What is Media Archaeology?

What is Media Archaeology?
Jussi Parikka
A Summary

Jussi Parikka outlines Media Archaeology as a way of looking at the past in parallel with the present. It draws on a steam-punk related version of the past which avoids a teleological view of history. Our present technology (and our attitudes to it) was not inevitable, nor is it the best, most effective way of doing things. Rather than viewing the history of media as a straight line from primitive to advanced Media Archaeology advances a pluralistic network view of history where anything can reemerge. Looking at contemporary and previous technologies in parallel allows us a clearer picture of what are present technologies are, what they do for us, what the say about our culture, hopes, desires and needs in a way which isn’t socially determined and reinforces the materiality of technology and our relationship to it.

A whole host of previous thinkers underlie Media Archaeology however Michel Foucault and Friedrich A. Kittler a two major figures and provide a significant point of convergence. Foucault’s archeology allows us to view the conditions of existence of contemporary society by drawing on backgrounds (rather than histories) to certain phenomena. Kittler draws on Foucault and focuses on the media specific elements in archaeologies of technology.

In many ways Media Archaeology draws from the theoretical trends which emerged in Film Studies and New Film History since the 1980s. These approaches focused on the specific technologies associated with film and focused on a number of areas, for instance: affect, physiological attraction, materiality and media specific capabilities. Looking at social contexts in conjunction with technological histories allows a sophisticated way of understanding different perspectives which relate to film. It is not surprising that these kind of emphases developed out of film studies, there are so many elements which differentiate film analysis to (for example) literature analysis. Technological factors are more important as well as social, economic, political contexts, not to mention issues of advertising, the star system etc. Media Archaeology asks why stop at film, why can’t we aim for a sophisticated analysis of any technology, its heritage and its conditions of its existence?

One major trend in Media Archaeology is “imaginary media research”. Thinking about technologies which might be unavailable or impossible to create helps us to ask questions about what we want and need technology for, what place it exists in society and the trends that have evolved socio-historically that concern technology. Part of imagined media also allows theorists an avenue into a more posthuman way of conceiving of technology. Removing the human subject and thinking about the material abilities and constraints outside of our needs and uses gives us a different understanding of technology. This leads back to Kittler and his material outlook which concerned the “specificity of technical media”. I.e. We can’t make assumptions about what the Internet, motor engine, writing, sound recording, is and does. We need to look at specific situations, specific technologies and how dispositions and activities are developing understandings of technology as this and not something else. Materiality is helpful in this regard as we need to try to look beyond our contemporary use of technology for our immediate needs.

One way in which Parikka attempts to avoid overly subjective analysis is through his deployment of Claude Shannon and his Information Theory. Shannon theorised information outside of a semantic context. Certain technologies give the impression that information is a result of a particular situation, simply a reflection of a context. In this way information does not seem universal. However, Shannon argues that information does not derive from a technology’s process but instead is something more basic, linked to mathematics. Understanding that different technologies present different contexts for understanding which seem to their contemporary users absolute is a major tenant of Media Archaeology. If we can see past our current technological situation we can have a more developed understanding of it.

The archive is a pertinent to Media Archeology, particularly the comparisons made between modern electronic archives and pre-electronic ancestors. In Parikka’s comparison he draws on Matthew Kirshenbaum’s digital forensics to work against the misunderstanding that whereas physical media degrade, electronic information is somehow ethereal and is not deeply related to its physical character. In the words of Paul DeMarinis “analogue media, to be preserved, must not be played: each replay is a partial erasure and a new recording - an overlay. Digital preservation relies instead on the frequent rereading, erasure and rewriting of the content” (“Erased Dots and Rotten Dashes, or how to wire your head for preservation” in Media Archaeology. Approaches, Applications, Implications p. 223). Looking at the specific media in question (comparisons between mpeg-3 to mpeg-4) can help us understand archives and their function, capabilities and social needs as well as the desires surrounding their creation rather than an overgeneralised concept of what ‘archiving’ might consist of.

Media Archaeology also closely positions itself in and around art projects which use similar methodologies or tackle the same problems as more theoretically based work. Essential is the argument that Media Archaeology can be practiced and that art projects which work with the same disciplined attitude (such as those by Paul DeMarinis, Bernie Lubell, David Link and Zoe Beloff) shouldn’t just be seen as opportunities to reinforce or visualise written theory nor need to be “explained” by accompanying critical writings, but can be seen as Media Archaeology in their own right. Parikka relates the practice of Media Archaeology to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “nomadology: a mode of knowledge and production that emphasises new connections that are not reproductions of what exists - but produces new mode of existing, thinking and creating” (p. 161 What is Media Archaeology).

Richard Graham

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