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Review of Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, eds., Media Archaeology. Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press)

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Information, Communication &
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Media Archaeology. Approaches,
Applications, and Implications
Astrid Mager a
a Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA), Austrian
Academy of Sciences, Strohgasse 45/5, A-1030, Vienna
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Version of record first published: 10 Sep 2012.
To cite this article: Astrid Mager (): Media Archaeology. Approaches,
Applications, and Implications, Information, Communication & Society,
DOI:10.1080/1369118X.2012.722224
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BOOK REVIEW
Erkki Huhtamo & Jussi Parikka, Media Archaeology. Approaches, Applications, and
Implications (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 368 pp., ISBN:
9780520262744 (pbk), £18.95.
Media Archaeology looks like a classic work of arts and humanities scholarship at
first sight. Assembling theoretical and methodological reflections on media
archaeology as well as historic case studies organized around different, partly
exotic, media technologies including the Japanese ‘Baby Talkie’, a special
kind of zoetrope for the gramophone, or the ‘Love Letter Generator’ invented
by Christopher Strachey readers of this journal may ask why the book should
matter to the social sciences. That was my first reaction when I was invited to
review the book, at any rate. Having read the book, however, I do see how
the media archaeology approach presented in the book can figure as a valuable
contribution to our own work. In fact, the main arguments of the anthology
are closely related to central ideas from the field of science and technology
studies, my own disciplinary background. Bruno Latour’s notion ‘technology
is society made durable’ immediately came to my mind when working my
way through the book. The idea of ascribing agency to technologies, or artifacts
in a more general sense – one of the central arguments of the book – made me
think of the Actor-Network Theory (Latour 2005) most readers are familiar
with, I assume.
The book can hence be seen as a fascinating addition to work carried out in the
social sciences; media studies, software studies, and internet research concerned
with the materiality of network technologies most particularly. It impressively
shows what we can learn about new mediawhen turning to their old predecessors.
It creatively elaborates how we can make phonographs, television sets, or old com-
puter games ‘talk’, from a humanistic and artistic perspective. Rather than a media
history, though, the book aims at providing a media archaeological approach, as the
title suggests. Instead of focusing on narratives and offering a linear history of
media technologies, it puts materiality, infrastructure and complexity at the
centre of attention. Or to quote Wolfgang Ernst in his essay in the book:
Equally close to disciplines that analyze material (hardware) culture and to
the Foucauldean notion of the ‘archive’ as the set of rules governing the
Information, Communication & Society 2012, pp. 1 4, iFirst Article
ISSN 1369-118X print/ISSN 1468-4462 online
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range of what can be verbally, audiovisually, or alphanumerically expressed
at all, media archaeology is both a method and an aesthetics of practicing
media criticism, a kind of epistemological reverse engineering, and an
awareness of moments when media themselves, not exclusively humans
anymore, become active ‘archaeologists’ of knowledge’. (p. 239)
This quotation nails down the material dimension of media archaeology making
this approach a highly useful resource for both the humanities and social sciences.
Since the book is an edited volume, it provides a rich repertoire of interdisciplin-
ary contributions to and a good overview of the emerging field, or ‘undisciplined
discipline’ (p. 323), of media archaeology. Its central goal is not to offer ‘correct’
guidelines or an ‘orthodoxy’. Rather, ‘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’, as the editors state in the introduction of the
book (p. 2). Accordingly, this compendium comprises theoretical texts develop-
ing an analytical framework for media archaeological work, but also empirical
case studies discussing analogue and digital media technologies and their socio-
cultural implications, such as Tausk’s ‘Influencing Machine’, a psychotic side-
effect of technological development observed in the nineteenth century.
Grounded in German media theory (e.g. Kittler, Zielinski, Benjamin), but
also drawing on such heterogeneous thinkers like Foucault, McLuhan,
Deleuze, and Freud, to name but a few of the rich corpus, the book lays a valu-
able foundation for reading new media and digital technologies against old, or
even ‘dead’ media.
Structurally, the book is divided into three sections. The first section deals
with ‘engines of/in the imaginary’. While Erkki Huhtamo chooses a topos
study to question ‘the new’ and show how media cultures rely on the already
known, Eric Kluitenberg focuses on the archaeology of imaginary media to
understand how imaginaries around technological media travel across different
historical and discursive settings. Jeffrey Sconce’s and Thomas Elsaessers’
essays draw on psychoanalytic concepts to discuss the ‘Influencing Machine’ as
a projection of broadcast media, rather than a schizophrenic disorder (Sconce)
and Freud as a media theorist by reflecting on Freud’s text ‘Notes on the
Mystic Writing Pad’ (Elsaesser).
The second part is concerned with ‘(inter)facing media’. It consists of four
chapters, of which the first one analyses the zoetrope ‘Baby Talkie’ from the
early twentieth century Japan to address encounters between cinema and
music (the zoetrope was put on a gramophone), the modern and the traditional,
as well as the ‘Western’ and the ‘Japanese’ (Machiko Kusahara). Also dealing
with historic optical toys, Wanda Strauven shows how cinema, from the view-
point of gaming, is transforming itself into a touch medium reconnecting with
its origins, the zoetrope and other devices. Claus Pias suggests the anthropology
of play to investigate computer games and their timeliness, rhythm and control
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over users and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun engages with the archive in the digital era
and asks how the ephemeral may endure.
The third part is titled ‘between analogue and digital’ and compiles five
essays primarily reflecting on noise and materiality. Paul DeMarinis and Jussi
Parikka discuss decay, misinformation, and miscommunication by focusing on
noise. Presenting art works that forge and break links between marks and
noises (DeMarinis) and conceptualizing noise as tactics and politics of media
(Parikka), both authors emphasize the importance of acknowledging dysfunc-
tionality and breakdown in media archaeology. The last three chapters of the
book are concerned with materiality and the importance of focusing on
infrastructure and the agency of the machine. Rooted in media materialism
Wolfgang Ernst’s essay develops the concept of ‘media archaeography’ and
puts the machine and its material modes of inscription at the center of
attention. Casey Alt suggests an object-oriented design approach to under-
stand how the computer became a medium and, finally, Noah Wardrip-Fruin
discusses the ‘Love Letter Generator’ and argues for critically engaging with
software processes that increasingly govern visual surfaces of contemporary
culture.
The afterword is written by Vivian Sobchack and can be read as a plea for the
‘presence in absence’, the ‘thinginess’ of things, and the act of ‘closely looking at
and, when possible, touching, operating, and performing the object of study’
(p. 327).
The three parts of the book may be seen as constituting a continuum, which
spans from rather classical essays on topoi such as ‘the little people living inside in
the machine’ re-evoked in different media to more radical viewpoints on the
materiality of technologies neglecting narratives and cultural analyses (partly
contradicting each other). They can be interpreted as mirroring the ‘materialist
turn’ observed in both the social sciences and the humanities. They signify the
shift from the social construction of technologies focusing on society shaping
technology, user-centered approaches, and cultural interpretations of new
media towards the actor-network theory focusing on society as co-evolving
with technology, machine-centered approaches, and the analysis of code, infra-
structure and software. I thus highly recommend the book to readers of this
journal, especially those interested in network technologies and the norms,
values and ideas built into their technical set-up. Doing research on ideologies
incorporated in digital media myself, I would further suggest combining the
media archaeological perspective with contributions from the political
economy of (new) media. This would enable us to not only better understand
ideologies of – old and new media – but also critique the values media technol-
ogies carry through time and space (a facet the book lacks in my mind even
though the critical impetus of media archaeology was mentioned by various
authors). The merging of concepts from media archaeology and critical new
media studies can serve as an innovative starting point to unpack and deconstruct
BOOK REVIEW 3
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the inscriptions and socio-political implications media technologies embody in
their technical Gestalt and hence solidify in society.
References
Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Astrid Mager
#2012 Astrid Mager
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.722224
Astrid Mager holds a PhD in Philosophy (Social Studies of Science). She is
postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Technology Assessment in Vienna,
Austrian Academy of Sciences, where she currently leads the project ‘Glocal
Search. Search technology at the intersection of global capitalism and local
socio-political cultures’ (funded by the Jubila
¨umsfonds of the Oesterreichische
Nationalbank (OeNB), project number 14702). Her research interests are
focused on search engine politics, digital knowledge, privacy, net politics,
digital methods and their implications. She blogs at http://www.astridmager.
net and tweets @astridmager. Address: Institute of Technology Assessment
(ITA), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Strohgasse 45/5, A-1030 Vienna. [email:
astrid.mager@oeaw.ac.at]
4INFORMATION, COMMUNICATION & SOCIETY
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