Archive for the ‘Zielinski’ Category

How to practice variantology of media?

December 17, 2019 Leave a comment

I was commissioned to write a short popular audience piece on Siegfried Zielinski for the Korean article series “The Front Lines of the 21st Century Humanities and Social Sciences”. The series has featured many theorists from Kittler to Haraway, Barad to Latour, as well as one article on my work. The text on Zielinski is now published and I wanted to post the original English text (not copy-edited, apologies for awkward language hiccups) here. Please find it below. The short text was also written to note the just published volume of Zielinski texts, Variations on Media Thinking (University of Minnesota Press, 2019.)

Siegfried Zielinski: How to practice variantology of media?

One way to understand a theorist’s work is to look at how she or he is being talked about. What do your friends or enemies say? What are the concepts, ideas, or generic style of a theorist that catch wind and which ones are left to the side? While Siegfried Zielinski has become known for his significant work as one of the early theorists of media archaeology and as a poetic palaeontologist of deep times of art and science, it is curious to have a peek at the little book Objects of Knowledge – a Small Technical Encyclopedia that functioned as a Festschrift, a celebration of Zielinski’s 60th birthday, written by his colleagues and peers. In the eyes of his friends, Zielinski’s work extends to a whole glossary of odd objects, things, and speculations that reveals the influence he has had in extending the discussion of media to clearly things not usually considered media. A wild list of “media” objects constitutes the book’s entries: basket, bathtub, book destruction machine; Dried Food, Filmoscope, Fountain Pen, and Geiger Counter; Hand, Line, Phenakistoscope; Sardine Can, Side Scan Sonar, Slide Rule, Typewriter, and Wall Socket are some of the examples of where we end up when riding with Zielinski’s mind set.  While Zielinski himself has recognized that perhaps media, as a term, has become superfluous, this also was one form of a liberating feeling: finally we are not stuck with only mainstream set of a focus on media as entertainment, media as pleasing viewers and customers.

In this manner, one would do justice to the broad career of the German media theorist and professor Zielinski by calling him a variantologist of media. True, he has mobilized a range of terms that speak about deep times and palentology of media, suggesting that our usual historical timeframe is not sufficient to understand the longer histories of art and science collaborations. And true, he has engaged in the alternative histories of media – something that ties him into the field of media archaeology interested in these unknowns or forgotten paths of past media practice– when discussing the hegemonic histories of television and cinema perhaps only as entr’actes in the wider cultural history of audiovisions. This is the exciting bit for anyone bored of the usual media studies discussions of only television, film, internet, computers – indeed, the “audiovisual overlaps with other specialist discourses and partial praxes of society, such as architecture, transport, science and technology, organisation of work and time, traditional plebeian and bourgeois culture, or the avant-garde.” That, already, then tells us one firm thing: media studies is truly cultural studies is truly interdisciplinary studies. Variantology is then one name for this drive to look beyond disciplinary conventions and boundaries, and look at the most mundane with new eyes: the usual household item of the video-recorder becomes in Zielinski’s writing a time machine in the fundamental sense, a suburbian living room equivalent of time/space manipulation.

On can say that Zielinski’s constantly overarching approach has been to look at the variations – the non-normative, the alternative, the minor, and the differing practices that define technological arts and mediations of seeing and hearing. This idea is also present in the name of the most recent English translation of his works: Variations on Media Thinking. Of course, his earlier book Deep Time of the Media stands out as almost programmatic declaration. The book moves from Antique Greece philosophy of perception (Empedocles) to the Jesuit priest Athanius Kircher’s explorations of “light and shadow” in the 17th century. Early versions of all sorts of audiovisual but also cryptographic, hence algorithmic, techniques of media emerge from that story, argues Zielinski with a poetic touch. It illustrates a different understanding of technology than the current market and economy oriented focus on Silicon Valley and consumer gadgets. For our current media culture so determined to believe in the all-saving grace of new technologies as the solutionist  credo this twists things around somewhat ingeniously: to look for the old in the new, and the new in the old, to use Zielinski’s own phrasing.

Besides Zielinski’s objects of knowledge and wonders that Deep time of The Media book and others chronicle – Kircher’s arca steganographica (a machine for encrypting and decrypting letters), Martin van Marum’s 1785 “electrification machine”, or the “Self-writing wonder machine” by E. Knauss’s automata from 1764 – one can find an interesting program for variantology as an approach. In other words, this is not merely a collection of interesting discoveries in an alternative archive of art, science and media, but an inquiry into an-archaeologies.

Variantology is thus slightly anarchic in its pursuit of discourses and practices of magic, science, technics and media in history. It defies the hegemonic forces of what Zielinski coins the psychopathia medialis: the drive towards homogenising uniformity in media practices and discourses that characterises the capitalist culture of media understood as entertainment. Instead, the task of the variantologist is to dig out moments of difference, resistance, and experimentation that help us to imagine things differently.

Furthermore, there is an important methodological cue when Zielinski notes that we also need to shift the focus of our interest. Instead of the usual Western stories and capital cities of media production, we need to look South and East: Zielinski wants thus “to advocate a two-fold shift of geographic attention: from the North to the South and from the West to the East” which leads into a program of excavating histories of art, science, and media, stories and practice of alternative techniques from Far East, Mediterranian, Asia Minor, Greece, Middle-East, and South America.

This programmatic call was partly realised then in the Variantology-book series he set into motion with other editors, leading into volumes that offered case studies of such alternative stories. So while Zielinski’s own work and theoretisation emerged from 20th century core set of experimental practices and histories – from Godard to Virilio, Bauhaus to Lynn Hershman Leeson, from theorists of 1968 to the media theoretical boom in Germany since the 1980s – he also was able to shift the focus to collaborations with a much wider geographical and intellectual reach. Even if Zielinski’s 2011 book After the Media takes account of contemporary forms of media thinking from a self-declared Berlin perspective, he is still adamant the this is only one situated perspective as part of a wider cartography of media: “comparable thematic genealogies need to be written by authors who bring in their own cultural and intellectual experiences and areas of competence, before we can bring them together at scales of greater dimensions and can explore and try out their compatibility in the long term.” Also theoretical work has its own geography, and theoretical work has its own deep time.

Is this excavation in some sense also political? Can one say that this is a more activist way of doing media archaeology? While his compatriot Friedrich Kittler became famous for his insistent way of changing humanities agenda through technological knowledge, Zielinski’s work emerges with an emphasis on the artistic, which is reflected in his own personal history as part of some key art institutions of Germany, including in Berlin, Cologne, and Karlsruhe. For Zielinski, then, the question is not only about technology – even if he never dismisses knowing about technologies and engineers – but about potentials of experimentation and change: “to create a better world than the one that exists”, as he writes. Indeed, this is what connects to his pursuit of imaginaries of media, which itself is not merely personal fabulation but a systematic strand in history of thought.  In a pithy fashion, Zielinski states: “Imagination and mathematics have never been irreconcilable opposites and will not be so in the future.” Deep times also link to alternative futures, against psychopathia medialis.

The Residual Media Depot summer school

I had the pleasure of being one of the participants in the Media Archaeology summer school in Montreal at the Residual Media Depot (Concordia). Invited by Darren Wershler, and teaching alongside also Lori Emerson, we had a wonderful group of participants from Canada, Finland, USA, UK and Spain whose own projects and their work at the Depot during the week demonstrated a fantastically broad spectrum of what media archaeology can perform.


I could not emphasise the word perform enough: while we engaged with the theoretical limits and limitations of theoretical work in and around media archaeology, including how it interfaces with for example infrastructure studies, the various probes the students presented and the hands-on work in the Depot investigated the idea of collections as part of the methodology. The performative aspect of media archaeology – and theory broadly speaking – allows to both see it as a situated practice that benefits from its access to institutions and collections as well as creates the space for such to exist: to imagine a media archaeology lab or a collection becomes also a projective way of engaging with the current themes of reshifting humanities infrastructure and institutional changes. As Wershler and Lori Emerson, the director of the Media Archaeology Lab at Boulder, Colorado, also underlined, it is through the particular materiality and access to collections that one can think differently in relation to what are often deemed objects of (media) cultural heritage.

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Relating the course’s themes to also his own research, Wershler explained how his interest in the cultural life of signals builds on work in the Depot too. To engage in the work of assembly through old but still functioning systems one is led to understand the various ways the life of signals is constantly constructed and re-constructed across multiple fields of agency from hobbyists to the mini-industry building the various technological tools for an afterlife of for example consoles.

Media archaeology embodies multiple temporalities. The different theoretical frameworks from Erkki Huhtamo to Siegfried Zielinski to Wolfgang Ernst are different solutions to the problem of time – how to approach time differently in methodological ways and in ways that understand technical temporality. For example, Ernst’s ways of approaching time criticality and temporal operationality are something that both offer a different ontological take on technology and also can act as interesting guides in how we work with collections such as the Depot.

In my view, the Residual Media Depot was a perfect platform for the workshop. Wershler had designed the week as a mix of theoretical investigations, student probes and practice-based work that functioned somewhere between maker methodologies, art practices and an archival interest in collections that are important for media theory too. The collection is focused on cultures and technologies of gaming with a special focus on consoles, but as Wershler emphasises, it is not a game archaeology depot. The consoles and the material around them is an entry point to media history and signal culture.


In several ways, the Depot’s work aligns nicely with the Media Archaeology Lab but also with our AMT group: to establish a framework and an enabling situation for a research-teaching continuum that is interested as much in practice-based work as it is in explicating what practices of theory are. All of this feeds also as part of the Lab Book we are writing together.

You can find more information about the Depot on their website and on the same site you can find all the student probes from our week of Media Archaeology.

The Residual Media Depot (RMD) is a project of the Media History Research Centre in the Milieux Institute at Concordia University.


“More things in Theory…”: An Interview with GWY

December 22, 2014 Leave a comment

A lovely new interview with Geoffrey Winthrop-Young has been posted online: “More things in theory than heaven and earth are dreaming of.” Conducted by Melle Kromhout and Peter McMurray, it brings out great points. Winthrop-Young is always a pleasure to read, both because of the tone and the insights. Of course, in this case I remain biased, with the focus of the interview being about the so-called German media theory (which is not, as we are reminded, not so German, not pretending to present a big theory nor is it really merely German), Bernhard Siegert, cultural techniques and by the end, also about “media biology”. What’s not to like.

GWY has a fantastic sense of explication when it comes to media theory. When he responds about the subject topic of the interview that “cultural techniques are further installation of modern theory’s crusade against the as such” it both gives a subtle sense of how it maps as part of the contemporary theory landscape (and the persisting enthusiasm for the ontological as suchs) and also reminds me why I feel attracted to cultural techniques and related media analytical directions; I am, after all, a slowly recovering (cultural) historian who does not mind that the notions we operate by, the cultural layers, “all the levels all the way down are made up of historically locatable practices” even if with various twists of complex feedback loops.

A Geology of Media

January 17, 2014 6 comments

I am pleased to announce that I have signed a contract with University of Minnesota Press for a new book tentatively called A Geology of Media.

Planned for 2015, A Geology of Media forms the third, final part of the media ecology-trilogy. It started with Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) and continued with Insect Media (2010). This book on the geophysics and the non-organic ground of media complements the earlier takes by offering a media materialism from the point of view of geological resources, electronic waste and media arts. Through engaging with several contemporary art and technology projects it provides a media theoretical argument: to think of materiality of media beyond the focus on machines and technologies by focusing on what they consist of: the chemistry and geological materials of media, from metals to dust.

In short, I am interested to see if what pejoratively sometimes is called “hardware fetishism” is not hard enough, and even media and cultural theorists need to focus on the rocks and crust that make technical media possible. Earth history of deep times mixes with media history, which becomes a matter of not only thousands, but millions of years of non-linear history (to modify Manuel Delanda’s original idea). This way media materialism becomes a way to entangle media technologies, environmental issues and themes of global labour. Perhaps instead of the Anthropocene, we should just refer to the Anthropobscene.

I’ve been in recent talks and short posts been addressing the geological in media, and my piece in The Atlantic offered a short preview of what’s to come. In addition, below a very tentative table of contents.   This project (and the Erkki Kurenniemi book I am working on with Joasia Krysa) will keep me busy for a while.

A Geology of Media


1) Introduction: Grounds of Media/Culture

2) An Alternative Deep Time of the Media

3) Psychogeophysics of Technology

4) Dust and the Exhausted Planet

5) Media Fossils

Afterwords: Half-Life


“Zombie Media”, by Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka

From the Crystal World-project (Howse, Jordan, Kemp)

From the Crystal World-project (Howse, Jordan, Kemp)


January 9, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

Deep Times and Geology of Media

August 20, 2013 Leave a comment

“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.

A Call for An Alternative Deep Time of the Media

September 28, 2012 Leave a comment

I am here recapping some ideas from an earlier post, but I wanted to flag this as a separate theme…

I want to pick up on Siegfried Zielinski’s notion of deep time of the media — not straightforwardly media archaeological, but an anarchaeological call for methodology of deep time research into technical means of hearing and seeing. In Zielinski’s vision, which poetically borrows from Stephen Jay Gould’s paleontological epistemology at least in its vision, the superficiality of media cultural temporality is exposed with antecedents, hidden ideas, false but inspiring paths of earlier experimenters from Empedocles to Athanius Kircher, Johann Wilhelm Ritter to Cesare Lombroso.

Zielinski’s excavations are not content to stay within the regime of media archaeology, but want to uncover a non-linear layering of variations. Indeed, in a manner that seems to be borrowing from a Deleuze-Guattarian ontology of nomadism and the primacy of variation (I don’t however think that Z makes the link to DG explicit), Zielinski’s methodology is in this sense a refusal of any master plans of media development and a plea against both the drive towards psychopathia medialis (the standardization and uniformity as well as illusions of teleology). Instead, the paleontological conceptualisation of a media history of variations finds surprising case studies of aberrants paths for hearing and seeing, of optics and acoustics, of technical means of guiding, misguiding, educating and mocking the senses.

And yet, as an alternative deep time, I suggest that instead of male heroes, we approach a more geologically tuned deep time – deep in various senses, down to mineral excavation, and picking up some themes of media ecological sort. I want to speculate with a more geologically oriented notion of depth of media that is interested in truly deep times – of thousands, millions, billions of years and in depth of the earth; A media excavation into the mineral and raw material basis of technological development, through which to present some media historical arguments as to how one might adopt a material perspective in terms of ecological temporality.

For instance for the European Union, the future of information technology has to be planned starting from a material level up: The EU does not hold much in terms of critical raw material resources when it comes to advanced technology that are identified crucial for a longer term socio-economic change. Obviously, such issues are  always voiced with a concern for the geopolitical-economic consequences. In short, this refers to the crucial status of China, Russia, Brazil, Congo and for instance South-Africa as producers of raw materials, and an alternative material future of technological culture. This connects to a realisation: the materiality of information technology starts from the soil, and underground – 500 meters, and preferably (for the mining companies) lower as the earth’s crust is dozens of kilometres deep.

Cobalt  —- Lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels

Gallium —- Thin layer photovoltaics, IC, WLED

Indium —– Displays, thin layer photovoltaics

Tantalum —- Micro capacitors, medical technology

Antimony —– ATO, micro capacitors

Germanium —– Fibre optic cable, IR optical technologies

Niobium —– Micro capacitors, ferroalloys

Neodymium —- Permanent magnets, laser technology[1]

From animals to nature as a resource, a material ecology for media is an increasingly important topic. This is the double bind that relates media technologies to ecological issues; on the one hand, acting as raw material for the actual hardware, from cables to cell phones; on the other hand, as an important epistemological framework whether in relation to mapping of climate change or in terms of further resources for exploitation, as in the recent proposal not just for Internet of Things – but Internet of Underwater Things.

Perhaps an alternative sort of a deep time of the media is needed – one that does not excavate deep times of human inventions, successful or just imagined, but deep times of animal and geological sort, and the cultural techniques that are affiliated with such non-human regimes? This could be a further advance to consolidate the work of media ecology and zootechnics (cf. Sebastian Vehlken’s recent work in this area, as well as Insect Media).

[1] European Union Critical Raw Materials Analysis, By the European Commission Raw Materials Supply Group, July 30, 2010. Executive Summary by Swiss Metal Assets, October 1, 2011, under (24.7.2012).