August 2018


It’s August 2nd, 2018 and we’re preparing to depart from Tromsø for Honningsvåg to meet the fishing boat that will take us to the remote peninsula of Svaerholt.  We will first go to Finland to pick up supplies.  This part of our journey takes us two days, but the drive is breathtakingly beautiful.  I’ve lived in some truly gorgeous places in the United States, but I’ve never seen anything like I see here.  Along the way there are endless mountain peaks, rivers, and reindeer.  Indeed, crossing the border to Finland, the first thing we see ambling along the side of the road is a reindeer running along like a jogger in the States.  It takes an incredible amount of supplies to go on an expedition like this and we’ll have to carry them all to our camp from the beach when we reach Svaerholt.  That day will be one of the most physically demanding I’ve ever experienced.

Prior to departing, they have taken me to the Archaeology Department at University of Tromsø.  They show me where they store the finds from previous digs and expeditions.  There are handwheel doors similar to those that you would find on a ship and behind them are boxes and boxes of carefully catalogued and bagged materials.  Stein Farstadvoll pulls out a couple boxes at random and we go into another room to explore their contents.  There are bags upon bags of rusting nails, fish hooks, fish bones, shards of porcelain pottery, bits of the clogs that the prisoners wore, schnaps bottles from the prison camp (which are both surprising and suggestive), and other things besides.  As I look at the catalogue scheme, I can’t help but think of Latour’s article “Circulating Reference” in Pandora’s Hope.  There, right before me, is a stage in the referential process.  I won’t see other stages until three days later when I help to dig trenches in middens in the cold gray rain of Svaerholt.    I express a feeling of being overwhelmed to Chris Witmore, that I don’t know how to put all of this together.  I feel as if I’ve been confronted with the categorization system Foucault describes at the beginning of The Order of Things.  He smiles and makes the melancholy observation that occasionally an archeologist dies and we lose the thread that ties and links these things together.  I’m crushed by this thought and have been thinking about it ever since.

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Drift on the beach in Svaerholt, Norway

These are very preliminary thoughts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be writing them, yet I want to get them down nonetheless.  It seems to me that there’s a very real sense in which ruins present a sort of quasi-phenomenological way of thinking past correlationism or that philosophical framework in which we can only ever think the relation between between the subject and the object and never either term considered apart and in itself.  Within the correlationist framework the tendency is towards idealism, reducing the thing or object to human representations, meanings, uses, intentions, and significations.  In ruins we encounter the thingliness of things beyond the human.  In encountering ruins it is not unusual to have an experience of the uncanny or that things are haunted.  Where does this attunement of the haunted come from?  To be sure, part of the sense of haunting comes from the traces of humans that are now gone in this place.  However, what if the experience of the haunting comes phenomenologically from something very different.  What if what is haunting about ruins is not that these places contain traces of humans that are now gone, but rather that they present us with the presence of things beyond and apart from the human?  Ruins present us with a life of things after and beyond humans, unshackled from our use and meaning, taking on an agency of their own.  In a certain respect, they therefore also confront us with our own absence and death. We are not haunted by their absence, but by our absence. The presence of these things is the presence of our absence.

ref=”https://larvalsubjects.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/barbwire.jpg”> Abandoned barbwire laying in a field in Svaerholt, Norway[/ca

It is precisely such a scenario that Þóra Pétursdóttir describes upon entering the ruins of a stock-room in an abandoned fishing village in Eyri, Iceland.  In her 2012 article “Small Things Now Included, or What Else do Things Deserve?”, she describes entering this stock-room and being confronted with a bewildering array of debris, defying the historical aim of comprehending it and tracing a story.  She writes,

“Here I was confronted with a landscape of things—of something and nothing which I had no means of grasping. This entanglement of non-things and nothings evaded every category, every concept, every instrument I mastered. I could not name them, I could not count them. They did not obey as I kneeled down to tell them apart. Yet their presence was beyond doubt, and even grew stronger with my despair.” (597)

From a phenomenology perspective Pétursdóttir here describes a very strange sort of encounter.  She encounters this mass of things, this chaos of bits of paper and other things strewn about the floor (the photograph is amazing), yet they defy any meaning and categorization ordinarily present in our intentionality.  Yes, they are there and a subject is relating to these objects, but it’s as if the relation is a non-relation.  It is an encounter with the independence of things, with their existence apart from humans.  As she says later in the article, “the things were doing just fine without us.”

There is a sense in which ruins are a blow to our narcissism.  Let’s recall the original story of Narcissus.  He is captivated by his own image as if it were something other.  In a very real sense, this is what correlationism is.  The correlationist framework sees us in all things.  Things are merely the vehicle of our meanings, intentions, significations, and uses.  In ruins we have an experience of the dehiscence of the correlate and the existence of things beyond the correlate, or the manner in which “they do just fine” without us.  We encounter things that bear the traces of meaning, signification, and use, but in a beyond where they have been shorn of these things.  Ruins present us with the thingliness of things or the existence of things no longer subordinated to signification.  This experience is an allusion to that uncanny other world of a world without people and without our gaze that is a blow to our narcissism or belief that things are only things in correlation to us.

It is June 9th, 2017.  I have earlier given a well attended talk on object-oriented ontology and the ontology of folds at the Litteraturhuset in Oslo, Norway.  I’ve been brought here by the Oslo Center for Advanced Studies and the After Discourse:  Things, Archaeology, and Heritage in the 21st Century project.  It is late in the evening and I am sitting in a bar with Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir.  While I am delighted to be here, I’m not entirely sure why I have I have been invited.  I don’t yet understand archaeology and don’t see the connection with my work.  The year before—but it had been coming for a long time –I had made the decision that the purpose of my travel would be to learn from others and what they are doing in their disciplines and why.  I had decided that my philosophical work would be an encounter with philosophy’s others.  While I am here on this day in June, I am less interested in discussing my thought, than in hearing about theirs.  I ask lots of questions and I have difficulty understanding what they’re doing.  It doesn’t fit with my uneducated understanding of archaeology.  For me archaeology is about ancient cities and Stone Age monuments.  Þóra is talking about exploring drift on beaches and developing a concept of drift.  She shows me beautiful and disturbing pictures of Icelandic beaches and the things that wash up on them.  Bjørnar is telling me about exploring abandoned contemporary buildings in places throughout Norway, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.  How could these things possibly be archaeology, I wonder?  Aren’t these things too contemporary to be archaeology?  Are you doing archaeology when you look at the things of our time?  Isn’t archaeology about history and pre-history?  What is archaeology, I wonder?

Olsen tells me of a site they’ve been working on for 11 years in Svaerholt, Norway that was a part of the Atlantic Wall under the German occupation and that contains a former Russian POW camp.  Again, I’m baffled.  How can this be archaeology?  I’m fascinated and say I would love to go to such a site and observe this place and what they do.  Bjørnar smiles and says he will make it happen.  Often we don’t understand the magnitude and significance of our decisions when we make them.  We can only embrace them after the fact and submit to becoming the person we will be.

It is August 7th, 2018.  I am crammed in the small cabin of a fishing boat with Bjørnar Olsen, Christopher Witmore, Esther Breithoff, Ingar Figenshaue, Stein Farstadvoll, and our fearless and nimble 74 year old ship captain, Alfred.  Alfred once caught a halibut twice as large as him and he met the king and queen of Norway. He jumps about the boat and throws anchors and parcels around like a twenty year old. His face is deeply kind and amused. We are on a four hour fjord crossing to return home after four days in Svaerholt.  I am wearing six layers of clothing and have not bathed for the last two days; and the last time I bathed was in a cold stream, the same stream the POWs would bathed in.  I bathed in the stream in August in 10C weather.  They would have done this in the dark nights of the winter as well as the summer months.

I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life and my body aches.  I look at these people around me and I marvel at their strength and endurance.  I marvel at their capacity for work and am proud of myself for how much I did, even though I did not begin to approach their level of endurance.  I express wonder, and Chris smiles with the infectious enthusiasm that always dances across his face. “It all follows from the core, my friend”, he says simply. His words mean more to me than a comment about the body and fitness, but I still note to myself that I will begin to join my wife in her yoga when I return home.

Our days started early and we didn’t eat dinner until 2300.  There was constant exertion.  Even walking across the land of Svaerholt was difficult.  Nothing is easy here…  Not going to the sites, not washing our dishes, not relieving ourselves, nor stumbling to our tents.  Everything takes work.

We are crammed like sardines in the cabin of the boat because it’s not safe to be on the deck.  The sea is violent, screaming an ode to nature’s fury with 4 – 5 meter waves.  The boat is seizing all over the place.  Up, down, left, right, forward, backward.  Sometimes it feels as if the earth disappears beneath us and that we will just fall through the infinite void like Lucretian atoms.  And then we are violently thrown from our seats and where we are standing as it hits the ocean.  Chris hits the ceiling of the cabin, grits his teeth, laughs, and braces himself again.  Another wave is coming.  There are moments where you look out the window and are staring straight into the ocean.  Everyone looks worried, and the captain is laughing and telling stories in Norwegian.  I am strangely calm.  Have I disassociated in terror?  I trust the captain.  He looks like he knows what he’s doing.  I drift in and out of sleep and think of my wife who I miss deeply.  Later I am told that it is the worst crossing they have ever had.

The city of Honnigsvag finally comes into view.  We’ve survived.  Now we must unload the boat and pack the vans.  One task always leads into another here; there is a constant attentiveness to things–  the things needed to live and survive, the things needed to care for the ruins and to let them speak.  There’s always more to be done.  A lot of mediators are required to connect us to the things of Svaerholt, helping them to speak some of their story.

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