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In the Interim: Resistance

Books Are WeaponsIt’s very difficult to write about anything unrelated to politics, and I’ve been too angry to write about politics.

“Business as usual” no longer exists as a concept, and so I need to say this first.

A fascist has won the electoral college, and people whom I know–people whom I love–have voted for him. Hatred has beaten out common decency. Willful ignorance and misinformation has defeated sound mind and reasoning. And everyone else is too psychically injured by Hillary Clinton’s loss to recognize that democracy as we know it has been utterly destroyed. What else could you call it when the FBI and the Russian government interferes in an election? Most countries call it a coup.

So what does it matter–what does it contribute–if I write about archaeology or art or aesthetics or tourism or any of the other topics that I usually research? Do they effect social change? Do they even matter in the very different world we’re already living in, or in the very different world that is to come?

Since the election, I’ve marched and protested all over DC. I’ve gone to candlelight vigils at the White House; I’ve shouted angrily outside of the Old Post Office; and I’ve made it a point of protest to always say “The Old Post Office,” rather than acknowledge its rebranding.

I’ve given to organizations, like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, that are under attack as they fight for our greatest ideals of freedom. All of my thoughts and energy have poured into  acts of resistance and in trying to ensure that that resistance is sustainable, not just born of the angry heat of the election. But it never feels like enough.

During the last eight years I’ve considered myself engaged, and only now do I realize how spoiled and complacent and lazy I’ve been. I felt the arc of justice bending through my life, from my earliest closeted years to the moment I kissed my partner in front of the rainbow-lit White House to celebrate marriage equality.

Living in what we now suddenly call “the bubble,” as recently satirized by SNL, I attributed my personal freedoms and safety to the fact that the world had changed in my own lifetime. As William Blake described the early days of the French Revolution, before the reign of Terror, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”

Along with my friends and colleagues of varying ethnicities and nationalities, religions and orientations, we all celebrated our differences. We rejected the “colorblind” rhetoric and embraced multiculturalism, and in our joy we almost forgot that most of the country remains unchanged. As one friend, himself the child of immigrants, perfectly phrased it, we were “sheltered by our diversity.”

At the same time, I watched the acceleration of police brutality from afar and was horrified by the increasing militarization of SWAT Teams facing down citizens. I hopelessly hoped that it was the last throes of aggression before Americans pressured authorities into reforming law enforcement. I tried to speak out, quietly at first, to talk to family or friends who didn’t understand Ferguson or Baltimore or Baton Rouge. I tried to calmly explain why Black Lives Matter. But I felt too self-conscious to write about racism as a white woman who can only ever speak from a position of privilege. To everyone else, it probably sounded like silence.

***

The day after the election, Paris Review posted “Writers, Start Writing, and Other News,” a call to arms to overcome the “inborn fatalism” awakened by the election and, instead, to create and to “read as often and as violently as you can.” I began by rereading Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, which she wrote in the days and months following 9/11. I first read the book in the early months of the Obama administration, and I’m surprised and saddened by how prescient it remains. In the opening page, Butler writes, “Since the events of September 11, we have seen both the rise of anti-intellectualism and a growing acceptance of censorship within the media… independence of the media has been compromised in some unprecedented ways.” Never has that been more true than today. From there Butler goes on to describe America’s fervency to mourn white Americans but blindness to the deaths of others, the dangers of unilateral action, the violent apartheid practiced by the state of Israel against Palestine, and the unbelievable arrogance of Rudy Giuliani. Like I said, prescient.

Continuing to “read violently,” I picked up Angela Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, which opened my eyes, as never before to the systematic racial oppression of the prison industrial complex, or what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim CrowI knew that many people I admire–intellectuals and activists–protest the prison system, but when others asked, “but they’re criminals, why do they deserve activism?” I wasn’t sure how to answer.

My ignorance made me wholly complicit, as ignorance almost always does. There is a quagmire that stretches between “white guilt” and “woke,” and I’m compelled to admit my own problematic positioning.

Watching the stock prices of correctional facilities and security firms soar since the election has only made it more obvious–but still, it’s beyond my naive comprehension that so many people could be so greedy as to see incarceration of humans as a chance to make a cheap, dirty buck. Yet Black and Latino people are far more likely to be arrested, tried, and sentenced than are white people who commit the same crimes. And we are told that prisons are full of hardened and violent criminals so that nobody on the outside protests, and our newspapers and new channels don’t even dare mention the detention centers and holding cells where they imprison entire families of immigrants. Give us your tired, your weak, your hungry. We’ve got a cage waiting for them.

***

So you can understand that working through these ideas has left little room for novels or a to return to writing about archaeology or aesthetics. At the same time, that’s part of what the Paris Review post was getting at–that we have to create, that the act of creation is subversive, that art itself is subversive.

Someone posted on Facebook–and I regret that I can’t attribute the quote–but it was essentially that, right now, in this political moment, being happy is an act of resistance. We can’t abandon art or literature or science because it isn’t explicitly political. They’ve already made a political position of ignoring art and literature and science.  Reading is a political act precisely because it is the only antidote to ignorance, the cultural cancer that brought us to this place.

Many of my colleagues in the humanities–if I may still call them my colleagues–have made the strong argument that the humanities are more important than ever before, and that if we need proof, we need only look to neoliberalism’s long-standing strategy to discredit the humanities as economically nonviable. Indeed, the constant attacks by neoliberalism, and its monstrous progeny, neo-nationalism, only prove the importance of creative and intellectual work–whether that work is explicitly political, or whether it simply brings us joy.

I needed to say this, to make my position clear, as oppressors will, and already do attempt to silence us. I will address the gaps in my own knowledge and experience, and I will use whatever privilege I have as a platform to speak out against injustice, but I will also write about aesthetics, about art, about music, not as if nothing has happened, but precisely because something has happened.

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Wonderful Things

EgyptGroup

L-R: Richard Bethall, Arthur Callender, Lady Evelyn, Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Arthur Lucas

Howard Carter went to Egypt in 1902 at the age of 17. Though his family was not particularly wealthy, they had connections and secured Carter a job as an artist with the Egypt Exploration Fund, an organization co-founded by the famed travel writer and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards.

Howard_carterAmong his belongings, Carter packed art supplies, books, and a small chisel, a birthday gift from his grandmother. After a few years of hard work and gaining an impressive grasp of Egyptian history and culture, both ancient and contemporary, Carter began leading excavations with modest success and, it must be said, a few public and humiliating missteps. While still a teenager, Carter discovered and excavated the tombs of Thutmose II and Thutmose III. By the time he found the tombs, however, they had already been plundered hundreds, if not thousands, of years before.

carnarvon6Carter had been in Egypt for only five years when he was introduced to Lord Carnarvon, a wealthy English aristocrat who was born and raised at Highclere Castle, though his ancestral home is better known in popular imagination as Downton Abbey (The downstairs scenes are filmed on a London set, because the lower levels of Highclere house Egyptian artifacts). Carnarvon hired Carter to lead his expedition in part because he appreciated Carter’s interdisciplinary approach, which melded art and science with a deep respect for Egyptian culture. Rather than digging haphazardly and destructively, as many archaeologists did, Carter drew grids on a map, quartered them into smaller triangles, and methodically moved–or, rather, had his workers move–dirt and rubble from one grid to another, working through triangle by triangle. The grid method was practiced extensively in art but, at the time, wasn’t used in digs. This would prove to be the missing piece to solving the mystery of the Valley of the Kings. But they would have to wait.

Permits were required to excavate in Egypt, and for years, the only permit to dig in The Valley of the Kings was held by Theodor Davis and Edward Ayrton. Time after time, Davis and Ayrton thought they had found Tut’s tomb, but they always came up empty handed. They successfully found several major sites, but they were disappointed that the tomb of the then-little-known king Tutankhamen always alluded them. It was only after they ran out resources, enthusiasm, and, they thought, places to look, that the men finally relinquished the permit. In his 1912 book The Tombs of Harmhabi and Touatankhamanou, Davis declared the valley to be “exhausted.”

CarterCarnarvonCarter was still convinced, and somehow managed to keep Carnarvon convinced, that the tomb of the boy king was still out there, hidden somewhere in the rubble of a hundred digs. With Davis out of the picture, Carter was able to obtain the permit to dig in the Valley of the Kings, and dig he did, and he kept digging for seven years, working alongside his close collaborators Arthur Mace and Arthur Callendar and a team of hundreds of Egyptian men and young boys whose backs were broken and whose names are lost to history. They found objects here and there, but no signs of a tomb, as square after square of Carter’s grid was crossed out. All the while, they ignored the skeptics and voices in their head insisting that Davis and Ayrton had already cleaned the Valley dry, down to the bedrock.

Then the war happened.

From 1914 – 1917, Carter remained in Egypt, working as a translator for the British government, probably dreaming of the day he could leave the bureaucratic office for good and get back into the sand. Finally, victory was declared, Germany was defeated, Carter reassembled his team, and Carnarvon continued bankrolling the project. But by 1922, Carnarvon had run out of enthusiasm too, and with the post-war economy still lagging, he was increasingly worried about the financial strain. He gave Carter one more season.

Carter was worried, but he could feel that he was close. On November 1, 1922, Carter commenced his last season of excavation, starting where the previous year’s dig had left off, excavating not around the other archaeological sites, as Davis had done, but under the ancient ruins of huts built to house the workers that built the tomb of Ramses II. After five more days, Carter found it–the entrance to a tomb covered in plaster and royal seals. Worried that someone would open the tomb before he had the chance, he and his men covered the entrance with rubble, and Carter telegraphed Lord Carnarvon in England. And then he waited.

Carter also wired Arthur Callendar, whom he trusted would help in the excavation, and procured donkeys, camels, and other supplies needed to begin removing rubble and fully open the tomb. Finally, nearly three weeks later, on November 24, 1922, Lord Carnarvon arrived inEgypt. The rubble around the entrance was cleared, and they noticed the first distressing signs that they were perhaps not the first to discover the tomb. The plaster wall covering the entrance of the tomb had large patches that were a difficult color and clearly a different age. The tomb had likely been disturbed, as so many others, robbed and resealed.

CarterandLCInTombUnder the close supervision of the Chief Inspector of the Antiquities Department, a measure required by law, Carter and his men opened the first doorway, breaking through the seals covered with the cartouche of Tutankhamen. Behind the door was a passage, filled from ground to ceiling with rubble and rubbish, making it clear that someone didn’t want this tomb to be disturbed. As reassuring as that fact was, the rubbish filling the passage included pottery, stonework, jar seals, and shards of funerary objects from other pharaohs before and after Tutankhamen’s. Carter began to believe that this was not a tomb at all, but a royal cache, a hiding place for treasure that had been used for centuries, opened and resealed time and time again. If this was true, they could find a storehouse of treasures or an empty pit; either way, they wouldn’t find the tomb. Finally, they reached the end of the long, descending passage and found another doorway.

Like the first doorway, the second also showed signs of broken seals and patchy plaster work. Someone had been here before, and there was no way to know if the doors lead to empty rooms except to keep pressing on, half expecting to find another passageway filled with rubbish. By this time, Carter was joined in the passage by Lord Carnarvon and his 21 year-old daughter, Lady Evelyn, a woman who had joined the obsessive quest for most of her life.

Using the chisel his grandmother had given him for his 17th birthday, Carter, now a man of 48, made a small hole in the upper left corner of the sealed door. He wrote in his journal, “Candles were procured–the all important tell-tale for foul gases when opening an ancient subterranean excavation.” The candle flickered as hot air, trapped in the tomb for thousands of years, rushed out. Something was behind the doorway. Maybe it was the tomb that had consumed Carter’s days and nights and years. Maybe it was only an empty room.

Carter widened the hole, just enough room to allow his eye and the faint light from the candle dance around the room. Behind him, Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn grew impatient. “Can you see anything?” Carnarvon asked.

“Yes,” Carter replied. “Wonderful things.”

 

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Summer Suits and Straw Hats: Poirot, Agatha Christie, and Archaeology

Poirot
With a somewhat smaller budget than Indiana Jones and, admittedly, a much smaller fan-base, the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989 – 2013), starring David Suchet, masterfully captures an imaginative sense of time and space. Whether the murder happens in a manor houses or an archaeological dig, the 1920s and 30s look far more stylish on screen than they perhaps ever did in reality, even for the most wealthy aesthetes.

In the episodes set in Egypt (“Death on the Nile,” “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”), Iraq (“Murder in Mesopotamia”), or Syria (“Appointment with Death” though the book is set at Petra), Poirot typically wears a three-piece summer suit in varying shades of sandstone, a straw homburg, and a small lapel pin shaped like a vase with flowers, which is as much of a trademark as his waxed mustache.

AgathaandMaxPoirot’s dapper attire is not so unlike the sartorial sensibilities of Sir Max Mallowan, renown English archaeologist and second husband of Agatha Christie. Her first marriage, to Archibald Christie, had ended badly, with her husband’s infidelity followed by her own mysterious disappearance. Afterwards, and perhaps to escape the scandal, Christie went on an extensive tour of Mesopotamia, or present-day Iraq. It was at Ur, famous for its ziggurat and as the birthplace of Abraham, that she met Mallowan. They were married from 1930 until her death in 1976, and their decades of travel together, and her close involvement with excavations, informs Christie’s novels and, to a lesser extent, the television series.

But the novels aren’t really about archaeology, and even Christie’s Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir uses archaeology as a metaphor for digging in the past rather than treating it as a subject matter. She writes in the preface, “A final warning, so that there will be no disappointment. This is not a profound book–it will give you no interesting sidelights on archaeology, there will be no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economical problems, no racial reflections, no history.” This kind of disclaimer is standard boiler-plate language for any woman writing a non-fiction book in the early twentieth century: women must remind their readers that they are not real experts in the field. Their books aren’t scientific or factual. They’re not male writers, after all. Instead, women writers often stress subjectivity and, of course, modesty.

Poirot is Christie’s alterego, the male subject through which she can be clever, egotistical, and above all classy. The television series doesn’t just do a great job of conveying the glamour of the novels, in many ways, the show creates the glamour. Even the episodes that seem the most dated–those filmed in the late 80s and early 90s–are still remarkably elegant. Regardless of however remote the locale, the characters still enjoy buffet breakfasts and dress for dinner. Their tents are arranged with furniture, their furniture with knickknacks, for what I believe the youths call glamping. 

AppointmentWithDeath
Appointment with Death starring Elizabeth McGovern, John Hannah, Tim Curry, Mark Gatiss, and David Suchet

On this point, the set designers weren’t too far from the truth. British tourists in Egypt were urged by their guidebooks to pack any luxury they might not be able to acquire in Egypt. A few generations before Poirot, John Murray recommended that readers of his 1847 Handbook for Travellers in Egypt pack or purchase several long, onion-skin pages worth of goods, including (but by no means limited to): iron bedsteads, brooms, sheets, pillows, gridirons, potatoes, salt, pepper, butter, flower, macaroni, washing tub, tents, saddles and bridles, a telescope, two sheets of Mackintosh, and an iron rat-trap if travelling by boat.

By the early 1900s, guidebooks recommended packing lighter, but definitely include English clothes, several hundred books, and photographic materials, but everything else could be purchased either in Cairo or Alexandria. That didn’t stop the tourists who could afford it from packing their refrigerators. Literally. Their refrigerators. As late as 1926, Vita Sackville-West wrote, “My own luggage had increased considerably…I had acquired a gramophone, an ice-box, and and a large canvas bag which took the overflow of my books. The gramophone and ice-box I had accepted in Cairo to save them from being thrown into the Nile; as they had already travelled with forty-seven other pieces of luggage over Tibet on the backs of yaks, I thought it a pity they should not continue their career.” I’ve always wondered how many gramophones you could find at the bottom of the Nile.
***
As Poirot’s props and problematic baggage go, perhaps none are as ubiquitous, but insignificant to the narrative, as the local population. In the archaeology episodes,  we see the (almost always male) locals in three classic aesthetic models: large crowds of manual laborers or diggers to add a sense of sublime scale to the digs; the simple rustic to add a sense of the picturesque; or the shadowy figure to add intrigue. These are the same archetypes used throughout British travel literature. In other words, locals are simply racial stereotypes, used as props and plot devises to push along the narratives of the largely Anglo ensemble. In order to buy into the romance of archaeology, we must ignore the fact that it is (or at least was) largely a colonial project, and that the discoveries we praise would not be possible without the invisible labor of the local population. In order for the fantasy to work, we must excise the problematic aspects that make us uncomfortable.

At least part of the show’s aesthetic originates in its source material, but Christie’s novels give us very little setting (but ample racism!) to work from. Christie is great at dialogue (though some of the best lines in the show, as when Dr. Leidner says in “Murder in Mesopotamia, “All I ever wanted to do was dig in the earth and find the secrets that time has buried there,” never appear in the books), but her descriptions of place are rather sparse. This might be surprising given the show’s lush sets, but Christie’s novels are very much of their time and genre. Popular fiction after World War I abandoned the rich detail associated with Victorian literature; instead, Christie’s novels read almost like plays–there is plenty of dialogue, a few stage directions, and everything else is just backdrop. The ITV series works so well because, as paradoxical as it might seem, the modern television camera sees the world through a strangely Victorian eye–every detail is captured, every object is in focus, and every textile preserves its texture.
***
I’ve said before that nothing captures the imagination like a well-articulated aesthetic. That, I believe, is the first axiom for explaining the relationship between imagination and aesthetics. My second axiom is that imagination is activated by visual stimuli: the more details we can see, the more believable that environment is, and the more easily we can imagine ourselves within it. One corollary to this axiom (to continue with the geometric language) is that we erase any (or at least most) details that make us uncomfortable or unpleasantly complicit. We have to acknowledge the fact that our idealization of archaeology in the early twentieth century is closely related to nostalgia–we only remember what we want to remember–and nostalgia is frequently only accessible via white privilege. When these rules are followed by films such as the Indiana Jones trilogy (Let’s just forget Crystal Skull exists.) and tv shows like Poirot, the spatio-temporal effect appeals to us on such a visceral level that we cannot even imagine archaeology without superimposing our favorite scenes.
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Archaeology and Indiana Jones in the Popular Imagination

Indiana6
In popular culture, when we imagine archaeology, we inevitably think of Indiana Jones. Sexy, glamorous, and hyper-masculine–Indiana Jones is archaeology’s Platonic ideal. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas famously modeled the character on James Bond, but instead of ink-pen bombs, umbrella guns, and such gadgets, Indiana Jones used something even more powerful–his expansive knowledge of mythology, ancient history, and dead languages. It’s not surprising that the franchise inspired millions of bookish kids to pay attention in history class.

If I wanted an Indiana Jones costume–and yes, females can dress as Indiana Jones, too–I could go out for the whole kit: khakis, boots, leather jacket, satchel, whip, and of course, the fedora.  In fact, all you really need to recognize Indiana Jones as Indiana Jones is the hat. That one sign enacts and entire mythology around the character and evokes a geography of mysterious ruins from the Mayan pyramids to Petra. We see the fedora, and, instantly, we can’t get John Williams’s theme out of our heads because, I have to admit, aesthetics are not entirely visual.

I’ve always assumed that the stereotype must be frustrating to actual archaeologists, but apparently that’s not the case. Marilyn Johnson writes in Lives in Ruins: Archaeology and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, “Every archaeologist I interviewed worked Indiana Jones into the conversation, usually with affection, as if mentioning a daredevil older brother….Archaeology department costume parties double as Indiana Jones Conventions. ‘For whatever reason,’ one female grad student confided, ‘the guys all own fedoras and whips'” (129).  It’s not an altogether bad problem to have. Jones was also a history professor, but that profession never enjoys the same cultural cache. Maybe they should throw more costume parties. But I guess archaeologists deserve something for all their hard work, since they rarely reap their reward in adventure, fortune, and glory. So let them have the cool hat.

While some signs are easy to recognize and read, other elements of aesthetic languages aren’t so easily translated. We might feel that something captures our imagination, but can’t say precisely what it is–there’s just something about the look or feel of a movie or photograph that makes us want to enter into that world.

For Indiana Jones, it might be the films’ neo-noir tone. Aesthetically, the Indiana Jones films look like a hybrid of Maltese Falcon and Boris Karloff-esque horror, with a little comic-book DNA thrown in for fun. It’s clearly pulling from a range of influences, from 1930s serials to 1950s action films, to frame-by-frame recreations of  Scrooge McDuck comic books. My own favorite Ur-Indy is a tossup between Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Charleston Heston in The Secret of the Incas (1954), in which Heston’s character searches for gold at Machu Picchu, romances the beautiful woman on the run, steals airplanes, and delivers sardonic one-liners. Oh, yes, and he wears this:
HestonBut there’s something else too, something that can’t quite be defined, something you can’t put your finger on, and at least a part of that has to do with how we imagine time. One of the films’ strengths is its periodization. Spielberg and Lucas could have set the films in the 1980s, but instead they chose the 1930s–the heyday of archaeology. On a practical level, the films are far less dated than they would have been had if set in 1981, but it’s also part of the films’ imaginative pull. Aesthetics often depend upon a fantasy of time travel. But, of course, Indiana Jones isn’t really set in the 1930s, it’s set in an imaginary, hyper-aestheticized 1930s, something we could describe as spatio-temporal aesthetics or, to draw on Bakhatin, chronotopic aesthetics. These aesthetics have permeated culture so deeply that we can’t even imagine archaeology or Egyptology, for that matter, without seeing through the mist of Indiana Jones.

***

GrailNotebookLast summer, the National Geographic Museum here in Washington, DC opened an exhibit called Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology. It featured an array of artifacts from all of the world–some of which I will discuss more in future posts–along with a lot of costumes, props, and art from the films. Fans of The Last Crusade will recognize the photo to the right as Henry Jones, Sr.’s Grail Notebook, and the picture below (taken by Flickr user Mary Harrsch) is concept art for the Venetian library scene. You can find more photos from the exhibit here.

Until next time, you can fantasize about researching in this painting.

Indiana Jones Library

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Things That Capture

UnbrokenSeal

The heat was already unbearable, despite the early morning hour. It took too much effort to speak, so they sat in silence, protected from the scorching sun by a thick, canvas tent. Its striped sides were rolled up and fastened at the top with leather straps, allowing a slight breeze to blow through. Whenever unexpected gusts swept over the dunes, all three faces turned instinctively away from the stinging shower of sand.

After years of digging, both men had grown accustomed to the climate and barely noticed the sweat seeping through the vests of their linen suits. But every time they tasted salt in their mustaches or felt the tightening pressure of stiff collars and neckties, they asked again if she was sure she was alright. Someone could drive her back to the hotel in Cairo. She always said no. She was only 21, and made of younger, if not tougher, stuff than her father and his chief excavator. The temperature was excruciating under layer upon feminine layer of her white frock, but the anticipation, the waiting, was so much worse.

The distant clanging stopped abruptly. As muffled voices outside the tent grew louder, the men looked at each other nervously. A small boy, or at least it must have been a boy under the dirt-encrusted face, ran  towards the tent, shouting in Arabic. The younger man jumped to his feet, reaching for the pith helmet nearby. “It’s time,” he said. “They’ve found the entrance.” This was the moment Howard Carter had waited for his entire life.

***

Does it really matter now–92 years later–what really happened the day Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb? As a scholar, I’d say, “yes.” We have diaries and letters, first-person accounts and newspaper clippings. We could and should comb through the archive to reconstruct and preserve history. But this post isn’t necessarily about history–that is, it isn’t exclusively about history. It’s also about imagination–how we, as a culture, if we can even talk about singular culture, imagine and re-imagine the past. More specifically, it’s about how imagine the past, the stories and topics that make me curious.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Strand Bookstore in New York City. As usual, I found a lot of books that I wanted to read, but I was looking for something in particular. I wanted a book about archaeology, something I could learn a lot from, but I didn’t want another dry textbook-like tome. I wanted something that was serious and scholarly, but read like a novel. No matter how long or where I searched, I couldn’t find the specific book I had in mind because, just maybe, it hasn’t been written yet. That realization is undoubtedly the germ of more than a few research projects, including this one.

Beato SphynxAs an inveterate list-maker, I keep a running list of books I want to read or topics I want to research. I started vaguely and loosely grouping the subtopics under ten to twelve umbrella terms, and when I stepped back and looked at the list, which ranges from archaeology to urban design, the recurring theme was obvious–they are all thing that capture my imagination and that I find aesthetically interesting.

The phrase “visual imagination” is something of a neoplasm, a redundancy. Imagination is inherently visual. We imagine, we dream, and we understand the world around us as a series of rapidly moving images, like a cartoon flipbook or zeotrope. Even the metaphors we use to describe imagination are optic: We talk of seeing with our mind’s eye. From there, it is not too far of a stretch to say that we understand the world as a succession of signs, for what are signs after all, but images that encourage interpretation, consciously or otherwise. In other words, imagination is semiotic, and life is the practice of collecting signs that help us understand the world and our experience within it. As we group signs together, we are not just creating sign systems, but, I’d argue, we are also constructing aesthetic models. What really captures the imagination is a well-articulated aesthetic.

Egypt_Hieroglyphe4I hope that over the course of the next few months I’m able to research and dig deeper into the aesthetics and semiotics of visual imagination. I do not attempt a comprehensive study of each topic, and this project isn’t bound by all the normal rules of academic publishing. It’s not peer reviewed. It won’t get me tenure. It’s tangentially related to scholarly articles that I’ve published in the past or hope to soon, but I’m not feverishly paranoid that they’ll be scooped from underneath me before my monograph is finished.  It’s an experiment, of sorts, in public digital humanities. I could give you a lofty disclaimer that I want to engage with these topics publicly and transparently, away from the shadows of the neoliberal university system. And that’s true. But this is more about my love of the topics, an insatiable curiosity, and the pleasure of learning and writing.

I don’t have to (and probably won’t) come to any grand conclusions. If I’m lucky, I might stumble across a theory or model about how the visual imagination works, or the relationship between nostalgia and imagination. But at its core, this is a very subjective and, admittedly, selfish project. I hope it might interest you as well.

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Cabinet of Curiosities: August (I’m Getting Old) Edition

WaitressI might have mentioned before that my partner is kind of the best at surprises, especially birthday surprises. I mean, she can’t keep them to save her life, but, boy, can she plan them. That flying lesson I mentioned before? That was my gift last year. The year before that, it was a trip to Vegas to see Céline Dion. That one didn’t turn out quite as planned, but it’s the thought, right?

This year’s birthday surprise was a trip to New York to see Waitress, the Tony-nominated musical written by Sara Bareilles. I hadn’t consciously planned to see the show anytime soon, but I had somehow subconsciously avoided listening to the soundtrack or watching the the 2007 Keri Russell movie because I didn’t want to spoil the story.

It was worth the wait. The music, the cast, the smell of pie that permeates the entire show–it was all fantastic.

No pressure for next year, honey.

Music

She Used to Be Mine – Jessie Meuller

Not to give too much away, but this is the big ballad in the show. The protagonist, Jenna (played by Jessie Meuller) has recently found out that she’s pregnant. You’ll get that from the torso-grabbing, but it’s important context for the song. If you want to write a compare and contrast essay, you can also listen to Sara Bareilles’s version. I have listened to both versions a million times this month, and I refuse to choose.

She Use to Be Mine – Sara Bareilles

Books
LivesRuinsIn her book Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, Marilyn Johnson gives a wide-angle view of different ways of studying and practicing archaeology. She talks to classical archaeologists in famous sites from Cyprus to Peru; she has a chapter on maritime archaeology and the hunt for Captain Cook’s ship HMS Endeavor, sitting somewhere in the waters off Rhode Island. There’s a chapter about archaeologists who work on construction sites when something is accidentally uncovered, archaeologists that work with the military to protect cultural sites during conflict, and forensic archaeologists that investigate crimes or recover human remains. There are lengthy and haunting descriptions of the archaeologists that worked Ground Zero. 

The recurring theme of the book is that archaeology isn’t as glamorous as it is in the movies. There’s no fame, fortune, or glory. Johnson reminds us over and over again that there are few jobs for archaeologists and very little pay for those that do find jobs. So basically, being and archaeologist is like having a PhD in English except you get to travel.

Johnson’s book is well-researched, well-written, and she went on quite a lot of digs and spent time with people who have broken their backs for decades so that we could find and preserve sites.

TV

Crazy Ex Girlfriend
This show is delightful. You might have noticed (see above) that I really love musicals, and this show has a lot of great numbers like Where’s the Bathroom? and Sexy Getting Ready Song. The show’s not afraid to go to really uncomfortable places or show bodies that look like ordinary bodies.

Food
Rosemarys
Best meal I’ve had out in a long time–Rosemary’s in Greenwich Village. It’s my new favorite place in NYC. If you go, check out the rooftop garden.

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Cabinet of Curiosities: July Flew By! Edition

July has flown by–see what I did there?–and it’s hard to believe it’s been a month since the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum hosted an all-night party to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The photo above, of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was taken at about 4 o’clock in the morning, after a two-hour, fast-paced scavenger hunt. It was a great way to explore the collection, play a game, and learn a few things all at the same time. I was surprised to see so many families there with small children, but it’s just the sort of thing my parents would have done.

I grew up in the middle of nowhere, where every star in the sky seemed visible. Twice a year for the Perseid meteor shower in August and the Leonids in November, we’d all go to bed early and wake up at 2 or 3 am. We’d make hamburgers or sandwiches, drive out to a nearby field and have a picnic on top of our old van while we watched the meteors zooming across the sky. My parents knew how to do fun, magical things that most parents would probably disapprove of.

FlyingAir and Space is one of my favorite museums because it combines my love and nostalgia for stars with my all-out geekery for airplanes. I’ve been obsessed with all things Amelia Earhart (except Hillary Swank movies) for as long as I can remember, and still dream of someday getting a pilot’s license. Last year for my birthday, my partner bought me a single flying lesson. My instructor, one of the coolest humans I’ve ever met, said I was a natural. Yes, I know he says that to all his students, but he let me actually take the plane off, from sitting still on the runway to G-force climbs over Maryland. That was one of the best days of my life.

But back to this year.

Music

There were a few songs I listened to on repeat in July, including Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On, thanks to the amazing “Carpool Karaoke” with Michelle Obama. And then there is this earworm:

Books
It’s dangerous to even start writing about what I’ve read in the past month. I often fantasize about doing Brainpickings-esque reviews after I finish books, but let’s just assume that for right now I don’t have the time, and I’ll never do it half as well as Maria Popova anyway.

OliverIf you’re looking for a book that makes you say, “Man, I haven’t lived!” Oliver Sacks’s autobiography On the Move is just the thing. First of all, it has this picture of hunky Oliver Sacks straddling a motorcycle and looking Cool AF on the cover.

On the Move is a series of vignettes arranged more or less chronologically, starting with his first coming out experience through his years as a med student, avid motorcyclist, one-time de facto doctor for Hell’s Angels, record-breaking weight-lifter, psychotropic drug abuser, cross-country hitch-hiker/trucker (sort of), documentarian, award winning science writer, and ground breaking neurologist.

It’s difficult to say which is more impressive, Sacks’s long list of neurological discoveries or his prolific writing career. He was, as he writes in the On the Move, “a storyteller, for better and for worse.”  He wrote constantly, obsessively, filling thousands of notebooks and journals over the course of his life, and even more patient files. Beyond his most famous medical works, Awakenings,  MusicophiliaMigraine, Hallucinations, The Man that Mistook His Wife for Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, etc., Sacks also wrote for the The New York Review of Books, travel articles for National Geographic, and a wide range of publications on an even wider range of topics.  

Sacks wrote simply because he loved writing: “The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.” I wonder, as I read this passage, if I have ever enjoyed writing that much. So often it feels more like a brutal compulsion.

In July, I also read Sara Bareilles’s charming autobiography Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song and finally finished (after a long, emotional break) Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. For weeks, I’ve tried really hard to put words to all of my feelings and thoughts about Coates’s book, which is moving, heartbreaking, infuriating, angstful, beautiful, important. I can’t quite get there and doubt I ever will. Do yourself a favor and read it if you haven’t.

TV
StrangerThings
Me and everyone else on earth, right?

When I first started Stranger Things, I wasn’t really sure about it. I watched the first few minutes during a lunch break, half distracted by a bowl of soup, and it just felt like it was trying so hard to be Spielberg and trying even harder to appeal to the nostalgia of 35 year old men. I just didn’t think I could get into it. Then everyone started talking about it, and well, you know what a follower I am… Suddenly, I couldn’t stop watching it, and I still can’t stop thinking about it.

App/Tech

Click image for a review of Cook Serve Delicious.

I beg of you, do not play this game. If you have children to take care of, animals to feed, a job to go to, or anything important to do, I repeat, do not play this game. It appeals to the three things I love most in life: food, cooking, and an insatiable drive to get to the next level of pointless video games.

Food

Ingredients for Fried Green Tomato Sandwiches

Speaking of food, my life has been forever changed. At the urging of and with a coupon from a close friend, I signed up for Blue Apron. Now you can find me most any day in your local park with a megaphone and pamphlets.

It’s $60 per week for 3 meals for 2 people. (Family-sized plans are also available.) You put in your dietary restrictions (my partner/ sous-chef is a pescatarian), and they send you three meals with recipes and fresh ingredients. My box arrives every Friday afternoon, but unwrapping it feels like Christmas morning. All of the little ingredients, like perfectly proportioned pinches of spice and tiny table-spoon-sized bottles of vinegar, come in small “knickknack” paper bags, which I prefer to think of as stockings. My brother-in-law said, “They tell you what to eat and when to eat it? And it changed your life? That’s called a cult.” Who’s part of the cult now, buddy?

So I spent most of July ‘Gramming my Apron. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite meals.

Fried Green Tomato Sandwich and Potato Salad

Eggplant Tagine and Couscous

Summer Squash Quesadillas with Corn on the Cob with Lime Crema

Bhindi Masala with Basmati Rice, Paneer, Naan, and Cucumber Raita

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Cabinet of Curiosities: June Edition

Cabinet of Curiosities by Domenico Remps

Cabinet of Curiosities by Domenico Remps

Around the turn of the eighteenth century, a physician named Sir Hans Sloane began collecting interesting objects from his travels or buying them from other collectors. He amassed an important collection of antiques books and prints, ancient Egyptian artifacts, unusual fossils and animal skeletons, rare coins, and other items for his Cabinet of Curiosities, as gentlemen of the Enlightenment often called their hobby of collecting. At Sloane’s death in 1751, he bequeathed more than 70,000 items to found the British Museum. In a similar origin story, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University began as a Cabinet of Curiosities collected by Elias Ashmole.

I’ve never been one for collecting, aside from books, and even there, I can’t call myself a book collector. But I am an inveterate list-maker, which I realize sets me apart from absolutely no one, though perhaps my level of obsession makes me a curiosity, in a way. I collect notebooks full of lists, with different notebooks for different lists because I don’t want my inspiring “List of places I want to visit someday” to be tainted by its proximity to “List of unpleasant things I have to do today,” like wrangle with my insurance company or contest extra cable charges. I’ve written before about my notebook of favorite cheeses, and I have one for favorite wines. I also collect a wide variety of apps, websites, and specialty items to track my lists. At work, I use Freedcamp for project management, and for downtime, I use Goodreads to keep my brain stimulated.

Not surprisingly, I am both drawn to and appalled by that most ubiquitous of internet genres, the listicle. I avoid any clickbait, Buzzfeedy “top ten” articles. Number 7 never shocks me, and I always feel bad about myself for falling for it. But I love anyone’s list of books, be it favorite books or recently read books (see Goodreads above), and most music-related lists, even for genres I don’t particularly like. And if there’s one thing I cannot get enough of it’s the round-up, where people share their favorite random things of the week, month, or year. One of my favorite food and travel blogs, The Funnelogy Channel, does a monthly “FunnelWorthy List,” in which bloggers Gabriella and Nicolas share the best recipes, recent books, favorite articles, or stuff they’ve collected from around the internet. I look forward to their new list every month.

Fans of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast will be familiar with the “What’s Making Us Happy” segment, in which the panelists close the show with a discussion of their favorite songs, books, tv shows, news, etc. from the week. That’s always been my favorite segment.

As life has an unfaltering way of filling with stress and anxiety, I’m increasingly taken with the idea that little things, like a song you can’t stop singing or a new movie you can’t wait to see, can make us happy. And when things get tough, and the world seems grim, it’s more important than ever to concentrate on those things, big or small, that make up happiness. So without any rhyme or reason, here’s a list of things I’ve collected over the
past month, the things that make me happy and the things that make me curious.

Music
So here’s some music from Monika. I dare you not to dance.

 

Here’s another on repeat: Bishop Brigg’s River.

Books

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

I’ve read a lot of Susan Sontag this year, and she’s probably the writer that I not only read the most, but also engage with the most–my marginalia covers nearly as much of the page as her text. The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott has been one of my favorites because it’s so meandering and conversational. Sontag and Cott cover a lot of ground, and on points where Sontag tends to grow vague or esoteric, Cott pushes her to define her position or explain her often dismissive comments.

Two other books I really enjoyed reading this month was Eric Larson’s Dead Wake and Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code. Larson’s research is always thorough, and his narrative is often as poetic and engaging as a novelist’s. Fox’s book, though a quick and interesting read, certainly isn’t the best writing, though she’s the obituary writer for the New York Times. Most of the information about the cracking of Linear B, the oldest written language in Europe, seems taken directly from A Very English Geniusthe BBC’s documentary about Michael Ventris, the man who finally deciphered Linear B. However, one thing Fox adds that nearly every other historian leaves out (unsurprisingly) is the central importance of Alice Kober, the woman whose work laid the foundation for Ventris’s discovery. She is the Rosalind Franklin of Linear B, and, like Franklin, may have made the crucial discovery herself, but she passed away from cancer at a young age. It’s an easy, fast, and fascinating read, but doesn’t stack up against Lesley Adkins’s The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Crack the Hieroglyph Code, upon which Riddle seems to be modeled.

Currently reading, um, a few things, but mostly this.

Food
I probably cooked pasta with fried lemon and chili flakes five times in June. It’s bright and refreshing, with just the right balance of heat, like summer should be.

Fried Lemon Spaghetti with Chili Flakes

TV
I’ve been pretty disappointed in TV this year. All of the shows that I looked forward to for a year–Orange is the New BlackKimmy SchmittChef’s Table, Grace and Frankie–were all just meh. There were great episodes of each (except maybe G&F), but on a whole, the latest season of these shows have been collectively humdrum. I did really enjoy The Night Manager, which I’ve heard got mixed reviews. Also, I burned through The Sixties (don’t let the CNN-affiliation scare you away) on Netflix.

Interwebs/Tech
Fun app recommendation: Garden Answers lets you take pictures of plants, and then it tells you what they are. It’s like having a gramma in your pocket. This is how I know that the beautiful and sweet smelling flower I saw in Georgetown is, unfortunately, named “Confederate Jasmine.”

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Two Pieces at the Outwin Prize Exhibit

Amy Sherald's Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)

Amy Sherald’s Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)

Aside from The Renwick Gallery’s current “Wonder” show, no other exhibit in DC has gained as much attention this year as the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portraiture Competition. If the expressionless face of Miss Everything (Unsupressed Deliverance) staring at you from above an over-sized teacup looks familiar, it’s probably because you’ve already seen it in half a dozen Instagram posts. The winning portrait, by Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald, has already become a fan favorite. Sherald’s painting represents a duality of experience and identity: the two halves of the dress, that keep the eye moving back and forth between the panels; the contrast of blue and red; the double meaning of the name–is the woman Miss Everything, or do we, the spectators, miss (v.) everything (collective n.)?

As a body of work, Sherald’s portraits draw attention to race by removing color altogether from her subject’s bodies, painting them in gray, setting the features off from the bright, primary backgrounds. Sherald writes on her website, “My work began as an exploration to exclude the idea of color as race from my paintings by removing ‘color’ but still portraying racialized bodies as objects to be viewed through portraiture.” Her paintings make you not just self-aware, but self-conscious of your position. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes that, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at…aware of being seen by a spectator.” Miss Everything is double-objectified, a black woman presented as the object of an assumed (white? male?) spectator while she stares back, neither defiant, nor complacent, but simply ambivalent.

Without a doubt, Miss Everything (Unsupressed Deliverance) is worthy of the Outwin Prize, and its sudden propulsion into social media fame. But the piece I haven’t stopped thinking about is the one I almost didn’t see at all. I entered the space with eyes darting expectantly from wall to wall, searching for the blue dress and red flower from Sherald’s painting, and barely noticed what I mistook as signage for the exhibit. I walked right underneath it. I didn’t glance up.

Viajero 1Unlike the two dimensional portraits that hang flush against the wall, mixed-media artist Adrián ‘Viajero’ Román’s Caja De Memoria Viva II: Constancia Colon Clemente is a large, bottomless box dangling from the ceiling in the middle of the room. The visitor approaches from its side, seeing a swirling mass of charcoal, a seemingly abstract form on a wooden surface. Then vaguely, gently, you begin to notice an ear, an earring, and stepping towards the corner of the box, another image appears. Depending on which way you step, you’re either looking at a black and gray braided knot, or, stepping the other way, the face of Constancia Colon Clemente, the artist’s grandmother. The face swells and sags with age and, possibly, a stroke–the left eye is almost completely closed, the corner of the mouth pinched, while the right side pulls into a subtle smile. Light from inside the box shines through her face, and catches on the long, white hairs patched around her mouth and chin. The texture of the wood surface is, in some places, visible beneath the charcoal skin, and in others, completely indistinguishable.

Viajero 2As you approach the portrait, the interior opens up beneath the box, revealing the story of a woman’s life. Old photographs, sales receipts, and ephemera are attached by small, wooden clothes hangers, themselves suspended from unraveling twine zigzaging across the top of the box.  The light, which makes the face so alive with life, glows yellow like a half-remembered dream, bouncing off the smooth surfaces of photographs, a tin can nailed to the wall, a cup, a candle in a glass jar. The interior walls are decorated with small, diamond patterns, like old wallpaper, and set off by a small door that marks the domesticity of the space.

Many of the objects are readable as signs of personal and cultural memory. A handmade wooden cross hangs near a rusty horseshoe, Christianity and superstition, not on opposite walls, as one might expect, but inches apart. Their spatial and symbolic proximity hints at centuries of syncretism. Other objects tell the story of a childhood long since passed. Tattered baby shoes hang from their strings, and all over the walls are artifacts of a childhood narrated by someone else–a cloth mammy doll, blackface children’s comic books, a grotesque with exaggeratedly racialized features. This is how white colonialism has told her story until it seeped inside and affixed itself as self-identification. The accumulation of these things, along with the tear-shaped mask nearby, evokes Frantz Fanon, who wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “Whether he likes it or not, the black man [or woman, or child] has to wear the livery the white man has fabricated for him.” Fanon adds, “Look at children’s comic books: all the Blacks are mouthing the ritual ‘Yes, Boss.'” The image on the front of the Almas de Nino comic book appears fearful, praying, ashamed. Viajero doesn’t  include panels from the inside of the comic books, but Almas de Ninoa series of children’s books teaching Catholic morality and cultural assimilation, often features this same little boy, with a stylized monkey face and over protective mammy. And though overt racism may be a part of her psyche, step from underneath the box–that is, step outside of her head–and you see a face that isn’t apologetic at all, but one that smiles, perhaps lovingly at her artist-grandson, but without a doubt, knowingly and, yes, somewhat defiantly. She couldn’t be more different from Miss Everything.

It reminded me of a teaching tool I used to use to show multiple points of view in a single literary work. I would set a multi-sided object in the middle of the room and then ask students to describe what they saw. “It’s a yellow square” or “There’s a red circle” or “It’s a picture of a woman”–they were all right answers, all truth, but from varying perspectives. I vividly remember a professor from my own undergrad courses explaining Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying with a 50 minute lecture of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and its effects on art. Looking back on it, I understand what he meant, and I’ve even taught Einstein in my own classes on Modernism, but, at the time, it seemed completely irrelevant to Faulkner, and had more to do with how much the professor hated all his students, each and every one. Time brings its own unique perspective. As I looked up at Viajero’s work, I thought about relativity, and the evolution of art, from the caves of Lascaux to pre-Renaissance art to Marcel Duchamp, as a centuries-long experiment to understand and represent perspective.

Viajero 3Caja De Memoria Viva II: Constancia Colon Clemente is about the complexities of life and of the mind, and about the human spirit. It’s about taking stock of all the objects and images in one’s head. In short, it’s a piece about aging. As Viajero describes in Life is Art, even the materials that he uses are meant to reflect mortality: “These organic materials, the wood, the charcoal, they’re going to fade…the mediums [sic] I use, they’re not permanent. It’s not acrylic paint. It’s not oil paint. Eventually the charcoal is going to fade, the wood is going to warp. It’s going to crack.” Like any work that is about life, it’s also about death. But that’s not what you feel when you stand beneath it. Everyone seems to circle around the box like fighters around the ring, but looking up all the time, transfixed, muttering, gasping now and then at some newly discovered detail that emphasizes the complexity of the work as a whole. It doesn’t feel like a piece about death. It feels like a piece about life, and looking at it feels like living.

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