Faith at the Brickyard: Ritual, Fandom, and the Indianapolis 500

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Memorial Day weekend is among the most cherished holidays in racing fandom, with the Indianapolis 500 culminating a month of racing and community events.  For legions of followers the Indianapolis 500 is an annual rite, and for many fans the journey to the speedway is a pilgrimage to one of racing’s most hallowed spaces.  In 1973 the New York Times celebrated the event and place when it intoned that “the 500 is more than a race.  It is a folk festival, a happening.  Its pageantry, spectacle and corn make it Middle America’s counterpart to France’s pilgrimage to Le Mans.”

The speedway experience involves systematic ritual, intense desire, and visitation to an important place, all of which have some parallels to pilgrims’ religious travel in particular and broader religious experience in general (compare Jean Williams’ 2012 study of pilgrimage to the IMS).  Religious characterizations of sport fandom perhaps risk hyperbolizing the consequence of sport, and some observers have ridiculed the hackneyed definition of sports’ “hallowed ground.” In 2008, for instance, sportswriter Andrea Adelson complained that “There is nothing sacred about Augusta National, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field.  So why are these places referred to in the same way we talk about the Sistine Chapel, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Wailing Wall?”  Adelson argued that sporting places should be characterized as being “steeped in tradition.”  Adelson’s distinction between sacred and secular places reveals a wariness of projecting sacred authenticity onto the prosaic reality of sporting venues, if not sport itself.

Crowds gathered in the Speedway's infield in 1930.

Crowds gathered in the Speedway’s infield in 1930 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection).

In contrast, some fans are quite comfortable viewing sport as faith unto itself, and some of them see that as the death rites for the traditional church.  For instance, in the 2004 documentary “Hallowed be Thy Game” director Mark Dowd celebrated soccer and his lifelong Manchester United fandom as a faith.  Dowd noted that “my Dad ‘baptised’ me as a Man United fan in Salford in 1968 when he went berserk watching George Best help United win the European Cup final.  And although it’s sad for me to see church attendances falling, it’s obvious the beautiful game is filling a big gap left by the decline of organised religion.” (Compare Peter Wilcox’s theological analysis of football and religion in the UK).

Fans and speedway boosters are prone to hyperbolize the significance of the IMS, if not the sport itself.  As the newly built speedway set to host its first races in August, 1909, the New York Times proclaimed that “Indianapolis has become the Mecca of the automobilists of the country.”  In 1935, the paper invoked another theatrical parallel when it referred to the speedway as “a modern counterpart of Rome’s Circus Maximus.”  In 1992 former driver Sam Posey addressed the significance of the speedway and the race, but he avoided such rhetorical flourishes and instead alluded to the heritage of the track itself.  Posey saw the track’s authenticity confirmed in familiar and modest material elements alike, intoning that “there are buildings, and even cracks in the sidewalk, that you may remember from your first trip here as a kid.  Yankee Stadium is like this.  These are places that do not produce synthetic experiences.”

Jim Nabors sings "Back Home in Indiana Again" in 1975 (image form ).

Jim Nabors sings “Back Home Again in Indiana” in 1975 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection).

Most fans are well-schooled in the rituals that are the heart of the speedway experience.  One of the best-known is the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”  The race itself is older than the song, which was published in 1917 and began to be sung in the pre-race ceremonies in 1946.  In 2011 four-time winner A.J. Foyt acknowledged that “A lot of races don’t bother you, but when they sing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana,’ it kind of tightens you up pretty good.  You know the world’s watching you.”  Contemporary fans most closely associate its singing with Jim Nabors, who first sang it in 1972 and delivered it before most races until his last performance in 2014.  In 2007 one race fan told the Indianapolis Star that during the song’s performances “I cry every year, and every time I go over the Wabash River on I-65, I think of that song and Jim Nabors.”

Since the race is staged on Memorial Day, the pre-race musical performances invoke a host of nationalist sentiments.  “The Star Spangled Banner” has been sung before the race most years, rotating amongst an eclectic host of musicians including David Hasselhoff (1986) and Jessica Simpson (2004).  In the midst of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and 1992, the singing of “America the Beautiful” was added to the pre-race musical offerings, with Hoosier (i.e., Indiana native) Florence Henderson singing the patriotic standard.  In 1999 the song was once again sung before the race; it was replaced in 2003 by “God Bless America” and both songs have been performed since 2009.

George Robson drinks a bottle of milk in Victory Lane in 1946 (image from )

George Robson drinks a bottle of milk in Victory Lane in 1946 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Winners have consumed a bottle of milk after their win in nearly all years since 1956.  In 1933 race winner Louis Meyer asked for buttermilk in victory lane, and when he won for his third time in 1936 he was handed a whole bottle.  A milk marketer had milk handed to some subsequent winners, but the practice did not become tradition until 1956.  Winners recently began to pose after the race kneeling to kiss the “yard of bricks,” the last strip of the track’s original 3.2 million bricks that remains visible at the start/finish line.  That practice first occurred when Dale Jarrett won the 1996 Brickyard 400, and Gil de Ferran repeated it after his 2003 Indianapolis 500 win.  Visitors to the track routinely flock to the yard of bricks in hopes of being in contact with the 1909 track’s last exposed remains.  For instance, runners in the Indianapolis Half Marathon on the first weekend of May run the track’s 2.5 mile oval and also stop at the bricks for pictures and kisses.

Michael Andretti (left) and his father Mario in the IMS pits in 1995 (image from )

Michael Andretti (left) and his father Mario in the IMS pits in 1995 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Coileciton)

There are perhaps not “saints” in Indianapolis 500 fandom, but the drivers themselves are particularly revered, especially elder drivers and the most cherished racing families.  Mario Andretti, Al Unser, AJ Foyt, and Bobby Rahal all are part of multi-generational racing families who remain active presences at the track.  These past drivers spend much of May recounting their racing careers for a stream of media and local events.  The most celebrated of these drivers like AJ Foyt are enormously charismatic personalities whose courage and skill clearly distinguish them from mortal race fans.  Many of these elder drivers flourished in a moment when racing was enormously dangerous, and all of them have experienced harrowing crashes and injuries; likewise, these drivers often secure fans’ respect because they drove before the emergence of sophisticated racing technologies.

The 1911 Indianapolis 500 program (image from )

The 1911 Indianapolis 500 program (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Faith is spread by the people in a spiritual community, and certainly fans are the foot soldiers sharing the joy of racing fandom.  Among the most fascinating figures amongst these racing fans is the speedway’s historian Donald Davidson.  Like many fans, the British-born Davidson was an obsessive racing follower, and in May 1964 he made his own pilgrimage to Indianapolis.  Even by the encyclopedic standards of the racing faithful, Davidson had astounding mastery of the race’s history, and when he returned a year later Davidson was intent on securing a job in Indianapolis.  After the 1965 race, he became a statistician for the United States Auto Club (USAC, which then sanctioned the Indianapolis 500), and he eventually became the IMS historian in 1998 and has hosted a series of radio shows while also teaching courses on the history of the race and the speedway.

Davidson is distinguished by his encyclopedic depth of racing knowledge, but he is by no means unusual in his commitment to the historical complexities of racing.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was constructed in 1909 and hosted its first 500 mile race in 1911 (this year is the 99th running of the race).  Consequently, an astounding number of drivers, mechanics, owners, and cars have been part of the speedway’s history.  The most devoted fans study this history zealously and master the racing canon: that is, they commit to memory the labyrinthine histories of drivers, races, and cars and venerate the speedway and tracks where racing heritage was staged.

This 1938 badges granted access to Gasoline Alley throughout May (image from ).

This 1938 badge granted access to Gasoline Alley throughout May (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection).

Fans depart the track with a host of iconic material things that commemorate the race experience, including a mountain of souvenirs as well as programs, pit passes, and admission tickets.  Countless homes have displays of ticket stubs, programs, and posters memorializing the races and fans’ experiences at the race.  The most devoted fans collect genuine relics—that is, car parts, uniforms, and things that were part of the race.  The speedway’s museum contains the most priceless of these Indianapolis 500 artifacts, including Ray Harroun’s 1911 winning Marmon Wasp, the Borg-Warner Trophy recognizing the race’s winner since 1936 (as well as the pre-1936 Wheeler-Schebler Trophy), and a host of driver’s uniforms and gear from the races.  Such material fragments of sports and cherished arenas are valued by sporting fans well beyond the racing faithful.  For instance, when Scotland’s Hampden Park pitch was re-surfaced in 1998, the “old playing surface was sliced up into squares the size of floor tiles” and sold to fans, with the sacred sod “set to live on in the gardens of Scots supporters the length and breadth of the country.”

The IMS Museum in 1959 (image from )

The IMS Museum in 1959 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Pilgrims typically visit a sacred place and leave offerings.  A comparable ritual came after two-time 500 champion Dan Wheldon died in an October, 2011 race in Las Vegas.  After the enormously popular Wheldon’s death, spontaneous offerings were left at the speedway’s Gate 1 at 16th Street and Georgetown Road. The Indianapolis Star observed that “this doorway to 102 years of history has been transformed into a cathartic outreach for the bereaved.  A `Brit Corner’ English flag hangs on the fence.  Cards and letters are piling up on top of each other.  So many flowers.  Some candles are burning, others have burned out.  There are two half gallons of milk, the traditional drink of the 500 winner, as well as a pumpkin with a carved `Dan Wheldon 77.’”  In 2013 a permanent memorial to Wheldon was placed on the St. Petersburg road course “Turn 10, a left-hander that overlooks the harbor decorated with yachts.  Included in the display are bricks from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, stone from his native England and, for a personal touch, handprints of his two young sons, Sebastian and Oliver, plus his widow, Susie.”

The Snake Pit in 1977 (image from )

The Snake Pit in 1977 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Much of the 500 experience involves many more modest practices.  For instance, devoted fans have enormously elaborate parking strategies, obsessively planning out their routes to the track and the timing of the race day; campers have long favored the lot known to fans as the Coke Lot.  Even more obsessively researched and cherished are fans’ favored seat locations.  Some fans favor the infield spaces like the historically rowdy Snake Pit, and others visit the track before the race and “test” the view of the track from particular seats.

Despite some uneasiness with sport as an act of faith, the roughly 500,000 fans in the speedway this weekend clearly have consequential emotions invested in the sport, and as with religious communities they feel the joy of connection gathered around the 2 ½ mile oval.  In a universe of zealously committed fans who elevate sport and place to faith, the 500’s followers stand among the planet’s most devoted sporting faithful.  While they may not be delivering the death rites to the church, they and other fandoms confirm that many of our most emotional experiences are invested in consumer spaces and popular culture and complicate facile distinctions between the secular and scared.



Andrea Adelson

2008 Hallowed be thy name: Not in sportsOrlando Sentinel 15 April.


Birmingham Post

1998 Scots fans queue up for hallowed turf.  Birmingham Post 28 Sept:10.


Juan Eduardo Campo

1998 American Pilgrimage LandscapesAnnals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 558:40-56.  (subscription access)


Curt Cavin

2013 Monument honoring Wheldon includes IMS bricks.  Indianapolis Star 22 Mar: C.2.


Erika Doss

2008 Rock and Roll Pilgrims: Reflections on Ritual, Religiosity, and Race at Graceland.  In Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred, edited by Peter Jan Margry, pp.123-142.  Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.


Will Higgins

2007 The Melody of May.  Indianapolis Star 19 May: A.1.


Peter Jan Margry

2008 Pre’s Rock: Pilgrimage, Ritual, and Runners’ Traditions at the Roadside Shrine for Steve Prefontaine In Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred, edited by Peter Jan Margry, pp.123-142.  Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.


Claudia May

2006 Review, Hallowed Be Thy Game, by Mark Dowd. Implicit Religion 9(2):257-259.  (PDF version)


New York Times

1909 Motor Speedway Opening: Fast Machines and Noted Drivers to Race at Indianapolis To-day.  New York Times 19 August: 5.

1935 Throngs Mass at Indianapolis For 500-Mile Auto Race Today: Record Advance Sale of Tickets Announced for the Classic, in Which Thirty-three Will Seek Rich Prizes — Cummings, the 1934 Victor, Is in Field — New Speed Mark Probable.  New York Times 30 May: 23.

1973 The Indianapolis 500: Festival of Speed and Color.  New York Times 27 May: 173.


Martin Phillips

2005 Hallowed be thy game.  The Sun 28 Jan: 40


Sam Posey

1992 The Day Mecca Becomes Gasoline Alley.  New York Times 24 May: S11.


Phil Richards

2011 The Race the Made Indianapolis.  Indianapolis Star 15 May:A.1.


Gary Vikan

2012 From the Holy Land to Graceland: Sacred People, Places and Things in Our Lives.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


Peter Wilcox

2008 Glory.  In Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, edited by Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley, pp.41-64.  Continuum Publishing, London.


Jean Williams

2012 The Indianapolis 500: Making the Pilgrimage to the “Yard of Bricks.”  In Sport, History, and Heritage: Studies in Public Representation, edited by Jeffrey Hill, Kevin Moore, and Jason Wood, pp. 247-262.  Boydell Press, Suffolk, UK.


Philip B. Wilson

2011 Fans pay respects with growing memorial at Indianapolis Speedway.  Gannett News Service 17 October.



Andrettis in Pits 1995 imageGeorge Robson Victory Lane 1946 image, IMS Museum 1959 imageIndianapolis 500 1938 badge image, Jim Nabors 1975 image,  Ray Harroun and Marmon Wasp 1911 image, Snake Pit 1977 image, and Speedway Infield 1930 image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection, IUPUI University Library


Racing Along the Color Line

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

This month the massive crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appear to confirm its confident claim to being the “motor racing capital of the world.”  Racing began on the oval in 1909 and the 500-mile race first ran two years later, with the 99th running of the 500-mile race approaching on Memorial Day weekend.  The speedway is a National Historic Landmark, and its fascinating social history reaches well beyond the obsessive statistics and biographical minutia that motorheads have compulsively detailed for a century.  The IMS dominates American racing mythology and is as much a pilgrimage destination as a race track.  Like so many shrines it invokes a host of American traditions that are perhaps more firmly rooted in our imagination and hagiography than especially concrete history.

The imagination of the speedway’s history has recently begun to contemplate historical racial inequalities in sports.  This year the 500 Festival parade before the race will be marshalled by the 1955 state high school basketball champions from Indianapolis’ segregated Crispus Attucks High School.  The Attucks champions’ place in the pre-race parade celebrates Indiana’s two most adored sports, basketball and racing, but of course the implications of sport and the color line extend beyond the hardwood and the speedway.  No 20th-century Indiana institution escaped anti-Black racism, and the speedway and the Indianapolis 500 was long a segregated space and has included very few people of color on the track or in the pits.  The prominence of the Attucks players makes a modest but potentially important concession of racism in sports, though the concrete social effects of such discussions remain to be evaluated. Read the rest of this entry

Commemoration and African-American Place: Remembering Basketball and the Dust Bowl

The page from Oscar Robertson's scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

The page from Oscar Robertson’s scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

In 1955 Crispus Attucks High School won the Indiana high school basketball crown in one of the state’s most fabled sporting moments.  In basketball-mad Indiana there are many reasons to celebrate the 1955 Tigers’ victory: fronted by hardwood legend Oscar Robertson, the Tigers are venerated for their march through the ranks of Indiana high school basketball teams in 1955 and their domination of the state’s best teams throughout the 1950’s (Attucks also took crowns in 1956 and 1959 and had a near-miss in 1951).

Garage-mounted basketball hoops, stanchions rolled out onto suburban dead-ends, and scattered courts remain one of the most commonplace features of the Indianapolis landscape, where the game is a staple of everyday life.  An astounding range of people have embraced the Attucks basketball championship, which is often spun as racism’s conquest at the hands of civility and fairness—qualities that are often somewhat idealistically projected onto basketball.  Sport looms in this narrative as one of the rare activities White and Black Hoosiers shared in the 1950’s, forging some measure of understanding if not equality beyond the hardwood.  This picture of Cold War segregated basketball risks over-stating the transformations worked by basketball or mistaking good intentions for structural changes.  Nevertheless, basketball and sport did indeed provide promising glimpses into the possibilities of a life outside anti-Black racism (Richard Pierce’s 2000 study of the 1951 Attucks championship provides a compelling analysis of the intersection of the post-war color line and basketball). Read the rest of this entry

Mapping the Black Road: Segregated Driving and the Indianapolis Roadside

The 1956 Negro Motorist Green Book (image South Carolina University Library).

The 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book (image University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library).

In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel.  Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”

The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested.  Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears.  One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!”  Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century:  an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway. Read the rest of this entry

Vacationing and the African-American Dream

Recorder June 19 1926 Fox Lake ad

Fox Lake's "Big Opening" was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926.

Fox Lake’s “Big Opening” was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926 (click for larger image).

In June, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder heralded the opening of Fox Lake, “the long looked for Indiana lake resort for colored people.”  Two weeks later the paper ran a spectacular advertisement for a Fourth of July event at Idlewild of Indiana, a segregated vacation getaway south of Indianapolis “promoted by the `race’ for the `race.’”  In many ways nothing especially dramatic distinguishes such African-American vacation spots from the legion of forest cabins, beaches, and leisure destinations that dotted America.  The 20th-century rural Midwest was carpeted by African-American vacation spots that mirrored segregated leisure spaces that began to emerge throughout the country around the turn of the century.  Yet in the midst of segregation places like Fox Lake incubated an African American Dream that was perhaps distinguished by a simultaneous embrace of “middle class” values and a rejection of their presumed White exclusivity.  Places like Fox Lake certainly provided refuge from racism, but they also incubated class respectability, fed economic and social ambitions, and fanned genuine politicization.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

Widespread middle-class ambitions did not grant mass access to inter-war African-American resorts.  Idlewild of Michigan (which had no relationship to the Idlewild of Indiana resort) was the most prominent African-American resort in the Midwest, and when the Indianapolis Recorder first referred to it in March, 1916 the African-American newspaper celebrated that “beautiful Idlewild is to be an exclusive, high-class colored summer resort.”  Idlewild ads emphasized that the resort “has been thoroughly investigated by a number of prominent business people and professional people of the race.”  A 1919 promotional pamphlet for Idlewild expressly targeted “the thinking, progressive, active class of people, who are leading spirits of their communities.”

The Black elite enlisted to boost their cause included Madam C.J. Walker, who owned property at Idlewild.  Once control of Idlewild was turned over to African Americans in 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois waxed poetic about the retreat in The Crisis: “For sheer physical beauty … it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?” Read the rest of this entry

Littering Everest: Nature, Toilets, and Waste on Mt. Everest

One of the most recent volleys in a long-running moral critique of consumption, pollution, and imperialism comes from Mt. Everest, where uneasy scholars and activists have long decried the detritus left on the world’s tallest peak.  In 1963 National Geographic photographer Barry Bishop was part of the first American team to scale Everest, and he described the mountain as “the world’s highest junk yard.”  Indeed, climbers ascending the mountain have discarded oxygen tanks, tattered tents, food containers, and a helicopter, and dead climbers have been left on the peak since George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in an ascent attempt in 1924Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled the mountain for the first time in 1953, and Hillary later said “I must admit, when we went to Everest in 1953, we heaved our rubbish around with the best of them. That was nearly forty years ago and in those days hardly anyone had even heard of conservation.”  When the New York Times examined the massive growth of tourism to Nepal in 1978, Hillary lamented that the Everest region “is now an ecological slum.  Tins and trash clutter up the paths and campsites. … The traditional culture is being crushed by the insidious economic machine.”

Last week the head of Nepal’s mountaineering association spearheaded the charge to address the most repulsive of this trash when he took aim on “large amounts of feces and urine” left on the world’s tallest mountain.   The Washington Post amplified the rhetoric over human waste on the peak when it repeated Grayson Schaffer’s 2013 description of Everest as a “fecal time bomb,” quite possibly the most colorful description ever provided for a potential ecological disaster.  By various counts, over 5000 climbers have relieved themselves on Everest and left “pyramids of human excrement.”  In 2012 a Washington Post column by Schaffer had sounded the same jarring image of the Everest base camp outhouses “continuously overflowing with waste.”  Last year Outside’s Lauren Steele reported on climbers’ longstanding practice of defecating into glacier crevasses, and with mountain warming “the glacier—and the waste entombed within it—is slowly making its way back toward Base Camp,” where climbers drink the melt water. Read the rest of this entry

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. Read the rest of this entry

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. Read the rest of this entry

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


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