The Archaeology of Banality: Digging Parking Lots
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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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