Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

This has been a challenging month. I have too much on my plate and too many competing priorities. I did, however, manage to produce a very rough draft of a chapter for my slow moving book project. Below is my standard post on why I’m sharing book chapters and a link to Chapter 7.

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A couple of years ago, I watched one of my buddies here at the University of North Dakota write his book. When he completed a chapter draft, he dutifully hung it by a binder clip on a bookshelf in his office. This gave him a nice visual reminder that he was making progress toward his goal. 

I’ve struggled a bit to embrace this feeling of progress with any project lately. The COVID-19 situation hasn’t helped, but even before then, I felt a bit like I was stuck on a treadmill writing the same thing over and over just using different words. I suppose this is part of what happens when the desire to write exceeds the time, space, or ability to produce ideas. In any event, in place of an impressive display of dangling chapters, I’ll post chapters here to my blog from time to time. 

To date, I have completed seven chapters of a book that I’m writing titledThe Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. These are very, very rough drafts. The citations are not entirely complete and they’re about 1000 words shorter than they’ll be when they’re folded together to make a coherent(-ish) book. This also includes working on transitions between the chapters and filling out the references. 

You can read a very rough outline of my book proposal here. The book is about 60% survey and 40% a cultural and methodological study of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. As a result, a significant part of the book will tend toward the descriptive. My hope is that the 40% of the book where I try to do some cultural history isn’t so far off the mark (or so mundane) to be uninteresting or, worse still, produce an archaeology that is merely illustrating well-known history from texts.  

Here are the seven of the first eight chapters with the latest in bold:

Chapter 0: Introduction

Chapter 1: The Alamogordo Atari Excavation

Chapter 2: The Archaeology of Garbage

Chapter 3: Things, Materiality, and Agency

Chapter 4: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

Chapter 5: Borders, Migrants, and the Homeless

Chapter 6: Camps, Campus, and Control

Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City

As always, if you have observations, constructive criticism, or just unmitigated hatred of everything that I’m doing here, please do let me know!

Compassion, COVID, and Scholarship

Over the last few months, I’ve been asked to read and review more manuscripts than ever before in my career. I expect that this is because the COVID situation has upset the traditional reviewing ecosystem and pushed editors to dig a bit deeper into their Rolodex of reviewers.

In an effort to do my part doing these challenging times, I’ve agreed to review these manuscripts, but I have to admit that my attitude toward writing and reviewing has changed. Whereas a few years ago, I might have been highly motivated to suss out any potential flaw in a manuscript or to nudge an author to track down bibliographic loose ends or polish off any rough edge, over the last six months, I’ve been far more inclined to emphasize the good in manuscripts, overlook their bibliographic, forensic, or stylistic shortcomings, and actually to enjoy the diversity of approaches to writing and thinking during a pandemic. As a poetry editor that I admire quipped as he worked his way through a mountain of poetry submission, “we are in a goddamn pandemic.”  

I feel like our political situation, the COVIDs, and a summer full of protest, anxiety, and anger has made me value compassion. This isn’t to say that I’m always a compassionate reader or grader, but for the first time in my professional career, I am inclined to read with an eye toward what already exists in a manuscript, a paper, or a creative work without dwelling too much on a what a work could be. Along similar lines, I’ve worked hard to be more patient with authors, reviewers, colleagues, and students who have struggle to meet deadlines and fulfill expectations. For many of us, the world has been turned upside down with the specter of personal or family illness only heightened by the anxiety-inducing rhetoric that emphasizes how what were once personal decisions have an impact on the health of our friends, neighbors, and the entire community. I’m less worried about getting sick myself and far more worried about getting others sick, letting them down by not being able to function fully, and burdening already overtaxed support systems.

I suspect that I’m not the only scholar who has embraced a more magnanimous position over the last six months and have started to wonder whether what has passed for disciplinary rigor, in fact, relies on unsustainable expectations. Social media constantly demonstrates how The COVIDs has strained many of our colleagues who have suddenly found themselves managing home schooling, caring for ill family members, and juggling new teaching and professional responsibilities. 

The emergence of Zoom meeting culture and the endless series of Zoom-based colloquia, conferences, and workshops with their attendant social and professional responsibilities creates a feeling of academic claustrophobia. This is heightened by many of these events leveraging our shared sense of ethical and academic urgency and a responsibility to participate in creating a more just discipline, field, and academy. Not only that, but many of the zoom events are putting forward amazing line-ups as they bring together on the screen scholars that would only rarely have opportunities to share a podium at an academic conference. Obligation and opportunity converge to produce a zoom-mediated hyper abundance of events that run simultaneously, everyday, from the earliest morning CDT to well after my bedtime.

Finally, the COVID induced economic downturn has already led to more budget cuts in higher education which will further limit our ability of even those of us who manage to keep our position as our teaching loads increase, library and research funding decline, and service obligations both in our field and at our institutions rest ever more heavily on fewer faculty. That being said, my own position as a tenured faculty member is relatively more secure than the uncertainty faced by many of my tenure track or contingent colleagues who might be facing the loss of their jobs and access to even basic resources necessary to do their work.

As a friend pointed out the other day, the feeling of fatigue with COVID, with politics, with the situation at our institutions, in our communities, and in society more broadly is, for many of use, the weight of our own privilege. I’m a white, male, tenured faculty member who has benefited from generations of unearned wealth, opportunities, and influence. I know and understand my continued obligation to change even during difficult times and recognize that I have it much easier than most.

All of this invariably informs how I read as a reviewer, how I write as a scholar, and how I teach. How we deal with the pressures of 2020 will shape the kind of scholarship that emerges from the new normal. For my part, this work will be less exhaustive in bibliography, less rigorous in argument, and less tidy and polished. From what I’m reading, it’ll also be more creative in engagement, more generous in tone, and more personal. Whether these changes are enough to shift scholarly conventions toward a more open and diverse forms of academic knowledge, I remain skeptical, but in a time where optimism is in short supply, I certainly hope so. 

Writing Clearly

One of my favorite twitter dust ups in recent memory has centered on a strange book review by John Henderson in the BMCR. Apparently all of his reviews are similarly awkward in style, formatting, and language (and perhaps content, although, to be honest, I don’t know enough about the Augustan age to judge his analysis), but this one seems to have a touched a nerve in the social media. Without trivializing the response in any way, I suspect our collective rawness from the COVID, American politics, and the dreadful state of the NFC East, contributed to the reaction to this review. 

Folks on twitter fumed that the review was too opaque to be useful and amounted to little more than an author flaunting his elitism and privilege. As a casual reader of this review, I suspect this is the case. The oddly placed footnotes, the strange parenthetical, use of italics, and strangely personal style suggested an author both confident in his idiosyncratic form of expression and the tolerance of the BMCR’s editors. 

I also recognize that a book review, particularly one in the BMCR, has a particular place in the academic ecosystem. The BMCR represents the discipline’s crib sheet. It’s often the first place to review a book, it doesn’t require a subscription, and despite the occasional controversy, generally produces no-nonsense reviews that are long on description and short on critique. At its best, the BMCR is a democratizing force in Classics and Ancient History as it allows even the most forlorn, overworked, and library-deprived member of the Classics diaspora to keep abreast of the publications in the field, their content, and on a superficial level their significance. The no-nonsense reviews featured in the BMCR, then, coincide with its accessibility of this publication (which is all the more important as library budgets are being cut). Henderson’s review, in contrast, clearly falls outside of what one would expect to appear in the BMCR and, this, invariably, contributed to a share of the criticism on social media. The review is opaque and idiosyncratic, and it seemed appropriate to note that the BMCR may not have been the appropriate venue for such a review.

What interested me more, however, was that many of the critiques were not narrowly contextualized as to what is appropriate for a publication like the BMCR. Instead, academics asked the question whether opaque, complex, and even awkward prose is appropriate for academic writing in general. This is a complicated matter and I’m confident that many who fumed about the Henderson review has thought more carefully about this than I have.

At the same time, I got a bit worried that the call for clarity in academic writing isn’t just a simple matter of making sure that we’re understood. After all, most of us accept that being understood can be overvalued, specialist language and knowledge is important, and in the probably apocryphal words of Einstein “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” We also recognize that what we regard as simple and clear language is not politically, racially, or socially neutral. Criticism of opaque language is most frequently leveled against authors writing from rather more radical or marginal political positions. It has been a charge directed in particular at scholars working in gender theory, critical race theory, and post-colonial studies. These scholars are more likely to be women and BIPOC (or particularly invested in issues related to the situation of woman and BIPOC communities) and the critiques tend to emanate from white men. At their most disturbing there is a vague echo for calls for a kind of normative “standard English” that has often been used to suppress the distinctive voices and identities of diverse communities both in the US and globally.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Henderson’s rather strange review deserves some kind of protected status or that he is simply writing in the style of his community. I also understand that the BMCR is a bit like a baseball boxscore. It’s meant to be legible at a glance and this function encourages a familiar and standard appearance and discourages creativity or innovation. Instead, I’m trying to understand how and whether we should cultivate and develop clarity in scholarly writing. 

I remember last year at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting, I attended a roundtable of scholars talking about writing for the general public. The roundtable was sponsored, I think, by the NEH Public Humanities Project. The speakers were all scholars who had enjoyed some success writing for wider audiences and were in their scholarly primes. As I noted at the time, it was clear that these scholars imagined the general public not as a particular type of person, but as a market for their works. In other words, the public scholar is the scholar who caters to an existing market for ideas, books, and writing.

In many ways, this panel reminded me of how music labels often encouraged artists to produce more commercially viable music and how this trend became more and more stifling as a more homogeneous consumer culture for music (and, I’d contend, literature) emerged in the post-war period. The burgeoning purchasing power of the post-war suburban, largely-white, middle class swept all culture before it and produced a more and more limited range of commercially viable forms. This homogenization of culture not only made it difficult to record more experimental work (or music of interest to narrower audiences), but also made us less tolerant of work that refused to conform to commercial expectations. 

I got the feeling that certain advocated of public scholarship saw it not as work that connected with group who are underserved, marginalized, or ignored by academic writers, but with the largest possible audience. Or, as I regularly hear, our (white, middle class) grandmother or mother who is really interested in “archaeology.”

It goes without saying that writing designed to appeal to the widest possible audience is also writing that conforms to certain social and cultural expectations. This isn’t to say that the writing can’t be politically and personally challenging — as recent scholarship on race has shown — but it has to do it in familiar and recognizable ways. This is why so much of the most moving and significant popular literature on race over the last few years (Ibram X. Kendi,  Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon, for example) ground their calls for racial justice in deeply personal stories. This is effective, affective, and familiar to mainstream audiences. It’s part of what makes these books accessible even if they make arguments that should make their white audiences uncomfortable. 

Part of the reason that I’m thinking about this is that I often find myself pushing students to write in more formal ways. I’m regularly telling my students to obey the rules of grammar, to write more simply, and to embrace a traditional style. I’ve even found myself mouthing the desiccated platitude that you need first to understand the rules before you can violate them.

At the same time, I frequently scold my students when they complain that a book or an article is hard to understand. I encourage them to think about the difference between poor and challenging writing and to recognize that new ideas and specialist literature will often demand more of our attention.  

What I rarely do is encourage them to write and to use language in ways that are comfortable and familiar to them. Like most folks, when I feel inconvenienced by the way that a student writes, I push them back toward the comfortable pabulum of convention. I  worry a good bit that I’m doing more reinforce the status quo than I am to encourage the emergence of distinct voices and valuing a narrow view of clarity more than a more expansive view of writing as art.

In the end, I do think that our world would be better, more interesting, and even more inclusive if we valued clarity a bit less and diversity a bit more.  

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.