$50 Words, $1 Ideas, and Priceless People

I just wrote a blog for Archaeology Southwest discussing how phenomenology and the scientific method intersect. You can check it out here.

The archaeology of action figures

As an archaeologist, I’m often confronted with weird professional boundaries that stigmatise how and what types of culturally constructed material objects archaeologists study. This stigma primarily revolves around recent and contemporary material culture. In the UK, this is starting to change and in the US there are researchers such as myself who, regardless of what period in the past they study, think that archaeology is the scientific/social/historic/humanistic investigation of culturally constructed Things. Part of this is connected with what has come to be called New Materialism, a movement to rethink how and why humans and their world of Things (cars, toys, houses, wedding rings, toothbrushes, projectile points, tattoos, etc.) exist in a tangled web of interaction, identity construction, and cultural change.

Years ago, early in grad school this point of how archaeologists are barricading themselves within an in-artfully placed fortress of solitude was driven home to me while listening to a now retired archaeologist who publishes regularly on contemporary material culture self-deprecatingly, and I felt earnestly, note that he no longer writes archaeological literature. This same archaeologist, one of the smartest individuals I know, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and fundamentally changed the theoretical landscape of global archaeology in such an effective way that people now read his work and see it as mere “common-sense” when 30 to 40 years ago it was anything but.

More recently, while talking to a few colleagues in the U.S Southwest, I’ve been publicly criticised for declaring that my side project studying skateboards and the impact the material culture of this pastime and sport has had on processes of identity construction and environmental meaning across the globe is somehow archaeology. Many more have supported my statement in private, but that fear of going public with the idea that archaeology is actually the study of humans and their things, instead of the study of humans and their things from some vaguely distant past is a critical problem . . . in Americanist archaeology at least. I say this as an archaeologist who primarily investigates at a distance of some 600-1000 years in the past. After all, the past is only as far away as the beginning of this sentence.

Recently, for a professional anthropological and archaeological audience, I wrote that the above-mentioned “separation between what we do study versus what we can study creates a situation similar to what cyberpunk author William Gibson calls atemporality. Atemporality is essentially the idea that portions of the human narrative are historical in the Fukuyama sense, that is progressing through history and other parts are ahistorical, which is to say not progressing and disconnected from those periods that are in the flow of history. This creates a separation between skateboards and Clovis points, between worthy versus not worthy for the archaeological gaze. This sets archaeologists off from history and lends to an image of archaeological research by the public as basically frivolous.” I end by discussing what we can use to stitch the pre-modern/modern/post-modern world back together.

Regardless, while archaeologists have been fighting somewhat useless theory wars about how to investigate our (self-imposed) isolated portion of the past, the rest of the world of social researchers moved past us and started constructing their own theoretical understandings of human and object interactions. And so, to get to the point of this blog post, I would like to direct you to one such recently published discussion of the interaction between capitalism, history, and identity on the Atlantic website by University of Twente, Applied Philosophy professor Nolan Gertz. It’s a lot more interesting than I make it sound and looks at the history of action figures, particularly G.I. Joe’s and Star Wars figures. This harkens to an archaeological investigation of Barbie by Marlys Pearson and Paul Mullins that was published in 1999.* These two are definitive readings if you want to understand why and how archaeology can be an important avenue for investigating what it means to be human regardless of the time period. As an archaeologist who works in deep history**, I love research like Gertz’s and Mullins and Pearson’s, because it gives me a fundamental connection between people and their stuff that I can use to explain the past in much more realistic, and truthful, ways than simply saying that clearly these people had to move from A to B because it got too cold or there wasn’t enough rain. Also, they made different pots.***

Anyways, check out both of these readings. Whether you like or agree with the authors, these articles are, respectfully, excellent examples of what archaeologists could be doing and are doing. And feel free to leave comments below. I know I have really only stereotypically captured the spirit of Americanist archaeology and there are many folks who have worked and are working to break us out of our bubble (such as Bill Rathje, Larry Zimmerman, Jason De León, and Andrew Reinhard)

 

*Mullins continues to explore similar themes.

**That extensive period of time before writing was invented but after humans became cognitively the same as modern humans. Previously mislabeled as prehistoric when really it should have been called pre-textual.

***This is an overly sensationalised stereotype of bad archaeology. No one really does this . . . much . . . anymore.

 

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and the destruction of cultural heritage

I just finished writing a blog post about an incident that happened a couple days ago. I won’t write too much about it here since it’s been picked up by the Huffington Post. This post is basically to just tie in with everyone who follows my blog so that they can check it out. Essentially, a blog I wrote for Archaeology Southwest ended up migrating to Huffington Post. You can check out the Archaeology Southwest version here and the Huffington Post version here. Anyways, thanks to Kate Gann for letting me delve into some sensitive topics on this one.

Cormac McCarthy on history and the past

I just finished working as the survey director for an archaeology field school this summer that was run jointly through the University of Arizona and Archaeology Southwest. You can check out my post about that here. You can also check out the blog posts that our students and faculty wrote here. The gist of the summer for me, outside of that I was once again reminded that someone needs to do an ethnography of an archaeological field school, was that incredible ideas can come from the most mundane interactions. On some level that’s really what archaeology and anthropology are about anyways: looking at everyday objects and understanding just how many incredible ideas are wrapped up within those little pieces of material culture. Regardless, one of the students was reading Cormac McCarthy‘s “The Road“, which is one of the more disturbing, distressful, beautiful, and all around engaging novels I’ve read. It reminded me that at one point, I was collecting tidbits of-well, I’d like to call them McCarthyisms, but I suppose that word is forever soiled-what we’ll call Cormac-isms that relate to the past and history. None of them specifically mention archaeology, but it’s hard not to insert my particular way of studying the past into them. Anyways, here they are. I think it’s pretty amazing just how much of anthropological theory, theoretical fights, and paradigm shifts are actually captured within Cormac’s words. I actually have a lot more to say on the current state of archaeology and our failure to effectively understand our disciplinary past that relate to a lot of these changes, but I’ll leave it at this and let Cormac take over from here.

“When I was in school I studied biology. I learned that in making their experiments scientists will take some group–bacteria, mice, people–and subject that group to certain conditions. They compare the results with a second group which has not been disturbed. This second group is called the control group. It is the control group which enables the scientist gauge the effect of his experiment. To judge the significance of what has occurred. In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was.” – All the Pretty Horses

You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday don’t count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of. Nothin else.” – No Country for Old Men

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.” – Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

“When one has nothing left make ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.” – The Road

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” – All The Pretty Horses

“The rain falls upon the just
And also on the unjust fellas
But mostly it falls upon the just
Cause the unjust have the just’s umbrellas” – The Stonemason

“He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the words and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.” – The Road

“There is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these are also the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised.” – The Crossing

 

 

EDITED 7/16/2014: I just found this out yesterday. It turns out that James F. Brooks wrote a beautiful article in 2000 examining how history, and the idea of history, are infused into McCarthy’s stories. If you can, I really suggest reading it. You can link to it here.