting words on the page this fall and summer, so I decided to invest the next month or so in finishing an article that has been lingering around my hard drive for the past few years. In April 2014, Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I made our way down to Alamogordo, New Mexico to contribute to the excavation of a dump of Atari games at the local landfill there. The games included numerous examples of the (in)famous E.T. game and our presence there gave us a chance to work a bit with the well-known Hollywood director and screenwriter Zak Penn. 

Our work in Alamogordo allowed us to collect a good bit of empirical data about the excavation of the landfill and the Atari games, but it also encouraged me to think a good bit about how archaeological work, objects, and popular perceptions shape the kinds of narratives possible in our discipline. So instead of a rather boring article that presented the results of our work there, I decided to put together three different narratives grounded in three different forms of analysis designed to demonstrate the complexities of archaeological story telling. 

Since I already have a draft of the basic description of the Atari excavation, this week I decided to work on a study of the Atari excavations from the perspective of media archaeology (and archaeology of media). 

ETGame

Here’s what I have so far:

The excavation of the Atari dump at Alamogordo confirmed the presence of the Atari games long-thought to have been dumped there. This excavation also located the games within a particular context that extended stratigraphically starting with their immediate context, and then digging down into the nature of the game play, particular of the E.T. Game, and their place within the history of video gaming. The goal of this section is not to explore all the possibilities of these games as either media objects in an archaeological context or as objects of media archaeology, but to colocate the narrative structured by the games themselves within a broader archaeological narrative.

The recovery of the E.T. Games, along with a range of other titles and Atari paraphernalia in the Alamogordo landfill confirmed shadowy story from 1983 that the Atari Corporation transported thousands of returned, remaindered, and unsold games from their El Paso distribution center for burial in a small town landfill (Guins 2014). The rational for this was perhaps no more sinister than a cost saving move by a cash strapped company that found the dumping rates cheaper for corporate waste in a small, desert city. Whatever the reason, by dumping the games amid a post-consumer, late 20th-century domestic assemblage ironically returned these games to their intended, but largely unrealized place alongside the objects of everyday life in the mid-1980s American home. Movie posters, video and audio tape, magazines and newspapers, represented both common objects in the Alamogordo and staples of late-20th-century American media consumption. In fact, that dates on newspapers and media provided chronological markers for the various levels present in the dump. The presence of the Atari games alongside other contemporary media objects simultaneously displaced and restored the games to a discarded version of their intended domestic context.

The dumping of these games in a rather remote, small-town landfill demonstrated that the relative banality of domestic discard in the 1980s had allowed for these games to be hidden in plain sight. For archaeologists, however, the work of the archaeologist William Rathje and his team at the Tuscon Garbage Project (Rathje 1992) had begun to reveal the patterns of domestic consumption in post-consumer waste through their systematic study of both curbside trash and landfills. This work has had a formative influence on more recent efforts to study the social context of late modern discard (Ferrell 2006; Lucas 2002) and production of landfills (Reno 2009) as well as historical roots in the earliest era of archaeological practice (Schmidt 2001). In other words, archaeologists have both a contemporary investment and historical commitments to unpacking the complexity of domestic discard through the study of middens, discard practices, and even modern dumps. By revealing Atari dump amidst domestic discard through documenting the excavation of the landfill, as opposed to only the assemblage of Atari games, we located contemporary media within disciplinary practice as well.

The disciplinary practice of revealing the complexities of domestic discard and documenting patterns hidden in plain sight has intriguing parallels to certain features present in the E.T. video game. In the video game itself, the player had to bring E.T. home while avoiding a number of perils including difficult to escape pits. Like many Atari games of this era, the E.T. game also contained an “Easter egg.” Easter eggs are hidden features in the game that only a complex set of typically obscure moves reveal. The earliest such feature revealed the name of game designer in the game Adventure (Monfort and Bogost 2009). The game designer for the E.T. game, Howard Scott Warshaw, included an Easter egg that transformed the plucky E.T. first into “Yar,” the title character, in the game Yar’s Revenge, then into Indiana Jones from the movie-themed, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Atari game. Warshaw designed E.T., Yar’s Revenge, and Raiders, making the Easter egg a kind of personal signature. It also formed a narrative parallel to the search for the burial of E.T. games in the New Mexico dessert as the games served as a kind of Easter egg under the detritus of contemporary life at the Alamogordo landfill.

The interplay of the expected and the hidden that make video game Easter eggs so appealing to early Atari gamers likewise reflected the genre bending character of the E.T. video game (and its contemporary release of Raiders of the Lost Arc). The 1982 E.T. film involved the efforts of a suburban kid, Eliot, to keep hidden the affection extra-terrestrial until he is able to find his way home. Set in the American suburbs, the film in punctuated by the adorable E.T. being hidden in plain sight, like the assemblage of video games. In fact, the history of the film itself contains a kind of Easter egg in a deleted scene that featured Harrison Ford as Eliot’s principal. While this scene never appeared in the film itself, it was sufficient well know to garner comment from director Steven Spielberg who had a history of having Harrison Ford and other favorite actors make cameo appearances in his movies.

To return to media archaeology and archaeology of the media, the intended domestic context for Atari games belied their unexpected appearance in the post-consumer discards in the Alamogordo landfill. At the same time, the appearance of this deposit echoed the presence of Easter eggs in Atari game play and in the E.T. game, in particular, where the author of the game made his presence known through a series of secret moves. Like Eliot in the film, one goal of the excavation and the game play was to return the Atari cartridges and the extraterrestrial to their familiar domestic contexts, home, while simultaneously revealing a hidden meaning. For an observer familiar with the games, the film, and with popular depictions of archaeology, such as that presented in the contemporary film (and game designed by Howard Scott Warshaw) Raiders of the Lost Ark the interplay between hidden and known, domestic and displaced, was a familiar theme.