Below is the text of a talk I’m giving on September 8, 2022 for the Doing Experimental Media Archaeology research group at the University of Luxembourg. The text is written to be a talk, which means I haven’t been as thorough about citing outside sources as I would if it were to be published.
Today I would like to try to think through why and how to develop flexible, emergent, medium-specific, multiple methodologies for hands-on experimentation in media archaeology.
The subject of my talk emerged from some very interesting meetings I had the opportunity to participate in last year that included many of the DEMA members in the room today–meetings in which fascinating reports were given of hands-on experiments with analog technologies with less or no attention given to digital devices, just as a function of people’s interests. Since my own Media Archaeology Lab is dominated by digital computers and game consoles from the early 1970s to the present moment, and given my recent research into pre-internet networks, I kept wondering what difference it makes to our methodologies for hands-on experiments when the technological medium we’re trying to experiment with is digital and/or when it’s a network. Given that digital objects and networks are governed by ephemeral and invisible signals taking place inside devices that are now often hermetically sealed (nicely exemplified by this image that represents the internet as an amorphous, blobby cloud that magically connects blackboxed computers),
it seemed to me that our methods for hands-on experiments with these digital entities should be quite different than those we use for analog devices that work by hand crank, cylinder, stylus, and diaphragm and whose functioning we can see and carefully track.
It turns out this is a position that Thomas Elsaesser at least partially shares. In “Media Archaeology As Symptom,” he writes:
…the particular techno-logic of the digital takes us into the realm of electromagnetism. In writers like Kittler and Ernst, this logic is made up of switches and relays, of circuits and grids, and is made possible by harnessing electricity and mastering electromagnetic fields, rather than by mechanical devices arranged in a particular spatio-temporal order, what Stephen Heath calls the ‘very geometry of [cinematic] representation’…Whereas the cinema comes to life with the cut and montage, or the long take and deep space, the digital is animated and brought to life by a combination of mathematics, logic and linguistics.
Friedrich Kittler, one of media archaeology’s most important spiritual predecessors, wrote extensively about signal processors, hardware, and software in addition to his well known work on gramophones, film, and typewriters; we even have some evidence of his personal collection of media objects.
The fundamental importance of having technical knowledge of media as a way to counteract humanism, especially the humanism embedded in hermeneutic interpretation, is also threaded throughout most of Kittler’s work. However, Kittler was never explicit about how exactly one should go about these experiments and, somewhat strangely from the point of view of 2022 and the abundance of labs or collections inspired by Kittler and media archaeology more broadly, there is only one account of the specific machines in his collection and no accounts of what and how he worked with these objects.
Unlike Kittler who we know did not associate his work with media archaeology, the situation is slightly different with Wolfgang Ernst who does form the bedrock of what I’m today tentatively calling “classical media archaeology.” Ernst has been very open about his hands-on lab for media archaeology experiments that he calls the Media Archaeological Fundus or MAF.
As Ernst put it in an interview with me for the Library of Congress in the U.S., the MAF does not claim to offer a unique artefactual collection but instead it’s for training and enforcing media research–research which is not reduced to texts but tested against material evidence. With the words “train,” “enforce,” “test,” and “material evidence,” we can start to see how this line of thinking is anti-humanist; and ironically, this position is one that relies on the cornerstones of humanist/enlightenment thought and the development of a whole discourse around the rigor of the scientific method in order to try to work against humanism. More on this shortly, but for the moment it’s also worth pointing out that we similarly don’t have any accounts of exactly how Ernst undertakes this method of rigorous training and testing. Despite the number of convincing exhortations for arid description of techniques and technologies, both of which are part and parcel of method and methodology, there is a surprising lack of this content in the hard materialist approach to media archaeology.
Here’s another way of putting this situation: first, in the wake of Kittler and as media archaeology becomes more well known if not better defined, the terms ‘method’ and ‘methodology’ have appeared more frequently across the last couple of decades’ worth of writing on media archaeology. Second, hands-on experiments with media technologies have also started to emerge as the key method either for operationalizing a cold, hard materialist approach or for accessing alternative modes of narrativizing or historicizing these media technologies. In this way, despite the relative heterogeneity of approaches to media archaeology, there is still a rough consensus that handling still-functioning media is one of the foundational methodologies for disrupting humanism. However, much to my surprise, despite this rough consensus for the importance of developing methodologies around hands-on work, I’ve found that if you take a closer at what particular methods are proposed for these hands-on experiments and why, not only are many of them in conflict with each other but even some uses of the terms ‘method’ and ‘methodology’ are in conflict with the larger ideals being proposed.
In fact, I’ve found that just by tracking the various uses of ‘method’ and ‘methodology’ across media archaeology, a philosophical divide starts to emerge. In the same essay I just quoted from by Thomas Elsaesser, he asserts that at first glance the divide in media archaeology seems to be between the analog and the digital, a split that ends up positioning analog media such as film and cinema as obsolete. However, his point is really to say this divide only appears as such if we reduce our readings of technology to “the engineering blueprint of their mechanisms” or to their use. Instead, we need to acknowledge all the ways in which being human is baked into these technologies. As he puts it, this acknowledgement
…gives media archaeology–as the determinate ‘reading’ of these technologies, in the spirit of recovering the fantasies sedimented in their functions, and reviving the aspirations embedded in their design–the status of an allegorical device, by which the human and the machine interpret, but also interpenetrate, each other. (emphasis added, Thomas Elsaesser, “Media Archaeology as Symptom)
This assertion about how humans and machines are hopelessly entangled with each other actually points to where the more fundamental divide in media archaeology lies, beyond than the one that apparently exists between work on analog media versus work on digital media. That is, I’ve just started to notice there’s a split between a way of thinking aligned with what I call the anti-humanism of “classical” media archaeology texts such as those by Kittler and Ernst and a way of thinking aligned with what I call the posthumanism of texts on “new media archaeologies” such as those first by Siegfried Zielinski, Erkki Huhtamo, and later those by Wanda Strauven, Andreas Fickers, and Annie Van Den Oeven. The divide, in and of itself, is merely interesting. What’s more important, I think, is the philosophical and perhaps even ethical implications to each approach in terms of how we undertake our hands-on experiments.
2. Humanist, Antihumanist, Posthumanist
There are abundant now-famous lines from Kittler about how we must “drive the spirit from the humanities” along with numerous references to “so-called Man.” There are also plenty of assertions from Ernst about how we must try to give voice to the “inner world” of machines as a way to “suspend our subject-centered interpretations.” It is clear, then, that Elsaesser is right to say that “media archaeology can…be regarded as a symptom responding to a number of crises…Most prominent among these crises is the loss of belief in ‘progress, i.e. the critique of the Enlightenment”. For this lineage of media archaeology stemming primarily from Kittler via Foucault, the critique involves not just a critique of “the human” that exists at the center of the Enlightenment. But, by extension, it’s a critique of humanism or the relentless push to place a rigid notion of a singular type of ‘human’ at the center of all things. For humanists, then, technological media are simply extensions of us–they are styled after humans and they are there to do our bidding. Cars merely extend the speed and distance of human locomotion and they are also entirely under our control. By stark contrast, as if anticipating how 21st century self-driving cars clearly exceed human understanding and control, for Kittler and Ernst technological media by turns “determine our situation” or simply exist independently of humans, with their own subjectivities and their own temporalities. Theirs is a fundamentally anti-humanist position because it seeks to sideline, if not banish, human subjectivity as a corrective to humanism.
Interestingly, the best articulations of anti-humanism are not in media archaeology itself but rather in philosophy and STS. As Rosi Braidotti describes it,
Anti-humanism emerged as the rallying cry of this generation of radical thinkers who later were to become world-famous as the ‘post-structuralist generation’…They stepped out of the dialectical oppositional thinking and developed a third way to deal with changing understandings of human subjectivity…What is targeted is the implicit Humanism of Marxism, more specifically the humanistic arrogance of continuing to place Man at the centre of world history…Anti-humanism consists in de-linking the human agent from this universalistic posture, calling him to task, so to speak, on the concrete actions he is enacting. (The Posthuman 23)
So, again, for Kittler and Ernst, the best way to drive a stake in the heart of humanism is to rigorously de-link humans from machines. Ernst even takes it one step further and posits that sidelining our human subjectivity has the potential to grant us freedom:
It takes machines to temporarily liberate us…Rather than being a nostalgic collection of ‘dead media’ of the past, assembled in a curiosity cabinet, media archaeology is an analytical tool, a method of analyzing and presenting aspects of media that would otherwise escape the discourse of cultural history. (emphasis added, Ernst, “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media,” 240)
What’s compelling to me about this quote from Ernst is both that media archaeology is a singular method or analytical tool and also that this singular method and/or tool will liberate us. Significantly, since this one austere method of using machines ought to free ourselves from ourselves, it suddenly becomes clear that this anti-humanism not only relies on humanism as something to define itself against but it actually ends up reinstating two cornerpieces of humanism: objectivity and freedom. Ironically, in the words of another important figure in STS, Andrew Pickering, this seems to be the same kind of objectivity at the heart of traditional science and philosophy which stems “from a peculiar kind of mental hygiene or policing of thought.” (197) Even though Ernst will occasionally concede that this method of employing a so-called “cold gaze” to step outside of a human perspective is “just another method to get closer to what we love in culture,” these statements admitting to the importance of culture always arrive as asides at the end of long celebrations of “the cold” and, again, assertions about the singularity of his method. Rather than embracing what Donna Haraway calls hybridity or what Andrew Pickering calls the mangle, these accessions to the importance, in the end, of feeding the findings of the cold gaze back into culture amount to a maintenance of the nature/culture binary and humanism’s hold.
To return once more to Braidotti, despite her fondness for anti-humanism, with some regret she observes that this position is inevitably so fraught with “…contradictions that the more one tries to overcome them, the more slippery it gets.” She continues: “Not only do anti-humanists often end up espousing humanist ideals–freedom being my favorite one–but also, in some ways, the work of critical thought is supported by intrinsic humanist discursive values. Somehow, neither humanism nor anti-humanism is adequate to the task.” (29) What is adequate to our task of hands-on experiments within the context of media archaeology is posthumanism–an approach that doesn’t try to banish, sideline, or transcend the human to get at the machine so much as it decenters the human by “stressing heteronomy and multi-faceted relationality, instead of autonomy and self-referential disciplinary purity.” (Braidotti 145)
Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka’s description of Siegfried Zielinski’s approach to media archaeology is a great example of such heteronomy and multi-faceted relationality as they describe Zielinksi as having a “practice of resistance, not only against what he perceives as the increasing uniformity of mainstream media culture, but also against media archaeology itself.” Crucially, they write, “considering media archaeology a ‘method’ pinned down into an academic textbook would no doubt be a horror for Zielinski.” (“Introduction,” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, 10) These same sentiments about the importance of maintaining an allegiance to multiplicity and emergence in media archaeology reappears with greater force and clarity some years later with the publication of the collection New Media Archaeologies. In this book we see Wanda Strauven asserting that we need to continually invite ourselves to think about “new forms or ways of doing media archaeology” and Andreas Fickers and Annie Van Den Oeven reminding us of the importance not of “relying on a certain theory” but rather of “processes of collecting, tinkering, and translating.” (40, 58)
Again, what’s important about this split in media archaeology between anti-humanism and posthumanism is not the split itself, and not even certain internal inconsistencies regarding the methods of media archaeology, but rather the way in which the anti-humanist lineage’s attempts at a kind of latter day objectivity and scientificity lead to such a narrowing of possibilities that it produces yet more blindspots in our understanding of technological media. By contrast, the posthumanist lineage seems to lead to the development of multiple, attuned, situated methods of experimentation that adapt to a given technological medium and thus it creates the possibility for multi-dimensional understanding.
2. Mental Hygiene Versus An Embrace of the Mangle
Enough theory and abstraction! What I’d like to do now is see how these two approaches pragmatically play out across a range of media objects that are all both superficially similar and profoundly different from each other. Let’s begin by trying to bring an anti-humanist approach to a mechanical typewriter. First, I approach the light blue Sears Tower portable manual typewriter that lives in the Media Archaeology Lab without any expectations or desires for particular outcomes. I put my glasses on and try to step outside of my awareness of my breathing that’s slightly fogging up my glasses and I try to ignore the fact that the lab is particularly hot and stuffy on this August day. Unwilling to allow my own subjectivity to interfere with my understanding or even appreciation of the machine, I decide to document its external appearance and its internal workings from both the front and the back using my iPhone whose own inner workings in this case exceed my own understanding and my own capabilities. In fact, since my phone senses and does things far beyond anything I could ever do, I start to wonder whether this anti-humanist experiment with a mechanical typewriter is actually an experiment with an iPhone. But my consciousness is intruding too much now and I digress!
I turn my attention back to the typewriter and note that it does not require an external power source to function and that the only way to see this machine in-action, living out its own subjectivity and temporality in a way that is utterly separate from my own, is for me to reach out and press a key. At this point I witness the key bar rise up and strike the ribbon which in turn leaves an impression on the sheet of paper. While this is happening, I cannot help but to physically and audibly experience the one-to-one relationship betwee my bodily movement and the letter that appears. And before I can mourn the human interference I have already caused, I also note that a previous human had left a sheet of paper in the typewriter with messages to future humans: “so cool thank you this place rocks TODD IS NUMBER ONE.”
It is my first experiment and I have already made a mockery of the anti-humanist approach. I will try again with a word processor that was produced roughly 35 years later by Xerox Corporation, the company most famous for its photocopiers.
In the interests of trying to stay consistent with a singular method of hands-on experimentation, I try to replicate the same approach I had to the mechanical typewriter. I once again don my glasses and document the Xerox 6015 Memorywriter’s external and internal appearance with my phone, noting that, other than the presence of a typewriter ribbon, looking at its internal workings barely reveals anything at all. Unlike the mechanical typewriter, this machine depends both on electricity as well as a computer chip to run its word processing capabilities. But, before I dig too much into what “word processing” means in this context, a process that would pull me more into reading the user handbook and into the realm of human culture that I’m trying to minimize, I press the power button that’s on the right side of the machine. I observe the light whirring sound it makes as the surge of electricity initiates a process of re-aligning the typewriter ribbon to the far left margin of the sheet of paper that was left there by the previous user. While I’m once again perturbed by the unavoidable presence of previous humans, the message left on the sheet of paper that reads “DOGS ARE ASAME I LOVE DOGSO SOMOCH,” pushes me to type my own message: “NO THIS IS AN ANTIHUMANIST EXPERIMENS.”
Of course, my consciousness has been intruding and driving the experimental process the entire time–something that’s only made more clear as I realize I spelled “experiment” wrong at which point I press the “manual erase” button and, after about thirty seconds of more elaborate whirring, the letter ‘S’ has miraculously disappeared and I can then replace it with a ‘T.’ I observe once again that, with the exception of what is clearly a typewriter ribbon inside the machine, its clean and spare interior reveals nothing about how it actually works and certainly does not explain the process of erasing letters and words. Even though the word processor also comes with a fifteen character display that supposedly “enables you to see ‘behind the scenes’ activity taking place in its memory,” all we are actually privy to is the activation of features such as italics or underlining and the ability to “see characters as you type them but before you print them.” Strangely, all throughout the manual I find references to the fact that the typewriter has a “memory” but there is never any mention of a computer chip or any explanation of how much memory the machine has in terms of RAM, not in terms of characters, letters, or words. The machine is a hybrid typewriter/computer, but with all signs of the digital carefully obscured by typewriter-inspired rhetoric and design.
Nonetheless, returning to the issue of erasure, it turns out that the Xerox uses a kind of correction tape that comes in two types: either lift-off or cover-up. The correction tape in this particular machine must be the lift-off variety that works by a small brush rapidly sweeping the letter away like a small broom. Certainly now, under the guise of trying to continue on with my cold description of the machine’s operations and functionalities, I’ve had to engage in some old fashioned humanist close reading of the user handbook to find out more about how this process of erasing works, to see what is not in the manual, and to extrapolate some interpretations about the significance of what’s there and what’s not. Another way of putting it: without me fully realizing it was happening, my approach has morphed into one that is a “mangle” of my attempts to understand the machine on its own terms and temporalities and the necessity for this understanding to be tempered by cultural techniques of reading, archival research, and interpretation. More, this hybrid approach is necessitated by the fact that this machine works according to the “techno-logic of the digital” that, recalling Elsaesser’s description of Kittler and Ernst’s approach once more, “takes us into the realm of electromagnetism…and is made possible by harnessing electricity and mastering electromagnetic fields, rather than by mechanical devices arranged in a particular spatio-temporal order.” Yet, it seems to me that the moment we enter the realm of the electromagnetic, which largely coincides with the realm of blackboxing that’s well underway by the mid-1980s, we also have to start using highly particular, adaptive, and emergent methodologies for our hands-on experiments in ways we didn’t have to when we were in the realm of the mechanical.
Whereas with the mechanical typewriter I had no trouble getting at its insides and assessing how it works, even though the assessment involved me actively getting involved in pressing keys, for the Xerox Memorywriter, beyond looking at the manual and my light peering inside, without a service manual I was not able to progress much farther with my experiments. The lack of a service manual is also not something that can simply be rectified by going on to ebay or looking around the internet archive; this is because by the mid-1980s, as part of the blackboxing campaign I already mentioned, most computer manufacturers did not make their service manuals available to their customers. If something went wrong with the machine, you are instructed in the manual to contact the company so they can send over a specially trained repair person. You can see this attitude in this small sticker on the inside of the machine that forbids anyone to touch the insides of the machine–particularly, one has to assume, women who might be wearing jewelry or have long hair.
I further consulted with libi striegl, the managing director of the MAL, about whether it’s possible to get any further inside the Xerox Memorywriter and this is what she said: “not easily–not without a combination of brute force, expertise, and potentially damaging the machine and not being able to return it to a functional state. It has a shielded housing for electromechanical components; it also has a lot of electronics under the keyboard that register what you’re typing; then there’s something housed behind the platen that is shielded and obscured from the outside. I’m not even sure where the chip is, though it’s probably under the keyboard. In other words, all of the machines are tangled together and it’s very difficult to disentangle any one part without doing damage to the whole.”
Still, despite the growing number of obstacles preventing us digging any deeper into the machine, with a great deal of anxiety we did end up pressing on and managed to take off the plastic housing covering the keyboard and small screen, we removed the platen entirely, and we unscrewed the entire plastic housing to get at the insides of the machine. We discovered that there were numerous chips not under the keyboard but on a small board at the back of the machine. All of the chips had been soldered on so we were not able to remove them without, again, leaving our machine in a non functioning state. We were able to figure out that two of the chips made by Texas Instruments were e-prom chips and one, an 8-bit single chip microcontroller, was made by Siemens and likely controls the printer head. But, again, there’s no way for us to definitively figure it out what the chips do without schematics and other forms of external documentation; incidentally, this documentation would also come with its own human interjected biases about what kinds of information are considered important and what kinds should be excluded. Clearly, our attempts to experiment with this machine take us well beyond an anti-humanist approach and into a method of experimentation that has to shift and change with each screw we take out, plastic covering we lift, chip we attempt to get at, and documentation of what we do or don’t have access to.
The situation gets even more fraught with difficulties and dead-ends once we move entirely into the realm of the digital. For example, the last machine I will discuss today is the Canon Cat which, before my experimentation begins, I happen to already know was designed by Jeff Raskin after he left Apple in the early 1980s and it was introduced to the public by Canon in 1987 for $1500. Standing in front of this machine in the MAL, I note that even though it’s definitely a computer, the manual sitting beside it calls it an “advanced work processor,” probably to once again assure users that this machine isn’t anything as intimidating as a computer; it’s really just another word processor with more functionality. I then spend a couple minutes scrutinizing the mysterious keyboard that features several layers of functionality built into it, including “LEAP” keys. I assume that, since the machine lacks a mouse, it must also lack a Graphical User Interface; instead, rather than use a command line interface, this machine must has all its functionality built into the keyboard.
I reach around the back of the machine to turn it on, noting as well that, unlike other computers of its time, there’s no switch to turn the screen on; it’s a completely integrated unit. The machine quickly and, this time, soundlessly, powers up and presents me with a home screen dressed up as a white sheet of paper. I note that the cursor is blinking and I also note that there are no menu items for me to browse through. I try clicking a few random keys on the keyboard but without any observable results. I could continue on with random key mashing but this approach doesn’t seem to yield anything meaningful. It quickly becomes clear, then, that–much sooner than with the Xerox Memorywriter–already I have to resort to reading the manual. Now I learn that the Canon Cat’s cursor has several states: narrow, wide, and extended. In addition to the variable cursor states, the cursor blink rate has two states: clean (whereby the cursor blinks at a rate of roughly 3 Hz to indicate that all changes to the text have been saved to a disk) and dirty (whereby the cursor blinks at a rate of about 1 Hz to indicate that changes have been made to the text and they have not been saved to a disk). The LEAP keys on the keyboard, then, are the Cat’s method of cursor movement; you can leap forward and backward using the LEAP FORWARD and LEAP BACKWARD keys. While the LEAP FORWARD key is held, a pattern may be typed. While the pattern is being typed, the cursor immediately moves forward and lands on the first character of the first occurrence of the pattern in the text. LEAP BACKWARD behaves the same as LEAP FORWARD except that the cursor moves in the opposite direction through the text.
If it wasn’t already clear, I couldn’t have learned this from aimlessly playing around with the keyboard. Now that we’ve entered the realm of the blackboxed digital, and also the era of designing computers to be like everyday appliances, it starts to become clear that since this machine is even more rigorously encased in plastic shielding that is close to impossible to remove, we are only ever going to have superficial access to the functionality of the machine through its external design. Plastic casing aside, like most computers from the 1980s, the Canon Cat also has a CRT that’s integrated with the whole machine. If we were to open the case for the Canon Cat like we did with the Xerox Memorywriter, we would expose the CRT screen and the tube which is dangerous because there’s a very high probability of electrocuting yourself. Before opening it up, we would need to discharge all electrical currents from the tube either by letting the machine stay off long enough that there’s no remaining electrical current stored in the capacitor–a process that would take months. Or we would have to use a high voltage discharge method with a grounded screwdriver to make the tube spark and discharge excess electricity. Certainly this is possible but the latter requires a high degree of expertise that few people have and perhaps, given the level of danger involved, this might be for the best. even libi doesn’t work with CRTs; instead, she has one of the Media Archaeology Lab’s volunteers do this work. This volunteer is a rare sort of person who does what he calls “high voltage art” whereby he pulls high voltage capacitors from TVs and microwaves and uses them to make pyrotechnic displays; he also has very specialized equipment like a tube conditioner that you might only find in a no longer existing TV repair shop.
In short, taking apart a computer to undertake a kind of archaeological dig through the layers of the machine requires a community of highly specialized knowledge workers that is rare, especially in a university setting, and it’s the kind of work that almost certainly shouldn’t be done by undergraduate students. So, at this point, I stop my now feeble attempts to enact anti-humanist experiments with the Canon Cat and accept that the machine insists on the kind of emergent analysis I’ve just laid out–one that largely features a combination of observation, open-ended experimentation, reading and interpretation of printed matter, as well as a clear record of the mounting number of barriers and dead-ends to experimentation. I didn’t even manage to try to work out how, according to the manual, the Cat is able to communicate with other cats, data services, and computers. Because of obsolete and incompatible infrastrucutre, from the nature of our phone line to the capabilities of our campus servers, getting the to network in its original state is also a near impossibility.
In the context of media archaeology, then, ‘methodology’ turns out to be an aporia–an irresolvable internal contradiction. But, as long as it’s embraced as such, methodology as an aporia actually has the potential to support the kind of flexible, processual attunement to the specifiity of each technological medium at hand that a certain line of thinking in media archaeology advocates for. Heterogeneity in how ‘method’ and ‘methodology’ for hands-on experiments are used has the potential for liberation from disciplinary purity rather than being an warning sign that we need to do a better job at disciplining our disciplines. It is not a liberation that reinforces humanism but rather one that leads us directly into the mangled muddle that is posthumanism.