Media Archaeology and Archaeology of Media

Last week I kept going back to the most recent volume of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology to read just one more contribution before getting back to work. I couldn’t help myself. The volume pairs scholars of contemporary archaeology, with an interest in the archaeology of the media, which media archaeologists, who are typically scholars who interrogate both older forms of media (from film to video games) and the devices upon which these media depend (from celluloid to 8-tracks and theremins).

Traditionally, both sides have sought to disabuse any confusion with the other.Media archaeologists have explained their use of the term “archaeology” as an appeal to Foucault’s concept as first explored in his Archaeology of Knowledge. Archaeologists of the media have traditionally explained their work as focused on the documentation of media and related devices in archaeological contexts whether through excavation, survey, or intensive documentation of built spaces. The former tends to emerge along the margins of English departments and Communication programs; the latter on the fringes of archaeology, anthropology, and history departments.

From my perspective, there are three main things that I got out of this collection:

1. Convergence. This is an old and hackneyed media studies term, but it is perhaps applicable to the intermingling of issues central to media archaeology and traditional archaeology. Some of this has to do with the increased dependence of traditional archaeology on digital media and the need to regularly consider the impact of new technologies on our basic field practices, the state of embodied archaeological knowledge, and our responsibilities to archive and preserve records of our work. Our of necessity, archaeologists have become media aware and even traditional practices like drawing, notebook recording, and photography have seen increased critical scrutiny as practices embedded within particular social and political (broadly construed) contexts. 

It is probably too soon to see all archaeology as media archaeology, but any project that has digitized its notebooks, prepared or maintained a database, or changed recording media or practices in the field has flirted with the edges of this emerging field of study.

2. Assemblage. Rodney Harrison has argued (pdf) that the dominant metaphor for archaeology has shifted from excavation – pulling away layers to reveal the past – to assemblage – tracing the relationships between all kinds of objects and agents to understand the complex formation of past knowledge. Media archaeology can draw heavily on Foucault’s understanding of discourse and his rejection of context (there is nothing outside of the discourse). For traditional excavation practices, context refers to the geological strata in which artifacts exist. As archaeologists have become more committed to privileging the assemblage as the basic unit of archaeological analysis, they have increasingly recognized that landscapes, stratigraphy, artifacts, archaeological practice, and even archaeological media function as a interdependent and interrelated body of objects to produce knowledge about the past. None of these aspects of archaeological knowledge production exist outside the analytical process of archaeology.

It is perhaps not a coincidence, of course, that the rise in intensive pedestrian survey as a respects and widely deployed method for constructing past landscapes is particular committed to the assemblage as the unit of analysis.

3. The contemporary world. As with so many current (productive and otherwise) theoretical complications, the point of origin for this convergence of media archaeology and archaeology of the media is in the archaeology of the contemporary world. In fact, the archaeology of the contemporary world and prehistoric archaeology appear right now to be the major engines for changing archaeological methods as well as the destruction of disciplinary boundaries. These sub-fields have cultivated the growing interest in agency, assemblage, and materials which have positioned archaeology as more than simply a useful set of tools for understanding the past and located the discipline as an immediately useful way to approaching material culture in every day life. 

As I have noted on this blog, the expanded understanding of agency that recognizes the deeply embedded set of relationships that shape our actions include both human and non-human agents. This speaks both to our growing sense of powerlessness in the world and the growing recognition that technologies increasingly serve to mediate,  shape, and limit human interaction. As we interact regularly with a growing web of objects and media, the boundary between responsibility (and, to use a political watchword, accountability) and agency becomes increasingly blurred. While this does not mean to suggest that people in earlier times did not encounter a similarly entangled existence in their engagement with objects and non-human agents, I would contend that the positing of a post-human world is something that is more obvious in contemporary society. The need to engage with a range of both proximate and distant materials, objects, and agents has made more clear that agency alone is not what makes us human.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Andrew Reinhard has a contribution on the Alamogordo Atari Expedition in this volume. With each passing publication his ability to tell the story of the Atari Expedition becomes more refined and interesting. Go and check it out.

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