Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications

Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications

by Erkki Huhtamo, Jussi Parikka

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This book introduces an archaeological approach to the study of media - one that sifts through the evidence to learn how media were written about, used, designed, preserved, and sometimes discarded. Edited by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, with contributions from internationally prominent scholars from Europe, North America, and Japan, the essays help us


This book introduces an archaeological approach to the study of media - one that sifts through the evidence to learn how media were written about, used, designed, preserved, and sometimes discarded. Edited by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, with contributions from internationally prominent scholars from Europe, North America, and Japan, the essays help us understand how the media that predate today’s interactive, digital forms were in their time contested, adopted and embedded in the everyday. Providing a broad overview of the many historical and theoretical facets of Media Archaeology as an emerging field, the book encourages discussion by presenting a full range of different voices. By revisiting ‘old’ or even ‘dead’ media, it provides a richer horizon for understanding ‘new’ media in their complex and often contradictory roles in contemporary society and culture.

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Media Archaeology

Approaches, Applications, and Implications

By Erkki Huhtamo, Jussi Parikka


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94851-8



An Archaeology of Media Archaeology

Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka

The advent of "new media" (in common parlance, a loose conglomeration of phenomena such as the Internet, digital television, interactive multimedia, virtual reality, mobile communication, and video games), has challenged many scholars to investigate the media culture of late modernity. Research agendas vary from network analysis to software studies; from mappings of the new empire of network economies to analyses of new media as "ways of seeing" (or hearing, reading, and touching). Efforts have been made to pinpoint where the "newness" of social networking, interactive gaming, or data mining lies and to lay the foundations for "philosophies" and "languages" of new media. For some researchers, the main concerns are social or psychological, while for others they are economical and ideological, or motivated by search for technological determinants behind the myriad manifestations of media.

As different as these approaches may be, studies of new media often share a disregard for the past. The challenges posed by contemporary media culture are complex, but the past has been considered to have little to contribute toward their untangling. The new media have been treated as an all-encompassing and "timeless" realm that can be explained from within. However, signs of change have begun to appear with increasing frequency. Numerous studies and collections addressing the media's past(s) in relation to their present have appeared in recent years. This influx of historically oriented media studies must be greeted with a cheer. Still, one cannot avoid noticing how little attention has often been devoted to defining and discussing methods and approaches. The past has been visited for facts that can be exciting in themselves, or revealing for media culture at large, but the nature of these "facts" has often been taken as a given, and their relationship to the observer and the temporal and ideological platform he or she occupies left unproblematized.

This book aims at amending the situation by introducing an approach—or a bundle of closely related approaches—that has come to be known as "media archaeology." Although this term does not designate an academic discipline (there are no public institutions, journals, or conferences dedicated to it), it has appeared in an increasing number of studies, and university courses and lectures have also been given under this heading. As their highly divergent syllabi and reading lists testify, there is no general agreement about either the principles or the terminology of media archaeology. Yet the term has inspired historically tuned research and is beginning to encourage scholars to define their principles and to reflect on their theoretical and philosophical implications. The purpose of this volume—the first collection of writings on media archaeology published in the United States—is to facilitate this process of self-identification and -definition.

No effort will be made to nail down "correct" principles or methodological guidelines or to mark fixed boundaries for a new discipline. Rather than positing an "orthodoxy," the book presents itself as an open forum for very different voices, hoping to trigger "polylogues" about the problems and prospects of this emerging field. It could be claimed that a compilation of texts that have already been published would have served this purpose. The editors have chosen a different path by soliciting new contributions from both seasoned and emerging scholars, asking them to look forward rather than backward and to reflect on their particular take on media archaeology. To set the stage, work that has already been done will be reviewed in this introduction, a tentative mapping of an "archaeology of media archaeology." Concentrating solely on cases where the words media archaeology have been explicitly enounced would have been too limiting. It is also important to acknowledge work that has not defined itself as "media archaeology" but nevertheless has shared similar interests and goals.

Michel Foucault's writings have been an important formative experience for many media archaeologists. However, there are other theoretical and critical contributions that have contained seeds of media archaeology. Theorists and historians such as Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Giedion, Ernst Robert Curtius, Dolf Sternberger, Aby Warburg, and Marshall McLuhan were all in some ways "media archaeologists" avant la lettre. More recently, the debate on new historicism has brought up themes and motifs that occupy media archaeologists as well. It could be claimed that media archaeology is new historicist in its essence, but this would be too gross a generalization. A wide array of ideas have provided inspiration for media archaeology. 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.

What is it that holds the approaches and interests of the media archaeologists together, justifying the term? Discontent with "canonized" narratives of media culture and history may be the clearest common driving force. Media archaeologists have concluded that widely endorsed accounts of contemporary media culture and media histories alike often tell only selected parts of the story, and not necessarily correct and relevant parts. Much has been left by the roadside out of negligence or ideological bias. For the media critic Geert Lovink, media archaeology is by nature a "discipline" of reading against the grain, "a hermeneutic reading of the 'new' against the grain of the past, rather than telling of the histories of technologies from past to present." Media archaeologists have challenged the rejection of history by modern media culture and theory alike by pointing out hitherto unnoticed continuities and ruptures. As a consequence, the area for media studies has been pushed back by centuries and extended beyond the Western world. On the basis of their discoveries, media archaeologists have begun to construct alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their "perfection." Dead ends, losers, and inventions that never made it into a material product have important stories to tell.

Media archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are "excavating" media-cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way. Industrial archaeology, for example, digs through the foundations of demolished factories, boardinghouses, and dumps, revealing clues about habits, lifestyles, economic and social stratifications, and possibly deadly diseases. Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations move fluidly between disciplines, although it does not have a permanent home within any of them. Such "nomadicism," rather than being a hindrance, may in fact match its goals and working methods, allowing it to roam across the landscape of the humanities and social sciences and occasionally to leap into the arts. Media archaeology may—and perhaps it should—develop into a "traveling discipline," to refer to an idea proposed by Mieke Bal.


Probably the first scholar to develop a media-archaeological approach and give it that name was Jacques Perriault in his Mémoires de l'ombre et du son: Une archéologie de l'audio-visuel (1981). As the title of the book reveals, his "archaeology of audiovisuality" was occupied with both visual and auditory media of the past. Perriault analyzed the relationship between what he called "use function" and "social representation." 10 He also discussed the relationships between the technologies of the past and contemporary forms, emphasizing that he did not want his work to be seen as an "escape into history," motivated by fear of contemporary media practice. That Perriault did not consider himself a professional historian may have contributed to the unprejudiced flexibility of his approach.

Years before Perriault, the word archaeology had been used in the title of C. W. Ceram's Archaeology of the Cinema (1965). Ceram, whose real name was Kurt Wilhelm Marek (1915–72), was a well-known popularizer of archaeology. Yet applied to the prehistory of cinema his idea of "archaeology" hardly differed from the goals of traditional positivistic historical scholarship. Ceram presented a strictly linear and teleological account about the developments that led to the cinema, breaking off his narrative in 1897, the year that, according to him, "saw the birth of the cinema industry." Ceram focused on inventors and the technical steps that led to cinematography. Everything that did not fit neatly into this narrative was left out, no matter how interesting it might otherwise have been. The illustrations, selected by the British scholar Olive Cook (mostly from the great collection of John and William Barnes), told an entirely different story, pointing out phenomena and potential connections omitted by Ceram. This was an interesting rupture, embodying a tension between two very different notions about the history of the moving image.

The word archaeology later appeared in the title of Laurent Mannoni's Le grand art de la lumière et de l'ombre: Archéologie du cinéma (1994). A change of emphasis is clear. Based on an extensive consultation of archival material (which justified the use of the word archaeology), Mannoni's book no longer tried to present a closed historical narrative arranged as a set of interconnected causal chains inevitably leading toward cinema. Rather, the five-hundred-page volume consists of a succession of carefully researched case studies of different facets of the moving image culture, covering several centuries. Although there is a strong emphasis on technology, Mannoni also discusses its applications and discursive manifestations. Piece by piece, a narrative develops, but one that does not pretend to be complete or to hide its gaps. Although Mannoni's discourse stays close to the sources, avoiding theoretical speculation, the book invites new insights, opening paths for further interpretations.

However, these pioneering works represent only one of the possible roads toward media archaeology. The emergence of modern media technology from the nineteenth century onward and its growing prominence over minds in the mass society led to a need to analyze its nature and impact. The sense of urgency often led early scholars to concentrate on contemporary issues with political and social implications, leaving less room for "media-archaeological" concerns. The critiques of mass media developed by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) and by Richard Hoggart in his Uses of Literacy (1957) are good examples of this. When these authors turned to the early histories of media, they were often occupied with reconstructing their technological and industrial development, and—as in the case of photography and cinema—arguing for their potential as new art forms. Inventors and industrialists played prominent roles. The structure was usually linear, and different media forms were normally discussed in isolation from each other.

Marshall McLuhan introduced a new approach, new combinations, and new themes to the study of media. His early work The Mechanical Bride (1951) developed a critique of contemporary mass media, drawing occasional parallels with mythology and history, and shifting between high culture and popular culture with apparent ease and (and some took it) recklessness. In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) McLuhan's vision came to embrace the history of media in a more rigorous sense as he traced the dynamics between orality, the Gutenbergian printing revolution, and the new orality represented by televisual media. Instead of providing a neutral and linear narrative, McLuhan's idiosyncratic discourse surfaced as an essential element. The materiality and the processual nature of his discourse was further emphasized in the collagelike books (The Medium Is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, and Counterblast) that he produced with the graphic designer Quentin Fiore following the international success of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

McLuhan's influence on media archaeologists has been manifold. Of utmost importance is his emphasis on temporal connections, translations, and mergers between media, something that inspired Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin to develop their notion of "remediation" and to use it to investigate how features of earlier media forms are subsumed into digital media. Bolter's and Grusin's endeavor was not defined as "media archaeology," but it has affinities with the ways media archaeologists draw parallels between seemingly incompatible phenomena. McLuhan's understanding of "media" and "medium" was broad and challenged existing dichotomies, like those between material things and notions of the mind. His ideas of new media as "extensions" and as driving forces for changes in society have influenced the German "media materialist school" of media archaeology through the work of Friedrich Kittler. Last but not least, McLuhan's unwillingness to stick with formal "methods" and fixed sets of concepts, as well as his self-reflective play with his own discourse, seems to appeal to "anarchistically minded" media archaeologists, determined to keep their approaches free from institutional-theoretical dogmas and infections.


Early media scholarship was associated with research on the impact of technology on human civilizations, typified by Lewis Mumford's classic Technics and Civilization (1934). Siegfried Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command (1948) presented a detailed account about the forms and impact of mechanization. Ranging from techniques for capturing human movements as graphic representations to the features of everyday household objects like the bathtub, Giedion's history had less to do with isolated apparatuses than with their interconnections. Mechanization was presented as a depersonalized force that infiltrated Western societies down to the minutest details of everyday life. Giedion was mainly concerned with material culture, "the tools that have molded our present-day living." The "anonymous history" he proposed looked for a synthesis between Geistesgeschichte and positivism, where every detail was "directly connected with the general, guiding ideas of an epoch. But at the same time it must be traced back to the particulars from which it rises."

Even earlier, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin had already projected a kind of anonymous history, but one that involved discursive layers of culture to a much greater extent than Giedion's largely materialist vision. Benjamin is arguably the most prominent forerunner—beside Foucault—of media-archaeological modes of cultural analysis and is a major influence for cultural studies. In particular, his unfinished Arcades Project (Passagen-Werk) became a case study about the kinds of issues media archaeologists deal with. Benjamin's reconstruction of nineteenth-century culture, with Paris as its capital, relied on a multitude of sources, including texts, illustrations, urban environments, architecture, public spectacles like the panorama and the diorama, and objects deemed to be emblematic of the era. The approach was remarkably open, shifting, and layered and took political and economic but also collective psychological factors into consideration. Beside material forms, Benjamin's work illuminated the "dream worlds" of consumerism and early modernity.

Working against the tidal wave of Geistesgeschichte, Benjamin refused to group the massive evidence he had gathered under any single symbol deemed characteristic of the era. Such persistence is one of the reasons why the work remained unfinished. The readers were left with a huge collection of notes, images, and ideas that constitute a database rather than a preorganized narrative. Benjamin offered meditations on time, spatiality, nature, and emergent modernity as a new realm of sensations. The concept and method of allegory that he had already developed in his earlier work referred to alternative ways of seeing temporality not as an organic succession but through the figures of ruins and decay. The interest in change and the "ruins" of the body and mind were evident in his other works as well, which famously touched on historical changes in the modes of perception.


Excerpted from Media Archaeology by Erkki Huhtamo, Jussi Parikka. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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From the Publisher
"A fascinating addition to work carried out in the social sciences."—
Information, Communication & Society

Meet the Author

Erkki Huhtamo is Professor of Design | Media Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. Jussi Parikka is Reader at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton, UK) and the author of Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses and
Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology

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