Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mormon space sites - fundamentalism and high technology

I've long been fascinated by Mormons. It's not that they're necessarily weirder than any other Christian sects or denominations, but they are relatively recent, and New World, and their origins have been played out in the full glare of media such as newspapers and telegraphs (not something your other major prophets have had to deal with). There is also a rich tradition of Mormon archaeology (by serious archaeologists like Mark Leone [for example, 1973, 1977, 1979], not just people trying to prove the Book of Mormon, although they exist too).

But the fundamental polygamist sects are freaky (for a whole range of reasons that are not relevant here). The reason I am contemplating this at all is because on a recent train journey I took Jon Krakauer's fine book Under the Banner of Heaven, an analysis of fundamental polygamist Mormon sects and the nature of belief, to read on the way. Would you be surprised to learn that there was a space connection? And as I read those pages with excitement, little pieces of paper fell out of the book, indicating that I had bookmarked them on an earlier reading.  This is why:
At the moment, DeLoy is driving his thirdhand Chevy van on a dirt road on the outskirts of town.  One of his two wives and eight of his seventeen children are riding in the back.  Suddenly he hits the brakes, and the van lurches to a stop on the shoulder.  "Now there's an interesting sight", DeLoy declares, sizing up the wreckage of a television satellite dish behind some sagebrush off the side of the road.  "Looks like someone had to get rid of their television.  Hauled it out of town and dumped it".
Members of the religion, he explains, are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers.  The temptations of the outside world loom large, however, and some members of the faith inevitably succumb.  "As soon as you ban something", DeLoy observes, "you make it incredibly attractive.  People will sneak into St George or Cedar City and buy themselves the dish, put it up where it can't easily be seen, and secretly watch TV during every free moment.  Then one Sunday Uncle Rulon will give one of his sermons about the evils of television. He'll announce he knows exactly who has one, and warn that everyone who does is putting their eternal souls in serious jeopardy.
Every time he does that, a bunch of satellite dishes immediately get dumped in the desert, like this one here.  For two or three years afterward there won't be any televisions in town, but then, gradually, the dishes start secretly going up again, until the next crackdown. People try to do the right thing, but they're only human". (Krakauer 2003:11)

What interests me about this is firstly the satellite dishes, which I have argued (Gorman 2009) are as much space archaeology as anything else, and second of all the domination/resistance theme. So we have accumulations of satellite dishes out in the desert, deposited periodically, representing the impact of telecommunications technology. They are archaeological sites of the space age on Earth.  With a turnover of three years or so, this landscape would make a nice study in change in satellite design .....

Domination and resistance have been studied extensively by historical archaeologists, in terms of the ways that people find to assert their identities using material culture and space in controlled situations such as plantations, prisons, asylums, utopias etc.  In this case, the discarded satellite dish observed by DeLoy Bateman and Jon Krakauer is visible from the road out of town - on the outskirts - so despite the secrecy involved in accessing satellite television in Colorado City, its disposal is barely concealed. That in itself speaks volumes about the efficacy of, and responses to, strict control of behaviour in the fundamental communities of the city. 

And all this makes me think of similar social pressures in places like Woomera - of a very different kind, such as keeping out the contagion of communism, and of course a completely different relationship to technology - but both are desert enclaves where information must be tightly controlled. Apparently the desert outside the township of Woomera bears the evidence of social activities unacceptable in the family atmosphere of the town.

This isn't quite where I thought I was going when I started writing this, but now I'm here, I don't mind it.  Perhaps I shall have to explore this similarity a little further.  Permeable boundaries of technology and the role of space material culture in mediating identity?  Something like that.

Gorman, A.C.  2009  Beyond the Space Race:  the significance of space sites in a new global context.  In Angela Piccini and Cornelius Holtorf (eds)  Contemporary Archaeologies:  Excavating Now.  pp 161 - 180  Bern:  Peter Lang
Krakauer, Jon  2003  Under the banner of heaven.  A story of violent faith. London:  Doubleday
Leone, Mark P. 1977 The New Mormon Temple in Washington, D. C. In Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things. Historical Archaeology. Special Publication Series 2:43-61.
Leone, Mark P. 1973 Archaeology as the Science of Technology: Mormon Town Plans and Fences. In Charles L. Redman (ed) Research and Theory in Current Archaeology, pp 125–150. John Wiley and Sons.
Leone, Mark P.  1979  Roots of Modern Mormonism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

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