Friday, March 12, 2010

Snow Cathedral

During the big snow storm in NYC a couple of weeks ago, I had an empirical encounter with the "production of space," vertical space, that is.

Since the snow was unparalleled in packability, and inspired by our recent trips en France, my family and I decided to make a "Snow-tre Dame" Cathedral. Well, ok, it ended up looking more like a dilapidated abbey ruin but it was still fun. It attracted dozens of onlookers including Paul Goldberger, the famous architecture critic from The New Yorker (formerly of the NYT), who happened by with his dog. He seemed quite delighted with it, at least enough to keep his dog from adding any yellow highlights to the icy edifice. At one point there were about 20 people all standing around, starting up conversations with each other, walking under the central arch and taking pictures in front of it.

If someone had told me as I was beginning architectural design school in the late 80's that the only Goldberger review I would ever get of my work would be for a snow fort in the park twenty years later, I would have dropped the whole thing right there and then!

We were blissfully ignorant of the catostrophic collapse of the main transverse arch until we read about it in the morning news! Though I beg to differ about it's lack of structural integrity, it is a moot point. By so publically calling into question my prowess as a master mason, Goldberger has all but assured the end of my snow cathedral building career in this town!!!

What I found most relevant to my dissertation on "The Precarious Nature of Gothic," and specifically the idea of a correlation between the production of precarious vertical space and social solidarity, was that when the final keystone of the transverse arch of Snow-tre Dame when up, there was a sudden uptick in the draw-a-crowd power of the thing and an increase in stranger-to-stranger conversation of the bystanders – not to mention offers of help from people. Was it that the structure was taller and raw verticality was the magnet making it a more powerful node in the landscape? Maybe, but it seemed like it was the "miracle" of the keystone and the precariousness of the transverse arch sitting on snow colonettes that were already showing some buckling that engaged people. I don't know if such a reception to danger is ideologically programmed in or is an a priori response, but in either case, a precarious structure that stays up would be just the kind of miracle a bishop who is trying to legitimate his authority would need, considering the local lord already had the monopoly on arms and stone fortresses.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

the politics of the past in israel/palestine

Another indication of the impossibility of disentangling archaeology and politics:

Riots over Israeli heritage sites

Much of the debate over the politics of the past in Israel and Palestine revolves around the historical and biblical past (e.g. work by Neil Silberman, Rafi Greenberg and our colleague here at Columbia, Nadia Abu el-Haj). Where does prehistoric archaeology lie in all of this?

serendipitous archaeology

Brian Boyd and I attended a great lecture on March 1st by Sue Alcock, on the topic of 'Digging Serendipity: Accident and Archaeology'. Sue is Joukouwsky Family Professor in Archaeology at Brown University (among other titles), and was speaking as part of the Art History and Archaeology department's Bettman Lecture Series

Sue discussed the role of serendipity in archaeology, pointing out that in its original formulation by Horace Walpole a serendipitous discovery encompassed more than chance or luck alone, but also included 'sagacity' or a degree of knowing what you're looking for. It's relevant that the 18th century antiquarian Walpole coined the term, because as Sue pointed out, serendipity is fundamental to archaeology, though often remains unacknowledged.

Sue outlined a variety of case studies from archaeology's past and demonstrated how archaeologists continue to work around serendipitous discoveries. For me, the lecture raised the important question of how we can claim or own the doubt that lies at the heart of archaeological inquiry, and what an archaeology that does this might look like. It is perhaps only as we've moved away from processualism's figuring of archaeology's inference as primarily inductive and deductive that other possibilities have opened up for conceptualizing the work of archaeological investigation. A serendipitous archaeology seems to entail the proper acknowledgment of the educated guess or abduction (to use C.S. Peirce's terminology) with which archaeological inference begins. Despite Binford's original support of the hypothetico-deductive model, his emphasis and subsequent inquiry was very much on hypothesis testing, rather than on the more perilous question of where those hypotheses come from. The topic was clearly popular with the audience: the questions at the end of the talk ranged widely and continued over a glass of wine at the reception.

Zoe Crossland