Neural – one of my favourite publications in the media arts, theory and sound field – published a short review of my What is Media Archaeology? Read it now online.
One of my interests of the recent times has been “microtemporality”. This interest has been spurred both by Wolfgang Ernst’s media archaeological theory and publications such as Axel Volmar’s 2009 edited volume on time-critical media. Indeed, notions of microtemporality offer ways to understand the technical conditioning of social/cultural processes on a level that is irreducible to the phenomenological. With different emphases to those of Ernst’s I know that for instance Katherine Hayles is nowadays looking at algorithmic trading from the temporal perspective too and Mark Hansen is from a more Whitehead perspective investigating ubiquitous media environments and that what escapes conscious cognition. See also Shintaro Miyazaki on these topics through the concept of Algorhythmics in Computational Culture.
In the midst of my own research into different temporalities that media archaeology offers, as well as network times/politics, I wanted to conduct a mini-interview with Wolfgang Ernst. Hence, please find below Wolfgang Ernst, responding to my question “what is time-critical media and microtemporality?”
“Technological media have a distinct quality: They are in their medium-being only in operation (“under current”). This specificity makes them especially sensitive to micro-temporal intrusion, irritation and manipulation – much more than previous cultural techniques like alphabetic writing which became time-critical only when electrically coded into telegraphy.
It was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing who in his treatise on the comparative aesthetics of poetry and visual arts Laokoon in 1766 identified what the called the “pregnant moment” in the representation of action. In electronic television the exact synchronisation, thus timing, of signals becomes crucial for the human aisthesis of image perception indeed. With techno-mathematical computing where minimal temporal moments become critical for the success of the whole process of internal calculation and human-machine communication (“interrupt”), time-criticality becomes a new object of epistemological attention in the economy of knowledge. When culture is rather counted than narrated, time-criticality needs to be focussed by process-oriented (thus dynamic) media archaeology.
Time-criticality in its media-technological context does not refer to a philosophical or critique of contemporary politics or ethics but rather to a special class of events where exact timing and the temporal momentum is “decisive” for the processes to take place and succeed at all. In its ancient Greek sense, crisis refers to the chances of decision, with its temporal form being an impulse rather than a duration or narrative – kairotic time. Kairos – the ancient Greek god of the decisive moment – becomes proverbial in post-modern just-in-time production in both industry and technologies, as well as in deadly situations like antiaircraft prediction in Second World War.
In its etymological roots, “time” itself refers to divisions of continuity, to the cutting edge. Apart from its long aesthetic tradition, the cultural impact of time-criticality escalates with (and within) technological media, starting from photographic exposure time which almost shrank towards zero. Signals which are operated with electronic speed can hardly be followed by human consciousness like, for example, symbols (printed letters) in textual reading. When signal transfer happens below human sensation, it can be spotted only by time-critical observation. For subliminal events the true archaeologist of time-critical knowledge are technical media themselves; only with the emergence of hightly sensitive measuring instruments since the 19th century time-critical processes like the runtime of signals within human nerves became analyzable at all.”
Not every professor has an office like this. Peep into Erkki Huhtamo’s (UCLA) media archaeological office through this video, and get a taster of his enthusiasm as a collector: zoetropes, mutoscopes, kinetoscope. It demonstrates the curiosity cabinets of media history but also the need to train specialists who are able to maintain these instruments as part of the living heritage of media cultures outside the mainstream. The devices prompt us to ask questions concerning difference: how different media culture could be, and has been.
The video is a good insight to the just released Huhtamo book on the moving panorama: Illusions in Motion, just out from MIT Press.
March 20, 2013 – Wednesday at King’s College, London, Strand Campus.
Seminar 4.30-5.30 in room K.311 and the book launch 5.30-7.00 in the the Small Somerset Room.
In 2009 Parikka and Sampson coedited The Spam Book, a collection of articles intended to probe the “dark side” of digital culture. The Spam Book addressed a shift from a digital culture very much defined in terms of the economic potential of digital objects and tools toward a discourse describing a space seemingly contaminated by digital waste products, dirt, unwanted, and illicit objects.
In this seminar and the following book launch, Parikka and Sampson discuss emerging ideas and theoretical approaches to digital culture. Parikka’s media archaeological approach and Sampson’s research on virality provide insights into worlds of affect, anomaly and the alternative genealogy from which our network culture emerges. Parikka’s recent book What is Media Archaeology? pitches media archaeology as a multidisciplinary 21st century humanities field that resonates with a range of recent scholarly debates from digital humanities to software studies and digital forensics. Media archaeological excavations and discussions on such theorists as Friedrich Kittler offer an alternative insight to the current digital culture/economy debates in the UK.
Sampson’s approach to digital culture brings together a Deleuzian ontological worldview with the sociology of Gabriel Tarde. His subsequent theory of network contagion does not, as such, restrict itself to memes and microbial contagions derived from biological analogies or medical metaphors. It instead points toward a theory of assemblages of imitation, viral events, and affective contagions. For Sampson, contagion is not necessarily a positive or negative force of encounter; it is how society comes together and relates. Sampson provides an assemblage theory of digital culture concerned with relationality and encounter, helping us to understand digital contagion as a positively sociological event, building from the molecular outward, long before it becomes biological.
Parikka’s media archaeology and Sampson’s contagion theory both figure the importance of a materialist approach to the imaginary and the nonconscious as central to an understanding of digital culture. Hence, the seminar asks the question: what is the nonconscious of digital culture?
Both books are available at the event along with wine.
The event page on Facebook.
Jussi Parikka: What is Media Archaeology? Polity Press: Cambridge, 2012.
Tony D. Sampson: Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2012.
Jussi Parikka is Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art, and author of Digital Contagions (2007) and Insect Media (2010) as well as (co-) editor several edited collections, including The Spam Book (2009), Media Archaeology (2011) and Medianatures (2011). He blogs at htt://jussiparikka.net.
Tony D. Sampson is a London-based academic and writer currently lecturing at the University of East London. A former musician, he studied computer technology and cultural theory before receiving a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. His research blog is at http://viralcontagion.wordpress.com/
To find the venue:
London, King’s College, Strand Campus.
4.30-5.30 in K3.11 on the Strand Campus of KCL.
K3.11 (King’s Building, Third Floor, Room 11)
To find K3.11 you take stairs up from the Second Floor King’s Building at the Strand end of King’s Building. You can ask for directions at the Strand Reception.
From 5.30-7.00 the Small Somerset Room
Lori Emerson has interviewed Wolfgang Ernst for the Library of Congress blog. It is a great conversation that also addresses the differences between digital preservation and Ernst’s Media Archaeological approach. The latter is, as mentioned on this blog as well, placed and spatialised in the Media Archaeological Fundus (Fundus= bottom, ground), part of his Media Studies Institute. (This idea worked even better at the original Sophienstrasse 22 address of the Institute, because it was located deep in the concrete bunker type basement).
Ernst emphasises the connection between teaching media theory and practicing material “hermeneutics”: to have access to technological devices, opening them up, reverse engineering. Operationality is at the centre of this view concerning media studies. A dysfunctional television is just a design object: media starts when it can operate signals. Ernst’s approach draws from a Heideggerian pun (of sorts) of the objects of the Fundus as Epistemological Spielzeug (ref. to Heidegger’s Zeug), “epistemological toys” for pedagogical purposes.
Ernst responds to one of Lori Emerson’s questions:
“The bias of MAF based teaching is to train students to resist the nostalgic or even melancholic impulse which is normally associated with so-called “dead media”, and to discover the retro-futuristic element instead. The electric telegraph, e. g., operates with discrete signal transmission: a code which after an age of AM media (such as radio) returned in unexpected ways. Whereas digital data transmission is much too fast to be perceivable directly to human senses, the classic telegraph “dots and dashes,” when connected to an acoustic mechanism, may serve as a way of slowing down and sonifying the nature of coded signal transmission.”
Such a focus on spatialities of media studies emphasises more points concerning the current interest in thinking about “theory as practice”: the various techniques, institutions and spatialities in which cultural/media theory takes place. For instance the Fundus is a sort of a ground(ing) as well as underbelly of media theory, in how the technical and tactile engagment with technologies enables a connection to text and theory. Ernst is very reluctant to call this “Digital Humanities”: it’s media studies!
Read the full interview here.
We had in Berlin just last week our joint book launch with Ernst: his Digital Memory and the Archive alongside my What is Media Archaeology? It was great to be launching the theory books in the midst of yet another great bunch of transmediale exhibitions of media archaeological resonance: the Octo Pneumatic Media System (a Rohrpost in action), the Evil Media Distribution Centre, Refunct Media vol. 5, and more.
Good news for the start of 2013: the volume of Wolfgang Ernst writings Digital Memory and the Archive is out! The book is soon available in bookstores. The collection that I edited is the first to introduce this very important German media theorist whose style of media archaeology is highly exciting and provocative. Ernst is one of the significant names in the German media studies landscape, and represents one of the directions where theory is going in the post-Friedrich Kittler world.
Ernst’s interest in media archaeology is very material, and insists on the agency of the machine. His theories are interested in material epistemologies and the operationality of old media devices. Media devices govern our ways of seeing and hearing, but also our modes of knowledge. Hence, Ernst’s media theory is a way to understand the change in our archival logic in software culture. But it’s not only about the digital and not only about archives. Indeed, his writings on the sonic and in general media arts are important insights into a meticulous material media theory that represents a unique way to understand the persistence of history and time. Ernst writes his theory through mediatic paths: from television to internet cultures, media arts to archival institutions, Hertzian discoveries to sound.
The collection has a longer introduction by me, as well as the section introductions that I wrote. Ernst was kind enough to write his own preface to this English edition of his writings where he pitches the idea of cross-Atlantic influences and meditation on what is happening in media studies at the moment. An inspiring read. Or in Wendy Chun’s words, quoting her endorsement:
“Digital Memory and the Archive offers the most compelling and insightful account published to date of how and why objects matter. Moving beyond textual analysis, its careful, theoretically rigorous engagement with the relic—the physicality of the archive—promises to change the direction of the digital humanities. Thanks to this book, we will all now be addressing the microtemporality of archives and the mechanics of remaining. Finally, a definitive collection in English of one of the most brilliant and influential media archaeologists.”
Below you will find the short blurb from the publisher University of Minnesota Press website as well as the table of contents.
In the popular imagination, archives are remote, largely obsolete institutions: either antiquated, inevitably dusty libraries or sinister repositories of personal secrets maintained by police states. Yet the archive is now a ubiquitous feature of digital life. Rather than being deleted, e-mails and other computer files are archived. Media software and cloud storage allow for the instantaneous cataloging and preservation of data, from music, photographs, and videos to personal information gathered by social media sites.
In this digital landscape, the archival-oriented media theories of Wolfgang Ernst are particularly relevant. Digital Memory and the Archive, the first English-language collection of the German media theorist’s work, brings together essays that present Ernst’s controversial materialist approach to media theory and history. His insights are central to the emerging field of media archaeology, which uncovers the role of specific technologies and mechanisms, rather than content, in shaping contemporary culture and society.
Ernst’s interrelated ideas on the archive, machine time and microtemporality, and the new regimes of memory offer a new perspective on both current digital culture and the infrastructure of media historical knowledge. For Ernst, different forms of media systems—from library catalogs to sound recordings—have influenced the content and understanding of the archive and other institutions of memory. At the same time, digital archiving has become a contested site that is highly resistant to curation, thus complicating the creation and preservation of cultural memory and history.
Contents of Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive
Archival Media Theory: An Introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeology , by Jussi Parikka
Media Archaeology as a Trans-Atlantic Bridge, Wolfgang Ernst
Part I. The Media Archaeological Method
1. Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines
2. Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media
Part II. From Temporality to the Multimedial Archive
3. Underway to the Dual System: Classical Archives and Digital Memory
4. Archives in Transition: Dynamic Media Memories
5. Between Real Time and Memory on Demand: Reflections on Television
6. Discontinuities: Does the Archive Become Metaphorical in Multi-Media Space?
Part III. Microtemporal Media
7. Telling versus Counting: A Media-Archaeological Point of View
8. Distory: 100 Years of Electron Tubes, Media-Archaeologically Interpreted vis-à-vis 100 Years of Radio
9. Towards a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations
10. Experimenting Media‐Temporality: Pythagoras, Hertz, Turing
Appendix. Archive Rumblings: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst , by Geert Lovink
What is Media Archaeology? gives no direct answer to the question that it poses. Instead, it gives a map – a cartography of how to see the field of media archaeology defined by various theories and directions, that help us to go to places – and think things. However, I remember trying to think through definitions of media archaeology – a useful task to bring clarity. I originally doodled something like this for my working blog for that WiMA book, but let’s return to that now. This thinking aloud was partly triggered by my soon to be new colleague Sunil Manghani’s question…so how does media archaeology differ from media history.
Here is one attempt to give definition type of coordinates…although this does not exhaust the richness of MA and its various traditions.
Media archaeology can be understood as a heterogeneous set of theories and methods that investigate media history through its alternative roots, forgotten paths, neglected ideas and machines. It explicitly challenges the supposed newness of digital culture. Media archaeology gives new ideas to understand media cultural temporality. The definitions have ranged from emphasising the recurring nature of media cultural discourses (Huhtamo) to media archaeology as an-archaeology, or variantology (Zielinski) which in its excavation of the deep time layers of our means of seeing tries to find an alternative route to dismantle the fallacy of linear development.
Furthermore, I see media archaeology as a history-theory enterprise in which temporal excavation of media functions as a theoretical force as well; a reading of old media and new media in parallel lines. Media archaeology is decisively non-linear, and rigorously theoretical in its media historical interest of knowledge. In a Benjaminian vein, it abandons historicism when by it is meant the idea that the past is given and out there waiting for us to find it; instead, it believes in the radical assembling of history, and histories in the plural, but so that it is not only a subset of cultural historical writing. Instead, media archaeology needs to insist both on the material nature of its enterprise – that media are always articulated in material, also in non-narrative frameworks whether technical media such as photography, or algorithmic media features such as databases and software networks – and that the work of assembling temporal mediations takes place in an increasingly varied and distributed network of institutions, practices and technological platforms.
Indeed, what media archaeology investigates are also the practical rewirings of time, as is done in media artistic and creative practice work, through archives digital and traditional, as well as DIY and circuit bending which recycle, and remix obsolete technology as much as they investigate aesthetic and political economic conditions of technical media.
Media archaeology takes place in artistic labs, laboratories where hardware and software are hacked and opened, but also in in conceptual labs for experimenting with concepts and ideas.
So as you can see, it moves into certain material characteristics that I want to keep close to media archaeology. It does not mean that this it the only to approach MA. For instance, here is what Huhtamo wrote.
3-2-1 the whistle blows. Click-click-click-click…
It’s image making but not just photography – instead, it provides an alternative route for histories of media; instead of a preference for the centrality of the seriality of the moving image, try starting from the cybernetic. “The cybernetic hypothesis”, as Alex Galloway coined it in his talk at the Winchester Centre for Global Futures that was a kick-starter for the project.
The whistle, the 24 cameras, set around a circular studio, a rotunda on which a stool for the model – an assemblage that connects the early 1860s with the 2012 reconstruction inside which I too sat to be photographed, and to be sculpted from those 24 shots. Originally this was Francois Willeme’s photosculpture, a curious arrangement and a patent from 1860s Paris that defined what Galloway calls one early model for parallel media.
Winchester School of Art Fine Art undergraduate students took up the original blueprints and the idea as their own model for a project led by Ian Dawson and Louisa Minkin and produced a fantastic remake of the Willeme-device. Inspired by Alex Galloway’s talk, and partly framed as a media archaeological project, it presents indeed a very inspiring way to address sculpture, parallel imaging and informational culture. Like so many media archaeological art works, it suggests how you can presence old media ideas – often not very mainstream – in current settings; like taking an alternative viewpoint not only to media art history, but also to current image cultures.
The photosculpture – which indeed as sculptural mediates the imaging into physical three dimensional objects and presents a sort of an archaeology of 3-D digital imaging/modelling – shifts our perceptual coordinates. It forces itself as a rather (in a good way) weird part of the cultures of digital imaging with its historically “out-dated” way of understanding media. That is the beauty of the device and the arrangement; it is a historical and media archaeological exercise in practice-led activity that investigates the conditions of visuality and perhaps even cybernetic culture, as Galloway claims.
“A sculptor and the sun will become collaborators working together to fashion in 48 hours busts or statues of a hitherto unknown fidelity of such great boldness in outline and admirable likeness.” Those were the words of the journalist Henri de Parviel, describing the original piece by Willeme. You can see how it describes the emerging business in quickly produced, sculpted visuality – a bust in “admirable likeness” in no time! The WSA project taps into the way in which visual technologies were starting to be mobilized into consumer products and services, but old media ideas can be cheap R&D too (to use the phrase by Garnet Hertz) for artistic ideas and reappropriations, and engage with the multiple medialities that our media technologies consist of: it’s not only about the photographic visuals, nor just sculpture, nor just a genealogy of the informatics, but a folding of various medialities. Even a single technological assemblage and practice can contain so much, as the project demonstrated. Media are never about single objects, devices or apparata – but a multiplicity of techniques and technologies assembled. Hence, a hands on assembling is itself a process of thinking through this multiplicity of media and arts apparata in order to get a sense of the delicate materialities and techniques which they enable, and how they are themselves enabled.
(For further reference, a film from 1939 from the Pathe archives, with Marcus Adams in his studio demonstrating the photosculpture)