21ST CENTURY THEORY

A New Yesterday

All Images:

REVITAL COHEN & TUUR VAN BALEN

H / AlCuTaAu, 2014

Precious metals and stones were mined out of technological objects and transformed back into mineral form. The artificial ore was constructed out of gold (Au), copper (Cu), Aluminum (Al), and whetstone; all taken from tools, machinery and computers that were sourced from a recently bankrupt factory. 

Even if the virtual space of the screen misleadingly suggests a kind of perpetual present, the world is filled with remainders of bygone media technologies. For the Finnish new media theorist Jussi Parikka, the multiple temporalities of media archaeology offer an alternative to the singular forward drive of accelerationism.

Media-archaeological objects persist not as dead media but as zombie media. Sometimes they even haunt the everyday. Coming across a Betamax video recorder sitting under a DVD player in someone’s living room can feel like an odd piece of installation art in which one is not sure which is more out of place – the obsolete loser of the format battle with VHS, or the DVD player that is itself is bound to become obsolescent e-waste junk sooner rather than later. Even everyday spaces open up into a media-archaeological object gallery for the pedestrian anthropologist. This feeling is of course intensified in certain places, in certain cities. In Istanbul, in the second-hand shops of Kadıköy district, one encounters various objects of media-archaeological interest, from old rotary phones to Commodore 64s, as well as a jumbled array of components and wires that seem, to say the least, useless. Some local waste collectors specialise in electronic junk. Walter Benjamin’s image of the ragpicker becomes refashioned into a media-archaeological figure of contemporary everyday life. In the Arcades Project, Benjamin writes:

“Here we have a man whose job it is to pick up the day’s rubbish in the capital. He collects and catalogues everything that the great city has cast off, everything it has lost, and discarded, and broken. He goes through the archives of debauchery, and the jumbled array of refuse.”

The passage from Benjamin reveals the labour behind the afterlife of dead media, which continue to haunt everyday spaces. It illuminates its political economy as well, which is often forgotten in a nostalgic focus on the transhistorical status of lost and forgotten objects salvaged from piles of junk. 

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Under the aegis of Friedrich Kittler, German media theory offers a way of taking historical roots and quasi archaeological excavations seriously as a way of addressing the contemporary. This is where media archaeology as a body of theory and practice becomes about much more than a list of curious odd objects of the past, or the persistence of the obsolete in the present. Recent news stories about surveillance agencies reintroducing typewriters to prevent online snooping, or punk archaeologists discovering the remains of hundreds of abandoned Atari electronic games in the New Mexico desert, certainly suggest a haunting persistence of the recent past, but they also imply a displacement of a conventional notion of time, and offer a philosophical critique of it too. Aside from the contemporary, media archaeology brings into play other temporal figures such as obsolescence, dead or zombie media, deep time, paleontology, and microtemporality. Indeed, to connect and participate in the contemporary discussions on time and capitalism, represented by such theoretical directions as accelerationism and hauntology, media archaeology should be seen as an intervention in our understanding of time.

One example of a productive, artistic use of media archaeology along these very lines can be seen in Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen’s H/AlCuTaAu (2014), an artwork in which disused and discarded technology is used to create a new metallic-chemical hybrid "mineral" in an experimental object that functions as an aesthetic intervention into a technological-temporal situation. The work is not only a reminder of the material roots of technical media, and the labour that goes into their production, but also of the geological temporalities of gold, copper, minerals, etc. that participate in the temporal displacements of "new" media. A geology of media, then, starts as the material condition of such hybrid technological fossils that act as reminders of the long trails, histories, of how media in the first place becomes media through labour. This also connects to the material durations of the earth as they coexist with contemporary modes of production in a simultaneity of different temporalities. 

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To read media archaeology as an intervention in the contemporary chronoscape suggests an important realisation. A specific notion of time, or temporality, is often at the heart of critical analyses of the current moment. Accelerationism’s way of addressing the capitalist platforms and the bankruptcy of alternative political directions draws not merely on the idea of "speeding up" but on the lack of political imagination that would design alternative futures. In "#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics" by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, they write:

"This collapse in the idea of the future is symptomatic of the regressive historical status of our age, rather than, as cynics across the political spectrum would have us believe, a sign of sceptical maturity."

This "regressive" historicism is mobilised in alternative ways in other attempts such as hauntology. The loss of the future as radically new category is read in a different way by Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life (Zero Books, 2014), where he considers it through the lens of popular culture. The trope of the ghost and haunting becomes a sign of the crisis of historicism, both political and aesthetic, such as when a place becomes what Fisher calls "stained by time". The coordinates of calendar time are not adequate for such complex infusions and entrapments of pasts, presents, and futures.

In spite of their evident importance, arguments concerning the temporality of capitalism run into the danger of becoming overly homogeneous in their assumption of a single temporality typically understood as brought about by and within capitalism. In Sarah Sharma’s important recent study In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (Duke, 2014), the prevalence of the notion of speed as a feature of contemporary capitalism is exposed as an oversimplification of a much more complex set of temporal productions. Indeed, as Sharma points out, the idea of everyday life speeding up overlooks the presence of different techniques of time that sustain both slowness and speeding-up. The rest experienced by a business traveller is made possible by exclusive spaces and privileges, the slow food movement requires the presence of a labour force that is hidden from view, and the taxi cab figures as a strange sort of time capsule that is not only part of the service economy of speed but also entangled with the distinct temporalities and histories of the drivers. 

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Sharma argues that we need what she calls "chrono-cartographies", in recognition of the constant multitemporality in which experiences of speed are also conditioned by cultural techniques of time, such as synchronisation. Technological synchronisation – from train scheduling to contemporary Internet traffic and computer systems – has played a key role in the production modern life. Social synchronisation, meanwhile, underpins the nature of commands and apparatuses of power: commanding is always a way of synchronising bodies into a system of organisation, as scholar Thomas Macho has demonstrated. 

Media archaeology thus stands for a rejection of monotemporality in favour of a historically oriented "power-chronography" (Sharma) that extends not just spatially across the globe, but also to the past, to the domain of the archive. Old video recorders, dated screen technologies, and other such media-archaeological objects are not only examples of the material culture of past media technologies and cultural techniques, but also objects that bend time. Such objects act as anchors of different temporalities that present a challenge to a presentist notion of time. Media archaeology brings to the table a multiplication of these different temporalities that are all stratified in a present that is itself transhistorical. Media archaeology thus offers a necessary and still underused approach to the contemporary capitalist moment, opening up a new horizon beyond the analysis of the political imaginary offered by theorists of speed and ideas of political accelerationism.

JUSSI PARIKKA is Professor in Technological Culture & Aesthetics at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton (UK). His books include Digital Contagions. A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007), Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (2010), and What is Media Archaeology? (2012). Next year, University of Minnesota Press will publish his Geology of Media

This text appears in the Spike Art Quarterly N° 41 and is available for purchase at our online shop.