Project Description

In his 2009 paper on materiality and the future of history, historian Frank Trentmann starts out observing that, “Things are back. After the turn to discourse and signs in the late twentieth century, there is a new fascination with the material stuff of life” (Trentmann 2009: 283). And he proceeds by claiming the already radical outcome of this return: “Like words in the postmodern 1980s, things today are shaking our fundamental understandings of subjectivity, agency, emotions, and the relations between humans and nonhumans” (ibid: 284). Trentmann takes the intellectual pulse well. After nearly a century of intellectual ignorance there is indeed a new fascination with things. As witnessed in a number of disciplines, ranging from political science to English literature, things, objects and materiality are now figuring prominently – and surprisingly self-evidently – on the agenda. Associated with this “turn to things” is the vast array of theoretical developments that already have had a significant impact on social and cultural research, such as actor-network theory as developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and others, Manuel DeLanda’s “assemblage” theory, and object-oriented ontologies as proposed by for example Ian Bogost, Levy Bryant and Graham Harman.

This research project is an explicit attempt to critically scrutinize this material turn, to explore its consequences and potentials for two traditionally thing-oriented disciplines, archaeology and heritage studies, and thereby to prepare new ground for studying things in the humanities and social sciences. While acknowledging and drawing on the profound contributions to thing theory made in philosophy, science and technology studies, sociology, geography, anthropology and other fields, this project differs in accentuating a renewed trust in the material itself. It is the project’s grounding assertion that a successful turn to things cannot be accomplished through theoretical and discursive reconfigurations alone but must also be grounded in the tactile experiences that emerge from direct engagements with things – including broken and stranded things. Building on archaeology’s long and intimate engagement with things, and anchored in field studies of modern ruin landscapes and abandoned sites, our research will focus on three main themes: the materiality of memory, the affective aspects of material encounters, and the value and ethics of things. By bringing a concern with ruins and things themselves to the forefront, this project aims to develop a new platform for debating archaeology and heritage in the 21st century.

Background: Things, archaeology and heritage

The state of the art in many approaches to things within archaeology and material culture studies during the last decades can be described as creative attempts to negotiate new perspectives within an ontological framework still heavily constrained by idealist, modern thought and the pretext of the social/human a priori. Such tendencies are also present in heritage studies. Perhaps even more conspicuously in this field, meaning is seen as something inevitably mapped onto things, which themselves mostly seem drained of significance in their so-called cultural construction. This understanding of things as, at the outset, inert and passive beings that are made meaningful through their involvement in human and social projects, has, however, for the last decades been profoundly challenged by science and technology studies, actor-network-theory, and various other post-humanist and new empiricist programs that have pioneered the material turn. In order to provide a background to our objectives and research themes, we shall briefly describe this change and situate current debates in archaeology and heritage studies in relation to it.

Turning to things.

As noted, we have now for a while experienced a growing concern for things and the material aspect of culture. It is even claimed that we are facing a paradigm shift; a radical turn away from the linguistic hegemony of postmodernism towards what has variously been named ‘new materialism’, ‘new realism’ and ‘post-humanism’ (e.g. Coole and Frost 2010; Domanska 2010; Wolfe 2010; Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011; Bogost 2012). While indeed diverse, a shared concern of these “isms” is clearly to assign matter, things – or “the real” – a new stance of significance. Hence, much effort has been put into abandoning modern negative dualities between inert, meaningless things and creative, thoughtful humans, and to adopt a more inclusive and “flat” ontology, tellingly described as a “democracy extended to things”. Through the power of relations and entanglements, things and other non-humans are seen as holders of agency comparable to their human co-actors.

Despite the impressive theoretical grounds cleared, this “turn to things” also contains some less spoken about or scrutinized features. For an archaeologist it is curious to note that it is largely successful and well-fitted things that are turned to, things that works well and which often stands out from the average as special and quite rare. Trivial and ordinary things, and in particular the masses of things soiled, broken and discarded, mostly seem to have escaped serious consideration. Furthermore, when assessing how things are addressed and credited significance in their new social embracement, another conspicuous feature is the remarkably one-sided repertoire of positive and largely wished-for human qualities and virtues consistently ascribed to them (e.g. being “actors”, “delegates” equipped with “agency”, “vitality”, “personality”, “biography”). What remains little explored is to what extent the generosity of the last decades, in terms of embodying and socializing things, and liberally enrolling them as full-fledged members of society and “democracy”, actually may have deprived them of their integrity and otherness as things. And also to what extent their celebrated repatriation actually was conditioned by their new performance as playful, noble, and humanlike beings? Moreover, despite the claim of having replaced the textual and linguistic theoretical hegemony of the late 20th century, the objects actually turned to are mostly discursive objects. Textual or otherwise mediated encounters are still preferred to direct engagements with things themselves in their concrete and messy manifestations. Challenging this intellectual distancing we argue that a sincere turn to things cannot be accomplished without taking into account their physicality and otherness as things, including their less desirable features. We rather contend that a new “thing knowledge” needs to be grounded in this difference – also as experienced in our immediate and concrete material encounters.

Archaeology: the discipline of things.

Archaeologists may not be in any urgent need of turning to things. Still, the recent theoretical turmoil has of course not passed unnoticed in archaeology, and in fact archaeologists have in various ways made important contributions to the new thing-theoretical repertoire (e.g. Meskell 2005, Knappett and Malfouris 2008, Olivier 2011, Bille and Sørensen 2012, Hodder 2012, Marshall and Alberti 2014). The archaeology of the contemporary past has also brought about a new concern for the materiality and ineffable aspects of contemporary society (e.g. Burström 2007, Harrison & Schofield 2010, Graves-Brown et al. 2013). Inspiration has been drawn from various theoretical frameworks, including phenomenology, biographical approaches, agency theories and ANT. While we find this theoretical engagement important and refreshing, there seems to be less enthusiasm for what archaeology itself has to offer in these efforts to turn to things. Nevertheless, in its low-key empirical format archaeology is the discipline of things par excellence, a discipline that despite hegemonic intellectual currents never allowed itself to turn its back on things. Working directly with the messy spoils of history, archaeologists hold a crucial thing knowledge, an intimate expertise and care for things big and small and in their various and often quite derelict modes of being. This care and skill constitutes a disciplinary affordance of great significance, but has increasingly been overshadowed and even stigmatized by the urge to make the soiled and fragmented archaeological record comply with the ever-present imperatives of writing “history” and conducting “social” analysis.

Given the current intellectual climate and the proclaimed (re)turn to things, we assert that the “conditions of possibility” for archaeology have radically changed and require a bold rethinking of its goals and ambitions. And the boldest of all, we contend, is to make archaeology truly archaeological: To reconstruct archaeology as a discipline of the past and the present; one which challenges the almost ontologized confusion of the past with History as well as the equally taken-for-granted assumption of the present as a non-archaeological territory. In other words, to opt for an archaeology that passes on the imperatives of historical narratives and sociologies in favor of approaches that involve a trust in the ruined things themselves, their material memories and afforded meanings.

Rethinking heritage.

While heritage (studies) and archaeology have hardly had a trouble free engagement they do have some things in common – as disciplines preoccupied with the material legacy of the past. It is arguable, however, that their respective understandings of material culture have lately been drifting apart. The growing unease with the emphasis on inheritance and possession in heritage definitions and conventions (Rowlands 2002), and the consequential objectified and physical conception of heritage – also as crystallized in the concept of “cultural recourse management” – has been increasingly criticized. This has resulted in a ‘turn’ within heritage studies that paradoxically is quite the opposite of the described material turn, involving “… a radical paradigm shift from the objective nature of material culture to the subjective experience of the human being” (Ruggles and Silverman, 2009: 11). Intangibility has become the catchphrase for this shift, a concept even considered to apply to heritage in general; and tellingly expressed also as a turn away from presumed archaeologically biased understandings of heritage (e.g. Waterton and Smith 2009a, 2009b; Smith and Waterton 2009).

However, rather than accounting for a paradigm shift, it may be argued that the new emphasis on intangibility only makes explicit what has always been the underlying, yet rarely uttered, rationale of heritage discourses. While there is truly an emphasis on the tangible aspect of heritage in conventions and legislations, the source of value has still been firmly anchored in human perception, experience and attachment, and percolated through intangible conceptions of history, identity and sense of belonging (Pétursdóttir 2013). This brings us to another important premise for our rethinking of heritage; namely that heritage has never been an all-inclusive category, a democracy of things, but much rather an aristocratic moniker reserved for the selected few. And despite its ongoing ‘democratization’ reflected in the struggle to involve the interests and concerns of marginalized human others, a similar care for seemingly subsidiary or othered things is usually not seen. Another question posed by this project is therefore to what extent a democratization of heritage is really taking place?

This exclusivity further points to a rarely addressed tension between two ways of conceiving heritage: On the one hand heritage as something discursively communicated, appropriated and consciously considered; and on the other, heritage as something lived with – as an existential and “thrown” dimension of our being-in-the-world (Heidegger 1962). This distinction importantly alsorefers to two different modes of memory further explored in this project; first to the kind of conscious memory politics at work on the heritage scene today, where decisions are constantly made as to what is presented for commemoration and how (cf. Harrison 2013: 166ff); secondly to the existential and material dimension of memory whereby the past is habitually internalized (and sometimes involuntarily ignited) through our inescapable living-in a world of accumulating pasts – underscoring our inability to fully control commemoration. It is an objective of this project to explore how an acknowledgement of these different modes of memory also may allow for a “flattening” of heritage through the recognition of both the tangible and intangible processes at work in its formation, management and mediation.

Research themes and theoretical considerations

These considerations take us to the heart of the first of our three main research themes, the materiality of memory. Memory has for the last decades been a central theme of study in the humanities and social sciences. In most of these studies memory is associated with a “re-collective” conception or, in other words, with memory as a conscious and willful human process of recalling the past. This is, for example, apparent in Pierre Nora’s much referred to notion of lieux de mémoire, explaining how memory crystallizes into objects, sites or places, generating locales or lieux of collective remembering (Nora 1989). Despite the materiality of the lieu(x), what is nevertheless implied is that while places or things may be seen as projecting, inscribing or objectifying memory (cf. Connerton 1989), they themselves are not considered decisive for the act of remembering. The crucial issue is rather the past event, real or invented, and the will to remember it through subsequent site embodiments (the selection, appropriation, and/or construction of sites, monuments, memorials etc.) (Assmann 2011: 44-50). This also characterizes how memory, as a fear of forgetting, largely is conceived and articulated within the heritage sphere today.

Thus, little emphasis has been placed on the role things themselves play in enabling remembering and in upholding the past, a role that essentially relates to their intrinsic capacities as enduring material objects. Due to these qualities things object to conceptions of the past as replaced, completed and gone and actually make manifest an effective and accumulating past. This is a past which sediments also in unpredictable ways and according to material trajectories that often are beyond, or unrelated to, human control and intervention (Bergson 2004). Things therefore constitute a reservoir for different memories and mnemonic practices, and a particular feature of this mnemonic is afforded by the survival of the outdated and discarded – where our empirical focus is placed. Acting as material antonyms to the habitually useful, ideologically correct and aesthetically pleasing, we want to explore how these othered things may trigger involuntary memories of less cared for pasts, of the trivial, the failed or never completed undertakings, and thus might be said to give face to what conventional cultural history has left behind. Moreover, given the nature of memory itself as fragmented and incomplete, we want to explore how archaeology perhaps is more akin to memory than history – in other words, more akin to an approach which does not see the archaeological record as deficient but is open to the potentials, meanings and ineffable memoirs afforded by its very fragmented otherness (Olivier 2011, Pétursdóttir and Olsen 2014a).

Emphasizing involuntary material memory and the significance of experience also connects to our second research theme, the affective aspects of material encounters. The preferred academic conception is that things, monuments, and places are interpreted – in other words, made sense of rather than sensed – whereby significance is rendered humanly inscribed rather than released from encounters with things themselves. Contrary to this we believe that a truly material approach also involves acknowledging the ineffable impacts of things and nature; how their very presence affects us and thus also the way we comprehend and sense the world. We find these ineffable “presence effects” (Gumbrecht 2004), brought about by actual and intimate engagement with things and natures, crucial to archaeology and to fieldwork as grounded in a particular material aesthetics. We furthermore suggest that this affective material dimension, and in particular as experienced through archaeology’s devotion to the ruined and redundant – in short, to things released from the constant toil of serving human purposes – has a potential of making us mindful of the otherness of things – of things in their own unruly “thingness”.

Realizing the potential of this archaeological affordance, however, requires that we also allow room for wonder and affection in our scholarly conducts (Bogost 2012; Malpas 2012; Pétursdóttir 2014); in other words, to overcome the imperative of anaesthetization (cf. Buck-Morss 1993) that has burdened modern research and academia more generally. One means to facilitate this is to dare rethinking what has been condemned as “naïve empiricism” and further develop our archaeological sensibility for things and places. This means, for example, acknowledging and building on the significance of the vastly underrated archaeological field method of being present at a site or place and being exposed to its rich portfolio of ineffable material impacts (Harrison and Schofield 2010: 69; Olsen et al. 2012: 58-78). Importantly, acknowledging this aesthetic experience of presence does not involve any downgrading or ignorance of scholarly skills and knowledge. What it involves, however, is to take seriously also the moments of immediacy, the moments of intellectual innocence when the body “rebels against the tyranny of the theoretical” (Eagleton 1990: 14), and thus to allow for the on-site interactive constitution of meaning as opposed to assuming it as inevitably and unilaterally humanly inscribed. Moreover, being attentive to how ruins and stranded things affects us in their otherness, also involves acknowledging their right not to be meaningful in the dominant interpretative sense, without that rendering them meaningless (Pétursdóttir 2014).

This connects directly to the third research theme, the value and ethics of things. According to the dominant modern conception things are little but things-for-us, reduced to resources or what Heidegger termed Bestand (Heidegger 1993, Introna 2014). Also as heritage, things of the past, monuments and sites receive their value primarily from being useful to us; as a scientific or economic resource, or by serving as vehicles for defining identity and securing human well-being. Our research on this theme explores the possibility of a more radical alternative: That things and ruins may be valuable also in and of themselves. In other words, things do not need a human concern or definition of value to justify their uncontestable being and that their signification may also emanate from the power of their own thingness.

This however requires further scrutiny and we find it pertinent that a turn to things, which seeks to appreciate things’ social significance, also must contend with the moral obligations that come with their applauded “agency”, including the less desirable aspects. As qualified constituents in our common “society of monsters” (Law 1991) things are never innocent beings, they are never just there as simple means towards our ends; some of them also affect us and other beings in negative ways. We may enroll them and charge them with values and meanings, and these inscriptions may be successful but they are also highly unpredictable. Things do have autonomy, most effectively realized, perhaps, through their endurance; they outlive us and despite being abandoned or discarded they are involuntarily re-membered into new presents, and new contexts. On these grounds we ask, how can we ignore an ethics of things, not least in relation to heritage? However, rather than simply being a concern about “correct” moves, or appealing to abstract (and often humanized) principles of “rights”, ethics in this sense is first and foremost about things’ integrity and difference (Benso 2000). In other words, it is about seeing and acknowledging things also as they are or express themselves on encounter, and not merely as conventionally explained, historically construed or otherwise made meaningful and useful for us.

Empirical focus, case studies and methodology

The empirical focus of this research project is on the recent past, on modern ruins and places of abandonment. While this choice deliberately transcends archaeology and heritage’s traditional concerns with the distant past, and also pertains to the relevance of archaeology to the study of present, it is firmly grounded in rationales that make these studies important irrespective of chronological provenance. Such rationales are described in relation to the themes of memory, meaning, and ethics already addressed. Thus it is not the case that the ruins of the recent past represent a distinct category, essentially different from their earlier counterparts, but rather that their “unfamiliar familiarity” provides some significant clues to what this project is about. By displaying their active and on-going process of ruining, modern ruins afford and observation of, and engagement with, things in their various states of abandonment and decay. They thereby lead our attention to particular qualities of things’ integrity and otherness, qualities that may become more manifest, or perhaps only possible to grasp, at second hand when no longer immersed in relations of usefulness and maintenance (Edensor 2005, Pétursdóttir and Olsen 2014a). Furthermore, their redundancy, young age, and uncanny physiognomy of these modern ruins render them into temporal and cultural disturbances that challenge the dominant political tropes of purity, order, and sustainability that also have affected heritage practices and politics. Utterly marginalized in the current political economy of the past, lacking the “age-value” of their ancient counterparts, and caught somewhere between waste and heritage, these ruins can actually be said to already utter their own critique of current regimes of cultural valuing (Andreassen et al 2010, Pétursdottir 2013). Due to their cultural proximity and tangible familiarity they also hold an unparalleled heuristic value, offering insights into how things endure and outlive our expectations and intentions for them.

Two case studies will be carried out as part of this project. The first, Soviet heritage in the Russian north, considers the material legacy and tactile memory of the former Soviet empire as manifested in remote towns and settlements on the Kola Peninsula, NW Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 these in economic terms relatively prosperous sites faced a very different reality. Today the immediate impression left from encountering them is not only of decay and decline but also of “offline-ness” and postponement. Seemingly disregarding conventional historical chronology they stubbornly continue to survive as Soviet sites in a post-Soviet era. Ranging from the gauge of railways, to urban planning and Stalin and Khrushchev era apartment houses, the deposits of the regime are still so massive and persistent that the investment to get rid of them by far seems to outweigh the costs of living with them. How do these “unintentional monuments” (Riegl 1982) of the Soviet regime impact and affect those people who despite infrastructural breakdown continue to live in these “concrete ruins of socialism” (Lahusen 2006)? Is it, as often asserted, a mental heritage of political passivity that constitutes the legacy and effective history of “Sovietism”, or are we rather dealing with an “effective archaeology”: a thick and sticky material heritage which impacts on all attempts to move on (Olsen 2013)? Furthermore, the viscosity and persistency of this material past critically questions traditional notions related to chronology and the pace and passing of history. To what time do these settlements belong? At what moment did the Soviet Union end – and has it really ended? Accentuating things as durable and ‘slow events’, this case also enables explorations of the differences between the archaeological and the historical project, including what may be their basic diverging chronologies.

The second case study, Landscapes of war, brings yet another empirical dimension to our project. During WW2 the coastal region of Finnmark in Arctic Norway constituted the northernmost branch of the massive German defense line, the Atlantikwall. Numerous fortifications and related infrastructure were built along this remote and barren coast, and the intense and massive presence of the Wehrmacht radically transformed landscapes and local communities (Gamst 1984). Moreover, after being defeated by Soviet troops at the Litza (Kola) front line in the fall of 1944, the Germans undertook a massive and forceful evacuation of equipment, troops, prisoners of war, and local population from this coastal region. To prevent the enemy any logistic advantage, including those locals who had managed to escape, the tactic of scorched earth was implemented very effectively, laying the entire built environment in ashes in the course of a few weeks (Westrheim 1978, Sandvik 1975). Today the ruins of war are still a conspicuous feature of this northern coast: bunkers, battery emplacements, gun positions, surveillance posts, trenches, roads, barbed wire fences, as well as the overgrown ruins of native settlements not favored in the postwar national rebuilding program. While the northern war itself may not be featuring too prominently in Norwegian national narratives of war and resistance, its tacit material survivors are more or less completely neglected in research and heritage programs and practices. However, to those who still live along this remote coast these “extended” and persistent occupants are hard to ignore and continue to affect daily lives of both humans and non-humans with their raw presence. This dramatic landscape of war thus constitutes an exemplary case for studying material memory, both as bodily remembering and as particular cases of involuntary remembrance. It highlights issues in relation to the assessment of heritage value, including ethical concerns regarding “good” and “bad” heritage, and also allows for exploring how an archaeological approach to things can contribute to nuance and enrich historical narratives of this war and the black-and-white conceptions that often characterize them.

The results of this field research are important to all the three suggested research themes, also to the one dealing with the affective aspects of material encounters, which has a particular relevance for a discussion of fieldwork itself and the methodological approaches that attain to it (cf. Harrison and Schofield 2010, Edgeworth 2012). A methodological challenge is to explore ways to translate or “prolong” these affective moments of presence and to make them part of analysis and dissemination. In order to meet this challenge a wide repertoire of documentary techniques will be employed and developed in order to attend to the richness and complexity of the sites studied. These will include excavation, photography, video recording, mapping, drawing, descriptive accounts and interviews. Most of the methods will be employed in both case studies, while excavation will only be conducted on the WW2 sites in Finnmark, Norway. Here analyses of artefact assemblages, faunal and botanical material, as well as soil chemical samples, will be used to meet the specific objective of generating richly detailed, context-sensitive and nuanced accounts (cf. Olsen and Witmore 2014). In the case of photography, video recording, and mapping/drawing, the gathering of data will importantly be based on faithfulness to what is already revealed by the things or sites themselves, in their current modes of appearance (Pétursdóttir and Olsen 2014b). An important departure from current standards of archaeological field practices is, for example, to avoid the compulsory procedures of cleansing and “styling”, fixing or refitting, but rather to attend to this messiness and incompleteness of the specific field context. As a supplement to standard descriptions, our descriptive accounts will also explore more experimental and creative styles of writing that reach beyond the bounds of the sterile, and often thing hostile, professional and academic text. Finally, ethnographic approaches in the form of “on-site” semi-structured interviews, based on convenience- and/or snowball sampling, will be used in order to grasp people’s experiences of living under conditions with on-going ruination and abandonment, or where their life worlds to a large extent seem conditioned by the derelict manifestations of their own supposedly abandoned past.

Our field methodology – and approach to things more generally – is phenomenologically inspired. Originally launched as way of “relearning to look at the world”, a reclaimed “seeing” grounded in our lived experience rather than in abstract philosophical concepts and theories, phenomenology can be described as a project committed to restore to things their integrity by respecting their native ways of manifesting themselves (Heidegger 1962: 58, Merleau-Ponty 1968: 4). We find this humble and attentive ontology attractive and much in common with the “naïve” and inductive attitude that once also characterized the archaeological project. By creatively combining this “old” thinking with new approaches, we wish to reach a common ground where theory is not simply applied to empirical material but rather practiced or worked out, and thus allowed to interact with and be infused by data.


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