Monthly Archives: October 2012
Each semester I ask students in my introductory course to identify their single most significant material thing, securing a few points on the final exam simply by rationalizing why they are attached to a particular wallet, shot glass, or childhood toy. The exercise is merely meant to challenge somebody to ask reflectively what they consider to be an important thing, which is not easy to articulate. Predictably, three-quarters of the students who answer that question mechanically point to their phones, cars, and ipads. Another handful point to things that have some deep if individual meaning, like a keepsake from a grandparent, objects that are invested with some personal memories that are essentially activated by the object.
A precious few objects are strangely innocent things; that is, they are material things that essentially disappear in their description. These are the things that students rarely describe as functional or stylistic things, instead detailing the unfiltered pleasure they derive from or their experiences with the object. Bikes are such an object that appear regularly in students’ examples and one that I am especially sympathetic to and understand as a rider. A bike is embraced for the experience of the ride and not necessarily for the bike itself. When cyclists identify their bike as their favorite thing their narrative is virtually always about the freedom of riding, the physical sensation of cycling, childhood memories of biking, or the social relationships forged through riding.
There is something wonderfully idealistic and meaningful about this, but like all sport cycling remains a massive consumer industry profoundly shaped by profit. The vision of cycling as innocent recreation untouched by competitive sport is perhaps naïve, and in some hands it is hypocritical ideology. For virtually all cyclists—regardless of whether they see themselves as commuting, riding gran sportifs, circling the neighborhood, racing local triathlons, or aspiring to finish a century–a bike is somewhat romantically constructed as a simple machine that is experienced outside anything remotely approximating the sorts of competition in the pro peloton.
This innocence of bikes and professional cycling has been dealt a challenge from last week’s lifetime ban against Lance Armstrong. No single cyclist on the face of the planet is as responsible for the growth of the sport from the local cul-de-sac to the professional peloton as Lance Armstrong, whose success in the doping era fueled the growth of a host of firms like Nike, Trek, and Radio Shack as they and the governing Union Cycliste International (UCI) awkwardly looked the other way and ignored more than a half- century of performance-enhancing drugs. A legion of suburbanites captivated by Armstrong’s success and his return from cancer bought bikes, cleaned the ones they had hanging in the garage, purchased a universe of cycling accessories, and hit the roads and trails. For many of those riders in particular, Armstrong’s guilt is a genuine shock that casts him as a fraud and robs the innocence from their bike rides or the pleasure they take watching professional cyclists. For many fans and riders who knew or suspected Armstrong was part of a peloton using performance enhancing drugs, the news is at best disappointing. For all these riders and observers, though, much of the idealistic notion of sport as unmitigated “clean” competition is dealt a serious blow by the acknowledgement of the malleable morality of even sport in the face of consumer society.
We could argue that doping is simply the “culture” of professional cycling, but this is an awkward evasion of cycling’s status as a massive commercial industry that until very recently obliquely if not explicitly condoned performance-enhancing drugs. Cycling is a commercial industry that took a distinctive trajectory from the 1980’s onward, and much of this trajectory—for better and worse—was profoundly influenced by Lance Armstrong. Armstrong came to cycling at a moment when doping had reached newly systematic levels subsequently mastered by Armstrong and his teams, borrowing from a long-term acceptance of doping in the peloton and within the sport.
Armstrong’s ignoble fall in the past week reveals much about how we see competition and sport. Many firms have stood by quite sketchy characters in the wake of scandals, but Armstrong’s greatest offense may be that his dishonesty came in sport itself. While other athletes have been retained as marketing symbols in the wake of sexual assaults, shootings, and even dog fighting, Lance Armstrong violated the sacred rules of fair play that govern sport, undermining other competitors’ equity in competition, and eroding cycling itself.
Much of the appeal of sport is a romanticized attraction to sport’s teamwork and the notion of competition as being itself “innocent,” fair, and equitable in a way everyday life is not. Sut Jhally and Bill Levant have argued that we are attracted to sport because it offers an unmediated and direct competition in which we have shared and clear rules, we share the experience with competitors, and the resolution of the contest in sports are absolutely clear. In contrast, our everyday life involves competition with ambiguous and shifting rules that is much more unpleasant than sport, and we find pleasant escape in weekend bike rides, gentle jogs, or softball games, just as we relish the competitive clarity of professional sports involving athletes clearly blessed with much more skill than we have. Jhally and Levant suggest that much of our attraction to sport is an oblique critique of the sort of unpleasant competition we experience in our everyday lives.
This notion of “fair play” is a difficult fit to nearly any sport, including cycling. Since the earliest multi-day stage races, riders fatigued by extreme physical challenges over successive days were compelled to find mechanisms to energize themselves, which came at various moments from cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, peppermint, strychnine, nitroglycerine, and cocaine. The development of amphetamines in World War II found a ready audience in the peloton following the war, and anabolic steroids that mimic the effects of testosterone were being used by athletes almost immediately after World War II. In 1951, for instance, the Danish rowing team was accused of having won the previous year’s European championship while on performance-enhancing drugs, and in 1952 a series of speed skaters at the Olympics got sick because of excessive amphetamine use. In 1955 Jean Malléjac collapsed on the climb up the fabled Mont Ventoux, strongly suspected of over-consuming amphetamines. A year later, the whole Belgian team withdrew after the 14th stage citing food poisoning, but most observers believed it was the result of doping complications. In 1960, Roger Rivière took a near-fatal fall into a ravine because he had taken a large dose of the painkiller Palfium, living the remainder of his life in a wheelchair.
John D. Fair’s analysis of steroid consumption in the 1960s suggests that steroids were first taken by world-caliber American competitors in 1958, when American weightlifters were taking Dianabol. The weightlifters’ doping was driven by their ambition to keep up with Soviet competitors who had dominated the 1952 Olympics taking testosterone. Fair underscores that weightlifters and many coaches self-delusionally attributed their new successes to fresh training techniques rather than steroids, establishing a rationalization that has been repeated many times by users. Physicians like John Ziegler (who worked with the US weightlifting team) guided much of this process from the outset, treating athletes much like lab rats even as they lent such performance enhancing drugs scientific credibility: in a 1969 study, for instance, John Patrick O’Shea confirmed significant benefits from steroid consumption, one in a series of medical researchers who developed steroid consumption as part of broad training plans for elite athletes.
Like many professional cyclists, Robert Millar feels that throughout his career from 1980 to 1995 cycling was a contest of doctors engaged in chemical warfare as the whole peloton doped with more or less effectiveness. Millar’s comments in the wake of Armstrong’s suspension eerily echoed the 1972 Science article that noted “victory in the Olympics has become a question of which country has the best doctors and chemists,” and it is clear that much of the doping that occurred in cycling was commonplace in a variety of endurance and strength sports. With an honesty that may now seem shocking, Science openly acknowledged in June, 1972 that “among U.S. Olympic competitors, particularly the weight lifters, consumption of anabolic steroids is probably reaching a peak this month—in a few weeks, athletes will have to lay off the drug in order to be sure of flushing all traces out of their system before the Olympic games in August.”
Riders were long unrepentant and complained that it was impossible to finish grand tours without performance enhancing drugs. Jacques Anquetil, the Tour de France winner in 1957 and 1961-1964, openly acknowledged using amphetamines in those races and refused to submit to a urine test after his 1966 victory in the single-day Liege-Baston-Liege race. This position held by much of the peloton might seem untenable from the distance. In 1960, for instance, Danish rider Knud Enemark Jensen died during the 100 KM Olympic time trial, although there is no conclusive evidence that Jensen’s death was a direct result of doping. The French introduced anti-doping codes in 1965 and conducted testing in 1966 at the Tour de France, but in 1967 rider Tom Simpson died on the Mont Ventoux climb where Jean Malléjac had collapsed in 1955. The legendary Eddy Merckx was thrown out of the Giro d’Italia in 1969 for a positive test. Nevertheless, a Science article captured the utter hypocrisy of governing bodies in 1972 when it concluded that “the gentlemen who set the rules seem happier denouncing steroids than trying to understand the trials and temptations of that push today’s athletes into drugs.”
Lance Armstrong entered cycling not long after synthetic EPO was introduced to the peloton in 1990 (Armstrong turned professional in 1992). A decade earlier, Francesco Conconi began to work with Italian Olympic endurance athletes using blood doping techniques, and by 1993 he reported to the International Olympic Committee on experiments with EPO he had conducted with 23 amateurs (later revealed to be pro riders including Stephen Roche and Claudio Chiappucci). Hemoglobin transports oxygen to the muscles, so augmenting the blood’s hemoglobin (often referred to as hematocrit) with recombinant human erythropoietin (first synthesized in 1977) theoretically can increase the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity, oxygen intake (that is, VO2max). Conconi’s colleague Michele Ferrari worked with Lance Armstrong and was linked to the US Postal Team, as well as a host of other pro riders. Ferrari published peer-reviewed research on endurance runners as well as cyclists and was part of a movement of scientifically preparing athletes through training, nutrition, and lifestyle changes that was widely embraced by elite athletes and weekend warriors alike, and Ferrari viewed steroids as simply another tool in that training arsenal.
The sport’s links to performance-enhancing drugs—and the ways doping risked undoing the commercial fiction of cycling as equitable competition–were underscored through the 1990s. In July, 1998 a car from the Festina team was found to contain a vast range of performance-enhancing drugs including EPO on the eve of the Tour de France, and within two weeks the team was expelled from the Tour (won by acknowledged doper Marco Pantani). In 2004 doping on the Cofidis team caught the time trial world champion David Millar, and in 2006 several high-profile riders including former champion Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were expelled from the Tour in an investigation referred to as Operation Puerto. During Puerto, physician Eufemiano Fuentes was found with 100 blood bags and coded documents from professional cyclists reputed to include Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Tyler Hamilton, and Jan Ullrich, all of whom were subsequently penalized for doping violations.
In the midst of all this, Lance Armstrong and his teams dominated the peloton, and their techniques for securing those wins illuminate that it is infeasible to accommodate ambiguous athletic ethics with the ideological clarity of fair competition used to market sport. On the one hand, Armstrong’s fanatic devotion to scientific training and his confident arrogance won him many fans (even as it alienated many others). Armstrong captivated an American audience watching the Tour de France on television, potentially reaching the lucrative American recreational market long left untouched (Greg LeMond was the first non-European Tour winner in 1986). Armstrong’s marketing was eased by exceptionally sympathetic American coverage, and Armstrong was a dynamic commercial face for a host of firms. On the other hand, Armstrong hypocritically made much of his appeal his defiant resistance to doping. Nike and Armstrong defiantly asked “What am I on? I’m on my bike.” In the service of Livestrong Armstrong told a noble lie, but it was nonetheless a distortion only important because people in terrible moments placed their trust in Armstrong and his message. The protestations of the likes of Nike, Trek, and cycling’s governing bodies are hypocritical, but we expect such dishonesty in commercial space and are less willing to tolerate it in the context of a sporting contest.
Armstrong resolutely and without challenge ruled over a team much as team leaders like Merckx, Anquetiel, and Bernard Hinault had before him. The focus on this powerful individual personality suited advertisers and many casual cycling observers very well, but the sport is increasingly a team effort. The teams led by Armstrong clearly were dominated by his agenda and resolution to win, attributes that are good for elite athletes, but in the complicated moral muddle to which cycling had been reduced, Armstrong was among the many cyclists who gave in to the lure of victory and the paranoid concern that non-dopers stood no competitive chance. For those competitors who obeyed their moral vision of equitable competition like Bradley McGee, Armstrong’s story simply underscores the opportunities that were thieved from them. Like any elite athlete Armstrong arrogantly believed he was the best athlete in the peloton, and he certainly was on most days, but there is always doubt in the mind of any athlete or weekend warrior, and training, nutrition, the best bikes and gear, and, yes, doping attempted to manage the uncertainties.
For the purposes of moral crusaders who hope to make cycling appear clean and rebuilt, Armstrong becomes simply a single person on which we can pin the blame and ignore the vast administrative apparatuses, commercial mechanisms, phalanxes of physicians, and long heritage of expecting superhuman performances from cyclists. When the UCI’s Pat McQuaid intoned that “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling,” McQuaid hypocritically ignored his own organization’s failure to be better stewards for the sport or to acknowledge that Armstrong’s phenomenal success had been exceptionally beneficial for the UCI. Pinning this whole heritage on Armstrong alone or painting his story as unique is at best wrong and at worst an inelegant lie hoping to distract attention away from UCI.
The power of Armstrong’s cancer survival and his Tour victories would have made him a good mouthpiece for any cause, but given his driven personality it made him an exceptionally strong and effective leader for Livestrong. Few material objects are more universally visible than Livestrong wristbands (including many tattoos), but now they and bikes are trapped in the revealing picture Armstrong’s story tells about cycling. Livestrong was so firmly linked to Armstrong’s personality and story that its unraveling risks undermining all of the good foundations built by many supporters. The loss of Armstrong as a voice for cancer research may be more disappointing than any other dimension of this narrative.
How many of us might have contemplated doping to secure the chance to simply ride our bike all day? This is of course a contrived question, but many riders cling tenaciously to the fringes of professional cycling because, like many of us, they love to ride and enjoy the feeling of being with friends and competitors on a bike pushing themselves and each other. Bikes have never been truly innocent, trapped in a world of commodity ideologies like any other thing. Yet bikes’ meanings are never determined by such discourses any more than any marketing discourses dictate how we see and view things. But it will be difficult to see bikes simply as innocent things.
Benjamin D. Brewer
2002 Commercialization in Professional Cycling, 1950-2001: Institutional Transformations and the Rationalization of “Doping.” Sociology of Sport Journal 19:276-301.
Kevin R. Filo, Daniel C. Funk, and Danny O’Brien
2008 It’s Really Not About The Bike: Exploring Attraction And Attachment To The Events Of The Lance Armstrong Foundation. Journal Of Sport Management 22(5): 501-525. (subscription access)
Thomas M. Hunt
2011 Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960–2008. University of Texas Press, Austin.
L. C. Johnson and J. P. O’Shea
1969 Anabolic Steroid: Effects on Strength Development. Science 164(3882, May 23):957-959.
Hein F M Lodewijkx and Bram Brouwer
2011 Some Empirical Notes on the EPO Epidemic in Professional Cycling. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 82(4): 740-54.
2006 Drugs and the Tour de France. Association of British Cycling Coaches.
2012 Arguing Against Doping: A Discourse Analytical Study on Olympic Anti-Doping Between the Late 1960s and the Late 1980s. Unpublished paper, University of Munster Institute of Sport Science.
1972 Anabolic Steroids: Doctors Denounce Them, but Athletes Aren’t Listening. Science 176(4042, Jun. 30): 1399-1403. (Subscription access)
Lance in Madame Tussauds image courtesy Loren Javier
We have always had a fascination with the end of times, prophesizing humanity’s impending fall at the hands of a vast range of threats ranging from capricious gods to natural disaster to Obama economics. Some present-day prophets of doom pore over scripture and Mayan calendars calculating our divinely predicted end, and the current climate may seem uniquely catastrophic as a host of voices zealously assess the dangers posed by global warming, asteroids, thermonuclear war, an electromagnetic pulse, and comparable crises. Popular culture has embraced our fascination with apocalypse, with a wave of apocalyptic movies and short films (and some feature films over the breadth of a century); numerous video games including Half Life, Left 4 Dead, and Fallen Earth; and reality shows featuring our neighbors preparing for the end.
What is especially distinctive now is that a broad public imagination of approaching downfall and contemporary ruination depicts it as an aesthetic and even beautiful fate. A flood of graphic art depicts the ruins of our future strewn across a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape. This aestheticized fate illuminates how we see contemporary post-industrialism, an anxiety over contemporary life that offers few explicit moral lessons. When Charlton Heston collapsed at the feet of a crumbled Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes it was an expressly dystopian tale of racial apocalypse, but the future painted in most contemporary post-apocalyptic art is not a starkly dystopian moral lesson: it is instead a strangely attractive, curiously timeless, and even welcoming landscape of utter ruination.
Post-apocalyptic art embraces our anxieties about contemporary material decline and deeper apprehensions of the social processes that fuel and in some minds are accelerating our decline, comforting us with an aestheticized future in gorgeous ruins. Abandonment art depicting contemporary ruins (so-called “ruin porn”) and post-apocalyptic art imagining future downfall fundamentally explore transience and a common feeling of powerlessness (whether it is warranted or imagined). Paul Virilio has argued that “This admission of powerlessness in the face of the surging up of unexpected and catastrophic events forces us to try to reverse the usual trend that exposes us to the accident in order to establish a new kind of museology or museography: one that would now entail exposing the accident, all accidents, from the most banal to the most tragic.” In this vision of ruins and ruination, Virilio suggests we should examine the “progress that turns into catastrophe,” documenting the trajectories of apocalypse. The most challenging post-apocalyptic art aspires to confront our anxieties about the future, and archaeology can trigger equally productive discussions about the future while assessing the material traces of the past and present.
Post-apocalyptic art is an anticipation of ruins, and Will Viney argues that “the anticipation of ruins mark out the present as the condition of the future,” suggesting that the imagination of apocalypse and ruination expresses our anxieties about our own social and material impermanence. He looks at ruins—historical remnants, contemporary abandonment, and future landscapes alike—as disruptions of conventional narrative temporality, arguing that “projected ruins represent a disrupted continuation of present events. … The ruin marks that sense of termination that has not quite come to its end. … Imagining the ruins of the future gives a means to envision a story that both locates a possible landscape and relates that landscape to present surroundings.” An astounding volume of art foresees a non-apocalyptic extension of present-day life, but future ruins undermine seemingly conventional developmental paths, a maneuver that destabilizes our own preconceptions about a stable present.
Sarah Wanenchak argues that the central feature of post-apocalyptic art and contemporary “ruin porn” is their atemporality; that is, the ruins around us and in a hypothetical future are threads in a larger discourse that collapses facile distinctions between past, present, and future. Where contemporary abandonment art evokes heritage and loss through reference to historical buildings and spaces we experience in the present, post-apocalyptic art wields the familiar materiality of our present and imagines its future ruination. Seeing such ruination art as atemporal is a concept thieved from cyberpunk, where William Gibson suggests that we “inhabit a sort of endless digital Now.” Much of the implications for this philosophical framework seem to revolve around resisting conventional linear historical narratives. Bruce Sterling, for instance, refers to the contemporary world as a “network culture” and argues that digitization profoundly undermines authoritative linear narratives for the meanings of a coalescing past, present, and future.
Contemporary abandonment art uses photographs to substitute for the physical experience of moving through a ruin, so its claim to authenticity is somewhat different than that for post-apocalyptic art. Abandonment artists aspire to reveal “authentic” landscapes in natural decaying processes (which some artists argue is “beautiful”), and an image invokes a bodily, material experience of moving through a ruin in time and space, although it transforms it into a selective digital prompt. The photograph in abandonment art makes a claim to historical authenticity (in the form of the building carcass) and embodied authenticity (in the implied form of the photographer’s corporeal self entering buildings).
Authenticity is an exceptionally ambiguous if not ideological concept, but in contemporary abandonment art there is a genuine material reality that images depict, a concrete decaying building or space, so it is “real” in a way that post-apocalyptic art is not. In contrast, post-apocalyptic art stakes a claim to our imagination—and crafts its own authenticity in lieu of materiality–by representing the ruins of our familiar material world in the wake of catastrophe.
Our present-day world is a familiar feature in post-apocalyptic art, with famous structures and familiar spaces routinely looming as visual mechanisms that place us in the imagined ruins of ourselves. For instance, Jonas De Ro’s series of imaginings of contemporary cities in ruins depict cities including Toronto, Dubai, and Singapore, all including material landmarks overtaken by collapse, decay, and nature. A host of artists somewhat inelegantly divine the fall of state societies by focusing on the most famous buildings, with the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and Cristo Redentor among the recurring post-apocalyptic motifs surrounded in flames, ice, water, or vegetation. Those buildings become clumsy metaphorical devices for our contemporary society if not us.
Other artists incorporate the most prosaic materiality but universal things, such as subways and cars. Structures we know or spaces that are recognizable populate post-apocalyptic art as a mechanism to provide them a sort of plausible digital authenticity. Unlike abandonment art that often depicts the most commonplace objects in the midst of ruins, post-apocalyptic images are most often landscapes focused on the grand sweeping spatial dimensions of apocalypse and not really on the detritus of commodities cast about that landscape. In this sense, much of post-apocalyptic art might be interpreted as a post-consumer world that for at least some people is a desirable landscape.
Artists use a wide range of mechanisms to render ruins and catastrophic futures “beautiful.” Like contemporary abandonment artists, post-apocalyptic artists use light and high density color ranges to provide a visually striking representation, and post-apocalyptic artists are granted significant license to interpret the future (abandonment artists, in contrast, tend to take spaces as they are found). Some post-apocalyptic art is of course a landscape of desolation, but others underscore the power and resilience of an aesthetically attractive nature. Trees, vines, and megafauna reclaim a vast range of post-apocalyptic artworks, with greenery carpeting abandoned cities that are in many cases populated by a host of animals that have escaped the zoos. This optimistic vision of environmental rebound soothes contemporary environmental anxieties by suggesting nature can overcome any of humanity’s insults, although those imaginations of ruin rarely identify the concrete mechanisms of ruination. Some post-apocalyptic artists include hypersexualized women in their images (something seen in contemporary abandonment art as well), borrowing the stark and discomforting backdrop of apocalyptic ruination to contrast to a certain definition of beauty and sexual desirability.
The post-apocalyptic landscape is an oblique critique of an alienating social world in which people often feel disempowered. The select few humans who populate most post-apocalyptic art are apparently strong and invested with genuine agency: numerous artworks of post-apocalyptic worlds show a single figure (or a nuclear family) standing with their back to us staring out at the post-apocalyptic world with us, absurdly envisioning new possibilities and perhaps even suspecting that the removal of structural limitations will make us happier.
For archaeologists the implications of post-apocalyptic art may revolve around its creative capacity to imagine the future. That is, as Rodney Harrison and Shannon Dawdy each have argued, archaeologists rarely look into the future, instead committed to a conventional modernist narrative that examines the relationship between the past into the present and ends at our own feet. Harrison argues that archaeologists examining the contemporary world have developed a problematic framework that reduces materiality to “ruins” because the discipline is focused on detritus, the past, and distance. Harrison suggests tinkering with the temporality of ruination, focusing on its dynamism and seeing ruins as an incomplete present with implications on the future that archaeologists can and should examine. Dawdy has likewise advocated a research agenda that resists linear evolutionary narratives and does not reduce materiality to progress or ruin.
It might be possible to use archaeology to creatively rethink our unexamined historical trajectories into the future by drawing on our mastery of the history of things and contemporary materiality alike. Bruce Sterling hints at the archaeological implications of atemporality, which he muses “escapes the literary traps of history. Just history that could not be written about. History about people who were not the winners, history about people who had no literatures. … we can trace it through archeology. … The way we learn about our things, through non-literary sources such as garbage, pollen counts, environmental damage, even corpses.” Sterling is suggesting that things are especially powerful mechanisms to weave narratives evoking past, present, and future and countering dominant narratives and predominant notions of linear temporality. Evan Calder Williams argues that “the cunning of an era, then, is the dreaming of its own grave. Not its gravediggers. The dream image, that standstill halting of utopia and the dialectical image: what is it if not the graveyard?” He proposes a scholarship “I call salvagepunk: the post-apocalyptic vision of akaputt world, strewn with both the dream residues and the real junk of the world that was, and shot through with the hard work of salvaging, repurposing, détourning, scrapping.” As complex theory this is all quite elegant, but as everyday method it risks providing a complicated philosophical framework with few genuine implications. Yet archaeology and art alike may have their greatest power when they simply trigger discussions about the paths we may take in the future, trajectories that do not simply assume a particular sort of progress. This will involve some creativity in how we imagine our futures, but post-apocalyptic art reveals that many people are using materiality to imagine such futures.
Shannon Lee Dawdy
2009 Millennial Archaeology: Locating the Discipline in the Age of Insecurity. Archaeological Dialogues 16(2):131-142. (subscription access)
2011 Surface assemblages: Towards an archaeology in and of the present. Archaeological Dialogues 18:141-161.
2011 Archaeology of the Post-Future. Unpublished paper, academia.edu.
2007 The Original Accident. Polity Press, Malden, MA.
Evan Calder Williams
2011 Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books
Abandoned Richard Allenby-Pratt
Giacoma Costa Post Natural Apocalypse
Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction (Paul Brians)
Apocalypse (woman) image courtesy CommunityVolunteer
Apocalypse (city) image courtesy DearJune
Chicago Ruins image courtesy dynamited.
Historic archaeology routinely focuses on prosaic dimensions of everyday life, the modest commodities and quotidian landscapes that have been the stage for the last half-millennium. On the one hand, we have painted a rich picture of a world of prosaic objects invested with “agency”: That is, archaeologists recognize that things are not simply empty vessels that contain whatever meanings producers, marketers, and moral ideologues impress into them. Instead, when things get in our hands they can assume a wide range of meanings and produce a vast breadth of experiences that have a lot to do with the very materiality of the object: weight, size, stylistic details, scent, and temperature are just a few of the myriad variables linked to the material presence of things.
On the other hand, though, many if not most of those material things archaeologists examine are entirely quotidian and even banal, part of what Margaret Morse has called a “semi-automatic” experience we rarely recognize, contemplate, or consider significant. Archaeologists examine a world of prosaic things that was in many ways outside reflective consciousness, telling a story of people’s lives with mundane things they may rarely have contemplated. This is especially true of much of the 20th century and contemporary material world, which is peopled with endless mass-produced things that seem overwhelmingly interchangeable. Such prosaic materiality raises the issue of how archaeologists should interpret material banality. Rather than look at all those mass-produced things as a boring backdrop for life, a conscious, self-reflective focus on such banality may well provide an exceptionally powerful insight into material life in the last half-millennium.
An enormous amount of archaeology is conducted in parking lots, perhaps the most banal of all spaces and certainly not the romanticized archaeological site most of us imagine. Recently archaeologists in Leicester have been conducting a dig for the possible burial site of Richard III (Richard III was reportedly buried in the Greyfriars church in 1485, but the precise location has long been lost), and the press coverage routinely indicates that the dig is taking place in a parking lot. This rhetorical mechanism contrasts the consequential heritage of Richard III with the seemingly unimportant parking lot and illuminates what constitutes a historical space. Of course the potential that the potential skeletal remains of Richard III may have been uncovered (and will be tested with DNA from a descendant) is absolutely fascinating, but this and scores of other parking lots are normally completely unseen and have their own stories to tell despite seeming meaningless.
Few material spaces could be more of a “non-place” than urban parking lots. Marc Auge calls the “non place” a space of transience—airports, freeways, hospitals, grocery stores–that is not an “anthropological place,” that is, it is not “relational, or historical, or concerned with identity.” It is difficult to conceive of an urban material narrative that features the aesthetic blank space of parking lots, since such spaces have no significant aesthetic attraction and seem to have no genuine social significance, but in many American cities parking lots blanket a third of the city. Parking lots are rarely examined in scholarship except in functional analyses (e.g., paving compounds, sensory devices, etc), environmental impact studies, pay parking system reviews, and assessments of security. Urban planning scholar Eran Ben-Joseph is among the observers thinking critically about parking lots, arguing in the New York Times that “planned with greater intent, parking lots could actually become significant public spaces, contributing as much to their communities as great boulevards, parks or plazas” (see him discuss parking lots on Vimeo). Ben-Joseph is among the observers who wonder if parking lots can become public spaces, a suggestion that Slate’s Tom Vanderbilt views skeptically when he concludes that “As noble as Ben-Joseph’s endeavor is, one wonders if the limitations of the form are simply too daunting. The real question is: Can parking lots become great spaces as parking lots? Could they be places that people are drawn to, want to linger in, rally around, where children can play?”
Banality is often wielded as a pejorative term invoking the monotonous and inconsequential dimensions of everyday life, but calling something banal is a political maneuver in itself, and banal material culture harbors interesting insights into the real consequence of everyday life. The material dimensions of banality are those things that persistently impose themselves on our senses: desolate bus stops, aging interstate highways, vacant lots, layers of dirt, hand-painted store signs, fast-food debris, cigarette butts, and billboards are the sorts of things that silently loom in our imaginations. Normally we attempt to escape things like abandoned buildings, lawn ornaments, and bus stops, either literally by minimizing our time with them or by using distraction to ignore our time in them and around them.
Of course, meaningful forms of selfhood, heritage, and social meaning are invested in spaces and objects as disparate if prosaic as porch stoops, McDonald’s, stray dogs, rotting barns, or telephone pole signs. When parking lots are invoked socially they are cast as desolate places of ugliness, material abandonment, and disorder that we hope to efface by consigning them to the status of banality and submerging them within monotonous repetition. Yet if we want to tell ourselves a meaningful story about us, the most illuminating narratives might well be told using the most seemingly inconsequential things and spaces we are unable to articulate. In 1967, for instance, Ed Ruscha aspired to turn parking lots into art (or at least make them visible) in his ThirtyFour Parking Lots, which gathered aerial views of parking lots, a project since revisited in 2007 in Eric William Carroll’s flickr page of the 34 Ruscha lots using google maps; and in 2008 Art from Space collected 33 new sites. Ruscha’s images were statements on southern California’s subservience to the car, which has only increased exponentially in the subsequent 45 years.
The fabric of fire hydrants, urban odors, roadside puddles, litter, graffiti, and commodities forms “the barely acknowledged ground of everyday experience” that we all negotiate with little or no reflection. There is a genuine material narrative to be told about such spaces: parking lots are testaments to the primacy of car culture and the leveling of cities wrought by urban renewal, post-industrialization, the mortgage crisis, and racism, all of which have reached into the suburbs and rural America and have profound impacts in cities across the globe. This material decline and its social imagination form a critical dimension of how we conceive contemporary landscapes, and it has clear material evidence in parking lots.
In his seminal paper on “Thing Theory,” Bill Brown cautions that we tend to “look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture—above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things.” Much of the struggle to capture the meaning of prosaic things is a struggle to render the inexpressible world of things outside bodily and sensory experience. Things exist outside textual representation, evoking deep emotional, sensory, and corporeal responses that are challenging to render in linear narrative, and archaeology is fundamentally a comparative discipline that must make inexpressible and incommensurate things both expressible and comparable. The notion of a material world invested with agency; invested in non-places and non-things; and evoking rich intersections of emotion and reflection is elegant in theory, but in practice the archaeology of an active world of goods is daunting. Methodologically, how do we turn the story of parking lots into consequential tales about us? Artists like Ben Price, Trevor Young, Justin Ascott, Andrea Carvalho, and Francesco Nencini, and popular cultural texts like comic books, television shows, and museum exhibits have plumbed various ways of weaving a story about the non-place and the non-thing, and archaeologists could creatively adapt any of those artforms and discourses. At the same time, if we have a moment of introspection that suddenly sees banality, it is worth considering if we risk fetishizing the world of the “non-place” in which we can no longer locate a place or a home (a concern voiced by Dylan Trigg). In the end, Richard III’s mortal remains are fascinating, so of course they consume our curiosity, but there is a story to be told in all of these non-descript parking lots that reflects the ways we inscribe social spaces and how they have been created by concrete social and economic processes, and in the end it is not as banal as it might seem on first glance.
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2005 Postscript: Doing Agency in Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 12(5):365-374.
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1998 Virtualities: Television, Media Art and Cyberculture. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
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Graffiti parking lot image courtesy smohundro
Lot 27 image courtesy Eric William Carroll
Parking lot image courtesy tracktwentynine
Sweet Jimmy’s sign courtesy peter.charbonnier
The meaning of some things is nearly beyond expression: you can try to explain chocolate, your favorite jeans, the smell of good coffee, or the Eiffel Tower, and you may capture some hints of why they are emotionally and personally meaningful, but ultimately words fail to adequately express our deep feeling for those things. Many seemingly mundane things with these inexpressible qualities—food, shoes, books, beers, couches—can be characterized as “eroticized”: that is, we can only hope our words and pictures evoke the profoundly deep-seated, imaginative, and even bodily pleasures and desires inspired by such material things.
Many of these things that we feel so strongly about appear in myriad images on Pinterest, and while Pinterest may seem like a prosaic array of pictures of dresses, desserts, and vacation getaways it provides stunningly sensitive insight into the profound meaning invested in things. Beyond simply “sharing” images of things or helping us plan dinners, parties, or weddings, Pinterest provides a telling illumination of our deepest material desires.
Pinterest is a social networking “pinboard” on which people “pin” images to thematically organized groups of pictures referred to as “boards” (e.g., Totes & Handbags) The site aspires to provide an online space to “discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests,” a mission that hardly seems amazing or even distinctive, but Pinterest claimed 11.7 million unique members in February 2012, and by July an estimated 23 million people were using the site to collect pictures of things, recipes, design inspirations, and assorted aphorisms. In March of this year Pinterest was among the 30 most-viewed web pages on the internet.
Many observers have weighed in on why mere images of things seem to have captivated the planet, reaching accurate but often-shallow conclusions that Pinterest provides an opportunity to, for instance, swap recipes, find artistic inspiration, and helps consumers locate marketers (or vice versa). Geoff Livingston, for example, recognizes that Pinterest’s success relies fundamentally on its visual appeal, but he risks dismissing those visuals as hollow eye-candy when he sarcastically concludes that “Pinterest is so painful to participate on. It’s hard watching the stream of puppies dancing in the grass, wedding gear, and yes, shoes.”
This fails to differentiate between various visuals or confront specifically why so many people would be strongly attracted to images. The deeper appeal of Pinterest rests in a significant part on the visual erotics of things and the site’s brilliant aesthetic articulation of material desire that socially taps into our collective fascination with and imagination over things.
The most interesting expressions of that eroticized material desire are in the vast number of Pinterest boards dubbing themselves “porn,” ranging from boards labeled “food porn” to “bike porn” to “shoe porn.” None of these boards are truly pornographic (Pinterest has codes against nudity), but the term “porn” is in these cases being rhetorically invoked to underscore the depth of emotional sentiment invested in things and the lustful feelings they and their images can produce. Using such a socially loaded term as irony is charitably challenging: for instance, in 1977 music critic Robert Christgau was mortified by the use of Nazi symbols by punk bands, arguing that “irony is wasted on pinheads.” The term “food porn” was apparently first used in the 1970s by Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest to describe foods that “are obscene, just shameful to have in the marketplace.” In Gastronomica, food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray argues that scholars wield the “food porn” term as a pejorative to “condemn cooking-related entertainment on television and in magazines” and launch an age-old academic attack on mass culture, but this risks missing that Pinterest pinners use the term because it evokes their depth of desire. Ray acknowledges, though, that to isolate food from broader consumer culture is misleading, because the “pornographic” desires projected onto food are cut from the broader fabric of consumer culture, and indeed Pinterest boards use the “porn” term for nearly every class of things. There is something utterly bodily, inexpressible, and meaningful in the desires prompted by material images that we might circumspectly accept as akin to pornography’s visual conventions, and to label it as “porn” should not imply as Ray worries that the term simply dismisses food’s “visual, performative delight” or hazards dismissing the meaning of all visual culture.
On Pinterest, “porn” seems to signify a self-defined excessive desire for something expressed in visual spectacle. “Food porn” images on Pinterest, for instance, hyperbolize the everyday visuality of “real food” and evoke overblown desires. The notion of “food porn” or “gastroporn” borrows from pornography its unreal visual spectacle, focusing on the aesthetic surface of that which we desire. Pictures of food often manipulatively wield pornography’s sensationalistic and performative gaze to produce rapid emotional and instinctual, if not bodily responses without any redeeming social meaning: bacon, cupcakes, and citrus coffee granita have now been placed on the same graphic level of essentialized if unattainable desire as porno.
That self-definition of excess and desire on Pinterest cannot be separated from gender. By most measures, women account for 79% to 83% of Pinterest’s users. Nearly one-fifth of all women online use Pinterest (19% of online women use Pinterest, as compared to 5% of men). A significant amount of scholarship has examined the impact of mass media images of food and the body on women. In 1984, for instance, Rosalind Coward used the term “food pornography” to refer to a “regime of pleasurable images” that create desire as well as guilt in women. Food photography airbrushes dishes in the same way that it manipulates models’ bodies, and studies have confirmed what we already know: images of food—even consciously unattainable dishes–can make us hungry.
Pinterest’s rapid growth has not been greeted with universal enthusiasm. BuzzFeed’s Amy Odell worries that “the site’s popularity highlights an uncomfortable reality: Pinterest’s user-generated content, which overwhelmingly emphasizes recipes, home decor, and fitness and fashion tips, feels like a reminder that women still seek out the retrograde, materialistic content that women’s magazines have been hawking for decades—and that the internet was supposed to help overcome.” Odell argues that the internet was a boon to feminist politics as it stepped outside normative patriarchal discourses, but she is wary of Pinterest as a narrative discourse that is reviving such ideologies in seemingly meaningless visuals. Odell points to the enormous number of women who follow links from Pinterest to sites such as Martha Stewart Living, Self Magazine, and HGTV that she believes are cut from the same discursive fabric as Cold War-era women’s magazines. Odell frets that it “seems like one big user-curated women’s magazine—from the pre-internet era. Sites like Jezebel were created as an antidote to women’s print magazines, which are rife with diet, fitness and dressing tips. The internet has for many years now been thought of as a place where women can find smarter, meatier reads just for them.” Much of her apprehension revolves around the consumer ideologies linked to the things on Pinterest, and she wields the porn metaphor when she laments that “Kitchen porn, cupcake porn, bracelet porn—any kind of eye candy you can think of is probably on Pinterest, waiting for the next Pinner to covet it enough to re-pin it. People don’t go to Pinterest for articles, they go there to scrapbook every imaginable physical aspect of their dream lives, right down to the Mason jar candle holders you really hope to get around to DIY-ing for your next cocktail party. … The site is filled with images of Victoria’s Secret models wearing bikinis and other cellulite-free, idealistic bodies. Images of covetable figures and body parts often get hundreds of repins.” This frames Pinterest as a discourse fanning desire for unattainable goods, which includes everything from cheesecakes to women’s bodies.
The Frisky’s Amelia McDonnell-Parry fired back that the “real problem here is that Odell thinks these interests are silly or somehow ‘bad’ because they are, in her view, ‘retrograde and materialistic.’ … Is it somehow anti-feminist to like something visually pleasing now? Do I lose real feminist points for every throw pillow I have on my bed?” One respondent to Odell’s post seemed to more clearly capture the imaginative visual attractions of Pinterest, arguing that “I see it as the right-brainers dream come true, a world full of beautiful or interesting images that hit our pleasure centers like brain-porn. It’s a place to cultivate and fantasize, and I love to escape into Pinterest to decompress.” Tish Grier sounds a similar note on the appeal of Pinterest to its overwhelmingly female demographic when she admits that “Pinterest is a diversion from the workaday adult world into a world of fantasy and inspiration. Depictions of the possible and the impossible that fuel our daydreams and night dreams too. Pictures of stuff that we want to remember, for whatever reasons. It isn’t about winning, or losing, or gathering important information for our professional enrichment (maybe that’s why infographics don’t get repinned as much as shirtless hunks.) It’s just plain fun.”
Like most consumption, Pinterest does not express who we are as much as it expresses who we wish we could be. Pinterest is in some ways a reflection of everyday life, but in many ways it really is an imagination of lives we dream about and the way things are centrally located in those dreams. Consumer life is profoundly shaped by our individual and often-inexpressible imaginations of materiality, desires that routinely create some personal anxieties. Pinterest provides a socially affirming space to visually assemble those imagined things, displaying in an unexpressed form our material desires shared with so many others. It is worth keeping in mind, though, that such desires have genuine political and material implications that complicate—though certainly do not un-do—some of Pinterest’s genuinely self-affirming qualities, and an online community overwhelmingly composed of women provides marketers an exceptionally illuminating glimpse into women’s distinctive consumer desires.
Like many of the goods that appear on Pinterest “porn” boards, food is intimately corporeal, a thing that is part of our body much like fashion porn, shoe porn, purse porn, Lingerie Lust, and even bike porn. What actually defines desire is complicated: It seems in most iterations to invoke our deepest needs and wants and seeks consent from others, is based on pleasure, and is perpetually stimulated to be, in Rosalind Coward’s words, “sought, bought, packaged, and consumed.” This warily views the sorts of material desires fabricated on Pinterest and in broader consumer culture. By nearly every measure, Pinterest truly shares things socially between users, because over 80% of all pinned items are re-pins, and this dimension of Pinterest pins is socially meaningful. However, for marketers this means items are simply distributed in these social networks as extensions of their advertising reach, so marketers have devoted a considerable amount of attention to Pinterest. The actual degree to which Pinterest links prompt genuine purchases of specific items is difficult to measure, with one study arguing that less than 1% of purchases can be attributed to such sites, but the embrace of desire certainly is not working against consumption.
One of the most clever—and perhaps unsettling–Pinterest advertising campaigns came from Kotex, which sent packages of gifts tailored to the interests of 50 of the most prolific female pinners. Kotex concluded that Pinterest was the “ultimate social platform for self expression,” so their care packages were designed to create thousands of interactions from the original 50 gift box recipients. Pinterest allows marketers to gauge a constellation of consumer desires with potentially powerful clarity, and through Pinterest marketers reach into women’s dreams with significant power.
Pinterest food images are overwhelmingly of dishes in isolation–rather than in relation with people–which has a significant impact on the politics of Pinterest “food porn” (Tastespotting, Foodgawker, and Photograzing are similarly visual celebrations of food rather than eating; the absurdly titled tumblr page Food That Will Make You Jizz is the most overdone rhetorical example of such a page, though it is also a mute catalog of gorgeous dishes). The focus on the thing itself distinguishes Pinterest food images from the aesthetics of food shows like Nigella Lawson’s shows and books that embrace the sensuality of food, if not the label of “food porn” (compare Richard Magee’s prescient reading of Nigella Lawson). Many food advertisements in broader popular culture likewise pose people in transparently alluring relationships with food, which Roland Barthes recognized in a 1957 analysis of Elle magazine. Barthes argued that Elle’s pages of food images were“an openly dream-like cookery, as proved in fact by the photographs in Elle, which never show the dishes except from a high angle, as objects at once near and inaccessible, whose consumption can perfectly well be accomplished simply by looking. It is, in the fullest meaning of the word, a cuisine of advertisement, totally magical.”
Food and drink is the most popular category for Pinterest pins, accounting for 12.3% of all pins. Pinterest images typically depict a completed dish, fixing a moment in time at which the un-consumed food is its most enticing, aesthetic, sensual, and anticipatory. Nevertheless, Pinterest “food porn” depicts a vast breadth of absolutely idealized dishes so far removed from everyday life that they cannot possibly pose real models for consumption. Indeed, most of the “food porn” on Pinterest is consciously outside the aesthetics of culinary normality and intentionally excessive.
An array of similarly eroticized terms are grouped on Pinterest with similarly charged terms as “porn,” including lust (e.g., s’mores lust) and fetish (e.g., pancake fetish). Some cupcake lovers have even embraced calling themselves “frostitutes,” invoking a complicated ironic notion of sexual service and the consumption of bakery treats. Ironically, we often demonize genuine sexual desires in America, but we leave the door wide open to material desires. The projection of desire onto things could be interpreted as a statement of the 20th century’s enormous lack of sexual creativity. Sexual boredom might be interpreted, in Adam Phillips’ words, as “a defense against waiting, which is, at one remove, an acknowledgement of the possibility of desire” (cited in Scott Herring’s Erotic Uncreativity). Much of the projection of erotic desire onto commodities may reflect a persistent monotony awaiting the possibility of addressing sexual desire. But at the same time material desire and imagination is not simply a subconscious outlet for a sexually repressed nation, and eroticization invokes deeply held and inexpressible emotional feelings about things: imagination and escape often have no other goal than pure imagination and retreat from everyday monotony.
Marketers have long sought to entice consumers with visual appeals, many of which were eroticized, targeted at stereotypes of women, and had sexually charged symbolism projected onto the most mundane goods. One of the most clever analyses of such practice is Adam Mack’s analysis of 1930s-early 1960s supermarket marketers who consciously aspired to appeal to women’s senses, casting “the desires of women’s noses, skin and tongues (that is, desires of the `lower’ or proximate senses) as ones with a strong erotic charge.” The supermarket industry targeted “women’s base physical desires, contending that female consumption derived not from rational calculations, but rather from irrational `impulses’ encouraged by sellers who knew how to manipulate the female sensory apparatus.” Mack argues that these marketers hoped that “female consumers might fill the erotic and sexual voids of their lives through supermarket shopping,” a point that underscores the eroticization if not sexualization of something as prosaic as grocery shopping. Ideologically, consumption would “strengthen the family … by serving as an outlet for female sexual energy.”
It is charitably short-sighted to suggest that Pinterest boards are simply self-affirming embraces of gorgeous shoes, delicious cakes, and fabulous dresses or yet more evidence of our irrepressible online sociability. But at the same time Pinterest reveals the very real and consequential way many people find meaning in material things, and we might soberly ask why so many of us may seem more invested in cupcakes and footwear than global inequalities. If we look at Pinterest itself in isolation, this simply fetishizes this particular material discussion from broader discourses, and to understand Pinterest’s political, social, and material impacts we need to assess it alongside all the ways Pinterest users experience the world: If we want to understand why people are on Pinterest, facebook, or jezebel or why they project their imaginations onto things or online communities, we need to understand them away from their keyboards and respect their experiences. Divorcing things from the marketplace is reactionary, but assessing Pinterest alone without genuine ethnography of all the countless men and women who are on Pinterest and find something meaningful and important in it is equally short-sighted.
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Bike image courtesy hagbard
Foie Gras and Cauliflower Puree image courtesy Adrian Scottow
Sparkling Dinner image courtesy Brian U
Tart at the Empress image courtesy firepile