Monday, 5 September 2016

Review of Patina by Shannon Lee Dawdy

Cover of Patina: a profane archaeology (Chicago 2016)
My review of Shannon Lee Dawdy's new book Patina (Chicago 2016) is forthcoming in Sculpture Journal. The first paragraphs of the review are below - and you can download the full review on my academia.edu page

Shannon Lee Dawdy, Patina: A Profane Archaeology. Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2016, xv+195pp, 24 b&w illustrations, $82.50, ISBN 9780226351056.

The path, the intensity, and the human impact of a tropical cyclone are, like a change in the intellectual climate of a discipline, notoriously difficult to forecast. Shannon Lee Dawdy’s storming new book is about a hurricane from the near past. But at a moment when so much archaeological thinking is dead in the water, it is a straw in the wind suggesting that the new, vital, cross-disciplinary contributions that have started to condense in one disciplinary subfield – Contemporary Archaeology – are reaching a new velocity.

Patina presents an archaeological account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where canal levees and floodwalls were catastrophically breached on 29 August 2005. Dawdy puts her knowledge gained through a longstanding involvement in the historical archaeology of the city to new uses, documenting and reflecting upon the shock of this natural disaster for its cultural life. The rationale for using archaeology to study the modern and contemporary world is made clear at the outset: the processes of “weathering” that one would find at an ancient site occurred here too, but unfolding over days and weeks rather than centuries and millennia. 

The hurricane ‘ruptured’ time. ‘Now,’ one resident explained, ‘everything’s before and after Katrina’ (p.18). Amid the devastation, people complained of ‘Katrina brain’, renamed their transformed city ‘K-ville’ – and described the physical traces of the storm as ‘Katrina patina’. Katrina’s contemporary stratum, formed through the action of floodwater and mould, was found everywhere: on buildings, on possessions, on the human body, and even on museum objects recovered from the floods. But as Dawdy’s book deftly shows, this vernacular conception of patina offers a smudged lens through which to understand human attitudes to change, loss, culture, endurance and time.

"A Post-Katina house" from Dawdy 2016, p. 3
Across six highly readable chapters, a rich variety of human stories reveal Dawdy’s main argument: New Orleans has been a kind of ‘antique city’ since its foundation in 1718, with a longstanding vernacular ‘fixation on old things’. Katrina’s was thus only the most recent of many layered patinas with which its citizens have lived. Dawdy subjects patina – that much neglected notion that lies somewhere between verdigrised decay, aesthetic desuetude and applied distress – to a new, ambitious and innovative theoretical treatment.

A gloriously light and superficial layering of keywords from the history of Anthropology and Cultural Studies provides patina with a new sheen of its own. We move at speed from Durkheimian mana to the Freudian fetish; Ruskin’s Lamp of Memory to Proust’s mémoire involontaire; Levi-Strauss’ sociétés à maison to Foucault’s heterotopia; Rosaldo’s Imperialist Nostalgia to Said’s Orientalism; Munn’s use of the Peircian qualisign to Nora’s milieux de memoire; and so on. The book also relies on key concepts developed by some of the leading thinkers in Contemporary Archaeology, including Cornelius Holtorf’s notion of ‘pastness’; Alfredo González-Ruibal’s account of ‘heterotemporality’; and Laurie Wilkie’s transgressive archaeological analysis of the beads thrown at Mardi Gras (Strung Out on Archaeology; Routledge 2016).

What emerges is a fragmentary Benjaminian archaeology of ‘profane illuminations’, lit up by flashes of past in the present in which ‘patina is aura made curiously concrete’ (p. 11). The book’s quasi-ethnographic and anecdotal descriptions of historic preservation, ghost stories, heirlooms and antique collecting elegantly describe the everyday practices of living with the past in New Orleans, from which three main conclusions about the use and effects of patina are drawn.

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