A Tempest in a Digital Teapot

teapot

It was hot, but that was not unusual. We woke up at the first call to prayer to be on site at sunrise. I would trudge through the dimly-lit streets of the village, up to the ancient tell, and sit next to my trench until I had enough light to see my paperwork. The cut limestone went from dull gray, to a rosy pink, then that brief and magical moment called the golden hour, when the archaeology would become clear and beautifully lit and I would rush around trying to take the important photos of the day. Then the light would become hard, white-hot, and often over 100F. By lunchtime all of the crisp angles of the limestone would disappear into a smeary haze, hardly worth bothering with a camera. Photographs of people were impossible too—everyone was dusty, hot, irritable, half in shadow under hats, scarves.

I picked up my camera and climbed out of the Mamluk building I was excavating, on my way down the ancient tell of Dhiban and back up the neighboring tell of the modern town of Dhiban. As I walked between the Byzantine, Roman, Nabatean and Islamic piles of cut stone, a faint trace of smoke made me hesitate, then come off the winding goat path. Two of the Bani Hamida bedouin who worked with us on site were stoking a small fire on the tell. While making fires on the archaeology was certainly not encouraged, the local community had been using the tell to socialize for a long time. I greeted the men and they invited me to sit and have qahwa, a strong, hot, sweet, green coffee served in many of the local hospitality rituals and customs. I refused once, then twice, then looked over my shoulder at the vanishing backs of my fellow archaeologists, on their way to breakfast. Then I accepted a cup. But first, I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo.

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David Bowie, Anthropology, and the Pleasure of Difference

I’m hardly the biggest David Bowie fan in the world, but when I heard he had passed away I knew I the news would make waves in social media. What I didn’t know was how big those waves would be. It was amazing to listen to my friends and colleagues who were old enough to remember the Bowie of the 1970s and 1980s speak about what a difference he had made in their lives. What I heard spoke not just about the musician but the man and his ideas, ideas which — yes, I’m going there — are deeply anthropological.

When people talked about Bowie, most of them emphasized the way that he “made the world safe for difference,” to use a phrase from Ruth Benedict. He told them — no, he showed them — that it was ok to be gay, confused, different, and/or changeable. For people growing up before web or mp3s Bowie’s records and casettes were visions of other, more expansive worlds.

Tolerance, pluralism, diversity are not really anthropological values. Rather, they run deep in the societies we live in: anthropology is built on top of them, not the other way around. That’s why we expect the broader societies we live in to heed our calls for social justice — and it’s why we make them. I think anthropology’s preoccupation with difference, like Bowie’s staging of it, speaks to something deeper.

I mean really: Bowie was not really someone who was merely willing to tolerate gender bending, was he? He was someone who explored the pleasures of the new, the unusual, the avant-garde, the possible. If he wrote books instead of songs, how much use would we have for Foucault? How does Guattari really measure up to Ziggy Stardust?

Bowie understood the positive power of difference — its pleasure and importance, and its kinks. He was about blurring boundaries, not sharpening them. I think all of this is something he had in common with anthropologists, who think awareness of difference makes life richer, and who recognize that the story is always more complicated and ambivalent than it first appears.

Bowie was not Ruth Benedict — that concept album, alas, never got made — but his mindset, his habitus, resonates with much of anthropology’s. It’s no surprise: Anthropology was remade by the same baby boom that produced Bowie. In these days when you can listen to songs without cover art or liner notes, there’s a danger of decontextualizing Bowie’s ouevre. So this week, let’s see if we can extend our understanding of Bowie past the 24 hour newscycle and see if we can imagine him as an anthropological thinker. It’s a stretch, and requires imagination. But I think that’s precisely what he would have wanted.

Listening to Physical Geology. PART 2: The ecopoetics of data, a few lessons from Björk

More drinks. This time in the midst of a madding crowd, soon after returning from Krakatau, with an Icelandic artist known as Shopflifter. She was wearing a remarkable head piece she humorously called a ‘brain catcher’. We were at the opening of the Björk show at the Museum of Modern Art and it was too crowded to see anything so I just drank and admired the brain catcher. I went back later to see the show. I went in the quiet before the crush of tourists to put on headphones and hear the biographical poetry that accompanied the material objects. I think the critics, universal in their evisceration of the show, may be a bit like archaeologists unable to see the important data in their spoil heap. The show wasn’t about the questionable directions of MoMA, its director, or contemporary art overall. The work itself, Björk’s work, was about the intimate and sometimes painful entanglement of human biographies and the physical planet. This seems outside of what critics can soundbite or archaeologists and geoscientists can quantify and yet it matters.

An image I took at the universally panned Bjork show at MoMA. I like the way the geological and human are portrayed here and how they intersect visually with the book cover of The Man with the Compound Eyes....
An image I took at the universally panned Bjork show at MoMA. I like the way the geological and human are portrayed here and how they intersect visually with the book cover of The Man with the Compound Eyes in my prior post….

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Listening to Physical Geology. PART 1: Noise, disaster, and plastic thoughts

Over drinks with a seismologist, I recently learned that you can hear the ocean anywhere on the planet. Anywhere. Did you know that? No matter where you are mid-continent, as far as you can imagine from water, the rhythmic pulse of the ocean hitting the shore is present as ambient seismic noise. We can find the data hidden in the sound. It is an earthquake-free form of seismology. The seismic waves are named Love, which though taken from the surname of their discoverer seems as pleasurable as the strange and charming names of quarks to me. The focus on what was prior seen as background, insignificant, struck me in what the seismologist was doing. She found magic in what an archaeologist could have thrown out with the spoil heap were it material. Pay dirt from noise.

In The Man with the Compound Eyes: A Novel by Wu Ming-Yi, an earthquake causes a tsunami of plastic to crash upon the coast of Taiwan. The plastics are from one of the five garbage vortexes/plastic gyres/anthropogenic moral quagmires currently circulating in our oceans. The gyres are described in the novel as tragicomic: in a garbage vortex you can find everything you’ve ever thrown away in your life. The TV film crews in Taiwan to record the tsunami’s landfall missed the sound of it entirely. They were too intent upon filming a freak hail storm that preceded it. The Compound Eyes book details other noises from the Earth. None of them are recorded or quantifiable. A team blasting a tunnel is haunted by the sounds of giant, telluric footsteps as they remove the core of a mountain. The ocean is described as sounding different in each place on earth and hence navigable by someone attuned to listen closely enough from the bottom of a boat rather than above deck.

The Man with the Compound Eyes, which as promised on the cover blurb is indeed haunting
The Man with the Compound Eyes, which as promised on the cover blurb is indeed haunting

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Pixel vs Pigment. The goal of Virtual Reality in Archaeology

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Colleen Morgan.

Post by Laia Pujol-Tost.

Archaeology has a long tradition of using visual representations to depict the past. For most of its history, images were done by hand and based on artistic skills and conventions. But the last fifteen years, we have witnessed 3D models take over archaeological visualization. It is interesting to note that while hand-drawn depictions tend to show human figures and seem to be associated with scenes of “daily life”, virtual reconstructions mostly show architectural remains and public spaces, usually devoid of people and objects. Yet, authors state that their intention is to represent the past.

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My field of research is what we now call Virtual Archaeology, but I started investigating when we still talked about “VR applications in Archaeology”. I have seen it become mainstream and evolve; and I wonder why after almost twenty years of technological improvements and theoretical debate, virtual reconstructions are still empty. Especially in comparison with drawings. Do the virtual and the physical have implicitly different goals? Are they subject to different perceptions or expectations by researchers and/or audiences? Have they received different historical influences? Maybe technological capacities still play a role?

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Mobile apps and the material world

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.]

Ҫatalhӧyük, 2015
Testing of mobile app prototype with users at the archaeological site of Ҫatalhӧyük, Turkey. Photo by Sara Perry, 2015.

This is the first in a series of posts, coordinated with Colleen Morgan, on the relations between analog and digital cultures. Over the next month, through the contributions of a variety of archaeologists, we will explore the concept of materiality in an age where the nature of ‘the material’ is rapidly shifting. How do physical materials and digital materials shape one another? How does experimentation with the digital rethink the dimensions of the analog, and vice versa? How, if at all, do we distinguish between one and the other – and is this even necessary (or possible) today? How have our understandings of ‘the real’ – of ‘things’ and ‘facts’ – of presence and the body – of aura and authenticity – been shifted by interactions between physical and digital materials?

As the premiere scholars of materiality, archaeologists are well-versed in the continuities between, and changes to, artifacts. Here, we probe their boundaries through discussion of our engagements at the intersections of the analog and the digital. I begin with some critical comments on mobile apps: oft enrolled in visitor experiences at archaeology and heritage sites, are these digital tools actually valuable?

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Around the Web: Year in Review 2015

It’s been a big year for Savage Minds, so big that the annual blog review didn’t fit in 2015! (Yes, that’s why it was delayed). This year we celebrated our 10th blogiversary with a panel at the AAAs, an executive director’s award, and a rare in-person gathering, which gave us the chance to reflect on our work and how this project has evolved over time.

In this yearly post, we look back on the year in blogging, both for us at Savage Minds and in the anthroblogosphere in general. First, the Minds will share their favorite posts from the year, and then I’ll highlight a few of the posts on other blogs and news sources that struck me as the most important, memorable, or otherwise worth revisiting if you missed them.

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Ephemeral Layers: Coffee, Snapchat, and Violence

For decades, ephemeral layers at archaeological sites have been the bane of my existence. The moment I read, hear, or have to confront it at an excavation, my soul does a smh. How can we reconstruct anything meaningful in this ephemerality? To be honest, that frustration is simply a privileged standpoint of archaeologists who work in ancient cities, towns, or any mostly permanent settled space – which is where my training and research has focused. Ephemerality is a challenge and requires me to contend with materials and surfaces in a way I am only starting to understand.

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Writing with Community

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Sara Gonzalez as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesSara is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. She works at the intersection of tribal historic preservation, colonial studies and public history, examining how archaeology can contribute to the capacity of tribal communities to study, manage, and represent their heritage. Her most recent project involves the creation of a community-based field school and training program in tribal historic preservation with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon’s Tribal Historic Preservation Department. Her recent publications include a co-edited a special issue of the SAA Record, NAGPRA and the Next Generation of Collaboration,” as well as articles in American Antiquity and in Anthropocene.]

 

Writing is a responsibility in the academy. Through our writings we enter into dialogues with one another. From undergraduate thesis to dissertation, scholarly articles and monographs, our writing marks the trajectory of our careers. It forms the basis on which our peers and colleagues evaluate the contributions we make to discipline. But writing is more than a job responsibility of an academic. In writing anthropology, and in my case archaeology, there is an added responsibility to scrutinize how the histories we produce are connected to the lives and futures of the communities we study.

The formation of anthropology as a discipline in North America occurred at the same time as European and American governments dispossessed indigenous nations of their homelands. Coinciding with the closing of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, the Bureau of Ethnology, later renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology, sponsored ethnographic and linguistic research on Native American communities. These “salvage ethnographies” documented the cultural traditions and lifeways of Native American tribes under the presumption that the combination of assimilationist policies and exposure to American lifeways would cause them to vanish entirely. Archaeologists followed suit, recording ancestral sites and collecting artifacts, as well as human remains in their attempt to document the cultural history of tribes. The objects and ancestors uncovered by archaeologists and others—often through dubious means—became specimens of national history; representations of a past that ceased to exist following the arrival of Europeans and their colonization of the continent. Given this colonial history, how can the work of these disciplines be used to disrupt colonial relations in the present? Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of December 13

Dear readers, this post is late and I apologize for nothing. Send me any links for inclusion here at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

I hope you’ve been enjoying the glow of lights and the stir of familiar songs that seem to be everywhere these days… with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens! The AAA blog featured this post using the movie to explore why movies about humans’ relationships with technology are so popular: Our Movies, Ourselves: Reel Life Vis-á-vis “Real Life”

This time of year seems to bring out a reflective streak in blogs. For example, Struggle Forever listed some of the fiction and non-fiction books worth reading from this year: My Favorite Books of 2015

Allegra also produced a list of books based on a reader survey of the most important and influential books for the discipline and beyond. Unsurprisingly, there’s a bias towards the mid-twentieth century classics, but some newer books were also recognized: The 30 Essential Books in Anthropology

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Inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone: Place and Memory after Disaster

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Pablo Figueroa. Pablo is an assistant professor in the Center for International Education at Waseda University in Tokyo. In this position, he teaches courses on globalization, leadership, and disasters. His anthropological research is centered on risk communication, citizen participation, and cultural representations of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. His most recent publications are two book chapters, Subversion and Nostalgia in Art Photography of the Fukushima Disaster and Nuclear Risk Governance and the Fukushima Triple Disasters: Lessons Unlearned, both forthcoming in 2016.

All images copyright by Pablo Figueroa.

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Inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone: Place and Memory after Disaster

by Pablo Figueroa

1 Pablo Figueroa
A street of Namie Town in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, May 2015.

FROM BEHIND THE WINDSHIELD of the moving car the landscape looks exuberant, unpolluted. Warm morning sunlight bathes the forest to the side of Tomioka highway, a 69 km stretch of pavement also known as National Road 114 that connects Fukushima with the town of Namie. It’s a Sunday morning and few people can be seen. The feeling of emptiness is vast and real. From time to time, large plastic bags appear along the road, neatly stacked one on top of the other. The orderly layout obliterates a much more messy reality: The bags contain highly radioactive soil that was removed from villages and fields during the so-called “cleanup efforts” following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Their final destination undecided, the ominous recipients are a painful reminder of what happens when trying to decontaminate the environment after a nuclear catastrophe. You can scrape topsoil and wash the surface with pressure hoses as much as you like but Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, will keep coming down from hills along with other radioactive isotopes, carried by rain and wind, dispersing in manifold and uncontrollable ways. Continue reading

Frogtopia Revisited, or Anthropology is Art is Frog

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Stuart McLean as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Stuart is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of The Event and Its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2004). In 2013, together with Anand Pandian, he convened an Advanced Seminar at the School of American Research on Literary Anthropology.]

What if anthropology were to suspend its claims to be a social science, whether of a geisteswissenschaftliche or a positivist variety? What if it were to turn instead to exploring its affinities with art and literature as a mode of engaged creative practice carried forward in a world heterogeneously composed of humans and other-than-humans? I am prompted to reflect on these questions by an encounter from my recent fieldwork.

Papa Westray, Orkney, 2013: The Frog King effect. Photograph by Tsz Man Chan.
Papa Westray, Orkney, 2013: The Frog King effect. Photograph by Tsz Man Chan.

 

In February 2013, I participated in Frogtopia. At once no place and multiple places, Frogtopia is the creation of Frog King, who in turn is the creation, or the costumed alter ego of Kwok Mang-ho. Born in Guangdong province in 1947 and educated in Hong Kong, where he now lives, Kwok is recognized today as one of the pioneers of multimedia and performance art in China. His output consists of a proliferation of works in a variety of media: video, photography, ink on paper, costumed performance and found materials such as plastic bags. His approach, typically, is to fill his canvases and exhibition and performance spaces with his characteristic motifs, including calligraphy, inflated plastic bags suspended from strings and the frog image that has played an increasingly conspicuous part in his work. Kwok has stated in interviews that he was drawn to the figure of the frog because of its metamorphic life cycle and its capacity to move between land and water. At the same time the image is meant to evoke a range of other associations, its bulging eyes embodying watchfulness and suggesting too a bridge for exchange and communication between Chinese and Western artistic influences and a sail boat for journeying to new places. Continue reading

Hunting as an Indigenous Right on Taiwan: A Call to Action

[The following is an invited post by Scott Simon. Scott is Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Having conducted research in Taiwan for nearly two decades, he specializes in indigenous rights, hunting life-ways, and human-animal relations. His most recent book is Sadyaq Balae! L’autochtonie formosane dans tous ses états.]

Photo by 林秀玉 (Loking) 2015
Photo by 林秀玉 (Loking) 2015

In mid-December 2015, indigenous social activists protested across Taiwan with urban demonstrations and lighting of solidarity bonfires in rural communities. They were angry about the case of Tama Talum (Wang Guang-lu), a 56-year-old Bunun man slated to begin a 3.5 year prison sentence on December 15. In July 2013, at the request of his 92-year-old mother who wanted to eat traditional country food, he had hunted one Reeve’s muntjac (a small deer) and Formosan serow (a mountain goat).1 He was arrested and convicted in a Taitung court for illegal weapons possession and poaching. On October 29, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled against his appeal. Tama Talum’s case merits international attention for humanitarian reasons, but also because it reveals deeper human rights issues.

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Around the Web Digest: Week of December 6

The blog harvest was rich again this week at the Savage Minds ranch. Help me find more blogs by sending me links at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

HuffPost featured this article in which an anthropologist argues that isolating babies in cribs and sleeping 8 continuous hours a night are Western constructions: My Conversation with Co-Sleeping Expert James McKenna

In this National Geographic post, Jason De León discusses some of the findings in his book, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. He argues that migrant deaths at the border have been deliberately caused and normalized in national media: An Anthropologist Unravels the Mysteries of Mexican Migration

In this episode of the Craft podcast, anthropologist Jeffrey Cohen describes some moments of adaptation in his fieldwork in Mexico: Eating Soup (and Grasshoppers) Without a Spoon with Jeffrey Cohen. The interviewer actually asks how to avoid “changing their civilization.”

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Displaced Nature: Multispecies landscapes, mushrooms, and the megapolis

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Karen Holmberg]

Concentric circles of the local to the larger ripple out from a megapolis like New York. The unnatural and natural are tangled in them.

I live across the street from a garment sweatshop. They make ball gowns and on delivery days dresses wrapped in plastic and bound for department stores are sent fluttering on rope down to the street, six floors below. I’d say they look like birds as they fall but they look like nothing I’ve ever seen so that wouldn’t be true. It is strangely beautiful to watch. The workers are all women. Sometimes there is also a cat that will sit on a fire escape. I never see the women arrive or leave. I wonder if they sleep there from the low glimmer of a television late at night. I watch their labor during the day as I work from my desk. At times we catch one another, co-gazing at the Other. The women smile a little when they see me seeing them, which confuses me as I am conditioned to think of a sweatshop as a place of misery.  Continue reading