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Response to Review of What is Media Archaeology?

To start with, I want to thank the reviewer for picking up on so many interesting threads relating to my What is Media Archaeology? book and the media archaeological method. Similarly, I am grateful for the opportunity to write a response.

Dr Anthony picks up on several key issues in the media archaeology, which has become such a buzzword in recent years. Why this interest now, is a question we need to ask, as media archaeology has been around since the 1980s and 1990s. Friedrich Kittler is often talked of as a media archaeologist, despite him explicitly saying he is not one. But in addition, for a number of years it has been affiliated especially with the names of Erkki Huhtamo and Siegfried Zielinski – two scholars whose backgrounds (like mine) are very much in historical disciplines. For Huhtamo (and myself), our background is in history and especially cultural history; Zielinski is originally a writer on media and the history of time-based technology, for instance the video recorder. Indeed, reading a review coming from the perspective of historical disciplines is rather new and welcome, as media archaeology has mostly been gathering interest in media studies, new media theory as well as artistic practices. As Anthony picks up, ‘Cultural studies, film, media arts, history – it seems no disciplinary bounds can hold media archaeology’. This is paradoxically true, which flags something about the nature of academia in the current globalised, although neoliberal, system; we are in the midst of negotiating what works, what does not, and what is worth sustaining, although in the last case, often the arguments used relate more to economic values and dubious political decisions as we have seen over the past years in the UK. New disciplinary formations like digital humanities are emerging as one new strong direction, but I would defend also the work of media archaeologists in that they provide much more modest, low scale but also theoretically and artistically often quite experimental approaches to the various temporalities of new media culture where new is not that new, and the past is not behind us. Not news to any historian, but we need to smuggle a bit of temporal complexity into our understanding of digital media culture. Sometimes this happens in surprising artistic ways: Dr David Link’s historical work, an artistic/technical reconstruction of the Loveletters programme from the early 1950s, was just recognized by the Tony Sale Award for Computer Conservation from the British Computer Conservation Society. And yet, one can say he is a historian of a sort – or better put: a media archaeologist who rewires pasts and presents in new ways through technology, but also executes important ideas for a consideration of living memory in the current technological culture.

It is in this sense that I talk of media archaeology as a travelling discipline. It is more of an observation than a romantic desire to be a nomadic unbound theory; often media archaeology is like an ethos rather than a clear-cut method. This might lead sometimes to a rather loose use of the concept, but we should worry less about discipline policing than seeing which areas are useful and worthwhile to spend time on. Different methodologies employed by Huhtamo, Zielinski, Link, Lisa Gitelman, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Wolfgang Ernst, Thomas Elsaesser, myself (for instance in my research on media archaeology of software and software accidents) and others demonstrate at times very different ways of understanding sources and archives, and elaborating through such historical and archaeological work ‘what is media culture?’ For instance, Huhtamo’s forthcoming and meticulously researched study on the moving panorama tries to answer this question in its own way.

As such, media archaeology is also challenging how time and memory have been defined by the history disciplines. Wolfgang Ernst especially has been arguing that in addition to the vocabulary and epistemological settings of historical time, we need to understand what technical frameworks of time – so-called microtemporality – do to our wider sense of temporality. They revolve on different timescales, he argues provocatively, pointing out that we also need a sense of what happens inside machines: the revolutions of hard drives, processor speeds and signal processing as significant agencies of non-human time that still mediate our media culture.

If media archaeology sounds like an eclectic collection of ideas and methodologies then perhaps it is because it is an eclectic set. All seem to deal with tensions of old and new media, but with different emphases, and the only way to do justice to this multiplicity is to map it. Hence the book insists on points raised in the review; it is not just about Kittler; it is not just about new film history; it is not just about quirky sidekicks of media history, but a wider field of interests and research which has given us coordinates to think about media cultures in new temporal ways: new-olds, old-news, deep times, recursions, remediations and, for instance, the pleated temporality that Michel Serres talks about, and which perhaps requires a nod also in the direction of Fernand Braudel.

The reviewer makes an interesting point when trying to look at the conditions of existence of a scholar: ‘A valid, albeit narrow way, to understand the book’s argument is as the intellectual conspicuous consumption of a Western educated scholar of thirty-to-forty something vintage. As Kittler himself attempted to historicise how the theories of thinkers like Freud and Lacan were shaped by changes in media technology, it doesn’t seem wrong to subject Parikka, a lecturer/practitioner at Winchester School of Art, to similar treatment. “Media are not pseudopods for extending the human body”, wrote Kittler, ‘they follow the logic of escalation that leaves us and written history behind it’. This is a sentiment that the generation which grew up hiding behind the sofa from Skynet’s cyborg agents can instinctively share’.

My question would be: what if instead of references to the Terminator film(s) as the defining (or even necessary) feature of some of media theory in my generation (as I do not mention Terminators in the book at all) we would actually look at something more interesting about what happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s? I am thinking here of emergence of home computer culture, of early hobbyists, cyberpunk and steampunk, of the strengthening of open source computer culture in which Finland through Linus Torvalds has played a significant part, the last phases of the Cold War era replaced by a network image of globalisation – the list could be long, and highlight more interesting geopolitical issues entangled with technologies, standards, protocols, cultural techniques of software and computing. To me, that is the defining context of my generation more than the Terminator. These are the grounded questions Kittler was after as well, and despite some recent writings, Kittler was no cyborg theorist.

Dr Anthony writes in his review:

‘It’s evident that telecommunications engineers at the GPO in the UK in the 1930s anticipated developments such as mobile phones, wireless communications and even applications such as Skype. Parikka himself cites an example from the BBC television programme Tomorrow’s World, which in 1967 introduced a prototype computer which it was hoped would act as a calendar, bank account interface, and children’s educational tool. The fact that such technology took decades to mature does not, just of itself, appear especially revealing’.

Indeed it is not very revealing, interesting, and not even very ‘media archaeological’ – which is less about maturing (as that would assume a too teleological and determined sense of media historical time) than about the constant back and forth movement; of projections, and retrojections, of visions of futures and pasts that pleat together. Indeed, this example  was part of the chapter on imaginary media which talks of the need to understand historical situations of imagination and projection; of such now-banal ideas of ‘what computing will be’ that originate as part of 1960s culture, and of much weirder deep times which involve not just references to imaginary pasts and futures, but to imaginary, spiritual worlds; ghosts and spirits as haunting escorts of even technical media fantasies.

In an ideal world of unlimited word limits the book would have had much more in terms of empirical case studies, and included the historical source work that I conducted despite this being primarily meant to be a book of theory. Some of these I ‘left’ on the work blog (http://mediacartographies.blogspot.co.uk/) and some will remain only notes, ruins of sorts that we know any research produces. The same applies to theory too, as well as the idea of this book as a toolbox; a very Deleuzian way of seeing the work of concepts, it means trying to think through concepts as affordances, and seeing what sorts of worlds they are able to create. Furthermore, to paraphrase Deleuze & Guattari, as well as Brian Massumi, concepts are in a way also like bricks; some are better for building courthouses of reason, and some are good as tactical tools to metaphorically smash institutional windows, in order to invade and occupy, or just to smuggle a bit of loot out.

While history disciplines need to do a lot more to show their relevancy in contemporary theory debates and to justify their role in discussions concerning time, technology, cultural heritage and media culture in the age of software, so a lot of other disciplines need to develop refined senses of time and history. But this is not only an issue to do with historical time, but also technical time – an increasingly important topic for understanding memory in contemporary culture. For me, media archaeology might be one way to offer insights into such cross-disciplinary topics.