Rummaging Around in the Attic of Culture

I enjoyed reading and mulling over this piece by Sara Perry about the intersections of media archaeology and archaeology. The issues she discusses–digital scholarship and expertise, collaboration and participatory cultures, and incorporating media into the way archaeologists do, report, and present research–are all part of what initially drew me to certain fields within/ways of doing archaeology (namely industrial archaeology, community-based participatory research, and contemporary archaeology). As Perry notes, however, there hasn’t really been any cross-fertilization between media archaeology and archaeology (though she and colleague Colleen Morgan seek to remedy with their new project).

In this post I want to think through some of the existing and potential future connections between archaeology, media archaeology, and digital knowledge.

The field of media archaeology, defined in the abstract of this edited volume by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (2011), applies an “archaeological approach to the study of media – one that sifts through the evidence to learn how media were written about, used, designed, preserved, and sometimes discarded.” As some of the comments on Perry’s piece note, with the strong focus on discourse, they seem to be using the term ‘archaeology’ in the Foucauldian sense, as an examination of the “discursive traces left by the past in order to write a ‘history of the present.'” They suggest that archaeology is focused on material culture and is not concerned with the broader ‘discursive manifestations of culture’ represented through other kinds of media:

“When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media—cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way. Industrial archaeology, for example, digs through the foundations of demolished factories, boarding-houses, and dumps, revealing clues about habits, lifestyles, economic and social stratifications, and possibly deadly diseases. Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations move fluidly between disciplines…” (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011, cited in Perry).

This passage seems to present ‘media archaeology’ as “archaeology+”, where media archaeologists include and analyze the material remains of the past, like archaeologists do…and so much more! (I liked the usage of the verb ‘rummage’ vs. ‘dig’ or ‘excavate,’ here, as evidenced by the title of this post. Maybe ‘rummage’ was used to highlight the unsystematic, exploratory nature of media archaeology, but all I see are scholars rummaging through boxes in the attic…an activity which is not unrelated to archaeology or material culture studies, btw.) As Perry points out, though, this comparison shows that there’s a lack of understanding about what archaeologists actually do, the different methods and tools they use, and the kinds of questions archaeological research addresses.

Rummaging around in the Attic of Culture. A still from “Christmas Vacation” (1989).

I was interested to see that they used industrial archaeology (IA) as an example in this passage. It’s a smaller, relatively young field, and it certainly isn’t the one most commonly associated with the discipline of archaeology. But I see IA as having tremendous potential to contribute to a ‘history of the present’ due to its beginnings as a largely community-based heritage preservation movement and the way that it intersects with so many contemporary issues. IA has a diverse group of practitioners worldwide (members of the Society for Industrial Archaeology and the Association of Industrial Archaeology include professionals, avocational researchers, and enthusiasts from a variety of backgrounds) and there is a wide range of motivations, interests, and projects encompassed within it. As I mentioned above, industrial archaeology overlaps with and  is directly connected to contemporary politics and concerns about postindustrial landscapes and the ‘management’ of industrial heritage sites. For example, the Colorado Coalfield War Archaeological Project brought together a group of academic researchers with members of the United Mine Workers of America to learn more about the daily lives of miners in the Colorado coalfields in the early 20th century. The Cliff Mine Archaeology Project in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula (which I was lucky enough to participate in last year) also includes public outreach as a major component of the research process, and students and participants in excavations are interpreters and guides during outreach events (for more info about Cliff and about industrial archaeology more broadly, “Constructing New Knowledge in Industrial Archaeology” by Tim Scarlett and Sam Sweitz).

I’m also curious about how contemporary archaeology–the study of the contemporary and recent past that uses archaeological methods and theories to address current issues–incorporates or fits into the models for digital research discussed in Perry’s piece. The focus on the study of the recent past often means that different groups and communities are present and involved in research. At a recent workshop held in Detroit, Archaeologies of the Present: Critical Engagements with Post-industrial Urban Transformations, a group of 10 scholars from diverse backgrounds got together to “strengthen the existing contemporary archaeology community and develop theoretical and methodological positions emphasizing material approaches in post-industrial urban sites.”

Kaitlin Scharra’s post over at Unearthing Detroit summarizes the outcomes of that workshop and discusses the scope of contemporary archaeology (and the kinds of media it incorporates):

“As contemporary archaeologists we look at the material culture, use of space, and socio-political contexts of the recent past in the places we study.  This proximity to the recent past and living populations related to our case studies leads us down many different avenues of exploration…Contemporary archaeologists often engage with ephemeral traces of the recent past. One example of this is the analysis of graffiti and how it illustrates public and political issues…The public is very much involved in shaping and responding to contemporary archaeological methods and goals.”

I really like this description (the whole post is wonderful). An archaeology of the present is purposely pluralistic, involving many voices and incorporating different types of material culture and media into the research process. For instance, an analysis of media representation of urban decline and urban regeneration–peeling back the layers and tracing the historical roots of these larger socio-cultural narratives–helps us understand how people think about and engage with the materiality of these processes (i.e. abandonment, blight, brownfields, demolition, gentrification) today, and how they view and make choices about the reconfiguration of landscapes and communities.

Scharra includes a comment from Samantha Malette, a Metro Detroit resident who discusses visiting the 8 Mile Wall during the workshop and “confronting the physical representation of social discourses,” that had been operating in Detroit throughout her life. Eight Mile Wall was built in 1940 to segregate two neighborhoods in north Detroit. At that time, proposed housing developments near so-called “distressed” or “undesirable” neighborhoods (where many African American and Jewish people lived) would not receive loans from the Federal Housing Authority, and in order for one particular developer to build next to one of these neighborhoods, he had to build something to separate them (at least symbolically). Eight Mile Wall is thus a physical representation and reminder of the city’s segregationist past, but also a reminder of the role that race still plays in the city today (eg. in narratives about reasons for the city’s decline, in access to public services and utilities, and in continuing attempts to separate the more affluent suburbs from the city). Again, the social discourses that make up/surround/influence our understandings of the city become embedded in and mobilized by and within the city’s materiality. Archaeologists can document and research both the wall itself (the context of its construction, its spatial limits) and the various murals and graffiti currently displayed on it as forms of media and fragments of larger discourses.

Children standing in front of 8 Mile Wall in Detroit, 1941 (photo via the United States Library of Congress and AP).

Another good source for thinking about how media functions within and through urban anthropological research in particular is a recent article in Anthropology News by Samuel Gerald Collins, “Attack of the Social Media Zombies.” While doing research for their 4-year collaborative project in Baltimore, which sought to produce (through multi-media research and visual anthropology) counter-narratives that “contest urban imaginaries of Baltimore premised on crime and drugs,” Collins and his colleague Matthew Durington began to notice that peoples’ ideas about the city were not only constituted by actual representations of Baltimore (in mass media, via the “The Wire,” which they particularly address), but also by the way people imagine those representations to circulate (i.e. imagined audiences, the people we think are consuming these representations). Durington and Collins therefore came to think of their project as reaching different kinds of audiences/participants in different ways:

” In other words, it is not only the representations of the city that allow people to understand themselves and others, but the way people imagine that those representations circulate. […] For our social media circulation of Baltimore, we therefore imagine not only media producers (those who represent Baltimore and share their representations on social media), ‘consumers’ (those who watch the media we’ve produced), but also this interstitial category of social media zombies that pass along the links to our YouTube media and blog posts—who do the work of network propagation.  In this respect, much of our social media tagging can be considered varied forms of zombie food: keywords that encourage re-posting and that stimulate networked cascades.  Tagging your photo ‘urban ghetto’ precipitates one form of contagion, while tagging the same shot ‘gentrification and abandonment’ generates quite another.”

Public anthropology research–meant to reach a wide, varied audience and to complicate larger social narratives about Baltimore, in this case–circulates through personal, inward-focused social media networks and platforms. Thinking about the way we “tag” our research (or how others might tag it) is an important part of the research process. Project participants themselves produce media and contributions to address or take into account narratives they view or see as already in circulation…around and around it goes. This particular piece is about Baltimore, but these concepts and methodologies are relevant to research in other places (particularly other Rust Belt cities) where largely negative media representations abound and people are interacting with them and circulating them in different ways.

I’m now miles away from Perry’s original discussion about digital scholarship and what an archaeological media archaeology would look like, so I’ll stop here. But I look forward to the upcoming posts on ‘archaeological media archaeology,’ which will be posted at Savage Minds, and to thinking through the various connections between digital scholarship, media, and archaeology some more (hopefully a bit more coherently next time). The conference Perry mentions at the beginning of her post, the University of Bradford’s Archaeologies of Media and Film conference, ended yesterday, but you can view the participants’ comments and reflections on Twitter (#archmf).


    1. No, I won’t be at MHAC, sadly. I hope there will be some live tweeting, though! I’m planning to go to the SHAs and the SAAs.

      I’m glad you liked the Griswold reference! That was naturally the first thing that came to mind when I thought about rummaging around in an attic…haha. 🙂

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