Afterdays Media focuses on archaeological views of our contemporary culture. Artifacts, art, or cultural phenomena that picture us in the past tense.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Debris Lessons Part 1: Umbrella Man

This blog focuses on the consideration of our own culture in the past tense. It is basically relevant to extend the time frame in question back to the early years of the industrial and consumer revolution, sometime in the early 1700s. The beginnings of the western culture that we know today. That brings me to my day job as an historical archaeologist.

In that job, we are assigned to interpret the meanings and circumstances behind the ruins and artifacts left in the ground by people long dead. There is an implied “resurrection” of sorts – of some aspect of architecture, material surroundings, or daily life. We follow rules of empiricism and logic, and we tell ourselves that we build conclusions based on observable facts.

Well, yes and no.

We do manage to sketch some pretty remarkable outlines of past places, events and lifetimes. And we can say a few things with a certain degree of authority. Some amazing things, actually. But we are constantly on shaky ground, due to the natural laws of decay and fragile memory. We must bridge the gaps of decomposition and forgetting with certain assumptions, often based on Occam's Razor, which states that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

This brings us to the Umbrella Man, a short film by Errol Morris. On the surface, it is about a strange character seen at the site of Kennedy’s assassination. But what it is really about is the potential for seemly nonsensical factors behind any historical circumstance. Once you look too close - when you really attempt to read each detail  - probability, predictability, and Occam's Razor itself may fall apart. This perspective can threaten to make a monkey out of any historical or archaeological study.

This cuts to the heart of the theme of abandonment and decay present on this and so many other blogs. The suggestions made by patina, and by the gulf between what happened and what we bring to the remains of what happened. That is the fun part.

Watch the video:

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