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Hypothetical Archaeology: Knowledge Production in the Era of Alternative Facts

In the summer of 2015, in collaboration with a diverse collective of artists and ecologists known as Chance Ecologies, I was invited to help perform an excavation of a street in Hunters Point, Queens. The peculiar aspect of this excavation was not that its existence was dubious, plenty of archaeological excavations fail to uncover the artifacts they pursue. Rather, the uniqueness of this project was that we knew the artifact we sought did not exist, and this is precisely why it was chosen as the subject of our investigation. The intention was explicitly to destabilize the notion of ‘existence’ – is it bound to material realization, or does simply conceptualizing something activate its existence? (See Nick Land’s portmanteau, hyperstition, at your own risk.)

Dock Street is a hypothetical artifact. The street appears on Queens city planning maps throughout the 19th century, and was begun in 1891, but the construction of the street was never completed. That is, it never actually materially agreed with the planning maps. At the time Dock Street was mapped into the grid, the area over which the street was to pass was still in the East River. Over the course of thirty years, beginning in 1852, more than a million cubic yards of dirt were migrated to make the Hunters Point that we see today, with its naïve gloss towers creeping out of the former tidewaters, but Dock Street was never more than a cartographic phantasm.

Dock Street was a plan, an idea, and it had a discursive existence as such, but does its failure to pass through the aperture of material experience mean that Dock Street is unreal? Material evidence of an artifact or structure doesn’t necessarily translate into a meaningful existence, and lack of material existence doesn’t preclude meaningful resonance. Anthropology has long wrestled with the reality of its categories (is there such a thing as a ‘Linear Pottery Culture’ or is this a retrojection of contemporary knowledge production), but less frequently are the categories of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ directly questioned. Is reality negotiable, political, subjective, objective? Dock street does not fit comfortably into either category: real or unreal. It is an unrealized future with a real past. It is hypothetical.

Serendipitously, this was precisely the class of artifacts my doctoral research had been directing me toward. It’s no fun to explain at parties after you say you’re an archaeologist, but I examine the material culture of projections (temperatures specifically). When you look at the weather app on your phone and it says the temperature will be 75°F tomorrow – numbers like this are the artifacts I study. It gets only slightly more complicated when the projection is for 10,000 years ago and is produced by an accelerator mass spectrometer, or for fifty years in the future and is produced by a computational model processing teraflops of accumulated global climate data. My interest in this subject is in the material construction of such cultural artifacts as 0.52 +/- 0.28°C, but more pointedly in the social impact of privileging a probabilistic knowledge that is subservient to the construction of trends, patterns, predictions, and models.

The vigor with which I’ve attempted to assail normative and naturalized knowledge has been inspired by the likes of Haraway, Butler, Stengers, Barad, and Poovey. Thus, contemplating the violence that dominant methods of knowledge production had wrought, I momentarily admired the 1m x 1m test trench I’d just opened up over Dock Street. The excavation of projected realities that never materialize seemed the most deviant application of archaeological knowledge I could hope to pursue.

But then November 8, 2016 happened, and my project of problematizing the scientific production of knowledge (indeed, questioning the historical bifurcation of ‘the real’ and ‘the unreal’ as mutually exclusive categories of phenomena) has begun to feel like a dangerous pursuit. A fact-based reality seems in desperate need of defending given the dubious sources of information upon which the current administration relies for its support. Prior to this semester I even delighted in telling students that I don’t much care for facts (this was meant to reassure them that I had no intention of asking them to memorize the provenience and cranial morphology of Australopithecus boisei). Is this sort of language now irreparably damaged?

Operating on the idea that every measurement or observation is a political act, my work has interrogated the entwined histories of quantification and capitalism. By de-naturalizing capitalist epistemologies, my hope had been to undermine the reification of contemporary inequalities. However, perhaps dominant forms of knowledge production have already ceded control of reality? Anthropocentric climate change or the unconstitutionality of the president’s campaign proposals are both realities that most expert knowledge producers agree upon, yet these realities seem increasingly powerless (see a recent acknowledgement of the continued prescience of the Frankfurt School).

My aim over the next month as guest blogger is to explore the contours of knowledge production and curation in a world where the concept of reality has grown politically tenuous. How are evidence and belief constructed? Can we filter a viable reality out of the crushing onslaught of information? Or are we doomed to be consumed by Nick Land’s hyperstitional demons?

“Hyperstitions by their very existence as ideas function causally to bring about their own reality… Capitalism incarnates hyperstitional dynamics at an unprecedented and unsurpassable level of intensity, turning mundane economic ‘speculation’ into an effective world-historical force… Exulting in capitalism’s permanent ‘crisis mode,’ hyperstition accelerates the tendencies towards chaos and dissolution by invoking irrational and monstrous forces (Land 2011).”

Further Reading:

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hunters Point Archaeological Assessment, 1988

Land, Nick. 2011. Fanged noumena: Collected writings 1987-2007. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Poovey, Mary. 1998. A history of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2010. Cosmopolitics Vol. 1. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Scott Schwartz

Scott is a Ph.D. candidate in Archaeology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His work centers on the material culture of knowledge production, specifically the instruments and devices employed by capitalized populations to facilitate the belief in and practice of perpetual, accelerating, asymmetrical growth.