The Ruins of Racism

Eminems' childhood home graced the cover of his Marshall Mathers 1 and 2 albums.

Eminem’s childhood home graced the cover of his Marshall Mathers 1 album (2000), and it stood empty in 2013 on the cover of the Marshall Mathers 2 album (shown here).

Detroit’s 8 Mile Road is perhaps today best known as the thoroughfare bordering the neighborhood where Marshall Mathers grew up.  Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile told his story of life adjoining the roadway that has often loomed as the line separating White and Black Detroit.  The neighborhood’s residents and decline have routinely been reduced to shallow clichés, like USA Today’s 2002 conclusion that “8 Mile Road remains what it was three decades ago: a catch basin for the city’s human flotsam”; in 2006 The Guardian called 8 Mile Road “America’s most notorious highway, the road that divides black from white.”  Such rhetoric provides little insight into Detroit, but it does underscore the emotion if not irrationality that shapes how we imagine landscapes along and across color lines.  Many of these landscapes today are in ruins or are prosaic declining spaces like stretches of 8 Mile Road, so they are easy to ignore or reduce to shallow analyses.  Nevertheless, viewed simply as dehistoricized ruins these places risk being divorced from a legion of racist inequalities that have shaped the contemporary American city.

This sign was erected across the street from the Sojourner Truth Homes in 1942 (Library of Congress).

This sign was erected across the street from the Sojourner Truth Homes in 1942 (Library of Congress).

Eminem spent much of his teen years on the south side of 8 Mile Road.  He grew up in a home that stood vacant in 2013 when it graced the cover of his Marshall Mathers 2 LP 13 years after appearing on the cover of his Marshall Mathers album.  Constructed in about 1945 in an area now known as Osborn, Eminem’s house was typical of a legion of American homes built in the immediate wake of World War II on a state-engineered racist landscape that reached into numerous neighborhoods laying along 8 Mile Road.  In 1942, for instance, an exclusively Black public housing project, the Sojourner Truth Homes, opened in Detroit near the African-American Conant Gardens community.  White neighbors in the Seven Mile-Fenelon Improvement Association immediately led a fevered charge against the new development.  A cross was set afire in a field beside Sojourner Truth on February 27th, 1942, and a riot broke out the next day when the first residents arrived, greeted by 1200 angry Whites including the Improvement Association and the National Workers League.  Repelled by violent protesters, a second effort to move in Black residents in April required thousands of National Guardsmen and Detroit police officers as escorts.

Such tensions expanded throughout the city in the subsequent year, and in a 1942 assessment of racist violence in the Motor City Life concluded that “Detroit is Dynamite. . . Detroit can either blow up Hitler or it can blow up the U.S.”  Over 1000 White employees of the US Rubber Company walked off the job in March, 1943 protesting the hiring of Black workers, and in May 750 went on strike after the Hudson Naval Arsenal hired Black laborers (repeating a similar strike the following month).  The most prominent of these “hate strikes” came in June 1943, when over 26,000 White workers walked off the Packard Motor Company assembly line because they had been forced to work alongside three Black laborers producing aircraft and marine engines.   Three weeks later, mob fights  triggered a massive citywide riot.  Over three days 34 people died in the nation’s worst wartime racist violence, and the Army was forced to quell the unrest (compare Life’s 1943 coverage of the anti-Black violence in Detroit).

The 1939 Residential Security Map for Detroit identified the perceived loan risk of specific neighborhoods in Detroit.

The 1939 Residential Security Map for Detroit identified the perceived loan risk of specific neighborhoods in Detroit.

The long-term decline of Detroit and many more cities bears a significant debt to federal housing policies that began in the 1930s.  Created in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration developed guidelines that restricted housing loans to racially homogenous communities, and this federal law, a patchwork of local housing covenants, and deep-seated xenophobia ensured that many American neighborhoods remain racially segregated today.  In 1939 a Residential Security Map rated the perceived loan risks of Detroit neighborhoods, identifying properties’ loan risk on a scale of A-D.  The FHA’s Home Owner’s Loan Corporation defined “A” neighborhoods as mostly newly built suburbs:  “The First Grade or A areas are `hot spots’; they are not yet fully built up.  In nearly all instances they are the new, well-planned sections of the city. . . They are homogenous; in demand as residential locations in `good times’ or `bad.’”  In contrast, the lowest-ranked “D” neighborhoods were “characterized by detrimental influences to a pronounced degree, undesirable population or an infiltration of it.  Low percentage of homeownership, very poor maintenance, and often vandalism prevail.  Unstable incomes of the people and difficult collections are usually prevalent.”  Such neighborhoods were disproportionately Black and outlined in red (hence the later term “redlining”).

The Dresden Street site of Eminem's childhood home (image MLive).

The Dresden Street site of Eminem’s childhood home (image MLive).

In 1939 Eminem’s future home site sat in an unrated “sparsely settled” space, but it was near neighborhoods given a “B” rating and declined most significantly after 2000.  Between 2000 and 2010 Eminem’s former neighborhood lost 27.3% of its population, and in 2010 21.5% of all Osborn housing stood empty.  Like much of the postwar housing it once stood alongside, the Mathers’ home and about 70 other vacant houses stood deteriorating along Dresden Street in 2013 when Eminem visited it to film the video for “Survival.”  The structure was razed not long afterward following a November 2013 fire.

In about 1942 these neighborhood posed along the newly constructed wall separating Black and White housing (Library of Congress).

In about 1942 these neighborhood posed along the newly constructed wall separating Black and White housing (Library of Congress).

Perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of racist urban engineering lies near 8 Mile Road, where developers launched an especially novel negotiation of federal housing law in a neighborhood along Birwood Street.  African Americans had settled the area around Wyoming Avenue and 8 Mile Road by the late 1930s, when developers began to eye neighboring open space to construct new homes.  The 1939 Residential Security Map rated the area developers targeted along Birwood and Mendota Streets (just west of Wyoming Street) as a high-risk “D” on a scale of A-D.  The presence of Black neighbors along Birwood Street meant new White residents would not be extended FHA loans, so developers placed a half-mile long, six-feet high wall through the neighborhood dividing Black and White homes.  The wall ran between the back yards of White and Black houses, with breaks at each street crossing, and it remains in place today.  The easily scalable wall was a material symbol of exclusion meant less to check physical movement or subdue racism than to project racial divides further into collective imagination.  Within a decade both sides of the wall were overwhelmingly African-American homes, and they remain so today.

The Detroit Wall today from the Alfonso Wells playground.

The Detroit Wall today from the Alfonso Wells playground.

Today one stretch of the wall’s eastern side faces Alfonso Wells Playground and has been covered with murals, much like the densely painted  “peace line” walls in Belfast.  Laura McAtackney’s study of the northern Irish walls examines their simultaneous roles as communicative mechanisms, material things shaping local and group security, and formidable physical barriers that prevent interaction and even heighten existing tensions.  Ultimately, the Detroit wall was a hollow effort to separate Black and White residents, reflecting racism’s irrationality more than a successful strategic mechanism among many more anti-Black practices.



Scott Bowles

2002 Riding Detroit’s 8 Mile; Eminem’s film follows road that separates black from white, dreams from reality.  USA Today 08 Nov:E.01.


Dominic J. Capeci and Martha Wilkerson

1990 The Detroit Rioters of 1943: A Reinterpretation.  Michigan Historical Review 16.1: 49-72.  (subscription access)

1991 Layered Violence: The Detroit Rioters of 1943. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.


Marsha Alesan Dawkins

2010 Close to the Edge: The Representational Tactics of EminemThe Journal of Popular Culture 43(3):463-485.


Data Driven Detroit

2012 Osborn Neighborhood Profile.  Unpublished document.


Liam Grealy

2008 Negotiating cultural authenticity in hip-hop: Mimicry, whiteness and EminemContinuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 22(6):851-865. (subscription access)


Charles R. Lawrence

1947 Race Riots in the United States, 1942-1946.  In The Negro Year-Book: A Review of Events Affecting Negro Life, 1941-1946, edited by Jesse Parkhurst Guzman, pp. 232-233.  Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama.



1943 Race War in DetroitLife 5 July:93-101.


Scott Martelle

2012 Detroit: A Biography.  Chicago Review Press, Chicago.


Laura McAtackney

2011 Peace maintenance and political messages: The significance of walls during and after the Northern Irish “Troubles.”  Journal of Social Archaeology 11(1):77-98.  (subscription access)


Jeff Rice

2012 Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network.  Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.


Thomas J. Sugrue

2005 The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  2nd Edition.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.


Urban and Regional Planning Program, University of Michigan

2009 Filling in the Gaps: A Plan for Vacant Properties in Osborn.  Unpublished report.


Eric King Watts

2005 Border Patrolling and ‘‘Passing’’ in Eminem’s 8 MileCritical Studies in Media Communication 22(3):187-206.  (subscription access)


Walter White and Thurgood Marshall

1943 What Caused the Detroit Riot?  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, New York.



Children at Detroit Wall, circa 1942 image from Library of Congress

Eminem’s childhood home site image from MLive

House along Detroit Wall, circa 1942 image from Library of Congress

Sign opposite Sojourner Truth Homes 1942 image from Library of Congress Sojourner Truth Homes collection

Intimate Spaces: The Archaeology of Pockets


The contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in April, 1865 (Library of Congress).

On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln went to the theatre for the evening, a night that would end in his murder and death the following morning.  Lincoln’s pockets contained a handful of prosaic and idiosyncratic things:  two pairs of eye glasses, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a Confederate banknote and nine newspaper clippings.   The things in Lincoln’s pockets were perhaps a chance assemblage, like the $62.00 and a plane ticket in Kurt Cobain’s pocket when he died in April, 1994.  Those scatters of things in Lincoln and Cobain’s pockets occupied perhaps the most intimate of all clothing spaces that we generally reserve for our most essential and meaningful things.  We tend to see pockets as harboring a special class of prosaic yet consequential things even as the pockets themselves claim a distinctively intimate but unexamined status.

Few spaces could be more familiar yet more unremarked upon than pockets.  Clothing pockets are a presence of sorts, but like edges of an excavation unit their material definition may be made by their tangible boundaries and the things in them rather than the vacuum that is perhaps the actual pocket.  Pockets are distinctively intimate since they are stitched into our public garments yet conceal our bodies, and they hold a narrow range of small things like coins, keys, wallets, phones, makeup, lighters, and similar objects that for various reasons are held close to our bodies and accessible to our hands.  There are some idiosyncratic but illuminating insights into privacy, place, and self that can be made based on an “excavation” of pockets and the cargo that finds refuge in them.

Museum visitors' pocket contents being photographer for Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's "Please Empty Your Pockets" exhibit (image Peter Mallet)

Museum visitors’ pocket contents being photographed for Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Please Empty Your Pockets” exhibit (image Peter Mallet)

Maybe our use of some pockets is largely functional, like a right-hander who habitually slides their key chain into their readily accessible right front pants pocket.  Yet many pocket use patterns are the complicated result of longstanding practices and the vagaries of fashion.  For instance, men’s back pants pockets often betray “billfold bulge,” which is even worse in the face of contour-hugging skinny jeans and similar cuts.  In 1977, the Palm Beach Post assessed increasingly lean European pants cuts and pocket-less pants and recognized pocket use was a force of habit, concluding that “most men just don’t feel comfortable unless everything is in the same place its been for years.”  Thirty years later Details advised that there “is absolutely no need for you to shove an engorged wallet in the pocket of your $400 jeans.”  They concluded that “the contemporary pocket-stuffer is one of three things: an oblivious creature of habit, a man too insecure to carry a shoulder bag, or someone lacking the organizational skills to pare down the clutter that sits like a benign tumor on his right cheek to a couple of $100 bills and an AmEx.”

A mid-18th century woman's silk pocket, which was tied and hung from the waist (image Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

A mid-18th century woman’s silk pocket, which was tied and hung from the waist (image Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

Much of pocket use is rooted in ideological notions of gender, class, and sexuality, historical fashion styles, and unexamined pocket use habits.  Since the late 19th century masculinity ideologies and fashion have cast pockets as somehow distinctively “masculine” reserves.  In the 18th century women’s garments included concealed pockets, with expansive tie pockets under dresses and petticoats in use for roughly two centuries.  Garments began to include far fewer pockets in the late 19th century as dresses and coats became more streamlined and the handbag became the carry-all of choice for women.  In 1899 a New York Times commentator noted the gradual disappearance of women’s garment pockets and remembered that “our grandmothers . . . used to have big, deep pockets in their skirts which they could get at somehow and in which they usually carried the household keys, a ball of yarn with knitting needles stuck in it, a little smooth-worn gourd for darning operations, and very often a few doughnuts or cookies and apples and a pair of spectacles.”

Ruth Butts Carson's 1916 patent for the Penelope Gown.

Ruth Butts Carson’s 1916 patent for the Penelope Gown.

That 1899 Times article ended by associating pockets with property ownership and gender equality, a theme often raised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The paper lamented the decreasing number of women’s pockets, arguing that “the female sex cannot rival us while it is pocketless.”  Pocketed dresses sometimes were advanced as vehicles for women’s rights in the early 20th century, albeit without much apparent success.  In 1910, for instance, the American Ladies Tailors’ Association introduced what it dubbed the “suffragette suit,” a divided skirt replete with “plenty of pockets.”  In 1917 the Detroit Free-Press reported on Ruth Butts Carson’s “Penelope Gown” dress design, exclaiming that “from having no pockets at all to the possession of a gown with eight pockets would be a radical change.”  A year earlier, though, the Chicago Tribune had reported that at a New York presentation of Carson’s gown the “reform dress did not succeed.”  The paper reported that men were interested in the structurally simplistic gown, but “the report does not convey the information that the ladies present regarded the Penelope garment with anything more than mild interest.”

Women’s handbags emerged on a mass scale in the late 19th century and offered women a distinctive space to store pocket-able things that was not available to men.  Today a host of commonplace backpacks, messenger bags, and carry-alls offer men plenty of “extra pocket” personal storage, but some men remain resistant to such bags.  In 1977 a salesman at a Palm Beach shop acknowledged his perception of masculinity and pockets, admitting that “most of the pants have sculptured pockets that are strictly for design and the only thing I carry is money.  I can’t bring myself to carry a handbag.  I’ve seen a lot of nice ones that don’t look fruity, but I just can’t do it.”

A 2015 Prada bag (image from Quartz).

A 2015 Prada bag (image from Quartz).

That resistance to men’s bags appears to have eroded since then.  In January The Telegraph reported that a British survey revealed that more than half of all men now carry a bag.  The paper found that the average value of a bag’s contents was £880 ($1340 US), and the “main items men carry are smartphones, laptops, tablets, glasses and digital cameras.  Some also decide to pack a toothbrush, aftershave and even spare underwear” (one in ten men carry spare underwear).  Last week, Market Watch declared that 2014 was the “year of the man purse” based on a 35% increase in sales accounting for $2.3 billion in sales, and Quartz reported that 5.9 million men’s luxury handbags were sold in 2014 (one in five of all handbags).

Many contour-hugging men’s and women’s garments have eliminated pockets nearly entirely, but densely pocketed cargo pants still hold a marketplace niche.  Joseph Hancock’s exhaustive study of cargo pants argues that the British military may have introduced pocket-laden fatigues in the 1930’s; the Banana Republic chain popularized the story that Francisco Franco introduced cargo pants so soldiers could not place their hands in their pockets; and in 1942 a style of American military fatigues included numerous pockets.  In the 1990s the style became mainstream as “utility chic,” and last year the Wall Street Journal argued that cargo pants have “experienced a complete reputation rehab to become one of the most stylish and versatile go-to pieces of a man’s wardrobe.”

Consequently, pockets have disappeared from some garments, but many more continue to provide storage space.  Some designers are adding specially sized pockets to accommodate cell phones and larger “phablets,” devices that are much more difficult to accommodate to the smaller pockets in most contemporary women’s garments.  In September 2014 The Atlantic complained about the gender inequalities of pocket styles in women’s garments, and The Wall Street Journal warned women that an iPhone 6 would require they secure a “whole new wardrobe.”  A merchandiser for Lee jeans was reluctant to embrace cargo pockets, but she acknowledged that “market research has shown that women value pocket utility” and Lee might be compelled to “evolve our aesthetic.”

Many people seem to be fascinated by the specific sorts of things that secure sufficiently important status to be in our pockets or handbags.  Francois Robert’s photo project “Contents” documents all the things he found in garment pockets, backpacks, and handbags, underscoring an idiosyncratic picture of individuals’ notions of personal things.  Robert is by no mean alone in his fascination with the things in our pockets:  compare George Legrady’s exhibit “Pockets Full of Memories”, which displays the images of objects people carry with them into the exhibit; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Please Empty Your Pockets”; Jason Travis’ “What’s in Your Bag?”; Erin Taylor’s study of the cross-cultural meanings of pocketed things and currency; The Art of Manliness’ “What’s in your Pocket?”; Linda Alstead’s gallery of handbag and pocket contents; a clever lamp base containing all the things a mother found in her son’s pockets, whose story is detailed here; and  the 2007 project “Face Your Pockets” challenged people to place their pocket’s contents and their face on a flatbed scanner (their original page has disappeared, but a facebook page and a flick’r page survive).

Ceramic pockets from meredith Brickell's "Pockets Project" (image Meredith Brickell).

Ceramic pockets from meredith Brickell’s “Pockets Project” (image Meredith Brickell).

Much of this creative work examines pockets as secretive personal spaces.  For instance, Meredith Brickell’s “Pocket Project” makes ceramic castings of pockets to illuminate pockets’ functions both containing and hiding things and secrets.  In a similar vein, Hannah Smith Allen’s “Pockets” project includes pictures of pockets turned inside out in images that she calls “modern day rorschachs that both mimic and transcend the material world.”

One of the most fascinating expressions of our curiosity about pocket contents may be Everyday Carry.  The page inventories all the things that a variety of people carry, but this is not as a personality inventory; instead, Everyday Carry is a social commerce site that allows us to acknowledge our curiosity about intimate everyday objects, digitally peek into people’s pockets, and purchase the things in other peoples’ pockets.  The site concedes our curiosity about the things that secure the meaningfulness of being classed as “everyday,” especially those that reach our innermost garment pockets.  Everyday Carry does that without any especially sophisticated reflection on those things, though, instead leading us to the comfort of consumer space, where we can buy the same stuff even if we do not quite understand what it meant in other pockets.



Barbara Burman

2002 Pocketing the Difference: Gender and Pockets in Nineteenth–Century BritainGender & History 14(3):447–469. (subscription access)


The Chicago Tribune

1916 Why Reform Dress Does Not SucceedThe Chicago Tribune 16 July:4.


The Detroit Free Press

1917 And Now Comes “Pockets for Women.”  The Detroit Free Press 15 November:7.


Mrs. S.C. Hall

1849 Grandmamma’s Pockets.  William and Robert Chambers, Edinburgh.


Joseph H. Hancock, II

2007 “These Aren’t the Same Pants Your Grandfather Wore!”: The Evolution of Branding Cargo Pants in 21st Century Fashion.  Phd Dissertation, Ohio State University.


Joseph H. Hancock, II and Edward Choi Augustyn

2013 “Fashionable pockets”: The transnational rise of cargo pants into popular culture.

Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2(2):183-195.  (subscription access)


Lawrence LaRose

2014 Men’s Cargo Pants Turn Refined for Spring.  Wall Street Journal (Online) 18 April.  (subscription access)


Bob Michals

1977 Pocketless Pants.  The Palm Beach Post 10 October:B1-B2.


The New York Times

1899 World’s Use of Pockets.  New York Times 28 August:7.

1910 Plenty of Pockets in Suffragette Suit.  New York Times 10 October:5.


Katey Schultz

2013 Place, Pockets, and Possibilities: The Work of Meredith Brickell.  Ceramics Monthly November 48-51.


Jackie White

1999 Pockets and More Pockets Make Pants the Fashion Pick.  Rome News-Tribune 4 April:8C:



Abraham Lincoln’s pocket contents from Library of Congress “Artifacts of Assassination”

Lady’s pocket image from Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Meredith Brickell “Pockets Project” image from Meredith Knapp Brickell.

Prada men’s handbag image from Quartz

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Please Empty Your Pockets, Subsculpture 12″ image from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (photo by Peter Mallet)

Ruth Butts Carson dress patent image from Google Patents.

Cats as Domestic Spectacle: Outfitting the Modern Cat

The Cat Tower provides a chance for your cats to climb, jump, and perhaps even spin (from Catwheel).

The Cat Tower provides a chance for your cats to climb, jump, and perhaps even spin (from Catwheel).

While most of our cats are curled up on the couch, at least a handful of them appear to be lounging in stylish, creative, and even well-designed furnishings that would put many couches to shame.  This new wave of cat furnishings goes beyond the commonplace cat tower or scratch pad covered in non-descript carpet fragments that bored your cat within an hour.  Even the most indifferent cat would be curious about a host of astounding feline furnishings with massive turning wheels, sky towers, cat beds, toilet towers, neo-futurist scratching pads, cat tunnel sofas, and wonderful pieces of cat-climbing sculpture.  For those of us concerned about design, LazyBonezz’ Metropolitan pet bunk bed (in ebony or fire red) is typical of the new goods that will accommodate your pampered cat (or trim dog) in a sleek wood and stainless steel bunk bed accessed by skid-resistant steps and outfitted with microfiber cushions.  A precious few cats are even more fortunate to have the run of houses designed to turn people spaces into three-dimensional volumes accessible to cats via ceiling-suspended walkways and climbing walls.

Wohnblock's cat tower aspires to double as a piece of domestic sculpture (image from Wohnblock).

Wohnblock’s cat tower aspires to double as a piece of domestic sculpture (image from Wohnblock).

It would be easy to dismiss cat design and high-style cat products simply as misplaced affluence, but focusing purely on pet spending ignores the ways our pets profoundly shape our own household materiality.  The fascinating Hauspanther web page inventories many of these high-style cat consumer goods, arguing that “good design can enhance the way we live with cats, improving our lives and the lives of our beloved feline companions.  By paying attention to the design of objects and environments, we can create living spaces that accommodate the natural instincts of cats – keeping them happy, healthy and well behaved – without compromising our own sense of style and comfort.” Read the rest of this entry

Punk Archaeology and the Mainstream

The 2014 Punk Archaeology collection (image from MediterraneanWorld blog).

The 2014 Punk Archaeology collection (image from Mediterranean World blog).

Perhaps all scholarship inevitably hazards descending into stale convention or becoming an insular academic pursuit.  One of the most novel recent movements to unsettle archaeological conventions is “punk archaeology,” which is perhaps most clearly illustrated in William Caraher, Kostis Kourelis, and Andrew Reinhard’s edited 2014 collection Punk Archaeology.  A fascinating Society for Historical Archaeology session last week examined punk archaeology, especially the public dimensions that Lorna Richardson has most closely examined.  Punk archaeologists are leery of being narrowly defined, but a punk research perspective typically takes aim on “mainstream” archaeology: that is, in archaeology and many other disciplines the notion of punk seeks to transform scholarship that is normative, predictable, easily ignored, apolitical, emotionless, overly academic, or simply dull.  Punk archaeology embraces a critical and compelling assault on unquestioned scholarly traditions and the academy, and it drew a roomful of people at the SHA conference and has received plenty of press coverage.  Nevertheless, it may deliver death rites to a stereotyped mainstream and academy that have already disappeared or never existed in the first place.

The DIY ethic of punk is perhaps best reflected in the host of show flyers made for punk shows, including this 1987 flyer for a St.Louis show (image JB Kopp).

The DIY ethic of punk is perhaps best reflected in the host of show flyers made for punk shows, including this 1987 flyer for a St.Louis show (image JB Kopp).

Simply labeling any scholarship punk is a bit of a rhetorical maneuver, a point made by Zack Furniss’ Punkademics and also underscored in fandom scholarship that has contemplated the relationship between fans and academics since the 1980’s (cf. Matt Hills’ “fan-as-intellectual,” Henry Jenkins’ “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” blog, and Tanya Cochran’s study of “scholar-fandom”).  A punk archaeology risks posing a clumsy contrast between, on the one hand, the notion of punk as spontaneous, experiential, anti-intellectual, and anarchic and, on the other hand, the stereotype of academic archaeologists as insular and unimaginative squares committed to jargon and tweed jackets.  The line between academics and everyday people has long been much more complicated and frequently violated than we are often willing to acknowledge; there certainly are some academics committed to deep-seated scholarly traditions and clueless about The Simpsons, but there is little evidence that most academics are indifferent to everyday life and popular culture or that popular artists are not themselves intellectuals. Read the rest of this entry

If Things Could Speak

Archaeologists are routinely flummoxed by the idiosyncratic dimensions of material things; we seem unable in most instances to capture the personal histories and inchoate emotions invested in apparently prosaic things.  Nearly all of us have random objects or souvenirs from childhood trips, mundane things associated with life events, or objects passed down to us, and when we are not present to tell those stories they are impossible to capture archaeologically.  A novel kickstarter project proposes to ensure these individual and idiosyncratic meanings remain literally attached to things.  Bemoir proposes to capture oral histories and other data sources about an object’s history and record them via near field technology.  For instance, your grandfather could relate the tale of a well-loved teddy bear, you could include pictures of him with it, and you could add a background history on the bear itself; similarly, you could give somebody a piece of art, attach an interview with the artist, and include a story about the gift-giving occasion that you share via Bemoir’s web page and app.

Bemoir's prototype page

Bemoir’s prototype page.  Among the most commonplace symbols of childhood and innocence, the teddy bear is Bemoir’s brand symbol and appears throughout its literature.

On the one hand, the appeal of Bemoir is its capacity to relate utterly idiosyncratic histories told in the vehicle of everyday things and oral memory.  The archaeological record and material world are certainly populated by myriad things with such histories that we know in only cursory ways (e.g., “this was my mom’s watch”), or they are lodged only in our own minds or simply lost over time.  For instance, I hand-write nearly everything like this blog post in journals before transferring the text to digital form.  That perhaps harbors some philosophical insight into the process of writing (compare Tim Ingold’s defense of hand writing), and I like the literal sensation of a pen nib on paper and the visual dimension of seeing and rearranging text.  However, in large part I do so because I have a wonderful Waterman fountain pen.  In pure functional terms, the pen is easy enough to describe in its physical composition and decorative style, and any modestly skilled archaeologist would deduce its age and original price and assess the symbolism of the Waterman firm and hand-writing in the 21st century.  Such analysis is the nuts-and-bolts of archaeology, but such descriptive details would rarely appear in the oral histories of things that Bemoir aspires to produce. Read the rest of this entry

Memorialization on Canfield Drive

In 1970, African-American engineer Adel Allen testified before the United States Commission on Civil Rights about his experience as one of suburban St. Louis’ earliest Black residents.  Allen circumspectly assessed the police services he initially received in his otherwise White suburb of Kirkwood, concluding that “I think we got more police protection than we required when I first moved there.  I don’t know if they were protecting me or protecting someone from me.”  Allen related experiences with the police that ring familiar today, indicating that “I don’t think there’s a black man in South St. Louis County that hasn’t been stopped at least once if he’s been here more than 2 weeks. . . .There’s an almost automatic suspicion that goes along with being black. . . . I’ve been stopped, searched, and I don’t mean searched in the milder sense, I mean laying across the hood of a car. And then told after they found nothing that my tail light bulb was burned out, or I should have dimmed my lights, something like that.”

Lesley McSpadden (center) places rose petals on the blood stains of her son on Canfield Drive (Huy Mach, St Louis

Lesley McSpadden (center) places rose petals where her son died earlier on August 9th on Canfield Drive (Huy Mach, St Louis

Adel Allen’s experience underscores the tense, long-term relationship between police and the color line, and perhaps it is tempting to conclude that his story might now be considered a historical aberration.  However, not far from Kirkwood over a half-century after Allen moved to St. Louis, Michael Brown’s death has complicated the American imagination of public space and the color line.  That landscape is perhaps most uncomfortably evoked by the otherwise prosaic suburban street where Brown’s body lay for nearly four hours after he was shot August 9th.  The stretch of Canfield Drive where Brown died has become part of an informal memorial landscape, with an array of idiosyncratic things placed along the street by a steady stream of visitors.  The spectacle of Brown’s body on the non-descript street captures much of the tensions with local police, but the spontaneous memorialization of the Canfield Drive landscape—and resistance to it–provides an especially interesting insight into the ways we discuss race and public space.

The memorialization of the spot where Michael Brown fell illuminates the Black experience of state racism and extrajudicial punishment, but some observers want Canfield Drive to again become invisible.  Many commentators simply rationalize Brown’s shooting, and some reduce the August encounter to an anomaly in an otherwise equitable society.  Asking how society should remember this stretch of pavement beyond the aftermath of Brown’s death—or if we should publicly remember it at all–asks how (or if) we should materialize landscapes of racism and death. Read the rest of this entry

The Elevated Eye: Drones and Gaze in Ruins

A host of photographers, community historians, and self-styled urban critics have produced a fascinating visualization of the architectural detritus of cities, industry, and various failings of modernity.  That flood of so-called “ruin porn” has unleashed a complex breadth of artistic creativity as well as anxieties about the social implications of gaze and how we see, photograph, and imagine architectural remains.  Much of the uneasiness with ruin photography laments the camera’s gaze as a selective and seemingly distorted representation of our visual and physical experience of an objective reality: that is, the implication is that a photographer frames landscapes in selective ways, and the realities confirmed by our eyes are somehow corrupted by digital filters, High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR), and camera lens filters that toy with color balance, light intensity, and nearly every dimension of a photographic image.  This somewhat awkwardly ignores our fascination with ruins and ruin images; it suggests that we should privilege how our eyes and bodies experience ruin landscapes; and it perhaps implies that the only “authentic” representations of ruins can come from residents and people who can somehow lay claim to ruined places’ narratives.

The visual and physical gaze on ruins is now being further complicated by the emergence of drone videos documenting ruin landscapes.  For instance, in 2014 British filmmaker Danny Cooke visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone to film the remains of the 1986 nuclear accident for a 60 Minutes report.  Chernobyl is one of the world’s most intensively photographed ruin sites, a uniquely captivating abandonment in which a whole community apparently dropped everything in place.  The site is used by various observers to evoke the resilience of nature, underscore humans’ consequential impact on public health and the environment, and illuminate a state’s enormous arrogance, so it is an enormously magnetic dark tourism site (nearly 10,000 people visit the exclusion zone each year, see a really interesting analysis of this tourism on The Bohemian Blog). Read the rest of this entry

The Materiality of Virus: The Aesthetics of Ebola

Flu patients being treated at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 epidemic   (image National Museum of Health and Medicine).

Flu patients being treated at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 epidemic (image National Museum of Health and Medicine).

In 1918 over 500 million people were infected by the influenza virus, and its lethality–between 20 and 100 million people died—reaches well beyond AIDS, the Plague, and even the Great War itself.  It is not difficult to comprehend the terror induced by viral disease: we live in a historical moment in which some infectious disease can be rapidly spread aboard airlines and cruise ships; the media and a host of online outlets fan anxieties about epidemic diseases; and popular culture delivers warnings about apocalypse, zombies, and doomsday preparations.  In contrast to the European battlefield in 1918, it was enormously difficult to imagine the material form and aesthetics of a virus that moved invisibly and left as its material wake broken and dead bodies.  Viruses are terrifying because they are so hard to imagine as concrete things, so we spend much of our energy imagining how we can perceive and protect ourselves against an unseen specter. Read the rest of this entry

Beautiful Absence: The Aesthetics of Dark Heritage

Lidice today

Lidice today

The former Czech village of Lidice is today a peaceful countryside, a neatly cropped rolling field punctuated by a postcard-cute babbling brook and a scatter of trees.  The massive lawn rolls over some nearly imperceptible depressions and a couple of neatly landscaped foundations, but only a few benches and sidewalks disrupt the bucolic landscape.  Nestled in a modest rural setting seemingly far from nearby Prague, the space is a quiet and even peaceful place of reflection that is far-removed from its quite unpleasant heritage.

Like many dark heritage sites, the horrific narrative of mass murders and the complete razing of Lidice in 1942 contrast with an aesthetically pleasant contemporary space.  Lidice perhaps magnifies the role of imagination because it has exceptionally sparse material remains in the midst of a pleasant countryside; nevertheless,the imaginative experience of comprehending inexpressible barbarism in the midst of settled contemporary landscapes is common to many dark heritage sites.  Lidice illuminates the ways contemporary landscape aesthetics and material absences profoundly shape dark heritage experiences. Read the rest of this entry

Kitsch and the Consumer Imagination: Shopping at Jungle Jim’s

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

Few grocery stores can rise above the status of a non-place, instead sinking into a grocery landscape of interchangeable aisles with the same stale decoration and identical products distinguished by a few pennies price difference.  Even fewer have secured the status of “destination,” a grocery we would travel to for an experience igniting our imagination.  An exception to the prosaic grocery is Cincinnati’s Jungle Jim’s International Market, an enormous grocery to which a host of committed foodies and run-of-the-mill shoppers flock for distinctive goods and staged shopping entertainment.  Jungle Jim’s is distinguished by its astounding 200,000 square-foot scale, a sprawling series of buildings containing a rich array of more than 150,000 international specialty foods.  The mere size of Jungle Jim’s alone, though, does not capture its fascinating kitsch aesthetic—a monorail, fountains with jungle animals, and a host of popular cultural symbols are scattered throughout the store.  The store’s astounding selection of hard-to-find goods and mysterious products certainly is key to the grocery’s growth since 1971.  Nevertheless, the store’s aesthetic turns shopping at Jungle Jim’s into a fascinating material and stylistic experience that is key to the grocery’s magnetism.  While that grocery trip might be reduced to a captivating leisure or the pursuit of an obscure chili, the Jungle Jim’s shopping experience provides a compelling lens on the distinctive social desires of its legion of foodie shoppers. Read the rest of this entry


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