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Patina: A Profane Archaeology

Patina: A Profane Archaeology

by Shannon Lee Dawdy
Patina: A Profane Archaeology

Patina: A Profane Archaeology

by Shannon Lee Dawdy


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When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the world reacted with shock on seeing residents of this distinctive city left abandoned to the floodwaters. After the last rescue was completed, a new worry arose—that New Orleans’s unique historic fabric sat in ruins, and we had lost one of the most charming old cities of the New World.
In Patina, anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy examines what was lost and found through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Tracking the rich history and unique physicality of New Orleans, she explains how it came to adopt the nickname “the antique city.” With innovative applications of thing theory, Patina studies the influence of specific items—such as souvenirs, heirlooms, and Hurricane Katrina ruins—to explore how the city’s residents use material objects to comprehend time, history, and their connection to one another. A leading figure in archaeology of the contemporary, Dawdy draws on material evidence, archival and literary texts, and dozens of post-Katrina interviews to explore how the patina aesthetic informs a trenchant political critique. An intriguing study of the power of everyday objects, Patina demonstrates how sharing in the care of a historic landscape can unite a city’s population—despite extreme divisions of class and race—and inspire civil camaraderie based on a nostalgia that offers not a return to the past but an alternative future.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226351223
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 288
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Shannon Lee Dawdy is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. She was awarded a MacArthur Genius Fellowship in 2010.

Shannon Lee Dawdy is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. She was awarded a MacArthur Genius Fellowship in 2010.

Read an Excerpt


A Profane Archaeology

By Shannon Lee Dawdy

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-35122-3


Introduction: Katrina, Nostalgia, Profanity

It generally happens that people's surroundings reflect more or less accurately their minds and dispositions. — Andrew Lang, The Green Fairy Book

For several weeks after Hurricane Katrina's slow-blooming devastation, New Orleans was horribly quiet. But by the end of October 2005, dump trucks, chain saws, and the familiar strains of self-deprecating irony began to fill the air. An irreverent sense of humor marked by pain and politics is one of the enduring qualities of the city's residents. It often takes material form, such as in satiric Mardi Gras floats. Or, after the levee breaks, as refrigerators ruined by rotted food, set out on the street and tagged with graffiti messages such as "Loot this!" or "Stinky Cheese: Return to France!" Local wit also paraded in new linguistic inventions. A slang developed among residents struggling to cope with the continuing disaster. They complained about "Katrina brain" and described the uncanny place where they lived as "K-ville." The new vocabulary gestured to the foggy confusion of posttraumatic stress and the shrunken, redundantly scarred landscape. One particularly redolent phrase, "Katrina Patina," referred to the multihued encrustation that water and mold left in horizontal strata upon houses, possessions, and even the people sullied by the hard work of cleanup. The term mocks New Orleans's vanity about its status as a well-preserved "antique city." More seriously, it is a phrase used to describe any visible mark of the storm that evokes epic stories of evacuation, abandonment, rescue, and despair.

In my interview with a clock collector and antique dealer I'll call Tom, our conversation moved quickly from why he prefers clocks that haven't been "spiffed up" too much, that retain a bit of dirt and what he professionally calls patina, to his experiences during and after the storm:

Talking about patina. When my son and I snuck in here ... and we came in and nothing was stirring, just some soldiers walking by, they stopped and talked to us. We didn't see anything moving. Maybe a car now and then. It was like the end of the world. Everything was grey. That's a patina. We had a patina after the storm. It was grey and desolate. ... [Now] everything's before and after Katrina.

In the rebuilding process, some residents were careful to preserve one section of unpainted wall on their houses that bears Katrina patina, as a material archive of their historical experience. Another visible sign ubiquitous on any street-level tour of the city, even many years after the storm, is the spray-painted "X" symbol left by rescue and recovery teams on every one of New Orleans's buildings (fig. 1.1). So every building, whether affected directly by storm damage and the levee failures or not, was still damaged — was marked — by the disaster. The same could be said of the city's residents. Some whitewashed over the marks as one of their first acts upon return to the city. Others do not have the means to repaint or have not returned. And some are purposefully preserving the graffiti as a form of memorial. These markers and the varied human responses to them underscore how New Orleans is an especially archaeological place. Residents are keenly aware of dirt and debris, of the processes of decay, burial, demolition, and the creation of new landscapes. Survivors understand their lives stratigraphically. Referring to the rupture of an event still difficult to comprehend, the new slang divides time into "Pre-K" New Orleans and "Post-K" New Orleans.

Pre-K patina was also very much a concern — and a point of contention — among historic preservationists, urban planners, and the purveyors of modular homes. While there are several new housing designs now offered on the market that quote historic New Orleans styles, many residents find something lacking: "What everyone wants to avoid ... [is] more stage-set recreations of vernacular architecture ... and blocks of traditional houses in period costume." Local architect Robert Cangelosi warned, "We're homogenizing the city very quickly. If we aren't careful, we will lose our greatest economic engine, which is our gumbo culture. That's why people come here. It's not Disneyland, and it's not Anywhere USA." Others argued that the Disneyfication of New Orleans was already complete in the French Quarter and that after the storm it would simply creep further into the neighborhoods. Although Walt Disney admired New Orleans, once saying, "Where else can you find iniquity and antiquity so close together?," it was precisely these qualities that he sanitized out of his one-half-scale version of a "cleaner, shinier" French Quarter at Disneyland. He erased the patina — the peeling paint of exterior walls and the lacquer of cigarette smoke and fry grease clinging to interior walls. Patina told a story inappropriate to Disneyland — a story of iniquity perhaps, but also of inequality, multiple layers of colonialism, the cyclical disasters of capitalism, and an orientalism that has long fed a different form of fantasy consumption. There also seemed to be something uncomfortably intimate about New Orleans. Perhaps something that shouldn't, or couldn't, be sold.

Katrina patina does not just cover buildings. It coats small objects. In a CNN interview at the Jackson Barracks Museum, a complex dating to the 1820s situated in the Lower Ninth Ward, the reporter described the scene: "Nearly 9,000 military artifacts, dating from colonial times to today, are strewn about the museum. Many are laid out on drying pads like wounded troops. The mannequin of a buffalo soldier, mud-soaked epilets [epaulets], a priceless pre–Civil War knapsack. From tea cups to field radios, the items in this room date throughout Louisiana's history in battle. When the levees broke, the water rose up over my hand. Everything in here was submerged and floating in water, along with the identifying tags on each item." The reporter then turned to interview Harmon Fischer, a member of the National Guard's Restoration Unit, who offered: "It's very tedious, but very worthwhile once you get through with the process. When I look at all of it, I look at it as history with a little more history tacked onto it. Still going to be the same item. Just a little more history. It went through Katrina." An off-camera voice piped in: "I guess they have a Katrina patina to them now, those artifacts."

Lori Gordon is a visual artist who lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She lost her home, her studio, and her entire beachfront community to the storm surge. When she returned, she began to gather objects of Katrina debris from her house site and those of others, finding beauty in their battered skins. She made use of objects bearing what she, too, called "Katrina Patina." Patina seems to be simultaneously a thing of beauty, a residue of history, and a marker of social belonging in the present.

Beyond the storm, the word patina encompasses an aesthetic sensibility that defines much of cultural and material life in New Orleans, from the connoisseurship of traditional jazz, to the facades of the French Quarter, to recipes for Creole turtle soup and the dandified consumption of "the Green Fairy" (absinthe) in ornamented bars. Why are New Orleanians so fixated on old things? What does patina do for them?

For this book, the word patina summons a triangular relationship between time, materiality, and the social imaginary that I will explore at different scales and from various angles. In the case of New Orleans, a local aesthetic embraces the look of age with overtones of romanticism, death, and the erotic. New Orleans brands itself as an antique city. Locals seem particularly alert to the complex space-time of their environment and map the city through a knowledge of the past, both deep and recent.

Although there are some peculiarities to the New Orleans story, it shares the antique aesthetic with places like Kyoto, Venice, Cairo, Rome, and Havana. Globally, the appeal such cities have for tourism derives in part from their contrast with the clean lines of modernism and the linear time of modernity. They are often perceived as slow zones and remnants of a way of life that has been lost or is in danger of extinction. But this perception risks misunderstanding antique cities as static dioramas and ignoring their vitality in the present. They also tend to be places where the imagined community of the city is quite declarative. Ultimately, I will argue that the patina aesthetic has social effects of a totemic kind.

While patina undoubtedly drives an economy of heritage tourism and provincial sentimentality, it also dangles keys to understanding the sociology of the city. My drive to understand New Orleans as a package of self-reinforcing representations and practices has risen out of a struggle with a puzzle. It is not so difficult to comprehend what divides the city by race, class, religion, and ethnicity. Such tensions have been the subjects of many studies, and more are surely needed with the city's sudden leap from desolation to gentrification. What is more baffling, and less explored, is what holds it together despite these divides. As will become evident in the interviews dispersed throughout the chapters, New Orleanians insist there is something that holds them together. Although some have a hard time putting their finger on it, others are not hesitant to call it a kind of love.

In a peculiar demographic counterpoint, by one measure New Orleans is the most visited city in the United States, and by another it is home to one of the most stable, multigenerational urban populations in the country. Before Katrina, everyone visited and natives rarely moved on. The economy of New Orleans has long been oriented toward the passer-through: the coureur de bois, the Irish smuggler, the deployed soldier, the Kaintuck, the Mexican sailor, the slave trader, the cotton merchant, the Storyville john, and the Texas tourist. This demographic oddity is paralleled by a material one. From its early colonial days, the city has been depicted as "ancient" and well-preserved, although it was actually destroyed and rebuilt several times prior to Katrina. Locals imagine so-called Creole culture as stable, traditional, even conservative, and built upon the bedrock of a French colonial past, although only a tiny number of residents could actually claim biological descent from this population, and even though materially there is almost nothing left from this period. The French Quarter is not even French. With the exception of a single building (Ursuline Convent), all of the standing structures the visitor sees today were built in the later Spanish (1769–1803) or American (post–1804) periods. Residents insist that the materiality of the city (its distinctive food, architecture, gardens, and Creole interiors) have deep roots fiercely preserved by a strong sense of tradition. However, a closer scrutiny of the archaeological and archival records shows that these material realms have undergone major renovations, revolutions, and episodes of invention. One way, then, to understand patina is as a medium of aesthetic value perceived to have accumulated through time that represents the social palimpsest of New Orleans.

This book is a sum of diverse parts: archaeology, ethnography, the eighteenth century, Hurricane Katrina, literature, phenomenology, critical theory, Durkheim's mana, and Freud's fetish. My hope is that this work will find an audience as diverse as its sources and methods. The questions I pursue demand different forms of evidence and a wide range of engagements. The project has emerged from a deep immersion in New Orleans, but it is ultimately about how things that happen there illuminate questions far beyond the city's limits. I am committed to the belief that New Orleans may be extreme, but not exceptional. Stated broadly, I want to better understand the intimate relationships that can develop between old objects and humans, both as a historical accumulation and as a dynamic in the present.

Critical Nostalgia

Before Weber theorized the "disenchantment of the world" wrought by capitalism, there were already moves afoot to reenchant it through aesthetic and affective practices under the patina effect: a value for old, quaint things. These social-aesthetic movements include romanticism, nostalgia, orientalism, and the picturesque, and they began as early as the mid-eighteenth century. While Marx argued that the commodity was enchanted through the false magic of fetishization (more on this in chapter 5), like Weber and Durkheim, he worried that this was a distraction from the growing forces of alienation and anomie, an impersonalization of humans' relations with one another and with their physical environment. Later theorists of commodity aesthetics came to recognize that urbanism and the commodity form emanated their own kind of modernist enchantment promising a future full of possibility. At the same time, they produced dialectical reactions in the form of antimodern utopian movements and the fetishization of objects seen to have an aura that set them apart from the store-bought. Such objects included those that were handmade, pre-industrial, or "primitive."

In New Orleans, these retro reactions to capitalist modernity became particularly well developed in the nineteenth century. Perhaps more surprising, they intensified in the twentieth, when aesthetic modernism was reshaping other "old" cities such as New York, Paris, and Mexico City. Instead, New Orleans came to be a place invested in what I call critical nostalgia. One way to refute capitalism and its temporality is to reject its accompanying aesthetic of "the new." This move is not simply a retreat into the past. Svetlana Boym distinguished two types of nostalgia — the restorative, which aims to naturalize power structures and inequalities, and the reflective, which selectively values past lifeways and old objects as a form of protest against the present. Restorative nostalgia invents traditions, maintains buildings in like-new condition, and serves nationalist agendas through heritage programs. It consists of efforts to erase the passage of time rather than valorize it. In contrast, reflective nostalgia emphasizes the look of age and the contrasts between past and present. It engages with history as a resource for utopian alternatives to the present. Aesthetically, it is a funky, unrepaired type associated with an ironic Gemeinschaft, in contrast to restorative nostalgia's cleanliness and serious demeanor (think Williamsburg or Prague). Anyone having a passing familiarity with New Orleans will recognize it as the American ideal of Boym's reflective type. But I am not quite satisfied with the label. I have chosen to add my own neologism, critical nostalgia, because "reflective" sounds too passive to adequately convey what I see at work in New Orleans. While Boym identifies nostalgia as primarily an idea existing in the heads of actors and the words of writers, I am interested in nostalgic practices and material things as world-making. Patina is not only a political aesthetic but a political force flowing through alternative circuits of value that are both moral and material.

New Orleans has often been depicted as insular, self-indulgent, and frozen in time, but behind the veil of heritage, the city and its people have constantly adapted to new conditions and often posed a challenge to the prevailing values of its reluctant host nation. It is one of those places (and there are others) where capitalist ideology is given a hard time. Some of the reasons for this are quite local and contingent, but telling. They include a Creole backlash against an onslaught of entrepreneurial Americans following the Louisiana Purchase; the contradictions of slavery in which the peculiar rationality of valuing humans as commodities was exposed in extremis in New Orleans's slave markets in the nineteenth century; and the ways in which New Orleans has been repeatedly abandoned by major capital following World War II, the civil rights movement, and, most recently, Hurricane Katrina. It is a place that has suffered more busts than booms in capitalist cycles, making local residents wary of modernity's promises, if not outright rejecting its ideology of progress. Admittedly, New Orleans has had a particularly disruptive history, not all of which can be blamed on capitalism, from the wars between the French and their American Indian neighbors, to two subsequent imperial invasions by the Spanish and the Americans, and a seemingly relentless parade of human and natural disasters. The city has experienced wild pendulum swings since the 1720s, not uncommonly seeing its population double in a decade or decline just as fast. Despite (or because of?) all this, New Orleans today does not hesitate to fashion itself as a heterotopia that offers a form of old-timey enchantment. Its success in tourism suggests that many consumers buy into their own alienation, coming to find something they are convinced is missing from their lives elsewhere.

The effort to understand local nostalgic practices plunged me into the domains of historic preservation, intimate hospitality, ghost stories, heirlooming, antique and junk collecting, perfumes, gardening, and Mardi Gras. Some of these practices are inflected with an auto-orientalism encouraged by tourism, but I came to see that they are also deeply affective modes that have collective social effects, a realization that encouraged a return to venerable anthropological ideas like mana, totem, and fetish. My informants led the way down this unexpected path by resorting to an anthropological vernacular about "mana" and "tribal information" when I asked them why they liked old things. Their responses described an intimate relationship to old objects that at times ventured into mysticism. They frequently slid from a fact-filled narrative history into a more fumbling expression of the presence of pastness all around them. For some, this took the form of a haunting; old houses and objects are mediums for the spirits of the dead. This disposition toward the uncanny seems closely related to a more general phenomenological orientation of New Orleanians to their surroundings that can best be described as heterotemporal, comprised of multiple pasts, presents, and futures. Such heterotemporal sensitivity resonated with my archaeological knowledge of the city and its cycles of buildup and rupture. The past is both spectral and real in New Orleans. The city's traditions cannot in any simple way be said to be either invented or inherited. The dead are a creative force in ongoing life. If we understand a city as a churning assemblage of human and nonhuman elements undergoing processes of accumulation, demolition, decay, and rebirth (which I argue we should, and in chapter 2 I give it a name: social stratigraphy), then the New Orleans habit of granting recognition to old things seems entirely warranted, if unusually alert. Patina represents generations of social formation.


Excerpted from Patina by Shannon Lee Dawdy. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction: Katrina, Nostalgia, Profanity
2. Ruins and Heterogeneous Time
3. A Haunted House Society
4. “French” Things
5. The Antique Fetish
6. Conclusion: Patina, Chronotopia, Mana


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