Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Archival Command: To Transmit and to Preserve

Whether media archaeology is even that close to Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge is not always questioned. For Wolfgang Ernst, the link is very close, due to the notions of monument that one inherits from Foucault, as well as the non-semantic emphasis of Foucault. However, a lot of media archaeology still vows to principles that are at times further from Foucault. For instance, Foucault was insisting that his archaeology is not so much about giving “voice to the silent”, the neglected or repressed ones of media history. Indeed, his was not a “search and rescue” operation of what was lost, but an analysis of how the various “Gaps, voids, absences, limits, divisions” are distributed. No repression, just a production of distributions.

This leads to questions of how something is “transmitted and preserved”. This sort of archaeology is completely positive in this particular sense, and insists on this monumental aspect: why is something there, and why has it been brought to us. Indeed, his archaeology is handy when it comes to questions of transmission as preservation, the archival command.  A key quote from Foucault elaborates exactly what we are considering also in relation to software preservation/archival matters. There is a “remanence” proper to statements, which is not so much a way back to “the past even of the formulation”. Instead their duration (and distribution) needs to be explained.

Consider Foucault:

“To say that statements are residual is not to say that they remain in the field of memory, or that it is possible to rediscover what they meant; but it means they are preserved by the virtue of a number of supports and material techniques (of which the book is, of course, only one example), in accordance with certain types of institutions (of which the library is one), and with certain statutory modalities (which are not the same in the case of a religious text, a law, or a scientific truth). This also means they are invested in techniques that put them into operation, in practices that derive from them, in the social relations that they form, or, through those relations, modify.”

That quote, from Archaeology of Knowledge, is definitely a killer quote. It both highlights the specificity of Foucault’s approach as well as its relevance to the work of maintenance we call “memory”. It also hitns of that connection to Friedrich Kittler’s note near the end of Discourse Networks 1800/1900 that Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge needs to be updated to account for the technical media age: not all discourse networks are libraries and consist of books! And yet, that is already there in Foucault who steered clear from analysis of technical media but still leaves the door open to those other material techniques etc. Obviously Kittler knew this: we need to read carefully the afterwords to the Discourse Networks. It speaks of Foucault's methods, not his theory, acknowledging that difference inside Foucault's own writings and research.

Besides Kittler, there are hints towards the recent work of “cultural techniques” (for instance Bernhard Siegert). This is not to say that this more recent notion in German media theory is a footnote to Foucault -- like Kittler’s work cannot be reduced to such – but only that the emphasis on techniques is definitely something of consideration when tracking some of the archaeologies of the concept of “cultural techniques”.

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