ZEITGEIST: Dawid Kobialka

Star Trek into Archaeology: Captain James T. Kirk and Heritage from the Future

Dawid Kobialka, PhD Student, Adam Mickiewicz University

Definitely, it was not a good day for Theodor Adorno (2005: 25), otherwise great German philosopher, when he honestly admitted in Minima Moralia: ‘Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse’. What Adorno despised was not only Hollywood movies, but generally, popular culture per se that was part of culture industry. However, it can be said that today there are many interesting things taking place in cinema that can inspire archaeologists. One of them concerns heritage; the subject that is very close to our hearts.

For many decades cultural heritage was seen through the lens of great monuments/buildings from the past (e.g. Stonehenge). Nonetheless, some new trends have been recently observed within the heritage sector. That is to say, more and more ordinary, day-to-day things are recognized as cultural heritage. This is one of the faces of spirit of our time (Zeitgeist): even an ordinary object has its own historical and cultural value (figure 1). By the same token, cultural heritage seems to be everything what we inherit from the past. Popular culture gives conceptual tools to slightly correct this point of view. To put it paradoxically, cultural heritage is also everything what we inherit from the future.

Figure 1 (1)
Figure 1: Heritage from the recent past: a bottle of vodka (author Dawid Kobiałka).

Star Trek is, without any doubt, one of the greatest cultural goods created in the US. It is a series of novels, comic books, TV series and movies, about the crew of the starship Enterprise and its different stories that happen during the exploration of the universe. The Captain of the starship is my beloved hero from childhood: Captain James T. Kirk. And he might be the key to understanding archaeological Zeitgeist, so to speak.

In Riverside, Iowa is a small plaque (figure 2). It commemorates the fact that captain Kirk will be born in this town on March 22, 2228. The plaque is very ambiguous. It does not concern with some true event from the past as it is usually in the case of such monuments. On the contrary, it says about a fictional, future event. The usual logic is turned around here. The plague might embody some trends of crucial significance for today’s archaeology. In other words, instead of focusing on hard data and heritage from the past, archaeologists need to focus also on the role of fiction (popular culture) and heritage from the future for contemporary society.

Figure 2 (1)
Figure 2: Heritage from the future(1).

The Captain Kirk plaque is not the only example that indicates the increasing role of popular culture heritage from the future. Another one that was also extremely popular on the Internet is Rä di Martimo’s pictures took in the desert of Tunisia and Morocco (e.g Gorence 2013). What made the pictures so intriguing is the fact that they present buildings and other facilities from George Lucas’ Star Wars. One is seeing in them ‘real’, ‘material’ buildings from the planet Tatooine. It is as if reality and fiction became one. The point to be made here is very simple: these buildings, although belonging to a different universe (as it is known to every devotee of Star Wars, Taooine is located in Outer Rim Territories), are our common heritage. But this heritage comes from the future….

Archaeology is a social and cultural practice. In accordance with that, to be important for contemporary society, archaeology needs to address topics of general interest. One way of doing it goes, in my opinion, through the links between popular culture and heritage (from the future). The heritage of popular culture is the one that we as archaeologists should more carefully reflect upon. Who knows?: perhaps contemporary archaeologies and the heritage sector should be more about the future than the past (see also Holtorf & Högberg 2013).

Notes:

[1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Future_Birthplace_of_Captain_James_T_Kirk.jpg [accessed October 1, 2013].

Bibliography:

Adorno, T. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott. London & New York, Verso.

Gorence, A. 2013. Remnants of abandoned Star Wars Sets in Morocco and Tunisia reminiscent of ancient ruins. Feature shoot, February 1, 2013. Available at: http://www.featureshoot.com/2013/02/remnants-of-abandoned-star-wars-sets-in-morocco-and-tunisia-reminiscent-of-ancient-ruins/ [accessed October 1, 2013].

Holtorf, C. &  Högberg, A. 2013. Heritage futures and the future of heritage. In: S. Bergerbrant & S. Sabatini (eds.), Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kritisian Kristiansen, BAR International Series 2508. Archaeopress: Oxford, pp. 739-46.

PEER RESPONSE:

John Roby, Assistant Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania

As a lifelong science fiction fan, I was fascinated to read Dawid Kobiałka’s thoughts on a sort of “future heritage” pinned to the delightfully anachronistic, extant material culture of Star Trek and Star Wars. I would like to briefly raise one concern and one point of expansion.

Leaving aside the vision of Theodor Adorno sitting in on the latest Star Trek film, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of the culture industry runs deeper than mere dislike. To Adorno and others, the troubling thing about a cultural production like a film was its ability to create a false sense of choice and freedom in the viewer, while reproducing the structural conditions within which that viewer was enmeshed (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982). A material object, of course, has a use-value, while a cultural production has value only in the way it instills prestige and knowledge in its consumer. The culture industry manipulates those created needs, thus appearing to provide what consumers want, while actually training them to want more things that are of less value. Just as “the diner must be satisfied with the menu,” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982: 139), the viewer must be satisfied with the film. So goes the criticism.

Yet I have trouble accepting that as the end of the discussion. To me, the best science fiction articulates a hopeful vision of human possibility. This is particularly true for Star Trek, with its celebration of unity in diversity and its future history in which we have moved beyond superstition and want and war. To that end, I find the memorialization of Captain Kirk’s future birthplace to be, as Kobiałka notes, quite compelling. I agree that the concept of heritage can, and perhaps should be, extended to a vision of the future, and I suggest that memory offers a way out of the “hard data” bind to which Kobiałka makes reference.

The immateriality of fiction appears to be a hurdle to using a certain vision of the future to organize praxis in the present. But this hurdle is itself illusory: Archaeology is in the business of presencing the absent, “enfranchising it as an object of social discourse” (Buchli and Lucas 2001: 174). Fiction’s locations are by definition absent, but monumental buildings and memorials can concretize that absence, serving as foci for remembrance. Moreover, as Joan W. Scott (2001) makes clear, history (and, I would add, heritage work) constructs its object, it does not discover it. In light of this, there is no particular reason an object or locus inspired by a work of fiction cannot serve as a site of cultural memory (Connerton 1989, 2009).

My concern is with what memories and memorial practices would be foregrounded at such a site. Kobiałka suggests greater attention to the heritage of popular culture. The term itself is too vague to suit me; I tend to lean toward the Frankfurt School’s critique of popular culture and the capitalism-serving consumption that it engenders. Star Trek, though, is different. A monument that serves to recall the values it lauds and suggests concrete practices to achieve them is a small step to making that future less fictional and more possible.

References:

Buchli, Victor, and Gavin Lucas. 2001. “Presencing Absence.” In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, edited by Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, 171-174. London: Routledge.

Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Connerton, Paul. 2009. How Modernity Forgets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 1982. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum.

Scott, Joan W. 2001. “After History?” In Schools of Thought: Twenty-Five Years of Interpretive Social Science, edited by Joan W. Scott and Debra Keates, 85-103.

Princeton: Princeton University Press.

ZEITGEIST: Cornelius Holtorf

I saw this ad in an in-flight magazine the other day and took it home with me:

Screen shot 2013-10-28 at 9.50.24 AM

The  two-page ad made me think whether the same slogan could not also apply to the way we look at cultural heritage. Is not heritage possibly too “a material of hope” and an “advanced material” that drives the future?

Too often we see heritage discussed in apocalyptic visions of imminent doom: destructive scenarios in which heritage is seen as put at risk by various present and future threats. We are told that we need to take urgent action in order to safeguard the heritage for future generations.  Heritage appears as very fragile and vulnerable, helplessly subjected to the destructive forces of history brought to bear on it. In this common view, the best we can apparently hope for is that, with out help, the heritage continues to exist for a bit longer. But there is hardly ever a positive vision of how heritage can actively contribute to specific future scenarios of a better society.

This debate is slowly changing now as the contribution of heritage to sustainable development advances from a catchphrase to a meaningful concept.  But there is still a long way to go until heritage will generally be seen as a material of hope; as something that does not in the first place need to be protected from various threats of the present and the future but that indeed drives the future:

Screen shot 2013-10-28 at 9.50.41 AM

 

PS: Toray is a chemical industry group using organic synthetic chemistry, polymer chemistry and biotechnology as its core technologies to produce materials for other industries, e.g. cars. http://www.toray.com. This image was used with good intentions but without formal permission. 

COMMENT: PAUL MULLINS

Hope, Shape, and Heritage

Holtorf’s reconfigured advertisement is less about heritage as change than as the possibility of change.  In its invocation of an aesthetics of heritage as weathered if not eroded ruins, Holtorf’s brick structure seems to represent potential.  It is not clear if his weathered structure is an abandoned shell or a stylistically unvarnished ruin set apart from the new by its unfinished brick; in either case, its historical traces imagine a novel material transformation.

In contrast, Toray’s own ad confirms the future has already arrived in the form of an absurdly stylish eco-friendly sports car fashioned from Toray’s innovative chemical fabrics.  Heritage rhetoric routinely is reduced to desperate preservation lobbying that revolves around the potential of salvaged material spaces, ruins, and things.  Yet Toray delivers hope right now, innovation made possible through chemicals that are “giving shape” to the future.

Heritage materially provides shapes for the future, the literal structural remains, landscape expanses, and scattered objects that attest to visible histories.  However, in much of the world heritage is a sober term for checking development, desperately saving select material presences, or accepting the inevitable march of development that attempts to co-opt heritage planners.

This may well seem “apocalyptic” because heritage planning may hazard being an administrative mechanism that approves development, gathering up traces in the path of the bulldozer.  Ideally heritage refers to a social practice that uses preservation management, spatial interpretation, and historical narrative to weave tales that could reasonably be activist and forward-thinking.  Yet preserving a fragile heritage may be inevitably dystopian in the face of global development.  Perhaps that dystopian message about what could be lost is more critical than the forward-thinking message of hope.

COMMENT: Sarah May

I like the way Holtorf is investigating his concept of Archaeology as a Brand here and stretching it so that it does the work Heritage claims to do. And as always, its a positive vision of the discipline, which is sorely lacking more broadly. Its really important for us to imagine these kinds of concrete engagements with the future.

The question that this piece raises for me is, “who does Heritage give hope to?” The Toray ad is reassuring wealthy consumers that they can continue to have their lifestyles in the face of environmental change. Holtorf’s reworking retains that same feel. “Don’t worry”, it purrs, “there may be changes, but you can still live in castles.” Of course, this is exactly the kind of hope that draws funding, whether public or private. And in many ways its an explicit statement of the kind of hope that Heritage has been trading on for most of the 20th century.

But Heritage can give hope to a much wider constituency, hope for a future which is not just an adjustment of our present, but actually alters some of the power structures which leave most of the world disenfranchised. It offers this hope on the basis that the past has been different from the present, and even the present is more complex, more strange than schools, and indeed brands, tell us.

It was this hope that was most powerful for the students I taught in the late 1990’s. They lived in Dundalk, on the border of the Republic of Ireland, a place full of fortifications old and new. The Heritage they had learned at school was all about a glorious past. They had learned the strength that comes with unity and resistance. The narrative was full of repelling invaders. But the image was surface, the details of life that make it real were missing. As they explored those details they realised that, while connected, they were truly different from their ancestors. They could choose their future, it was not preordained.

How can this kind of hope be encapsulated in the kind of frame Holtorf uses? I need to stretch myself as well. Most of my experience with billboards and advertisements has involved graffiti which undermines, rather than appropriates, their message. I suspect the ‘brand value’ which expresses this hope is the sense of adventure. Archaeology and Heritage offer the freedom to imagine a different better world, not just an eco-friendly mirror of this one.

Adventure brings as much baggage as castles, but I’d rather climb that mountain than patch the old fortifications.

 

Stonerocks

Stonehenge in the sun.
Stonerocks by Jacson Querubin

I’m taking a break from Distance photos for this week, though there is a post on the topic spanning the distance from the USA to Ireland tomorrow. Tonight starts the preparation of an annual ceremony driven by the turning of the seasons that culminates tomorrow. These people will gather amid the crowds and chaos on Salisbury Plain to perform their enduring task regardless of the weather. It’s easy to be cynical or mock. “Who are these people?” you may ask. “What gives them the right to grab the best spot?” you may enquire or even more harshly affirm, “It’s people like these who fill NatGeo and History channel with clichés, nonsense and clichéd nonsense.” But I beg to differ, what would the solstice at Stonehenge be like if it weren’t for the dedicated cameramen and photographers recycling the same shots of people cheering at a sunrise that’s obscured by cloud?

Photographers and Cameramen getting the same shot of the sun at Stonehenge.
They come every year heedless to the mocking.

I was there last year and while I got many photos, they were all varying degrees of awful. I much prefer this photo by Jacson Querubin. This photo was chosen for the colours and the angle. It doesn’t have the sun rising or setting behind it, but by getting low Jacson Querubin has managed to put the stones into the sky. Lots of photos do this, with Stonehenge between the earth and the heavens, but this view gives me more of an impression of the stones reaching up to the sky. With so many shots of the same place, he finds something which doesn’t tread the same path as everyone else (including me).

Photo: Stonerocks by Jacson Querubin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.