On Kostis’ urging, I have been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, the Suburbs. The album itself is a meditation of urban planning and its social impact, but I’ll leave this larger issue to Kostis. What I want to focus on in particular is the notion of sprawl that comes through in the last couple of songs in the album. As critics have noted, the idea of sprawl (as in, but not exclusively, urban sprawl) derives some of its meaning in punk circles from William Gibson’s fictitious topography of the post-apocalyptic east coast. Gibson described an massive east coast settlement stretching from Boston to Atlanta partially housed in a series of dilapidated geodesic domes. This forms a suitably bleak environment for his high-tech dystopian novels. Arcade Fire’s understanding of the sprawl clearly has roots in their critique of urbanism in its many 20th and 21st century guises. The sprawl consists of a bleak assortment of architectural (“dead shopping malls”, bright lights), social,(dead end jobs, threatening police), and perhaps environmental images (the black river). All these images resonate with Gibson’s dystopian and apocalyptic vision of the near future world.
The kind of dystopian social critiques of the future are almost always rooted in a kind of utopian view of the past (and has obvious links with genres like the jeremiad). In fact, they rely on a recognizable past remaining hidden in plain sight to make it clear to the reader that their own present has become just another layer of detritus. Gibson – like Sonic Youth and to some extent Arcade Fire – liken the Sprawl to the failings of capitalism to produce a sustainable, responsible prosperity. The chorus from the Sonic Youth anthem chants: “Come on down to the store, you can buy some more and more and more.” The verses paint the same kind of dystopia as Arcade Fire’s with cheap clothing, depressing shotgun houses, and rusted machines along a river.
Scenes of polluted nature, urbanism, and faded modernity, is pretty standard fair for both science fiction and music, and the same ideas inform our archaeological imagination as well. As I’ve mentioned earlier, romantic views of the natural landscape appeal to me even though I know that these views are as profoundly unhistorical as utopians imaginings of a primordial, edenic nature. Human activities have had a fundamental influence on almost every aspect of the Eastern Mediterranean places where I work. As an archaeologist, I already understand that there is no escaping from the sprawl and our own present is, in fact, a past dystopian future.
Like the works of Gibson and the music of Sonic Youth and Arcade Fire the crass consumerism of late capitalism is held up to be at least tacitly responsible for decline. The focus falls (predictably and particularly) on the relationship between individuals (and their behavior) and objects. In fact, the physical character of objects take on an archaeological character as they become vehicles for both present identities and history. This is archaeological thought: while punk’s characters take in the sprawling ruins of shopping malls and rusted machines that stretch outward from centers of human settlement, archaeologists lovingly document the tell-tale haloes of ceramic material encircle ancient sites. In fact, many scholars argue that the practice of spreading manure created these ceramic haloes. Within the settlement, residents discarded bits of broken pottery on piles of household (both human and animal)waste. The practice of studying the remains of human activity in the countryside by documenting these worn fragments of discarded goods reminds us of a profoundly dystopian image: communities literally consuming their own waste.
So, as both archaeology and our punk friends scrutinize materiality as an indicators of culture. They invite us to contemplate the remains of the past as both a cautionary tale for the ephemeral nature of the material accomplishments that we hold dear, while at the same time validate our ability to understand the past (and the present) through bits of meaning embedded in those same good and practices. The failures of culture manifest themselves in the discarded objects, buildings, and goods scattered about, and these same practices construct a body of material that we can study and reproduce the past.
The presence of nature amidst these man-made ruins and the parallel between the ruins of capitalism (dead shopping malls) and natural features (rise like mountains beyond mountains) reminds us that all of our surroundings are cultural, and, at that point, dystopian landscapes become familiar. We not only live in the sprawl, but we have always lived in the sprawl.