Springtime Writing: Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

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A few months ago, I started to try to write a book proposal for a book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture for the University Press of Florida’s series The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective. It stalled a bit (ironically) because I started to work on documenting the historical and contemporary material culture associated with two buildings on the University of North Dakota’s campus, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre slated for demolition. Racing the bulldozer and asbestos mitigation has created some challenges and forced us to make some decisions as to what we planned to document, by what methods (photos, video, description?) and how intensively. 

But all this is somewhere between an excuse and some sense of priorities. To prove to whatever audience that this blog still has that I can follow through, I’m posting my proposed outline below. It’s in draft still and there are certainly ways for me to tighten up the coherence of the book particularly the interweaving of theory (particularly the opportunity for archaeology of the contemporary world to problematize certain key aspects of archaeological method and practice) and the important traditions embodied in American historical archaeology. Hopefully that’ll come through more in the final draft, but for a general sketch, this is how I envision the book.

The Archaeology of Contemporary American Culture

This book will have two sections with each part anchored by on of my field project. Part 1 will begin with the excavation of Atari game cartridges from the Alamogordo landfill in 2014 and then focus on how objects in context create a distinct American culture. Part 2 considers the archaeology of contemporary American landscapes and concludes with an analysis of the industrial landscape of the Bakken oil patch.

Introduction

The introduction will explore the key aspect of archaeology of contemporary American culture by unpacking the concept of contemporaneity in recent archaeological thought and the tension between archaeology’s use of time to defamiliarize our past and present as well as considering how an archaeology of the contemporary world explicitly requires us to co-locate with the objects and landscape that we study. This intersection with contemporaneity opens up new space for the role that archaeology can play in addressing pressing social, economic, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities in American society as well as introducing new epistemological perspectives on how archaeologists produce meaningful knowledge.

Part 1: Objects and Contexts

Part 1 of the book considers the role of objects in the archaeology of the contemporary world. Starting with an analysis of our excavation of the famous Atari dump in the Alamogordo landfill and considering the role of abundance, discard practices, and various objects mediated by increasing digital means.

1. Atari

The Alamogordo Atari excavation were organized by a documentary film company and funded by Microsoft for distribution over their Xbox console. The work sought to “prove” the well-known urban legend that Atari had dumbed thousands of games in landfill of the dessert town of Alamogordo in the 1980s. The excavation of the landfill produced over a thousand Atari games as well as a wide range of household trash. The excavation located the games simultaneous in 21st century American culture with its accelerated sense of nostalgia, but also within a distinctive 20th century assemblage of domestic and consumer waste.

2. Garbology, Discard, and Trash

The practice of documenting and analyzing contemporary domestic discard originated with William Rathje’s garbology work in Tuscon, Arizona. The study of the archaeology of trash opened the door to new critiques of consumer culture, the formation of contemporary assemblages, and a persistent interest in determining how both patterns of discard and discarded objects produce meaning. Recent work on discarded material culture involves sociological studies on scrounging, scavenging, and informal recycling and curation practices that produced distinctive assemblages of material and practices. This chapter returns to the roots of archaeology in its interest in middens and trash and shows how contemporary American garbage presents the distinctive insights into consumer culture and values.

3. Objects

In one of the most famous essays in archaeology of the contemporary world is C. Tiley and M. Shanks (1992) analysis of beer cans from Sweden and England. They famous urge archaeologists rely less on empirical methods and engage objects through the lens of cultural studies and as part of a more complex system of meaning making. In recent decades the rise of a distinctive “material culture studies” informed by new concepts of agency has provided new approaches for studying objects as part of networks of human and material actors. This chapter reviews the diverse ways that archaeologists of the contemporary world have continued to reflect on the entangled nature of objects in creating the experiences of life in New Orleans, homelessness, or American childhood.

4. Media

Among the more dynamic and compelling hybrid spaces for archaeology of the contemporary world is media archaeology. Originally framed by work in media studies, media archaeology considers the materiality of media and the relationship between technology, form, content, and culture. Archaeologists, for their part, have come to recognize the significant of digital objects and media for their own work in both a practical sense and as a conceptual problem for unpacking contemporary culture. The materiality of an Atari cartridge or a Grateful Dead long-playing record, only tells part of their significance in an archaeological and cultural context. Michael Schiffer’s interest in transistor radios, for example, anticipated recent studies of the archaeology of computers and the internet. The development of digital archaeology and archaeogaming recognizes the extension of American culture into virtual worlds and digital spaces complete with digital objects that require documentation, curation, and preservation. This chapter, then, explores approaches to objects and media that have shaped American culture.

Part 2: Landscapes and Situations

The second part of the book examines particular landscapes that reflect certain situations in 21st century American culture. Starting along the margins and emphasizing the growing precarity of certain groups in America and proceeding to examine the institutional and industrial landscapes, this section will explore case-studies that trace the contours of archaeology at a scale intended to reflect the expansive and complex problems facing American society.

5. Precarity and Marginal Places: homelessness, borders, and squats

Archaeology of the contemporary world is particularly well-suited to documenting groups and individuals who produce particularly ephemeral artifactual signatures or fall to the margins of traditional documentation practices. Larry Zimmerman’s archaeology of homelessness and Jason De Leon’s detailed study of the distribution of objects associated with illegal immigrants demonstrate how archaeological methods can produce significant new understandings of historically and socially marginal groups. Similar interest in the material traces of short-term events ranging from Occupy Wall Street encampments to the remains of the Burning Man festival offer case studies for how archaeology can tell complicating stories that challenge and enrich conventional narratives. This chapter will demonstrate that objects, landscapes, and precarious places can reveal otherwise overlooked, marginal, or ephemeral events that constitute modern forms of community.

6. Institutional Landscapes: Campuses, Military Bases, and Parks

Institutional spaces offer archaeological landscapes often dominated by deeply inscribed expressions of authority or influence. University campuses, military bases, and public spaces and infrastructure define significant spaces in the American landscape that both function as markers of power, authority, and ideology and preserve traces of subversion, resistance, and re-interpretation. The archaeology of contemporary campus life, for example, leaves intriguing traces in abandoned buildings and in discard patterns along well-manicured campus walkways. The archaeology of military bases and outposts negotiates the tension between visible projections of power and the hidden work of military authority often best documented through satellite and remote images. This chapter emphasizes how the archaeology of contemporary institutional landscapes offers a critical and subversive approach to our manicured and manipulated material surroundings.

7. Industrial, Extractive, and Exploratory Landscapes

The emergence of ruin porn and the photographic documentation of extractive landscapes offers an accessible perspectives on the detritus of the modern world. The well-established field of industrial archaeology with its distinctive place in American historical archaeology overlaps with the tradition of mining archaeology in the American west. These fields are increasingly infused with approaches developed by environmental historians, landscape archaeology, climate criticism, and petroculture. This chapter focuses on recent work on how industrial and extractive landscapes – from the toxic Berkeley pit mine of Butte, Montana to the archaeology of space – excavate the roots of both our everyday modernity and our hopes (and fears) for the future.

8. The Bakken

The North Dakota Man Camp Project (2012-2017) documented workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota during both the height and decline of the Bakken Oil Boom. The rapid increase in drilling for oil and infrastructural improvement in the relatively remote and sparsely populated Bakken counties led to a significant influx of workers from outside the region. To house these workers, a wide array of short-term settlements emerged from prefabricated workforce housing units to motley camps of RV trailers towed to the region by the workers themselves. The penultimate chapter will consider the intersection of extractive landscapes, precarity, and a 21st century sense of home.

Conclusions, Prospects, and Problems

The concluding chapter seeks to trace the trajectories established in both parts of this book forward into the 21st century. An archaeology of and for the contemporary world both responds to and anticipates the challenges of climate change, economic precarity, virtual worlds, and new transdisciplinary spaces, methods, and approaches. Returning to the contemporaneity as

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