Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

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Remnantology Manifesto

I have been considering this for some time. Alena Pirok and I have discussed this for ages and this last fall she had her Armstrong State undergrads explore the remnantology concept. They posted their images on Instagram and it was a real treat to see them play with the idea. But what is the idea? Obviously, I think enough of it to have named my blog after it. But I have yet to fully put into words just what I mean by it. It was one of my only attempts to coin, or re-coin a term. The word itself comes from a subfield of botany and biology, but I see huge material resonances in it. I am working on the chapter ideas for the book on this, but for my own clarity, and for others’ as well, I have sketched out the start of a Remnantology Manifesto that begins to put in words what I can see in the periphery.

The Remnantology Manifesto

Human beings have been busy changing this planet to suit their needs ever since the two Remnant001first met. Those who know, inform us that the human species’ ability to manipulate its environment to suit its specific needs is the principal evolutionary advantage these animals have had over others. This has meant that human history has been filled with the making and remaking and remaking yet again of the places humans have called home. This endless game of revision and modification has left the world littered with remnants—each change large or small displaces something that was there first. In some areas, the change can be dramatic—say for example a farm field transformed into a subdivision. Other times though change can be as light as simple reordering, a shifting around of elements, a layering of one way of using a space atop another. Uses, ornaments, components, can be swallowed up by remaking, renovation, and host of other intentional changes. But there is a separate class of artifacts that just stay where there are unchanged, un-reused, and overlooked. These bits are not in the way enough to cause trouble to how things are being reordered, nor do they need to change to be part of something new. They no longer matter—and at the same time, they are in no one’s way so they illicit no fuss or concern to remove or change them. These objects are Remnantology.

Principle One: Remnantology is a species of Stratigraphy.

In archaeology, the concept of stratigraphy rules the roost. This is the idea that layers form over time and in the perfect conditions, as you move down through the layers, you move “back in time.” The fundamental principal of excavation is the removal of layers (as well as other fills and features) in an orderly fashion to record each and in so doing go deeper in space and deeper in time. Not so with Remnantology—it can be observed, but it cannot be removed to reveal more. It just exists. Yet, Remnantology shares stratigraphy’s understanding of accretion, but the implied horizontality is not there. Remnantology has no layers, but it has superimposition.

Photo Dec 02, 13 49 41Principle Two: Remnantology is Material.

It must exist. It must be a thing—you can touch it, break it, throw things at it. It can be painted, crushed, or stepped on. It must be observable. Remnantology is composed of the things left behind, things that once were vital to how life worked, but have been left behind in some version of their useful state.

Principle Three: Remnantology Hides in Plain Sight.

We are all surrounded by Remnantology—it is fundamental to how the material world is ordered. The challenge is to re-orient how we see what we see, and what we understand of what we see. In that way, Remnantology is way of seeing the world.

Principle Four: Repurposing is not Remnantology.

Repurposing is an act of intentionality. To take a thing, tidy it up, and find a new use for it is really to reintegrate it back into how life is lived. This is fine—valuable even. But it is not Remnantology.

Principle Five: Hate is not the Opposite of Love—indifference is. Remnantology resides in Indifference.

Being overlooked is crucial to being Remnantology. Hatred leads to removal and demolition. Love leads to fetishizing and repurposing. Remnantology is in the middle. Forgotten.

2017-12-02 10.39.29Principle Six: Abandonment is not Remnantology.

Many Remnantology objects seem to be abandoned—and indeed many are left behind. But abandonment is a category unto itself. Garbage is abandoned, a burned out car is abandoned, a home can be abandoned. None of these though are Remnantology. Like Remnantology, abandonment entails a thing no longer being needed for its intended purpose. But, something abandoned is in some way hindering something else’s function. Garbage will eventually be cleaned up. The burned out car is blocking a street or a parking space and is itself a species of nuisance. The abandoned home is in a transitional state—on its way towards demolition or rediscovery—and in the meanwhile is stopping something else from occurring. Remnantology on the other hand, impedes nothing, interferes with no vital action or activity, and not in a transitional state. It just exists.


Photographic Now-and-Thens

Over the past few months a new manner of photographic art form has come to my attention. It involves taking old photographs and merging them with new ones. I have loved this sort of game for ages, but digital photography now brings it to our fingertips. Who cannot love the work of William Frassanito who made it his métier to locate the sites and angles of noted Civil War photographs and set “then and now” images side by side?

No one could not claim that Frassanito invented the approach, but few before him had used it to such great effect and historical value. His careful work charted out how photographic teams lugged corpses around battlefields from place to place to get just the right shot. That may not have changed the way military historians understood a fight, but it certainly added a deeply valuable and unique level of humanity to the aftermath of the battles. No small feat. I was one of the almost innumerable kids who grew staring in fascination and horror at the often quite beautiful images of the war’s dead. Frassanito deepened and reanimated these images for me. For example, it was moving to learn that that gaunt, prone, but yet so life-like blood-soaked Confederate boy (as he indeed was) whose life ended with a checked cloth near his hand as he hid in a small pile of fence rails near Spotsylvania Courthouse was also the dead man second from the left in another photo from the same sequence.[1] Frassanito’s work showed us that many of these men in these seemingly separate images were in fact comrades, and in all probability knew each other by name given how close to one another they died. Likewise, Frassanito’s Gettysburg work showed that the much-beloved and ballyhooed photograph of the Confederate prisoners by the fence rails shows men who in fact were not defiant heroes nor exemplars of the “elan” that Shelby Foote effused about, but were instead deserters who hid out in barns near Carlisle and thus missed the battle.[2]

Three "Johnnie Reb" Prisoners, captu...

Three “Johnnie Reb” Prisoners, captured at Gettysburg, 1863 (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This Frassanito gleaned from photographer’s notes, landscape triangulation, and army records. Wonderful work.

James Deetz too used photographic “then and now” in Flowerdew Hundred when he matched up views of the James River.[3] I am not sure that he really did much more than offer a contrast, but he did use the process in aid of identifying sites—perhaps the approach’s most valuable use. I played at this game early on in the Ferry Farm work, although not with an eye toward finding sites.

But these new Photoshop matchups (although it would be Gimp in my case) are something very different. More art than research. They have enormous capacity to invoke if nothing else–but that capacity is remarkable. The first I saw of these were mashups from Russian cities during The Great Patriotic War. They wonderfully set school children against T-34 tanks and blown out buildings and thus created deeply haunting beautiful  images.

I took my first stab at this in Bristol in the UK—a city that was extensively bombed by the Germans during WWII. I used an image of the lovely Park St. and did my best matching up.

park st

What I had not noticed at first was the contrast of the devastated buildings on the right of the image, and the fashionable cartoon violence referenced in the movie poster on the left. On Park St., one generation knew these horror all to well, whereas a later generation has turned horror into a fun afternoon. I had created art and did not even know it.

Now that I am back in Fredericksburg, I am in a setting filled with great historical images. Years of time here have let me know most of the locations for many of the best shots. So I have set in to do a few of these over the next few weeks.


I do have a question though. In a city struggling with issues of preservation I find myself wondering if this sort of imaging highlights that which is lost, or does it create the impression that more has survived? Of course that depends on the individual image to a large degree. But, I find myself wondering if this helps or hurts the larger cause of preserving past views.

[1], William Frassanito, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865 (New York: Thomas Publishing, 1996).

[2] William Frassanito, Gettysburg: A Journey in Time (New York: Thomas Publishing, 1996).

[3] James Deetz, Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of Virginia Plantation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996).

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