Signals, not signs

Most of my text-slaughter (i.e. cutting down the word count of my new book ms Media Archaeology and Digital Culture, and posting some blurbs online) happens here, but wanted to add this note, extracted from a chapter on”archives, in this blog space. It deals, very briefly, with some aspects of Wolfgang Ernst’s media theory:

Signals instead of signs, physics instead of semiotics – such a turn is at the core of how Wolfgang Ernst wants to define media theory. How do you do that methodologically? Theoretical work, analysis of diagrams, epistemologies, scientific frameworks for technical media are completemented in the case of Ernst by the existence of the media archaeological fundus – a certain kind of an archive of media archive – but an operational one. This is what he describes as based on the idea of epistemological “toy” – epistemisches Spielzeug (where the “Zeug” includes a Heideggerian connotation). Whereas I deal with Ernst, the fundus and their contexts in more detail in a range of forthcoming publications (in Theory, Culture &Society, in a book on Digital Humanities edited by David Berry and in my introduction to the forthcoming volume of Wolfgang Ernst writings from University of Minnesota Press) here is a short blurb into the direction of signs:

One of the aims of the fundus is to show that our perceptions are dependent on the signal processing capacities of our devices. This is evident with the example of online streaming, especially with a slightly slower internet connection that halts at times to load the content. But you can find this reliance on the signal as a time based process in earlier mass media as well. Perceptions become a function of the signal processes and the signal-to-noise ratio that is governed by complex diagrams usually more familiar to engineers and mathematicians whether we are talking about the statistics inherent in transmission, or the specific colour worlds this has related to:

“However, the broadcast of any football game illustrates the signal-to-noise ratio between plays on the field and amorphous shots of the spectators in the stadium only statistically. The archeology of media searches the depths of hardware for the laws of what can become a program. Has not the character of television shows after the introduction of color sets been determined decisively—indeed down to the clothes of the hosts—by the new standard and what it can do in terms of color and motion? Even today, the color blue has a mediatic veto in chroma key resolution; the same goes for the blue screen, and for manipulations of resolution and color filters. […] For media archeology, the only message of television is this signal: no semantics.” (Ernst: “Between Real Time and Memory on Demand: Reflections on/of Television” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101:3, Summer 2002: 627-628)

In such perspective, media artists such as Nam June Paik have been at the forefront of illuminating these technical aspects of transmission of signals by investigating the noise and non-meaning inherent in the medium. In one way, this is a reforumation of a McLuhan idea of medium as the message – the materiality of the mediation as the importance, but here turned into a more concrete physical detail: we would not see or hear anything were it not for the work of signals to transport, to transmit such phenomenological details to us.

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