Sunday, 22 November 2009

Professor Ernst's take on media archaeology

We (as in Anglia Ruskin University, and ArcDigital) had the pleasure of hosting a talk (November 18, 2009) by professor Wolfgang Ernst from Humboldt University Berlin, who is not only continuing the spirit of the almost legendary Sophienstrasse 23 address (where Kittler worked as well) but as much is the representative of the new wave of German media theory that still remains to a large extent to be translated. It is rare to hear these German scholars in Anglo-American contexts so our ArcDigital talk was even more significant in this sense of really tapping into what is new and fresh in international media studies.

Ernst’s talk on media archaeology as a method and a theory really introduced the various radical implications that his brand of doing media archaeology has. I have already before pointed towards the points about “operative diagrammatics” or media history that his take on the past and present media encompasses, and the talk outlined well the positions --- even provocative – where he wants to place media studies. What the audience was left with was a number of positions and claims/challenges to tackle. To me, these indclude:

1) media studies is not only cultural studies, or even cultural technics, but something Ernst wants to brand as cultural engineering. Media studies should be an exact science, not (only?) about semantics and semiotics as he provoked but leaning towards the mathematical conditions of our techno-condition. I.e. media studies curricula should include mathematics. The only way to understand digital media, or technical media more generally, is to understand how it puts mathematics into operation, makes formulas into commands, and how engineering routes and automates so many functions that we mistake as human.

2) Media archaeology is processual, it focuses on the time-critical processes which engineer our lives. This means that media archaeology does not tap only to the past but can dedicate itself to opening up technologies in an artistic vein. Ernst’s examples of media archaeological arts were actually less about artists working with historical material than about hardware hacking, open software and circuit bending. Media archaeology is hence also about microtemporal processes. For an example on such media artistic practices, see the Microresearch lab in Berlin.

3) Arche is not only the beginning but in the Derridean sense a command as well. Archaeology as the beginning of our techno-condition is an active command, perhaps execution in the software sense, of orders, procedures and patterns/routines. Ritualistic but not in the human-religious sense, perhaps?

4) Media archaeology does not narrate, it counts. Because machines do not narrate, they count. Counting, algorithmics etc. precede narration.

5) So why not just relegate media archaeology as part of sciences faculties? Because it is still interested in the epistemological conditions in which the commands, executions and operations take place. This seems to point towards the political contexts of media archaeology, but gets rarely articulated in this brand of German media theory. Still, I would argue, it is radically political and taps into the political economic condition of closed systems, opening them up, and teaching that institutionalised conditioning as contingent. Universities then have according to Ernst a special situation, and a responsibility, to open up systems.

6) Media archaeology is a-historical, even unhistorical perhaps. It is not necessarily about contextual information about past media, but creating such situations where you get into contact with media in its radical operability and temporality. Archives in this sense are time-machines; Ernst told us about going to King’s college library to see Turing’s unpublished papers earlier that day, and that situation was branded not by a historian’s interpretative touch but by sharing the mathematical situation in its non-historical presentness. This applies again to machines as well; their functioning operations are the media archaeological moment that is at its core un-historical.

7) Machines are agents of history as well. They record, transmit, and do not always ask for permission from the human being.

8) Media archaeology has some connection with software studies. Ernst pointed the connections to Manovich’s point about the double-nature of software studies between the cultural interface and the computational heart. I would add, both share an appreciation of processuality.

9) Provocation is almost methodological to Ernst and certain brands of German media theory.

Questions that I did not have the chance to ask:

What are the implications of this approach to the cultural heritage, display and archiving of culture in the age of technical machines – or culture of technical machines? I am guessing it has to do with processuality, with such methods of curating and archiving that are able to articulate the lived (machine-lived) temporality of such technological assemblages. How do you curate or archive software is a related question, but it also touches on earlier technical media such as radios and televisions. Furthermore, it has to do with the generalisation of the notion of the archive with new modes of distributed archiving, digital objects, and such.

What is time-criticality? I still cannot get my head around it completely, i.e. the question of how it differs from time-based processes? Video artists etc. are doing a splendid job as articulators of temporality and materiality, but where does the dividing line between time-based and time-criticality lie?

Wouldn’t it be possible to develop more positive and affirmative relations with some emerging cultural analytical approaches that come from e.g. the Anglo-American world? This point I flagged already in my short post on the Zeitkritische medien-book, and I keep on insisting that perhaps we can find the common areas of interest and shared agendas with such approaches as media ecology (√° la Fuller), radical empiricism and Whitehead (Massumi) and e.g. feminist studies of science and technology (for example Barad).

Friday, 13 November 2009

A short review of Zeitkritische Medien (Volmar)

I have flagged in many contexts my interest for new materialist cultural analysis, and how it should be articulated together with a new sense of temporality. When I say "a new sense" it's a bit misleading, but I mean the rigorous rethinking of temporality that we find across the board from Delanda to Whitehead-inspired accounts and so forth. Whereas Grossberg already pointed towards a non-signifying accounts as a mode of spatial materialism, we need to develop similar approaches that stem from radical temporality; that the world outside the human being is too dynamic, unfolding, temporal; that temporality is itself folded together with the various material assemblages of the world; that temporality is a crucial non-human force we need to articulate to understand the molecular, as well as the long durations of nature (not least in the midst of our eco crisis).

One key context for my interests comes again from Germany, and has been recently been "summed up" as a book. Axel Volmar as the editor of Zeitkritische Medien (Time-Critical Media, Kadmos Verlag, Berlin, 2009 ) has done a good job in collating together recent trends in German media theory, and approaches to the very peculiar, but even more so exciting version of media archaeology that they have been developing in the Media Studies department at Humboldt University, Berlin. Under the guidance of Professor Wolfgang Ernst, the notion of "time-criticality" and an eye towards temporal processes as a key to understand modern technical media we find a brand of media archaeology that extends not so much historically into past media but towards the microscopic workings of media machines; and how they modulate time, and the structuring temporal processes of societies.

By digging into the "microtemporalities" of media machines the introduction and the chapters try to excavate how such micro-layers are articulating the perception of reality. This means extending the media studies agenda (not surprisingly as we are in the territory of German, Kittlerian inspired media theory after all) to non-human agents and processes that however structure the phenomenological worlds of our perception and reality-effects as well. This leads furthermore to the realisation of the new realms of relations between machines themselves -- no link to the human is always needed in the age of automated processes and machines communicating between themselves before they talk to the human (Guattari -- who however is missing as theorist from this volume).

Paul Virilio who is well used in this book has argued for the importance of time and speed for war (and hence a link to media as well), but this book extends this to a very meticulous technical excavation into the dispositifs of how actually time gets articulated and articulates media. Technophobes beware! This brand of German media theory is not afraid of getting its hands greasy, whether we are talking of analogue media or digital algorithms (or algorythmics as Shintaro Miyazaki extends the concept in his chapter). This is where Virilio's ideas gain real strength, or a new context when by systematic and rigorous steps machines and technologies are opened up from the logic of bitmapping (Peter Berz) to the problems of noise and signal-transmission (Hirt and Volmar).

It would be crucial to see more work of this kind in English in order to really start rethinking fundamentals of media studies. This is happening already, partly due to a Kittlerian influence, and other new waves coming e.g. from Italy (post-Fordist thought), France (e.g. Latour, Guattari, Deleuze of course) and onwards to e.g. games (Pias) with an amount of chapters that with ease move between visual media, the sonic and computational platforms. But definitely new German media studies and archaeology has a lot to say to the problems of materiality of technical media. It would benefit itself from a more elaborated discussion and joining of forces of some other similar approaches that come from different directions. Ideas of temporality have been developed e.g. in materialist feminism (Barad) and e.g. Whitehead inspired radical empiricism (Massumi, Mackenzie,etc.) and through creations of new circuits for circulation of ideas, we could have soon something really exciting on our hands. Well, the previous sentence was not to mean that all this stuff is not already that -- exciting. Just that developing such creative clashes might be seen as a good method for movement of thought. Of course, its not the Germans who are the only ones doing this work; recently I have been following the stuff coming out from Utrecht direction as well whether in terms of some of the feminist work in the wake of Braidotti but also the great ideas from the New Media and Digital culture programme who also address materiality with historical, temporal methods.

Anyhow, media studies is developing into a great articulation of the interlinks between science, art and cultural analysis/philosophy, and we need to keep this movement alive with more translations and engagements. Such are the directions where UK media studies field should turn its attention to.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Guest talk on media archaeology by Wolfgang Ernst

ArcDigital guest talk:
November 18, Wednesday at 5 pm
Professor Wolfgang Ernst (Humboldt University, Berlin)

will give a talk on "Media Archaeology - Method and Machine"

At Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, East Road, Room: Helmore 302.

Media archaeology is both a research method in media studies, and an aesthetics in media arts. Furthermore it is a non-human procedure as well. Media archaeology does not look at media on the level of their surface effect on humans (interfaces), but rather (in a vaguely Heideggerian sense) tries to uncover the hidden agenda of technomathematical artefacts, or better: artefactuality. Media archaeology is concerned with media not only on their structural but on their operative level.

The talk intends to deal with this neologism in several perspectives:

a) Media archaeology as method (referring, among other aspects, to Foucault's archaeology of discourse)
b) Media archaeology in its metaphorical sense ("the archaeological dig")
c) Media archaeology as a critique of narrative media history
d) Media archaeology of sound and vision with media themselves as agencies of knowledge (therefore the subtitle "method and machine").

Wolfgang Ernst is professor of media theories at Humboldt-University, Berlin. Studied history, classics, and archaeology; Ph.D. thesis 1989 on historicism and museology. Teaching experience and guest professorships in culture and media studies at several universities (Leipzig, Cologne, Weimar, Bochum, Paderborn, Berlin). Publications include: M.edium F.oucault, Weimar 2000; Das Rumoren der Archive, Berlin 2002; Im Namen von Geschichte, Munich 2003; Das Gesetz des Gedächtnisses, Berlin 2007. Current research fields: time-based and time-critical media; the "sonic" dimension of techno-mathematics.

The talk is part of ArcDigital guest lectures with leading international media theorists and practitioners sharing their ideas of recent waves in media and cultural studies, creative practice and innovative perspectives to digital culture.

The event is sponsored by the Cultures of Digital Economy institute at Anglia Ruskin University.

More info on ArcDigital: