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

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

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

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Writing to Live: On Finding Strength While Watching Ferguson

(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. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of September 21

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)

University of Chicago ‘suspends’ its Confucius Institute

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.

The Semiotics of Bubble Tea

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. Continue reading

Abbott’s “Digital Paper”: the best book about research EVAR

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.

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

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

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

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

In Dialogue: Ethnographic Writing and Listening

(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. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of September 14

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 richard.powis@gmail.com 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)

The writing behind the written

(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. Continue reading

What archaeologists do: Between archaeology and media archaeology

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

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

But this situation is contradictory and fundamentally nonsensical.

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Finding Your Way

(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. Continue reading

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Economy Such Complex, Culture Much Simple

“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.”

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