During my recent travels I was able to read over the series of articles published in the most recent World Archaeology. These articles were dedicated to exploring the place of archaeology in the world today. They considered the place of archaeology in the production of compelling narratives, campus life, the new media, and in pressing problems like homelessness, environmental sustainability, and even transparency in government. The articles blended methodological sophistication with practical real life applications to show how the tools and approaches that archaeologists have developed over the history of the discipline can contribute to documenting and analyzing problems in the recent past. If anything, these articles, to generalize, were too practical in their approaches to problems perhaps assuming that for something to be relevant in todays culture, it had to have a direct practical application rather than a more long term theoretical or methodological benefit. On the other hand, these articles did reflect the increasingly permeable disciplinary boundaries of archaeological research as they drew upon techniques, methods, and approaches developed by disciplinary neighbors like sociology, anthropology, communications, and philology and literature.
One striking omission from this wide ranging group of articles was anything on the archaeology of sound. There have been some intriguing recent work on the sounds of archaeology and they key role that hearing materiality plays in our ability to identify objects, spaces, and materials. In fact, heavily damped spaces create a kind of sensory deprivation that obscures the materiality and social “reality” of a space. (At the same time, noise pollution and the saturation of our environment with a range of mechanical sounds is generally recognized as a problem to be dealt with in a architectural – in other words material – way.) It is worth noting that I am not the first to think about this kind of thing. The sound of archaeology has contributed to the idea of archaeology as performance and sensory as well as contributed to our idea of how past monuments sounded.
Over the past year, I’ve been thinking about music as a place where archaeological methods could be deployed productively through an exploration of punk rock music. Punk rock, in particular, sought to celebrate a highly materialized kind of music, through their preference for live recordings in particular places (particularly iconic venues like CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City) and their conscious efforts to emphasize the low-fi, diy character of their recording spaces. (One of my favorite moments in a punk rock recording is when you can hear a bottle fall and hit the ground (and seemingly not break) during a Replacement’s song). The term garage band made clear the link between music, a particular sound, and a space. This all stands in contrast to the increasingly over-produced character of modern pop music which goes to great lengths to create spatially and materially impossible sound which could never be produced in a way that someone could witness and experience. (For a remarkable critique of this check out this article on Pompamoose, a band that tries to make every sound on their remakes of pop songs visible in some way.
On Kostis' urging, I have been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, the Suburbs. The album itself is a meditation of urban planning and its social impact, but I'll leave this larger issue to Kostis. What I want to focus on in particular is the notion of sprawl that comes through in the last couple of songs in the album. As critics have noted, the idea of sprawl (as in, but not exclusively, urban sprawl) derives some of its meaning in punk circles from William Gibson's fictitious topography of the post-apocalyptic east coast. Gibson described an massive east coast settlement stretching from Boston to Atlanta partially housed in a series of dilapidated geodesic domes. This forms a suitably bleak environment for his high-tech dystopian novels. Arcade Fire's understanding of the sprawl clearly has roots in their critique of urbanism in its many 20th and 21st century guises. The sprawl consists of a bleak assortment of architectural ("dead shopping malls", bright lights), social,(dead end jobs, threatening police), and perhaps environmental images (the black river). All these images resonate with Gibson's dystopian and apocalyptic vision of the near future world.
The kind of dystopian social critiques of the future are almost always rooted in a kind of utopian view of the past (and has obvious links with genres like the jeremiad). In fact, they rely on a recognizable past remaining hidden in plain sight to make it clear to the reader that their own present has become just another layer of detritus. Gibson – like Sonic Youth and to some extent Arcade Fire – liken the Sprawl to the failings of capitalism to produce a sustainable, responsible prosperity. The chorus from the Sonic Youth anthem chants: "Come on down to the store, you can buy some more and more and more." The verses paint the same kind of dystopia as Arcade Fire's with cheap clothing, depressing shotgun houses, and rusted machines along a river.
Scenes of polluted nature, urbanism, and faded modernity, is pretty standard fair for both science fiction and music, and the same ideas inform our archaeological imagination as well. As I've mentioned earlier, romantic views of the natural landscape appeal to me even though I know that these views are as profoundly unhistorical as utopians imaginings of a primordial, edenic nature. Human activities have had a fundamental influence on almost every aspect of the Eastern Mediterranean places where I work. As an archaeologist, I already understand that there is no escaping from the sprawl and our own present is, in fact, a past dystopian future.
Like the works of Gibson and the music of Sonic Youth and Arcade Fire the crass consumerism of late capitalism is held up to be at least tacitly responsible for decline. The focus falls (predictably and particularly) on the relationship between individuals (and their behavior) and objects. In fact, the physical character of objects take on an archaeological character as they become vehicles for both present identities and history. This is archaeological thought: while punk's characters take in the sprawling ruins of shopping malls and rusted machines that stretch outward from centers of human settlement, archaeologists lovingly document the tell-tale haloes of ceramic material encircle ancient sites. In fact, many scholars argue that the practice of spreading manure created these ceramic haloes. Within the settlement, residents discarded bits of broken pottery on piles of household (both human and animal)waste. The practice of studying the remains of human activity in the countryside by documenting these worn fragments of discarded goods reminds us of a profoundly dystopian image: communities literally consuming their own waste.
So, as both archaeology and our punk friends scrutinize materiality as an indicators of culture. They invite us to contemplate the remains of the past as both a cautionary tale for the ephemeral nature of the material accomplishments that we hold dear, while at the same time validate our ability to understand the past (and the present) through bits of meaning embedded in those same good and practices. The failures of culture manifest themselves in the discarded objects, buildings, and goods scattered about, and these same practices construct a body of material that we can study and reproduce the past.
The presence of nature amidst these man-made ruins and the parallel between the ruins of capitalism (dead shopping malls) and natural features (rise like mountains beyond mountains) reminds us that all of our surroundings are cultural, and, at that point, dystopian landscapes become familiar. We not only live in the sprawl, but we have always lived in the sprawl.
Kostis Kourelis brought to my attention a recent New York Times article on an exhibit of Victorian era stereoscopic photographs called “A Village Lost and Found”. What made this exhibit interesting to punk archaeology fans, was that former Queen guitarist Brian May curated the exhibit and co-wrote the accompanying book. The New York Times review of the exhibition both feigns surprise that a rock ‘n’ roller like May would be interested in such quaint, esoteric artifacts as hand-colored stereoscopic images and, at the same time, acknowledged the deep nostalgic vein in British society (and its music). In doing so, the NYT’s author makes reference to one of my favorite albums which lurks around the margins of punk rock, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.
The double album, released in 1968, consists of series of tracks celebrating traditional village life in England. Topics range from the Village green to picture books, trains, farms, and typical village characters (Johnny Thunder and the deviously rocking Wicked Annabella). The nostalgic element captured, however ironically, in the Kink’s album continues in punk music. As I have noted before, punk always had an affection for the pop music of the earlier generation, even though punk rockers from the Germs to the Ramones and the Heartbreakers typically sped up the hooks and contorted the lyrics that gave pop music its wide-spread appeal. One of my personal favorites is the Germ’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”. At the same time punk rockers like Jonathan Richman (especially in his early Modern Lovers tracks like Old World, which is bracketed later in the first Modern Lovers’ album with the track Modern World) produced music with the same whimsical nostalgia as the Kink’s Village Green:
I see the ’50’s apartment house
It’s bleak in the 1970’s sun
But I still love the ’50’s
And I still love the old world
I wanna keep my place in this old world
Keep my place in the arcane knowledge
And I still love the ’50’s and I still love the old world
As I have argued before the archaeological character of these songs is not in their perfect reproduction of the past, but in the preservation of the past through critique. For example, the Kink’s celebration of the Village Green evokes the nostalgia for the earlier times that shot through modernizing British society. In fact, as Matthew Johnson has described in his Ideas of Landscape, such nostalgia for an earlier period influenced how archaeologist have studied the landscape and regarded material and buildings from the modern period. Romantic notions of the earlier, rural world, celebrated its simplicity, inherent virtues (especially of Britishness and, as we have witnessed recently the “real” America of the small town), and purity, and expected some degree of continuity to be visible in the society and culture of contemporary denizens of the countryside and the small town.
Punk tried to make a mess of these idyllic critiques by taking the staid nostalgia and melding it with what to many appeared to be the most fleeting, contemporary, and critical musical genres. In some ways, this finds a parallel between those of us committed to sophisticated and critical approaches to archaeology of the countryside, but still enamored with the illusory, anti-modern character of the rural scene. I can admit to loving to explore the lonely hilltops in Greece, to document isolated ruins, and to embracing the contrast between the bustle of the village or city and the peaceful “isolation” of rural Greece. I often will pause and listen just to the wind and revel in the absence of the motorbikes or trucks while at the same time scrutinizing the read-out on a state-of-the-art GPS unit or looking at a map showing an aerial photograph analyzed via sophisticated computer software. Moreover, as much as my analyses call into question the notion that the Greek countryside was isolated, I still use a view of olive covered hills in my publications and presentations to evoke the exotic, traditional character of an archaeological past. The contrast between my reliance on modern technology to document the past and the romantic image of the rural Greece produces a productive conflict. My appreciation of the beauty and isolation of the Greek countryside drew inspiration from traditional romantic views of rural life while, at the same time, my approach to field work and conclusions challenges those very same views. A Punk Archaeology approach embraces these same ironies drawing heavily on traditional of thought while at the same time challenging them.
Over the last week or so, I’ve been listening again to the Detroit Cobras and thinking about some of our first conversations on Punk Archaeology. The Cobras specialize in what they have called “revved up soul”. They make this wonderful noise by covering (mostly) lost classics of the MoTown era over the driving rhythms of punk and the fuzzy, distorted lo-fi sound of the punk blues movement. Rachel Nagy’s voice succeeds at being both smooth and abrasive at the same time. Some critics have called their sound “Garage Soul”.
Their first album, Mink, Rat or Rabbit covered songs by 1950s and early 1960s bands like The Marvelettes, The Shirelles, Irma Thomas, The “5” Royales, and The Shangri-Las. Later albums continue this tradition. (They’re first two albums – Mink, Rat or Rabbit and Life, Love and Learning – are, to my ear, their best. (Notice the absence of the “Oxford comma” in both titles.)
The point of mentioning this somewhat obscure band is to consider the relationship between punk and spolia. Spolia is a technical archaeological term for the re-use older fragments of architecture in new construction. It is typically associated with Late Antiquity and was initially regarded by critics steeped in the Classical Tradition as indicative of the lose of technical skills and economic impoverished conditions at the end of Antiquity. Other saw the use of spolia as a conscious decision on the part of Late Antique builders and, at worst, reflective of a taste for a discordant, disorganized, and, ultimately, decadent aesthetic.
Of course hip-hop music withstood similar criticisms as they cut up and sampled R&B classics to form rhythmic backdrop for their poetry. Such reuse of earlier material was unoriginal and indicative of a kind of creative bankruptcy among “today’s generation”. Punk took their lead from pop music which they sped up and made more up-tempo, raucous and chaotic. The Cobras occupy a third space recently developed by bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys where punk, R&B, and blues infused with the DIY, lo-fy sound of the garage (which represents a more austere and suburban version of the venerable lo-fy Juke Joint).
The epicenter of this music has been Detroit (or the Rust Belt more broadly) where the punk of the MC Five and the blues Son House and John L. Hooker intersect. The music here has tremendous symbolic significance, as Detroit has become emblematic of the decline of “traditional America” and images of the ruinous conditions of the factories have become images of the decline of America’s fortunes as a manufacturing power. The photographs are archaeological in their attention to detail and the need to accommodate history.
The music of the Detroit Cobras provide a counterpoint to the haunting, archaeological photographs of abandoned Detroit. Fragments of the city’s earlier days come through in their music, but rather than critique the declining fortunes of America’s industrial heartland, the music calls forth the continued vitality of those days in much the same way that spolia maintained a conscious connection with earlier architecture.
The archaeological impulse in of punk rock of the Detroit Cobras reveals a kind of native archaeology of the American city which draws backwards on its unique history to produce critical memory. Such work is the work of archaeologists both of the past and the present who sought to communicate something meaningful from the fragments of the past that remained visible in their present. The spolia preserved in the music of the Detroit Cobras presents a musical museum in much the same way that the fragments of the past in produce meaning in the context of a physical museum today or in the context of monumental architecture in Late Antiquity.
I keep thinking about abandonment in both modern and ancient contexts and wondering why (and to a lesser extent whether) there seems to be a recent upswing in public interest in abandonment. I’ve written elsewhere about the work of such photographers as Yves Marchand and Romain Meffree, Camio Jose Vergara (via Kostis Kourelis) and James D. Griffioen (we can now add (thanks to Ryan Stander, Jeff Brouws, and thanks to Aaron Barth, Brian Herbel), and from closer to home the folks at Ghosts of North Dakota and the haunting 2008 Nation Geographic article “The Emptied Prairie“). I’ve contributed my own fuel to the fire by co-chairing a panel at the 2007 Archaeological Institute of America which focused on abandonment in the archaeological record.
In a forthcoming article (yes, I know…) in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, I argue, among other things, that abandonment, in its many guises, served as a chronological marker for the end of something. Typically, the something was the abandoned building or object or space, and since archaeology tends to plot the rise and fall of civilizations (in its crudest forms) according to the life history of objects, buildings, and spaces, the abandonment of such things typically serve to mark out the end of a particular culture or period of time. Thus, abandonments are central to the way in which we create historical and chronological periods from the events of the past. Abandonment helps us organize time.
There is an inevitability to abandonment which evokes tragedy. Despite the best intentions of humanity, time (as an active agent) inevitably takes its toll on human constructions and brings them down. In these formulations, abandonment brings to the fore both the power of nature and the folly of human ambition. What I am more interested in, however, is whether our current focus on abandonment is meant to bring about and mark out the end of some era. For as long as history has existed, people have declared history to be at an end. Since the Enlightenment, this call has most frequently been triumphant (see, for example, Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man), but in our current fixation on abandonment, it seems to be tragic. The focus of abandonment — monumental hotels, bustling factories, middle class suburbs, rural towns — cut across American and Western society and suggests a kind of all encompassing futility.
Of course, the celebration of the futility of human works could point to an interpretation that is not simply apocalyptic. The end of one era of achievement whether inevitable or calculated (was the Roman Republic assassinated?) typically ushers in the dawn of a new age. If we see abandonment as a critique of past folly, and it seems that some works that celebrate the return of nature to abandoned places see abandonment as the first step toward a return to a more environmentally conscious and humane world. A post-American landscape sees the collapse of the densely packed urban world and the sprawling suburbs as marking the beginning of a new time.
In fact, it may be necessary to mark or even promote the end of an era in order to take credit for building something new. It was common for ancient rulers to celebrate renewal or return to past glories. They took particular pride in the Early and Middle Byzantine periods for the reconstruction, rebuilding, or refounding of institutions or buildings long abandoned. In these narratives, abandonment continued to mark the folly of the past, but also placed hope in new beginnings.
Cross-posted to Punk Archaeology
I spent part of the weekend exploring Thurston Moore's and Abby Bank's evocative book, Punk House. The book largely features Abby Bank's photographs of punk houses across the U.S. Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth fame, provides a short introduction where he talks about the punk house phenomenon, the practice of squatting associated with the most radical expression of the punk lifestyle, and the aesthetic of the punk interpretation of the DIY approach to home decoration. All of these practices speak to the radical politics behind punk rock as a movement. The rejection (or total disregard for) private property made squatting an appealing alternative to ownership, and the collective house represented a more domesticated (and less risky) alternative.
Squatting, Archaeology, and Abandonment
Squatting is essentially an archaeological phenomenon; archaeologists are squatters who occupy and savor the abandoned corners of a society. While archaeology tends to be a form of high impact squatting which often leads to the destruction, punk squatting represents a whole series of ephemeral practices that can go almost undetected by subsequent visitors to the space. Like archaeology itself, the practice squatting challenge any simple view of abandonment and in turn challenges the notion of ownership, possession, and use that are vital in some way to our understanding of function within an archaeological context. So while archaeologists are squatters, like punks, the practice of squatting undermines basic assumptions that allow archaeology to function. Archaeologists, like squatters, put spaces in the margins of the mainstream world into use.
Recent attention to the practice of abandonment both within the archaeological record and in the American cities wracked by the recent economic downturn has tended to view the spaces of abandonment as tragic expressions of the ultimate futility of human efforts to transform the landscape or the false optimism of progress. Abandoned monumental architecture – especially hospitals, prisons, factories, churches, or public works – provided evidence for the cynicism of the punk world view as well as the backdrop for their ability live without these amenities.
Archaeological evidence for so-called squatters in the period of history that I study, Late Antiquity, almost beg such ideological questions. Were the Late Antique squatters in the monumental architecture of the earlier, Classical, era proto-punks who recognized and celebrated the futility of their predecessors? Should we view their re-use of abandoned spaces as critique?
At the same time the modern archaeologist as squatter likewise searches for fragments of the past – something useful among the neglected corners of society – in a utopian and ideological quest to produce a singular, uninterrupted world.
Formation Process and Provisional Discard
Bank's photographs capture the layered, weathered, look of group houses that both support the impecunious lifestyles of their punk residents as well as the chaotic, multi-generation application of DIY practices. The rooms that Bank's photographed were filled with objects out of context – junk – deployed to support lifestyles at the margins of capitalism. The houses stand as living testimony to the value quintessential archaeological practice of provisional discard. The pattern of occupation produces a stratigraphic space as each resident adds a layer of interpretation to what went before.
These houses take what archaeologists have sometimes seen as an almost subconscious or deeply structured processes of discard into a performative critique of society. Short term habitation practices, in turn, transform a series of practical choices into the chaotic pastiche of lived stratigraphy.
The link between these houses and punk music is clear. As we have observed before, punk music is a nostalgic, utopian, critique that seeks a more profound authority than punks observe from the world around them. The punk houses, the temporary residence of squatters, and the archaeology of a stratified, provisional existence, forms a physical counterpoint to the archaeological overtones in punk music.
Just some quick hits on a cloudy but warmish North Dakota morning:
- If you haven't checked out Teaching Thursday or Topos/Chora now is the time to do it. View Topos/Chora with any browser other than Internet Explorer.
- It's a fun and busy time here at UND:
- Wednesday, February 24, 2010: The Elwyn B. Robinson Lecture: Digital Archaeology: Technology in the Trenches
- Thursday, March 5, 2010: The Robert Wilkins' Lecture: Robin Jensen presenting "Living Water: Rituals, Spaces, and Images of Early Christian Baptism"
- Thursday, March 5, 2010: The Red River Valley History Conference (more soon!)
- Tuesday, March 23, 2010 – Saturday, March 27, 2010: 41st Annual UND Writers Conference.
- These seem hardly even fun to watch. At least the test series had drama.
- Some fun chatter among my public history interns.
- This is a very nice guide to preparing data for digital publication. Note the emphasis on peer-review. Very cool.
- Thurston Moore is definitely a Punk Archaeologist and his new blog proves it.
- I'm currently reading about The Mangle and love its utility in understanding the interplay between objects and humans.
- Does anyone use Scribd? Is it a convenient platform for a working papers site?
Have a good weekend!