Category Archives: Guest blogger

Ethics, Visual Media and the Digital

As c.10,000 anthropologists descend upon Washington, D.C. this week for the annual American Anthropological Association conference, my colleague Jonathan Marion (University of Arkansas) and I, alongside an international cadre of researchers, have joined a long-standing conversation about the relationship between digital cultures, visual media and ethics that will fully manifest on Saturday, but that exists online in multiple forms too (more below). That conversation is a complicated one, known to induce frustration, confusion, feelings of helplessness, despondency and, at times, defiance among those who engage in it. By this I refer to the business of negotiating (1) the ethical implications of our own research programmes, (2) the experience of formal ethical review, and (3) ethical issues borne out of the everyday actions of our communities of study. Such ‘business’ is seemingly made even more complicated when digital and visual media are brought into the fold.

Indeed, more than ten years ago Gross, Katz and Ruby published Image Ethics in the Digital Age, a pioneering volume whose topical concerns – privacy, authenticity, control, access and exposure – are arguably more conspicuous now than in 2003. Today, their complexities appear to be extending as digital interactions themselves extend, and the consequence is an inevitably fraught landscape of practice with debatable outcomes.

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Risk and Blame in L’Aquila

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Elizabeth Angell.

Yesterday an Italian appeals court reversed the convictions of all but one of seven scientists and experts charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to provide adequate warning before the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.  (The conviction of Bernardo De Bernardinis, former deputy head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, was partially upheld, but his sentence was reduced to two years instead of six.1) As an anthropologist studying disaster and risk, I’m doubly interested in the L’Aquila story, both as an example of the search for accountability in the aftermath of disaster, and for what it tells us about the ways knowledge, particularly knowledge about risk, circulates between expert communities of scientists and officials and broader publics.

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What archaeologists do: The site report & what it means to excavate a hard drive

Colleen Morgan and I are wrapping up the first chapter of MAD-P (Media Archaeology Drive Project), an experiment in extending archaeological method into the systematised analysis of media objects. This project began as a provocation — intended to prompt reflection (both within and beyond the discipline) on the place of archaeology in the wider media and cultural studies landscape. That provocation has exposed, we think, an obvious gap between what we do as anthropologists and what we could do, and the space that archaeology might occupy in variously exploring the past, exposing the present and anticipating or shaping the future. Our modest excavation of an abandoned hard drive hints at what happens when the taken-for-granted aspects of media products are subject to step-by-step archaeological recording. Such an investigative process draws your eye immediately to both the material and the discursive, to the layered nature of each, and to the impossibly entangled and slippery interconnections amongst them. The individual material constituents of the artifact, their assemblage, the labour behind their composition, and their various manifestations in both computer code and in complex virtual spaces are made obvious. Indeed, as discussed below, the entire concept of an artifact is destablised in such work. From our perspective, the productivity of such a project should not be underestimated in terms of its potential both to critique the past and to speculate about possible futures.

To facilitate MAD-P as a whole, Colleen prepared context sheets, using as a model those employed at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük. We recorded by hand and photographed or screenshot all elements of our process. We also kept an associated set of notes — perhaps the equivalent of a field diary, but logged electronically and as a combined output, weaving together observations that we’d made in dialogue with one another. Following the excavation, Colleen set about writing our archive report, a structured review of our field site, findings and interpretations, which we present here.

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What archaeologists do: Research Design and the Media Archaeology Drive Project (MAD-P)

For the past two weeks, Colleen Morgan and I have been outlining the background to an actual “media archaeology” project wherein we extend the intellectual and methodological toolkit of archaeology into the study of media objects (especially, digital media objects). The impetus for this project is outlined here, and the theoretical context here. Having set up the framework, we delve now into our actual research programme, which we affectionately refer to as MAD-P: the Media Archaeology Drive Project.

As our aim here is to model good practice, and to benefit from the collective intelligence of Savage Minds, we present below the project research design for constructive critique. In brief, we’ve excavated a found hard drive, and while in the next post we’ll document for you our process, our written and photographic records (stay tuned for a Harris Matrix), and our interpretative outputs, here we detail the nature of our field site and field method, ethical engagement with our excavation, and sustainability/access to our data.

Colleen is the principle author of this research design, and it’s important for me to say that I’ve learned much through my collaboration with her. As someone who has spent the past 10 years outside of the excavation trench, it was very meaningful for me to jump back in—using single context recording no less!—with Colleen as my guide. Here is the project whose results you’ll see reported over the next week on Savage Minds… Continue reading

What archaeologists do: Between archaeology and media archaeology

Archaeologists and antiquarians have been innovators, assemblers, critical interrogators, and remakers of media and media technologies for at least 500 years. Their outputs have been drawn into broader programmes of social theorising about modes of engagement, and they are often pioneers in the application of new media. While there are many people studying and broadcasting about these issues today – including a growing number of excellent blogs that deal directly or indirectly with the topic: see Digital Dirt|Virtual Pasts, Anarchaeologist, Prehistories, Archaeology and Material Culture, All Things Archaeological, Digging Deeper, Reimagining the Past, Rust Belt Anthro, in addition to some of the sites I highlighted in my last post), there still seems to be a conspicuous need to point out that this is not an uninterrogated subject matter.

There are a series of factors that I think contribute to this predicament wherein archaeology is simultaneously recognised as both highly and hardly theorised in terms of its mediation. I’ve discussed it elsewhere, but media studies tend to be relegated to the last chapter of archaeological textbooks, to little more than a single sentence of acknowledgement in other manuscripts, or to a discussion curtailed around only a few select modes of mass communication (i.e., film, television, the web). Where it does have presence, it’s often collapsed into a focus on “the public”, generating analysis that gravitates around popular culture alone.

But this situation is contradictory and fundamentally nonsensical.

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What archaeologists do

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.]

On Friday my colleague, Dr Colleen Morgan, and I will be co-delivering a paper at the University of Bradford’s Archaeologies of Media and Film conference in Bradford, UK. For anyone not familiar with the still-emerging field of “media archaeology,” this is an exciting event, featuring some of its pivotal thinkers (e.g. Jussi Parikka, Thomas Elsaesser), and a diversity of researchers discussing everything from 19th century stereoscopy to statistical diagrams and animated GIFs. As the organisers stated in their Call for Papers, the conference is a gathering of various interests, all converging on “an approach that examines or reconsiders historical media in order to illuminate, disrupt and challenge our understanding of the present and future.”

Colleen and I are talking on the last day, in the last block of parallel sessions, in a line-up of speakers who appear to be the only other archaeologists at the event. While I’ll delve into the details of “media archaeology” in a subsequent post, it is notable that archaeologists effectively never feature in this stream of enquiry. Rarely do archaeologists or heritage specialists attempt to overtly insert themselves into the media archaeological discourse (Pogacar 2014 is arguably one exception), and neither do media archaeologists typically reach out to archaeology for intellectual or methodological contributions (but see Mattern 2012, 2013; Nesselroth-Woyzbun 2013). Indeed, the media archaeological literature has explicitly distanced itself from archaeology, with the editors of one keystone volume writing:

“Media archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media—cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way. Industrial archaeology, for example, digs through the foundations of demolished factories, boarding-houses, and dumps, revealing clues about habits, lifestyles, economic and social stratifications, and possibly deadly diseases. Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations move fluidly between disciplines…” (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011).

I’ve been curious about this trend of archaeology-free media archaeology for a while now, particularly after attending Decoding the Digital last year at the University of Rochester (see Matthew Tyler-Jones’ excellent review of the meeting in two parts: I and II). At this conference, one of the attendees with an obvious media archaeological bent lamented the difficulties of studying abandoned virtual worlds wherein direct identification of human beings was essentially impossible (for all that was left in these worlds were fleeting digital traces). The implication was that few methodologies were available to negotiate this seemingly hopeless interrogative exercise.

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These are a few of my favorite things.

Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens. Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my favorite things. [Sound of Music (1965)]

When Rodgers and Hammerstein first produced this song in 1959 on Broadway, they may not have been thinking about debates related to ontology – but how wonderful to be able to list in the same breath raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens as favorite things.

Speaking of kittens, I recently watched the film Statues Also Die (1953), directed by Chris Marker (who is obsessed with cats) and Alain Resnais. A brilliant filming of a series of sculptures, masks and other things from Sub-Saharan Africa, set to music, edited to match the tempo, and a narrator posing many thoughtful questions. Through the use of music, playing with light and shadow, the directors of this film were able to  animate the masks in such a manner that allowed the things themselves to mount an anti colonial critique. One of the central questions of the film, why African art should be placed in ethnographic museums and western art should be placed in art museums is a question that continues to crop up even today.  The impact of this early questioning was so profound that the second half of the film was censored in France until the 1960s. I suspect it was not only because it was an anti colonial critique, but rather the manner in which it unfolded in film might have much to do with it as well.

There is something unflinchingly uncompromising in the face of things that we have in some way wronged or failed to recognize. It is remarkably uncanny. And I am only human to find some humanity in these sorts of encounters.

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Making archaeology popular.

First run in 1951, “What in the World?” was the Penn Museum‘s Peabody Award-winning popular weekly half hour television program on CBS in which a panel of experts would guess information related to four or five unidentified objects. This program was aired for 14 years and was wildly popular. The show began with an appropriately smoke/fog filled screen, mysterious music, and a haunting voice questioning, “What in the world..?”

Indeed, that is what I thought as well, when I first stumbled upon this show earlier this year.

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Thinking about Michael Brown and the African Burial Ground

Michael Brown was only 18 years old; he was unarmed and shot multiple times. I am exhausted by this news.

I cannot find words to express how such blatant racism makes a parent feel. It does not matter what we do for our children, it does not matter how educated we are, or what our politics are or really anything. What matters is the color of our skin. My heart goes out to Michael Brown’s parents and to parents world-wide who have the misfortune of having to contend with a child who has been shot for no reason other than for being different. In this case, it is not just about being different – it is about contending with a heritage of enslavement, the resultant race politics, and issues around police brutality in the United States. And this is not just about people of color: there is something unique, systemic, and targeted about the treatment of young African-American men in this country. And there is something awful about the violence of having to watch it happen over and over again on the television, on YouTube, in your Facebook feed, or on the blogs you read.

I remember watching Rodney King being repeatedly beaten by the LAPD in 1992. I was an undergraduate at the time, and I recall one of my professors likening the publicness of police brutality to the necessary publicness of lynching. Neither the image nor that statement have left my mind.

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Philately as archive: Stamps on sale (for 22 hrs) on Ebay as counter-heritage

Earlier this year (2014), I was cleaning out my room at my parents place in New Jersey, going through old boxes, trying to make sense of decades of saved letters, newspaper articles, early printed emails, and old address books. During this time, I came across my first (and only) philately kit with the stamp tongs, magnifying glass, and a perforation gauge, all barely recognizable with age. I must have been about eight when I was gifted this by my maternal grandmothers’ brother who had the year prior brought me a stamp book from England. I remember him telling me it was a fun and educational hobby and one that would make me worldly. The year between the two gifts, I was an avid and easy stamp collector. The year the kit came into my life, I spent much time picking stamps up carefully with my stamp tweezers/tongs and placing them into various stamp books, photo-albums-converted-into-stamp-books or slid them into translucent envelopes. I forgot to collect. I began to curate. I thought more about how groups of stamps might go together, rather than see what was in circulation. The kit-ed-ness created a structure of how the stamps were handled, thought of and collected. Admittedly, I was too young then to recognize how this might be a critical insight into the production of national archives, or to recognize the desire of my grandparents to make me ‘worldly’ at eight as some inflection of postcolonial aspiration.

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A roundabout way

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Uzma Z. Rizvi.]

In reading news about Gaza, Syria, and Iraq (among other places), I have been actively searching for spaces of humanity and hope in the world around me. Where is that space in which we trust other human beings, the people we do not know and may or may never intersect with again? I have been thinking about how we might design trust and co-operation into our urban fabric and the ways in which we traffic ourselves through our every day.

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Blame and responsibility: Concluding remarks [part four]

In the last post it became evident that there was some kind of mismatch between the concepts or understandings underlying the ‘responsibility process’ framework and the way that Yolŋu consider and attribute responsibility. There are, in fact, a few key points of difference, which also make sense of the attribution of responsibility in the case study.

So heres goes, as my Yolŋu sister would say, I will address each in turn before concluding in brief: Continue reading

Blame and responsibility: Part three

This is the third in a series of posts looking at the way Yolŋu people consider issues of blame and responsibility. You can find the introduction here, and the case study, here.

In the following, part three, I will work back through the anatomy of events in the case study using the Bernard Wiener’s framework for ‘the responsibility process’ – who was rebuked or punished? Who was considered blameworthy? And finally, what did people determine was the cause of the event that triggered reparatory action in the first place? Continue reading

Blame and responsibility: The case study [Part two]

[This is the second in a series of posts looking at the way Yolŋu people consider issues of blame and responsibility. You can find part one here.]

The setting for this case study is a remote island community in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. The population of the community is approximately 2,124. This is one five larger central communities in a region characterised by networks of significantly smaller remote Aboriginal Homeland communities. Continue reading

Blame and responsibility: An unfolding ethnographic drama [Part one]

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Bree Blakeman. Bree recently submitted her Ph.D. through The Australian National University in Canberra, though you may know her from her more usual online incarnation, as author of the blog Fieldnotes and Footnotes. This is the first in a series of posts looking at the way Yolŋu consider issues of blame and responsibility.]

I have been thinking a lot about comparative concepts of responsibility lately, particularly in light of recent publications on morality and ethics. Given this, and the fact my political and theoretical views get airing-enough elsewhere, I thought I would take this opportunity to share one of my favourite ethnographic case studies to give a sense of the way that Yolŋu people consider issues of blame and responsibility. To this end I will present an unfolding ethnographic drama over a series of posts. Continue reading