Siegfried Zielinski asked me to write a very short dictionary type of entry on “Archaeology” for an exhibition catalogue. The exhibition will take place at Edith Russ Haus for Media Art in 2014 and they are going to do an exhibition on Zielinski’s AnArchaeologies and Variantologies, including some artistic positions by David Larcher, Herwig Weiser, Anthony Moore and others. Below my contribution.
The 19th century disciplinary invention of “archaeology” has had major impact in and out of academia. Besides the specific methods for investigating the material remains of human cultures, of building on the fragments to create collections, narratives and modes of preservation for a varia of objects and documents, the archaeological imaginary penetrates our audiovisual culture. It persists as an imaginary of itself: the narratives and images of hidden treasures waiting to be ungrounded. And it persists as the conceptual legacy that comes not only from archaeology proper, but also from Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s idea of philosophical archaeology itself ungrounded the idea of conceptual work building on the ruins of earlier philosophers. As Giorgio Agamben argues, this lead to the more fundamental notion of arkhé that refers not to origins, but to command and commencement. In a way that resonates with the media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst’s understanding of the “arche” in (media) archaeology, this archaic moment is less the historical than the conditioning beginning of any analytical and genealogical investigation. For Agamben “[a]rchaeology is, in this sense, a science of ruins, a ‘ruinology’ whose object, without constituting a transcendental principle properly speaking, cannot really claim to be there as an empirically given totality.”
Such an understanding shifts from archaeology proper to the archaeology of knowledge in Michel Foucault’s sense. It displaces archaeology restricted to material excavations and works it into a method of archival and philosophical conditions of knowledge – its objects, statements and assumptions. With media archaeology as practiced by a variety of scholars from Siegfried Zielinski to Erkki Huhtamo, Thomas Elsaesser to Wolfgang Ernst, and even with Friedrich Kittler’s earlier writings, the material returns at the centre of the archaeological dig. It has many different meanings and ways of adopting to the object of investigation but it insists on irreducibility to the textual.
Indeed, what in archaeology are the methods necessary to approach the time before writing and the document pertains for media archaeologists both to the pre-cinematic as a similar rhetorical field of investigation and to the ontologically important idea of the arche as a command – even a technological command as the starting point for ungrounding media cultural ruins still present.
Amodern–journal has a massive special issue on Network Archaeology out now. I was also interviewed for the collection that followed up on the Miami University last year’s conference of the same theme.
Other new publications include a piece from last year. The first version of this paper on dust (Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism) was given as a keynote for the Canadian Communication Association annual conference in 2012 at Wilfrid Laurier University. Some smaller variations came out in Depletion Design as well as in Artnodes-magazine. This is however a rather long stand-alone piece which narrates through “dust” themes of non-human materialism, digital culture, work and exhaustion: it picks up on themes of exhaustion and nanoparticles, as much as the metal and mining aspects which contribute to the scale in which we can expand our ideas concerning materiality of media culture. Below the first beats of the text.
“Each particle of dust carries with it a unique vision of matter, movement, collectivity, interaction, affect, differentiation, composition and infinite darkness” — Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia
I. Dust — The Non-Thing
There is something poetic about dust. It is the stuff of fairy tales, stories of deserted places; of attics and dunes, of places from so long ago they seem to have never existed. Dusty books — the time of the archive that layers slowly on shelves and manuscripts. Marcel Duchamp’s 1920s Large Glass was a compilation of dust. In a way, he allowed dust to do the work: a temporal, slow compiling by the non-human particles as a work of art installed at the museum, “a purposeful inactivity.”  Dust can transform, even if it can itself easily escape any grip. It is amorphous, even metamorphic, in the manner Steven Connor describes.  There is also a lot of it. It can be done and dusted, removed from sight and forgotten — in need of no further attention. Nanoparticles are everywhere and form societies unseen and unheard of, yet they conglomerate on a scale unimaginable to human beings. We are a minority. They have their say on human things, and cover what we leave behind intentionally or by accident — obsolescent technologies, wrecks, monuments — which remind us not only of these things themselves but of the gradual sedimentation of dust. Dust marks the temporality of matter, a processual materiality of piling up, sedimenting, and — through its own million-year process — transformations of solids to ephemeral and back. It swarms and overwhelms, exhausts and clouds. “Breathe as deeply as you will, dust will never be depleted.” 
There is something poetic and sometimes even romantic about lack of breath. Lung diseases are after all a sign of the delicate soul, and have a long cultural history. Tuberculosis features in a vast range of examples from a Puccini opera to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924). The pale tuberculotic body feeds towards the mythical airiness of lungs, blocked by the disease. It is as if tuberculosis releases the body from matter: “TB is disintegration, febrilization, dematerialization; it is a disease of liquids — the body turning to phlegm and mucus and sputum and, finally, blood — and of air, of the need for better air.”  But the lung-diseased body is easily exhausted, lacking in air, gasping for it. It is a tired body, and tiredness is one key trajectory we should be following as well: a laboring body.
This is a text about dust as well as exhaustion: about non-human particles as well as labor. It takes small things like dust as one vector for its argument, and as a vehicle in the manner of which we sometimes think through objects. Dust is, however, not quite an object, not in the intuitive sense that objects are supposed to be easily graspable. It does not fit the hand, even if it covers vast terrains. It is more environmental and better characterized as a milieu. Well, almost a milieu: we rarely count it among things that matter, but what if we did? What if we followed dust as a trajectory for theory — theory that is concerned with materiality and media? What if dust is one way to do “dirt research”: a mode of inquiry that crosses institutions and disciplines, and forces us to think of questions of design as enveloped in a complex ecology of economy, environment, work, and skill. Dirt brings noise, as Ned Rossiter reminds us, and dirt research can be understood “as a transversal mode of knowledge production [that] necessarily encounters conflict of various kinds: geocultural, social, political and epistemological.”
I am writing a chapter for the Routledge Companion to British Media History. It’s on media archaeology, and I try to offer some insights to how we can decipher British media history through contemporary media arts. This is what I call a minor perspective to media history of Britain – often such a glorified master narrative.
This is just a brief glimpse to the beginning of the chapter. The book should be out in 2014.
Media Archaeology: From Turing to Abbey Road, Kentish Radar Stations to Bletchley Park
British media history has many great stories to tell. It has been one of the biggest inspirations for a range of accounts and for scholars that have tried to decipher the main trends of the media of modernity; from the nineteenth century establishment of standardized mail to the twentieth century Britain of the BBC that, for instance, for this author became a central symbol when he turned on the television in 1980s Finland. BBC content traveled across national boundaries, both in the structural form it provided for public broadcasting as well as through Bergerac and the FA Cup Finals over the years. British exports from television to microcomputing continued, and have established such a status that writing Britain into media history is rather redundant. It is already there, and always was there; even before actual media technologies became subsumed into the consolidated consensus about media as mass media emerged. Indeed, Britain was already there with its investment in transatlantic cables as well as pioneering scientific inquiries, in electricity and electromagnetism, prehistories of computing from Babbage to Turing and so forth. Early on, British media history was already transnational, like the transatlantic cables and telegraph clicks. It is irreducible to a simple national story, and more like something that presents an interesting case for consideration in relation to both the master narratives and the minor themes of media history.
If you are serious about speculative realism, or object-oriented, perhaps you should consider this instead.
Martin Howse, Diff in June, Link Editions, Brescia 2013. Soft cover, 740 pp., ISBN 9781291503593
Martin Howse’s weird data archaeology delivers its own set of speculations concerning a more media-specific non-human perspective that opens up the object in alternative ways. If the computer speaks it definitely sounds a bit different than narratives of philosophical discourse. This is data archaeology becoming media epistemology becoming a speculative artistic practice into onto-epistemologies. If this is forensics, it is a twisted sort where the computer self-records and narrates its own little day in the life.
“Diff in June” tells a day in the life of a personal computer, written by itself in its own language, as a sort of private log or intimate diary focused on every single change to the data on its hard disk. Using a small custom script, for the entire month of June 2011 Martin Howse registered each chunk of data which had changed within the file system from the previous day’s image. Excluding binary data, one day’s sedimentation has been published in this book, a novel of data archaeology in progress tracking the overt and the covert, merging the legal and illegal, personal and administrative, source code and frozen systematics.”
For those those interested in Howse’s earlier projects and collaborations, check out the interview we did in Berlin some years ago.
There is a new book on digital art, archives, preservation and memory out now. Edited by Annet Dekker, Speculative Scenarios, or what will happen to digital art in the (near) future? is an interesting and again timely take on some of the issues that connect media studies with archival specialists, cultural heritage with contemporary digital art practices. There are several great writers in the collection. You can find it online here and a printed version is out soonish too.
On the publisher website, the book is described as follows:
“There is a growing understanding of the use of technological tools for dissemination or mediation in the museum, but artistic experiences that are facilitated by new technologies are less familiar. Whereas the artworks’ presentation equipment becomes obsolete and software updates change settings and data feeds that are used in artworks, the language and theory relating to these works is still being formulated. To better produce, present and preserve digital works, an understanding of their history and the material is required to undertake any in-depth inquiry into the subject. In an attempt to fill some gaps the authors in this publication discuss digital aesthetics, the notion of the archive and the function of social memory. These essays and interviews are punctuated by three future scenarios in which the authors speculate on the role and function of digital arts, artists and art organisations.”
I was interviewed for the book and I talked about topics from zombie media to media archaeology & time, from the media archaeological fundus in Berlin to issues of the social. “In a way, practices – or one could say cultural techniques – of memory are actually what create the social. Perhaps the social doesn’t even exist without the various ways in which memory is sustained, articulated, archived, controlled, passed on, distributed, received, and remixed.”
“Yes I will” – “No, it is not something worthwhile”.
I’ve been going back and forth for a while whether I will try to expand my ideas concerning “geology of media” into some sort of a book or not. Without having reached a conclusion, I have however been giving talks on the topic the past times. Here is one – as video – from Bochum from the very good General Ecology-event Erich Horl organised.
There is a very nice brief biography of Gilbert Simondon online now. Besides shedding light on some aspects of his life, I was struck by this wonderful nugget of information. “In a technology workshop he created a television receiver in the basement of the school, which existed from 1953 to 1955.” We dont know if it worked, or to what channel Simondon tuned into but perhaps that is less of a concern.
What makes the case Simondon even more interesting is this involvement with hands-on tinkering. This was during his period as a teacher Lycée Descartes in Tours, where besides philosophy the thinker of individuation seemed to be interested in getting the channels in proper receiving order. What’s fascinating – and surely a good research topic for someone media archaeologically inclined – is this entanglement of philosophy with concrete technological practice in some thinkers’ lives. It was a surprise to some that Friedrich Kittler had built his own synthetiser in the 1970s but even more so one would imagine this piece of information about Simondon and TV.
With a bit of meditation, of course this is not so surprising. He was interested and researching various scientific topics, such as psychophysiology. He knew his mechanics and thermodynamics. And as we know, his philosophy is so centrally about technics. His research encompassed also more scientific aspects and he was able to install an electrocardiogram by himself. And yet, it was not that he was all completely about scientism. Quite the contrary, when you consider this lovely quote from him:
“At the level of method, science is never a feudal lord ruling over a vassal philosophy; rather, it is a relation between the spontaneous and the reflective. The spontaneous governs the reflective, as in scientism, only when the reflective activity is not contemporaneous with the spontaneous activity.”
But of course in the light of debates about knowledge and practice, we need to think what forms of alternative “philosophy” such experiments in technology could be. Can we think of extending philosophical investigations into practices of engineering and technology — with media archaeological inspiration for modern day critical engineers and circuit benders to be found in such philosophical tinkerers? Besides the focus on individuation as a key, leading theme of his writing, this attitude can also lead to insights on how to think technology. In his later research Simondon was engaged in laboratory work, where also issues of how to understand technology popped up. Besides his own extensive writings on the topic, consider then how the Lab definition of the term might be seen as a creative way of orienting ones thoughts:
““(…) This topic has been proposed for reflection by the members of the seminar to try to reach a logic of technology that is neither an empirical technique or a science, but an understanding of normal and accidental functional relationships.”
Perhaps there is something there already — in the idea of variation hidden inside that definition. Perhaps there is something in the logic of technology that resonates with the immanent conditioning forces of technology in relation to capacities of perception, sensation and memory – a whole field of interest not only the media archaeologist but also to the analyst of cultural techniques of cognitive capitalism.
Erkki Huhtamo once referred to Paul Demarinis as a thinkerer – a neologism that combines tinkering and thinking. I think the term could be broadened out to figures such as Simondon too: a thinkerer-media theorist.