Friday Varia and Quick Hits

I’m on my way to Minot State University even as we speak to celebrate the release of Micah Bloom’s Codex. If you haven’t downloaded it, you really should. It’s spectacular.

Codex Tradebook Cover Cropped

Go get it here.

If you have downloaded it and want more to read, go and check out this little gaggle of quick hits and varia:

IMG 1318We’re sick. 

IMG 1320I’ll just wait here until the pack gets back together.
(It’s as easy as fallin’ of a log, Milo is really the Chicken DOG!)

The Digital Version of Codex is LIVE.

I’m super excited to announce that the digital version of Codex is (a)live now.

Go and download it!

Codex Tradebook Cover Cropped

This project feels like the most ambitious project that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has undertaken to date, but made possible through the generous and sustained collaboration with Micah Bloom, Marissa Dyke (his design intern), and the contributors and editors of the volume (including Dave Haeselin’s writing and editing class in the English Department).

The digital volume is beautiful, well-designed, and thought provoking.

And the work isn’t done, yet! We are almost ready to release the trade paperback version of the book and there is talk about a small, unnumbered, print run of the hardbound version. 

Finally, we’re doing a public release of Codex tomorrow at Minot State. 

Book poster as book

So stay tuned for more.

Codex final large book 3

The Matter of History

I really enjoyed Tim LeCain’s first book, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet (2009) and that made me particularly excited to read his newest work The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (2017). LeCain pulls apart the recent interest in materiality in history and situates it as a response, in part, to the growing dissatisfaction with so-called constructivist views of the past. These views, championed by critical theorists of the 1970d and 1980s, “marginalized matter” by viewing the world as a cultural construct established by a dense network of relational ontologies. While this remains a tremendously influential method for understanding texts, historians and archaeologists have typically approached these ways of thinking with a bit of ambivalence. After all, historians and archaeologists build arguments from evidence and, as a result, view these pieces of evidence as somehow being sufficiently essential to support our arguments for a real past. 

For LeCain, this view of the past as real opens the door not to some kind simplistic epistemology that sets the past up as a kind of immutable reality to be mined by the historian for facts, but rather provides space for the place of matter – in all its myriad forms as objects, animals, buildings, landscapes – in our understanding of the world. For LeCain, the matter of history is quite literally matter itself. By allowing matter space in the world of the historian, LeCain recognizes that humans are material and the materiality of both human things and non-human things constrains and enables humans to act. 

While this might sound like the fairly heady (if increasingly typical) and philosophical stuff circulating widely in the world of new or neo-materialists, LeCain grounds his commitment to empiricism in a series of compelling case studies that range from the fate of long-horns in the Deer Lodge Valley in Montana when confronted by the polluting smoke of a smelting furnace to the role of the silkworm in modernizing Shimotsuke Japan. LeCain’s arguments develop from his significant understanding of copper mining and smelting on a global scale. In both Montana and Japan, the expansion of copper production compromised local agriculture and sericulture by introducing sulfur, arsenic, and other heavy metals into the local ecosystem. The conductive properties of copper were vital to the electrification of the modern world and advancing the ambitions of Japan on a regional and ultimately global scale. By interweaving humans, animals, industry, chemicals, and even the very much elemental cooper and downright molecular quality of electricity, LeCain works to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between aspects of the world frequently divided into categories of “nature” and “culture.”

Butte MT Berkeley Pit April 2005 Composite Fisheye View

Historians are nothing if not practical in their approach to the past. By challenging the divisions between the natural and the culture in our world, LeCain not only offers a compelling critique of the once-pervasive constructivism, but also establishes the practical value of the new materialism for historical work. Over the last decade, this critique has frequently come from scholars eager to recognize the agency of things. In many cases, this has resulted in making things oddly human with biographies and agency that frequently do little more than present the “life of things” as a superficial reflection of how we have traditionally seen ourselves. As a result, we avoid dealing with the “thingness” of things, but slotting them into an existing ontology that is ultimately derived from the very nature-culture division that we’re seeks to subvert. LeCain’s book avoids this common challenge in talking about things by both recognizing the humanity of humans as vital for understanding the world (there is, after all, a limit to our powers of empathy; it is pretty much impossible to feel for a hammer or an atom of copper), but not as something that exists outside the world. Things of all kinds – from silkworms and longhorns to arsenic – are allowed to thrive in LeCain’s narrative, but they do not bear the burden of a concept of agency built upon an assumption of human dominance of the material world.    

Instead, LeCain might be accused of limiting, in a cautious and deliberate way, the agency of humans in their control over the world. His book starts with a discussion of the symbiosis between various gut bacteria, mineral resources, and the long trajectory of human evolution to recognize the place of humans within a world that we frequently set aside as “natural.” He then engages R. G. Collingwood’s critique that all history is the study of thought (and thought is manifest, in part, in human action) and not the study of the unthinking material world of nature and things. LeCain’s book is in many ways a response to Collingwood’s views. He demonstrates that the division between the material and the human is illusory because we cannot separate thinking about things from thinking with things. If Collingwood celebrated the transcendent and even disembodied human mind as the locus of history, LeCain returned the mind to both the body and its place in the world. In his hands, this proposition seems less of a radical explosion of centuries-old divisions between mind and matter and more a commonsensical reminder of the real task of the historian is to unpack the complexities of human action in the world. 

Micah Bloom and Codex in Minot

If you’re in the Minot, North Dakota area, you should make a point to come and check out my presentation with Micah Bloom, the author of the very soon to be released book Codex from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Friday, November 3, at 12. I’ll be joining Micah and three contributors to the book, Bethany Andreasen, Ryan Stander, and Robert Kibler in Minot State University’s Aleshire Theater. 

I’m pretty excited to head out West, and while my visit with my colleagues at Minot State will be short, I’m looking forward to catching up with Ryan Stander, who worked with us one summer at Koutsopetria as our artist in residence. Unfortunately the online exhibit associated with Ryan’s ran out of funding here at UND, but I have the images and the essays associated with the project and still think about doing something with them.

Micah has been the consummate collaborator on the Codex project and has literally worked on every part of the project from the layout and design of the book to helping edit the essays and strategizing publicity for the event. In many ways, Codex was the ultimate example of cooperative publishing with students from David Haeselin’s writing and publishing class lending a hand in copy editing, Micah and his crew chipping in on layout, and my little outfit working on the production side of things.

So, please check out my talk on Friday!

Here’s the flyer:

Caraher Bloom Minot

And, if you’re still reading, do click this link.

Emptyscapes

I was pretty intrigued to read Stefano Campana’s recent article in Antiquity on the concept of “emptyscapes.” This concept describes the areas in the landscape that do not produce a recognizable signature of ancient artifacts whether this is a ceramic scatter or visible architecture elements. Archaeologists have often regarded these spaces as the “connective tissue” of the ancient world where activities like travel, extensive agriculture and pastoralism, or other low intensity or episodic activities occurred. As a result, archaeologists were initially quick to define these spaces as “off-site.” More intensive pedestrian survey practices have served to populate these landscapes with both artifacts and activities and to start the process of blurring the distinction between on-site and off-site spaces in the Mediterranean world. Back in the dayDavid Pettegrew, Dimitri Nakassis, and I argued that emptyspaces – especially those produced by limited visibility – required archaeologists to increase the intensity of field walking (e.g. narrower walker spacing, total collection circles and the like), if they wanted to produce meaningful assemblages from the “hidden landscapes” that often left only the faintest traces in the countryside.

Even with greater intensity of field walking, we still recognize that some spaces in the landscape produce so few objects that it is impossible to discuss their character in antiquity even in the most general way, and these spaces remind us that absence of evidence is not evidence for absence. 

Campana and his team have attacked the problem of emptyscapes by ratcheting up intensity even further by conducting large-scale geophysical work across areas that produced very little archaeological evidence. The emptyscape team was selective in where they worked, of course, identifying territory outside of the cities of Rusellae, Grosseto, and Vetulonium in Tuscany. They selected areas that produced very little material particularly from the Roman, Late Roman and Medieval periods and the emptyscapes project sought to use more intensive techniques to determine whether it was possible to tease evidence for past human activity from these empty landscapes. 

Needless to say, they did produce some intriguing results including evidence for road networks, burial landscapes, and small fortified settlements that intensive pedestrian survey otherwise overlooked. In fact, their results were very impressive and expanded what we can learn about the landscape beyond artifact scatters. Of course, the emptyscapes team note that ground-truthing through excavation will offer even greater resolution and opportunities to understand the interstitial places that their geophysical work revealed.

The applicability for this kind of large-scale remote sensing practice will vary depending on local topography, settlement patterns, soil conditions, and geomorphology, of course, but anyone following the increasingly sophisticated technology and practices associated with remote sensing knows that the potential is there. The bigger concern, of course, is that every form of intensification reduces the scale of intensive pedestrian survey (or steeply increases the resources necessary to document each hectare). Increasingly powerful computing and streamlined data collection tools in the field do make it easier to collect geophysical data and to correlated datasets produced by various techniques from LiDAR to field walking, magnetometry, and even small-scale excavation. I still suspect that they won’t allow us to escape the accusation of “Mediterranean myopia” leveled against Mediterranean intensive survey practitioners over 15 years ago. As survey archaeology increases in intensity, we can say more about smaller and smaller areas. Historically, particularly in the New World, survey archaeology excels at speaking broadly about regions that are often hundreds of square kilometers. Sampling strategies established to accommodate the scale of regional level projects mitigated the challenge of  emptyscapes as they limit the impact of environmental variability. Expanding the scale of intensive survey, however, does less to control for variation in the visibility and “diagnosticity” of particular classes of artifacts. If you miss certain classes of artifacts leaving gaps in your survey area, so amount of sampling for area is likely to resolve that without also developing sampling strategies that accommodate the range of likely artifact types present in a survey area. Large-scale geophysical work does just that by allowing the archaeologists to see beyond the surface of the ground and the usual scatter of durable, largely ceramic and stone objects and to sample subsurface features as well. At the same time, even the largest scale geophysical work offers a window into a much smaller area that regional level intensive survey. The real value of this practice lays not in its ability to fill a particular gap in the surface record, but in its ability to document emptyscapes at scale. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Winter has [finally?] come to the North Dakotaland and it allowed me to make my annual “First Snow” past yesterday afternoon. It looks like we got slightly more than a dusting this morning with a little blanket of snow. It’s crisp this morning with a high in the upper 20s and a brisk breeze.

It makes a good day to stay inside and catch up on some quick hits and varia.

IMG 1299

IMG 1287The boys work on their synchronized napping routines.

More Punk Rock (with an interview)

I used to do this more often (and I probably should do it more), but today, I’m going to send you over to the North Dakota Quarterly page where I have a long interview with Brian James Schill about his recently published book This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts (2017). It’s a good book and was just reviewed by the LARB in an article about a few new books on literature and pop music, and Brian was a really good sport about talking with me over a string of emails. 

It was pretty hard to do an interview without constantly blurting out “YEAH, you think you’re SO COOL? Well, I know some OBSCURE BANDS TOO, man! And, like, I also produced a book about PUNK ROCK MUSIC. So, you’re not THAT cool. I mean, pretty cool, but only because you’re LIKE ME, not because you’re book. I did my book in 2014, and MOST PEOPLE only like the earlier stuff.” 

I think I more or less managed avoid to say those exact words, but I think the sense of that is still there in the background. What can you do, right?  

It’s an epic interview with a bunch of music and a really cool playlist at the end and some fun links to music throughout. 

So go and check it out.

Open Access Week Announcement: The Digital Press + Epoiesen

Each year, Open Access Week celebrates the work of authors and publishers who make their works available for free and open circulation. From its origins, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has worked to encourage open access publishing across its entire catalogue and seek out collaboration with likeminded authors and publishers.

For Open Access Week 2017, we are very pleased to announce our collaboration with Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology founded and edited by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa. Epoiesen urges its contributors to apply a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license to their works, but also recognizes that each author has the right to set the terms for their contributions.

The journal seeks “to document and valorize the scholarly creativity that underpins our representations of the past. Epoiesen is therefore a kind of witness to the implied knowledge of archaeologists, historians, and other professionals, academics and artists as it intersects with the sources about the past. It encourages engagement with the past that reaches beyond our traditional audience (ourselves).”

Epoiesen 🔊

Recent work in Epoiesen has included video games that explore academic publishing and the destruction of the past, thoughtful, experimental critiques of a weaponized social media, and transmedia engagement with archaeological knowledge making

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish an Epoiesen annual as a downloadable document and in a print-on-demand format for readers and institutions who prefer paper and to make the journal more portable and open to standard citation practices. 

Graham remarks, “The excitement and interest in Epoiesen has been gratifying. Clearly, there’s an appetite for engaging with history and archaeology that traditional venues are able to fill! I’m grateful to the Digital Press for this tremendous vote of confidence and look forward to working with them as Epoiesen continues to grow.”

William Caraher, the founder and publisher of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, adds, “Working with someone like Shawn, the remarkably diverse content of his journal, and the outstanding editorial board and authors is a great opportunity to expand what the Digital Press does and to learn from a truly innovative project and team. Epoiesen is a great fit for The Digital Press in that it brings together open, academic publishing with new ways of thinking about archaeology, materiality, and the past.”