Patina Review: A First Draft

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Over the last week or so, I’ve been pecking away at a review of Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016) for the American Journal of Archaeology. Writing a review has served as a useful way to become reacquainted with the book as well as to nudge me to think a bit more clearly about how university campuses function as patinated spaces

So here’s my first draft, warts and all:

Patina is a book about modernity. Shannon Lee Dawdy slim work offers a densely nuanced survey of patina in contemporary, post-Katrina New Orleans and argues that patina represents a material critique of modernity as signs of past use and wear relentlessly manifest themselves in world dominated by narratives of progress and commodity capitalism that seek of overwrite the past in the name of linear time.

For Dawdy, New Orleans offered a distinct and familiar group of case studies for her arguments starting with the appearance of the “Katrina Patina” in the aftermath of the hurricane, which left mud and recovery team marks on so many of the buildings in the city. She leverages her advantage of her long experience doing fieldwork in the city to demonstrate how the patinated past in pushes through into modern of New Orleans. She develops the idea of heterogeneous time in diverse assemblage of artifacts found in the excavations of the gardens around St. Louis Cathedral and in the remains of the Duplessis plantation house beneath the Maginnis Cotton Mill building. The stories of hauntings that have created both an opportunity for “haunted tour” operators, but also played a central role in the distinctly macabre atmosphere for which some older New Orleans neighborhoods have become known. Dawdy’s excavations at the Rising Sun Hotel site naturally attracted national attention, but the interplay between the subsiding ruins of the collapses and charred hotel and later structures on the site provided a literal example of the past pushing into the present. The historical interest in antiques and the interplay between objects and events in the ritually rich New Orleans streetscape demonstrates that the physical aspects of patina are bound up in the relationship between agency, objects, and memory. 

Interviews and conversation with a range of residents and archival research complement her field work and to produce perspective on the city’s patina that go beyond excavations and enter people’s homes, businesses, and everyday lives. Heirlooms go beyond antiques with recognized values and to include objects, whether a plain wardrobe or a “Chinese style chair,” with personal stories and distinct signs of wear. Personal narratives and objects created meanings associated with certain aspects of the city, for example so-called Faience rogue pots or French wine bottles, work to meld together the history of individuals, objects, and the community.

Dawdy’s interest in patina extends to the theorist who she invokes. Benjamin, Freud, and Durkheim serve as the foundations for an approach centered on critical nostalgia. While these early 20th century thinkers have perhaps fallen to the margins of contemporary theoretical debates in archaeology, Dawdy gives them new life in her work. Benjamin’s well-worn arcades project offers a point of departure for a sustained critique of modern capitalism and consumerism with the book’s subtitle “A profane archaeology” being drawn from Benjamin’s concept of “profane illumination.” For Benjamin, the profane illumination represented a radical and irrational view of the world infused with hashish smoke and surrealism (9). Freud’s concept of the fetish likewise restores an irrational and religious dimension to our grasp of the material world and produces a useful complication to the substantial influence of Marx’s commodity fetishism. Dawdy recognizes in the deeply personal character of the fetish an irreducible materiality shaped by contingent of events and social relations that produce a kind of spiritual aura surrounding the fetishized object. To understand this aura she calls upon Durkheim’s concept of mana which emerges as a coherent foil to understand how patina complicates the tidy rationality of the modern world. There is something ineffable in the way objects acquire and communicate patina that makes the restlessness of both the object and time itself so much more clear. The materiality of patina and its irrational significance offers a view of the past that resists the rather more linear and orderly idea of “invented traditions” in place of the dynamic and recursive time of embodied in patina.

The conclusion of the book presents Dawdy’s elaborate argument in its essence. In New Orleans, patina critiques commodification and commercialism, progress and modernity, and the linearity of time. It also bonds the past to the present and individuals and objects to objects. By doing so, patina conjures heteotopic spaces throughout the city. These are, following Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, realized expressions of utopian fantasies, set apart from everyday life.  Dawdy expands this to include chronotopic time which likewise stands as distinct from the banal world (148). That such places and times are unique to certain cities – New Orleans, San Francisco, Istanbul – where deeply ingrained practices and places push back against the relentless tide of commodity capitalism and progress perhaps constrains her argument unnecessarily. The accelerated pace of change in the contemporary world has subjected such ordinary objects as Atari games, long-playing records, and abandoned offices to similar forms of critical nostalgia that both infused even rapidly accumulating signs of wear with patina and questions the seemingly inevitable horizon of obsolescence associated with commodity capitalism. In short, patina might be more prevalent and visible in places like New Orleans, but the critique that it implies has a much wider significance.

This book might not seem professionally relevant to archaeologists of the ancient Mediterranean, but it serves as an important reminder that our linear view of time is bound up in the same narratives of progress that have contributed to our field’s disciplinary boundaries. The chronological complexities of formation processes represent just the most obvious example of how multiple pasts shape archaeological space and destabilize disciplinary practices overly committed to essentializing the character of cultural or social change in any one period.

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