Archaeology, Westworld, and Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships that people form with other people (or animals, or things) who are unaware of the other’s existence. It was coined by psychologists Horton and Wohl in 1956 to describe “intimacy at a distance”–the emotions and investment that members of an audience feel in mediated encounters with actors, particularly on TV. I began thinking about parasocial relationships with people in the past; could our interpretive media create such a strong response as to evoke this sense of intimacy? Would a truly engaged public look like fan culture?

Let’s play this out a little bit. Would a true marker of the impact (ugh, I’m beginning to hate that word) of our research be if someone wrote fanfiction about the site, artifact, human remains featured? Should we be applying for funding to host an Archaeo-con, where people cosplay as their favorite beaker person? Or are archaeologists themselves the actual fans, forming parasocial relationships with their particular time period, region, material focus? Are we the ones writing fanfiction about the past? And if so, isn’t that freeing?

Yet a parasocial relationship implies that there is a barrier between the fan and the object of adoration. In archaeology that barrier would be time depth, our focus fuzzy from our various interpretive lenses. But I wonder if parasocial relationships have changed with digital media–harassing your favorite actor is just a tweet away. I’ve previously argued that archaeological interpretation and mediation creates an interstitial space, being “telepresent“–not in the past, fully, but also not quite fully in the present. This can be with any media, but I find it can be particularly affective with digital interpretations. Arguably, the feeling of telepresence and accessibility to the past through an interstitial space might be ascribed to a changing media metaphor–instead of TV we have VR.

In 2018, HBO promoted the second season of Westworld with the Westworld Experience. Westworld plays with tropes of human/android/cyborg experience and so it was fitting that for the Westworld Experience, they hired actors to play androids programmed to think they were humans. And other humans came to interact with the actors and treated them as…less than human. But the experience the Westworld Experience actors had themselves as fully immersed within this world recalled the experience of living history practitioners as described by Handler and Saxton in their article on Dyssimulation. Perhaps the past feels more authentic because there is a more coherent narrative (in retrospect) than our mundane, disjointed lives exhibit. A story feels more true.

So, as archaeological/heritage interpreters, do we aim for a more coherent story that feels true, to fully immerse other people, to omit breaks of presence, or do we dive straight into the dissonance and make interpretations that highlight the disjunctures in interpretation, but may be ultimately self-serving? Are the parasocial relationships we form with those cunningly inaccessible people in the past more compelling because they don’t have the temerity to talk back? …yet?

Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis

Happy publication day! Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis has been published by the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. It’s a collaboration between Daniel Eddisford and I and reflects long conversations we’ve had while working (and living and raising a child) together. It takes archaeological site management, something that is always conceived of as rigidly hierarchical, and tries to reimagine it through more egalitarian means. Conveniently, we found that single context methodology actually lends itself well to a flat management structure. Sadly we also found that recent erosion of autonomy and craftspersonship in archaeological fieldwork has contributed to the neoliberalization of the profession.

If you are one of those Mortimer Wheeler military campaign-types, this is probably not for you, but it has a snip from a big old-school Harris Matrix made out of political leaflets and some Çatalhöyük gossip, so it might be worth a look.

Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis

Also available HERE as an uncorrected proof.

The Invisibility of Hi-viz

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Urban archaeology with the Origins of Doha Project

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people protested in France, demanding that French President Emmanuel Macron resign over increased fuel taxes. These protests have become increasingly violent and draw from anarchist and extremist far right factions, all aligned in working class struggle. The banner that these disparate groups have used to signal their solidarity is the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vest,” a ubiquitous piece of clothing worn by those in construction and industrial labor. Also known as high-vis or hi-viz these vests are part of what is called “PPE,” personal protective equipment and is mandated in jobs that deal with heavy machinery and protect the user against hazardous working conditions. In France, it is mandated that drivers carry one in their vehicle.

Wikipedia states that Scottish railway workers in the 1960s were the first to wear “fluorescent orange jackets, known as ‘fire-flies’” to keep them safe. Since then, motorcyclists, cyclists, cops, hunters, even chickens wear the reflective vests to direct attention to their presence. Which is ironic, as I’ve often noticed an increased invisibility as a result of wearing hi-viz. (Though this invisibility can help, as previously mentioned, with a bit of productive urban exploration.)

That the protestors are wearing hi-viz is no accident. This uniform codes the wearer as working class, and hides and homogenizes identity. As Elaine Glaser notes, politicians often don hard hats and hi-viz while simultaneously eroding workers rights, but the contrast between the expensive wool jackets of Macron and his colleagues is stark when compared to the black and yellow worn by the protestors. As an archaeologist, I wear hi-viz while working on construction sites that have active, heavy machinery present. Yet this measure of safety while on construction sites can also contribute to a surprising invisibility while wearing hi-viz on the street. I have never felt so reviled as when walking through the City of London, amongst businessmen in suits, as when I was in hi-viz, carrying a hard hat and walking in steel-toed boots covered in Victorian excrement. Okay, being a punk in Texas might have occasionally come close.

The protests in France continue. The #giletsjaunes have published their list of demands and have been joined by students and ambulance drivers, amongst others. The list is a mixed bag with a bit of racism thrown in for good measure. The protests stay in France, but perhaps people in hi-viz will be a bit more visible in the future.

Update: I’ve been told that they’ve moved beyond France, so look for a hi-viz jacket in a locality near you.

Inktober 2018

With no particular plan or preparation, I decided to participate in Inktober this year. Considering it is right in the middle of term-time, I feel pretty good with managing half of the prompts. Some of these small stories I’d told in other forms, but I really wanted to convey illustrated snapshots of my time as an archaeologist–the moments that somehow add up to years, that shine up in your pocket after turning them over and over until all the details are gone.

I find it interesting that I didn’t include any digital work it in at all, considering that’s apparently what I do. Perhaps the medium didn’t lend itself. In an ideal world, they’d all be the same shape, size and color, but that they are irregular shows that they were rushed, time stolen after Tamsin’s bedtime and before I fell over each night. It was also a good reminder of how rusty I am at drawing, and how risky it feels to put work that you are not completely confident with out in the world. This is particularly relevant as I teach students to engage with media that they’re very unfamiliar with.

Anyway, thanks to Katherine Cook for the prompts, and to my fellow (much better) artists. It’s good to be reminded to have fun and to have fun collectively and creatively. I’ve included these all below, I can’t imagine anyone would want them higher-rez, but let me know. I also combined them together in a pdf here.

New Publication: Teaching Resistance in Maximum Rocknroll

Maximum Rocknroll began in 1977 as a punk rock radio show and became a long-running zine–basically my teenage bible. In it, John No of the Fleshies and Street Eaters has been editing the Teaching Resistance column and I knew him through a class at UC Berkeley, so I thought I’d contribute. Some of it is cribbed from my Teach-Outs and the Progressive Stack blog post, but it’s considerably expanded.

I’ve posted my bit below, but John No has a great introduction to the piece so you should pick up a copy of MRR at your favorite record store, or online. Want to write your own? Email John No at teachingresistance@gmail.com.

Continue reading “New Publication: Teaching Resistance in Maximum Rocknroll”

Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies…in the flesh!

EAA 2018 is upon us and we have an absolutely incredible line-up of papers for our session, Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies. We’ve decided to pre-circulate the papers amongst ourselves (and a few more publicly) and provide 5 minutes of presentation followed by 10 minutes of discussion. This was a bit of a compromise to stay on time, but still leave as much time as possible to discuss the ideas, as we are expecting to publish the session in the EJA. So, here’s the sesh:

Friday 7 September, 14:00 – 18:30, UB220

14:00 Introduction (Marta Diaz-Guardamino Uribe, Cardiff University; Colleen Morgan, University of York; Catherine Frieman, Australian National University)

14:15 Digital Paths to Reveal How Archaeologists Imagine/Construct the Past (Ruth Tringham, University of California, Berkeley)

14:30 Do Archaeologists Dream of Electric Sheep? (Annie Danis, University of California, Berkeley)

14:45 Discussion

15:00 Punk Archaeology, Slow Archaeology, and the Archaeology of Care (William Caraher, University of North Dakota)

15:15 The Enchantment of the Archaeological Record (Sara Perry, University of York)

15:30 “The Slow Regard of Silent Things…” Working Through Digital/Experimental Archaeologies/Deep Mapping (Benjamin Gearey, Orla-Peach Power University College Cork)

15:45 Discussion Slot

16:30 Avatars, Monsters, Cyborgs & Machines: A Posthuman Digital Archaeology (Colleen Morgan, University of York)

16:45 Close to the Bone: Digital Disruption and Practice Based Learning in the ANU Skullbook Project (Catherine Frieman, Katrina Grant, Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller, Sofia, Samper Carro, Australian National University)

17:00 Voices in the Making: Queer, Feminist Disruptions of (Digital) Archaeology (Katherine Cook, McMaster University)

17:15 Discussion Slot

17:30 Pushing the Boundaries of Epigraphic Knowledge: Digital Technologies for Recording, Analysing and Disseminating Roman Inscriptions (David Espinosa-Espinosa, Miguel Carrero-Pazos, University of Santiago de Compostela)

17:45 The Illusion of Immateriality: Towards a Posthuman View on Material Absence and Digital Presence in Roman Archaeology (Eva Mol, Brown University)

18:00 Ecologies of the Digital Synathrope: Selkie Wives and Buffalo Stones (Louisa Minkin, University of the Arts London)

The session will be video recorded and if anyone decides to tweet, we ask you to use: #S363

Here’s a jpg of the conference programme:

The Archaeology of Peepo

“…and the nursery rhymes are different!”

I was commiserating with another translocated mother; she’s British and raising a son in Hawaii with an American husband, while I’m exactly the opposite. (Yes, I’m fairly sure that York is the opposite of Hawaii, alas.) We had been speaking about the subtle but substantial differences in nomenclature for British and American babies–everything from nappies vs. diapers to how the wheels on the bus go round and round, either all day long or all through town. London Bridge is rebuilt with different materials (silver and gold??) in the UK, whereas in the USA you take the key and lock her up…my fair lady. Needless to say, this all feeds into my shonky, blinkered ethnography of the UK, with this particular instance falling into the chapter on raising children.

Many of Tamsin’s books are from her grandparents who amassed a wealth of literature through teaching and having four children of their own. These are well-loved, disintegrating, and taped-together but remain compelling and most are still in print today. My favorites are the decidedly psychedelic Meg and Mog books (late 1970s):

From Meg’s Veg, sorry for the tipsy photos, I was battling a toddler

Though The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) is a close second–its ambiguous (anti-fascist?) narrative of a very large furry tiger who eats all the food and all the drink in a house occupied by a little girl and her mummy while daddy’s away is oddly chilling, and requires a greater literary scholar than I to unpick.

OH GOD WATCH OUT FOR THE TIGER AAAAAAHHHH

Janet & Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo (1981) is another classic British children’s book that I was not familiar with. Without getting too much into the literary devices in the book, it is told from the perspective of a little baby boy who peeps through a hole cut into the next page at various scenes of family life.

While it is not stated, the book is set during WWII, yet portrays a happy domesticity during a devastating war. This would have probably been obvious to any British readers, with the barrage balloon/anti-aircraft blimp in the background of an image of a park, a bombed-out building in the distance, gas mask on the bed, and the father is shown in uniform toward the end of the book.

This is obviously a idealized, heteronormative vision of the British past, one that probably feels true and right and comfortable. Dan tells me that a lot of children’s books are set during this time; my sample and experience are still relatively limited. What caught my attention is the architecture–we live in a similar Victorian terraced house that backs onto a small, paved yard with a tiny garden.

I started noticing the period-specific features of the house, ones that are mostly gone from ours, like the big stove in the kitchen and the outhouse tacked onto the end of the shed. The traces of these remain in our house, and some of our neighbor’s houses still have the back shed.

I realized that you could figure out the interior of the house and the location of the various rooms from a generalized knowledge of the architecture of these houses. This is how ingrained and ubiquitous these terraced houses are in the UK. In fact, after reading the book at least 1,000 times, I reckoned it was close to this set up:

This layout is from a house a block away from ours, stolen from a real estate website.

In this modern version the back shed has been converted into a kitchen and the former kitchen is now a dining room.

The interior scenes in Peepo are remarkably consistent, with objects (artefacts) appearing and reappearing as the everyday things interwoven into life. I wondered if the house was based on one from the Ahlbergs’ past, or if terrace houses were so generalizable that elaborate planning of the various scenes was not required. Of course the kitchen is there, with the stove just so, and the clothes horse in the corner.

I also love the book as potential inspiration for archaeological illustrations and reconstructions. It’s not messy, just full, rich with materiality and every object has a used and purposeful feeling to it. Small piles of toys are a playtime interrupted, but not quite cleared away. According to an interview in The Guardian, the illustrator Janet Ahlberg used The Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1939-1940 for reference and “would get waylaid in it and sit for ages looking at bread-bins and kettles.”

The book is from a baby’s perspective, watching his family move around him and the details he picks up that might go unnoticed by adults. It also evokes the “daily round,” of waking, daily activity, then bath and bedtime. Out in the back yard he sees:

A bonfire smoking
Pigeons in the sky
His mother cleaning windows
A dog going by

Here’s a video of Allan Ahlberg reading Peepo: