Thursday, April 18, 2019

Betwixt and Between: An Interview with Dr. Jeb Card

In a new book, a professor of anthropology takes on weird history and our cultural, conspiratorial fascination with it.  ♦ 
Be honest: when you think of archaeology—more specifically, the search for lost civilizations, or the unveiling of hidden histories—you probably don’t think of an academic study first. More likely, you think of Indiana Jones raiding a temple for supernatural artifacts, or a History channel special on ancient aliens, or any number of YouTube channels you might’ve come across from pseudo-archaeologists who claim to unveil the “truth” about history “they” don’t want you to know. But why is it that archaeology, as a field of study, seems to particularly attract interest in the weird? And what does the attraction tell us not only about archaeology but about ourselves?

These are the questions Dr. Jeb Card, an anthropology professor at Miami University of Ohio and self-described “weird-shit-ologist,” explores in his book Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past (University of New Mexico Press, 2018), which “guides the reader through haunted museums, mysterious hieroglyphic inscriptions, [and] fragments of a lost continent that never existed” while also examining the question of “how and why archaeology continues to mystify.” Dr. Card has taught at Miami University since 2011 and, before that, at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Tulane University, where he earned his PhD in anthropology in 2007. While being an effective instructor, scientist, and mentor for numerous students in research, Dr. Card has also succeeded as an author (his previous book, Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices, was published in 2016), has been both co-host and guest on numerous podcasts on weird archaeology, and has done extensive research and study of Central America and other areas.

Who were some of your biggest inspirations while writing your book Spooky Archaeology?

Spooky is about archaeology but is not a [textbook]; it is more of a history. From the academy, [professor of political science Michael Barkun] wrote a book called A Culture of Conspiracy, which is really a major light for me in how to approach what I sometimes call “weird-shit-ology.” He argues that rejected or stigmatized knowledge—once it is stigmatized—is kind of put in the same bin, trash bin, or gutter and is all mixed together, which makes sense if you look at everything from conspiracy theory to paranormal thought to radical political extremism [and] how they all overlap. Adrian Mayer, who is a historian who looks at the ancient world from sort of a scientific perspective, is also an influence. A weird one is actually Leonard Nimoy because of In Search Of…, which sort of inspired me as a kid, but I also critique things like it in the book.

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way when writing a book in such a distinct genre?

Everything I have ever done, academically speaking, has felt betwixt and between. I wanted to do Maya archaeology, and from the beginning I kind of screwed it up. You would think it would involve inscriptions and texts and whatnot, but the person who pokes around in the dirt is often not the person reading and interpreting these [ . . . ]. I gave up on this approach in grad school, so I then [did] historical archaeology in early Spanish colonial Central America.

This stuff, in Spooky, is betwixt and between squared.

There is no professorship of “weird-shit-ology.” It is important, and in the last three years people are beginning to understand . . . but there is still a lot of fumbling around, and that’s actually been one of the biggest fights I’ve been increasingly dealing with.

I’ve been in this for a long time, and for much of that time when I talk about [why people believe in conspiracy and pseudoscience], the sometimes-literally-said, often-implied response from many of my colleagues would be, “Why are you studying that? That only happens to people in trailers in Arkansas.” There is a huge class element, and that is why it has been ignored. Then the last three years all these sociology, anthropology, and especially psychology papers have come out [but] these don’t really have anything to do with the field. However, because they are coming from other theoretical bases, they are more likely to get listened to.

You have appeared on several podcasts and have written a number of articles and scientific papers; do you prefer speaking in ways like a podcast or presentation to spread knowledge or do you prefer using your writing? Do you feel that one of these methods is superior for spreading knowledge?

I am decent at performing, so I enjoy speaking. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way. There are multiple approaches, and I think there is a value to the big blast and some value to getting out there on social media and trying to get people to see things. I think this is the least important, though, because I don’t think that we can win that fight. If you are trying to make your voice heard where everyone else is doing the same but doesn’t care about citation or something being true six months from now, but you do, you are inherently handicapped. I think there is a limited value here.

I think public speaking, including podcasts, very much [has] a value. I also think putting what we have out there on the record is really important. The absolute least useful thing you can do, and often is frankly negative, is getting into real-time fights or debates with people. It never goes well, because you are handicapping everything that scholarly work is good at: looking into hundreds of resources, doing the research, actually knowing the answers rather than having a small set of stock answers that you go back to because they work well on a crowd.

I strongly disagree with arguing over Twitter or something like that because it isn’t for the audience which many people think; I care more about convincing people [ . . . ]. We need to tell our own stories, and sometimes that needs to be in long form or sometimes it needs to be in speaking. What we can’t do is react. We can’t sit back, think people will listen to us, and then be shocked and answer in reaction.

What challenges did you face in the writing and publication processes of your book?

The actual writing and publishing process went fairly easily. Copyediting was fine, and there were fights of course—whether to use Maya or Mayan, which I lost. It’s supposed to be Maya, but if you read my book it is not. The bigger problems have been that there are issues in print publishing, in no small part due to the Amazon effect and things like that. I published with an academic press tied to a state university system which has had its funding cut, [and] which is symptomatic of the larger funding cuts to the state university systems throughout the US. Spooky was available in hardcover for $75, which is a ridiculous price but by no means the most expensive book I’ve worked on. It is now available in paperback for $39.95, and I would rather it be $29, but I can live with $39. Part of that is because the press has lost state support, not because they are bad or good but because we have decided as a society not to do these kinds of things [ . . . ]. The people there are overworked and understaffed, which have been the largest problems.

The reason I didn’t go the CreateSpace route is because this book was peer reviewed and people liked it; some of them even put their names on it, which I’ve never had before. The problem there was not peer review or creation, but that the publishing industry is being hammered.

People have read and reviewed this book, and if there was a giant red flag, they would have pointed it out. Maybe that isn’t the future, but I am glad I went with an academic press and I am glad with my publishing choices.

From a young age you have been exposed to history in numerous ways; have you always known what you wanted to do in life? Did you have any interest in writing when you were younger?

I haven’t been back to Gettysburg since the late 1990s, but I did the math once and between 1976 and the mid ‘90s I figured out that I had spent approximately sixty days there, and my father had spent about 700 days there, but now it is probably closer to 1000. Archaeology had emerged on my radar in high school, but I always wanted to be a “scientist” of sorts. Writing seems to inherently be a part of that. I don’t know if I wanted to write for a larger audience, which wasn’t on my agenda for most of college. When I began to study the Celtic Milieu [the range of Celtic archaeologies and influence] as a topic of anthropological science, I probably began to want to spread my ideas to a larger audience. Writing a book like Spooky probably started around 2006 when I started blogging, which I did up until I got this job in 2011 [and] it began to enter my mind that if I already am writing this stuff in a blog, I might as well be putting it into an article or a book.

That said, the history of Spooky is pretty important here. It emerges from two blog posts in October 2011; one was about what I am now calling the Paranormal Unified Field Theory—Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, made it clear to me that many of my thoughts and ideas [about fringe conspiracy and weird archaeology] cohered together; that post is a major part of what I’ve been up to. The other post was why is archaeology seen as spooky and haunted. There are several reasons which you can find in the book, like museums being seen as haunted and whatnot.

I went to the 2012 American Anthropological Society meetings, and I decided since it was 2012 and the Maya calendar [doomsday prediction] and all that . . . what would be a better time to put in a paper like this in a professional setting? So I put in "Spooky Archaeology: Understanding the Past," which is a version of the blog post. An acquisitions editor told me he saw a book in this paper, but I didn’t jump on it right away. By the end of 2013, I had emailed him and he informed me that he was still interested.

The book eventually becomes something else but starts off with some of the ideas in that paper that I end up building on.

Scholarship requires looking at hundreds of objects and resources, not just a few blog posts. There is this hunger for content, but there has to be something backing it up, and many projects in the public face lack these. There is a temptation to work off the minimum you know and just wing the rest, and that way lies problems.

I had a professor, Dan Heelin, who when [he] would do oral examinations he would say, “Jeb, are you sure about that?” when you would give answers, to politely say you are wrong. His whole point, however, was that you are going to be presenting your information in front of an audience and you damn well better know what you are talking about, because if you don’t people are going to catch you out. Know what you are talking about; don’t make things up.

Over time, what being a writer meant became clearer to me. It is a lot of work, a lot of editing, and a lot of getting this right. If you realize that, you say “Yes please, yes I want to go to the library for six months and know all the things” and have 175,000 words that you then have to carve up to 110,000 and you judicially throw things out and rework it, and rework it, and rework it until my audience actually gets it and it’s not just in my head. I’m not just saying what I want on the page; I am actually communicating with the audience. Once you realize that is writing and you still want to do it, then you are writing. But that takes time to get to, and if you are constantly doing it on a deadline, it is hard. When I was finally starting to get things together in the last chapters of my dissertation, I knew I wanted to do it again. When people actually [said] things like “That’s good” and “I get what you’re going for,” that’s when I realized I wanted to write again.

  • About the Author
    Tom Becker is a senior Zoology major at Miami University. In his free time, he enjoys watching movies as well as the NBA, playing video games, and hiking and resting in his hammock with his two dogs Buddy and Zeus. Currently, he is reading the series A Song of Ice and Fire and hopes to read Dune next.

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