- Patina: A Profane Archaeology by Shannon Lee Dawdy
Patina is a material layer that accrues over time on the surface of an object, congealing social values and a sense of the past. For many of the inhabitants of New Orleans, patina has come to signify both the emergence and submergence of the past in the present. As Shannon Lee Dawdy eloquently describes in this slim volume, patina indicates the lived experience of New Orleans space–time, a place where history lies on the surface creating economies of value, forging identities in place, as well as presenting and embodying moments of rupture and transition. From the surface of old wooden heirlooms through to the high water marks left on walls around the city by the flood surges of Hurricane Katrina, patina has become a vehicle through which people understand their relationships to the past and to place, and create new forms of value around them.
Dawdy theorizes patina as a form of "critical nostalgia," "not only a political aesthetic but a political force flowing through alternative circuits of value that are both moral and material" (7). Drawing on Benjamin's concept of "profane illumination," Dawdy couches her study as a "profane archaeology": one which highlights "the profoundly muddled relations between objects and subjects, in both psychoanalytic and Marxian terms…a way of understanding everyday objects that takes into account their shifting meanings over time and the way in which they can suddenly activate currents from the past that alter the present" (9).
The book draws on three research modalities: Dawdy's many excavations across the heart of colonial New Orleans, the archival research that accompanied them, and a series of interviews with contemporary New Orleanians from across the city. We meet Isaiah, an African American [End Page 543] displaced by Katrina; Joe, a Creole now living on the East Coast; Agatha, an artist living in a historic Center Hall house. These conversational narratives co-produce Dawdy's definition of patina, although it certainly helps that many of her interlocutors are invested in activities that might be seen as parallel to Dawdy's own research: local historic preservation, antiques collecting, and tourism. Throughout the book, Dawdy presents snippets of conversations that patinate her own research. They discuss the idea of antiquity, the persistent fascination with all things "French," the significance of New Orleans as a space committed to the simultaneous commoditization of the past and the production of an affective nostalgia that bodily locates the citizen within a space–time that always moves beyond the present.
It becomes clear that this affective nostalgia was a crucial survival tool after Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, even though Dawdy focuses primarily on New Orleans' colonial history, Katrina is at the heart of the book, present in every chapter, in nearly every conversation. The focus of Dawdy's interlocutors on salvage, patina, inheritance, and history implicitly signals a way of domesticating Katrina, insisting on the local in the face of national betrayal, international scrutiny, and new forms of gentrification.
The book's chapters explore different narrative tropes that emerge in relation to New Orlean's material past. The introductory chapter introduces the framework of patina, critical nostalgia, and the backdrop of Katrina. Chapter 2 describes how ruins and archaeological sensibilities use the aesthetic and experience of patina to create a sense of heterogeneous time in which the past and the present blur and blend in the continual production and construction of the old. Chapter 3, "A Haunted House Society," focuses on local narratives around ghosts as a discursive patina in which people understand the past to materially remain in their environment. Chapter 4, "French Things," examines the production and consumption of all things French in New Orleans, emphasizing the entanglement of sexuality, otherness, and antiquity in the ways in which faience rouge pots, perfume, French wine, and bordellos have been marketed and continue to inflect the definition of the French Quarter and of New Orleans as a French place. Chapter 5, "The Antique Fetish," explores different theories of the fetish with regard to New Orleanian relations with old things...