Archaeology, Human Dignity, and the Fascination of Death

An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs)

An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs)

In 1855 the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened, and by the time it moved in 1935 thousands of patients had been buried on the hospital grounds.  The Mississippi asylum’s story is by no means unique: A vast range of mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and chronically ill Americans found themselves captive in dehumanizing institutions, lost to desperate and distant families and unceremoniously buried by the state.  Much of archaeology’s mortuary landscape is peopled with similar lives that ended in asylums, battlefields, slave quarters, distant workplaces, prisons, and long-forgotten cemeteries.

At its best, archaeology dignifies these lives by treating their stories and forlorn remains with scientific rigor and moral respect.  When the University of Mississippi took aim on the former asylum grounds Mississippi State University’s Nicholas Hermann led a team that surveyed the site to document and preserve the scores of dead patients now consigned to unmarked graves alongside the contemporary Medical Center.  It is this moral notion of dignity that was violated by National Geographic Channel International’s “Nazi War Diggers,” which released (and then retracted) a promotional video last week on the four-episode series documenting the recovery of wartime dead who “lie rotting under World War Two’s Eastern Front.”  This week the channel abruptly placed the series on “indefinite” delay (and removed all traces of it from their web page), awkwardly acknowledging that it was reviewing the series “while questions raised in recent days regarding accusations about the program can be properly reviewed.” Read the rest of this entry

The Peep Show of Death: Televising Human Remains

In the waning moments of World War II the Soviet Army launched a massive Baltic offensive, and the German Army Group Courland was among the Nazi units that became isolated along the eastern front until the surrender in May 1945.  Between its formation in October 1944 and the surrender in May 1945, six major engagements were fought by the Army Group, with about 189,000 Germans surrendering to the Soviets.  Like every wartime landscape, the region was littered with material culture, ranging from arms and vehicles to human remains, and like many World War II landscapes this relatively recent material heritage has long been pilfered by collectors.  The excavators who seek out the material remains of the war for pillage and profit are often referred to as “black diggers,” in contrast to “white diggers” who are working to recover wartime dead in places like the Eastern Front, where perhaps four million dead remain missing in action.

The assault on the remains of the Army Group Courland is now somewhat surprisingly being spearheaded by National Geographic, which is promoting its alarming reality show “Nazi War Diggers.”  A host of archaeologists immediately responded to a video from the show that featured human remains recovery that broke from all standard archaeological recovery methods and most standards of human dignity, let alone archaeological ethics (and the channel hastily removed the video and posted an awkward defense).  The show features several avocational collectors (including a war artifact dealer) superficially committed to preserving the remains of the war, including human remains. Read the rest of this entry

Radical Banality: The Materiality of Sameness

Much of KHOLE's work revolves around the redefinition of youth culture (image from KHOLE)

Much of K-HOLE’s work revolves around the redefinition of youth culture (image from K-HOLE)

A host of fashion gurus, marketing mavens, and subcultural theorists have long championed spectacular stylistic distinction as a politically empowering and self-affirming force.  These observers define style as an aesthetic and material expression of selfhood that confirms our uniqueness and displays our links to circles of like-minded people.  This month, though, New York magazine’s Fiona Duncan was the latest observer mystified by the emergence of sameness:  that is, instead of seeking out distinguishing style and visibly discernible brands, many consumers instead appear to be embracing the plain and non-descript, trooping off to secure the innocuous jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers hawked at the likes of Old Navy and Abercrombie and Fitch.  Instead of looking to the red carpet for our fashion cues and monitoring the elite for material standards, at least some of us appear to be parroting Jerry Seinfeld’s garb and venturing to Costco for household material tips.

Archaeologists and style-makers alike tend to assume that personal and group identities will inevitably be marked off by visible difference, making style a visual code that somewhat theatrically displays our singular identities.  Stylistic distinction certainly has not been read its death rites, but aesthetic and behavioral uniformity can no longer be reduced simply to disempowering assimilation.  The archaeological question is how stylistic homogeneity and the appearance of banality may have radical political implications and not simply reflect the sheep being led to consumer culture’s slaughter. Read the rest of this entry

Marketing Youth Revolt

A Hot Topic wall of shirts

A Hot Topic wall of shirts

Much of the apprehension once sparked by youth culture has now been reduced to consumer theatre: any suburban teen or 20-something can don punk, goth, or hippie style supplied by chain stores that sell pre-torn jeans, mass-produced tie-dye shirts, or black nail polish.  Youth culture may once have referred to a generationally distinct experience, but today it is shorthand for a marketing demographic, a consumer identity that fancies creative and even rebellious personalities are confirmed in shopping.  The contemporary youth marketplace is populated with contrived “edginess” projected onto the likes of Iron Maiden shirts, cannabis earrings, and shotgun shell shot glasses, but it is not clear that those trinkets or shows of stylistic resistance pose any significant threat to the established order of things.

Post-war youth experience has been distinguished by a progressively persistent marketplace appeal to boomers and successive waves of Gen X-Y-and-Z’s that has aspired to sell youth resistant aesthetics.  On the one hand, mass-produced commodities tend to reduce genuine subversiveness to aesthetics or reproduce reactionary politics behind the guise of ironic humor.  Bands pilfered from history become an aesthetic “look”; racy promiscuity clumsily poses as independent morality; and drug allusions paint drug consumption simply as a pleasure pathologized by elder ideologues.

On the other hand, though, youth culture is a rich terrain of digital spaces, musical tastes, sexualities, and materiality that ideologues rush to manage yet can never predict or control.  The caricature of a homogeneous youth culture bound by birthdays ignores the diversity of contemporary experiences and the degree to which youth consumers acknowledge the patent absurdity of consumer culture. The wall of sex, drug, and rock shirts at mall stores may be less about public generational revolt than they are soliloquys: consumers clad in Pink Floyd shirts imagine and find pleasure in their perceived creativity and its violation of bourgeois normality. Read the rest of this entry

Unpacking Idiosyncratic Things and Mental Illness

Dymtro's suitcase including his wedding picture and flowers (Jon Crispin)

Dmytro’s suitcase including his wedding picture and flowers (Jon Crispin)

In the wake of World War II, Ukranian farmer Dmytro met his eventual wife Sophia in a displaced persons camp, and the couple migrated to the US in 1949.  The former Nazi prisoner and his wife made their way to Syracuse, where Sophia died during a miscarriage in 1951.  In the wake of her death Dmytro declined and was hospitalized at Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane.

Dmytro arrived at Willard in May, 1953 with a plain brown leather suitcase laden with personal photographs, a Washington Monument thermometer, a carved dog knick knack, immigration paperwork, flowers (from his wedding, for which he had a photograph), notebooks laden with complicated mathematical work, and a clock amidst some personal effects.  The things were idiosyncratic but consequential invocations of Dmytro’s life, prosaic things he or his friends may have hoped would anchor him in the face of mental illness.  Dmytre (as he came to be known in Willard) remained in the hospital until 1977, spending much of his time painting and eventually moving to some smaller homes before his death in 2000.

Frank's Army uniform was among the rich assemblage of things he brought to Willard (image Jon Crispin).

Frank’s Army uniform was among the rich assemblage of things he brought to Willard (image Jon Crispin).

Dmytro’s suitcase remained behind at Willard, along with over 400 other suitcases of patients who arrived at the hospital in similarly bleak life moments clasping simply a few things.  On the one hand, the suitcases are not especially unlike any archaeological things: long separated from the people who once held them, the suitcases hold assemblages of things around which we now weave narratives about the people who once carried them into Willard.  On the other hand, though, words seem to clumsily capture the desperation and disconnection of Willard patients like Dmytro.  Jon Crispin’s continuing photo project documenting the suitcases focuses on the visual and material dimensions of the suitcases in an effort to tell the patients’ stories with aesthetically compelling yet prosaic things. The sober measured steps of conventional archaeological storytelling might be expanded by confronting the intersection of materiality, aesthetics, and our own emotional reactions to these things. Read the rest of this entry

Panty Politics: Consumer Activism and Commodity Politics

The "panty protest" in Almaty Kazakhstan (image Dina Baidildayeva)

The “panty protest” in Almaty Kazakhstan (image vlast.kz)

In the annals of consumer activism, last week’s protest of Eurasian Economic Commission regulations may not seem especially momentous.  Consumer movements have often been at the heart of consequential political moments: Nonimportation Agreements and the Boston Tea Party rejected state control of one of the American colonies’ most prized commodities; antebellum free labor stores lobbied for purchasing goods that were not produced by captive labor; and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns by African Americans made consumer space a battleground for civil rights from the 1920’s onward.  Last week that activist heritage was revisited by women gathered in Moscow, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to protest a Eurasian Economic Commission ban against the sale of underwear containing less than 6% cotton, which eliminates all lace lingerie.  Thirty Kazakh women in Almaty were sent to jail while wearing panties on their head and chanting “freedom to panties.”

A girl lays flowers at Almaty's Monument of Independence during the "panty protest" (image from Dina Baidildayeva).

A girl lays flowers at Almaty’s Monument of Independence during the “panty protest” (image from Dina Baidildayeva).

This may have somewhat different historical consequence than the Greensboro sit-ins, but it is symptomatic of the political meaningfulness invested in prosaic commodities and the way such things fuel contemporary political consciousness and activism.  Things have always been moralized and politicized, but Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that in the second quarter of the 20th century Americans’ politics began to be articulated in consumption; Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America argues that American rights are measured by access to consumer goods despite the persistence of longstanding class, racist, and gendered barriers to such access.  It is one thing to argue that a material thing like lingerie is politicized; it is another to suggest that our public political practice springs from consumption, that we articulate our rights and the state’s obligations in response to our material desires and consumer experiences. Read the rest of this entry

The Anxious Enchantment of Poverty

The Emoya Shantytown Hotel

The Emoya Shantytown Hotel

Westerners have long been fascinated by poverty, simultaneously enchanted by human resolve in the face of hardship and anxious about gross human injustices in the midst of affluence.  In 1896, for instance, traveler H.C. Bunner noted that “I have missed art galleries and palaces and theatres and cathedrals (cathedrals particularly) in various and sundry cities, but I don’t think I ever missed a slum.”  Bunner and many of the observers chronicling the lives of the poor often painted pictures of impoverishment that are patently ridiculous at best, and in many cases the representations of penury are simply reprehensible.

One of the most crass contemporary interpretations of poverty may be the Emoya Shantytown Hotel, a faux South African “informal settlement” in Bloomfontein borrowing the aesthetics of South African townships.  The hotel allows guests to “experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access!”  It is difficult to resist ridiculing such offensive enthusiasm for an overnight descent into poverty.  Gizmodo, for instance, mocked the resort’s effort to “recreate the joys of slum living without the nuisances of crime, disease, or poor sanitation”; Atlas Obscura concluded that “Unlike the atmosphere of struggle and danger that exists for the millions of people living in real South African shanty towns, Emoya’s Shanty Town attempts to foster a warm vibe of back-to-basics community,” which “may be the nadir of class tourism, a place where people can pay more to pretend to have less”; and Stephen Colbert dubbed the odd resort “glamour slumming.” Read the rest of this entry

Unapologetic Defiance: the Post-Feminist Barbie

Barbie graces the 2014 Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover

Barbie graces the 2014 Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover

Since her introduction in 1959, Barbie has been greeted by exceptionally zealous defenses as well as fevered attacks on the doll’s representation of femininity, sexuality, and consumption.  Barbie is often reduced to monolithic symbolism:  e.g., Barbie as hypersexualized breasty flame; ditzy hedonist; or a model that “girls can do anything.”  Such simplifications tell us very little about why the doll has been so compelling to over a half-century of consumers, and Mattel has often remained studiously separated from discussions about Barbie and sexuality; instead, Mattel suggests that Barbie is a sort of “blank slate” onto which children project their unfettered imaginations. 

This week, though, Barbie appears in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue alongside flesh-and-blood models, an appearance that comes nearly simultaneous with Mattel’s ads that proclaim that Barbie is “unapologetic.”  The embrace of Barbie’s inescapable sexuality and the brazen pronouncement that she is not apologetic is an interesting shift in Barbie’s social meanings that reflects Mattel’s willingness to celebrate Barbie’s idealized beauty and attack the doll’s critics. Read the rest of this entry

Domesticating Dissent: Consuming Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1967, with Carl Perkins right (image from Field Trip South).

Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1969, with Carl Perkins right (image from Field Trip South).

In 1957 Johnny Cash played a concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas, the first of Cash’s roughly 30 prison concerts that railed on the American penal system and cemented Cash’s populist politics.  Two these concerts were committed to vinyl: Live at Folsom Prison was released in 1968 and At San Quentin a year later, and the set lists are a masterful musical confluence of messages of religious redemption, the challenges of love, and the sobering realities of prison life.  Cash cultivated a rebellious image that has expanded since his death, but he never spent more than a night in jail (all for misdemeanors); nevertheless, he is now painted as a hard-living, stylish, and thoughtful renegade expressing resistance to inequalities and repressive social values.

Jim Marshall's picture of Cash at San Quentin (image from NME)

Jim Marshall’s picture of Cash at San Quentin (image from NME)

Cash secured pop culture stardom by the time of his death in 2003, and since his death Cash has become a compelling mass-consumed symbol.  One of the most famous images of Cash was taken at the San Quentin concert, when photographer Jim Marshall requested “a shot for the warden” and Cash gave him the finger.  The image has been endlessly reproduced, including ads run by Cash’s label in 1998, tattoos, smartphone cases, posters, stickers, and numerous t-shirts. Read the rest of this entry

The Final Choice: The Materiality of Last Meals

In 2012 Gary Carl Simmons sat down for an enormous meal including a Pizza Hut Super Supreme Deep Dish pizza; 10 8-oz. packs of Parmesan cheese; 10 8-oz. packs of ranch dressing; one family size bag of Doritos; 2 large strawberry shakes; two cherry Cokes; one super-size order of McDonald’s fries; and two pints of strawberry ice cream.  By about 4:45 one observer reported that he had eaten roughly half of the nearly 30,000-calorie feast before he was marched off to the Mississippi death chamber.  At 6:16 that evening he was declared dead after he was executed by lethal injection for a grisly 1996 murder.

Henry Hargreaves' interpretation of John Wayne Gacy's last meal (image from )

Henry Hargreaves’ interpretation of John Wayne Gacy’s last meal (image from New Zealand Herald)

The last meal has become a standard ritual in the contemporary execution, an oddly fascinating public episode in the final moments before society passes its ultimate judgment on one of our own.  Today the ritual of a final meal and the last words of the condemned are the only particularly public dimensions of a death sentence.  Last meals seem to provide us a final idiosyncratic insight into the mind of the irredeemable; they provide exceptional clarity for the notion of “comfort food”; and the ritual itself may rationalize capital punishment or even humanize the ultimate sentence.  The final meal is symbolically fascinating because it balances a fine line between, on the one hand, human compassion and fascination for irredeemable citizens, and, on the other hand, a vengeful mob instinct that bourgeois execution ideology hopes to deny. Read the rest of this entry

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