Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Paul Graves Brown and John Schofield are doing interesting work on the archaeology of punk, via an apartment used by the Sex Pistols.

I wonder if anyone archived anything from New York's CGBGs before it went the way of most popular culture.... A quick google search throws up a few things

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sounding Off: the symbolic values of speaking and listening in the city

I usually hear New York before I see it. On the plane coming into the city, coming up the steps from the subway, and particularly emerging from Columbia’s immediate area and crossing into the surrounding city, I often find myself suddenly aware of one, a few, many, a waterfall of New York sounds and voices that signal to me things about where I am before I make a visual distinction of place. Which is why I found the following video entertaining and thought-provoking (if the video embed doesn't work, click here):


This video is an elaborate impression of the signs people send about themselves and their places through their voices. It demonstrates the several levels of linguistic analysis that are involved in instantly interpreting different accents in New York City, supposedly as a "native" New Yorker would hear them. There are phonological differences, in terms of the pronunciation of unique sounds within words, such as the “masticated vowels” in the Brooklyn accent, and in terms of the placement of stress on specific parts of the word, as in the punctuated first consonants heard in the Bronx accent. There is also the speed of speech, particularly evident in the Manhattan “fast-talker”, and cadence, as in the Brooklyn “sing-song” and the drawn-out, “nasally” Queens speaker. However, for each of the cases, the most significant point is that lifestyles, borough-specific cultural traits, and social attitudes are depicted as the causative factors behind different speaking styles. Although clearly intended to play lightly on classic borough stereotypes, a quick glance through the comments shows how strongly and widely these indices resonate, positively and negatively, with viewers.

Language, speech, and its associated forms and manners have long been a recognized site for signaling all kinds of anterior social information. To put a theoretical context to this, I turn to the rather well-known thoughts on language, symbolism and power of Bourdieu, for whom every act of speaking is also an act of positioning oneself, consciously or subconsciously within one’s social field (which in fact dictates the way in which you can carry out that act of positioning). How one speaks, as much as what one says, is an act of identity assertion, a process of articulating belonging or difference, and simultaneously claiming the authority to do so. He writes:

“Thus we know that properties such as voice setting (nasal, pharyngeal) and pronunciation (“accent”) offer better indices than syntax for identifying a speaker’s social class: we learn that the efficacy of a discourse, its power to convince, depends on the authority of the person who utters it, or, what amounts to the same thing, on his “accent” functioning as an index of authority. Thus the whole social structure is present in the interaction (and therefore the discourse): the material conditions of existence determine discourse through the linguistic production relations which they make possible and which they structure” (Bourdieu 1977: 653).

Accents (sounds, styles, forms, mannerisms of speech) are instantly meaningful to us because we recognize them by degrees of difference and sameness to not only our own accents, but to those of others operating across our social field(s). As such, they are symbolic of broader generalizations that we make about relative positions in those fields. Without delving further into the implications of his structural determinism here, I instead pose the issue of power and class relationships embedded in our interpretations of accents.

Bourdieu would see the stereotypes offered in explanation of the different borough accents as a reflection of the power struggles going on between social classes, and I do not dispute that the associations we make with the accents in the video reflect power dynamics past and present, but I think that this video also describes a site for positive identity claims. Through tongue-in-cheek stereotyping, the narrator bonds New Yorkers together through their idiosyncrasies of language; a local inverse of the perhaps now-clichéd observation by George Bernard Shaw that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

This discussion is of course easy to elaborate out of New York City itself and consider in the context of broader regional or interregional accent relationships. I find it particularly interesting, as a Midwesterner, that the Midwestern accent is often described as the lack of an accent, as I have always considered (as implied above) that accents within a shared language are all relative to each other and any prescribed norm is an illusion created by a dominant group and, these days, enforced by the power of the media. However, speech behavior and attitude towards accent is different; I find that I subconsciously assert my “accent,” such that it is, and other distinctive speech patterns, far more strongly when I find myself outside of the Midwest, and even more so when outside the country, in a place where my accent or language is not the dominant social norm. This behavior in its various forms as conscious and subconscious, individual and group, and within and between languages, has been well-noted by linguistic anthropologists, who see it as a reaction to the fear of one’s identity disappearing into homogeneity or conformity. For many indigenous groups throughout the world, for instance, it has become a form of activism against a history of oppression and exclusion that progressively eroded their languages; for this purpose, the Endangered Languages Alliance exists in New York City: http://endangeredlanguagealliance.org/main. To bring this back to the case of city accents, a quick Google search for “New York City accent” will bring up pages of articles whose headlines proclaim concern for the demise of the “traditional” or “working-class” accent of New York City in an era of globalized language and media, changing city demographics, and increasing gentrification. These urgently-worded concerns, as well as long debates about their relevance and accuracy according to individual experience of accents, have been going on for years: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/25/is-the-new-york-accent-disappearing/ for instance, and http://gothamist.com/2008/02/25/new_york_city_a_1.php). In these instances, accent and language have become potent symbols of identity and resistance that are continuously reconstituted in their daily use, and in the processes of re-learning, recording, teaching, and even in some cases, rejecting them.

Although it is somewhat beyond the scope of this contribution to consider fully here, I would also like to include a link to this 2006 article, presents changing city accents in a particular group defined by class, gender, and age (middle and upper middle-class, female, young) with a series of meditations on causes and meanings of this change. I offer one excerpt: “Mr. Vaux, who conducted a survey of American dialects while teaching at Harvard, said that while the voice heard increasingly in New York was distinctive, it was not particular to the region. Trying to pinpoint what made it unique, Mr. Vaux crossed off nasality, which he says is what humans always mistakenly identify as different in foreign speech. He overlooked “like,” for which he said the speakers of Sanskrit also had a penchant” (http://www.observer.com/2006/03/city-girl-squawk-its-like-so-bad-it-really-sucks/). Dell Hymes, in his work on ethnographies of speaking, also looks to antiquity when describing the method of assigning social and cultural characteristics to particular speech patterns. He cites Plato’s description of Athenians, Spartans, and Cretan speech patterns: “The Athenian citizen is reputed among all the Hellenes to be a great talker, whereas Sparta is renowned for brevity, and the Cretans have more wit than words” (Plato Laws Book I, Preamble: 28; cited also in Hymes 1974: 35).

Clearly, speech patterns have a long history of carrying all kinds of symbolic baggage around with them, and our interpretation of this baggage may tell us more about where we identify ourselves relative to the speaker than about the speaker themself. In either case, the processes of change played out in the sounds of speaking continue to fascinate and compel us to interpret and evaluate them.

Works Cited
Bourdieu, Pierre, 1977. “The economics of linguistic exchanges.” Social Science Information 16: 645-668.
Hymes, Dell, 1974. Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Plato, “Laws” in The Dialogues of Plato. B. Jowett (Transl.). Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1873.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Communicating via Roly Poly: The Remote Possibility of Touch

MoMA's latest offering, "Talk to Me", explores the recent movements in the design of human interaction with man-made objects. In recent years, design disciplines have taken a new angle on the old themes of form, function, and meaning. Recently there has been a movement to integrate these with even more intimate and ambitious forms of communication including ideas of dialogue, connection, and even emotion. One object on display at the MoMA exhibit that struck me as particularly evocative was the Roly Poly, from the Design Incubation Center in Singapore.

From the Design Incubation Center website:

Roly Poly is designed to enable two individuals to “sense” the presence of each other even though they may be physically apart. The mirrored movements in a pair of Roly Polys is such that a soft tap to rock one will simultaneously rock its partner to the same degree, creating a corresponding reaction in the other instantly. While the Internet provides a vast array of text messaging and video calling interaction options, Roly Poly offers a unique, spontaneous and subtle mode of instant communication, exclusive between two individuals.

There is no doubt that the explosion of Internet and wireless technologies has enabled the emergence of a variety of new forms of interpersonal communication. Like so many new technologies, what has once been considered a novelty is now an essential utility, like water or electricity. Today, texting, facebook, email, and photosharing are deeply integrated in our lives. Each new medium is accompanied by its own unique logic of expression. And yet, the expressive power of these media is in some ways constrained, and in other ways enabled by the affordances of each particular system. The entire ecosystem of Twitter, for example, is defined in 140 character snippets. Such a microform, we have found, far from being a painful restriction, has facilitated vast networks of communication. 

However, these forms of communication just mentioned are based on 19th and 20th century metaphors of communication: the typewriter, the cable telegram, the photograph. These paradigms of communication are ones that we are extremely comfortable with, and function well in our lives. But the potential to access other, less traditional, forms of personal interconnection through digital technology has hardly been explored. The Roly Poly represents just such a shift away from traditional forms of symbolic communication towards haptic forms of expression. There is something beautifully intuitive, nuanced and yet simple and ambiguous about the Roly Poly. Like the Ouija board used in seances to communicate with the dead, the Roly Poly allows for the externalization of one of the most neglected of human senses: the proprioceptive sense, that is, the sense of orientation, of movement. 

This proprioceptive sense, perhaps more than any other, has proven the least abstractable. This at least in part accounts for its neglect by contemporary communications technology. It is also perhaps the most intimate, the most context specific, and yet, paradoxically the most universal. The message of touch is a challenge to define abstractly, but is easily recognized. The possibilities for communication touched upon by the Roly Poly opens up a world of questions about the future of human communication as well. As our daily personal experiences become increasingly subsumed by the remoteness of digital communications, how will we adapt the basic human wiring for haptic communication (that is, for touch) to an inherently sterile and abstracted medium? Is such a simple gesture easily interpreted between people? between cultures? And how does the distance that separates us when we use the Internet to communicate affect the shared knowledge of meaning on which such an intimate medium as touch relies?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Crosstown Traffic meets The Land of Confusion - The Colour-Coding of the New York Subway System

Ever missed a date in Constantinople, because she was waiting in Istanbul? Yeah, me neither. But I’ve been living in New New Amsterdam for just a couple of months and I already had a misunderstanding due to failed reading of the Subway system nomenclature. Some friends of mine were visiting the city and wanted to see the university campus. I gave them proper directions from the place they were staying in Flushing to Columbia with the subway with only one transfer at Times Square. The plan was foolproof as the 116-Columbia station has only one exit and I was waiting just outside of it. It was easy, it was perfect. And then I got the call from 116th and Lenox Ave…where the 2-train stops, some seven avenues away. Everybody who has used the New York Subway at least a few times by now knows that they got confused by the colour-coding and took the other Red line, which does not go to Columbia. You have no idea how many times I said “the 1-train” in my directions and how many times I refused to answer the question “so which colour is that?”…
The obvious reason for the confusion is that the couple that visited me was from Chicago where the ‘L’ only has colour-coding as opposed to the NYC Subway which has a triple coding system of colour, line and service. While colour is obvious, the other two terms might be confusing even to locals. “Service” refers to the letter or number, which is the most commonly used every day name for a train and then “line” refers to the physical tracks that the trains run on, which both have historic background. Up to 1940 there were three companies (two private and one municipal) that operated the Subway – Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and Independent City-Owned Subway System (IND). They are all now parts of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), but they are still recognized by its structure. The IRT alone constitutes the MTA’s A-Division and its services are assigned numbers. The B-Division consists of the former BMT and IND and its services are assigned letters. So any given train receives a three-fold code, for example the one that goes to Columbia University would be IRT Broadway-7th Ave Line Tomato Red 1-train.

Here are some examples of remnants of the three former companies :
BMT Subway
IND Subway 14th St
IRT 191st St
CTA 'L' Map
The history of the subway system in New York as well as its structure made it all so complicated. To use the Chicago example, every line has its own tracks and theonly stations with multiple lines are in the down town area around the Loop, where all lines stop. However, the history of the rapid transit system in Chicago is not much different with the major change coming in 1940 as well. So why can Chicago switch to simple colour-coding and New York cannot? Another question spring out of that, though – how simple would such a system really be in NYC? One could argue that such a system is already in place since people most readily recognise the colour-coding. Currently, though colour is assigned in correspondence to the line the service runs on in Midtown Manhattan. For one, this shows zonal rankings within the city with Midtown apparently being the most important one. Another possible meaning that could be derived is that Midtown is supposed to be the main tourist centre as local would most probably know the system better and would not simply rely on colour-coding. I bet Battery Park City, SoHo and the Financial District would have something to say about such distribution of tourists…
MTA Subway Map
Many interesting inference could be made about the meaning behind the choice of colour-coding, but it is not only culturally and socially, but also practically problematic. What would happen to tourists who decide to wander outside of the realm of Midtown? What people who live in the city but are new to the area? For example, I know people wondering why the E-service is coded Vivid Blue and paired with A and C-services. It only shares eight stations with the C and five with the express A. On the other hand the E-service shares six stations with the Bright Orange M-service. Orange colour seems even more appropriate when considering that the E-service runs together with the F-service from Jamaica to Long Island City and they share five stations when running express during the day and thirteen stations when running local at night. So how confusing could it be for someone from Chicago or Washington, DC or Prague, for example, where only colour-coding is applied, to recognise the A and E-services as the same line? How confusing is that for someone who lives in Jackson Heights and to whom the F and E-services are virtually the same, but are different in colour?
Future 2nd Ave Line
So it is confusing, but so what? Maybe it is more important for the city to preserve its historic association with the BMT, IRT, and IND, whose ownership of the Midtown tracks before 1940 determines the colour-coding of the whole transit system in four of the five boroughs. Maybe the MTA does not believe that colour is all that important and that letters and numbers are more appropriate labels. Maybe the colours are just an extra that the MTA throws out of generosity. Buy one get two free kind of situation. Maybe the diversity of New York is once again represented in the subway nomenclature as it uses this three-fold designation system. Well, maybe. But what about the planned 2nd Ave line? It will not run on any of the three historic companies lines in Midtown so how can it be assigned a colour? Or a number or letter for that matter? The 2nd Ave line is tentatively dubbed T in teal and is supposed to open in 2016. It would run from Hanover St along 2nd Ave up to 116th St and would then end at 125th and Lexington Ave where transfer would be available to the 4-5-6 IRT Lexington Ave Apple Green lines. A redirection of the BMT Broadway Sunflower Yellow Q-service from 59th St to 63rd St and then onto 2nd Ave would provide a double service on the new line. I guess the BMT connection with the Q-service is where the T-service gets its letter association. But where does the colour come from? Is it a combination of the 4-5-6 apple green and the Q sunflower yellow or is it just completely random? I assume everyone is free to making his own reading of it.
What the MTA Subway system shows is how colour-coding could be read in a variety of ways. The reading presented here is perhaps the one that the MTA was looking for, but there are so many others. The 1-2-3 and 4-5-6services run almost parallel in Manhattan on the two opposite sides of Central Park and are assigned the two opposite colours of a traffic light – red and green. However, the 2 and 5-service run along the same tracks for a substantial length in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, too, which makes the opposing lines reading obsolete. The L-service could be read as tied to the Shuttle services.I have heard tourists regularly referring to the “S-train”, which a local would probably never say. The MTA makes the distinction between Light Slate Grey L-service and Dark Slate Grey Shuttles, but I am sure many people think they somehow need to be connected due to the proximity of their colours. Yet the L-service does not share a single station with any of the Shuttles. Colour is also recognized differently by different people so some might view the Lime Green G to be closely connected to the Apple Green 4-5-6, while other would-think they are just as different as any other two line and colours. Some would see the M-service (newly Bright Orange) running along with its former colour-mates Terra Cotta Brown J and Z-services for some six stations as logical because of the proximity of the colours, while other might think otherwise. I am not even going to dare discussing colour-blindness and how it could affect reading the subway nomenclature. At any rate, the subway system isquite a fascinating case of how colour-coding could be read in a variety of ways producing both justification for the MTA arrangement and confusion and drawing on history, visual perception, track length, number of stations shared and many other categories.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fashion of Color on Fifth Avenue

It’s a rare day when I trek over to the East Side to see my friend at NYU Uptown. I always glance at the Empire State Building during the long trudge from the 6 Station to her 1st Avenue apartment. Last week the group of us that had gathered at her place debated the significance of the evening’s lighting colors. Red, yellow and black signaled the start of Oktoberfest to some and nothing to others, but a quick Google search confirmed that we were all wrong. The lights commemorated the 54th annual Steuben Day Parade which, while perhaps related to Oktoberfest, was still lost on us when we interpreted the color scheme from a mere glimpse.
The Empire State Building, as its website claims, is one of the most seen buildings in the world. To become a “lighting partner”—or, to have the ability to choose a night’s lighting color scheme—demands a detailed application and an approval from the private group that owns the building. Charitable and nonprofit groups are most often accepted. (Famously the Empire State Building displays red and green lights for Christmas and blue and white for Hanukkah, but religious requests are unilaterally denied.) Even the competition as to whose technology has the privilege to light the building is fierce.
Mark Kingwell, author of Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams, described the Empire State Building as “the distinctive image of mythic New York,” an image that is “totally irresistible.” (Although it’s a bit old, this commemorative section in the New York Times elaborates on the Empire State Building’s inner workings, its social meaning and its importance to New York’s skyline.) It is difficult to resist the urge to advertise one’s cause on the top of a billboard that reaches millions of people nightly. While these lights are surely seen, the transmission of their intended message is often ambiguous, sometimes obtuse and even incomprehensible.
Some of the lighting arrangements are universally identifiable: red, white and blue for Independence Day, green for St. Patrick’s, orange and black for Halloween. Yet, often divergences from the classic white (which itself signals a lack of a lighting partner for the day) are more obscure and therefore puzzling. Could you guess what this lighting scheme represented?
It’s Hanukkah and Christmas put together, on December 24, 2008. What about this one?
This was in honor of the various countries competing in the 2006 Olympics, where each side represented a different nation. In celebration of a particular school’s commencement every year, we get this:
While Columbia students easily recognize this sign, the typical city resident may have no idea what it indicates. Luckily for the stumped and irked, the Empire State Building publishes the lighting schedule and its significance online. You can even create your own color combination with a unique meaning and send it to a friend using the e-card maker.
Colors serve as indicators for many unspoken concepts in New York City. The colors of the subway lines signify which express and local lines travel on the same paths, or even the character of the station (the powder blue tiles at 116th Street come to mind). Colored traffic lights direct trains, vehicles and pedestrians (although they are not strictly obeyed). Wear red at a New York Yankees game and prepare to face ridicule, even if you do not intend to associate with the Red Sox. The coppery green patina of the Statue of Liberty not only secures its status as another recognizable symbol of the New York skyline but also its old age.
The Empire State Building and its lights are paradoxical: they are ubiquitous and recognizable, yet their nightly color-coded message can be confusing and even unintelligible. One person may see one meaning while others see another. Unlike the letters of language or the colors of a traffic light, there is no predetermined paradigm for what the Empire State Building’s color arrangement represents. Whether or not we understand its significance is independent of our identification of the colors in and of themselves. The sign may be visible to all, but the code is not always easy to crack.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Written City

"Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun"2

I run my fingers over the broad ripples of a tooth and read “deer” as clearly as if the ridges were Braille. Rain is written in the darkness of the oncoming clouds, the sun’s late position adding an urgent exclamation point of punctuation, subtle shifts in temperature with the coming of evening a footnote referencing hail. In the mountains of New Mexico, days can pass without so much as a stop sign, and so one reads other signs instead—the language of the landscape, the passing of time, the allofacts1 of artifacts. One of the myriad adjustments I had to make upon returning from archaeological fieldwork to New York City this fall was in the way I see signs, mainly in exchanging sensory input for the here-ubiquitous use of the written word.  

Written language is one of the most overtly used semiotic systems in our culture.  The city is saturated with it, from the neatly labeled vertices of each street to the storefronts of bodegas barely visible through a wall of prices, advertisements, fliers, and graffiti.  However, while its volume never varies from Harlem to the Village, the language in which signs are written reflects individual neighborhoods within Manhattan, creating a sense of community, and conversely otherness, depending on whether one can understand the locally-used language.

Such a distinction between being a member or outsider in relation to a certain cultural pocket of the city is not felt so strongly when indicated by other signs, such as changes in audition (music), smell (foods), sight (architecture and fashion), or even spoken language. This is because written language carries the most authority of all these indicators, and is the least adaptable—one can appreciate foreign music or food without recognizing the instruments or spices, but it is impossible to appreciate the essence of a foreign language (that is, its nature as a form of communication and not just pretty sounds and symbols) without deeper understanding.  

Whenever we cannot interpret the primary signs we encounter, we inevitably rely on secondary signs. In archaeology, an example would be to depend on size, shape, and proximity to other artifacts to hypothesize the origin and function of a piece of pottery whose distinguishing markings had worn away. On the streets of New York, one can rely on the sight of an apple and a numerical price in lieu of being able to read “Apples—on sale.” This is analogous to how, when people who use different spoken languages try to communicate, they each have to forfeit their primary verbal method in exchange for a secondary means—such as a shared third language, or the use of gestures.

In a city as literate and regulated as New York, the written word is the most accessible and reliable medium of information. Written signs overpower most natural signs, images, and speech because they convey authority—any loon in the subway can predict the end of days; a NO PARKING sign represents the legislation and local government responsible for its existence—written words show greater intent, and therefore greater validity (on a sliding scale, from this to home-made signs in a bakery).

In signs we can also see snapshots of our language’s progression. “Donuts” and “THRUWAY” are considered acceptable, though they still make this logophile wince, and the current trend in signs is away from language entirely. Because of written language’s exclusive nature, many public messages have transitioned to using symbols. Examples of this include how the pedestrian WALK signs at intersections now often communicate pictorially (which is fine with me, since the written signs couldn’t fit an apostrophe in their DONT WALK, again, wince), and the recent anti-smoking campaign whose posters feature images of cancerous lungs in greater prominence than their textual warnings.

Rose Matzkin

Sings in Chinatown cater to the linguistic diversity of the area 
(photo credit: thenyknow.com)

An art installment illustrates different WALK symbols from around the world
(photo credit: walking-men.com)

An anti-smoking advertisement typical of those currently seen around the city
(photo credit: reason.com)

1. Deetz, James. Invitation to Archaeology. New York: The Natural History Press, 1967. 
2. Preucel, Robert W. Archaeological Semiotics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 


Saturday, July 2, 2011

historical detective work

Great blog about Benjamin Feldman's efforts to track down the history behind an old leather coin purse that he found at a Chealsea flea market. The NY Times also gives an account. Not quite the biography of an artifact, but the purse has opened up a fascinating story of immigration, lower east side tenements, prohibition, well-known descendants, and the changing city. The purse on its own likely wouldn't have prompted this search, but neither would Sol Goldberg's name without the purse. The combination of name and object is a potent semiotic mixture that, unlike most flea market finds, provides enough context to start a search, and evoke a sensual history.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

When Laws and State Historic Preservation Divisions Fail to Serve and Protect

As you read, I invite you to listen to Izrael Kamakawiwo'ole's moving song, "Hawai'i 78"

Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) Scholars Against Desecration: The Case of Naue

As the final speaker in the Ontologies of Exhumation lecture series, Native Hawaiian activist and scholar Dr. J. Kehualani Kauani, associate professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University, came to Columbia on April 21, 2011 for a session on Native Hawaiian indigenous politics surrounding the adverse effects of Hawaiian burial ground desecration in the form of architectural construction.

We examined the case of Naue, a beachfront along the northern shore of Kaua'i where real estate developer Joseph Brescia disturbed the grave of at least 30 known iwi kupuna (Hawaiian ancestral remains) - churned the ground with backhoes, crushing and mixing ancestral bones with sand and concrete - to build the foundation of a multimillion dollar home. The controversy lies within the suspicious nature in which Joseph Brescia obtained a permit to move forward with construction from the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) without the required consultation with the Kaua'i-Ni'ihau Island Burial Council.

Despite years of protests which began in 2007, Native Hawaiian protesters and activists were denied of their requests for a halt or temporary injunction to stop construction until a Burial Treatment Plan was approved (which wasn't until the 16th draft in March of 2010). Part of the issue was a lack of genealogical experts within the SHPD to trace familial lineages which were required by NAGRPA law in order to halt construction.

Our discussion with Dr. Kauanui brought to light several different kinds of issues which tie together many of the themes we covered throughout the semester - legal narratives, exhumation and ethics, agency of the dead, emotion, humanitarian narratives, counting the dead and representing the dead.

The case of Naue is a prime example of laws and "humanitarian" preservation organizations that fail to serve, protect and preserve the rights of indigenous groups on account of political corruption and legal ambiguity. NAGPRA, as originally drafted, pertained to "legally recognized" (a controversial issue in and of itself) Native Americans in mainland U.S.A., and tangentially, but inadequately, attempts to serve the needs of Native Hawaiians. As Dr. Kauanui discussed, there is an important difference between common descent and island identity. If mortuary practices are culturally bound, why do these laws operate as a function of biology/DNA/genetics? And what is to be done with corrupt archaeologists like Mike Dega, who Brescia hired and wrote the initial Burial Treatment Plan; or with SHPD officials like, Nancy McMahon, who approved Dega's BTP without consulting the Burial Council? Who's interests do they really serve? Who will the Kanaka Maoli and Iwi Kupuna turn to if the very organizations and stewards of cultural heritage do the exact opposite of what they were established to do?

The desecration of the Naue graves also invites us to think about the agency of the dead and how it is constantly undermined by secular hegemony that dictates who counts as human and whether or not the dead have rights. For Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and general Kanaka (no direct lineage), human bones are very much alive and are believed to protect living descendants who in turn have a kuleana (responsibility) to respect and care for their ancestors and ancestral places of rest. Dr. Kauanui expressed the complexity of issues surrounding grave desecration which include arrests, negligence, a lack of interest from younger generations, and even an incident of suicide triggered by legal bouts. Carrying out their kuleana (responsibility to care for the dead) is also particularly difficult when jobs are on the line and when law enforcement use intimidation tactics against emotionally distraught locals.

Dr. Kauanui also recognizes the fact that these issues resonate not only with Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) but to the wider community, to the individual that simultaneously deals with being Hawaiian, a Christian, an archaeologist, and perhaps a construction worker or a law enforcer. As these issues are not black and white, we should all be prompted to think and act accordingly.

To hear more about indigenous politics, tune into Dr. Kauanui's public affairs radio program, "Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond" which airs on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Tuesday of each month from 4-5pm EST on WESU, Middletown, CT. Past episodes are also archived at www.indigenouspolitics.com. Of particular interest might be "Desecration at Kawai'hao Church" from March 11, 2011.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Theoretical Archaeology Group at Berkeley May 6-8th

Just a heads up on the next TAG meeting - it'll be at UC Berkeley over the weekend of the 6-8th May. The theme is 'Archaeology of and in the Contemporary World', a favorite topic of our bloggers here at Trace|work, who'll be out in force: - Check out the 'strata/palimpsest' poster session and 'Apocalyptic Imaginations: Disaster, Ruination, and Resilience'

There are many, many wonderful looking sessions over the course of the weekend - the difficulty will be choosing which ones to go to - Hope to see you there!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Que queremos? Justicia y Verdad! (What do we want? Justice and Truth!)

"It's said that the bones of the dead tell no lies. In many cases, they speak on their own behalf, telling stories of pain, violence and abuse...they speak of the crimes against humanity, of the genocide committed by the Army against the indigenous population." - Rigoberta Menchu Tum on clandestine burials from Guatemala genocide, 1992.

Photo by Jonathan Moller, 2000, Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala, "Praying at the gravesite of a man killed and buried by guerillas in 1983."*

On April 7, 2011, following the "New Pathways to Justice Conference: An International Conference to Stop Violence Against Women in Central America" at Lehman College, was the opening of a traveling photo exhibit at the Leonard Lief Library titled, "Refugees Even After Death: A Quest for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation." The photographs were taken by Jonathan Moller, between May 2000 and July 2001, as a staff photographer for the Forensic Anthropology team of the Office of Peace and Reconciliation of the Quiche Catholic Diocese in Guatemala. The images are connected to the ongoing forensic exhumations of clandestine burials, representing a small fraction of the 40,000 disappeared, that resulted from over 36 years of civil war between local rebels and the Guatemalan government.

Unlike other cases of archaeological exhumations of human remains, the indigenous people of Quiche, Guatemala - survivors of the Guatemalan Army acts of genocide - were in support of forensic archaeological work and sought to recover the remains of their loved ones for three primary reasons: for proper reburial, for collective proof of the horrendous acts adamantly denied by the Guatemalan government/army officials, and to charge those responsible for the injustice. But as mere words cannot adequately justify the impact of the horror surrounding genocide, Moller's traveling photographs resituate the intensity of emotion, the suffering of the victims, and the survivors' senses of loss, unity, desperation for justice, and even their sense of hope behind the fatigue of 15 years of hiding.

Moller's twenty or so photographs on display strongly demonstrate the power of images and their ability to evoke both conflicting and concordant emotions from viewers, which in a way reflects the very nature of the photographs' subject matter. How is it that I was drawn to the rich colors, beautiful landscape, and the captured feelings emanating from the people in the photographs and yet fearful of looking too closely at each portrayal of sadness, loss and despair?

The universal contortion of the face and downward turn of the mouth expressing grief on the survivor's faces found me fighting back tears and failing twice. I couldn't help but replace the faces and bones of the Quiche victims with those of whom I have lost or fear losing in today's heightened belligerent state. What do you do when the army shoots down your family and denies that it even happened? How do you cope with hiding until the Peace Accord was signed some 15 years later while knowing your likely deceased loved one may be lying in a ditch like road kill or eaten by wild animals?

How do you react when you realize that the skeleton unearthed before you is wearing your father's favorite trousers?

As the exhibit panels indicate, the families and forensic archaeologists involved continue to risk their lives as they, Guatemalan human rights organizations, other international human rights organizations, foreign governments and the Catholic Church wish to push forward with these exhumations, even in the face of resistance from some military sectors and the 90% of crimes that go unpunished.

So, what can we think about here? As a student of archaeology, exhumations like the ones in Quiche, Guatemala feel right when they are favorable in the eyes of the victims and survivors of wartime tragedies and when local indigenous groups are closely involved. Their involvement represences a level of reverence of which we may be too ignorant to realize and therefore unable to carry out. These bones live, tell stories, seek justice, bear our grief and are, for some, harbingers of hope.

* All photographs are taken from the "Refugees Even After Death: A Quest for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation" Exhibit at the Leonard Lief Library of Lehman College, 250 Bedford Park West, Bronx, New York.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Inhabiting The Unfinished Past: Isaias Rojas- Perez Speaks At Columbia

            Isaias Rojas-Perez, recent graduate of John Hopkins University and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University in Newark came to Columbia University on April 14 as our third speaker in the Ontologies of Exhumation lecture series.  His lecture, titled “Inhabiting Unfinished Pasts: Law, Transitional Justice, and Mourning in Post War Peru,” considered how survivors and relatives of victims of state terror engage in state-sponsored legal projects aiming to put an end to legacies of violence, impunity, and forgetfulness in cases of gross human rights violations that took place during the counterinsurgency campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s.  
            In August of 2003, after two years of work, the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted its final report to then President Alejandro Toledo.  The Peruvian TRC concluded that over 69,000 people died in twenty years of internal war between the Peruvian security forces and the guerrilla groups Shining Path and MRTA.  Rojas-Perez described the experience of violence and terror in the Peruvian Andes as “an attack against cultural practices and what it means to be human beings.”
            In his talk, Rojas-Perez focused specifically on how mothers of the desaparecidos [missing persons] engage the forensic excavation of clandestine mass graves in Los Cabitos, a military base in Ayacucho, Peru that served as a headquarters of the state sponsored counterinsurgency campaign.  According to testimonial evidence, Los Cabitos was a major center of torture and extrajudicial execution of suspects of terrorism.   The forensic excavation provided hard evidence to confirm those allegations and questioned longstanding official denial of the detention, disappearance and extrajudicial execution of accused terrorists at the site.  After almost five years of work, the team of forensic archaeologists of the Peruvian Legal Medicine Institute exhumed around 100 complete bodies—including a number of children. The remains contained evidence of torture, blindfolding, and the binding of hands. There is also evidence supporting that the victims were forced to dig their own graves. In order to mask these abuses and thwart potential future forensic work, the perpetrators sprinkled the bodies with lime salt to expedite the decomposition of the flesh. There was also evidence of the existence of furnaces in which the military allegedly burned the bodies of their victims, using Nazi-like technologies of disposal of bodies.  However, the forensic work was less successful in identifying and individualizing the victims. Thus, the bodies could not be returned to their relatives for proper burial.   
             The relatives of desaparecidos attending the exhumations were witnesses to these “landscapes of devastation” In his talk, Rojas-Perez discussed how the relatives of the desaparecidos appropriated the outcomes of the excavations to reclaim the past and assert truth against official denial. For seeking their missing sons, these mothers were defamed- labeled as drunks, madwomen, even terrorists themselves. The truth uncovered during the forensic excavations confirmed their allegations and allowed them to indict official denial.
However, because the bodies of the desaparecidos could not be individually identified, their families were never given the opportunity to mourn the remains, making complete closure impossible.  Rojas-Perez spoke of how with no identifiable bodies to mourn, uncertainty continues. These wandering souls form communities of the dead- maintaining agency even without a physical body- haunting the living through dreams, offering some reassurance, some peace, some articulation that they once lived. The wandering of the ghosts mirrors the wandering of their living relatives- displaced, searching for a body.
            The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Committee has made great strides in aiding the prosecution of the perpetrators of state violence and the breaking of public silence about the fate of the disappeared, but the past is still “unfinished”- and the wandering living and dead will continue to inhabit Peru. Current President Garcia, who himself is still under investigation for human rights abuses committed during his first tenure (1985-1990),  is still in power and has attempted to grant immunity to perpetrators of gross human rights violations.  However, stories such as those of the desaparecidos make such attempts not only illegal, but immoral.  Thus, it can be said that that the violence of the past is a matter of an ongoing struggle, rather than reconciliation. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fernando Moscoso on Forensic Archaeology in Guatemala: Looking Back, Writing Recent History, & Advocating for the Use of Forensic Evidence in Court

On March 10, 2011, archaeologist Fernando Moscoso attended Columbia University’s Archaeologies of Contemporary Conflict seminar, where he spoke to students and visitors about his experiences applying forensic techniques to the study of mass human rights violations in Guatemala. Moscoso’s presentation was preceded by a laudatory introduction outlining his professional trajectory and his many contributions to the fields of forensics, archaeology, and human rights. Trained as a specialist in Mayan archaeology, Moscoso received his Master’s at Stanford University. In 1992, he helped found the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology in Guatemala (FAFG, Fundación de Antropología de Guatemala) and served as its Director between 1992 and 1998. In addition to the praise that Moscoso and the FAFG have received within an ever-expanding global network of human rights advocates, Moscoso himself has been decorated with a range of public recognition, such as Time Magazine having named him one of the most pioneering researchers, thinkers, and human rights advocates of the 1990s. Throughout the description of his achievements, one thing remained constant: Moscoso’s dedication to innovative ways of thinking about forensics, history, memory, and human rights.

Photo from http://www.fafg.org/Ingles/paginas/FAFG.html

Moscoso framed his presentation as an attempt to describe “the state of forensic archaeology in Guatemala.” In a field where practitioners often collaborate across geographic regions, continents, and nations, this desire to describe the specific characteristics of Guatemalan forensic archeological practices is a telling one. More telling still was Moscoso’s insertion of his own development as an archeologist as a part of this larger historical narrative. Like many other Guatemalan anthropologists, Moscoso’s first experiences in the field were heavily entangled with the study and excavation of Mayan artifacts. Guatemala, like many of its Central American neighbors, has a rich history – a history that is marked by the Spanish Conquista, the ensuing colonial period and independence movements, and a multitude of changes between rural and urban life and forms of agricultural subsistence that took place throughout these periods. As a result, archaeology was almost completely centered around the study of distant histories regarding indigenous culture.

Before 1992, archaeologists working in Guatemala were almost uniformly interested in the Mayan archaeological record and issues of patrimony and history linked to it. In 1992, things changed. Suddenly, archaeology was recognized as a way of documenting, understanding, and uncovering powerfully revealing evidence of the armed conflict that had been consuming Guatemala for more than thirty-six years; an armed conflict that despite its extreme violence had gone unnoticed by many Guatemalans. With much of the violence relegated to the rural regions of Guatemala, not seeing violence often led to misunderstanding it or simply not recognizing its powerful, even pervasive existence. For Moscoso, this change in intellectual focus was not merely constitutive of a general shift taking place among Guatemalan archaeologists and anthropologists. It was also indicative of a personal revelation and the beginning of Moscoso’s more nuanced understanding of Guatemala and its violent past.

Photo from http://www.fafg.org/Ingles/paginas/FAFG.html
In an honest and revealing tone, Moscoso described an excavation that he conducted in 1992. The focus of the investigation was to study Mayan artifacts. What Moscoso found, however, were “modern remains.” Moscoso described the powerful impact that this experience had on him. In search of clues regarding a distant past, Moscoso found himself facing a more immediate history whose brutality could not be ignored. For many Guatemalans and the wider global community, the extreme violence experienced in rural regions of the country were often not recognized, ignored, or simply not seen. Moscoso was no different. However, unlike those who feared finding an explanation for the existence of so many modern remains laying just beneath the earth’s surface, Moscoso and other archaeologists decided to figure things out. In figuring things out, thousands of mass graves would eventually be unearthed, the details of bloody deaths would be teased out from the confinement of silence, and relatives of the disappeared began to become more active in their calls for justice.
The birth of forensic archaeology in Guatemala began in 1992 when Clyde Snow and other Latin American forensic anthropology teams like the EAAF, came to Guatemala to oversee the first exhumation and to train local archaeologists in forensic methods. Since 1992, the exhumation of mass graves and the application of forensic techniques and technologies to the study of grave human rights abuses have not ceased. According to Mocoso, there are between one and two thousand mass graves that have now been exhumed in his country. In fact, Guatemala is the country with the most exhumation mass graves in the world. More shocking is the fact that this number of exhumations is more than the total number of exhumations conducted around the world. In the shadow of these staggering statistics, only one exhumation case has reached the Guatemalan courts. As Moscoso poignantly demonstrated, the sheer quantity of evidence of mass human rights violations is paired with an unpaved, practically absent road to justice. This, Moscoso suggested, is a reflection of the state’s willingness to look at, understand, and make sense of “La Violencia.”
In order to understand this blocked road to justice, we must understand the Guatemalan experience with political violence. This, as Moscoso, illustrated in his presentation is contingent on understanding the country’s history. Before the colonial period, there were over twenty-two indigenous communities living in what is now Guatemala. These communities had their own territories and languages. The members of these communities also owned or controlled the land that allowed them to subsist. With the arrival of the Spanish, ideas about ownership was mixed with a more complex system of land control. The resulting system of land tenure, known as comunales, stayed constant even after independence. However, in the mid-1900s, liberal governments put an end to this system in order to reap the benefits of controlling land and the resulting export of agricultural goods. Simultaneously, European migrants were brought to Guatemala in order to start and oversee coffee plantations, production, and export.

The resulting need for land and labor prompted the first attempts to create laws that would regulate land and work. Under these laws, indigenous communities were required to work plantation land for at least one third of the year. Those who did not want to participate in this system were forced to work indefinitely in order to build highways and improve aspects of the country’s general infrastructure. As a result of this legislation, indigenous communities grew poorer. They had no control over their own lands, and they were obligated to work in an unofficial form of slavery. In the mid-twentieth century, indigenous communities reacted to this and led a peaceful revolution, known as the “Revolución de Octubre” which resulted in an agrarian reform that abolished forced labor. All non-cultivated lands went to the indigenous communities that had been cultivating them. At the same time the US staunchly supported the ag-industry and defended Cold War inspired politics. The result was the US’s backing of a counter-revolution. In 1954, the Guatemalan president was overthrown, and indigenous communities were forced to return their land to the new government. Finally, in the 1970s guerrilla movements fighting against this system began to gain momentum. The result of these developments and political intersections was almost four decades of armed conflict. As national and local governments, guerrilla fighters, and indigenous peasants were caught in this conflict, a long period of harrowing political violence ensued. As a consequence, an estimated 200,000 people were killed, 50,000 people were disappeared, and over 1 million were displaced.

Photo from http://www.fafg.org/Ingles/paginas/FormerMilitaryDetachments.html
In light of this history, Moscoso’ experience unearthing “modern” remains was a moment of realization: The unknown past was not necessarily the one of hundreds or thousands of years ago. The past that needed to be revealed and studied was the more recent one, in which a wide variety of latent, political, social, and economic factors resulted in the massacre, abuse, and disappearance of thousands of Guatemalans. Moscoso’s insistence that the “state of Guatemalan forensic archaeology” must be understood within in broader understanding of the country’s history – of his own history – is a call for understanding the ways in which extreme forms of violence are permitted. More importantly, it is a call for understanding why a nation finds it so difficult to look back, to uncover suppressed stories, and to recognize a period of violence in which everyone was implicated, whether they were aware of it or not. For Moscoso, forensic archaeology in Guatemala is about looking back and moving forward. In order to move forward, however, archaeologists must actively participate in the excavation of the past. However, more importantly, they must continue to face the looming threat of political violence and look for new paths of bringing perpetrators to justice. With thousands of graves now opened, the struggle is to find ways in which the evidence that forensic archaeologists collect can be made public, disseminated, and brought into courts of law. The struggle is to give communities and individuals whose lives were almost erased completely a voice in which the recent past can be rewritten from their perspective.