The Next Chapter: Media Archaeology, Archaeogaming, and Digital Archaeology

This week I’m going to try to start to write the next chapter in my little book on the Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. You can check out my first three chapters here. This chapter will survey on media archaeology, archaeogaming, and digital archaeology. I’m pretty far outside my comfort zone on the first two areas, but, as I blogged about last week, I have some good guides.

My current preoccupation is how to make my chapter have some flow. The previous chapter of the book deals with “Things, Materiality, and Agency” and to continue along these line, I think that I’ll start this chapter by attempting to define media archaeology This is not entirely simple because it is as much a method for approaching the place of media in contemporary society and communications theory as a clearly defined (sub)discipline. In the context of media archaeology, the term “archaeology” draws not as much on the the practices associated with the disciplinary practice of archaeological work, but on Foucault’s use of the term to describe the unconscious rules that govern systems of knowledge which he developed in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). In other words, “media archaeology” need not have anything to do with the material culture of media studies, but rather with the metaphor of excavation below the surface of conscious practice. 

At the same time, the “German School” of media archaeology, characterized by the work of Friedrich Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst, came to emphasize the key role that the materiality and technology played in communication practices. In fact, Kittler famously noted that our media shape how we view the world from our dreams, our memories, and our feelings. This line of argument is not unfamiliar to archaeologists who have long recognized that archaeology is a mediated discipline that relies on a range of media practices – from texts, pen and pencil drawings, photography, and, more recently, video and 3D visualizations, to translate physical relationships into arguments for the past. In a broader sense, the rapid diversification of media technologies and their ubiquity in the modern society has made it all the more important that we understand the impact of media technologies on the contemporary world. As a result, understanding the physical characteristics of media as well as their ability to regulate the body, create sensation, and produce knowledge plays a key role in unpacking our experience of the contemporary world.

Media archaeology also has emphasized matters of time and temporality. This not only involves the practical aspects of living and “dead media” but also the ability of media to manipulate time in new ways. Digital media has made it simple to create new expression by mashing up old and new images, we can slow the passage of time by slowing media down or speeding it up, and we can even combine old and new technologies to create hybrids that complicate and defy linear narratives of progress. The emergence of “steampunk” and “cyberpunk” genres of fiction, for example, likewise offer critiques of progress and, by extension, consumerist expectations of innovation. The steampunk aesthetic developed by authors such as Bruce Sterling and Phillip Reeves, explicitly combines the old and new technologies to create hybrid forms that exist outside of time and trajectories of progress. The “cyberpunk” genre of fiction pioneered by William Gibson takes place in a futuristic, media-rich universe that his characters negotiate through a series of do-it-yourself practices meant to subvert a dystopian society structured around rampant consumerism and enhanced methods of control.  As Shannon Lee Dawdy has noted in her article “Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity” (2010) the critiques of progress, capital, and consumer culture present in these authors has useful parallels with Walter Benjamin’s critique of the culture of consumption in the decaying shopping Arcades of Paris.

Scholars like Jussi Parikka has extended media archaeology to include the critical attention to the materiality of digital devices. By looking at the Geology of Media, he connects the discourse of the media to the slow, grinding time of geology and deep temporalities that continue to shape contemporary practices. At the same time, he refers literally to geology by demonstrating how digital devices rely upon mineral and metals from around the world to perform their functions. Jennifer Gabrys’s and Joshua Lepawsky’s recent books consider and critique the course of digital trash and e-waste as our media technologies continue to circle the globe, are reused, and reenter geological contexts long after narratives of progress and innovation declares them obsolete. This intermingling of the mineralogical, metallic, and material contents of devices, the slow geological time of media, and the recursive routes of objects from the consumer, into reuse and recycling, and eventually back into the ground as discard creates a kind of multitemporal surface similar to that encountered by survey archaeologists where artifacts dating to multiple periods commingle. 

The dense networks of things, places, and individuals which constitute digital media allow us a position to return to Michael Schiffer’s 1991 book on the portable transistor radio and see it more than a revisionist case study for national narratives of innovation, but opportunities to understand how media technologies and practices created and relied upon complex networks of relationships that functioned on a global scale. In this context, media archaeology whether stressing the material aspects of media or their role in contemporary communications practices, locate the American experience within much broader geographic context than defined by national boundaries. 

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