Media ArchaeologyErkki Huhtamo (UCLA) and Jussi Parikka (University of Southampton, University of Turku) have pursued individual routes of inquiry into media archaeology, which has only recently gained critical momentum. Not quite an academic discipline in the strictest sense, yet also not a specific methodology, media archaeology “rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture” (p. 3). Huhtamo has already amassed a sizable body of work written from the perspective of media archaeology. His research includes archaeologies of the screen, peep media, tactile media and the moving panorama. Parikka is best known for his innovative exploration of varying forms of entomological social organisation –– swarms, hives, webs –– as analogous to modern media technologies and networked society (1).

The work of media archaeology as presented through this edited collection may best be described as focusing on the materiality of media technologies rather than adopting a teleological rhetoric. As the editors note, media archaeology openly embraces diversity and “theories of cultural materialism, discourse analysis, notions of nonlinear temporalities, theories of gender, postcolonial studies, visual and media anthropology, and philosophies of neo-nomadism all belong to the mix” (p. 2). With such an apparently boundless premise, it would be easy to risk incoherence. However, the book’s subtitle and tripartite structure provide a welcome restraint. On one hand the subtitle ‘Approaches, Applications, and Implications’ offers a fairly clear overview of the scope of the text. On the other hand the text is split into three parts: ‘Engines of/in the Imaginary’, ‘(Inter)facing Media’ and ‘Between Analogue and Digital’.

In the introduction, Huhtamo and Parikka sketch the origins of media archaeology in true archaeological fashion. The expected names show up –– Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Marshall McLuhan, among others –– effectively tracing the rising interest in excavating the history(ies) of media. Film and Media Studies is especially fond of all that is implied by the term ‘archaeology’. Differing significantly from a Foucauldian archaeology of knowledge, the archaeology of cinema (as proffered by C. W. Ceram through Laurent Mannoni) sought to outline a prehistory of moving images. In this prehistory, various ‘philosophical toys’, modes and means of projection and other photographic technologies that preceded the cinema are re-examined in the context of their times.

The first section ‘Engines of/in the Imaginary’, roughly corresponds to the ‘Approaches’ of the text’s subtitle. Huhtamo presents an argument for focusing on the topos, a quotidian or ‘stereotypical formula’ that recurs across temporally or spatially distinct media contexts (p. 28). It is a seductive argument, in that it makes a powerful case for contesting accepted accounts of media to re-examine the repetition of the everyday. Huhtamo’s study of the “little people” topos reveals how such an approach may (re-)discover and (re-)locate the old and the new in a surprising fashion.

Eric Kluitenberg’s valuable contribution directs attention toward the work of Siegfried Zielinski. One problem with the very notion of media archaeology is how its practitioners may step out of Foucault’s long shadow. In marking out the distinctions between Foucault’s outlines of the machinations of discursive regimes and Zielinski’s emphasis on specific practices, Kluitenberg does much to resolve this issue. The other two essays that round out this section –– by Jeffrey Sconce and Thomas Elsaesser –– explore connections with psychoanalysis . Sconce excavates the curious history and cultural contexts of the “influencing machine” of the 1930s while Elsaesser recovers Freud as media theorist. Both essays ultimately provide two further examples of ways in which existing modes of inquiry may adopt media archaeological approaches.

The second section, “(Inter)facing Media,” corresponds approximately to the “Applications” of the book’s subtitle. The editors’ overview of the section notes that it “focuses on interfaces that link machines with their users but also connect different media with each other” (p.  119). Indeed, in exploring individual “cases” of intermedial convergence and divergence, the reader gets a real sense of how media archaeological approaches may be used to explore particular media archaeological ‘sites’. Machiko Kusahara’s exposition of the Japanese Baby Talkie excavates the modernity and media of Japan as the twentieth century dawned. This chapter will be of great interest to those pursuing research grounded in inter-cultural exchanges with a focus on media, as it presents a case study of media archaeological applications in an international context. Wanda Strauven links the old and the new by articulating connections between the tactility of early optical toys and present-day electronic gaming systems, platforms, and devices. Her call for a revisionist history of the cinema that explores it through modes of touch and play is especially astute in a time when cinema itself proliferates through channels ever distant from the silver screen. Francesco Casetti, for example, has pointed out that cinema has, through the “digital revolution”, dispersed itself over the past twenty years into a “plurality of supports. . .a plurality of industrial branches. . .a plurality of products. . .and a plurality of modes of consumption”. (2) Strauven makes a compelling case for cinema to be read through analyses of touch media –– a move that reaches back across a hundred years to reflect upon philosophical toys like the thaumatrope and the zoetrope.

Baby Talkie

To the extent that Claus Pias’ and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s essays both provide theoretical reflections on digital culture, they have certain things in common. Pias, closely following the materialist school of thought made prominent by (among others) Friedrich Kittler, presents an “anthropology of play” (p. 120) within the context of digital ontologies. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s insights reveal the ephemerality that underlies all digital processes. Indeed, Chun exposes the lie at the heart of digital memory’s claims to stability by pointing to the fact that digital media are, in fact, based precisely upon degeneration and erasure. Rather than offering a readily-sold illusion of permanence, the digital archive is seen instead to embody an enduring ephemeral, as it were –– a perpetually-suspended moment.

The third section, “Between Analogue and Digital,” draws out the “Implications” suggested in the book’s subtitle. In general, the essays presented here offer multiple views of the possibilities opened up by media archaeological approaches. Paul DeMarinis and Jussi Parikka, for example, focus on excavating noise in their contributions. DeMarinis discusses how artists like Yasunao Tone and Jocelyn Robert have adapted the aesthetics of noise to their artistic practice. Parikka, for his part, (re-)positions noise alongside telegraphy. Drawing on the communications work of Shannon and Weaver as well as the German school of media theory, Parikka offers an analysis of the “trash culture” (p. 208) that has long plagued digital culture itself. Dysfunction, it seems, has much to say in the cyber-era.

Object Oriented Ontologies have recently gained some prominence. Ian Bogost, for example, de-centers the human in his Alien Phenomenology (3) to put things, or objects, at the center of being itself. The primacy of the human is demolished in order to place him alongside objects, as their equal. It’s a radical practice and issues an implicit challenge to philosophers. Operating in a similar vein, Casey Alt’s and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s essays in this final section intersect with OOO in different ways. Alt mobilizes Gilles Deleuze to (re-)position computerized media as something with implications stretching well beyond the binary world. At the centre of this rupture lies the emergence of Object Oriented Programming. Wardrip-Fruin explores digital art through an analysis of Christopher Strachey’s “Love-letter Generator” (1952). The chapter is especially prescient considering the rapid rise of Digital Humanities today, practitioners of which seek to incorporate or adapt digital tools to engage with (among others) literary texts. To the extent that Wardrip-Fruin’s essay excavates the cultural contexts and materialities of an “old media” artifact, it is a return to the promise of the book’s introductory statement.

Christopher Strachey and Alan Turing working on the Love-Letter Generator

Christopher Strachey and Alan Turing working on the Love-Letter Generator

Perhaps the most refreshing part of this section is Wolfgang Ernst’s manifesto of sorts. Ernst’s work, regrettably, is not widely translated in English and therefore not nearly as available to media scholars as it should be. This is a valuable introduction to his work. His contribution here succinctly sketches out the necessity of considering media in terms of their material existences and cultural networks. Ernst clearly views the renewed attention to non-human objects as being of paramount importance to the media archaeological project. However, the positioning of this essay makes for an odd moment of reflection: the reader is abruptly made to evaluate the earlier essays by the standards of Ernst’s criteria. I cannot help thinking that this essay would have been better placed within the first section of the book.

Vivian Sobchack’s afterword offers a summation of media archaeology’s claims. Emphasising the “discourse of presence” (in its literal and uncanny senses), she champions the opposition to hermeneutic traditions that media archaeology presents. Drawing upon Hayden White, she argues for the evolution of historiography into “. . .narrated acts of discovery and description that open up our senses. . .” from more conventional “. . .narrativized acts of interpretation. . .” (p. 327, italics in original). This is an appropriate conclusion to a book that attempts to grasp the self-professed heterogeneity of media archaeological methods. Certainly, the editors have worked to offer a glimpse of media archaeological approaches, their applications, and the implications of media archaeology for the study of film and related media. At the same time, the absence of any central skeletal framework continues to render media archaeology a curiously ephemeral thing. Film and Media Studies, as an academic discipline, should sense some familiarity here as it continues to wrestle with the consequences of its central object of inquiry, film itself, disappearing into the digital labyrinth. At the same time, as I have tried to highlight through my repeated addition of the prefix “re-” throughout this review, media archaeological approaches do enable us to visit both old and new articulations of media in a different light. In this sense, the scholar of media archaeology is often able to reveal networks and connections that are submerged beneath more teleological narratives.

The conclusion I draw from this book is that media archaeology is best viewed as a group of related, but distinct, methodological approaches and ideological inspirations. It is not, and perhaps should not be construed as, any theory concerning the history(ies) of media. This point, which Huhtamo and Parikka mention clearly in their introduction (p. 2) does not do anything to resolve the problem of potential methodological incoherence, however. Media archaeology remains, very much, a heterodoxy. This edited collection stands as one of the earliest works to bring together the diverse forces and voices that, today, constitute media archaeological work. However, as that work develops, we should hope for further clarity and, eventually, a more concrete sense of what media archaeological work entails. For the present, Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications offers itself up for scrutiny and debate, and that is crucial in its own right.

Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Eds., Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press and University of California Press, Ltd., 2011).

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  1.  Jussi Parikka, Insect Media (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2010).
  2. Francesco Casetti. “Theory, Post-theory, Neo-theories: Changes in Discourses, Changes in Objects.” Cinémas: Journal of Film Studies, vol. 17, no. 2-3 (2007), 3.
  3. Ian Bogost. Alien Phenomenology (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2012).