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Levi Jordan

Archaeology and "The Web": Writing Multi-linear Texts in a Multi-centered Community

by Carol McDavid
paper presented at the 1998 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology
January, 1998

This carved shell "cameo" was found in the slave quarters of this plantation, and was made by one of the people who lived there. See "Shell Carver's Cabin" for more details.

See Maria Franklin's page on this web for her comments on this paper and the others delivered in this session.

"Web sites" concerning archaeological investigations proliferate as archaeologists utilize the Internet to present information about their findings. However, there has been little systematic research aimed at understanding whether hypertext, the textual form used to create "Web sites", is an effective way to communicate archaeological information. Since hypertext offers a multi-linear, decentered, potentially interactive way of presenting archaeology, it may be useful when dealing with information that is "sensitive" and contested in present-day social and political contexts. This paper will examine the collaborative creation of a "Web site" designed to publicly present the archaeologies and histories of the Levi Jordan Plantation. Working with local schools and other community groups, archaeologists and local citizens are working together to examine whether computer-mediated learning (including hypertext) can provide opportunities for people to conduct critical dialogues with archaeologists, with each other, and with "the past".

Today you've heard about several ways in which people at the Levi Jordan Plantation both created and subverted the roles that they, and others, defined. In papers today (and in other publications about this site; see Brown 1995, Brown and Cooper 1990) we've learned how an African healer, for example, was probably also a midwife and, perhaps, a founding member of what became the contemporary Grace Methodist Church. A person who had been enslaved was a carpenter, a farm foreman, and an African political leader. His neighbor was a tenant farmer and a carver of beautiful shell and bone objects. A planter's granddaughter, certainly a woman of her times in her attitudes towards race and traditional women's roles, was also one of the first female graduates of what became Baylor University, and, despite considerable family pressure, refused to marry.

The contemporary context surrounding the Jordan Plantation contains as many examples of multiple and contradictory identities, and preliminary efforts to publicly interpret this site have revealed both consensus and conflict - not only between members of different ethnic groups, but also between factions of descendants within the same ethnic groups. Identities from the past are both continuous with and divergent from those of the social and political present. One purpose of my research is to see if a collaboratively developed Internet Web site, using hypertext (the textual form used to write web sites) is capable of giving voice to the multiple, shifting and sometimes contested understandings of past and present which this archaeological project has both revealed and engendered. Today I'll discuss one stage in the development of this web site, as well as some of the rhetorical and political implications of communicating archaeology via the Internet. It is hoped that this web site can eventually, provide a forum in which contemporary people, multiply defined along crosscutting axes of race, religion, class, gender, family, professional and community affiliation (and other categories too numerous to name) can participate in this archaeological, historical, and, ultimately, social discourse (West 1993:90).

Before going further I should probably be clearer about what I mean by the term "hypertext". It refers to the computer language used by web site writers to embed "links" from specific words and images on an Internet Web page to other parts of a web site, or to other web sites. If you go to a typical web page – what the reader sees on the screen when viewing a web site – you will see some words which are underlined and are, usually, a different color from the text which surrounds them. Clicking a mouse on these words would immediately transport you to another page, image, or another web site.

These underlined words are what are referred to as "hypertext links:. There are usually lots of links on each web page. By going back and forth between chunks of texts and images, the reader becomes an active participant in the way that the knowledge contained in these texts and images is communicated — even though the links themselves are, on the Web, predetermined by the creators of the hypertext document. Hypertext systems, whether on web sites or on other media (such as CD ROMs) link passages of verbal text with pictures, animations, films, and sounds as easily as they link pieces of text – so hypertext includes the term hypermedia – they are frequently used interchangeably (Landow 1992:43-44).

Much has been made, in the growing literature about the nature of hypertext, of the potential of electronic writing to destroy the primacy of the single autonomous author (Greco 1996, Joyce 1995, Kaplan 1994, Landow 1992, Lanham 1993, Taylor and Saarinen 1994a). Certainly, in my role as what some call a "weaver" (Lawrence [1996]) of this web site, I have found that my own presence is dissipated and dispersed. I may write chunks of text, and provide links from texts to images to other texts and images – but it is my readers who will choose their own pathways though the web I provide. There are few guideposts about beginnings, middles and ends. While it is true that there are implications about which links I might choose to provide, it is still the reader who decides which links to use, and in which order.

Traditional modes of knowledge production – such as "teaching", "presenting" and "displaying", fit more easily into hierarchical, authoritative ways of sharing information (such as museums, talks, classrooms, and site tours) than they do within the associative and aleatory logic of the Net (Taylor and Saarinen 1994b:9). I have found it more useful to conceive of the Net, and this project, in terms of a different trope – that of a "conversation" (Rorty 1989) – a disembodied, expanded, fragmented, associative and multivocal conversation. Within these sorts of conversations we can make our archaeological truth claims forcefully and creatively (Hodder et al. 1995:28), while acknowledging the reality that our judgments about historical truth will always terminate in contemporary social practice (West 1993:90). We can embrace science, as our tool-of-trade, but not scientism – operating within a pragmatic realism that does not lead to relativism or skepticism (Goodman 1995:4). It is within this "conversational" trope that I am attempting to collaboratively create the Jordan web site. In doing this, we are attempting to incorporate a reflexive postprocessual methodology (Hodder 1997) that requires us to do four things.

First, it requires that we be critical of our assumptions and taken-for-granteds" — that we be reflexive about what these assumptions reveal about our own ideologies, and that we be aware of how they play out within our various "publics". Second, it means that we must be "multivocal, plural, open and transparent so that a diversity of people can participate in the discourse about the archaeological process" (Hodder 1997:694). Third, it means that we must be interactive – we must provide ways for people to question our interpretations, and ways for them to approach the material from a variety of angles – through different lenses, if you like. We must also provide ways for us to respond to their questions and challenges. Fourth, it means that we need to communicate how our interpretations are contextual, or relational – we must communicate how this archaeology depends on history, on ethnography, and on the continuities and conflicts between past and present – "everything depends on everything else" (Hodder 1997:694).

Continuing my ongoing association with the local communities surrounding the Jordan Plantation (McDavid 1996, McDavid 1997, McDavid 1997 (in press), McDavid April, 1997) this past summer I began the process of creating, or "weaving", this web site. I first met with the Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Society to obtain their support and initial input. I also met with teachers at the local junior high school who were interested in using the web site in their history and computer literacy classes. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Ken Brown and some of his student colleagues, I began to assemble the various components for the web site itself — data, texts, images, and so on. By the end of the summer I had published a prototype web site, and then asked community members and professional colleagues (some of whom are here today) to critique this prototype site. The next step will be make changes to the site (many based on these critiques) and to add a number of interactive elements, including on-line discussion groups and feedback forms. By late spring I plan to use the site in workshops with local students and other community members. To see if the web site is successful in opening the discourse about the archaeology, I plan to use a variety of on-line and off-line evaluation tools, and those evaluations will form the basis of future publication on this research.

But today I'll focus on the critiques that we've gathered, in light of the conversational approach being used here, and in light of our methodological aims. This examination will necessarily expose these critiques to you, which of course is part of our method – just as your response to this paper, if any, will comprise part of our data. I'll close this paper with a brief discussion of some of the larger issues involved in communicating archaeology via hypertext.

On one level, our first aim, to be reflexive and to reveal our "taken for granteds", operates rather baldly. The web site contains several "mission" - type statements; these statements are up front, on the so-called "Home Page" of the site, and in several other places. We state, among other things, that we want to present alternate interpretations of the data alongside, not subsumed to, academic interpretations — that is, to present the scientific voice as an important voice, but not the only voice, in interpreting the past.

But stating this is not doing this, as several critics have pointed out, and we obviously need to have local people add their own material to the site — family histories, pictures, alternate or additional explanations of the data, and so on. My original goal was to develop this web site collaboratively "from the keyboard out", but this turned out to be unfeasible, because even though many community members own their own computers and are quite "Internet-savvy", many are not. Therefore, this prototype site will be used in demonstrations, in community meetings and workshops, so that people may begin to visualize places in which they might want to enter the document. While initial community feedback suggests that this strategy will work, questions of access, both technological and cultural, will be an ongoing concern as this project proceeds.

But other challenges have also prevented us from being fully reflexive or multivocal. Much of the material on this web site now comes from previously published scholarly articles and conference papers. These materials are important in themselves, not only because they are artifacts of a situated time, place, and mode of production, but because they represent a legitimate voice – the scientific/scholarly voice. But these sources – and I should be clear here that I refer to articles and papers written by several of us here today, including myself – present certain problems when trying to apply them to a forum in which we aim to be open, reflexive, multivocal and transparent. Not only is the language usually too technical, certain essentializing words tend to appear throughout these written materials (and thus the present version of the web site). Some critics have pointed out that the word "cabin", for example, is problematic (unless perhaps there is evidence that the plantation's residents themselves used it) because it communicates a certain mental image to contemporary audiences – a certain ideological conception of what an enslaved person's house must be. The word "slave" is even more difficult – as has been made clear from this session, the people who lived on this plantation may have been slaves, or tenants, but they were also many other things.

Even though we could attempt to "translate" all previously published texts into more appropriate, some might say more "politically correct", language, doing this would likely be frustrating, given the fluid, dynamic nature of cultural debates about language, and given that replacement language is frequently cumbersome and awkward. But, taking advantage of the linking capabilities of hypertext, we could simply present the previously published materials as-is, providing hypertext links from "problem" words to discussions about language, and about how words have the power to create and reinforce the categories and vocabularies that we use to describe and understand each other (Rorty 1989, Rorty 1991b). These links in turn could be linked with on-line discussions mentioned earlier, helping us to meet our aim of interactivity, and further situating the conversation about language itself within a specific historical context. In this way we may be able to turn a weakness into an interpretive strength, while still providing a legitimate place for the scientific/authoritative voice within the "conversation" (Rorty 1989, Rorty 1991b) of the flexible, easily adapted web site. By discussing how our own taken-for-granteds are revealed in the words WE use, we may encourage the site's visitors to question the words THEY use in everyday talk. This may also help people to see "science" as historically situated and contingent, rather than as never changing, authoritative "Truth" with a capital "T".

There are also problems with using technical scholarly texts in a forum designed for lay audiences, so obviously a considerable amount of new text will need to be written. But the strategy outlined above could enable us to still use scholarly texts, but to use them in a more reflexive, transparent way.

We are also attempting to address the question of multivocality with a "participants" section of the site. This page includes short biographies of academics, students, family members and other participants, as well as links to information they wish to put on the site under their own names. These participant pages are not grouped according to roles that each individual has – community members are listed alongside academics, for example. This further de-centers the authority of academic "project leaders" – whether we be archaeologists, "web weavers", or both.

To accomplish the goal of communicating the contextual nature of archaeological interpretation, a number of strategies have been or will be employed. For example, internal links from the individual participant pages will be linked to other sections of the site. In addition, each primary entry point into the material [SHOW SLIDE OF HOME PAGE], contains numerous links to other sections. Within archaeology, for example, there are links to history, to ethnography, and back to oral histories written by family members.

We'll also be adding image maps (maps of the site, maps of artifacts in the ground, and so on) linking to other texts and images. We may also add some primary entry points, such as one for African-American studies, rather than subsuming it under "Archaeology" and "History", as it is now. Finally, some critics have questioned the use of technical words like "ethnography" as primary section titles, and there will likely be changes here as well.

I'd like to move here to further discussion of other aspects of using hypertext links and some challenges associated with reading and writing the multi-linear text that hypertext creates. Hypertext does not function as a completely closed system, and the idea of "original text" loses its meaning very quickly – the links and pathways embedded in it are in themselves statements about the relative importance of different chunks of text, different authors, and, most importantly, different points of view. Hypertext links, in themselves, are rhetorical devices.

I'll illustrate this with a hypothetical example. One of our potential sets of information is a set of interviews with the white descendants of the Jordan family. Another is data from a oral history project conducted amongst descendants of the African American residents. What if there were no links from the material about the European Americans who lived on the site and the material about the Africans and African American residents? If we chose, we could list each set of interview data in the table of contents, but provide only one link into and out of each set of information. What would be the effect of having these two bodies of information operating independently of each other? (Which is frequently what happens in traditional, linear, hierarchical presentations of data).

If this happened, we would, first, fail to illustrate the relational nature of knowledge production, but something else would happen as well. We would, in a very subtle way, be perpetuating the stereotypical view that there was little meaningful interaction between the two groups of residents. Traditional binary modes of interpreting human behavior would be reinforced. We would be masking the multiple, overlapping, and complex roles that all of these individuals experienced. This would not only be a rhetorical act, it would also be a political and social one.

A related issue arises when links to any given "Web" site are made from outside the site. Technologically this is quite easy – any web site publisher can insert a link to the Jordan site by simply embedding the address of our site in some link on his or her site. What if, for example, someone who runs a white supremacist site creates a link to the Jordan site? Would this somehow conflate the knowledge communicated on our site with knowledge that we find repugnant (Meskell and Chippendale [1997])? At the very least, these alternate points of view could appear to have equal weight. According to one critic (Tuman 1994):

...hypertextual linking may actually encourage the simplistic, oppositional thinking of TV-talk shows, foregoing the long-established practice of qualifying thought through intricate subordination...by balancing, via links, people clearly representing distinct positions, and hence in so doing validating those opinions, regardless of how ill-informed...

[he continues] ...the single most important question before us...is the effect of the new technologies on our collective and individual power to engage in sustained, constructive alternative thinking..."

This observation is an important one when we start using hypertext to communicate arguments about our work – the links we employ within a hypertext can easily cause the reader to lose track of our arguments. Reading a hypertext on-line is disorienting - it takes considerable "energy – and anxiety – to reach the point of feeling that one has finished reading" a web site (Tuman 1994). As one of our critics has pointed out, "how can one assess the conclusions we make if not by examining the logical means by which they have been reached?" (Gibb personal communication). And this is difficult in a hypertext.

My answer to this may be to simply evade the question – to set aside the idea of persuasion through sustained argument and embrace instead the idea of fluid conversations which may lead nowhere - EXCEPT perhaps to more understanding between each other (Rorty 1989, Taylor and Saarinen 1994a). These conversations, because of the peculiar nature of hypertext, can be decentered, open, and mutually empowered. They can give us ways to do what we've said we want to do for years – to create a meaningful, relevant, socially engaged archaeology.

On many archaeological web sites, information is presented colorfully, engagingly, and persuasively. However, most of them – including ours, at present – do not take full advantage of hypertext's potential to create new kinds of conversations (Rorty 1989) with our publics. As we experiment with the new technology, we are finding that we can build in new levels of interactivity that are not possible in print texts, no matter how engagingly written they might be. The possibilities are tantalizing.

For example, it is conceivable that, through the use of links, web site visitors may be able to see how the archaeologist moves back and forth (Wylie 1986) between images, artifacts, documents, and theories, to arrive at an interpretation about the site. They may be able to better understand which of the archaeologist's questions were NOT answered – what "test implications" were NOT met. Suppose visitors could "see", with image maps, say, the artifacts as they lay in the ground and experience links between those artifacts and the ethnographic examples that suggested certain kinds of artifact patterning to the archaeologist? (Landow 1992:176-177). Even within the technological limitations of a web site, it may be possible to suggest many more of these kinds of connections than would be possible in an authoritative, unilinear presentation or display environment. Hypertext may be able to replicate the archaeologist's own thought process – more importantly, it may be able to provide the intellectual space for other, alternate interpretations to emerge.

The Net offers us new ways to speak and to listen. It not only gives us an expanding new audience – huge numbers of potential conversations – it does so in ways that we are only starting to understand. The archaeology of the Levi Jordan Plantation can provide alternative visions, alternative analyses (West 1993:30), that proceed from the particulars of one historical context and arrive at a place where contemporary people can use them to critique our social, moral and political lives.

We DO have a responsibility to people in the past whose material lives we plunder – we owe them our best methods and our best theories (Shanks 1992:117). But our professional desire to find out "what happened" should not be MORE important than our desire for free and open conversations between each other. It is WITHIN these conversations that we will find our "truths" about the past – and about the present. Within them, we will be able to use our "fresh" views of the past – with all their provisionality and contingency – to create new conversations and new "paradigms of imagination" (Rorty 1991a:94). Within them, we can learn more about what it means to survive, what it means to be cruel, and what it means to love and live with other human beings. If we want to create a more relevant, democratic archaeology, our urge to persuade should not get in the way of our desire to communicate.


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