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.

read on!

It is July 31st, 2018.  We have just arrived at Svaerholt after a two hour ride on Alfred’s fishing boat.  Two hours to get there, four hours to return.  That’s the difference weather makes.  Many of us think that distance is a fixed feature of the world we live in.  We think that there are just kilometers and miles.  We think that one kilometer or meter is the same as any other.  In Svaerholt I will learn that distance is a function of texture, of the texture of the earth, and that distances are different depending on the weather, the shoes or boots you are wearing, the terrain you’re walking across:  is it a steep incline as you’re climbing the road to the mountain where the German fortress is, or when you’re climbing to the isthmus to reach the abandoned fishing village on the other side of the peninsula?  Are you walking across the rocks and drift on the beach?  Are your boots wet?  Do you have boots at all?

Later that week I help Chris and Bjørnar excavate a midden outside of the Russian POW camp where our camp is.  I find all sorts of pieces of rubber in the midden.  They tell me that the Russians had a constant preoccupation with the clogs they wore, that there was evidence that they were perpetually repairing this footwear composed of tire rubber, wood, and bits of fabric they wrap about their ankles and legs.  They didn’t hold up well.  As the rain pelts down on us, as the wind seeks to get past my layers, and as the cold penetrates my feet ensconced in my (not so) waterproof mucks, I recall the passages on shoes in the articles they sent me.  They have a different meaning now, a different significance.  Shoes are a technology of distance and an entanglement with texture.  I understand a little more why they would write so many paragraphs about shoes because I’ve been here.  My waterproof hiking boots were soaked after the first day.  I know something of what it’s like to walk this land without good footwear.

We approach the beach located near the camp we will be putting up.  My breath is taken away by the beauty of the area.  Mountains rise in front of me.  The sea is strewn with rocks and massive drift.  Norwegians really know where to choose places to live.  They pull down an absurdly small dingy from the side of the boat.  How will we get all of us and our mountains of gear to the beach using this, I wonder?  Bjørnar ferries us all to the shore one by one, along with the massive amounts of necessary gear we’ve brought to survive in this cold, rainy place where the sun shines 24 hours a day, circling about the sky rather than rising and setting, and where the rain constantly mocks us.

Piloting that dingy filled with people and gear is not easy work.  He goes back and forth at least ten times.  I’m in awe.  I see the look of effort and concentration on his face.  I’m told that this was the second worst year for weather they’ve experienced.  The hike to the camp is grueling.  I am not in shape.  We have to cross these rocks and drift with heavy gear on our backs.  It’s tough going as the ground is uneven and the rocks roll everywhere.  We then cross an old mine field that is strewn with fallen and rusting barbed wire.  And then we must cross a grassy, uneven field with perilous hidden rocks, holes, and reindeer scat every couple feet.  Reindeer scat is everywhere and while I saw many reindeer on our drive to Honnigsvag, I don’t see any while I’m at Svaerholt; instead, I only see a lonely fox running across the hills.

It’s probably about 200 meters to the camp and those meters feel so long to me.  Each trip from the beach to the camp and back again makes me want to die.  My heart is pounding and I am sweating despite being cold.  I get the impression that they think I’m here to do a sort of ethnography of science and observe them, that they don’t expect me to do much at all, but I must pull my weight even if I can’t rise to their level of endurance.  I feel I must do all that I can to help and to do what they do.  Again, I’m filled with awe at how none of them ever stop.  Later that night, after we’ve eaten the fabulous meal that he made, Bjørnar gets a sly smile on his face and, with a mirthful twinkle in his eye, says I performed at a 4/10.  I’m proud and surprised at my pride.

Again, nothing ever stops.  When we get to the camp, the tents must go up.  Chris, a giant of a man who has as much endurance as he does brilliance, and who is always filled with infectious optimism and enthusiasm, immediately sets to work.  The mess must go up first and then all of the other tents.  I do not know how to put my tent up, so Ingar helps me.  I then help him put his tent up.  There is generosity everywhere.  Then we must go to the stream and transform it into a place suitable for washing dishes, getting water, and bathing.  The next day we have to dig out the latrine Chris and Þóra made years ago, and then it is off to survey the island.  Nothing ever stops, and it feels good to constantly be engaged.

On the last day the weather is too bad for Alfred to pick us up on the beach.  Waves are cresting and it is raining.  We must cross the peninsula to the abandoned fishing village.  This is nearly a kilometer away and is grueling work.  First you must climb a steep hill along a German road to the isthmus.  Then you must cross the undulating ground of the isthmus to the other side.  You pass the remains of Stone Age homes everywhere as you do this.  They are right there on the surface, plane as day.  This isthmus, now so high above our camp and the village, used to be at sea level.  Time and memory are strange in Svaerholt.  German WWII ruins stand alongside Stone Age homes and cairns and 16th century and mid-twentieth century ruins of fishing villages.  It’s all folded and pleated together.  I still don’t understand it all.  Bjørnar and Chris tell me this is how it is with memory, even material memory.  It’s all crumpled together like a piece of paper, touching each other across distances of time in strange ways.  The paths of the Stone Age peoples inform where the Germans and villagers built their roads.  They are like pheromone trails for ants.

Once you get to the other side of the isthmus you must descend into the village.  I’m not sure whether ascending or descending are worse.  I walk slowly, my thighs screaming from climbing and descending from the isthmus.  In my mind I sing Dory’s song:  “just keep swimming!  just keep swimming!”  One foot goes in front of another as I carry the heavy gear to our launching point.  Both legs hurt and it’s easy to lose your footing in this terrain.  By the end of these days, my body is screaming, yet I am stronger now and have more endurance.  My bag doesn’t feel impossibly heavy anymore.  I joke that I’ll soon look like Dwayne Johnson and they nod knowingly.

Crossing the field to the village beach is tough as it’s filled with nettles and grasses hiding stones and old cellars.  It would be easy to snap an ankle in this terrain and you constantly have to be attentive.  The boat took two hours to get here and four hours to return.  Snapping your ankle would be a serious thing.  You just need to slip on one hidden rock to catch an ankle.

I manage three trips between the camp and the village carrying what gear I can, but can do no more.  My legs will barely move.  To compensate in some small way, I cut a path through the nettles and sea grass with the scythe from the barn that serves as our launching point on the beach where Bjørnar will ferry us to the fishing boat.  Waves are crashing, and his work will be extra difficult on this cold, rainy day.  Off in the distance I see Bjørnar, Chris, Stein, and Ingar portaging the boat across the isthmus and down the hill into the village.  They have devised boards to serve as handles to carry it.  It is heavy, but once they’re to the beach they can’t stop.  Nothing ever stops here.  Finally we make it safely to the boat and we head out into the sea of the angry fjord.

I have wanted to give some small taste of Svaerholt in this post, though during the week I’ve constantly reflected on how words, photographs, and film cannot possibly capture this place.  They certainly can’t capture what this place makes you feel in your body.  Climbing the mountain to the ruins of the German fortifications, I constantly experienced frustration at the inability of my photographs to capture the magnitude of their fortifications and the sheer heights of the mountain.  You have to be there.  It truly is sublime.  But I have also emphasized the challenges of Svaerholt to underline how much work it takes to let things speak, to let this place speak.  It took me four days to get there and we had an impressive amount of gear.  All sorts of mediators were required to allow something of the story of this place to resonate.

A friend asked me why I did this, what I hoped to find in Svaerholt?  Why, he wondered, did I put myself through this hardship (which was a wonderful, amazing experience), when I could just read their books and articles?  I don’t have easy answers to these questions and am still processing what I did find. The truth is that you can’t know these things by reading about them. No matter how masterful ones literary prose is, the best we can do is allude to them. Something escapes and is forgotten. Part of our job, the job of those who bear witness, is to preserve traces of these things. Philosophy has often had a tendency to pretend this real doesn’t exist at all. Witness Badiou claiming that mathematics exhausts ontology. I will have more to say on this on another occasion.

I do believe this.  There was a time when philosophy did not exist as a discipline.  Philosophy was a reflection of a practice upon itself, unfolding its axiomatics to guide its vision or to clear a field so as to see.  The thinkers we call philosophers today were diplomats, mathematicians, physicists, doctors, lens grinders, historians, politicians, and engineers.  They were tied to a practice and had a responsibility to do right by the things that animated that practice.  There was a little bit of the real, something that wasn’t merely conceptual or symbolic, that they had to preserve and bear witness to.

With the professionalization of philosophy, this was lost.  The world was replaced by the conceptualization of the world, concepts came to be treated as the true realities, and the map was confused with the territory.  Engagement with things and the world increasingly became denigrated in philosophy, as if it was unimportant, even among those that call themselves materialists.  We see this tendency very early in the history of philosophy when Socrates mocks the slave boy in Meno, and then much later, when philosophy starts to become professionalized, in Hegel’s critique of sense-certainty and dismissal of it in the Philosophy.  Philosophy becomes debates over rival constellations of concepts, concepts become the world, and things are lost.

I wanted to see what these archaeologists do, how they do it, and to experience this world of things.  I wanted to learn from their practice and reflect upon it.  I went to Svaerholt with the hypothesis that there can be no thought without an encounter with the real, and I returned from Svaerholt with the conviction that there can be no genuine thinking without an encounter with the real.  I had difficulty sleeping in my hotel room in Oslo last night because I was no longer on the ground listening to the howling wind of the Arctic Circle and hearing the rain patter against the walls of the tent.  I felt sadness as we all went our separate ways.  And I do my packing here in the hotel with the hope that this is the beginning of a long collaboration with the symmetrical archaeologists—these archaeologists who define archaeology as the discipline of things –and the beginning of a thought percolated by an encounter with the real.  In reading their work in preparation for this trip I felt like Neo in The Matrix breathlessly asking for more as the computer taught him how to do these things.  Since that trip that hunger has only intensified.  I want more.

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