D.J. Saitta and P. Duke, Response To Bill Frazer


Response to Bill Frazer

D.J. Saitta, Department of Anthropology, University of Denver, and
P. Duke, Center of Southwest Studies and Department of Anthropology, Fort Lewis College

We welcome Bill Frazer's comments on our article. One of the purposes of the article was to stimulate dialogue, and we are gratified by the depth of Bill's interest in our paper and the quality of his commentary. Of all the important and provocative issues he raises we would like to limit ourselves to the following:

First, we agree with Frazer that our concept of 'working class' needs further exposition. We appreciate scholars' need for coherent definitions if they are to achieve their intellectual and political goals. But, like Frazer, we are also weary of talk, of 'theorising' at a distance. At the risk of appearing anti-intellectual, it is abundantly clear to us on an intuitive level that something akin to our definition of the working class exists, and that its struggles and sacrifices are largely untaught in classrooms and unacknowledged in heritage displays and museums. We went about as far as we could in our original paper to define the working class without getting into too many differences of opinion or embarking on another kind of paper. It would be useful for us to hear, from assemblage readers especially, alternative definitions of the working class that can bring together its members, guide inquiry into its history, and help deliver a better public awareness of its struggles and experiences. Such definitions should be sensitive to the fact that, at least in America, increasing numbers of workers are using the term 'working class' as part of their self-definition, despite cautions that the term is dated and inflammatory (Fletcher 1998).

Second -- and this is a point that we strengthened in response to Frazer's and a second reviewer's comments during the review process -- we emphatically do not see working class people as 'passive dupes' unable to fathom how they are getting exploited by the system. However, we believe it is prudent to expect that the members of any group are likely to have more and less insight into why the social world looks the way it does. Thus, we doubt the utility of 'standpoint' theory as an exclusive guide to thought and action. We do not want to fall into the sort of 'cult of proletariat' (Rorty 1998) thinking that grants only to the oppressed real insight into the circumstances of their existence. In this respect, we share Willis's (1998) suspicion that, if you asked them, many working people would likely express a belief in the idea of meritocracy; that is, they would see the distribution of wealth and power in society as reflecting the differential accomplishment of individuals rather than the systematic operation of an exploitative structure. Certainly it is our experience that this is a very common belief among the many different people with whom we interact.

Alternatively, we see the need for a meeting of 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' perspectives, and that is why we view as crucial the proposals of Rorty and others for academia-labour alliances. There is nothing automatically suspect in a scholarly view of things, as long as scholars themselves do not claim a monopoly on insight. While Rorty's proposals are not new, as Frazer points out, it is clear that the alliances in question need re-awakening and re-energising. Our notion of collaboration is one in which contributing parties 'experiment' (with all the uncertainty about method and outcomes that the word implies) with ideas and strategies for solving whatever problems are collectively deemed to be important.

Third, we wish to again emphasise that we do not see class as the most important structuring principle of human life in any sort of ontological or causal sense. With Frazer, we recognise the effectivity of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality in social life and appreciate that these aspects of identity are important entry points to social analysis. Rather, our call is for a consideration of the possible tactical advantages of focusing on class (understood in Marxian, surplus labor terms) as a way to initiate progressive social change. This call is partly a response to current 'identity politics' and the significant but limited success of movements for social change based on criteria like gender, race, and sexuality. Mostly we are motivated by a genuine interest in the kinds of collaborations and alliances that might take shape across gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other lines if we 'map' our positions in life by using the appropriation and distribution of surplus labor as the touchstone, instead of the usual (and not exclusively Marxian) touchstones of wealth or property ownership. We agree completely with Frazer that class does not supersede other aspects of identity. Our point is that we are already used to thinking about ourselves in non-class (gender and ethnic group) terms. Our question is: what might happen if we begin thinking about our social lives in explicitly class terms?

Finally, we look forward to satisfying Frazer's and others' interest in what our work at Ludlow will amount to as an archaeology both of the working class and for it. Our archaeology of the working class incorporates two main sets of research questions. One set includes questions about striker camp demography and the material conditions of camp life. What was the demographic makeup of the camp, i.e., the relative percentages of single men and families? What was the nature and extent of their material deprivation while out on strike? We know that the strikers were being provisioned by the mineworkers union; can we identify any unexpected sources of outside support, or novel local strategies of survival? To what extent were there differential patterns of deprivation within the striker's camp?

The other set of questions explicitly address Frazer's interest in the intersection of class with ethnicity and race. They concern the ethnic constitution of the tent colony and the 'sociability' of striker camp life. As Frazer notes, the Ludlow miners were an ethnically diverse group. Archival records document union efforts to stress the common class identity of the strikers as a way to help integrate that ethnic diversity. Archaeologically, we can investigate union strategies to create striker unity, for example, through the spatial organisation of the camp. However, we are also investigating whether ethnic differentiating processes can be detected in the distribution of particular objects or association of objects within the camp. To what extent were ethnic boundaries within the striker's camp actively maintained? To what extent was there a tension or contradiction within the camp between ethnic identity and class identity? How were ethnic differences among Ludlow strikers negotiated in the interest of building a collective class consciousness and identity? Answers to these and other questions will add a new dimension to historical accounts of the Coal Field War, and may even offer some insights of benefit to general anthropological theory.

Our archaeology for the working class turns on involving the local community in our research, and communicating our results in a way that resonates with working-class sensibilities. This requires constructing an appropriate form of discourse with non- professionals and non-academics. Far too often the Left has opened itself to the charge of patronisingly speaking for, rather than to, the very people with whom they profess to have political empathy. And while we are wary of so-called 'plain talk', as noted in our paper, it is still incumbent on all of us to construct our language in such a way as to encompass, rather than to alienate and exclude.

With this in mind, we are seeking to involve local citizens in the project via standing invitations to share their family experiences and photos with us, to visit for site tours, and to actually help with the excavations. So far the response has been positive and encouraging. Frazer is certainly right in his suspicion that relating past and present to people living in the communities around Ludlow is fairly easy; Ludlow is very much regarded as 'sacred ground' to the United Mine Workers. The real challenge lies in convincing other audiences, if not of Ludlow's sanctity, then at least of its significance as an episode in the human struggle for freedom and dignity. In conjunction with the union's Women's Auxiliary we are working to develop new interpretive displays for the Ludlow Memorial that will use the archaeology to alert visitors to the everyday lives of the strikers, as well as highlight contemporary labor struggles in a dynamic and constantly changing format. We also hope to widen the audience by developing teaching units for Colorado schools (kindergarten to grade 12), a travelling photo and artefact trunk for classroom use, and a Summer Teacher's Institute on Colorado labour history. We hope to have several of these initiatives ready to go in 1999, a year which marks the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre.

It is these latter interests in public outreach and education that overwhelmingly compel our interest in Coal Field War archaeology. We agree with Frazer that no single programme can make archaeology relevant to working class people. However, we welcome the development of any programme that, in John Dewey's words, turns from the 'problems of philosophy' to the 'problems of men', from a concern with how we know to how we want to live.

Works cited
Fletcher, B. 1998. May Day Speech on Class. Presented at the University and College Labor Education Association AFL-CIO Conference, San Jose California, May 1.

Rorty, R. 1998. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Willis, E. 1998. We need a radical Left. The Nation, June 29.

Copyright © D.J. Saitta and P. Duke 1998

An Emancipatory Archaeology
B. Frazer's commentary D.J. Saitta and P. Duke's response


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