In early August I will be going on an archeological dig at a WWII Russian POW camp with the Unruly Heritage project in Svaerholt, in the northern most region of Norway.  You can read more about the early stages of the Svaerholt dig here.  I have never done anything like this and am both deeply excited and trepidatious.  Reaching the location requires a two hour boat road.  Once there, I’m told we get to shore by a smaller boat.  This requires specialized waterproof gear in the event that something falls in the water while transferring from boat to boat.  There are no people there, nor any infrastructure to speak of (though I’m told that strangely cell phone service is good).  I’ll be sleeping in a tent and bathing in a stream like the Russian POW’s and German soldiers that occupied the camp decades ago.  I’ve camped a great deal throughout my life– especially during my teen years –but I’ve never gone on a trip of this magnitude and for this length of time (nearly two weeks).  I marvel and am honored that I somehow got involved with the archeologists of the Norwegian school and am gratified to see the ideas of the object-oriented ontologies, the new materialisms, and actor-network theory put to work in fields far afield from philosophy.  I hope this is a prelude to further expeditions of this sort during my involvement with the project over the next four years.  Not only am I fascinated by the various digs they’re engaged in, but I’m especially interested in witnessing their practices of knowledge production and theory formation.  As a philosopher, I feel that I’ve been given the rare opportunity to open the black box of knowledge production, so as to witness first-hand the process of “circulating reference” that Latour describes so beautifully in his essay by the same name in Pandora’s Hope.

In the last few months I’ve been hungrily reading everything I can by the archeologists of the symmetrical school.  This has included Bjornar Olsen’s marvelous book, In Defense of Things:  Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects, Archaeology:  The Discipline of Things, by Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, and Christopher Whitmore, as well as numerous articles by Olsen, Þóra Pétursdóttir (who is developing the fascinating concept of “drift”), and Whitmore (trained as both a philosopher and archaeologist).  I have found everything I’ve read deeply rewarding and challenging.

read on!

Among the many distinctive concepts of the symmetrical school of archaeology– and this group is working with big ideas –is their novel concept of temporality and memory.  I have found these concepts to be among the most challenging and exciting in their work, and am still struggling to fully get my mind around them.  At the most basic level, the symmetrical school aims at two things:  the materialization of memory and temporality, and a challenge to linear notions of time based on periodizations and a unidirectional arrow of time.  In works like Archaeology:  The Discipline of Things, the symmetrical archaeologists challenge the linear notion of time where the past can be broken down into purified periods of time like the bronze and iron ages, and where the past is something that is gone and done, replaced by the present.  Rather time is– to use a metaphor drawn from Serres –“crumply”.  It has different rhythms in which strata of the past can be simultaneous with the present.  This is driven home in a simple observation in one of their articles– the authorship and title elude me at the moment –with the question “did the occupation end?”  Discussing the many fortifications the Germans built along the cost of Svaerholt in preparation for an assault that never came and that were subsequently destroyed, they note how reindeer still get caught in barbwire fences to this day.  This question and its accompanying observation stopped me in my tracks.  Yes, the Germans left, but nonhuman actants like the fences remain and continue to exert their power or– as I called it in Onto-Cartography –“gravity”.

The point here is that the past is contemporaneous with the present.  This thesis only makes sense if time is materialized, and not merely treated as a structure of phenomenological experience.  The past is out there in the world, in the things themselves, and we live in and amongst these things.  Here we must think of social assemblages not merely as consisting of humans, their meanings, and their norms and communications, but as also consisting of nonhuman things like streams and barbwire fences.  What gravity, what power, do the things themselves exercise, and how do the things of the past persist in the present?  In one respect, material time challenges our notion of periodized and linear time through the simple observation that things persist.  In trying to purify something like the “iron age”, we forget that something like monuments, geographical features, ancient roads or paths, as well as ancient beliefs and practices– in In Defense of Things, Olsen makes brilliant use of Bergson’s habit memory –persist in the present and things that people in these “new ages” must navigate and that they make use of in new ways.  On the other hand, the persistence of things allows us to raise questions about the life of things after humans, as in the case of Pétursdóttir’s startling work on drift and ruins (for my money, one of the best challenges to correlationist frames of thought, and of profound significance for ecological thought, to boot).

Time can be thought neither in terms of periods, nor in a linear fashion, because memory and the past is not simply there between our ears, nor even only in texts, but is out there in the things of the world themselves.  Let’s take a more familiar, trite, example.  The house where we currently live was built in 1992.  I’m embarrassed to say that like many people in the United States, we have an enormous refrigerator.  The nook in our kitchen is designed for a much smaller refrigerator.  Ours comes out nearly a foot or more from that recess.  The consequence of this is that the door of the refrigerator can’t be opened when someone is at the counter parallel to the refrigerator (which is prime food preparation space), and two or more people can’t move in that space.  Actions in that area are like eddies of water produced around a rock in a stream.  There is a sort of synthesis here, but it is not like a Kantian transcendental synthesis, nor a Husserlian synthesis, but is rather a synthesis produced by material times in a collision between past and present:  On the one hand, there is the period in which it was designed and the forms of living and the technologies for which it was designed.  On the other hand, there is the present technologies fitted into this past that is present.  And then, on a third hand– or should I say, on a foot? –there are the actions and forms of life that must navigate this synthesis or conflict between the two times that are so strangely and oddly simultaneous with one another.

The past is not past, while still being past.  There are a number of levels and rhythms in which we can think of these eddies and their interaction.  There is the material level of which I’ve spoken here with respect to barbwire fences and architectural design.  Perhaps you have sometimes wondered why city design so often displays such madness.  Here is the place to look.  The placement of buildings and roads in the past requires negotiation in the present.  There is habit-memory as described by Bergson.  I do not think of where my fingers must go when I type.  My fingers themselves know.  The more I intentionally try to think about typing, the worse my typing gets.  Learning how to type was a sort of disciplinary regime I underwent.  How many habits from the past are written in our bodies in the way that my fingers know how to type, despite the fact that I couldn’t fill out a diagram of a keyboard were I to be asked?  If habit-memory is of such deep importance, then this is because it marks the space of a dihescence between our discursive thought and what Butler calls the performative dimension of who we are.  As Deleuze and Guattari observed, a politics can be left discursively, but there can be a sort of authoritarian habitual unconscious that reflects a micro-fascism.  Form and content can be at odds with one another.  At the semiotic level, ancient texts can remain entirely present, informing contemporary life as in the case of the Constitution, the Bible, or the works of Plato.  The past circulates with the present, informing how we live in the present.  And then, there are the afterlives of things that persist beyond human assemblages altogether, enjoying their own adventures, while nonetheless disrupting contemporary life in all sorts of ways.  Garbage is never really thrown away.  Rather, it drifts, influencing us in all sorts of  unexpected ways.

Advertisements