The Archaeology of Nothing: Grand Challenges and Everyday Life

Seinfeld and the "Grand Challenges" project both illuminate how we narrate human experience.

Seinfeld and the “Grand Challenges” project both illuminate how we narrate human experience.

In 2014 a panel of 25 senior scholars developed an ambitious array of “grand challenges” for archaeology (PDF), the “most important scientific challenges” that the discipline could or should address.  Their report published in American Antiquity includes a host of fascinating if astoundingly broad subjects that confidently aspire to structure how archaeologists frame a grand narrative for the archaeological past.

This month archaeology bloggers are examining the “grand challenges” in their own corners of the discipline, many of which are not addressed by the American Antiquity paper (see the hashtag #blogarch).  Inevitably such an ambitious project cannot hope to address all the questions that matter to various scholars and public constituencies, so bloggers are suggesting some questions that remain outside the panel’s grand challenges.

Much of the NSF project was greeted by a chorus complaining that the respondents to the paper’s “crowd-sourced” online surveys was demographically problematic: 79% of the respondents were from the United States; two-thirds were age 50 or older; and 62% of the respondents were male.  Observers dissatisfied with the grand challenges in the American Antiquity paper argued that the questions reflected the survey respondents and scholars who authored the final “big picture” research questions (compare Diggin’ It and SEAC Underground).

The demographic diversity and methodology for the study is worth interrogating, but what seems lost in those analyses is that many scholars are perhaps not interested in universal questions; that is, a broad range of archaeologists are not intent on crafting “grand challenges” or examining the periods, places, and questions inherited from others.  Some archaeologists’ research questions are forged with contemporary communities who are not at all interested in scholars’ grand questions; many global archaeologists’ training comes from decidedly non-anthropological traditions; and for some of us our data revolves around idiosyncratic things and subjects—in my case, that includes contemporary materiality, urban renewal, household decorative goods, and race and the color line, the prosaic dimensions of 20th– and 21st-century everyday life.

An alternative might be to actually avoid grand narratives in an archaeology that revolves around everyday life.  We might take somewhat unusual rhetorical direction from Seinfeld, the 1989-1998 television series whose narrative reveled in stories about “nothing.”  Seinfeld’s nothingness was actually tightly knit stories wound around an arsenal of counter-intuitively mundane experiences: everyday life is a wave of being lost in parking decks, contemplating bad smells, lying about ourselves, and similarly mundane experiences that have melted beyond apprehension and become funny when their absurdity is illuminated.  Even the very material culture of Seinfeld–“normcore” fashion, big salads, coffee shops, and trench coats–is utterly banal.

Seinfeld provides a suggestive framework for archaeological story-telling that revolves around the recognition of ourselves that comes from a rigorous assessment of apparently banal everyday life.  Like any narrative, Seinfeld evokes persistent themes: self-indulgence, neurotic relationships, and selfish angst emerge as a consistent, if bleak narrative thread that the series’ plotless stories refuse to speak out loud.  Seinfeld’s plotlessness evades how its picture of everyday life confronts the experiences that are consigned to unexamined banality.  It may be that at least some archaeology might be enriched by a similar focus on how and why certain experiences, desires, and practices are driven into the unexamined recesses of everyday banality.  Archaeological narratives can avoid devolving into predictably structured (if not boring and irrelevant) analyses dictated by universalizing questions and rhetorical conventions; simultaneously, they need not be reduced simply to local histories that ignore the broader social world.

The NSF project was conceived in a North American anthropological tradition that frames universal hypotheses on the breadth of human cultural experience across time and space.  That disciplinary position risks ignoring many global archaeological traditions that diverge from anthropology’s broad comparative frameworks; similarly, it hazards posing questions that are specific to archaeologists and funding agencies, which are simply irrelevant to people outside anthropological archaeology communities.  The project risks posing grand scientific questions that are just boring beyond a small circle of specialists because they are so broadly defined and routinized.  They hazard distancing archaeology from the idiosyncratic things and local contexts that make archaeology so fascinating and simultaneously political for so many people beyond the discipline.  In 2014 Diggin’ It hinted at this when she lamented that “the topics heralded in the report seem likely to further the insularism of so much of archaeology these days by emphasizing what archaeologists can discover about the past, without really emphasizing they ways in which we can contribute to current debates outside of the discipline.”

Both the blog carnival and the NSF’s Grand Challenges are at some level a rhetorical exercise forcing archaeologists to articulate what we do and why anybody should even care.  Charles Cobb’s thoughtful response to the grand challenges lamented their advocacy of “archaeology as a neutral science,” and perhaps an “archaeology of nothing” runs the risk of appearing relativistic and fixated on local details.  However, seemingly quotidian things like parking lots, urban ruins, or suburban streets fascinate us because we fathom something consequential in them that connects everyday life to compelling structural questions about color and class privilege.  “Big questions” can be valuable starting points, and we are not reading the death rites to science.  Nevertheless, fascinating archaeological questions have their roots in individual scholars’ experiences and feelings, and for many archaeologists they are based on sustained discussions with contemporary communities about what they really want to know about how their social positions were produced.  When archaeology seems to not be about us and how we came to be, it risks simply being irrelevant, and for many of us everyday life is an exceptionally rich starting point for an examination of the historical roots of the contemporary world.




Charles R. Cobb

2014 The Once and Future ArchaeologyAmerican Antiquity 79(4):589-595.  (subscription access)


Henri Lefebvre

1987    The Everyday and EverydaynessYale French Studies 73:7-11.

1991    The Critique of Everyday Life.  2nd ed.  Verso, London.

Posted on January 30, 2016, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this post! I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Wonderful post, Paul.

  1. Pingback: What do we, archaeologists, see as our grand challenges | Doug's Archaeology

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