Sunday, 28 November 2010

On ruins - Benjamin

If media archaeology is thought and analysis that emerges from the ruins - takes left-overs, waste, rubble and ruins of media cultures as its fuel then it is quite naturally Walter Benjamin who stands as one of its grounding figures. The work of Arcades-project is emblematic in this regard with its multilayered approach that methodologically picks up on the theme of the fragment when writing about the ruins (in which we live) of modernity, mass culture, emergence of media cultures, and capitalism.

The idea of "allegory" as a driving force of Benjamin's methodology is explained in his earlier work Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (1928) in a passage on "ruins". In short, and literally in a condensed fashion Benjamin outlines how "allegories are in the sphere of thought what ruins are among things" (Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, Band 1.1, p. 354). Whereas he goes to explicate this in the context of his study - the 18th century theatrical genre - for us this has media archaeological and ecological implications in how he ties together the ruins of material culture as part of the ecologies of thought, and in a way precedes some of the ways in which media archaeological research and cultural histories of material culture have tried to engage with these themes. We live among layered historical times - concretely - of which architectures are the most common example to an extent that has afforded even grounding ontological and metaphysical insights as with Heidegger, but we can extend that to architectures and ruins of media culture, which demonstrate what Braudel would have called the various durations of history. The long duration, the intermediary, and the time of the event intermingle and mix, and our seemingly contemporary is one of old, the past as well in a way that does not fit in with either linear nor cyclical notions of time. Same applies to thought which resides in ruins as well and where the idea of "archaeology" might be more apt than "history" as a notion to carve out the layered constellation in the cognitive and the affective take place. This is also why Freud himself was fond of archaeological metaphors, but also why Freud, in a way, and in his own way as a contemporary of Benjamin is another predecessor of media archaeology as Thomas Elsaesser shows (in his article forthcoming in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, Implications). In this sense, the allegorical as understood by Benjamin is a parallel, partly competing, partly complementing concept to those master concepts proposed by Huhtamo (cyclical topoi) and Zielinski (variantology, the minor genealogies of media culture).

Thoughts, things, surroundings emerge from ruins, but so they return as ruins. Dead media is an index of ruins of media cultures, but also a reminder of the continuing environmental significance of discarded waste - haunting zombies.

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