11 March 2009

Archaeology in Fiction: “A New Race of Beachcombers”

A white convertible approached, the driver flashing his headlamps as I stepped from my car. I stumbled, my right knee giving way after the effort of driving. At my feet lay a litter of dead leaves, cigarette cartons, and glass crystals. These fragments of broken safety glass, brushed to one side by generations of ambulance attendants, lay in a small drift. I stared down at this dusty necklace, the debris of a thousand automobile accidents. Within fifty years, as more and more cars collided here, the glass fragments would form a sizable bar, within thirty years a beach of sharp crystal. A new race of beachcombers might appear, squatting on these heaps of fractured windshields, sifting them for cigarette butts, spent condoms and loose coins. Buried beneath this new geological layer laid down by the age of the automobile accident would be my own small death, as anonymous as a vitrified scar in a fossil tree.
- J.G. Ballard, Crash
Crash captures both the loneliness and perverse excitements of the modern automotive landscape. In this passage, Ballard gives us a profound truth about archaeology: lives and deaths are tiny anonymous things that get lost in heaps of mundane garbage. In the end, all that’s left of a person’s life is the waste they deposit, which can be read by an archaeologist to create a kind of rough analog doppelganger. (There’s a strange implication here, that littering is a profound act of historic preservation – and a route to immortality.)

Ballard tries to push past this conundrum with characters who make their automobiles into extensions of their bodies, and fuse their sexuality with the crushing and twisting of their metal frames. An amusingly literal take on theoretical approaches to the archaeology of the body: not only can we can find traces of gender, sexuality, and physical experience in the archaeological record, but now we have the notion of a whole stratigraphic layer that is nothing but durable, material traces of sexual experiences. A new category of human remains?

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