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Ernst on Time-Critical Media: A mini-interview

March 18, 2013 Leave a comment

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?”

Wolfgang Ernst:

“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.”

On these topics, see also Wolfgang Ernst’s  Digital Memory and the Archive.

Digital Memory and the Archive is out!

January 4, 2013 5 comments

ernst cover imageGood 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? — out now

May 8, 2012 8 comments

It’s out, and gradually in book stores — What is Media Archaeology? (Polity),
my new book about media archaeology (what a surprise)!

It picks up where the edited volume Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Huhtamo and Parikka) left off; this means the implications bit, and how media archaeology relates to other recent discussions in art, cultural and media theory: software studies, new materialism, archives, and more. In other words, it complements the earlier collection.

So in short,

1) What IS media archaeology?

- depends who you ask. If you ask Erkki Huhtamo or Siegfried Zielinski, you might get a different answer than from asking me. For Huhtamo, it is the recurring topoi/topics of media culture; for Zielinski, a poetic exploration of deep times and variantology; and so forth. For me, it is an exciting theoretical opening to think about material media cultures in a historical perspective. However, it expands into an experimental set of questioning about time, obsolescence, and alternative histories as well. In one way, it is about analyzing the conditions of existence of media cultural objects, processes and phenomena. It picks up on some strands of “German media theory”, but connects that to other debates in cultural theory too.I like what Bernhard Siegert has said about the early ethos of media archaeology being that of Nietzschean gay science — experimental, exploratory, radical. Perhaps in this vein, media archaeology is one answer to the need to think transdiscplinary questions of art, science, philosophy and technology.

2) Isn’t it just media history that tries to rebrand itself?

- No, not really. A lot of the media archaeological work expands to strong theoretical arguments as well as quite different sorts of historical inquiry than one recognizes in media historical work. Having said that, perhaps this is where the interesting connections are emerging; how media archaeology can contribute to media historical inquiry as well as to thinking about archives and cultural memory. There is one chapter on archives in this new book. A lot of media archaeology owes to earlier new cultural histories and new historicism, so the link is there.

3) Isn’t media archaeology only a footnote to Kittler’s work?

- That would be unfair towards a bunch of other theorists, German and non-German. Kittler himself denied being a media archaeologist, even if a lot of the stuff has taken much inspiration from him and the idea of looking at “conditions of existence” of cultural formations through (technical) media. Even Germany is filled with media archaeological work, since 1980s, and a lot of that expands to such new directions as Cultural Techniques (Siegert, Krajewski, Vissman, and others) as well as other media archaeologists — not least Wolfgang Ernst. In addition, the book offers an insight to other media archaeological theories, such as Huhtamo’s, Zielinski’s, new film history (Elsaesser et al) as well as the links to emerging media studies fields such as digital humanities (eg Kirschenbaum’s work).

4) Sounds like the book is all theory, huh?

There is more than just media theory — although I admit, that because of the nature of the book, was not able to work too much of new empirical material there. However, one key thing that pops up in the book is the use of media archaeology as an artistic method. There is a whole chapter dedicated to that. I think one of the most exciting directions is to see how these methodologies can be used in design, arts and other fields of creative practice that anyway are interested in themes of obsolescence, media and technological affordance, the environment and ecology, remix and for instance hardware (even analogue!).

5) What next?

- No more media archaeology for me. Well, I have jokingly promised that I won’t use the term anymore, even if I am interested in seeing where this term might take us. I will come up with a disguise, a theoretical disguise.

6) your chance to ask me a question!

- and I will answer, if I can.

Meanwhile, here is the info about the book:

(From the Publisher’s catalogue and website):

This cutting-edge text offers an introduction to the emerging field of media archaeology and analyses the innovative theoretical and artistic methodology used to excavate current media through its past.

Written with a steampunk attitude, What is Media Archaeology? examines the theoretical challenges of studying digital culture and memory and opens up the sedimented layers of contemporary media culture. The author contextualizes media archaeology in relation to other key media studies debates including software studies, German media theory, imaginary media research, new materialism and digital humanities.

What is Media Archaeology? advances an innovative theoretical position while also presenting an engaging and accessible overview for students of media, film and cultural studies. It will be essential reading for anyone interested in the interdisciplinary ties between art, technology and media.

And the blurbs:

‘Jussi Parikka offers a lucid, concise, and highly readable account of a new and exciting field – media archaeology. He demonstrates that contemporary media forms are rooted to the past by multiple threads – untangling them helps us understand the media frenzy that currently surrounds us.’
Erkki Huhtamo, University of California Los Angeles

‘A fabulous map of media archaeology that, as its subject compels, produces its territory anew.’
Matthew Fuller, Goldsmiths

‘The most comprehensive coverage to date of this fascinating area of study. Parikka’s book offers an excellent overview of connections between the material and social aspects of media technology. He provides a thorough review of the diverse and sometimes contrasting theoretical foundations and provides a host of concrete examples of media-archaeological practice that serve to bridge the gap between heady theoretical trajectories and the concerns of practicing artists, users and other readers who take their technology seriously.’
Paul DeMarinis, Stanford University

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1
Introduction: Cartographies of the Old and the New
Chapter 2
Media Archaeology of the Senses: Audiovisual, Affective, Algorithmic
Chapter 3
Imaginary Media: Mapping Weird Objects
Chapter 4
Media Theory and New Materialism
Chapter 5
Mapping Noise and Accidents
Chapter 6
Archive Dynamics: Software Culture and Digital Heritage
Chapter 7
Practicing Media Archaeology: Creative Methodologies for Remediation

Conclusions: Media Archaeology in Digital Culture
Note: the book is hitting the bookstores now in the UK (May), and soon in North-America (June) and rest of the world.

 

Rhythm & Event: The Aesthetico-Technical

October 6, 2011 1 comment

I am giving a talk here:

The London Graduate School, Kingston University, presents a one day symposium on Rhythm & Event, Saturday 29 October 2011, King’s Anatomy Theatre and Museum.


Can a concept of rhythm, understood as a vibrational, irregular, abstract-yet-real movement, lurking at the unknown dimensions of the event, bridge the gap between actual & virtual, analog & digital, spatial & temporal, as well as between theories & practices of sound? The purpose of this symposium is to elaborate a philosophy of rhythm as an appropriate mode of analysis of the event, and a method with which to account for the process of change and the production of novelty in contemporary environments.

Plenary speakers include, Matthew Fuller (Goldsmiths College) & Andrew Goffey (Middlesex University), Angus Carlyle (LCC, CRiSAP), and Jussi Parikka (Winchester School of Art/ University of Southampton). The event will conclude with an electronic audiovisual performance and wine reception.

For details and registration, please visit this link: tiny.cc/rhythm-lgs

 

And my talk at the event, at least an approximation of this summary:

The Aesthetico-Technical Rhythm

Despite the insistence on the objective materiality as a grounding for technical media culture, a key realization that framed also technical media was that of rhythm – or more widely vibrations, waves, rhythms, and patterns. From the 19th century discoveries concerning Hertzian waves and Fourier transformations, Helmholtz and Nikola Tesla to mid 20th century research into brains and brain waves mapped and modulated through EEG (W.Grey Walter and the British Cybernetics), and onto contemporary digital culture of algo-rhythms (Miyazaki 2011), this talk maps a short genealogy of rhythmic technical media. The talk focuses especially on the epistemological mapping of sound words by the Institute for Algorhythmics (Berlin), and argues for an aesthetic-technical connection to think through the sonification of non-sensuous digital worlds. Referring to Wendy Chun’s (2011) ideas concerning the invisibility-visibility pairing in digital culture, the talk addresses not code, but rhythm as the constituting element for technical media.

Whitehead into media theory

February 8, 2011 7 comments

Complementing the biomedia-theme of the conference (Response:ability) of this year, the final panel of Transmediale 2011 featured two important writers in media theory and arts: Marie-Luise Angerer and Mark B.N. Hansen. Angerer was very interesting in her presentation that focused on the notion of affect, talking about Massumi, the disappearing half a second in registration of sensations, and dance, but I want to mention here especially Hansen (partly because of the selfish reason of having been recently occupied with the idea of time-critical media, and microtemporality).

Amusingly introduced in the programme as the other Mark Hansen – who teaches statistics at UCLA – this Mark Hansen at Transmediale is of course the author of New Philosophy for New Media and Bodies in Code; both important, interesting books in embodiment and the media artistic cultures of perception. As was pointed out during the session, partly by Hansen himself, his theoretical trajectory has moved in new directions during these years: from a very strong phenomenological focus influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to a much more Gilbert Simondon influenced Bodies in Code, and now he is framing his project through A.N.Whitehead. This is interesting, as it shows yet another contemporary cultural and media theorist moving in that direction. Well known are the Whitehead writings of Massumi and Manning in Montreal, and of course the recent Whitehead writings of Steven Shaviro, the debates around object oriented philosophy that take a lot aboard from Whitehead, and naturally the ideas of such pioneers as Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour. So Hansen as well has joined this crew enthusiastic about the superject instead of subject, and the distributed field of prehensions instead of the primacy of the human body and sensory system as the focal point in aesthetics.

Hansen’s current project is more generally framed as a move from objects to processes. Hansen argues that so much of media theory (including his own work) has been focusing on objects as the primary, uhm, object of media theory. Instead, contemporary culture of distributed ubiquitous media environments demands something else. The presentation itself was packed full of theoretical arguments that are hard to unpack in a good brief way, but I just want to point towards some key concepts.

Hansen argues that this new media culture demands new concepts – a new culture of media processes has to be complemented by a specificity paying attention to how it happens on such levels that are not always directly registered on the human sensorium. Interestingly, he pointed towards Guattari as well, even if not so strongly as talking about Whitehead. In short, the indebtedness to Guattari could be summarized through the idea that machines talk to machines before talking to us. Hansen takes this concretely, in a similar manner to Wendy Chun, and pays attention to how much happens in our media machines (take smart phones that all the time are connected due to the GPS system etc) before we actively use them. The sensibilities inherent in such regimes of software cultures are indeed beyond the normal accounted for 5 senses that media theory has traditionally recognized. And here kicks in Whitehead.

Instead of the body focus of previous (new) media theory, Whitehead offers ways to rethink embodiment. The body is in such a theoretical frame “a vast set, a society of sensibilities.” Similarly Whitehead complicates the notion of perception by two important specifications: perception as presentational immediacy, as it has been understood in so much of history of philosophy and perception as causal efficacy. Without me being able to go into enough detail here, causal efficacy points towards the way Whitehead wants to take into account the way actual entities in the world are created through their relations to other entities, preceding them, and in midst of which entities are determined. It points towards the processual nature of perception being born – not the end result, but the “sensory processes leading up to and informing perception.”

When Shaviro asked the question of how would contemporary cultural theory look like if we had focused more on Whitehead, instead of Heidegger as the 20th century philosopher, Hansen seems to ask: how could we bend Whitehead into a media theorist? Whitehead hardly wrote anything related to media or technology per se (even if writing lots on science which we can argue of course being of huge importance to any understanding of media culture). For Hansen, the key point is how Whitehead’s perspective affords us to think about nonperceptual sensation. It gives agency to the environment instead of the focal subject effected and affected by that environment, and offers the perspective of the superject for media theory: how the individual is the end result of the environmental datum prehended by this focal point.

This in a way pairs up with the nature of the processual environments – that when we need to talk about processes as the central “object” of media studies, we need to see this both in the sense how e.g. Whitehead can offer such theoretical perspectives (causal efficacy) as well as how the distributed, ubiquoitous software environments are processes, unfolding in their nature. This is where Hansen’s perspective ties together with the recent debates concerning time-critical perspectives that especially the Berlin Humboldt media theorists have promoted (again, see Axel Volmar’s Zeitkritische Medien, 2009, as well as Wolfgang Ernst’s writings). Yet, there is an important difference as Hansen seems to argue that it’s only the recent new media has made the processual approaches crucial. But is this not already the case for such earlier media as wireless, cinema even, and for example television? Hansen does not fully address why the earlier media of signal processing of various forms does not qualify for the microtemporal ideas he is arguing for, where the circulating nature of the electric, electromagnetic, and then electronic signal is processual. I would argue that here some media archaeology should step in and offer a broader perspective concerning technical media and time, affect of technological relations, and process.

Time-Critical Media – a short reminder of a book that deserves attention

November 13, 2009 Leave a comment

I have flagged in many contexts my interest for new materialist cultural analysis, and how it should be articulated together with a new sense of temporality. When I say “a new sense” it’s a bit misleading, but I mean the rigorous rethinking of temporality that we find across the board from Delanda to Whitehead-inspired accounts and so forth. Whereas Grossberg already pointed towards a non-signifying accounts as a mode of spatial materialism, we need to develop similar approaches that stem from radical temporality; that the world outside the human being is too dynamic, unfolding, temporal; that temporality is itself folded together with the various material assemblages of the world; that temporality is a crucial non-human force we need to articulate to understand the molecular, as well as the long durations of nature (not least in the midst of our eco crisis).

One key context for my interests comes again from Germany, and has been recently been “summed up” as a book. Axel Volmar as the editor of Zeitkritische Medien (Time-Critical Media, Kadmos Verlag, Berlin, 2009 ) has done a good job in collating together recent trends in German media theory, and approaches to the very peculiar, but even more so exciting version of media archaeology that they have been developing in the Media Studies department at Humboldt University, Berlin. Under the guidance of Professor Wolfgang Ernst, the notion of “time-criticality” and an eye towards temporal processes as a key to understand modern technical media we find a brand of media archaeology that extends not so much historically into past media but towards the microscopic workings of media machines; and how they modulate time, and the structuring temporal processes of societies.

By digging into the “microtemporalities” of media machines the introduction and the chapters try to excavate how such micro-layers are articulating the perception of reality. This means extending the media studies agenda (not surprisingly as we are in the territory of German, Kittlerian inspired media theory after all) to non-human agents and processes that however structure the phenomenological worlds of our perception and reality-effects as well. This leads furthermore to the realisation of the new realms of relations between machines themselves — no link to the human is always needed in the age of automated processes and machines communicating between themselves before they talk to the human (Guattari — who however is missing as theorist from this volume).

Paul Virilio who is well used in this book has argued for the importance of time and speed for war (and hence a link to media as well), but this book extends this to a very meticulous technical excavation into the dispositifs of how actually time gets articulated and articulates media. Technophobes beware! This brand of German media theory is not afraid of getting its hands greasy, whether we are talking of analogue media or digital algorithms (or algorythmics as Shintaro Miyazaki extends the concept in his chapter). This is where Virilio’s ideas gain real strength, or a new context when by systematic and rigorous steps machines and technologies are opened up from the logic of bitmapping (Peter Berz) to the problems of noise and signal-transmission (Hirt and Volmar).

It would be crucial to see more work of this kind in English in order to really start rethinking fundamentals of media studies. This is happening already, partly due to a Kittlerian influence, and other new waves coming e.g. from Italy (post-Fordist thought), France (e.g. Latour, Guattari, Deleuze of course) and onwards to e.g. games (Pias) with an amount of chapters that with ease move between visual media, the sonic and computational platforms. But definitely new German media studies and archaeology has a lot to say to the problems of materiality of technical media. It would benefit itself from a more elaborated discussion and joining of forces of some other similar approaches that come from different directions. Ideas of temporality have been developed e.g. in materialist feminism (Barad) and e.g. Whitehead inspired radical empiricism (Massumi, Mackenzie,etc.) and through creations of new circuits for circulation of ideas, we could have soon something really exciting on our hands. Well, the previous sentence was not to mean that all this stuff is not already that — exciting. Just that developing such creative clashes might be seen as a good method for movement of thought. Of course, its not the Germans who are the only ones doing this work; recently I have been following the stuff coming out from Utrecht direction as well whether in terms of some of the feminist work in the wake of Braidotti but also the great ideas from the New Media and Digital culture programme who also address materiality with historical, temporal methods.

Anyhow, media studies is developing into a great articulation of the interlinks between science, art and cultural analysis/philosophy, and we need to keep this movement alive with more translations and engagements. Such are the directions where UK media studies field should turn its attention to.

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