Taking time to think

Still frame from a video interview used to inform “Crafting knowledge with (digital) visual media in archaeology”
Still frame from a video interview with K. Killackey – one of several artists working at the site of Çatalhöyük – used to inform “Crafting knowledge with (digital) visual media in archaeology”

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately. I’ve been thinking about how I think, and the time I need to think, and the battle I have in safeguarding that time.

This issue has been on my mind for ages–it intersects with my research interests and features heavily (although relatively implicitly) in some of the publications and conference papers on which I’ve been working recently. What concerns me is that to create, to play, to invent, experiment, make, write, and do, takes time. Whether you’re a researcher like me, or a creative producer like those with whom I work and study, you need time to craft and hone your art. Yet time is so elusive. It is occupied by so many niggling and pernicious demands. It is always slipping away, and always disturbed by a perpetual series of tasks that leave you frazzled and longing for even just a couple of unbroken hours to think.

In my quest to understand the relation between time and creativity, and time and productivity, I’ve read a lot of disturbing things. This began when I was in Rochester in September and a colleague began to reflect on the connection between time and experimentation (he’s blogged about it here), which in some (often privileged) cases leads to innovation, and in others, harassment and deep, debilitating oppression. Then I was given a copy of Jonathan Crary’s new book 24/7. (I’m a big fan of Crary’s visual culture volumes, Techniques of the Observer, and Suspensions of Perception.) While I found 24/7 to lack some nuance and come across as overly deterministic in parts, Crary makes a passionate and worrisome argument about the “systemic colonization of individual experience”(52) by an increasingly unremitting pace that is destroying everyday life, and is now threatening to eliminate one of the only remaining times of respite: sleep. Crary talks about the consequent reduction of individuals into “a site of non-stop scrutiny and regulation”(32), and goes on to suggest that “24/7 denotes the wreckage of the day as much as it concerns the extinguishing of darkness and obscurity…24/7 is part of an immense incapacitation of visual experience…24/7 disables vision through processes of homogenization, redundancy, and acceleration”(33).

After reading Crary, everywhere I turned I saw a bleak tale about time. Philip Nel published a piece in Inside Higher Ed where he dissects the poisonous logic and structural systems that lead academics (but, really, people in general) to work so much. Then a friend referred me to Claire Shaw and Lucy Ward’s Guardian piece on the rise of mental illness in academia, which is here partly related to poor work-life balance. Then another friend posted a link to an article by Konstantin Kakaes in Slate about the “absurdist culmination” of academic evaluation and publishing expectations that both lead people to rush and over-produce written work, and allow nonsense articles to survive peer review.

The subject of time came to a head for me recently when one of my colleagues asked me what I actually do as a researcher. The question was well-meaning, but it made me sad to think that what inspires and motivates me intellectually—and what drew me into academia in the first instance—is perhaps invisible to everyone around me. It’s easy to see how this could happen. I direct 5 different undergrad and Master’s-level university courses, and instruct on 2 others, and these all have a necessarily general orientation, catering to those who tend to be new to the topics of museums, audiences, heritage practice, media, visualisation and quantitative and qualitative research methods. This means that I often have to instruct at a level of abstraction that only scratches at the surface of the meaty and provocative ideas that underlie the larger thematic areas. While this seems to be productive for students—who then find a thread that interests them and push off to explore its epistemic depths—sometimes it leaves me feeling lost and distanced from my own research because I don’t have the time to actually get into it.

My favourite class of the year, though, is the one that reminds me of what I’m passionate about. It’s part of my colleague’s Master’s course Analysis & Visualisation, and I have two hours to teach the students about the history and future of realism, photorealism and hyper-realism in archaeology. In what’s been a particularly difficult term for me with regards to teaching workload and lack of time, that two hours that I had a couple of weeks ago with these Master’s students proved an incredible reprieve for me. I could teach again about the specificities of visualisation in archaeology that have been my concern for the past 10+ years. And it also gave me the final propulsion to complete an article that I’ve been having to piece together in small chunks of time carved out over the last six months.

That article is an important one for me, not only because it’s for a forthcoming volume edited by the inimitable Robert Chapman and Alison Wylie, but because it brings together a series of theoretical tensions around visual practice (especially digital visual practice) that I’ve been trying to work out for a while now. What’s critical is that it’s impossible to sort through those tensions without time—without committing yourself to making time for thinking, and without the support and respect of others who help to protect this time for you.

The abstract of my paper is below. I’m interested in the devaluing of visual skill in archaeology, and the implication of visual practitioners themselves in this devaluing. Digital visualisation, for example, is often disparaged as being less soulful, less skilled and purportedly less meaningful than hand-drawn imaging in archaeology. But here I demonstrate the continuities between digital and hand-based crafts(wo)manship, and link this to the very long (at least half-millennium-long) history that visual producers have in pushing forward paradigm change across disciplines. I make the argument that visual production (whether digital or not) has deep consequences for the continued development and basic sustenance of archaeology. And to be ignorant of these consequences, I think, is to set the discipline up for obsolescence.

This chapter grows out of a larger project linked to my work at Çatalhöyük where I’ve been studying the nature of reflexivity as it’s played out among the site’s visual practitioners since the Mellaart era, but especially over the past 20 years. I gave a talk about these ideas at the Institute for Archaeologists conference last April 2013 (titled: Debating the legacy of postprocessualism: Visual reflexivity at Çatalhöyük, Turkey). There, I discussed the deleterious effects (which are somewhat ironic, given the 25-year-long excavation permit) of the lack of time and relentless, constant demands upon practitioners, and I ended with a proposal for a “slow archaeology movement” that would value time, rumination and the privileging and creation of spaces and methods to think. This built off of some conversations I’d had with colleagues at both Southampton and York about such a ‘slow archaeology’, and I’ve been keen then to see that the excellent Bill Caraher has separately begun to articulate some possible dimensions of such practice on his blog (here and here).

The topic of time and making time is one that I’ll come back to in the future, but I’ll end by saying that one of the most exciting things that’s happened recently is the institution of a new ‘Heritage & Play’ group here at York, which has been spearheaded by Colleen Morgan. As Colleen described it in our inaugural email about the initiative, the aim is “to creatively experiment with cultural heritage and expression. Each meeting is loosely structured around a topic, theory, or making session, but focuses on Play as a productive means to engage with heritage in a new way.”

What I see as at stake here is, to borrow from Crary’s (2013:92) discussion of the film La jetée, the “indispensability of the imagination for collective survival…a mingling of the visionary capacities of both memory and creation.” To put it differently, I think that it’s in these playful moments that the best and most important things come about: friendships, collaborations, ideas and inspirations. They are the breeding ground for intellectual revolution and change. And, as this is what I would argue is one of the principle mandates of the university system, I believe we need to invest some of our work time in actually making these moments possible. Our thinking depends upon it.

Perry, S. (forthcoming) Crafting knowledge with (digital) visual media in archaeology. In Chapman, R. and Wylie, A. (eds.) Material Evidence: Learning from Archaeological Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Archaeologists have long drawn on the skill of visual producers (e.g. artists, illustrators, designers, photographers, filmmakers, etc.) to enable and extend their expert practice.  The success of these alliances, however, is a matter for debate, as visualisers have often been consigned to the discipline’s sidelines, their epistemic credibility and relevance challenged even by the visual community itself.  Such tension is apparent with digital graphic producers whose craft skills, contributions to knowledge, and reliance on new technologies are not uncommonly subject to suspicion and misunderstanding.  Moreover, these producers are often unaware of the extant representational scholarship—a predicament that exposes them to critique and to the reproduction of foreseeable errors.  This chapter seeks to challenge the status quo and expose instances where practitioners are truly changing the nature of thinking. It considers digital reconstruction in action, tracing the collaborative knowledge-making process between artist and archaeologist, and by artist-archaeologists.  I aim here to demystify this process, and in so doing, speak both to best practice in the application of visual technologies and theory, and to the epistemic productivity of visualisation in archaeology overall.


Crary, J. 2013. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso.


3 thoughts on “Taking time to think

  1. Hey Sara, I like this (and I’ll “like” it too). I am pleased that our conversation in Rochester planted such a mind-worm. You’ve explored it more than I’ve had time too. But at the same time you’ve made me feel less guilty about playing around with Lego Digital Designer for most of yesterday, experimenting with a re-visualisation of one of the Portus buildings. I wish we had a Heritage and Play group down here, though a Masters student did invite me to a body storming session with MakeyMakey last week. Sadly the day-job got in the way.

  2. “academic evaluation and publishing expectations that both lead people to rush and over-produce written work”

    Coming from the science side of things this is the part that frustrates me most. It’s great ‘doing science’ and generating data, but it’s all too easy to just write it up as quickly as possible, without taking the time to think about the wider implications, the bigger picture. As my interests turn more to theory and the nature of scientific interpretation (and presentation) in archaeology, I am finding it harder to make time to think through and develop my ideas. It is easier (for me) to process hundreds of samples in the laboratory than to find time to just sit and think (was it a science colleague who made that comment about what do you actually do? :) ).

    PS I really would love to talk to you at some point about reflexivity from the perspective of microanalyses at Catalhoyuk!

  3. Hi Sara. I have just a few thoughts:

    1) The time demands are probably much worse at large universities than at small colleges like the small, 4-year liberal arts colleges in the United States:


    A change of venue might help.

    2) I think the expectation that a person should both research and teach is too much. Some people are fundamentally unsuited to teaching or research because of their personality characteristics and innate talents. I would be in favor of splitting faculty into teaching faculty and research faculty based on these characteristics. Speaking for myself, I would much rather research all of the time than teach.

    3) I have found that university faculty members are quite possibly the world’s worst responders to e-mail messages, regardless of who sent the messages. Many tell me that they get 100 e-mail messages per day. I doubt that seriously unless 75 percent of them are spam. Professors need to quit managing student problems by e-mail and make the students learn to manage their own academic affairs. Failure to answer an e-mail message from a colleague doing research, even if you do not know them, is GDF inexcusable.

    4) University professors have a responsibility to the taxpayers who often pay a large portion of their salaries. Too many professors take the attitude that: “My only responsibility is to my students and my research. No one else. That is all the university pays me to do.” At a minimum, they should be responsible for helping to solve individual and group problems related to their expertise in their own communities. On occasion, I have gone to a local college professor just for some quick business-related advice on how to address a problem—just a brief 5-minute chat. In some cases I get treated very rudely, as if I had just raped one of their children. When that happens, I write a letter to the President of the college, tell them precisely what happened, and truthfully scald the skin of that person on paper from foot pinky to scalp. More ordinary, taxpaying citizens should do this with faculty members that are full of themselves with no consideration of who is paying their salary.

    5) I too need the time to relax and think that you describe. If you live in an urban area, leaving the city for a weekend in the country by a forest or stream can make a huge and refreshing difference in sense of space, personal attitude, and the ability to think with a clear mind. It is a well-known fact in clinical psychology that personal anxiety and depression cloud a person’s ability to think clearly and all inclusively. The need for the personal space that you describe is vital. If your university has a counseling psychology program for faculty and students, go have a talk with someone there who can help you to carve out the space you need. You would be surprised at how much it would help.

    6) I think digital imaging is the future in archaeology. Archaeology is an inherently visual field of study. Visualization may not be everything, but it is at worst a close second. Stick to your visual guns, and you will come out on the right side of human academic history in the end.

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