Archive for August, 2010

Sprawl

Monday, August 16th, 2010 by Bill Caraher

On Kostis’ urging, I have been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, the Suburbs. The album itself is a meditation of urban planning and its social impact, but I’ll leave this larger issue to Kostis.  What I want to focus on in particular is the notion of sprawl that comes through in the last couple of songs in the album.  As critics have noted, the idea of sprawl (as in, but not exclusively, urban sprawl) derives some of its meaning in punk circles from William Gibson’s fictitious topography of the post-apocalyptic east coast.  Gibson described an massive east coast settlement stretching from Boston to Atlanta partially housed in a series of dilapidated geodesic domes.  This forms a suitably bleak environment for his high-tech dystopian novels.  Arcade Fire’s understanding of the sprawl clearly has roots in their critique of urbanism in its many 20th and 21st century guises.  The sprawl consists of a bleak assortment of architectural (“dead shopping malls”, bright lights), social,(dead end jobs, threatening police), and perhaps environmental images (the black river).  All these images resonate with Gibson’s dystopian and apocalyptic vision of the near future world.

The kind of dystopian social critiques of the future are almost always rooted in a kind of utopian view of the past (and has obvious links with genres like the jeremiad).  In fact, they rely on a recognizable past remaining hidden in plain sight to make it clear to the reader that their own present has become just another layer of detritus.  Gibson – like Sonic Youth and to some extent Arcade Fire – liken the Sprawl to the failings of capitalism to produce a sustainable, responsible prosperity. The chorus from the Sonic Youth anthem chants: “Come on down to the store, you can buy some more and more and more.”  The verses paint the same kind of dystopia as Arcade Fire’s with cheap clothing, depressing shotgun houses, and rusted machines along a river. 

Scenes of polluted nature, urbanism, and faded modernity, is pretty standard fair for both science fiction and music, and the same ideas inform our archaeological imagination as well.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, romantic views of the natural landscape appeal to me even though I know that these views are as profoundly unhistorical as utopians imaginings of a primordial, edenic nature.  Human activities have had a fundamental influence on almost every aspect of the Eastern Mediterranean places where I work.  As an archaeologist, I already understand that there is no escaping from the sprawl and our own present is, in fact, a past dystopian future.

Like the works of Gibson and the music of Sonic Youth and Arcade Fire the crass consumerism of late capitalism is held up to be at least tacitly responsible for decline.  The focus falls (predictably and particularly) on the relationship between individuals (and their behavior) and objects.  In fact, the physical character of objects take on an archaeological character as they become vehicles for both present identities and history.  This is archaeological thought: while punk’s characters take in the sprawling ruins of shopping malls and rusted machines that stretch outward from centers of human settlement, archaeologists lovingly document the tell-tale haloes of ceramic material encircle ancient sites.  In fact, many scholars argue that the practice of spreading manure created these ceramic haloes. Within the settlement, residents discarded bits of broken pottery on piles of household (both human and animal)waste.  The practice of studying the remains of human activity in the countryside by documenting these worn fragments of discarded goods reminds us of a profoundly dystopian image: communities literally consuming their own waste.

So, as both archaeology and our punk friends scrutinize materiality as an indicators of culture.  They invite us to contemplate the remains of the past as both a cautionary tale for the ephemeral nature of the material accomplishments that we hold dear, while at the same time validate our ability to understand the past (and the present) through bits of meaning embedded in those same good and practices.  The failures of culture manifest themselves in the discarded objects, buildings, and goods scattered about, and these same practices construct a body of material that we can study and reproduce the past. 

The presence of nature amidst these man-made ruins and the parallel between the ruins of capitalism (dead shopping malls) and natural features (rise like mountains beyond mountains) reminds us that all of our surroundings are cultural, and, at that point, dystopian landscapes become familiar.  We not only live in the sprawl, but we have always lived in the sprawl.

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More Punk and Nostalgia

Monday, August 2nd, 2010 by Bill Caraher

Kostis Kourelis brought to my attention a recent New York Times article on an exhibit of Victorian era stereoscopic photographs called “A Village Lost and Found”.  What made this exhibit interesting to punk archaeology fans, was that former Queen guitarist Brian May curated the exhibit and co-wrote the accompanying book.  The New York Times review of the exhibition both feigns surprise that a rock ‘n’ roller like May would be interested in such quaint, esoteric artifacts as hand-colored stereoscopic images and, at the same time, acknowledged the deep nostalgic vein in British society (and its music).  In doing so, the NYT’s author makes reference to one of my favorite albums which lurks around the margins of punk rock, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.

The double album, released in 1968, consists of series of tracks celebrating traditional village life in England.  Topics range from the Village green to picture books, trains, farms, and typical village characters (Johnny Thunder and the deviously rocking Wicked Annabella).  The nostalgic element captured, however ironically, in the Kink’s album continues in punk music.  As I have noted before, punk always had an affection for the pop music of the earlier generation, even though punk rockers from the Germs to the Ramones and the Heartbreakers typically sped up the hooks and contorted the lyrics that gave pop music its wide-spread appeal.  One of my personal favorites is the Germ’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”.  At the same time punk rockers like Jonathan Richman (especially in his early Modern Lovers tracks like Old World, which is bracketed later in the first Modern Lovers’ album with the track Modern World) produced music with the same whimsical nostalgia as the Kink’s Village Green:

I see the ’50’s apartment house
It’s bleak in the 1970’s sun
But I still love the ’50’s
And I still love the old world
I wanna keep my place in this old world
Keep my place in the arcane knowledge
And I still love the ’50’s and I still love the old world

As I have argued before the archaeological character of these songs is not in their perfect reproduction of the past, but in the preservation of the past through critique.  For example, the Kink’s celebration of the Village Green evokes the nostalgia for the earlier times that shot through modernizing British society. In fact, as Matthew Johnson has described in his Ideas of Landscape, such nostalgia for  an earlier period influenced how archaeologist have studied the landscape and regarded material and buildings from the modern period.  Romantic notions of the earlier, rural world, celebrated its simplicity, inherent virtues (especially of Britishness and, as we have witnessed recently the “real” America of the small town), and purity, and expected some degree of continuity to be visible in the society and culture of contemporary denizens of the countryside and the small town.

Punk tried to make a mess of these idyllic critiques by taking the staid nostalgia and melding it with what to many appeared to be the most fleeting, contemporary, and critical musical genres. In some ways, this finds a parallel between those of us committed to sophisticated and critical approaches to archaeology of the countryside, but still enamored with the illusory, anti-modern character of the countryside.  I can admit to loving to explore the lonely hilltops in Greece, to document isolated ruins, and to embracing the contrast between the bustle of the village or city and the peaceful “isolation” of rural Greece.  I often will pause and listen just to the wind and revel in the absence of the motorbikes or trucks while at the same time scrutinizing the read-out on a state-of-the-art GPS unit or looking at a map showing an aerial photographs and analyzed via sophisticated computer software.  As much as my analyses call into question the notion that the Greek countryside was isolated, I still use view of olive covered hills in my publications and presentations to evoke the exotic character of an archaeological past.  The contrast between my reliance on modern technology to document the past and the romantic image of the rural Greece produces a productive conflict.  My appreciation of the beauty and isolation of the Greek countryside drew inspiration from traditional romantic views of rural life while, at the same time, my approach to field work and conclusions challenges those very same views.  A Punk Archaeology approach embraces these same ironies drawing heavily on traditional of thought while at the same time challenging them.

For more musings on Punk Archaeology be sure to check out our blog here.