Book Notes for a Travel Day

For reasons that remain a bit hard to understand entirely, I’m heading to Boston this afternoon to spend a day at whatever is left of the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting. I’ll get to see some old friends, have a couple business meetings, and be in a place where its safe to for exposed flesh to be outdoors for more than 5 minutes. 

For those of you who didn’t catch it, one of the two papers that I was scheduled to present is posted here.

Along the way, I have a few books that I started with the vague hope that I could have them read by the end of winter break. Part of the reason I’m still willing to trek out to Boston today is that it gives me some time to finish one of two of these book en route.

First, the finished book: Blaire Briody’s The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (St. Martin’s 2017). While this book certainly represents another volume for the Bakken Bookshelf, I’m not entire sure that I enjoyed it. The book lacked a certain sense of irony. The author clearly positioned herself as a coastal elite by starting the book in her apartment in Brooklyn, and then traveling with her parents to North Dakota from California. The subjects of the book who have come to the Bakken to try their luck in the boom, all hail from broken homes, troubled relationships, and hard places and times in rural America. Briody tells the story of their struggle with both personal demons and the precarity of the boom (and the 21st century American economy).  Their stories are compelling, but I’d hate for these stories to be read as representative of all the newcomers to the Bakken during the boom. They run the risk of confirming the long-held (but rarely articulated) belief that being a part of the working class involves some kind of personal tragedy or flawed character. Briody’s book seems to tell us that people end up working in the Bakken because they had no other choice.

I’m tempted to write a review comparing Briody’s book to Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st century. (W.W. Norton 2017).  While I’m only about 40 pages into the book, it seems to describe the experience of precarity among older adults in the U.S. The individuals Bruder follows move around the U.S. living in mobile homes taking season or occasional work. The juxtaposition between retirement-aged Americans living their “golden years” in mobile homes out of economic necessity and those who enjoy the freedom of a mobile home for leisure evoke certain connections that we made during our research in the North Dakota Man Camp project.

I’m also reading Dietmar Offenhuber, Waste is Information: Infrastructure Legibility and Governance (MIT Press 2017).  While working on my book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017), I became fascinated by infrastructure. So much of the activity in the Bakken over the past five years has focused on infrastructure. The Bakken boom has been as much about improving roads, building pipelines, creating oil storage capacity, drilling produced-water wells, adding rail yards, and building permanent and short-term housing. Of particular interest is the unseen infrastructure of pipelines and wastewater disposal wells. Offenhuber’s book analyzes the movement of waste – essentially trash – in U.S., in part, through the use of GPS trackers places in various kinds of trash discarded in Seattle. Offenhuber argues that making the movement of trash visible and legible allows communities to make more informed decisions in how they organize the hidden infrastructure that is every bit as vital for their social, economic, and physical well-being. 

So many recent debates about the Bakken center on moments when the hidden infrastructure suddenly becomes visible in a moment of crisis or controversy. The controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and both recorded and undocumented waste-water and oil spills demonstrates these moments when the literally buried infrastructure became visible and compelled the world to take notice.

Anachronistic Books, Cricket, and Whisky

Book people are a funny bunch (and I count myself among them). I spend a good bit of time thinking about books, publishing and designing books, teaching from books, and sometimes even writing books.

There is nothing more fun than someone pointing me in the direction of a cool new book or an overlooked old one. Well designed books like those published by MIT Press genuinely excite me and make the reading experience more pleasurable and increase my willingness to be immersed in a book. I still think about the brilliant design of Manuel Herz (ed), From Camp to City: Refugee Camps of Western Sahara (Lars Müller 2013), for example, or the clever layout of Kate Eichorn’s Adjusted Margins (MIT 2016). My interest in the art and design sensibilities of producing an attractive and engaging page is one of the main reasons that I continue to work in the PDF format at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.  

Every year at Christmas, my wife gets me a copy of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Published every year since 1864, the Wisden is by an measure a quirky book. First, it runs to over 1500 onion-skin pages pages, which include articles on major matches and figures in the sport, descriptions of the various tours and domestic leagues, and their longstanding tradition of naming several Cricketers of the Year. 

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They also include the boxscores for all the international matches of the previous year and all the first-class English domestic matches.

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In other words, they include data, but not just data on each match, historical data as well both for each country and for various tournaments or series. For example, below is the list of record partnerships in the England-Australia test series colloquially known as the Ashes.

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Of course, since the book is published in the spring, before the Northern hemisphere’s cricket season, and I receive mine in the winter, amid the Southern hemisphere’s cricketing season, the statistics are usually already out of date. Moreover, it’s easier albeit less fun to get up-to-date cricket stats from, say, ESPN’s Cricinfo, although these statistics tend to be a little less granular than those in the Wisden (and Wisden now makes their own database available online). On the other hand, it is usually far more convenient to use an online database than it is to flip through Wisden.

Every other year, I get a copy of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Like the Wisden, the Whisky Bible is idiosyncratic and quirky book. It consists of renown whisky critic, Jim Murray’s rankings of thousands of whiskies from around the world. Each review, which rarely runs to more than 100 words, reads like a little prose poem in its elegant description of the scent, taste, and effect of each whisky.

Murray and I don’t always agree on the rating, but his little reviews are a joy to read and while they often coincide with my impressions, they also have helped me describe the complex flavors of various whiskies in different ways. The creepy cover is just an added bonus.

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They layout of the book is complicated, of course, with myriad categories representing the place of distillation, the type of whisky, and the age and bottling, and the name of the distiller. Like the Wisden, basic information of whiskies and reviews are just as easily found online. Moreover, the book itself is densely printed with little room for margin notes or other annotations.

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The quirkiness of both Wisden and the Whisky Bible represent part of their charm. These books are not useful in a conventional sense. They do contain information and a certain basic functionality, but in practice, they are more counter-design studies that anachronistically evoke an era where books were the best source of complex data sets. There is something palpably cool about that. 

Philip K. Dick, Memory, and Managing Utopian Data in Archaeology

With some kind of winter superstorm barreling up the I95 corridor, I’m skeptical that I’ll make to the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston to present a paper at 8 am on Friday in a panel on “Probing, Publishing, and Promoting the Use of Digital Archaeological Data.” (Here’s the program, but there’s no way to link to the specific panel.)

I’ve been tasked with speaking to the “ways and means of managing digital data in archaeology” and I think I have something to say about that, but only a weird, Philip K. Dick kind of way. For more on my interest in Philip K. Dick and archaeology go here and do check out Andrew Reinhard’s more comprehensive consideration of the most recent Blade Runner.

So here’s the short, 5-minute paper that it seems unlikely that I will deliver on Friday: 

Last week I saw the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which, as you know, was based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Both Scott’s film (and the reboot directed by a less subtle Denis Villeneuve) and Dick’s novel, played with the ideas of memory, materiality, and reality in a dystopian future. These are common themes in Dick’s works which, as a number of commentators have recently observed, have an explicitly archaeological character to them that anticipated the current fascination with the so-called “new materialisms.” He is also interested in memories and the challenge (and impossibility) of parsing false memories from the real.

(And here the Villeneuve’s version of Dick differs from Scott’s. In Villeneuve’s film, the replicant Blade Runner knows that his memories are fake implants but acts on them because they represent someone else’s authentic reality, whereas Scott’s Deckard is never really sure and acts on the memories because they are nevertheless HIS irrespective of their broader place within a shared reality.)

In some ways, managing digital archaeological data is like managing memories. Without trivializing a century worth of archaeological theorizing and epistemology (and here I’ll tip my hat to Adam Rabinowitz and Sarah and Eric Kansas who have written with more perspective on these topics), I think most archaeologists realize that digital data is not (and never will be) the same as archaeological objects, excavation, field survey or landscapes. Instead, they offer us a way to reconstruct a practical and useful memory of the field work that forms the basis for archaeological interpretation. Looking hard at data especially in anticipation of analysis and publication, however, almost always reveals the shortcomings of data as ubiquitous “total recall.” In fact, even the most granular, tidy, and even realistic digital data offers us a view of archaeology through “a scanner darkly.”   

In other words, the hard scrutiny associated with producing “slow data” (to use Eric Kansa’s phase) opens up a dystopian, or perhaps better heterotopian, world where the archaeologist is constantly sensing a glitch between the nature of our data and its utility for the kind of analysis and interpretation that we want to perform (or in a more Dickian turn, the reality that we want to create). This sense of glitching is rarely more clear than in the horrors of running finds and excavation data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus through Google’s open refine and finding all sort of un-normalized and even un-normalizable fields to recognizing the limits of our data when attempting to analysis the Medieval period from a field survey over 30 sq. km of the Western Argolid and recorded by nearly 20 different field teams over 3 years. Reading notebooks from the 1980s and 1990s excavations at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus and converting this unstructured information in queryable and generalizable field and tables compounds the feeling of glitching further.

This experience is, as Dick captures so vividly, as uncomfortable as it is uncanny. While neat tables, graphs, maps, and statistics offer one way to suppress the feeling of discontinuity, those of us cross over from the field, into the lab, and, then, in our offices managing this data are rarely spared this relief for long. I’ll leave it to other people on this panel to speculate on whether this uncanniness and discomfort contributes to the reluctance of some archaeologists to publish their data or whether it aligns in neat parallel with the unease that many of us feel when we move from our data – our codified memories of the field – to analysis in an effort to bridge the so-called “broken tradition” between the present and the past.

Of course, the presentation of archaeological evidence – even in its most conventional forms – has always required a willingness to construct memories of the field and filter the rough and ready documentation from notebooks, photographs, plans and drawings and forms into the elegant refinement of published catalogues and descriptions. I wonder, though, whether the ability to collect digital data at the edge of the trowel or transect and the growing expectation that this data will be published generates an additional burden for those of us tasked with mediating between the collective experience of archaeological fieldwork and the end-user, consumer, or fellow scholar, who may expect to enter into that space for themselves and transcend the uncanniness to “remember it wholesale.”

Dick’s dystopian fantasies are hardly a reassuring lens through which to view our archaeological future, but I wonder whether they do speak to some of our anxieties about digital data recording (note my slow archaeology in Averett, Gordon, and Count’s Mobilizing the Past), digital data management, data publishing, 3D reconstructions, and the endless panels on digital approaches, strategies, and best practices. As America becomes increasingly anxious about the specter of “fake news” and systematic campaigns of mis- and disinformation, perhaps it’s worth considering whether some of this anxiety comes not from our fear of being tricked or misinformed, but our own gnawing insecurity when faced with the task of navigating the glitchy experience of managing the data of our own memories.

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 2

Last week, I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it here.

In short, I make the uncontroversial argument that the most recent round of budget cuts reflects a kind of local level implementation of the neoliberal policy of austerity. Austerity reflects certain moral and economic attitudes that see the state as both morally corrupting, as tending to limit freedom, and as stifling to economic growth which is best achieved by allowing market forces to play out in an unconstrained way. This has negative implications for state universities which are reasonably seen as an extension of the state and as intrinsically inefficient. Moreover, these institutions reproduce a kind of complacency that undermines the competitive function of markets, which are seen as the primary engines for economy growth. Cutting higher education budgets, then, pushes these institutions to exist in a market driven world, should improve efficiency by fostering competition for resources, and ensures that capital doesn’t get bottled up supporting institutions that reflect values that run counter to the market ethos.

The internal response to these policies was dramatic as the University of North Dakota not only implemented a “new budget model” based on the competitive allocation of resources across campus, but also, when faced with the immediate pressures of budget cuts, implemented austerity measures that adversely impacted the humanities and arts. As I noted in the first part of this article, North Dakota Quarterly lost all of its funding after being told that we had not produced a sustainable business model. In the second part of this paper, I want to suggest that most of these changes at UND (and I would suggest nationally) amount to a kind of theater designed to align the appearance of competition and market driven policies with a series of outcomes deemed desirable by local stakeholders. 

To be clear, higher education has always cultivated this kind of theater. Whether it was the historical privileging of white, upper and middle class, males, or the tendency to see traditional liberal arts and humanities degrees as superior in content and rigor, the American university system has long attempted to normalize the ascendency of certain groups and outcomes as a kind of natural result of broader social competition. Recently, David Labaree has summarized a particularly obvious expression of this kind of competitive theater in the long-term persistence of the academic hierarchy among colleges and universities in the U.S. A relatively small number of schools and scholars tend to dominate the intellectual landscape of American higher education. Not only do top tier schools hire faculty from other top tier schools, but lower tier schools also tend to hire a disproportionate number of faculty with degrees from traditionally elite institutions. Lower tier schools see this as a way of imitating the practices of more elite institutions and moving up. In reality, it tends to reinforce the difference between the top tier schools and their lower tier numbers as faculty from elite schools tend to privilege their own even over students that they produce at lower tier institutions. This bias toward the traditional centers of higher education in the U.S. reproduces itself in competition for grants, fellowships, and even in peer review despite historical efforts to present these competitions as meritocratic.     

More recently, critics of higher education have argued that systemic liberal biases within the American university system has promoted certain political and social agendas and suppressed others. Academics have tended to brush off these critiques and point to the rigor of peer review, the competitive nature of grant and hiring processes, and the pressures of historic and global traditions of academic discourse that tend to complicate the alignment of proximate political positions and scholarly outputs. The long tradition of a kind of theater of competition in higher education produced a culture that is particular susceptible to kinds of dissimulation at the core of neoliberal thinking.

I argue that the conventional theater of competition in academia (if no less problematic) conflates in some ways with what David Harvey recognizes as the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism in contemporary society and particular among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony). The most visible expression of this is “zero sum” thinking that organizes campus priorities into winners and losers. Winners get funding (because they’ve won) and losers lose funding with the result that the winning ways of the winners will, over time, come to dominate the losing ways of the losers. 

Of course, as I’ve pointed out, there already were winners and losers in higher education produced by generations of historical forces which are not necessarily unproblematic or somehow ideally suited (by dint of their co-evolution with market, social, and cultural forces) for efficient education, new knowledge production or social good. Neoliberal priorities, at least to those viewing higher education from the perspective of an external stakeholder, require a kind of change that reflects the conspicuous pivoting of higher education toward both market needs and toward the methods of the market. In other words, whatever the processes that were that created the current landscape of higher education, we need to align ourselves more clearly with methods and outcomes that reflect contemporary political and economic priorities and, perhaps more importantly, expectation. 

The language of these priorities and expectations are well known. Many in the public sphere view the humanities and arts as inefficient, antiquated, or a luxury, despite the emergence of a somewhat disappointing (and perhaps ineffectual) counter-discourse that argues for the economic importance of the humanities. The argument follows that STEM fields with their sometimes overtly vocational goals represent a more efficient way to address the economic needs of our communities and, as a result, a better use for limited public funds. Moreover, public support for these fields should represents an investment in the future as an emphasis on STEM fields parallels student interest in these economically productive disciplines (and students and tuition dollars will follow), the emphasis on STEM should also attract support from the private sector and federal grants.

A secondary challenge, and on that is of more interest to me, is to make the rise of STEM in higher education appear to be the result of market competition within the institution. This allows administrators to tout and stakeholders to recognize the synchronization between market efficiencies within and outside of these institutions. The rise of STEM fields, for example, allows higher education administrators to point to the efficiency of their institutions because ultimately the same results suggest the same internal mechanisms. This involves a certain, and conspicuous amount of dissimulation, particularly as universities attempt the dual move of shifting to support fields that the public expects to be market driven priorities and demonstrating that market priorities and methods produced these results internally. The former ensures stakeholders – particularly in the legislatures – that universities are responding to external market forces and doing so in a way that also embodies internal market efficiencies. 

Elsewhere I’ve called this move replacing the university as a knowledge factory – based on the historical affinities between university curricula and the assembly line (well described by Louis Menand) – to the university as billboard. The university as billboard represents the growing desire to demonstrate to the public that universities are responsive institutions to market forces and have internalized the values of the marketplace. The university as billboard reassures an anxious public (or at least a certain sector of stakeholders) both that the university is an efficient institution deserving of the continued investment of resources and that public resources will attract outside investment through tuition, grants, and private donor contributions. 

In this context, there is little room for a public humanities quarterly because it does little to reinforce public view of higher education which expects it to align with their own understanding of market forces shaping public (and private) institutions. If the university is a billboard, then, something like North Dakota Quarterly is a distraction. The priority both internally and externally is to stay on message and on strategy, and if we take the logic of the market to its natural conclusion, the risk of straying from the message is existential. 

In my next installment I hope to focus on two further implications of the creation of higher education as billboard. First, the tensions between the university as factory, the university as billboard, and the university as marketplace confounds the efficient operation of a university. This, then, confirms the  perception that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector. Next, and perhaps more controversially, the privileging of the market as the model for higher education effectively undermines the potential for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom. The challenge of neoliberalism is not so much that it subjects everyone and every institution to the unrelenting pressures of market competition, but that it projects backward in time, the free play of market forces as the dominant form power in society. As a result, it presupposes the emergence of the neoliberal world order as the victory of market forces against those who sought to suppress them. Those in power now are in power because they won. 

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s been a bit of a hectic year for me at Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Headquarters with too many projects, too many smart and energetic colleagues, friends and students, too many fun things to do and read, too many stories to follow in sports, too many books to read (and write and publish), too much political anxiety, and too many dogs (er, not enough dogs).

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What a better way to end 2017 than with Alastair Cook carrying the bat for a double-century in the Ashes, with the Eagles clinching home-field advantage and a first round bye in the playoffs, with The Process, and with Ohio State playing tonight in a bowl game that they might actually win!

Despite wavering a bit in recent weeks and months, I’ve decided to stick with the blog after many kind words from people. I do want to explore some other options though and I can’t help but thinking a kind of newsletter format that is delivered weekly to an inbox is more efficient and contemporary mode of delivery? This could also bring together updates from my various projects from North Dakota Quarterly and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Maybe it’s too self-indulgent to think people will want that, but, on the other hand, I find the recent turn to newsletters endlessly fascinating and entertaining. As a long-time pioneer in the blogosphere recently quipped “you can’t remain neutral on a moving train.

Fortunately, no matter how much media moves, there’s still something about compelling content, and with that, here are a few end of the year quick hits and varia:

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Publishing Projects at The Digital Press

I’ve spent a good bit of time this week working on projects for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and just this morning another project appeared in my inbox. These are interesting times both for The Digital Press and digital and academic publishing.

This post today is more of an update on what’s going on at The Digital Press and some broader – and perhaps speculative – thoughts on digital publishing. For more like this, and other voices, do come to our panel at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting on Friday, January 

Project One

First, just yesterday I sent off the galley proofs of volume one of Epoiesen to its editor Shawn Graham. Epoiesen is “a journal for creative engagement in history and archaeology” and having spent time with the content of its first volume, I was struck by how there really isn’t anything like it in the contemporary landscape. The articles and their response range in tone from the playful to the polished and professional and captured a wide range of ways of thinking about and engaging the past from public outreach to Twine games. Do check it out here and consider submitting in 2018!

One of the challenges with publishing such a unique journal is getting the tone right in the design and layout. For the pages of the book – as I blogged about last week – I decided to stick with a fairly conservative, if modern, font, but also layout images in such a way that they encroached on the margins and spilled over toward the edge of the page. While this worked well for conventional articles that combine text and images, I’m not sure that I’ve managed to capture the spirit of more complex, hybrid articles that involve Twine games or integrate marginal comments in Hypothes.is into a cohesive critique. Rendering this kind of hybridity on a page and then in paper remains a challenge!

Another challenge is the cover. As my old friend Andrew Reinhard opined on Twitter yesterday, “If I see one more sober journal cover, I will vomit.” To some extent, he was responding to my proposed cover:

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In my defense, I designed a relatively conservative cover to communicate the seriousness of the project and to offer a bit of contrast to the sometimes playful (but not unthoughtful) content. Andrew’s take was a bit different and suggested wearing the playfulness of the journal on its sleeve. He offered a few versions, but this one was the most appealing to me, in part, because of Gabe Moshenska’s clever graphic, and in part because it is conventional enough to be recognizable as a journal cover, but also unorthodox enough to be interesting.

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(As an aside, if you haven’t already, you really should download Gabe Moshenska’s free, open access, book, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, published earlier this year by University College London.)

I’m not entirely sold on the more casual cover, but I’m open to advisement (and the editorial board of Epoiesen has been asked as well!).

Project Two

I’m working with a pair of outstanding editors to publish the papers from a pair of panels from last year’s Archaeological Institute of America meeting on abandoned villages (you can check out the paper here). As part of that panel, my long-time friend and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I gave a paper on the site of Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia. Richard Rothaus, Bret Weber, and I collaborated on paper focusing on Wheelock, North Dakota in the Bakken. Both papers drew upon a rich photographic archive as the basis for our analysis and as the primary method of documentation. 

Due to changes in hosting policies here at UND, I’ve lost my server space (or, more properly, it became prohibitively expensive), and as a result, our online presentation of Lakka Skoutara images is no longer available. This is a bummer for many reasons, but the extent of it being a bummer was made clear when I investigated my options for producing a comprehensive archive of the Lakka Skoutara material and discovered how expensive it would be. One of the suggestions that Frank McManamon from tDAR made was that I compile the photographs and other documentation in a .pdf (or even a print-on-demand book) and then put that in an archival repository (like tDAR, an institutional repository, or even just the Internet Archive).

While I recognize that this is not an optimal solution for many reasons. PDFs are not machine readable in a proper sense and the images would likely not have all the metadata that individual files in an archive would have. That being said, there’s something important about making a smallish archive (and Lakka Skoutara is fewer than 650 images) accessible to the human eye and compiling that visual data (and any attendant text) together in a single document. At the same time, a PDF can be accessioned by a library, is inherently portable, and is easy enough to produce and archive. So it is a usable solution.

My idea is to include a couple expanded archives as digital downloads with the abandoned villages volume. They’d be set up on a template so fairly easy to design, lay out, and produce.

Project Three

I’m also working with Kyle Conway on a republication of the 1958 Williston Report with expanded content and up-to-date analysis. This is part of the “Bakken Bookshelf” project. 

This project has a few challenges and the largest of these is whether to preserve the original pagination for the Williston Report. And, if I do repaginate it, how do I mark out the original Williston Report text from our updated chapters? Do we use complementary fonts with a serif-ed font marking the Williston Report and a sans serif font marking the newer contributions?

Stay tuned for more on this project over the next few months.

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Objects, Symmetry, and Care

I was pretty enthralled by the conversation between Ian Hodder and Gavin Lucas in the most recent issue of Archaeological Dialogues. Not only do Hodder and Lucas model scholarly a collegial, yet probing scholarly interaction, but they offer a useful primer on the complex web of concepts, theories, and practices associated with the “new materialisms.

The main focus of the article is an effort to understand the utility of symmetrical archaeology by probing the limits and character of symmetries and asymmetries in human-thing relations. Ian Hodder’s concept of entanglement features prominently in the discussion (as does C. Witmore’s well-known framing of the issue in his article “Symmetrical Archaeology – Fragments of a Manifesto”). The conversation centered on the so-called double bind created when humans depend on things and, as a result, things take on part of the burden of caring for humans. This bind creates certain kinds of relationships that archaeologists (among others) have regarded as either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Hodder and Lucas propose here that characterizing relationships between humans and things as symmetrical or asymmetrical is best recognized as a continuum with true symmetry between humans and things being rather harder to understand (at least within western ontologies) than extreme examples of asymmetry. The challenge is, as Lucas pointed out, understanding how to evaluate the extent of asymmetry. If the extent of measure of symmetry relies exclusively on existential issues, then human-made things always exist is a rather extreme state of asymmetry from humans. If the measure of asymmetry has to do with power, then we on more familiar, if no better defined territory of power in social life (sketched out, to my mind, more effectively by Foucault). The value of approaching human-thing relations without the expectation to a functional asymmetry (things are only ever tools that are used or discarded based on their immediate utility) continues to hold even if the pole of radical asymmetry remains far more easy to understand than the continuum that extends toward a putative symmetry between humans and things.    

The significance of this debate becomes clear in their discussion of entanglement. For example, Lucas and Hodder (as well as some of the respondents to their dialogue) consider whether elites are more densely entangled with things than the poor and whether elites are more or less trapped in their relationship with things. This might suggest a greater degree, for example, of symmetry as being an elite (at least an elite in terms of wealth within a capitalist regime) in almost all cases depends upon particular relationships with particular packet of things. Such things might range from currency itself to property, certain prestige objects, articles of clothing, modes of transport, and forms of energy. In fact, these things often provide the means for the elite to wield power to such an extent (again, how do we measure extent?) that eliteness could not exist without these things. Non-elites, on the other hand, require nearly nothing, that is no things, to be non-elite, and outside of the (increasingly) rare cases of radical asceticism (which even then is perhaps more dependent on relationships with certain kinds of things than such ascetics might readily admit), the non-elite are less entangled with things. That being said, individual objects might still exert significant power over non-elites because although non-elites are less dependent on particular assemblages of things for their status and power, they are no more free from the existential dependency upon things such things as food, shelter, and protection. 

As the world confronts the twin dangers of increasingly disparities of wealth (which is nearly always defined by particular relationships with things) and the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, the understanding the relationship between humans and things becomes all the more urgent. It is clear to me, at least, that instrumental or crassly functional understandings of our relationship to the world around us have produced what may well be irreversible damage to the earth. As global non-elites increasingly feel the existential consequences of such attitudes, one wonders whether the social consequences of our modern entanglement with things, especially their key role in defining the elite, serves in some ways to liberate the non-elites, because ultimately they are more prepared to adapt their relationship to things to their changing realities, or among elites whose existence will become increasingly circumscribed by challenges associated with maintaining social and political power that is much more entrenched and entangled in particular relationships with things. To be more blunt, the elites have much more to lose than non-elites as a result of climate change and less flexibility to adapt while still maintaining the status and power as elites. (And, yes, I realize that this is a bit tautological.)

Concerns such as these offered a context for a discussion of care. It is clear, for example, that human entanglements with other humans – symmetrical or otherwise – often involve the issue of care. This further complicates the issue of symmetry because, at least in our Western ways of knowing about the world, things lack the capacity to care. On the other hand, humans can care about things and things can provide care to humans. In fact, care seems to be a vital aspect of entanglement perhaps to the extent of making entanglement possible. 

In this context, then, the archaeology of care takes on a distinct new dimension. When Richard Rothaus and I first started to think about an archaeology of care, we emphasized the role of the archaeologist and archaeological method as demonstrating that people and their things mattered to marginalized groups. Not only can archaeology offer a distinctive way to document life in the Bakken man camps – or in Greek refugee camps – but it also demonstrated that individuals and the fabric of their existence had value, meaning, and significance far beyond their own context. 

An expanded archaeology of care could encompass the ideas of care unpacked in the Lucas and Hodder dialogue and the vital role of care in creating conditions for material entanglement. Valuing other people and things in both symmetrical and asymmetrical ways creates the lines of entanglement which constitutes the fabric of our relationships with things and other humans. An archaeology of care could document these bonds.

NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to write an article in a series of installments on my blog for the spring, digital, issue of North Dakota Quarterly dedicated to the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I’m calling them, for fun, NDQuesday, and I hope this becomes a regular feature on my blog as I work with a remarkable group of people to figure out how to keep NDQ thriving in a new era of funding. 

For my contribution today,I am worried that my argument will be complex and will probably reveal the limits of how I understand both the world of ideas that are shaping our society and higher education and the way in which higher education works “on the ground.” My hope is that people feel free to offer my feedback on my work here. 

To start, I’m going to dive into the meat of my article, which explores the unusual way in which neoliberal ideas play out across state university campuses. I’ll do little to hide my indebtedness to Mark Blyth’s work on austerity, David Harvey’s on neoliberalism, and Christopher Newfield’s on higher education, but I’ll try to bring my own distinct perspective and experiences to the conversation. In particular, I want to focus on certain performative aspects of the neoliberal position that shape how universities present themselves and individual actors behave. In this area, I suspect you’ll see the influence of folks like Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities although I take my critique in a different direction.   

To start, I probably need to try to untangle the connection between austerity and neoliberalism at last in the context of higher education (and here I need to digest more fully the work of Fabricant and Brier).

For the purposes of my article, austerity is really short-hand for a larger neoliberal package of ideas that actively privileges the market as the dominant force in shaping society. It initially developed at a macro-economic scale in the immediate post-war period as a challenge to Keynesianism and as a critique of mid-century views of statist projects in both the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of Nazism. It became a cornerstone of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s re-imagining both of the national and then the global economy. In this context, neoliberal thinkers and politicians argued that state institutions were impediments to person economic (and even social) freedom which ultimately undermined the potential for innovation and entrepreneurship. The economic authority of the state expressed in the control over resources and the bureaucratized rule of regulation stifled individual creativity and competition while also  insulating certain sectors of the economy into complacency. These social attitudes offered a moral framework for an economic view that saw the flow of state funds into the economy as encouraging inflationary conditions which dampened markets, weakened the private sector, and impaired economic growth. Austerity represented a strategy to pull back the economic influence of the state in the economy, to forestall inflation, and to allow for markets and the private sector to produce growth. Whatever the economic merits of this approach (and recent work has cast significant doubts on whether austerity does stimulate growth), there is no doubt that these policies have weakened the social safety net created during the Great Depression, turned massive quantities of assets over to an increasingly wealthy super elite, and transformed the global political and economic landscape. My interest is largely in the social and political transformations wrought by neoliberalism. My article will look at three in particular: (1)  the belief that markets and competition represent individual freedom, (2) the success in market competition reflect both the personal and public good, and (3) that market competition produces efficiencies by undermining the complacency of publicly-funded entrenched interests. 

The impact of these three attitudes on higher education in the U.S. has been dramatic. This is partly because neoliberal faith in market competition shares certain parallels with the long-standing belief in intellectual and academic competition in academia. In recent times, however, the emphasis in neoliberal rhetoric on the moral good of market competition and equation of markets with freedom has converted this confidence in the meritocracy to the space of the market. Individuals within and outside of the academic, in the administration and in the trenches, have seen market forces as beneficial agents of change and as justification for whole-sale revisions in curricula and educational policies. These attitudes reflect what David Harvey has recognized as the hegemonic power of neoliberal thinking that makes it very hard for us to imagine alternative ways of doing things.

These forces played out in the recent history of North Dakota Quarterly in a number of intriguing and informative ways. As readers of this blog and NDQ know, the Quarterly lost its funding in 2016 amid a series of rather dramatic budget cuts at the state level. These budget cuts reflect both the changing economic fortunes of the state and, more directly, the price of oil, as well as a reluctance by legislators to raise taxes to fund public enterprises and services. For many in the legislature, the desire to keep the state friendly to business by cutting taxes and regulation (and allowing market forces to generate growth rather than legislative programs) coupled with a tendency to see public, higher education as too long insulated from market forces and therefore inefficient (by definition). Raising taxes too support state programs, then, would have made the state less friendly to business and limited the freedom of individuals to use their funds to pursue whatever education they desired. 

At UND, North Dakota Quarterly saw the direct impact of these cuts in large part because for previous few years, we had been urged to produce a “sustainable business model” for the journal. This overlooked, at least superficially, that the existing model for NDQ which combined funds from UND and the College of Arts and Sciences with income from subscriptions had been sustainable for over 60 years. Its lack of sustainability, at least in the rhetoric of our administrators, reflected an expectation that projects like NDQ should be sustainable with only private funds. In other words, sustainability was something that existed only in the marketplace of the private sector rather than as a shared commitment supported by public and private resources. 

The reasons for de-fundung NDQ, however, go beyond simple issues of fiscal austerity, of course. Our declining number of subscribers, questions about the impact of the publication on the broader UND community and mission, and perhaps even a lack of direction all contributed to a less than charitable viewing of the Quarterly. It is difficult, however, to avoid viewing these critique – offered both tacitly and explicitly – as valuations on the sustainability of the Quarterly in anything other than market terms. The intellectual or humanistic impact of the Quarterly was, as far as I know, never called into question.

Academic administrators have used a similar set of curious arguments to justify cuts to the humanities more generally. Declining enrollments, for example, demonstrate lack of market demand for particular subject and this justifies reduced resources to those programs. The reduction of resources almost always accelerate the decline in enrollments into the future. The justification for this, of course, is largely financial. The university has limited resources and need to support those programs that have the most students. 

At the same time, these arguments also coincide with a rhetorical position that see the arts and humanities at state universities, in particular, as luxuries. The critique of this position is well-know, so I’ll address it here only briefly. Attacks on the humanities and arts by politicians have tended to argue that they are not only useless degrees that produce students who are a burden on society, but also that the character of a humanities education is the deeply suspect hotbed of post-modernism, anti-nationalism, liberalism, and other nefarious positions that undermine the shared values of the community and social cohesion. The merging of moral judgements about the character of humanities program in higher education and the purported lack of viability of humanities graduates in the marketplace is consistent with the larger ideological project of contemporary neoliberalism.

It’s also not strictly speaking true. Humanities graduates tend to earn less than their peers in the STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the short-term, but over time, earn as much and even more than graduates with more apparently practical degrees. Moreover, companies consistently demand more graduates with the qualifications that humanities graduates possess: the ability to read, to write, to think critically and morally, and to problem solve. Taking nothing away from graduates in other fields at the university, there is no real reason to see that humanities graduates are an less viable in the market-driven workforce than graduates in any other field. The issue appears to be largely a rhetorical one in which the usual line of causality is reversed. The moral economy of neoliberalism has tended to see failure in the market as a moral failing. In the case of the humanities, it sees the critique of the market and neoliberalism (even though the lines between neoliberalism and post-modernism are well-known among scholars) as a moral failing that makes them less likely to be successful in the private sector despite evidence to the contrary. 

As a result, cutting the humanities and focusing energy on the practical and STEM fields is seen as a way to make the university more competitive in the marketplace based on a kind of moral reasoning rather than practical data. That the humanities have seen declining numbers – in part as a result of this inversion of neoliberal logic – has become the evidence that students are “voting with their feet.” Defunding a project like North Dakota Quarterly, then, becomes an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to practical education and short-term workforce development as well as a rejection of the morally suspect fields of in the arts and humanities. The argument that NDQ did not develop a sustainable business model (i.e. a model that relies on the market for sustainability at least in large part) is both true and confirms the larger perspective that the humanities are not viable fields in the contemporary economy and do not deserve continued state funding.  

This is, of course, largely theater, but a particularly pernicious kind of theater (1) that reflects the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony), (2) that confounds the efficient operation of a university (which confirms the argument that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector), and (3) replaces the aspirations for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom.

(Stay tuned for part 2 of this essay… but readers of this blog will know that it goes something like this or thisthisthis).

As always, provide feedback! I need to know just how wrong I am!

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s pretty close to the end of the year, it’s cold as a dog’s nose, and the Ashes are more or less over. Fortunately, I have a bunch of writing, layout, and course preparation to keep me warm this holiday season. I might even have time to read something. 

If you find yourself with some time, maybe these quick hits and varia will give you some ideas:

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Laying Out Epoiesen

The semester is winding down and I’m working a bit now to catch up on some pressing tasks for The Digital Press. So, this week, I’m working on the layout for one of my more complex projects, Shawn Graham’s journal Epoiesen, for which The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish an annual pdf and print-on-demand volume.

The articles in Epoiesen have a number of intriguing challenges. First, Shawn provided them to me in markdown (and my impression is that they are submitted in markdown). I’ve been a John Gruber fan for a long time and regularly read DaringFireball and was a devoted user of the new defunct Vesper app. In other words, I’m excited to work in Markdown. Unfortunately, markdown doesn’t play all that nicely with InDesign where I do my layout. As a result, I have to convert the files from Markdown to another format (and I’m converting them to .docx) to import them to InDesign using Pandoc. Pandoc is pretty amazing, but it is not super user-friendly and I haven’t figured out how to do batch conversions. 

 Each article in the journal has a little gaggle of information with it (paradata?) that includes the usual – author’s name and article title – but also other stuff like the article DOI, the various creative common licenses, and any other information about the article adds complications to the page. After a few failed efforts to incorporate that information and the text of the article on the 6×9 inch page, I decided to do a distinct title page for each article. What I decided, for better or for worse, is to celebrate the digital aspect of the journal by attempting to capture something of its formal digital character. So I divided the page into a series of distinct boxes, but rendered the lines as 50% to add a bit of depth to the page. 

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Each article in the journal also has a masthead image that I included and extended it beyond the edge of the boxes the edge of the page. This was meant to be a bit playful and to show how the articles and the ideas extend beyond their digital confines. I’m imagining that images associated with the articles might be offset to the margins of the page as well. 

For font, I’ve stuck with Tisa, which I used in Mobilizing the Past. I like Tisa because it’s such a modern serif-ed font and it is quirky and relatively unusual so it gives the page a distinctive look. I’m not sure that I love it for the article title, but maybe I do!

As per usual feedback – particularly of the constructive kind – is always welcome. None of what I’m doing here is cast in stone.