Should a space alien come down to Earth and ask for guidance on the state of film and media studies, I could hardly think of better advice for this inquisitive extraterrestrial than to consult Thomas Elsaesser’s Film History as Media Archaeology. Perhaps more than any other recent text in this restlessly shape-shifting academic field, Elsaesser’s latest work provides a global vision of the extensive changes coursing through our object of study – the cinema, that is, as well as, now, a wide array of media technologies – and the ways in which these mutations manifest themselves in contemporary film scholarship. And indeed, given the fact that he has been a prominent figure in film theory since the 1960s (and, as he notes in the book, a committed cinephile since the 1950s), who better than Elsaesser to probe these phenomena?

A reworking of and sequel to Elsaeesser’s earlier German-language effort Filmgeschichte und Frühes Kino: Archäologie eines Medienwandels (written fifteen years earlier),1 the book also serves a celebratory purpose: its publication marks the fiftieth title released in Amsterdam University Press’s “Film Culture in Transition” series, which since its inauguration in 1994 has been edited by none other than Thomas Elsaesser. A quick glance through the list of works released in the two decades since the founding of the series – with monographs and edited collections by Siegfried Zielinski, Warren Buckland, Kristin Thompson, Wanda Strauven, François Albera, Christine Brinckmann and many more – shows just how vital it has been for shaping critical discussion within film studies, and evinces the the orbit of influence Elsaesser himself has generated, not just as a writer in his own name, but as an incubator for new and established scholars to develop their own research.

Film History as Media Archaeology

Thomas Elsaesser

The “Film Culture in Transition” series, however, is not a purely ecumenical enterprise. Nor is Film History as Media Archaeology a dispassionate survey of the current state of the field. Informing both is a specific, albeit nebulous, methodological framework that goes by the name of “media archaeology”. It is this that, since the 1990s, has steered the work of what Elsaesser calls here the “Amsterdam media archaeology network”, a loose collection of researchers grouped around Amsterdam University’s film studies department and the campus’s associated publishing house, and it is this that, for the first time, Elsaesser seeks to give a definitive account of.

And yet it may not be so definitive after all. For it is in the very nature of the media-archaeological approach that it adopts an eminently critical nature to its object of scrutiny – and when the object becomes itself, the rigorous thinker is duty-bound to retain this critical spirit. Media archaeology is only very loosely related to the actual scientific field of the same name. Rather, the chief reference point for Elsaesser and cohort is Foucault, alongside Walter Benjamin and, more provocatively, Friedrich Kittler. For the French philosopher, archaeology is the study of an object through investigating its origins (its arché), as a means of breaking down traditional linear accounts of history and reconstructing them along new, more lacunary, less teleological lines. In the context of cinema studies, media archaeology has embarked on two major lines of flight (to use a Deleuzian term) centrifugally careering away from the unified canon of narrative-representative cinema that formed the core of the field in its first decades. Firstly, on a technological level, it insists on placing the traditional “apparatus” of film recording and projection within a vaster, more polymorphous domain of media devices and practices. And secondly, on a chronological level, it stretches the field of investigation back into the early history of the cinema, as well as forwards, towards the brave new world of digital imagery.

While not strictly identifying as a “new film historian”, Elsaesser has had a close association with this collection of academics, numbering Tom Gunning, Charles Musser, Yuri Tsivian and André Gaudreault among them, who have sought to return to the early years of the cinema in order to revise the previously prevailing standard historical accounts of the medium, which overwhelmingly considered the output of this period to be a “primitive”, embryonic variant of the mature form represented by the cinema in its classical era. Instead, through painstaking research, they have emphasised the manifold aesthetic splendour of moving image culture in this period, which was in no way fated to become the cinema that we recognise today. As Noël Burch, an early champion of this historical revisionism, evocatively stated: “It could have been otherwise.” (cited on p. 76)

Evidently, it was the inherently anti-teleological nature of this historiographic project that attracted Elsaesser to it, as well as the implication, most forcefully articulated by Gunning and Miriam Hansen (the “Chicago school”), that the “cinema of attractions” (to use Gunning’s own term) has more in common with the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster than either formal system has with the classical narrative film. Elsaesser echoes this claim, and broadens it out to include media technologies more generally. As he puts it, there were two “abrupt periods of transformation taking place across a broad spectrum of media technologies and social developments”, roughly one hundred years apart: 1870-1900 and 1970-2000 (p. 101). And indeed, what could be more Foucauldian, more “archaeological”, than operating this temporal short-cut between two moments in the history of visual culture that would otherwise appear singularly remote from each other, thereby upending the conventional evolutionary model that has until recently governed our understanding of the development of aesthetic forms?2

This broad historical parallel informs much of Elsaesser’s study. In his hands, the explicit mission of media archaeology is to explore cinema’s past in order to comment on its present (the question: why cinema?), and even its future (where is it headed?). Doing so allows us to rethink the very nature of the digital rupture which we have lived through in the last couple of decades, and which has undoubtedly been the most vexatious question troubling film studies during this time. No traces of a nostalgia for a lost, prelapsarian past can be found in Elsaesser’s treatment of cinema’s digital transition – he is unfalteringly open to new trends, new ways of thinking, new research angles. And yet he also pushes back against the “positivist ideology of digital media” (p. 65), which finds its purest distillation in the work of Lev Manovich. Rather than a minor intermezzo on the path to digital imagery, as it is for Manovich, the cinema retains its centrality in Elsaesser’s set of concerns, even as he accepts that “it is no longer the vehicle of so many of our current commercial priorities, political ideologies, and technological utopias.” (p. 66) Indeed, it is in its very “inoperativeness” that cinema is of interest. Media archaeology must accept the cinema’s diminished significance in the present day – which in a historical irony comes about due to the ubiquity of its raw material, moving images and sounds – but in doing so it can highlight the medium’s continued capacity for making apparent to us the momentous social and technological changes of our time. In this, Elsaesser follows on from contemporary philosophers such as Agamben and Nancy, who, drawing on Nietzsche’s notion of untimeliness, argue that “Precisely when something has outlived its usefulness can it be really current and urgent, because only then does it appear in all its plenitude and truth.” (Agamben, cited on p. 67)

Film History as Media Archaeology

Life of Pi (Lee, 2012)

The book itself has a symmetrical, telescopic structure: commencing and concluding with chapters that use a wide-angle lens to scrutinise the most general questions facing the field, while the middle sections zoom in on more specific issues, or even individual filmmakers and films, as case studies intended to illustrate Elsaesser’s overall viewpoint. There is a certain tonal unevenness to Film History as Media Archaeology, which is partly the result, one imagines, of the valedictory nature of the project. Its twelve chapters are adapted from pre-existing articles stretching back to 1998, and, interestingly, it is at its centre that the book is (comparatively) at its weakest. Discussions of the neglected 1931 UFA production Das Lied einer Nacht (Tell Me Tonight, Anatol Litvak), the avant-garde filmmaker (and Nazi collaborator) Walter Ruttmann, and a YouTube dérive triggered by a viral Honda commercial are satisfying in and of themselves, but contribute little to the book’s broader argument. A chapter on 3D cinema, in which Elsaesser argues, contra former Disney supremo Jeffrey Katzenberg, that the stereoscopic image is not more “realist” than its two-dimensional counterpart, but instead produces a “post-Euclidian” space that is more apt for depicting horizonless worlds (outer space in Gravity [Alfonso Cuaron, 2013], underwater in The Life of Pi [Ang Lee, 2012]), is one of the most lucid texts written on the rejuvenated format, but his argument that the long-term effects of digital 3D will play out on small screens now seems anachronistic, given the whimpering demise of 3D television. The more general question of interactivity with the image in contemporary media culture (via the figures of the zapper and the gamer) is, however, more germane, and Elsaesser’s media-archaeological approach allows him to make the inspired move of relating it to the far older trope of the film-going Rube who attempts to climb into the movie screen in early one-reelers such as Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (Edwin S. Porter, 1902). Just as, Elsaesser writes:

Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, became the patron saint of the “active reader” from Laurence Sterne to Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust to Thomas Pynchon, so the Rube of early cinema, tearing down the screen while trying to rescue the world, might yet preside over the “interactive spectator”, from early cinema to present-day video games, via Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard, Buster Keaton and Steven Spielberg. (p. 208)

Film History as Media Archaeology

Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (Porter, 1902)

By contrast, it is in the sweeping vistas presented in the chapters bookending Film History as Media Archaeology that Elsaesser’s discussion is at its most stimulating, and his writing at its most scintillating. The reader will be dizzy from the prodigious number of philosophers, theorists and scholars whose thinking he absorbs, reworks and challenges, the broad swoop of historical epochs he traverses, the encyclopaedic knowledge of films he effortlessly deploys, and the celerity with which he races from one idea to the next. There is, however, a danger to the all-encompassing nature of Elsaesser’s approach.

Let us take, by way of example, the grand parallelism he proposes between the metamorphoses in the state of media technology at the turn of the 20th and the 21st centuries. A couple of objections to this hypothesis present themselves. First, by operating a pincer movement on so-called “classical” cinema (a term which often ends up embracing eminently non-classical works, such as those of Eisenstein, Rossellini or Godard), it dispatches an entire historical epoch, one in which the cinema undeniably flourished as an art form, into a kind of scholarly purgatory, no longer worthy of serious study. Secondly, although the “new film historians” began by rejecting older historiographic models that unquestioningly privileged the cinema of their own era as a stage of perfection towards which the earlier experiments were innately striving, there is a way in which these scholars uncannily reproduce this arrogance of the present by instead validating early cinema on the basis of its parallels with today’s dominant image culture. In the very efforts to repudiate a historical teleology, is a new one not creeping up in its place?

To his immense credit, Elsaesser does not turn a blind eye to these potential criticisms, but addresses them head on, accepts them, and simply absorbs them into his general argument. Indeed, this is a recurring rhetorical strategy throughout Film History as Media Archeology. No sooner does Elsaesser articulate an idea than, with peerless lucidity, he envisions its counter-argument, accepts its basic logic, and proceeds to develop that line of reasoning. Instead of engaging in a sterile polemic, in which no quarter is given, he simply lets both positions hang together, juxtaposed without obliterating each other. There is something refreshing – even, dare I say it, dialectical – about this method. Its performative element must also be recognised, with Elsaesser exhibiting the open-mindedness and perspicacity not just to elaborate a persuasive theoretical perspective, but also, with equal cogency, its opposite point of view. He is, as it were, his own best critic.

But there is also something deeply disconcerting about this modus operandi. If Elsaesser is able to critique his own positions, and let the critique stand (or subject it to another critique, which only ends up taking us even further away from the original standpoint), then how much credence are we to put in what he writes in the first place? Is his work the product of sincerely held belief, or merely an interpretation machine able to crank out powerful analysis and argumentation at will, regardless of their content? I prefer to believe that the former is the case, but the vacillating nature of this text can also be seen as indicative of the nature of our own time, with the decisive unmooring from social, political and even epistemological certainties produced by neoliberal capitalism, a global process which has evidently had its resonances not only in visual culture, with the sensation of non-linear, multidirectional flux produced by digital images and the Internet, but also in the academy, through the widespread adoption of a postmodernist methodological framework inspired by Foucault and, even more radically, Derrida and Lyotard. It is an overwhelmingly good thing that academic discourse in the humanities has, in the last few decades, shifted away from the rancorous, internecine polemicising that was so prevalent in earlier eras (an echo, in some ways, of the sectarian infighting that was an unfortunate hallmark of far-left politics at this time). But it is also, perhaps, a sign of impotence, a recognition that there are no stakes any more, that any and every position can be adopted and defended for the most arbitrary (or cynical) of reasons, because the real has been voided, and discourse is no longer grounded in any underlying claim to veracity. Everything goes because nothing matters, as the novelist Philip Roth once ruefully remarked.

In his final chapter, Elsaesser characteristically makes this very point, noting the possibility that media archaeology runs “the risk of producing not new knowledge per se but reflecting the prejudices and preferences of our present age.” (p. 365) Just as Elsaesser proposes interpreting films as symptoms of their time, so too is media archaeology itself subject to a symptomatic reading. Heeding the strictures against this theoretical tendency, that it is too ill-defined to productively serve as a research agenda (an “undisciplined discipline” as a sympathetic Vivian Sobchack put it), Elsaesser even rejects the defence put up in its favour by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, that its non-normative heterogeneity is, in fact, the strength of media archaeology. Such a stance only ends up “giving the enemy (too) much ammunition” (p. 353) and a guard must be put up against the tendency to turn the past into “a self-service counter for all manner of appropriations.” (p. 378) As such, in this last chapter, Elsaesser operates a subtle shift in his terms of reference: he does not, he insists, “do” media archaeology through original or practical research, nor does he promote it as a “panacea for the various problems now besetting the study of cinema.” (p. 354) Rather than attempting to define “what is media archaeology”, he simply asks the more metadiscursive question “why media archaeology (now)?”

If Elsaesser locates the answer to his question in the changes to visual culture since the beginning of the 21st century, this leads him to a related line of inquiry: what is the cinema (good) for? For much of the 20th century, its dominant position in visual culture came from its ideological role as a storytelling medium. Now, this function has been taken over by other media – first television, then the Internet – with the result that the cinema, because obsolete, has become freed for other purposes. With no discernible utility for late capitalism, it passes into what Elsaesser calls a “poetics of obsolescence”, whose primary site is the “white cube” of the contemporary art museum – hence why so many filmmakers have shifted to producing work for galleries, or switch seamlessly between the two dispositifs. Ironically, it is through this development that the cinema’s status as an art form – once so bitterly contested, and more recently brought under question again precisely by the proponents of media archaeology – is guaranteed. After all, if it’s in a gallery, it must be art. The argument is a seductive one, but also, somehow, a dissatisfying one. Is that it for the cinema? To be housed as one more exhibit in a cabinet of technological curiosities, alongside the fax machine, the rotary dial and the autogyro, and to be appropriated by “real” artists for the purposes of media-nostalgia?

Film History as Media Archaeology

Film, Tacita Dean exhibition at the Tate Modern in London (2011)

Again, this objection is discerned by Elsaesser, who closes his 388-page book with the most equivocal of conclusions. Asking himself whether this “poetics of obsolescence” adequately answers the question “what is cinema (good) for?”, the scholar meekly replies, “Probably not in any exhaustive way and possibly not even to anyone’s satisfaction.” He nonetheless hopes that this proposition can at least supply “enough ‘conceptual friction’, enough ‘reading against the grain’ and ‘food for thought’, to put the question on the agenda.” (p. 388) Absolutely. But perhaps, instead of countenancing the “poetics of obsolescence”, we should be interrogating the “obsolescence of poetics” – the deep, century-long crisis as a result of which any meaning or purpose for art forms has been irrevocably lost, and replaced with the autotelic pursuit of attention capital. In light of the contemporary ideology of multiplicity and contingency, what I am about to say may sound heretical, but I can’t help but think that any attempt to overcome this impasse – which afflicts the arts, the academy and politics in equal measure – will require a healthy dose of linear causality, a measure of totality, a pinch of singularity and even, perhaps, a few lashings of teleology.

Thomas Elsaesser, Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema (Film Culture in Transition) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).


  1. See Thomas Elsaesser, Filmgeschichte und Frühes Kino: Archäologie eines Medienwandels (Munich: edition text + kritik, 2002).
  2. A more sceptical mind might also remark that claims such as these are handy in making the study of what could otherwise be seen as an arcane cultural moment just that little bit, well, sexier.