Wesley College Wednesday

Over the last week or so, the Wesley College Documentation Project has shifted its attention from the buildings themselves and their physical fabrics to their history in the University of North Dakota archives where the Wesley College papers reside. The students have eagerly moved through archival collections for clues as to the history of the buildings. 

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They’ve found some great stuff that speaks to the day-to-day lives of students residing in Sayre and Larimore Hall, of students who were charged for new rugs after rendering theirs “too dirty to clean without being destroyed,” of damage to hallways from impromptu dormitory hockey games, and of Steinway pianos and of new electrical fixtures.

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At the same time, I’ve been patiently working to describe the rooms in Larimore Hall and will soon move on to Corwin, Sayre, and Robertson. I’ve been using our remarkable archive of photographs, my drawings, and a collection of plans which show Corwin/Larimore Hall in various phases of renovation in 1970s. 

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So far, I’ve focused on describing the second floor of Larimore Hall (or the 3rd floor depending on how you count!) and primarily on the architecture and furnishings rather than the small finds or objects present there. Writing up this stuff in tedious detail has really helped me wrap my head around the changes to the building and the complex interplay between its original and later form. This interplay demonstrated the tension between the 21st century building and its 20th century bones and preserved the physical memory of its past function even as its abandoned 21st-century form. For example, rooms used at in 21st century GTA offices saw the least modification during the 1979 remodeling demonstrating a kind of persistence of use over 30 years. Research spaces on the fourth floor featured more older furnishings than office spaces did on the second floor showing a greater tendency toward curating older objects. 

Part of the goal of this project has become to use intensive documentation as a way to commemorate these century-old buildings and to recognize their entire history from their origins with Wesley College to their 21st century demise.  

This is obviously still a work in progress, but you can download some fragments of my preliminary report here

Ay. Lazaros and Panagia Angelokisti

Ay. Lazaros is one of the most visible monuments in Larnaka, Cyprus and among the most significant churches on the island. I’ve wandered around this beautiful church frequently over my years of working on Cyprus and staying in Larnaka.

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Ironically, very little is known about this building. Historically associated with the relics of Lazaros who is said to have come to Cyprus and to have become Bishop of Kition after his resurrection, this church was constructed sometime in the Medieval period. In its present form, it stands as a series of cross-in-square churches terminating in a three apses. It has a later porch that extends along its south side and much later campanile. The church endured a significant fire in the 18th century when its domes collapsed. The church has seen relatively little archaeological study and despite some useful guides to its history and architecture, has not received comprehensive study.   

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Last week, I was pretty excited to receive the monumental tome that is the Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus from 2011-2012. It’s late, but that’s ok, because it remains a curio cabinet of archaeological knowledge about the island. It includes a fascinating article on the architecture of Ay. Lazaros, the Angeloktisti at Kiti and Ayios Antonios in Kellia west of Cyprus by a group of students from the University of Padova in Italy, Lucia Scudellaro, Isabella Zamboni, Alessia De Paoli, Monica Gamba, Michela Modena and Morena Tramonti under the supervision of Gian Pietro Brogiolo (RDAC 2011-2012, 821-853).

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(Another story for another time involves my toying with the idea of journal on the archaeology of Cyprus with a few colleagues. Fortunately some smarter people intervened gently to discourage us from starting such a thing, but I do admit to occasionally thinking about it still. Anyway, I’m glad the RDAC is back.)

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Their study of this important monument was hardly comprehensive, but it does hint at the potential of studying the standing walls of the church stratigraphically. They were able to identify at least four pre-modern phases including the tantalizing early phase that not only indicates that the church had always existed, more or less, in its current plan. The dating of this building, of course, remains unresolved, and it will remain perhaps the most significant, undated monument on the island. The possibility that it dates from the so-called “condominium period” (and here I’m speculating freely and irresponsibly) is intriguing. The building’s distinctive architecture, its association with Ay. Lazaros, and its role in constructing the apostolic landscape of Cyprus makes it a particular tempting object for future study. Some needs to sort this building out. 

The University of Padova team also studied the well-known Angelokisti at Kiti which appears in every survey of Early Christian art for its pre-iconoclastic apse mosaics. They’re amazing and worth seeing, but they’ve also always confounded me because the architecture of the church is clearly much later (probably 11th century or later) than the 6th or 7th century apse mosaic (dated on stylistic grounds). How do you preserve an apse while losing the church?

The Padova team carefully documented the various styles of construction and their relationships to show how the key phases in shoring up the inner apse and its mosaic stand with only the most ambiguous relationships to later phases. In other words, the fabric of the building, at least for now, offers little in the way of definitive chronology (relative or absolute) for dating the major reconstruction of the Angeloktisti and preserving the apse itself.

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Like the Ay. Lazaros, one of the most significant churches on the island remains a mystery in certain key ways, but the work from the Padova team provides plenty of incentive for these two buildings to see greater scrutiny. As the 7th-9th century on Cyprus has seen renewed interest and significant reconsiderations in the last decade, there is an additional opportunity for new fieldwork at these buildings to provide important insights into the history of the eastern part of the island at the end of antiquity. That relatively little is known about the Early Christian and Early Medieval history of Larnaka and Larnaka district adds local importance to this work and any future work that it might inspire.

The Dark Abyss of Time

This weekend, read Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (2011). It’s good. 

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been slowly drawn back to the topic of time and archaeology and history over the the last year. Some of this come from my recent, largely stalled, efforts to sort out what it means to produce an archaeology of the contemporary world. In particular, I am interested in understanding what it means for an archaeologist to be contemporary with a particular artifact, object, building, or event

Olivier does not comment on this directly, but as the title of his book suggests, he recognizes the past and the present as being distinctly separate with the position of the archaeologist and the position of an object from the past being incommensurate points. These points, however, are not necessarily on a linear continuum, but like objects in our unconscious that appear in the present but are clearly of the past. As archaeologists, our job is to make sense of these objects in our present world and to attempt to comprehend both their pastness and their nowness. 

This perspective is intriguing to me, in part, because it situates archaeological knowledge as a challenge to the assumptions of linearity that define the modern world. The modern concept of progress assumes that the present overwrites the past as it builds upon it toward a new future. The existence of the past in the present, however, whether through patina, the unexpected appearance of an object, or through traditions, monuments, or excavation, confound the linear progress of time and create the space of a discontinuous present. This kind of contemporaneity between the past and the present suggests that archaeological time is deeply anti-modern in its conceptualization of the world. 

This got me thinking about some of our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project. One of the buildings, Sayre Hall, is a memorial to Harold Sayre who died in the 1918 in World War I. Olivier’s book reminded me of the deep irony that this building will be demolished in 2018, in the name of modern progress. World War I was a truly modern war that both on display the horrible achievements of the modern Industrial Age and shook the confidence of a world that looked toward modernity as the end to the conflicts had defined the “barbarism” of the pre-modern world. It seems to me that nothing better highlights to dehumanizing cost of modernity that the destruction of a monument to a soldier who died fighting in modernity’s war.

On a less somber note, this weekend, I wrote an (overly long) email to my colleagues on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation in my ongoing effort to understand how the Atari games became archaeological artifacts.

Here’s more or less what I wrote:

As you can probably tell from some of my writing, I’ve increasingly seen the games themselves as a bit of McGuffin. After all, there wasn’t any great mystery regarding whether the games were actually there or not – that was pretty well-known and documented. Moreover, even if there are open questions concerning how many games were deposited and for what purpose, these questions are much more likely to be answered through careful archival work than excavating an entire landfill.

So the question that has been bothering me is why did these games become the object of archaeological work. After all, it’s pretty rare that archaeologists excavate something for no other reason than to check on archival records. This isn’t a super solid research question, of course, but we can get a pass because we didn’t properly speaking organize the excavation. From what I can tell, the excavation was designed to resolve the urban legend, but this simply changes the question a bit and asks “why did the urban legend emerge?” That question is to me, basically the same as “why did we excavate the games?”

Olivier’s book plays around a good bit with Freud, which I think is pretty helpful as Zak Penn’s documentary is [almost] explicitly Freudian and our “quest” for the games is essentially an effort to interrogate or critique modernity (or at very least demonstrate that despite modernity we can still create meaning in the past). Olivier likens the archaeological record to our unconscious in that it exists in fragments of the past that appear through excavation in the present. In other words, like Freud’s unconscious, the archaeological record – objects – are transposed from the past into the present. They mean something, but their meaning isn’t clear and direct and it’s always mediated by present concerns, but nevertheless “real.”

We create this unconscious in two ways. As an interesting aside, the Atari games, of course, were in secondary discard (in that they were cast aside and forgotten) but there were also pressures that sought to drag them into primary discard. For example, the site was called a graveyard or a burial (not on a literal sense). Their burial in Alamogordo both placed them out of sight (and memory) and located them in a known place for known reasons (laws against scavenging, cheap disposal rates, et c.). This tension, I supposed, served two functions: on the one hand, secondary discard attempted to push the games out of memory and into our “unconscious.” Efforts to mark the games as being located in primary discard, in turn, kept some of their memory alive.

By excavating the games in their ambiguous discard we can see how some aspects of the past of the games is, on the one hand, forgotten, and, on the other, partially remembered. It moved the games into the place of legend and the partially remember unconscious of our memories. This move, I’d contend, was important because it forgot certain specific aspects of the past of these games. Namely, that the discarding of these games represented an economic move. These games were commodities, were ubiquitous, and were not – in any real ways – special. That memory had to be overwritten or forgotten, if we were to reinscribe the games with something of value to the present. This overwriting and reinscribing is the stuff of archaeology and of psychoanalysis. It’s all about managing the gap between the object as a moment from the past and our own place in the present. And since the act of discard and our act of excavation exposed this gap, our work revolved around making the the games relevant and significant for the present.

The metaphor of the gap as producing meaning is a useful one. First, it’s similar to how films work (Olivier, 186). Films depend on the gaps between frames to create movement, of course.

More importantly, establishing the gap between the past and the present by archaeology allowed us to create a more innocent past for ourselves. We used this gap to overwrite the consumerist and capitalist past of the games – which is anti-romantic (in every sense) and exposes us to the harsh reality that our childhood and fantasy life was not pure and innocent, but a the commodified product of our late capitalist world. Here we can even follow a bit of Shannon Lee Dawdy and say that these game’s particular patina transformed them from commodities to artifacts (and this transformation allowed them to become revalued in distinctive ways in the ebay auction).

Zak Penn’s documentary sort of wraps up this reading of the Atari dig by making the Freudian leap from the present to our buried unconscious all the more explicit. The sense of closure for Howard Scott Warshaw, the E.T. game’s creator, at the end of the film and the parallel between “our” childhood fantasies and Warshaw’s coming of age at Atari is simply too good to be true. Even as Warshaw’s fantasy came crumbling down, the existence of the games in some far away landfill held out the hope that some aspect of his innocence could be buried safely, and recovered like a psychoanalytic treatment that finds the source of pain, reveals it, and returns the conscious mind to its tenuous equilibrium.

 

 

 

 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Spring is forcing us to acknowledge its presence here in North Dakotaland. We might even get comfortably above freezing before I decamp for the Eastern Mediterranean this summer.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to sit by the fire with the two dogs, enjoy the balmy nights of Indian Premier League cricket, watch the boys of winter (the NBA) wind their way through the playoffs, and savor the Formula 1 and NASCAR seasons. Heck, I might even get some other work done. 

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Whatever your weekend plans, enjoy some quick hits and varia:

 IMG 1989Still Milo with Slobber Duck

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Random Thoughts on Publishing and The Digital Press

Over the next month or so, I’m going to roll out a new little imprint at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. It’ll be called, The Student Press, and it’ll to focus on student work or class projects that deserve a wider audience. 

The first two volumes that will appear in this series are the small book produced by my graduate seminar last year titled The Graduates’ Manifesto: Defending History. The second volume will come from a class that I’m teaching this semester on the the University of North Dakota budget and be called A Students Guide to the UND Budget

For some reason, I want to create a kind of thematic consistency in the book covers and draw on design cues used in 1960s-1970s book covers. Maybe it’s because these covers evoke my student days. 

I also have this not-so-great idea to publish a series of letters from the Wesley College archive as part of the Wesley College Documentation Project. In the 1930s, Wesley College was in dire financial shape. The regular flow of income from traditional donors, like Frank Lynch and A.J. Sayre, had suffered from the Great Depression and the the drought of the 1920s. Wesley College was in debt and was struggling to pay its bills. In 1931, Charles Wallace took the helm of the struggling institution replacing the first president, Edward Robertson. Roberston was a very hands-on president and have close personal relationships with both donors and creditors. As a result, he took the lead in negotiating forbearance for debts and balancing the generosity of donors with the understanding desire of creditors to be paid in full. 

The idea would be to produce a little book of these letters with a short introduction and to call it something like “A Study in Austerity: Donors and Debt in a Small College.”

Finally, how great are these cover sheets from the one-line drawings of buildings on UND’s campus?  

Buildings and Grounds  Floor Plans  Robertson Sayre Hall  NO 57  dragged

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Wesley College Wednesday: Five Fragments

Five fragments relevant to the Wesley College Documentation Project today. 

Fragment One

Universities are diverse places. This is both good and a challenge. On the one hand, the diversity of an American university is part of its strength. They’re dynamic and heterogeneous and allow students and faculty to share ideas across professional, disciplinary, and epistemological boundaries. 

On the other hand, this kind of diversity generates all kinds of inefficiencies and frictions. Something as seemingly simple as determining whether faculty members are “productive” or not often gets mired in complexity as it runs up against the wide range of academic, professional, creating, and scholarly outputs each discipline and department recognizes. Teaching likewise is fraught with incommensurability. Some disciplines and programs can teach massive classes or in an online environment with little risk to quality of learning. Other programs simply cannot find efficiencies in larger class sizes (think languages, music, or flight instruction). 

Despite this complexity, universities have long sought to find certain common denominators that can be applied across campus. The most common one, of course, is FTE, which is shorthand for an accounting of student credit hours produced, but that really is just a metonym for money (or more properly cost). Universities have also looked to square footage as a means to compare various different programs and departments. The limitations of this are obvious with certain programs requiring labs and others requiring little more than offices and classrooms. At the same time, it suggests a certain comparability of spaces across campus, which like instruction and research isn’t really the case. At the same time, it does exert a kind of downward pressure on campus space that seeks to limit specialized environments unless they are absolutely necessary.

This tendency toward producing efficient spaces is part the legacy of modernity on college campuses which whatever their founding myths in inspiration, religion, Gothic mysticism, or creativity, tend to be organized according to the logic of the assembly line. Students move through their college with a kind of systematic efficiencies and encounter knowledge types, methods, practices, and experiences in an orderly fashion that not only promises a high quality product (that is a well educated student), but also an efficient encounter. 

At the same time, college campuses are designed to inspire. College architecture whether guided by Gothic, modernist, Colonial, or other cues, is rarely crassly functionalist or easily reduced to square footage. At the same time, when opportunities arise, spaces designed to inspire can be converted to more functional roles on campus.

The parlor in Sayre Hall is a nice example of this. Originally designed as an expression of genteel domesticity amid the ordered space of dormitory living, the space was modified to serve a more practical role on campus, most recently, as a computer room for the campus technologies group. To do this, one of the arched grandiose doors was removed, the trim on the coffered ceiling was removed and a drop ceiling installed, and the terrazzo and mosaic floors were covered with commercial grade wall-to-wall carpeting.

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Fragment Two

Despite efforts to overwrite and convert spaces for more practical purposes, there is this subtle tendency for the past to push through in neglected corners and unexpected places. For example, there are traces of a painted Greek key pattern preserved on the walls of the fourth floor of Sayre Hall in a small antechamber that leads to Robertson Hall.

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Fragment Three 

One of the most interesting things to observe in the Wesley College buildings are all the little efforts to improvise that allow otherwise compromised elements of the building to continue to function. 

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Fragment Four

The conversation surrounding the remodeling of Corwin/Larimore Hall in the late 1970s is interesting because it relates to creating functional spaces for a department. In the documents that describe this move, two issues come to the fore. First, somehow modifying Corwin/Larimore for psychology would – somehow – improve the department’s research productivity. Second, some folks were worried that moving a department to buildings on the margins of campus (at that time) would marginalize the department and impair their ability to attract students and interact with colleagues. During the various – and protracted – conversations regarding the adaptation and remodeling of Corwin/Larimore, square footage of the rooms continued to be central to the plans.

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Fragment Five

Andrew Alexis Varvel out in Bismarck has started to produce a series of press releases that tells the story of Wesley College. They’re pretty interesting and a great primer for anyone who is unfamiliar with the history of this distinctive institution. I’ve added the links to these documents below.

NDNS-Press-Release-04052018-Wesley-College-History.pdf

NDNS-Press-Release-04062018-Wesley-College-History.pdf

NDNS-Press-Release-04072018-Wesley-College-History.pdf

NDNS-Press-Release-04102018-Wesley-College-History.pdf

NDNS-Press-Release-04112018-Wesley-College-History.pdf

NDNS-Press-Release-04122018-Wesley-College-History.pdf

NDNS-Press-Release-04132018-Wesley-College-History.pdf

NDQuesday: On Cricket and Basketball and the Future

I have this idea, it’s not a good idea, but it’s an idea nonetheless to put together an essay the NBA and cricket that brings together some of my research on the Bakken Oil Patch, on the age of austerity, and my interest in these sports. In my fantasy world, I imagine this as a penetrating essay in this fall’s volume of North Dakota Quarterly. In reality, these ideas are probably best left shoved deep down in the ole “idea box.”

On Cricket and Basketball and the Future 

I’ve been watching a good bit of cricket and the NBA lately. Most people tend to see the former as slow-paced, obscure, and unapologetically aristocratic and the latter as up-tempo, almost jarringly athletic, and deeply rooted in American urban experience.

Of course, these simplifications do not hold up to even superficial scrutiny. With countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and now Afghanistan playing cricket at the highest level, it is hard to continue to associate the sport with a genteel aristocracy (to say nothing of the explosive play that characterized West Indian cricket and the recent rise in short-form T20 cricket). The NBA is now, more than ever, a global league with superstars hailing from Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia as well as across the U.S. In short, both sports are global in scope and whatever their historical roots, the significance of the game is now translated into numerous local idioms. 

What has intrigued me lately is that the NBA is undergoing some pretty significant changes in how it is played. When I started paying close attention to basketball in the 1980s, there were clearly defined positions that, with some variation, had clearly defined roles. Centers rebounded and scored in the low post, power forwards did likewise, but often had a bit more athleticism and range. Small forward and shooting guards were typically assertive scorers whose main distinction was range and size. Shoot guards tend to be smaller and more accomplished shooters and small forwards more athletic and slashing with a bit more size and defensive acumen. Point guards distributed the ball and generally had defensive responsibilities around the perimeter.

In the last 5 years, all this has changed. Point guards have become scorers; power forward and centers without outside shots have become one-dimensional role players; small forwards and shooting guards have become so interchangeable that teams generally play three guards without distinguishing. My team, the Philadelphia 76ers, has a 6-10 point guard, Ben Simmons, who can switch to playing power foward, small forward, or even center. In short, the idea of positions has broken down in the NBA and as a result, the game on a play-by-play basis has become a bit more chaotic, less predictable, and, for lack of a better word, elastic with the dominant tactic on any possession, to simplify greatly, to stretch a player to the absolute limits of their comfort zone. 

Cricket has always been a game where positions, particularly in the field, are fluid. Unlike baseball, it’s closest relative, there are only two defined positions in Test match cricket (which is the 5-day form of the game): a bowler, who pitches the ball, and a wicket keeper, who stands like a baseball catcher behind the wicket. Early in the history of the game, fielders were limited to one side of the field, and in shorter form of the game, there are some limits on how fielders can be arranged, but this never created designated positions for players. In fact, any player can play any position. I recall, for example, the great Indian wicket keeper M.S. Dhoni, taking off his wicketkeeping pads and bowling in a Test match in England and nearly getting out the great English batsman Kevin Peterson

I’ve always assumed that this relative fluidity in positions in cricket harkened back to its pre-industrial roots. Absent is evidence for the kind of specialization found on the assembly line (or in industrialized sports like football). In fact, the absence of industrial specialization of the players is also reflected in its leisurely pace stretching over five days in the purist form of the game and stretching the weekend to include Thursday, Friday, and Monday as well. In fact, what is curious from the history of cricket is that prior to the 1930s, timeless test matches were not uncommon meaning that teams would simply play until one side got the other side out in the second innings. It was shipping schedules, in particular, that doomed the timeless test as a number of the games were brought to a premature conclusion because one team had to depart home. Timed tests introduced the draw where neither side could declare victory and historically over a third of all tests have ended that way. Even today, a drawn test can be revetting viewing as one team eagerly pursues victory and another endeavors not to lose. I’d argue that draws remains consistent with pre-industrial practices because it separates playing the game from the need to produce a winner.  

Recent trends away from specialized position players in the NBA might seem like a revival of an older, perhaps even pre-industrial, style of play, but I wonder whether the convergence of a less specialized NBA and a historically less specialized cricket actually reflects key trends in the globalization of sport (and in global economics). First, as innumerable critics have observed our world is accelerating and the economic and technological realities of this rapidly changing world mitigate against any specialization that occurs at the expense of adaptability. Of course, this may have always been the case on the assembly line where management expected a worker to perform with highly efficient familiarity at his or her post, but the worker also knew that the assembly line was always being tweaked and updated requiring a kind adaptability in both the workforce as a whole and the individual worker. At the same time, the 21st century economy, defined by precarity and the radical deskilling of workers demands both efficiency and flexibility in way that makes developing all but the rarest forms of specialization undesirable. As we tell our students, we’re training you for jobs that do not exist yet.

Second, the breakdown in the trajectory of modernity and, its related logic of assembly line, occurs with globalization. Cricket has always been a global game, initially mediated by the scope of the British Commonwealth, but now articulated largely along national lines. The style of play, conditions, and traditions remain local, however, demonstrating the kind of hybridity that thinkers like Homi Bhabha have articulated as characteristic of the postcolonial condition. The result is a delicate tension between the tendency to demand specialized “horses for courses” who can play in certain conditions (e.g. on the dry pitches of the sub continent or in England’s fickle summers) and the desire to maintain a side that can triumph with equal proficiency at home and abroad.   

The globalization of the NBA lacks the keen attention to the local that persists in cricket, but is no less hybridized. The breakdown of specialization, for example, in the power forward and center position can be traced, in part, to the arrival of big men like Arvydas Sabonis and later Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Bazinga with skills honed in Europe and with the ability to both post up and play facing the basket at the perimeter. Today, of course, this is not limited to European imports, but a fairly common aspect of many big mens’ games. Hybridization eroded specialization as the basic logic of the game in one place encounters counter logic from elsewhere.    

In this context, cricket and the NBA both manifest the tensions of globalization that disrupt the neat linearity of modern progress. The skills involved in cricket evoke craft in their disregard for specialized efficiencies born of the assembly line. The archaic characteristics of the game has tempted me to call it pre-industrial. At the same time, the same features in the NBA appear to evoke the contingent dynamism present in a globalized modern economy and this tempts me to label them post-industrial. It may well be that the convergence of cricket and the NBA do not represent points on the modern continuum of progress at all. At their best, they may be places of protest where the economic logic of culture is rebuffed by the logic of practice. At their worst, the lack of specialization in these sports might reflect the global logic of precarity where the risk associated with valuing specialization is increasingly offset by a deskilled workforce that are as valuable as they are disposable.    

 

 

 

Contemplating Contemporaneity

I’ve been thinking much more systematically about contemporaneity lately. This is in part because I’ve sent off a proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture. While I have no idea whether it’ll be accepted, writing it, and my long-paused Atari article, stimulated me to think a try to wrap my head around recent work on contemporaneity.

What has intrigued me the most is how clearly debates about the nature of a contemporary archaeology represent a critique of modernity. In many cases, the archaeology of the present or the contemporary offers a counter method and narrative challenge to the persistent authority of periodization schemes which tend to fortify narratives of progress. These narratives of progress, of course, are intimately bound up with our modern understanding of capital and, as a generation of postcolonial and subaltern studies scholars have shown, colonialism.

The insistence on a gap or a “break in tradition” between the present and the past grounds archaeology in the modern era which sought to replace arguments for tradition (and the political baggages associated with them) with a new source of authority. Excavation was a particularly apt metaphor and method for revealing a past that past practices sought to overwrite and obscure. Layers of tradition, legend, and other “tainted” views, were pealed back by specialists in a performance that both produced new authority and grounded it in new knowledge. Modern geology developed stratigraphy to argue for an Earth that was much older than religious traditional would allow. Historians culled archives to produce new narratives that undermined (literally) the authority of the ancien regime. Psychology, as Julian Thomas has expertly shown, likewise looked to excavation and stratigraphy to articulate both the layers of the mind that create the individual, and ultimately, the interleaving of individual and societies. Similar efforts and metaphors appeared in the work of ethnographers who demonstrated that traditional folk tales often preserved truths about both specific pasts and universal pasts that later accretions have obscured. 

While it is easy enough to see the significance and value of insisting on barrier separating the present and the past, it likewise reasonable to understand how this divide provided a significant impetus for narratives of progress in which the contemporary authority overwrites tradition. Projected globally, the chronological divide translated to a spatial and political divide with the present of the West being represented as the ultimate future for “traditional” societies whose present will, in turn, be overwritten by a more rational, “advanced,” capitalist, and democratic future.  

Recent interest in contemporaneity between the present and the past looks to complicate and critique the relationship between archaeological work and modernity. As Rodney Harrison and others have observed, scholars have recently appreciated how incomplete or “unfinished” the project of modernity is, or to put it in less teleological terms, how uneven the surface of modernity is. As part of the effort to recognize and survey this unevenness in archaeology, archaeologists have increasingly sought to produce an archaeology of and in the present. In this way of thinking, the contemporaneity of the archaeologist and the archaeology challenges the view of the past as something “out there” to be uncovered but rather something co-created in the relationships between the archaeologist and the objects and situations and narratives that they organize as knowledge.

By drawing attention to the contemporaneity in archaeology, archaeologists of the present are in a place to trace the surface of the modern world and through the metaphor of the surface assemblage to understand how the interplay of the past and the present produces meanings that have distinctive meaning to the present. By doing this, an archaeology of the contemporary or, perhaps better, an archaeology of contemporaneity, offers two opportunities for the discipline (and, I’d suggested for society). First, it resists the practice of seeing the past a series of presents that invariably and inevitably led to our own world. By recognizing that a wider range of pasts can lead to a wider range of potential futures, it shifts our attention as archaeologists to the complexities of formation processes that embrace both past and present events, values, expectations, and narratives. Second, to understand the complexities of these assemblages, archaeologists have to move beyond disciplinary epistemologies, methods, and practices and to embrace a wider view of what constitutes archaeological knowledge. 

As I work to complete a draft of an article based on my experiences at the Alamogordo Atari Expedition, I’m increasingly struck by how our contemporaneity with both the objects of study (and their excavated context) and their larger cultural context revealed new narratives enmeshed at the intersection of popular views of archaeology and our own disciplinary biases.    

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

I’m sure that spring is right around the corner, but it’s still cold today in North Dakotaland. At least, it isn’t snowing; so there’s that.

This weekend is one of the best sports weekends on the calendar, with Formula 1, the Indian Premier League in Cricket, the home stretch of the NBA season, and Major League Baseball hitting its stride. What makes it better is that I have some light duty writing to do, but almost nothing else planned. I’m looking forward to moving very little from my spot by the fire until real spring arrives.

I posted the last two days about the Wesley College Documentation Project, and luck would have it that one of the coolest finds of the project appeared mid-morning on Thursday. Doing a walk through of the building with our contact in UND Facilities, we found a hand lettered sign announcing a BIG rally for two Democratic candidates for congress: Henry Holt and W. D. Lynch. Holt and Lynch ran in 1934. The sign had slipped behind a commemorative metal plaque at the south entrance of Robertson Hall and hid there until the plaque was removed this spring.

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A keen-eyed student noticed the very small lettering at the bottom of the sign:

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That’s the signature of [Col.] Eugene Myers who not only (literally) wrote the book on hand lettering, but goes on to be a significant donor to the University of North Dakota and Columbia’s Teachers College where he studied with Edwin Ziegfeld.

Elsewhere on the web:

Two Dog TuesdayAlways vigilant, always ready.

Three Things Thursday: A Wesley College Coda, Reviewing Poetry, and Narrating Atari

I have three little things today that are swirling around in my head like the projected snowfall for later this morning. None of them are particularly profound, but they all might be something later. Ya heard it here first, folks.

1. Abiding and Corwin/Larimore Halls. This is coda for my post yesterday on the current status of the Wesley College Documentation Project. Over spring break we cajoled Mike Wittgraf to perform a little concert and recording in Corwin and Larimore Halls. The songs we selected were somber in tone and included the well-known hymn “Abide with Me.” The title of this hymn, of course, come from John 15:4-6 which is the start of the Passion.

Yesterday in a faculty meeting, I was fumbling for a word to describe an individual who stays with the dying, and a colleague suggested the word “abider” (our faculty meetings can go to some dark places). I wasn’t familiar with this term, but a few Googles later, it indeed shows that it has some modest currency in contemporary language. This got me thinking about our roles as archaeologists in documenting Wesley College.

Are we working as abiders allowing the buildings to tell their stories before they’re gone? I know this sounds hopeless sentimental, but I’ve been struck how even my short time around these buildings has allowed me a much greater appreciation for not only their architecture and spaces, but also the stories of the individuals whose lives intersected with these buildings over the century of their existence. 

“Change and Decay in all around I see, O Thou who changest not abide with me.” 

2. Poetry and Slow Reading. As editor of North Dakota Quarterly, I get books for review on a weekly basis. As a publisher of my own small press, I know the important role of circulating books for review. At the same time, not all works that come across our desk at NDQ are equally worthy of review, and it is another challenge entirely to match the book with an appropriate reviewer. As a result, we usually have a little pile of books that have not gone out for review yet and this pile has only grown larger as NDQ has shifted its attention to reorganizing and preparing for our shift from in-house publishing to being published by University of Nebraska Press. 

On Wednesday, I hang out in the NDQ office and during little breaks the back issues of NDQ and the pile of books to review beckon to me. So I’ve taken to picking up books of poetry or short fiction and … gasp… just reading them. Mostly I feel not qualified to judge their quality, but recently I’ve started to think that maybe I can speak about this material from a distinctive perspective. After all, as a non-poet, non-poetry reader, and never-taken-a-college-level-English-class perhaps I could offer an “everyperson” view of various little books.

It’s tempting to start to write a little review series on the books that we receive. They’d be less critical review and more impressionistic and spontaneous. They might be fun to write and at least a little entertaining to read.

3. Contemporaneity and Archaeology. Over the last few days, I’ve returned to long gestating (marinating?) article on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition. The article was clumsy and poorly positioned, I think, but as I’ve let it rest for a bit, I do think that it has one thing to offer and that is a meditation on the issue of contemporaneity in archaeology (and particular in the work of archaeology of the contemporary world). As I have noted before, the assumption of the “broken tradition” between our world today and the world that we’re studying has, for centuries, allowed both history and archaeology to position the past in a place susceptible for study. By assuming the contemporaneity of the archaeologist and the archaeology, however, we disrupt this tidy arrangement and make space to recognize that the archaeologist and the archaeology are both enmeshed (or entangled) in a dense web of common relationships. Rodney Harrison has argued that these relationships produce what he has called surface assemblages. I’d like to add that understanding contemporaneity in surface assemblages and between surface assemblages and the archaeologist, opens and maybe even requires new forms of narration that accommodates the various overlapping webs of meaning making that such contemporaneity recognizes. For example, it will be increasingly difficult to approach archaeological knowledge making as an impersonal enterprise removed – through either a broken tradition or an objective scientific lens – from the person of the archaeologist and the larger culture. How do we embrace this freedom from conventional practices?