Savage Minds Notes and Queries in Anthropology Tue, 30 Sep 2014 08:39:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What archaeologists do: The site report & what it means to excavate a hard drive Tue, 30 Sep 2014 08:39:44 +0000 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 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.

What is an archive report?

Following archaeological excavations, it is generally expected that the primary investigation team writes a preliminary archive report. This report details the stratigraphy of the excavation in stratigraphic order, from the earliest activity until the latest–what could be considered a “bottom-up” approach. Along with stratigraphic details, we discuss any notable finds, and provide an initial phasing for the site. By phasing, we mean that we group archaeologically-ascertained events together, such as major building events, fires, or architectural changes. When sites contain a multitude of archaeologically-identifiable events, or “contexts”, this endeavor requires a mastery of stratigraphic understanding. To hone such mastery, we typically draw upon a Harris Matrix, a graphic representation of stratigraphic relationships. In the case of the Media Archaeology Drive Project, we’ve limited the excavations of our found hard drive to an extent that the stratigraphy is simple and major phasing is unnecessary. Still, in the spirit of archaeological media archaeology, we present our excavation as a site report.

These reports are usually articulated in coded language, primarily only comprehensible to experts and written in the passive tense. There is much to be critiqued about both the style and the legacy of such reporting, and we note with some despair the lack of progress over the years in rethinking its dimensions (although a not insignificant number of scholars have commented on, and indeed, creatively experimented with it; e.g., see Beranek 2008, Mickel 2012, Praetzellis et al. 1998 in the journal Historical Archaeology) . Where site reports prove useful, we’d argue, is in instilling care for process and interpretation. They can work as a meaningful pedagogical strategy, aiding in thinking through the fit between disparate data gathered during archaeological investigation. They can be used to reflexively review intellectual processes during excavation and to reevaluate interpretations after the fact. They can provide a record for future researchers to understand what has been systematically destroyed through excavation.

MAD-P Context Sheet
MAD-P Context Sheet [unless otherwise noted, all photos in this blog post are by the authors, Colleen Morgan & Sara Perry]
For these reasons, we have invested in our own MAD-P report, reproduced below. For reference, the numbers in parentheses or square-brackets identify each “context”, which we recognise as archaeological events. Parentheses identify positive events and square-brackets identify negative events, or “cuts.” Each of these contexts has been fully described using a standard context sheet, drawn by hand, and photographed. Cardinal directions were somewhat arbitrary, but for descriptive purposes, north is always at the top of the photograph. Measurements were generally rounded to the closest millimeter.

Sara measuring for MAD-P
Sara measuring for MAD-P

MAD-P Archive Report

The Media Archaeology Drive Project centers on the excavation of the contents and material of a Samsung hard drive, produced in Korea in 2004, and subsequently bought by the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. The drive is 100mm x 150mm and 30mm in depth. It is silver, and has technical specifications and other identifying text on a white label on its exterior. As it is a portable device, other contextual information is variable, but the bulk of the excavation work was performed by Colleen Morgan and myself in my office in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (UK). As we excavated in the confines of the office, the weather was not a factor (as is typically the case)–but it was sunny and lovely outside. As Colleen notes, she found herself wishing that she could be in the open with a shovel, instead of in an office with a dozen tiny screwdrivers. I thought the opposite.


Context 18 - Image 1617
Context 18 – Image 1617

At the heart of the hard drive was a circuit board (18), green (5G 4/6 on the Munsell color chart) measuring 100mm x 90mm x 5mm. It was bumpy to touch, and contained metal inclusions printed on the board. On the east side of the board was a black interface. The circuit board (18) was covered by a small piece of black (10YR 2/1) cloth (17), placed between the circuit board and the plastic body of the hard drive (16). This cloth conformed to the outline of the circuit board on the north, west, and south sides (90mm x 70mm x 1mm), and was spongy and smooth.

The black (10YR 2/1) plastic body of the hard drive (100mm x 150mm x 20mm) lay on top of the black cloth (17) and provided one of the main structural elements of the hard drive–many of the elements of the drive were attached to this body. There was a circular cut [15] in the plastic body, through which a silver metal spindle (13) interacted with the circuit board (18).

Context 16, 14, 13, 12, 11 in Image 1606
Context 16, 14, 13, 12, 11 in Image 1606

Also set into the black plastic body (16) was an actuator in the north-east corner (12), with a ribbon that allowed interaction with the reader arm in the south-east corner (11). The reader arm was sandwiched between two metal plates, at depth (14) mounted the reader arm onto the black plastic body, and (10) which kept the reader arm in place. The plates were relatively uniform, both measuring 50mm x 50mm x 2mm. A silver platter (9), 100mm x 100mm x 1mm was mounted onto the spindle to the western extent of the hard drive and kept in place by a washer and four screws. All of these contexts were secured by the silver metal case, (8).


The second phase explored by our MAD-P team was the user interface installed on the hard drive. This was a mistake, as there was an intervening phase that was not investigated, but this will be addressed in the discussion below.

The excavation of the user interface allows for some reconsideration of understanding the hard drive as a stratigraphic sequence. Our method, “drilling down” through the folder structure of the user interface mimics our expectations of archaeological excavation, by moving down or deeper into the folder structure. Yet at “depth” the icon that represents the goal of our excavation might be temporally older or younger than the folder that contains it; the very presence of the icon has changed the temporal signature of the folder. Further complicating this excavation was the concept of depth as applied to a user interface. To record depth, MAD-P decided to use the “doubleclick” (DC) as a unit of measurement (see below for critique of this decision). For the purposes of this investigation, we’ll sidestep this spatial and temporal snarl and treat the folder structure as a stratigraphic sequence.

Screenshot of David Byrne music file
Screenshot of David Byrne music file

At depth, a music file (7), appeared as a 150mm x 150mm window, black with a yellow line, blue button, and a small rainbow with a face. This window provided a visual representation of an auditory event, a song “Like Humans Do” from the David Byrne album “Look into the Eyeball.” Further discussion of this context (7) is appended to the stratigraphic report (below). This file was contained within a blue and white icon (6), a 15mm x 5mm x 1DC, with an eighth note (quaver) and two frames of movie reel, and the label “music.asx”. This icon was one of several contained in the My Music folder (5), which were labelled “,” “music.bmp,” and “music.wma.” These were not given context numbers in the interest of simplicity, but a further investigation would have included them within our sequence. The “My Music” folder (5) 20mm x 5mm x 1DC had a time stamp of 02/08/2010, the latest in our sequence, which could provide our terminus post quem (TPQ), date after which the hard drive had stopped being used. The My Music folder (5) was yellow, black and white, with a beamed eighth note, in contrast to the single eighth note apparent in the music.asx icon (6).

Screen shot of Shared Documents > My Music folder
Screen shot of Shared Documents > My Music folder

The folder structure that contained the My Music folder (5) was relatively simple, with Shared Documents, (4) a yellow 30mm x 5mm x 1DC icon contained within “All Users” (3), contained within “Documents and Settings” (2). Also contained within “Documents and Settings” were the folders “Heather” and “Michael.” These folders were password protected and we did not investigate them, as outlined in our research design ethics statement. Casual enquiry in the department did not reveal the identity of these individuals and they remain unidentified. The top level icon, Local Disk (E:) (1) was gray, 25mm x 5mm x 0DC, and appeared on the desktop of my computer.

MAD-P Harris Matrix
MAD-P Harris Matrix


The formalized strategy employed during our MAD-P excavation led to several unexpected problems and insights that may be productive for future research. Perhaps the biggest omission in the project is represented by the break in the project’s Harris Matrix. There is nothing connecting Phase I and Phase II of the excavations because we did not excavate the code that connects the hard drive with the user interface. This would have added considerable depth and complexity to our analysis, and is a priority for future investigations.

Secondly, the anchors of archaeological investigation–temporality and spatial distribution–were slippery and indistinct during the excavation. The decision to measure depth in double-clicks added some coherence to the idea of folder stratigraphy, but it is untested as a relative measure for evaluating the overall folder hierarchy and would require more investigation. As noted in discussion of our process (e.g., with @adreinhard), the legibility and longevity of the DC as a unit of measurement is debatable.

Thirdly, again with reference to measurement, and as noted by designer @iankirkpatrick, in the future icons should be measured in pixel width, rather than in actual mm.  As each screen will obviously have bigger or smaller pixels, the icon will be different in size depending on the screen & its resolution.  The only really consistent measurement of icons, then, is pixel width & height.

Forthly, formal context sheets provided an important continuity in the investigation, but would have to be modified for future research. Even so, some of the formal prompts, such as “texture” and “inclusions” and “execution” provided a welcome decentering in our excavation of the hard drive. What is the texture of a file folder?

1620 - Image of MAD-P artifacts in bags
1620 – Image of MAD-P artifacts in bags

Finally, MAD-P revealed a certain ambivalence in archaeological definitions of artifacts, contexts, sites, and sequences. During the investigation of both of the phases–the hard drive and the user interface–we moved back and forth between our understanding of how to evaluate an artifact and how to record an archaeological site. The destabilization of these definitions was an unexpected resistance to archaeological investigation from these media, and this resonates through our subsequent archaeological practice. This ambivalence can also count as one of the benefits of the investigation.

Additional benefits reinforce the utility of the archaeological method. The best example is the continued usefulness of drawing in archaeological recording. During MAD-P, we sketched each context on the back of our context sheets, and created a formal scaled drawing on permatrace. Interestingly, the sketches were very useful during the investigation of the user interface phase, while the drawings on permatrace were more useful during the hard drive phase. Sketching user interface icons was jarring, and felt silly, but became immediately compelling. Drawing the object of your research encourages a depth of involvement, forcing your attention on its complete visualization and how it interacts with the surrounding context. The formalized drawings of the hard drive on permatrace, a semi-transparent tracing paper, allowed us to overlay the drawings to understand the stratigraphy of the hard drive and the relationships of the components to each other.

Another affordance of the archaeological investigation was the formalized separation of the constitutive components of the hard drive into finds bags. This provided an interesting contrast to the relative ephemerality of the “finds” of the user interface investigation, various folders and music files, though they were contained on the platter of the hard drive. These user interface artifacts, though not as apparently present and sorted into bags, are actually more omnipresent–the best “find” during the investigation was the David Byrne song hidden under a generic label in an unremarkable folder structure. The song, Like Humans Do, was included in Windows XP to demonstrate the Windows Media Player, leading us to wonder–was it the most ubiquitous song in the world? Perhaps now eclipsed by the U2 album, Songs of Innocence recently embedded in iTunes? [As it happens, following Colleen’s presentation at Bradford’s media archaeology conference, @pbenzon has pointed out that the Nokia Tune may, in fact, be the frontrunner--a subject that’s been explored by Jeff Thompson.]

Most importantly, MAD-P was conceived as a critical, creative exploration of the intersections between media archaeology and archaeology, but it was also an incredibly fun project. Applying archaeological methods to a computer screen was the best kind of mischief–it encouraged critical play to reconfigure our approach to research. This mode of critical play is being more fully investigated in our Heritage & Play working group at the University of York, and is part of a larger series of questions that we are exploring around the relationship between doing, making, knowing, learning and the crafting of expertise. We would have liked to engage with some of these questions in more depth here on Savage Minds, but this month has flown by for us, with MAD-P rolling out alongside various other related projects, including Colleen’s recent Archaeology and Minecraft event at York. We will continue our work, then, on our own web profiles, so please stay tuned via @clmorgan and @ArchaeologistSP.


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Writing to Live: On Finding Strength While Watching Ferguson Mon, 29 Sep 2014 18:56:10 +0000 This entry is part 5 of 5 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Whitney Battle-Baptiste as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Whitney is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, and is a historical archaeologist specializing in race, gender, and cultural landscapes. She is the author of Black Feminist Archaeology (Left Coast Press, 2011), and of articles on slavery in the southern USA including “Sweepin’ Spirits: Power and Transformation on the Plantation Landscape.”  Her latest research is at the Millars Plantation on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas.)

I am a writer.

This simple statement is a recent revelation. Although I am a scholar who reads and interprets, thinks critically about theory and teaches many aspects of writing, those actions have never made me a writer. Claiming “writer” was never something I thought about. The strength I pulled from writing was from reading the words of others, not writing my own. As a child, books kept me grounded and helped me to imagine. As I matured, books became a source of the familiar, tools I used to orient myself and keep connected after I left home. I was born in the early 1970s, on the island of Manhattan, and grew up in the shadows of tall buildings with concrete at my feet. I read about survival, never wrote about it. I was one of those folks who could never maintain a journal for more than a week. I always leaned on the strength of others to work through life’s ups and downs. These words were always healing, grounding, necessary for survival.

In the early years of graduate school, I felt lost and out of place. I was far from home physically and mentally. I was leaning on the words of others again. Yet, I saw the opportunity to begin to weave my own history into my scholarship, probably a reason why I chose anthropology. Today, I use words to help me understand the world around me, the cyclical rhythm of time and space. I now know the difference between the words of others and the words I pull together, they have become my method of healing and grounding myself.

I am a writer even when the words escape me.

Recently, I have not been able to pull my words together, for they don’t come very easily. Making sense of the world around me is getting more complicated. When I search for the healing properties words held in the past, I only find pain, hurt and sorrow. I sense a disconnect between my identity as scholar and my identity as writer. As an archaeologist, my scholarship encompasses the material aspects of race, gender, and class within the fluid boundaries of the African Diaspora. My work is settled firmly in the past, yet these days, my thoughts are stuck in current moments of injustice, racism, and death. The murders of Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, and countless others were making my research feel hollow. And I knew I was due to contribute a blog post about writing. I was paralyzed because I could not shake this hollow feeling. As I watched the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri through social media, I began to understand why I felt disjointed. Life is connected to our scholarship, that is why I am a writer.

I write about issues of race, gender and class in the United States and parts of the Caribbean. I teach about slavery and colonialism, racism and the realities of oppression throughout the world. And when one thinks globally, it is hard not to see the connection between the wars abroad and the wars at home. As I watched the militarization of a place like Ferguson, I turned to my father, a veteran who toured during the post-Korean conflict to shed some light on how this could happen here. I could not believe that even as someone who grew up in a place where we could not trust law enforcement, I had never seen it like that, so obvious and so transparent. I felt traumatized, but in a different way. The conversations with my father helped me to think more critically about how I study and teach about race and gender and the lived experiences of people “on the ground.” Why was I surprised that I was looking at full-on military accessories to combat unrest and dissent on the streets of Ferguson? Why was I surprised that, according to my brother, a veteran of Desert Storm, the spoils of war had made it into the vaults of a local police station? For there are many people all around us who live with the wars they left behind and keep these memories close to their chests. I had to fill the emptiness in order to write, so I looked to the people close to me to help make sense of it all. You see, almost every man in my family has been in the military. I felt as if I was seeing the wars come home, as my father and brother helped me to find those missing words. I was able to pull strength from their words in order to reconnect my multiple identities. The writer and the scholar, or maybe the scholar-writer within.

I learned more than I expected from these two men. I began to think differently about race and trauma from the men in my family and I learned just how close the affects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were to me. These conversations made me understand why Ferguson affected me so deeply. For when PTSD and race come together, a different story emerges. It also cut deeper because I now have two sons of my own to raise in this country that is so committed to violence. I am also able to expand my understanding of the intersection of racism, gender, trauma and pain through their eyes and words. The work of a writer is hard at times. But when you pull those words together perhaps, in some small way, they can be used to heal, ground and recuperate yourself and others. Thank you to my father and my brother, you helped me to fill the emptiness and find the words again.

I write to understand. I write to heal. I write to teach. I write to live.

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Site Updates Mon, 29 Sep 2014 09:07:19 +0000 I’ve been working on updating the site over the past week, adding some new functionality and trying to fix some long-standing problems.

You will notice that some posts, like Carole’s Writer’s Workshop are now grouped together with a special series link that appears at the top. Although we already have category tags that can do this, we hope this will help highlight some of the special series we regularly host on this blog.

You will now see 3 “possibly related posts” linked at the bottom of every post. Having been doing this for a few years now, we have a huge back catalog and we hope posting these will get people to explore the site a little deeper. These are only “possibly” related because the suggestions are made by an algorithm, so don’t blame us if the suggestions are way off!

We’ve also implemented page caching along with image and code optimization. These should hopefully serve up pages faster, with less of a burden on our servers. If you notice anything different other than the fact that pages are loading faster then something is probably wrong. Please let us know.

One thing that is gone is the WordPress “like” button. The way it was implemented was causing some problems. If I can figure out how to bring it back, I will, but for now it is gone. Sorry about that.

I’m not done with all I have planned yet. I’m still working on trying to clean up some layout bugs, especially with the mobile site. Hopefully that will get done in the next few weeks. If anyone out there is a webdesign genius who can help us clean up some of our code to better conform to web standards and further speed up the site, please let me know. We aren’t planning on another redesign anytime soon, just trying to squeeze the most out of what we already have.

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Around the Web Digest: Week of September 21 Mon, 29 Sep 2014 02:53:13 +0000 Here are some items you may have missed this week in anthropology. If you have something that you’d like me to share next week, email me or hit me on Twitter @dtpowis.

Bruce O’Neill wrote about living a life of boredom in Bucharest. (Allegra Lab)

Anne-Marie Martindale talked about ethics and the face, in the context of facial transplant. (Allegra Lab)

Sharon Abramowitz listed the reasons that anthropologists are needed by the global response to Ebola. (Somatosphere)

Susan Lepselter moved towards an ethnography of feeling. (CASTAC Blog)

Anthony Stavrianakis related impatience to assisted suicide. (ARC)

This is why liberals love the Disease Theory of Addiction, written by a liberal who hates it. (Pacific Standard)

The names of our diseases carry meaning and the way we use Ebola is political, racist, and xenophobic. (Salon)



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University of Chicago ‘suspends’ its Confucius Institute Fri, 26 Sep 2014 18:30:49 +0000 While the Internet has been aglow with hype about new social media network Ello, another story has been the rounds and deserves special note here: The University of Chicago will not renew the Confucius Institute that is operating in its Hyde Park campus.

The Economist has a piece on Chicago’s about-face which is a good summary  of the issue, and Inside Higher Ed has an even longer piece on the topic. Basically, many academics at the university felt that the Confucius Institute, a cultural outreach center with roots in the Chinese government, went beyond the role played by other cultural institutions such as the Germany’s Goethe Institut and France’s Alliance Française — specifically, they worried that the Institute’s presence interfered with free speech and open debate about the actions of China and its government.

What does this have to do with anthropology, other than the fact that it is part of our global, cross-cultural world? The answer is that much of the opposition to the Institute came largely from well-known anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who wrote about the problems of the Institute at The Nation as well as here at Savage Minds. Furthermore, given Chicago’s national status, this decision will probably make other universities think seriously about their own relationship with the Confucius Institute program.

There are several important points that remain clear now: Was it pressure from faculty or from China that led to the UC’s administration to suspend the center? Just how final is this ‘suspension’? Whatever the answer to these questions eventually turns out to be, its gratifying to see that, for the time being, the university is acting in accordance with its core values, and that anthropologists have played an important role in this process.

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The Semiotics of Bubble Tea Wed, 24 Sep 2014 11:08:10 +0000 Milk Tea
Bubble Milk Tea

Rather than writing a a straightforward review of Paul Manning’s wonderful The Semiotics of Drink and Drinking (winner of last year’s Sapir Prize), I thought I’d instead engage with the book by endeavoring to apply Paul’s ideas and analytic techniques to a context which is more familiar to me than post-soviet Georgia: contemporary tea culture in Taiwan.

For those who don’t know, bubble tea is a sweet milk tea, often served cold, filled with chewy tapioca balls one drinks up through an extra-large straw. It was first invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and soon became a global sensation. It is now even available at the McDonald’s run McCafé shops in Germany.

The McCafé ad campaign (embedded above) strikes me as a bit offensive, but it serves to highlight the global spread of Taiwanese-style milk tea. I think it also reflects the association between the drink and an exotic Asian (post)modernity. Here, however, I intend to focus on the semiotics of milk tea in the Taiwanese context; using milk tea to look at attempts to develop a uniquely Taiwanese form of modernity.

Before we get to that, first a little bit of semiotics. One of the joys of Paul’s Peircean approach to semiotics is that it takes seriously the “materiality of the sign.” That is to say, the physical aspects of signs matter, not just what they symbolically represent.

The example Peirce gives is the word ‘man’ written in different media: from ‘semiotic’ perspective, insofar as we are interested only in the capacity of these different written forms to convey the word ‘man’, it hardly matters whether the word is written with ink on paper, chalk on a slate, a marking pen on a wall, or scrawled with a knife in a desk. But from the perspective of a janitor trying to clean up a classroom, or an administrator trying to determine whether the inscription counts as proper use of the classroom or vandalism, the differences in the material realizations of the sign make a good deal of difference, and these various ‘material’ differences can take on a material and semiotic life of their own subsequently.

If various material differences can take on a semiotic life of their own, then something like the difference between black and oolong teas1 needs to be taken seriously when talking about the semiotics of drink. Not just the taste, but the technology and labor of production and consumption matter as well. One of the main differences between oolong and black teas is how long each is fermented, with longer fermentation tending to make teas both more bitter and more highly caffeinated. Traditionally oolong teas are made from whole leaves from a single origin, not chopped and blended like English style black teas.2

Photo by Dimitri Fedorov.
Photo by Dimitri Fedorov.

The drinking of oolong teas in Taiwan is simultaneously fetishized and informal. Frequently, when visiting someone’s home, you will be served tea in a quick and efficient manner from a tea set that contains a kettle for boiling water, a pot for brewing, a decanter pot, and small cups for drinking. A more formal version might also include special smelling cups into which tea is first poured and then emptied, leaving behind only the tea’s unique fragrance. There is a considerable expertise involved in knowing how to rinse the tea, how long each tea should be brewed, how many brewings can be had from a pot before the leaves must be changed.

The production of bubble milk tea couldn’t be more different. Milk tea in Taiwan is only rarely sold in a cafe with seats and tables. It is primarily sold on the street and served in paper cups sealed with an air-tight plastic seal. The sealing machines are a marvel of modernity that can seal hundreds of cups in an hour.

The straws are sharpened at one end so that you can puncture the seal without making a mess. This means that milk tea is not designed as a social drink like coffee or traditional Chinese teas (more about those in a bit), but is designed to give one a quick pick-me-up while working or shopping.

In its modernity, milk tea shares much in common with the martini, discussed in Paul’s chapter on gin. While not an exact match, there are three broad similarities between the two. First of all, like gin, the production process of milk tea, “involves the progressive removal of what could be called ‘natural’ sensuous qualisigns.” That is to say, whereas the drinking of oolong teas emphasizes the original tea leaves, with the technique of brewing subtly crafted to the particular sensuous qualities of each type of tea, milk tea seeks to hide the bitter quality of black tea in “vast concoctions of milk, cream, and . . . syrups.”3

Secondly, Paul discusses how the martini glass evokes aesthetic modernism. Here, however, there are slight differences, as the disposable plastic milk tea cups, with their printed labels, strike me as more postmodern than modern. And whereas Paul sees technique as important in the mixing of a martini (“the making of the martini is a connoisseur performance that focuses on the ritual of the mixture process . . . ‘the martini rite’”), the mixing of milk tea is entirely mechanized. The video below shows how it works. Although milk tea is made in a classic cocktail shaker, a machine does the actual shaking:

Third, Paul discusses how cocktail parties where martinis were drunk, unlike the formal dinners of a previous era, “accentuate the participant as an unattached individual whose gender and marital status is irrelevant.” Similarly, one can see a contrast between the drinking of oolong tea in the living room, served by the family patriarch, with milk teas served on the street by anonymous (often young and female) workers. The individualism of milk tea has even created concerns about its environmental impact. A recent news story I saw on TV reported on offices that sought to reduce environmental and economic waste by making large vats of different flavored teas for the workers. One of the workers interviewed pointed out how difficult it was to meet everyone’s individual tastes.

Recent developments, however, are slowly changing how Taiwanese think about milk tea. While milk tea was originally identified as a modern, westernized, product — I remember one tea shop in the early aughts that had a (non-functioning) URL instead of a name — now there is a kind of retraditionalization taking place. Many tea stalls now offer milk tea made with oolong teas. Near my office is one tea shop whose flagship product is a “Tieguanyin Latte,” a drink made from a strong, highly fermented, oolong tea, fresh milk (as opposed to powdered creamer often used in milk teas), and served without tapioca balls. Nor is this retraditionalization limited to their teas. The front page of the website shows their typical storefront, replete with red Chinese lantern, wooden benches, and other signs of traditional nostalgia.

Retro Modern Tea Stall
Retro Modern Tea Stall

This same attempt to brand Taiwanese modernity as grounded in historical nostalgia with a hint of the jazz age can also be found in the recent Taiwanese film Twa Tiu Tiann 大稻埕, a kind of Taiwanese Back to the Future.

In part this derives from the nationalist desire to define Taiwanese modernity (and past) as different from that of China, but it also reflects a dissatisfaction with the mechanized individualism of modern life. It also tastes really good.

  1. If I had more space I’d talk about green teas as well, but maybe that will have to wait for another post. 
  2. It should be mentioned that in Taiwan one can get whole-leaf black teas that are slightly slightly less fermented, allowing them to be drunk more like an oolong, without milk or sugar. 
  3. Paul gets this quote from this Markman Ellis piece on Starbucks. 
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Abbott’s “Digital Paper”: the best book about research EVAR Mon, 22 Sep 2014 20:26:49 +0000 As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I occasionally sang with Andrew Abbott in choir — he was the bass in suspenders. It was only after moving halfway around the world that I began reading his work. I quickly became a fan. Abbott is one of the most thoughtful people writing today about what specialist knowledge is, and how we produce it. A historical sociologist with strong quantitative skills, he’s produced books on the history of academic disciplines and the dynamics of their formation and professionalization. But he’s also produced practical pieces about how students and professors develop ideas, and how to have new ones. There’s also an ‘applied’ dimension to his work — he produced the report on the University of Chicago’s library which made the bold move to double down on physical book purchases in what was supposed to be a digital future.

Abbott’s latest book, Digital Paper, continues this focus on the sociology of knowledge production by providing us with a “library methods” book: a ‘how to do fieldwork’ book, but for people who do library research. Andrew Abbott writing a book on how to do research? I was destined to like this book before I opened it up. But having read it now, and with a critical (if biased) eye, I can honestly say that every student, professor, and intellectual needs to read it. It’s a superb ‘how to’ guide about writing a long research paper or thesis. But it’s more than that. It’s an entire theory of how scholars pursue scholarship. It’s a memoir of Abbott’s own research. It’s a pessimistic and slightly misanthropic ode to a quiet world of well-ordered card catalogs destroyed by the garish vulgarity of online databases. It’s an epigrammatic summary of a career’s worth of knowledge. It is — yes, I really mean this — life-affirming. It improved my own ability to do research. Everyone needs to read it. You need to read it.

Digital Paper is organized into 12 chapters. Abbot takes nothing for granted — chapter 3 explains how to find books in the stacks using a call number, and how an academic citation is structured. Other chapters offer tours through more advanced topics, such as how to read a text (at what speed, and with what sort of focus) and how to write with style.  As a result, Digital Paper can help total novices learn their way around a library.

But for seasoned researchers, the book is also (as I said above) life-affirming. Easily my favorite chapter is the second, which provides an autobiographical account of the research that went into Abbott’s paper “Library Research Infrastructure for Humanistic and Social Scientific Scholarship in the Twentieth Century”. I had read this paper — which is superb — before reading Digital Paepr. Reading the story of how “Library Research” was produced was absolutely fascinating. In fact, I think if you just assigned the “Library Research Infrastructure” paper and chapter 2 of Digital Paper to students, you’d have a pretty good sense of Abott’s wider project.

But most importantly, the story Abbott tells in chapter 2 is thrilling. When he decides to check out every thesis written in the University of Chicago library school, you gasp at his audacity. When he unexpectedly finds biographies of great librarians while browsing through the Zs, your heart starts beating faster. The chapter is, in sum, a vindication for the obsessive research who lives in a world full of people who don’t care about bibliographic minutiae. Abbott reminds us that our insane desire for thorough and exhaustive knowledge of a topic is one of our most valuable traits — all that stands between the present and a future where the highest quality social scientific information available is Buzzfeed lists of celebrities who look like Otters. And for students who think we’re crazy when we say “Why don’t you read 400 things for your comps list and then decide on 30 to actually be tested on” We can now point to Abott’s book and say: This is how The Quality does it.

So the book has basic chapters for beginners as well as stories of expert research. But most of the chapters in Digital Paper, however, are well-pitched for the intermediate researcher, and move step by step through a research project: the preliminary phase of slowly getting a sense of what you are actually writing about, the mid phase process of developing bibliography on your project, the art of browsing the stacks, how to analyze material, and how to keep a file system you use to keep track of the project. Most of the chapters about the ‘mid phase’ of a project. The end phase receives relatively little attention because at that point, as Abbott point out, it is mostly a matter of assembling the paper out of bits of things you have already written.

On the one hand, Abbott makes a very abstract argument about how library research (and actually all research) works: It is ‘nonlinear’. By this he means that other manuals on how to do research are wrong: You don’t start with a lit review, then take notes, and then write up your paper. Rather, people are always already multitasking — as we spend time in the library or on the Internet we are silently engaging in all of these ‘stages’ of research simultaneously. As these processes cycle over and over, we feed them with material that sparks new ideas. As Abbott puts it, “serendipity is not an unusual, once-in-a-lifetime, even once-in-a-project thing. It is the one constant factor in library research.”

This abstract view of library research might be a little too schematic for the undergraduates who read Digital Paper in order to learn how to find books in the library. I think Abbott’s big-picture view of research will resonate most with professors and graduate students. But Digital Paper is not as dense (and has more signposting) than “The Traditional Future: A Computational Theory of Library Research”, where Abbott earlier made this argument. It is also much more concrete than “Methods of Discovery”, an earlier book of Abbott’s which zooms the camera out a bit too much. Digital Paper represents a plateau in Abbott’s writing on the subject of library research, and has hit the sweet spot between theory and accessibility. That’s one of the reasons that its so great.

One way in which Abbott helps bring this down to earth is his concrete instructions on how to find information. Many of us hate Google, but few of us hate it as much as Andrew Abbott, because few of us understand how search algorithms well enough to really be irked by them. ‘If you are looking for a needle,’ Abbot writes (I’m paraphrasing here), ‘why look in a haystack when you could go to a needle store’? By this he means that researchers should focus on high-quality sources, even if they don’t find everything (most things, Abbott believes, are probably not worth finding). Abbot prefers Web of Science searches (ranked by ‘most cited’) to Google. He’s also a fan of high-quality bibliographies, which can be out of date but still have a better signal to noise ratio than the Internetz.

I was skeptical about these recommendations, since my three biggest search engines are Google, Amazon, and Google. This is ok for me since I work in a small, young field (Melanesia), know most people in it, and I’m good at filtering noisy Google searches. So I tried a topic I’m interested in and don’t know very much about: Ernst Mach’s influence on Boasian anthropology.

Thanks to JSTOR, you can find and download Robert Lowie’s correspondence with Ernst Mach in a minute or two, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent entry on Mach… if you speak Philosophy. Mach’s writings are available on So, yes: the Internet works and a tremendous amount of stuff is available… if you can make sense of it. But surely someone must have already written on this topic? There were scattered discussions of Mach (in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Deacon’s biography of Elsie Clews Parsons, and so on), but nothing sustained.

But lo, using a World of Science search ranked by citation, I discovered a book review that led me to John Blackmor’s 2009 book Ernst Mach’s Influence Spreads which includes a chapter on his influence on anthropology. In the end, the chapter was not as strong as it could have been, but the process of finding it did help me understand how Abbott’s methods work for students who don’t have expert knowledge of the subject. So yes, I now do research differently because of Digital Paper.

Another major thing I learned from Digital Paper was the value of project-specific files. Abbott is (proudly) a bit a dinosaur and still prefers to work in paper, with a collection of folders for each specific project. He still does this even when he’s working digitally, and claims that after teaching his students the benefits of paper files, the scales fall from their eyes and they all begin taking notes with pen and paper. Initially, I was like: Well, that’s very sweet, and Abbott is entitled to his opinion.

But then I slowly realized that over the years, my library of PDFs had basically turned into a noisy intranet of its own and that my reading notes, although well organized, were ramifying out of control. So for my last article — on the influence of population biology on the thought of Jared Diamond — I tried Abbott’s approach of having a separate database for every file.

Again, I was happily surprised by how much better this worked than my usual methods. Creating smaller databases allowed me to find needles out on the Internet and organize them in my own needle shop, rather than just shoving them into the smaller haystacks that lived on my computer. I don’t think Abbott completely sold me on paper files, but he did sell me on project-specific files.

The problem with project-specific files is that each project makes sense, but your overall biography starts to lose coherence — you don’t anymore have a personal library or personal notes, its just one bloody project after another. But this is part of the sobering truth that Abbott conveys to us: Life is a coffee plantation. It’s your job, as a social scientist, to turn it into a cup of espresso. We are filters through which tremendous amounts of information pass, and in the end the final product of the research process is a paper which condenses and explains life — and a researcher who is a better filter than they were before. Scholars are not ‘learned’ in the sense that they know a lot, because we forget most of what we know. We hold on to it long enough to turn it into findings. Then we move on. As anyone who has ever written a piece knows, your readers often know more about your topic than you do since they read it more recently than you wrote it. From libraries we come, and to libraries we return.

There is a lot more to say about Abbott’s book — his advice on doing mini-analyses is very relevant for long term fieldwork, for instance — but in the end I’ll just conclude by saying that Digital Paper is truly something special. I can’t recommend it enough to students, professors, and researchers.

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What archaeologists do: Research Design and the Media Archaeology Drive Project (MAD-P) Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:22:08 +0000 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…

Media Archaeology Drive Project (MAD-P): Research Design

MAD-P Staff


Hard disk drives have been used to store data of all types since their introduction by IBM in 1956. Since that time, hard disk drives have gotten progressively smaller and less expensive, thus integrating them into the daily life of most people in industrialized nations. Even as they have become pervasive in daily life, they are rarely visible until they stop functioning, sometimes resulting in a catastrophic loss of data. The term “Data Archaeology” has been created to characterize both the attempt to recover data after the failure of a hard drive and to investigate obsolete data formats. Similarly, the term “Digital Archaeology” is used to characterize the investigation of old, out of date websites, and the growing body of digital practice in archaeology. Until recently there has been relatively little overlap between these fields (Law & Morgan 2014; Pogacar 2014).

The MAD-P team has targeted the hard drive for an investigation into the connections between Foucauldian media archaeologies and archaeological practice as understood by archaeologists. From this investigation MAD-P hopes to realize the potential for an “archaeological media archaeology,” with this excavation prompting critical examination of both fields. There are several key questions that prompt the excavation of a hard drive: is an archaeological fieldwork methodology useful for understanding the contents and structure of a hard drive? Can archaeological methodology be adapted in a way that is useful for media archaeologists? What does the archaeological investigation of a hard drive tell us that a more historiographical approach cannot? Can the excavation of a hard drive build on the previous work of contemporary archaeologists that productively makes the familiar unfamiliar (Buchli and Lucas 2001)?

To address these questions we have designed a program of research that addresses a single hard drive, with the potential to expand the project into other hard drives, but also into other forms of media archaeology. In this document, we provide the background of this work, describe the history and context of our field site, detail our field methodology, and then discuss the future of MAD-P investigations.


MAD-P was conceived as part of an ongoing series of collaborations between digital archaeologists at the University of York (UK). The University of York has cultivated a network of digital archaeologists through a series of initiatives. As the home institution of both Internet Archaeology, an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal, and the Archaeological Data Service, which has supported archiving of archaeological data since 1996, the Department of Archaeology at the University of York has been involved in digital archaeology on an institutional level for nearly 20 years. More recently the Centre for Digital Heritage was founded in 2012 as an international collaborative venture, with an annual conference, field school, and funds for start-up initiatives.

In this context, MAD-P was conceived as a project that would explore the boundaries of digital archaeology, and test the utility of materials-based archaeological excavation for understanding media archaeology.

History and context of our field site

After consulting with Neil Gevaux, the Department of Archaeology Computer Officer, we identified several potential hard drive candidates for excavation. As we were interested in the contents of the drive, we requested a working hard drive that had been rendered redundant. We selected a 40GB Samsung Hard Drive, model SP0411C. The hard drive had been made in Korea in September of 2004, and bought by the archaeology department shortly after. At the time of purchase, 40GB was a relatively small amount of storage space as 80 and 160 GB drives were readily available, and a 500GB drive was available by 2005. The drive cost about 50 USD. It is unknown if it was bought as part of a pre-assembled computer or on its own. Since the time of purchase, the history of ownership of the hard drive has been lost.

That the history of the hard drive had been lost was ideal for us, as MAD-P wanted to approach the hard drive as an unfamiliar landscape; as Buchli and Lucas suggest, alienation from familiar objects exposes the transgressiveness of archaeology, an “almost perverse exercise in making familiar categorisations and spatial perceptions unfamiliar – a translation from an everyday perceptual language into an archaeological one” (2001, 9). The drive had been rendered obsolete after a decade and had been discarded.  Archaeologies of consumerism incorporate “all aspects of consumer societies – political, religious, educational, legal, leisure, economic, aesthetic, and so on” (Majewski and Schiffer 2001, 27). As such, these categories will be examined in our final report.

Field Methodology

MAD-P documentation (Photo by Colleen Morgan)
MAD-P documentation (Photo by Colleen Morgan)

The excavation of this hard drive will be modeled on the Museum of London Archaeology recording system. This recording system follows the single context planning system which records each stratigraphic “event” in sequence. Each of these events is given a context number, photographed, recorded in a standardized form, drawn by hand, and then removed to reveal the next event.

Without knowing the full extent of the data stored on the hard drive, MAD-P decided to employ a sampling strategy that involved following folder structures of the hard drive, drilling “down” through the layers and recording the contents of a single set of folders on the drive. Preliminary investigation revealed that the drive was relatively unpopulated, so we were able to select a sequence of folders that offered a greater “depth” of deposited data.

MAD-P Recording
Sara working on MAD-P recording (Photo by Colleen Morgan)

After the folder structure has been explored through this selective sample, MAD-P will commence the physical excavation of the hard drive, disassembling it piece-by-piece. As this is an irreversible process, Neil Gevaux attempted to back up the hard drive to preserve any data, yet permissions on the drive prevented the storage of some material. After consideration, MAD-P decided to follow through anyway, as this irreversible process more closely reflected the affordances of archaeological methodology as a destructive investigation.

Each component of the excavated drive will be appropriately labeled and stored for further analysis. A future repository for both the excavation material and the archive has not yet been determined, but they are currently in locked storage at the University of York.


The investigation of this hard drive had the potential to reveal inappropriate or indiscreet information about students or colleagues in the department; even were it not so, a discussion about the ethics of research is a necessary component to an archaeological research design. Hard drives can hold vast quantities of personal information that could be used for fraudulent or hurtful activities, as well as more indirect information, not intended for public scrutiny, that could be wielded with deleterious consequences for a variety of audiences. While these are potentially interesting for archaeological enquiry, connecting these activities to individuals was not a desired outcome of this research. This marks perhaps the greatest deviation of digital archaeological practice from data archaeology, as the specific information is not necessarily as interesting as the configuration of these data.  As such, MAD-P decided to (1) avoid disclosing the identities of the drive owners if there was personal information available on the drive, (2) inform any identifiable individuals of this research, and (3) give these individuals the option to remove themselves from this research.

Future investigations

After the results from the current MAD-P investigations are fully reported, further inquiry into hard drive archaeology may involve excavations of additional hard drives. The MAD-P team would very much like to involve a more multidisciplinary team, including engineers, hard drive recovery specialists, and media archaeologists to fully investigate the social context of the hard drive. As these excavations continue to proceed, we will fully document the process and make the archive available for other researchers, and we urge that future work be made available in the same way. At this stage we will employ a Creative Commons Attribution license, to encourage the broad dissemination and re-use of this research.

MAD-P Recording (2)
Colleen working on MAD-P recording (Photo by Sara Perry)



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In Dialogue: Ethnographic Writing and Listening Mon, 22 Sep 2014 15:26:59 +0000 This entry is part 4 of 5 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Marnie Thomson as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Marnie is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado currently finishing her dissertation “Solutions and Dissolutions: Humanitarian Governance, Congolese Refugees, and Memories of a Neglected Conflict.” Her research focuses on refugee experiences of violence and dislocation to reveal the politics of humanitarian intervention in both Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is the author of “Black Boxes of Bureaucracy: Transparency and Opacity in the Resettlement Process for Congolese Refugees” (PoLAR, 2012), and was the winner of the first SfAA Human Rights Defender Award.) 

“How do we write anthropology in a way that does justice to the stories we tell?” It weighs on me, this question. There it is, staring at me from the introduction to this Writers’ Workshop series. It is the question that paralyzes me when I sit down to write. Sometimes it prevents me from even making it into the chair. How can I portray the complexities of the stories people have shared with me?

I have convinced myself that I am a better listener, a better researcher, than I am a writer. I have been cultivating this research persona since 2008, when I first visited my primary fieldsite, a UN camp for Congolese refugees. I have spent years listening and dutifully recording what I heard. Yes, I was an academic writer long before that first trip but now it feels different. I have never written a dissertation before. I have never had to distill so many personal and cultural details into a document that will do justice to the many stories I have collected.

Some Congolese refugees have told me that listening is enough. Listening to their stories of the war, listening to the chaos of fleeing, listening to the hardships of life in the camp is enough. A few told me that listening in itself was a gift. Others have told me that neither listening nor writing is enough. They want to know what I can contribute that is more material, more tangible, that will contribute to their political goals. But either way, everyone is interested in how I will portray them on paper. Even more than portrayal, however, they are concerned with how they will be perceived by those who do not know them.

           “What do Americans think of us?” Nia asked me.

           We were sitting in wicker chairs in Nia’s home in the camp, looking at the photos I had printed from my visit the previous year. I told her I had taken these photos for personal reasons, not for my research, so I had not presented them anywhere in a formal fashion. I could not remember if I had shown them to anyone, actually. I told her maybe a just a few friends and family members had seen them.

           “What did they say—do they think we are dirty people?”

I turn to dialogue when I feel stuck or paralyzed in writing. My fieldnotes are full of dialogue. Conversations are so much of what we do as anthropologists. I do not know how to do participant observation without dialogue. We may observe discussions, but we also participate: we ask questions, we respond, we joke, we empathize, we sometimes say the wrong thing. In this way, dialogue returns me to my research. I attempt to recreate the words that were spoken—via the most accurate translation I am able to muster—and also the context in which they were uttered. Something about reading, writing, and translating conversations takes me back to the ethnographic moment I had attempted to capture in my field notes. Such moments seem to be the crucibles in which ethnographic knowledge is collaboratively produced.

            “No,” I said quickly. “But my friend in Dar es Salaam, a Tanzanian, looked through the entire stack of pictures I brought with me. She stopped at a picture of you and then at one of your husband. She asked who each of you were, not knowing you two were married. When I told her you are Congolese refugees, she said she was surprised. She called you both smart.

            Nia smiled. “Really? She did not think we were refugees?”

I had found Nia bathing her youngest daughter in a basin outside when I walked up to their home that day. She often does this before I come to her house, anticipating that her daughters will follow us inside, climb onto my lap, and perhaps even ask to take some pictures. She cleansed them of the red dirt that inevitably finds its way onto everything and everyone. Marougé, it is called, combining the Swahili prefix ma-, found in words like matope or mud, with the French word for red. Marougé is the color of life in the camp. In the dry season, even the highest leaves on the trees are dusted with it. In the rainy season, the brick walls of the houses melt back into the mud they were before they became bricks.

Yet even without describing this scene, the simplicity of our words conveys our anxieties and vulnerabilities. The story of my Tanzanian friend, while true, implied that Nia and her husband were “smart,” in contrast to other people in the camp who, presumably, were not. Nia’s relief and disbelief that a Tanzanian did not immediately recognize her refugee-ness meant she was pleased by this distinction. We were both flirting with an idea we hoped to transcend in our lived and written expressions: that refugee was a dirty word.

            “Nope. Besides no one could call you dirty. Americans typically shower once a day. How many times a day do you bathe?”

            Nia was laughing now, “At least twice, even three times many days.”

            Jitahidi, Nia’s husband, did not laugh. “It does not matter if we are clean or dirty. Do you think if Europeans cared we would still live in these conditions? Do you think there would still be war in Congo if the US cared about it?”

Jitahidi’s comment strikes at the heart of my paralysis: that no matter how many stories I listen to, I will not be able to write in a way that makes people care. That the war in Congo will continue, that refugee camps will always be permanently temporary solutions to structural and other problems. This is why I try to faithfully render dialogue in my writing. Jitahidi and Nia’s words speak to social theory. Their comments are critiques. They pry open the silence that shrouds the conflict in Congo, unearth the muddiness of camp life, and connect their plight to global politics. My hope is that dialogue invites listening into the text, and welcomes readers to the conversation.





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Around the Web Digest: Week of September 14 Mon, 22 Sep 2014 00:28:59 +0000 In case you missed it, here are some of the best things provided by the internet this week. If you have something that you want me to post next week, email it to me at or hit me up on Twitter at @dtpowis. Now go ahead a procrastinate a little.

Dr. Todd and Natalia are talking shit again. (YouTube)

Adia Benton called attention to the “race and immuno-logics” of spectators of humanitarian efforts in Ebola-afflicted regions of West Africa. (Somatosphere)

Raad Fadaak discussed the difficulty of tracking the migration of “emerging infectious disease.” (Somatosphere)

Anthony Stavrianakis responded to George Marcus’ reviews of Demands of the Day and The Accompaniment, as well as Michael Fisher’s review of the latter. (ARC)

Elizabeth Ferry described the ritual of the West Point Class Ring Memorial Melt. (CASTAC Blog)

Michael White wrote on why science might help, but it certainly won’t stop Ebola. (Pacific Standard)

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The writing behind the written Mon, 15 Sep 2014 14:09:09 +0000 This entry is part 3 of 5 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Noel B. Salazar as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Noel is Research Professor at the Faculty of the Social Sciences at the University of Leuven. He is the author of Envisioning Eden: Mobilizing Imaginaries in Tourism and Beyond (Berghahn, 2010), and is co-editor with Nelson H.H. Graburn of Tourism Imaginaries: Anthropological Approaches (Berghahn, 2014), and with Nina Glick Schiller of Regimes of Mobility: Imaginaries and Relationalities of Power (Routledge, 2014). Scholar of tourism, cosmopolitanism, and varied forms of social and cultural mobility, Noel is currently serving as president of the European Association of Social Anthropologists.)

While I’m brainstorming ideas for this writers’ workshop series, my pre-school daughter is sitting next to me. Even though she can’t read or write yet, she’s fascinated by letters. As I type along on my laptop, she jots down her own invented script in a little notebook. It reminds me of my own journey of discovery of “the written word.” I had barely mastered the technicalities of handwriting when I started scribbling in personal diaries. As a teenager, I complemented these self-absorbed writings with more social formats as I exchanged snail mail letters with pen pals from across the globe. My first love relationships added poetry to the list and I became an avid journalist for my school’s newspaper (named “Boomerang,” hinting at the importance of reader reception). I continued some of that work at university, where I took a specialized course in journalism and experimented with a range of academic writing styles and formats. I also became a “critical writing fellow,” helping undergraduates to translate thoughts into words. When I moved abroad (which happened multiple times), I mailed weekly electronic “letters from [destination X]” to relatives and friends. I kept this tradition during my doctoral fieldwork, in addition to launching an ethnographic blog. So it’s no exaggeration to state that I like writing.

I became aware of the importance of writing for anthropologists from the moment I enrolled in an anthro program. Now that I teach, I realize that the majority of our course assessments are based on paper assignments. Even though we offer MA students the alternative to produce an ethnographic film (instead of the traditional thesis), we still require a supplementary explanatory document. Fieldwork remains an important hallmark of our training, but in the end we value most the latter part of the word “ethno-graphy”: writing. The less you have written, the less you realize how much time and energy goes into the process that leads to a product worth reading―be it a monograph, a peer-reviewed article, a research proposal, or something else. Unless you’re a prodigy, creating a quality text requires sustained effort (and patience). I involve my graduate students in reading and commenting upon the various drafts of my own manuscripts in order to give them a sense of the writing labor.

Let’s be honest, not everything written is worth publishing. It takes courage to abandon a writing project that, for some reason or the other, does not seem to pan out. Unfortunately, the increasing pressure in many academic cultures across the globe to publish more (or perish instead) has led to a noticeable decrease in quality of academic output. Anthropology is a notoriously “slow science” and does not really fit the dominant mold of “quick and dirty” scholarship. It takes time to prepare our research, collect our data, and analyze them properly. We should certainly not try to compromise by reducing the write-up time. In my experience, there’s something mysterious about the writing process. When or how it happens is impossible to predict, but the moment a new insight dawns and the various parts of the (often complicated) puzzle start coming together, the Aha-Erlebnis or Eureka effect, is kind of magical. This is what I’m trying to achieve in my own work, but is also what I’m looking for when reading other texts.

While there are many excellent resources available concerning how anthropologists should write, less attention is given to our intended audience(s). Apart from some exceptions (e.g. ,writing as therapy), we write expecting that someone will read us. For whom do we write and for whom should we be writing? This is not a trivial question because our answer partly determines our writing style. While internal dialogue and exchange are important for the discipline to grow intellectually, far too many precious anthropological insights are lost because the readership does not reach beyond the boundaries of academic anthropology. The blame does not necessarily lie with the author. There is something terribly wrong with academic publishing models that limit free access to scholarly writings, particularly when the underlying research is supported by public funding.

Apart from accessibility, there is the issue of readability. Is it not contradictory that academics in countries such as France have a long history as public intellectuals, participating actively in societal debates, but that most of their scholarly writings are so arcane? I am pleased to see an increased global presence of anthropologists in newspaper and magazine op-eds and postings on blogs and websites. This is relevant work and we should continue to do it because it broadens our readership. I see this as complementary to our other scholarly work, not as a replacement for it. Many of the most popular anthropologists are gifted writers. Grounded ethnographic fieldwork and experience lies at the basis of their narratives. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” However, to wit, captivating storytelling is only one part of the story. Good ethnographers are also capable of translating complex anthropological analyses into a language that is understood by broad audiences.

In sum, as anthropologists we have a whole array of tools at our disposal to upgrade our writing skills and to increase the impact of our work. With the constructive help of mentors and peers, we need to find our own way of mastering the art of writing. We should not get lost in the plethora of formats and fora available but focus on those types of writing that suit anthropology best and that matter. Only sustained practice (which includes occasional failure) can make us excel. This involves not only working on our own texts but also learning by reading what others have written. After all, a good anthropologist is not only an excellent writer but also a seasoned reader. So I look forward to reading your comments on my ideas. Meanwhile, I return back to my writing desk… and the fantasy world of my daughter.

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What archaeologists do: Between archaeology and media archaeology Sat, 13 Sep 2014 08:13:37 +0000 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.

Media – in the broad sense, as agents for doing/saying/sharing/conveying things – are a (if not the) primary means through which archaeologists come to enter the speciality, then learn how to do, think through, and communicate the discipline. They are the bridge not simply between academic and non-academic audiences, but also between specialists themselves. Media are often our first encounter with the field and with subsequent fieldwork output, so to consign their discussion to the conclusion (in the vein of an afterthought) or to pop culture (as if such a bounded and prejudiced category of humanity exists) guarantees that they will continue to be marginalised within the subject area.

It is no wonder, then, that media archaeologists themselves might not routinely turn to archaeology for insight. Archaeologists have often not challenged the flattened conception of their own discipline that circulates within both the archaeological and the media archaeological scholarship, and as such, there continues to be a need to robustly map out the productive, multi-stranded, impossibly entangled relationships between media and archaeology. In doing so, that map must attend to what media archaeologists are themselves scrutinising. This means asking questions about how archaeologists construct knowledge about media; how these media reverberate back into the construction of archaeological knowledge itself; how archaeological analysis can constructively contribute to media archaeologies, and how media archaeologies might themselves enable archaeologists to rethink their subjects.

Many have attempted to define ‘media archaeology’, and despite endless references to its impalpable nature (as an ‘indiscipline’ or ‘travelling discipline’ or a ‘mobile field’ or ‘variantology’, etc.), their definitions tend to rotate around what Cronin (2011) calls efforts to “excavat[e] forgotten, neglected and suppressed media-cultural phenomena, helping us to probe deeper into a culture’s canonized narratives so as to unearth: ‘discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit, series, and transformation’ present in all historical analysis (Foucault 2002, 23).” Media archaeologists identify with a range of scholars, including not just Foucault, but Friedrich Kittler, Siegfried Zielinski, Walter Benjamin, and Marshall McLuhan among others. Their work, as Goddard (2014:3) writes, is effectively a playing around with these multiple streams of enquiry to achieve “a reading of both contemporary media and media history against the grain…a common rejection of dominant teleological accounts of media and technological history.” And, as per Parikka (2012), it often converges around four themes: modernity, cinema, Foucauldian histories of the present, and alternative/alternate/imaginary histories.

As is characteristic of all emerging fields, media archaeology has been subject to a range of critiques, generally centred upon its lack of a cohesive methodological toolkit and an intellectual eclecticism that spins it off in innumerable, often unmanageable directions. Barreneche (2013) describes it as a “rather slippery notion”, Nicoll (2013) as an enigma, Potts (2012) as loose. While many value this “anarchic status” – as praised by Shoback (2011) – suggesting that it is in such disorder that revolution and unanticipated discovery manifest themselves, others – like Goddard (2013) are clear about its faults: “it is debatable whether this in itself is enough to constitute a media archaeological project that is sufficiently systematic to warrant the term, rather than being simply particular or impressionistic.” This lack of systematisation is drawn out in various critiques, which question the methodological rigour of media archaeology and call for deeper consideration of, as Soon (2014) puts it, “what happens when the blackbox is opened.” Elsewhere, Goddard (2014:8) is necessarily critical about media archaeology’s common abandonment of linear temporality and temporal shifts, which “risks becoming only a series of eternal moments of invention…plucked out of the economic, social and technological modes of development they were embedded in and given a semi-eternal status as the great inventions of great men with an undisguised uncritical act of constructing media archaeological heroes.”

There is an irony in the fact that media archaeological work almost always validates itself through reference to its transdisciplinary nature—capitalising on the theoretical and practical toolkits of a range of subjects (e.g., see Huhtamo and Parikka 2011; Parikka in interview with Hertz 2010)—yet virtually never cites archaeology. At the same time, one does wonder if the same critiques might be applied to archaeology, particularly some of the recent archaeological studies of contemporary material culture, including contemporary media. Here we find that some of the methods are no more circumscribed than in media archaeology, and that there is often little evidence of systematisation of archaeological analysis of all media components, comprising their hardware (the material culture of the media object), their discursive content, their interfaces, and – if digital – their code.

Nevertheless, we find the void in knowledge cross-over between archaeology and media archaeology regrettable because, by our reckoning, archaeology has the capacity to flesh out many of the existing instabilities in the media archaeological framework – and vice versa. As Colleen put in it our talk last week at the media archaeologies conference, archaeologists are critically interested in context, what Marshall McLuhan terms a “galaxy or environment” — in the active processes that reshape people and technologies. Similarly, we have a range of standard tools in place to enable robust interrogation of such contexts. Moreover, archaeology’s alliance with the media archaeological framework has constructive epistemological consequences for both fields of practice. Such consequences are already hinted in the existing ‘archaeological media archaeology’ scholarship, including studies by Christine Finn, Cassie Newland, Rodney Harrison, Mark Edmonds and Chris Witmore (see Angela Piccini’s summary of these projects in the abstract for the Media Archaeology’s conference session).

One of the only literal excavations of media that we are aware of in the published archaeological literature is Moshenska’s (2014) excavation of a memory stick, brilliantly encapsulated in a self-authored comic strip (which, again, demonstrates the media-dynamic expertise of archaeologists), and documented in the journal Post-Medieval Archaeology. During routine excavations, Mosheska’s team uncovered a USB stick 30cm below ground. They sent the stick to a University College London conservator, then plugged it into the computer and went through the files, noting that it was a mix of schoolwork, porn, and music, probably belonging to a male school student. As Moshenska writes,

“I predict that in the near future we will, by necessity, look to the specialist field of digital data recovery for skills, analogies and analytical concepts to borrow, just as we have already borrowed from fields such as forensic science and performance art… Archaeologists studying the digital world will need to draw on these [librarianship, archiving] fields of expertise, as well as the experience and abilities of computer scientists and data recovery experts, if we want to even begin to make sense of this vast and intricate body of knowledge.”

I would extend his comments to suggest that we can also work productively with media archaeologists, and they with us, because – in combination – these fields are well-poised to drive forward (digital) media theorising and practice. As Colleen outlined at our conference talk, amongst many things, archaeologists bring with them:

  • a rigorous methodology based in documentation, one that encourages and hones attention to detail, to mundanities, to careful, long term and systematic study of minutiae and the everyday via embodied process
  • an emphasis on recording observations through such embodied process (including drawing); as archaeology is a destructive practice, preservation via record is a priority
  • a focus on fieldwork, situated learning, and collaborative knowledge generation through team work, including extended periods of time over multiple seasons attending to a task via collective practice; this routine and familiarity provide a distinct depth of knowledge (sensory knowledge, historical knowledge, collective knowledge); such practice also appreciates that group participation and the valuing of multiple perspectives have greater value than independent approaches
  • a well-tested, long-term focus on material culture that has generated (or incorporated) tools such as the chaîne opératoire, typological analysis, ethnographic analogy, seriation, object biographies, experimental archaeology, phenomenology, and material sciences

And, for us, media archaeology is especially notable for its:

  • explicit, unapologetic concern for the interplay between past, present, future; its concern for critique, political commentary, and social change
  • valuing of play, performance, exploration, messiness, chaos; its willingness to embrace, rather than dismiss or supress confusion
  • overt efforts to decentre and defamiliarise common interpretations
  • concern for storytelling and narrative-building about media objects and media effects/affects

What is arguably needed now is a rigorous research design and adapted methodological toolkit to pull these fields together and provide a baseline against which similar studies in the future might be built, critiqued, shaped or otherwise positioned.

Stay tuned!

Archaeologists doing media archaeology: A Memory Stick in the Mud by Gabriel Moshenska
Archaeologists doing media archaeology: A Memory Stick in the Mud by Gabriel Moshenska (thanks to Gabe for permission to reproduce here)
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Finding Your Way Mon, 08 Sep 2014 12:38:58 +0000 This entry is part 2 of 5 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Paul Stoller as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Paul is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University. He is the renowned author of innumerable articles and eleven books ranging from ethnography to memoir to biography, and is also a regular Huffington Post blogger on anthropology, Africa, higher education, politics, and more. In 2013, he received the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology from the King of Sweden. His newest book Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-being in the World will be out in October from the University of Chicago Press.) 

For the Songhay people of Niger and Mali life is a series of paths that end and then fork off in two new directions. At these forks in the road the traveler must choose her or his direction, destination, and fate. My choices, many of which were shaped by forces beyond my control, miraculously led me to two mentors: the late Jean Rouch, French filmmaker extraordinaire, and the late Adamu Jenitongo, a profoundly wise sorcerer-philosopher among the Songhay people. Both of these men loved to tell stories, the life source of their science and their art. They never told me how to tell a story; rather, they asked me to sit with them, walk with them, and laugh with them. In this way, they said, I would find my own way in the world and my own way to tell stories. They both believed that the story, in whatever form it might take, is a powerful way to transmit complex knowledge from one generation to the next. Like Milan Kundera in his magisterial The Art of the Novel, they believed that the evocative force of narrative could capture truths far beyond the scope of any philosophical discourse.

And yet, like most anthropologists, I was trained to tell—not to show, to denote the social through analysis—not to evoke it through narrative. Following the path marked by my mentors, though, I have often tried to resist that disciplinary maxim. In most of my writing I’ve attempted to use narrative to connect with readers through what Jerome Bruner called the narrative construction of reality. There are many elements to Bruner’s approach. One central element—at least for me–is that narratives can underscore our human vulnerabilities. In my experience, they can bring to the surface deep fears about how we confront misfortune, illness and death. A second important element of narrative is that it evokes the human dimension of our inextricably intertwined professional and personal lives.

Here’s the rub. It is one thing to talk about the important elements of narrative and yet another to know how to express these important themes in our works. It is clear –at least for me—that writing anthropology or anything else is an activity that requires an open-minded and playful approach to exposition, an approach that has no rules or easy steps to follow. To find their way, writers, like filmmakers or apprentice sorcerers, need guidance from mentors as well as a measure of existential fortitude. It is not easy to pursue the truth of our stories, but a playful openness to possibility can sometimes show us the way.

When I’m writing or thinking about writing, which is much of the time, things pop into my consciousness that lead me in felicitous directions. When I sit down to write ethnography, memoir, fiction, or a blog, I move into a different space. When you write, strange things sometimes occur. In the summer of 2013 I read through files trying to find a topic to for a talk at a conference on Anthropology and the Paranormal. After several hours of fruitless perusal, a copy of a Le Monde interview, which I hadn’t looked at for seven years, fell to the floor. That inexplicable event created a perfect storm, or what Arthur Koestler called a library angel, that not only showed me the way to that presentation but also inspired a new book project. During a dog walk, a character from a work in progress “talks” to me, telling me that the tone of such and such a passage is wrong, or that a particular dialogue is off the mark. Staring at the computer screen a distant relative or a long lost friend “visits” reminding me of a turn of phrase that clears a path through the textual thicket.

If we are open-minded and playful, these elements sometimes materialize and can be woven into narratives that powerfully evoke complex social realities. When I sat with Adamu Jenitongo, he told stories to convey the most important lessons of his being-in-the-world. When I slowly read him the manuscript of what was to become my first book, In Sorcery’s Shadow, he told me I needed more stories in the text. I asked him if I should recount his story in more detail. He said that would be fine, but “if you want to tell my story, you have to tell your story as well.” His personal challenge has shaped all of my professional writing in which ethnographic narrative has been foregrounded, in which an attempt has been made to evoke the texture of inter-subjectivity, in which an effort has been made to describe sensuously the nature of place, space, and character. In this way, I have attempted to use narrative to evoke the themes of love and loss, fidelity and betrayal, and courage and fear—central elements of the human condition. Remembering Adamu Jenitongo’s example, narratives can sometimes transcend the here and now, which means that they can be fashioned into works that remain open to the world. For me, that is the scholar’s greatest challenge and most important obligation.

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Around the Web Digest: Week of August 31 Sun, 07 Sep 2014 21:43:57 +0000 It’s that time of the week again! Here are some items you may have missed in the last few days. If you have something to share for next week, please let me know by email ( or on Twitter (@dtpowis).

Let’s see…

Tanya Luhrmann discussed the subjectivity and plasticity of sensory perception across cultures. (New York Times)

Missing something? Kristina Killgrove was in receipt of some human remains – without provenience or explanation. Just another day in an anthropology department. (Powered by Osteons)

Kristin Yarris and Heide Castañeda explored the concept of “transit” (vs. origin/destination) for Central Americans making their ways through Mexico. (Somatosphere)

Andrew Tarter, a recipient of a Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, wrote the first in a four-part series of blogs on collaboration and fieldwork. (Wenner-Gren)

Sandy Smith-Nonini and Don Nonini urged anthropologists to read and engage Timothy Mitchell’s “Carbon Democracy” as a point of departure for rethinking the relationships between neoliberalism, labor, and climate change. (Focaal Blog)

The American Anthropological Association sent a letter to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise lamenting the revocation of Stephen Salaita’s employment offer. (AAA Blog)

In an interview for Cross-Check, Theresa MacPhail criticized the media’s fear mongering with respect to Ebola. (Scientific Americas Blogs)

Violent architecture can tell us much about urban conflict, particularly in Gaza. (The Guardian)

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Economy Such Complex, Culture Much Simple Sun, 07 Sep 2014 07:53:53 +0000

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken

In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman argues that economists and policy makers have deliberately mystified the current economic situation for political reasons and that the solution to our current woes is actually very simple: we need more government spending to boost demand. He plays off the above Mencken epigram, saying “For every simple problem there is an answer that is murky, complex, and wrong.”

It is interesting to compare the kind of economic fear mongering discussed by Krugman with the role of culture in Ebola fear mongering. In a recent interview with medical anthropologist Theresa MacPhail she criticizes that “horrible and racist Newsweek” cover story on Ebola for the way it blames the spread of the disease on African “culture.”

Burial practices, wild meat consumption, and local reactions to quarantine and isolation have all been described as “cultural” problems that promote the spread of Ebola. As an anthropologist, I think that journalists should be careful when they use “culture” as a rationale. Culture is not an explanation. It’s something that needs further examination. Culture should not be a cudgel used to blame the victims of Ebola for their own suffering.

What struck me about these two discussions is the fact that, when seen side-by-side in this way, they highlight how willingly journalists (and the public) accept the economy as something which is complex and difficult to understand, but treat culture as a kind of self-evident set of practices and beliefs which, once identified, need no further explanation. As such, public intellectuals in economics (like Krugman) spend a lot of time trying to convince the public that economic problems are easily understandable, while a lot of the work we do as public anthropologists goes into trying to make complex what people believe they already intuitively understand.

Thinking about this led me to make some further disparate observations on complexity and public anthropology/economics which I gave up trying to work into a coherent narrative and instead present to you here in this handy list form:

  1. While both the mathematical tools used by economists and the theoretical tools used by anthropologists appear as a foreign language to the untrained eye, there is a certain willingness to accept the necessity of translating human behavior into math while there is a strong negative reaction to the use of anthropological jargon.

  2. Economic fear mongering can also take the form of simplistic economic truisms, such as the false analogy between national debt and household debt. But there is a difference between arguing that something is counter-intuitive and arguing that it is complex. I think Krugman does a good job of showing that the truism is wrong without resorting to a complexity argument.

  3. Often the complexity that anthropologists want to talk about involves the impact of political-economic factors upon culture. This means that we are often arguing against our own particular claim to expertise (insofar as people see anthropologists as experts on “culture”). I think that one reason for Jared Diamond’s success is that (as Rex so eloquently discusses in his article in The Appendix) this is not a handicap for him since he isn’t really interested in “culture” in the first place.

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