28 August 2009

Media Archaeology; or, wtf is it?

Slavoj Žižek in his introduction to Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism argues that totalitarianism serves as an ideological antioxidant, taming free radicals in order to help the social body maintain its politico-ideological good health. ... Thus, Žižek argues, totalitarianism "is a kind of stopgap: instead of enabling us to think, forcing us to acquire a new insight into the historical reality it describes, it relieves us of the duty to think, or even actively prevents us from thinking." Although new media is clearly different from totalitarianism, it too can function as a stopgap. The moment one accepts new media, one is firmly located within a technological progressivism that thrives on obsolescence and that prevents active thinking about technology-knowledge-power. The term itself has circumscribed debate to Is new media new, or What makes it new?
//Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, introduction to New Media, Old Media (2006)
Through a course I'm taking this semester ("New Media, Memory and the Archive"), I've only just discovered this wonderful collection of essays, New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, edited by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (Routledge, 2006). Chun's introduction -- from which the above quote was taken -- is careful but unforgiving, subjecting the term "new media" to delightfully direct criticism. Especially the "new" aspect:
The term 'new' is also surprisingly uninterrogated. Those debunking the newness of new media often write as if we could all agree on or know the new, as if the new were not itself a historical category linked to the rise of modernity. The new should have no precedent, should break with the everyday, and thus should be difficult, if not impossible, to describe. // Chun 3
Yes! What a simple but striking point!

One of my research interests listed below the title of this blog is "media archaeology." It's a strange subfield -- perhaps better described as a subfield of the already sub domain of media history -- dominated by German thinkers who each have their own idea as to what, exactly, media archaeology is. For Geert Lovink, "media archaeology is first and foremost a methodology, a hermeneutic reading of the 'new' against the grain of the past, rather than a telling of the histories of technologies from past to present" (2003, 11). For Erkki Huhtamo, it is "the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture," and "the 'excavation' of the ways in which these discursive traditions and formulations have been 'imprinted' on specific media machines and systems in different historical contexts, contributing to their identity in terms of socially and ideologically specific webs of signification" (1996). ( My personal favorite (the theorist who inspired me most while working on my thesis) is Siegfried Zielinski, who commands that the media (an)archaeologist "not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old" (2006, 3). I don't see Kittler mentioned often, but Chun cites him as an early practicioner, along with Foucault, whose notion of archaeology has been influential (if somewhat inverted).

So we have, then, a methodology that is 1) antiprogressionist/antiteleological, and 2) materially grounded. What I struggle with, though, is that so much that sounds like media archaeology just isn't. Like The Renaissance Computer collection (edited by Jonathan Sawday and Neil Rhodes), which uses late twentieth-century digital media as a framework for re-examining early book cultures. It challenges the dominant narrative of technological progress; it focuses on media as material artifacts; yet it analogizes, forcing continuity instead of difference. Wolfgang Ernst (in the New Media, Old Media volume cited above) disputes that this collection, which has so much in common with media archaeology, could ever be described assuch:
Here, a well known historiographic trope lurks around the corner: the desire of occidental man to privilege continuity against the experience of ruptures, thus saving the possibility of an unbroken biographical experience. Against such analogies, however, media archaeology insists on differences. // Ernst 107
He goes on to point out that instead of comparing early print cultures and digital cultures, a truly media archaeological approach would have highlighted how starkly different Renaissance books were from today's computers -- for instance, the former couldn't perform calculations automatically [disputable -- depends on what kinds codices you're interested in, but let's grant it]. Okay; makes sense. But then what's the alternative? Collections like The Renaissance Computer are reacting against the caricatures of "print culture" so often found in work that overemphasizes the differences between books and electronic computers. If all we look for is discontinuity, aren't we back in the trap of narrativizing false ruptures? And don't those narratives inevitably fall back into some form of progressionism?

How can you write a history of discontinuities without contradicting yourself? How can you be sensitive to the unusual -- Zielinski wants to "defend curiousity" -- without turning the past into a kind of Wunderkammer of decontextualized media flotsam? or, on the other end of the spectrum, without supporting the perpetual "new" in "new media"?

Hmm. I didn't plan on writing this post when I started, but there it is. I'm taking two classes on media studies this semester -- the aforementioned, and one on "Art and Literature in the Digital Domain" with N. Katherine Hayles and Bill Seaman -- so the topic has been much on my mind lately. But; back to reading.


j.henry said...

hiyu whitney!

having a splendid time reading these many-sited things of yrs this evening (caught yr thesis thru christian's twitter feed). the combinatorial design-writing is superb! so great to see llull &all configured so freshly!

anyhow, wanted to drop a note of fanmail &eager to see where the duke program take you. funny you don't see much of kittler in these Med.Arch pages, as i've always read him at the heart of that particular spinning donut?!

i've been working on combinatorial translation &media archival book objects lately, wch might be of interest to you?

anyhow, jealous of courses there at duke, i'm just starting at penn this year &wondering if i oughtn't have gone further south.. . (*~_^*)

j.h c

Whitney said...

glad you found me and my inner-net ramblings. :) yeah, Kittler's at the heart of it, but he's categorized differently in my mind. actually, he's quite in his own category.

love the book objects, please share more sometime? what program at penn?

Anonymous said...

F.y.i : Geert Lovink is wrong. Media-archaeology is anti-hermeneutical and anti-genealogical. It goes beyond language and signs.

Whitney said...

Would love to hear more about that, anonymous...

Person of Consequence said...

I don't know if anyone will ever read comments for a post a year old, but I wanted to thank you for some interesting reading; it helped me, as a fellow English PhDer, work through some media archaeology stuff of my own. http://exgress.blogspot.com/2010/09/deep-media-retrospective-zielinski-vs.html, if you're interested.

queerassuffolk said...

Hi there

I think person of consequence inspired me to finally post on here, as I've been reading your blog for a couple months now (and did you know you are the second hit for googling "media archaeology"?)

I'm also a grad student, and trying to wade my way through this fairly undefinable term as I prepare for my comprehensive exams. At my most pessimistic, I tend to think of media archaeology as little more than a rhetorical device meant to unite the rigor of Foucaultian thinking with the glamor of the archaeologist. On my less snide days, it seems like an umbrella for media histories that understand themselves as anti-progressivist. What Lovink and Huhtamo offer seem more like "styles" of media archaeology than opposing definitions of media archaeology. But these are just my thoughts as is...has the past year offered you any further insights?

Whitney said...

Thanks for posting!

I agree. And I'm not sure nitpicking nuance within different styles of media archaeology is particularly helpful, because every chunk of history will have to be hacked away at differently (e.g. depends on whether you're looking at literary texts or images; woodcuts in texts or court portraits; pamphlets or the paper on which they're printed). As a method, M.A. simply gives you a particularly sharp axe.