Later this week I’ll be heading to Chicago for my seventh (seriously?!) Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, and I’m stoked to be joining a group of super-genius whippersnappers — Laine Nooney from Stony Brook, Jacob Gaboury from NYU, and Rory Solomon from Parsons — on a panel exploring “New/ Media/ Archaeologies: Extensions and Interventions in Media Archaeology” (we got extra credit for using not only the obligatory colon, but also the ever-provocative slash — not one, but two of them!). I’m grateful to Laine for bringing us all together and chairing the panel. She’s offered a nice overview on her website, and I’ll share it here, too:
Rory Solomon | Parsons the New School for Design
“Software Stratigraphy: Media Archaeology of/as the Stack”
Shannon Mattern | The New School
“Echoes and Entanglements: A Sonic Archaeology of the City”
Laine Nooney | Stony Brook University
“Materialist Methods for Mystery House(s): A Feminist Media Archaeology of Early Video Games”
Jacob Gaboury | New York University
“An Archeology of Uncomputable Numbers: Queer Media History”
Over the past 20 years, media archaeology’s emphasis on non-progressive media histories, dead and failed media, and media materialism has refreshed the theoretical domains of media studies. Scholarship in media archaeology has long been united by a methodological focus on the primacy of the technological medium itself, rather than its representational content. However, these methods, by outrightly rejecting questions of discursivity, subjectivity and political economy, produce their own academic difficulties. The anti-hermeneutic tradition of media archaeology has produced a body of scholarship that often leaves unaccounted the ghostly or immaterial components of media studies that do not leave technological registers in our material world.
This panel re-assesses the intersections of objects, subjectivities and environments that typically lie beyond media archaeology’s reach, extending media archaeological methods across disciplinary boundaries. Rory Solomon offers a programmer-oriented view, complicating the notion of a purely non-discursive technical substrate using the software model of the “stack.” The “stack” illustrates that operative layers always exist above and below any substrate; methods are best imagined as “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Shannon Mattern productively confuses the distinction between media archaeology and archaeology “proper,” in an effort to address the very literal “digging” required to write a history of urban sound. Mattern insists media archaeology should learn from actual excavation, as material practices are all the more significant when one must unearth forms of mediation that themselves have no physical instantiation. Laine Nooney continues to focus on material context, arguing that media archaeology remains deeply gendered when scholars privilege objective analyses of media objects that forgo cultural and human materiality. Nooney intersects feminist materialism with media archaeology to highlight the largely “invisible” female affective and material labor at work in video game history. Jacob Gaboury locates a queerness in media archaeology demanding further attention to identity-based critiques. Gaboury suggests that media archaeology’s attention to failed, glitched and re-occurring processes dovetails with queer theory’s turn toward a politics of failure and anti-sociality, and reads computer history against its grain to offer a queer alternative to the telos of “successful” communication.
My presentation will pick up on some ideas I explored in my “Dirty Media Archaeology” talk at the fabulous Network Archaeology conference last April, and in my “Hearing Infrastructures” public lecture at the Canadian Centre for Architecture last June. Since then, I’ve been reading a lot of classics and archaeology, and talking to some archaeologists, acousticians, and engineers — and the insights I’ve gleaned from these resources and encounters will, I hope, allow me to expand both the historical and practical dimensions of this particular talk. Plus, I hope to be able to play some “dug up” sounds, rather than simply talking about them, this time.
If my presentation shapes up decently, I’ll post it here. If not, I’ll keep working on it and perhaps share it later on as a draft book chapter. Regardless, part of this work will emerge this summer as “Ear to the Wire,” an article in the recently-launched Amodern journal.
Rory, my long-term TA, and I wrapped up the third semester of our Urban Media Archaeology graduate studio this past Wednesday evening. The last week of every semester is always a nail-biter — and I’m always amazed to see how well everyone pulls it together by the deadline. Once again, we had media maps addressing a wide range of topics — some really stretching the definition of “media” — and quite a few that productively and creatively pushed the limits of mapping as a method, and challenged the conventions of the database behind our map.
Last fall I gave an overview of the semester’s projects and some of the more meta-level insights that came into relief for us, collectively. I’ll offer a similar wrap-up for this semester’s class — but I’ll allow the students to reflect on their research-and-production processes in their own words by drawing from their final “process blog” posts. Their final reflections are always extraordinarily poignant and demonstrate a great deal of critical self-awareness; the bits I’ll extract here are likely to have the most resonance for new students starting their own mapping projects in the future.
[w]aterfront metaphors emerge in the various points of data: the slips where water slips purposefully into Manhattan’s rigid grid; the oyster houses that embody the griminess of the oyster’s marine habitat; the expansions of the coastline that extend the land outwards into the sea; the floating oyster barges that symbolically marry, through architecture, land and water; and the middens underneath the soil that illicit a sense of discardedness wherein water is submerged under land.
After selecting a topic, most of the semester was spent narrowing the topic down, researching this topic (still many topics), and further narrowing it down. The research process is integral to the map itself, despite most of the process remaining invisible in the end product. After researching, it was time to assemble/disassemble the research and turn it into mappable data. I’d say this, next to the actual research, was the most time consuming.
*Brian has worked in Times Square for years, and has long been curious about the “Old Times Square.” His “Mapping the Deuce: The Transformation of 42nd Street” focuses on the establishment of 42nd Street (particularly between 7th and 8th avenues) as a theater hotspot; the area’s transition, after the Depression and WWII, from “legitimate theater” to “questionable genres of film”; and the redevelopment of 42nd Street as part of a “massive public/private clean-up project.”
Brian, reflecting on his process, lamented that he
spent too much time at the beginning hunting down media to enrich my map with, rather than organically seeking it out as I crafted my arguments. As a result, I had to tone down my final product with far less photos than I originally intended as they would have distracted the reader rather than enhance the narrative.
In the end, though, his map changed his mind about 42nd Street; it contradicted his original hypothesis about the area: “42nd Street wasn’t turned into something NEW, it was simply given back to the people of the area and it’s once again a place where all walks of life can find entertainment.” The project, he said,
really made me scratch my head and figure out how to make a map of static objects entertaining and interesting. I’ve learned that the points on a map don’t need to move to tell a compelling story; instead, the blanks just need to be filled-in.
*Christine began with a focus on urban farming — and, through her research, eventually saw the agricultural potential for repurposed “gutterspaces” and other unclaimed slivers of land. Her research on rooftop farms also revealed an additional challenge in mapping these sites, which helped her to identify her major cartographic challenge:
When I first began mapping rooftop farms, one of my first questions was whether they would be visible from a satellite image. Lo and behold, right there on the trapezoid roof below are the neatly planted rows of the Brooklyn Grange located at 37-18 Northern Blvd in LIC, Queens. From this height, the produce looks more like mold than kale, but I still gasped when it came into view. My attempt to zoom in as much as possible to see a recognizable vegetable warped me into Google Street View and I was left with the drab facade of the Standard Motor Products building. Headlines and conversation around rooftop farming often asks one to “look up”. However, a walking tour of rooftop farms would be quite boring without scaling the wall or an elevator ride. As my project progresses, the tension between these two views has been just asking for a cartographic argument. Somehow the project has found it’s way into the gutter (with the mapping of gutterspaces) and then high up above where it is more accurate to “look down”. At both extremes, the scale of real estate and the contours of space take on mere shapes. Then, there is navigating everything in between.
Here, Winnicott’s question, ‘Did you find that in the world or did you make it up?’ denotes an irrelevant distinction. More important is how the map permits a kind of excavation (downward) and extension (outward) to expose, reveal and construct latent possibilities within a greater milieu.
After plotting points on URT, I was waiting for that invisible layer to reveal itself. Adding Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates and gutterspaces to my map was nudging me closer to latent possibilites that had yet to be excavated, but I did not know what I was looking for and I wanted to find it. That is not to say I lacked things to map that were visible. The process of mapping felt as if there was no beginning or end, ‘but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and overspills.’ Multiple entryways and exits gave the process dimension. The project had a life of its own.
[U]nlike the graphic arts, drawing or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detatchable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entranceways and exits and its own lines of flight.
To which she responds:
This is my last semester in the Media Studies program and I didn’t realize it completely, but all semester, I was trying to create a map that I could take with me. Each point created a line with its own “line of flight.” In some ways, I wanted [Lewis] Carroll’s map that was impossible to unfold, instead of understanding that “…mapping unfolds potential; it remakes territory over and over again.”
The first phase of my project reveals the close network of mostly Fluxus artists (1960-) that helped to gentrify SoHo. And the second and final phase of my project examines the New York School (1940-1960) of artists. After completing the first phase of my project, I realized that it in order to fully understand the gentrification of lower Manhattan, I had to explore the cultural and political climate of the 1940s and 1950s in New York. My project is an examination of how New York’s art world of the 40’s, 50s, 60s and 70s transformed downtown Manhattan from wastelands to a culturally rich neighborhood full of high-end lofts, fashionable boutiques, trendy restaurants and galleries. My project also examines how the art that was created during the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s was a direct reflection of the social and environmental factors of New York’s deteriorating urban landscape, full of abandoned buildings, and the culture of poverty and neglect in lower Manhattan.
Danielle revisited the mapping strategies she used in the first phase of her project:
I realized my strength from last [year] was my ability to reveal a very tight-knit community; my weakness was relying too much on images and videos for my data. This semester, I have tried very hard to create concise and informative descriptions, biographies and histories.
expand popular representations and perceptions of ACT UP NY. More specifically, [his] map aims to diversify ACT UP’s recorded historical narrative by telling the story of the Latino Caucus…. In part due to the relative absence of the Latino Caucus story in textbooks and film, [his] sources are archival documents found at the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, as well as recorded conversations with Jimmy Lopez, self-defined ally of the Latino Caucus and ex-employee of the Hispanic AIDS Forum, Ricky Rivera, ex-Latino Caucus member, and through a non-recorded conversations with Jesus Aguais, ex-member and present Executive Director of AID for AIDS.
And here’s Julian, a first-semester Masters student, reflecting on his work over the course of the semester:
It’s hard for me to let go of this project. I expose it now with a little apprehension but also with a lot affect.” After critiquing the few mistakes and gaps he sees in his final project, he writes: “[W]hat I’m choosing to see now, and seeing much more in detail than any other details, is all the humanity and spirituality that the project captures. I think that it manages to accomplish what I had intended from the onset, using digital media to tell a compelling story. That of my subject and that of my own. There is a vulnerability that I have learned in this urban media archaeology methodology(?), and it is something that I will reflect upon throughout the course of my graduate studies.
Louis, inspired by object-oriented philosophy, wanted to examine the life of various animate and inanimate objects in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. His map, “Sights and Sounds of Space-Time” ended up focusing more on the technical and conceptual challenges of mapping the haziness and dynamism of both space and time. He used a variety of creative methods — e.g., “ontographs” and field recordings — to capture the presence of “invisible” forces in the urban landscape.
He offered an eloquent reflection on how the process of mapping these complex ideas not only enhanced his understanding of philosophy, but also encouraged him to reflect on his own own methodology and modes of working:
This is the sort of class I wish I’d taken my first semester at the New School as it forced me, more than any other class, to reflect on methodology itself. I’m sure that if I had taken this class a year and a half ago I would’ve spent a lot of my time in this program making maps. Mapping my research aided me in understanding some of the dense theoretical concepts I’ve been exploring in my “free” time, so in a reflective sense, I am indebted to the project if only because it helped me understand some things…. Through trial-and-error (and error and error and error…), the entire mapping process has indeed been a challenge, but in the most productive sense of the term. In making visible our research (and the research process itself), the “holes” in particular theories become visually evident. Inasmuch as mapping has allowed me to further “understand” some things, it’s also shown me what’s missing… Overall: a most productive experience, and one that will inform future work.
Mert, an international student, wanted to explore how other international students navigate and make sense of the city. Through “my new york,” he followed six students as they led him on a tour of sites that were personally meaningful to them, and asked them to narrate their experience of those sites. One of Mert’s great challenges was sorting through the tremendous amount of audio and video he collected through his research, then formatting this material so it lent itself to presentation on a map. His strategy: using Final Cut Pro as a classification and storage tool.
I created a Final Cut Project for each participant and added the necessary files. I have to create shorter parts from these long files to make them ready to use in my final project. The approach I used is the one I developed through oral history projects and film projects over time.
He then labels each file with terms that identify the primary topics or themes addressed in each interview. “The basic premise of this method was to create a memory-recalling method.”
Miranda’s “Endangered Languages in New York City” mapped speakers and enclaves of endangered languages in New York. While there are about 800 languages spoken with in a 20-mile radius of the five boroughs, her map focuses on the Garifuna, Highland Totonac and Nahuatl languages. Miranda’s project evolved quite dramatically over the course of semester. Her original plan was to map the migration of the languages themselves from their global places of origin to the communities in which they’re currently spoken in NY. But then she realized that “focusing on that topic erases any sense of agency from the speakers of those endangered languages.” So she turned her attention to the individual stories of endangered-languages speakers in the NY metro area, and the social and media networks (particularly radio) that enables them to form language communities.
Robin, in her “New York on the Broadway Stage,” mapped Broadway musicals set in New York City, and how they both reflected the character of particular neighborhoods and deal with issues of social mobility. It was through the process of plotting her records on the map that Robin hit upon the social mobility theme:
It was really only in the last hours of putting this all together that I finally let the map speak for itself…. Once I actually started mapping points, I found the clustering interesting…. I realized that the arguments I had been thinking about existed in these clusterings… They represented a way to talk about how people move upward socially, and what that translates to in terms of actual geography.
Through mapping, she also became aware of ingrained habits in her own work process:
This project really made me hyper-aware of how linearly I work. I like to be able to move up and down on a paper and draw straight lines through my arguments. This map really challenged that habit of mine and forced me to look a harder into what I was doing and how I was doing it.
She had a break-through earlier in the semester that set her on this path of self-reflection:
I stayed a bit late after class today helping a classmate navigate URT, and I realized that I LOVE DATABASES…. I was incredibly nervous about this project before I really got my hands on URT. I was ready to change my topic, abandon all hope, ect., but once I started plugging away on URT everything fell into place. During the paper-prototyping class, I was working with all my data as one layer, but after speaking with Rory he pointed out that I could very easily pull-apart that data and create a second layer; that second layer made all the difference. I could see the form of my map, how the data would fall into place, and where the holes in my data were. Now the task is getting the information to fill those holes, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable letting the map inform me rather than trying to force things into the map.
Shiran lives near the Meatpacking District and wanted to better understand its rapid and dramatic transformation. In order to do so, she needed to explore the recent history of the neighborhood. Her “The Meatpacking District: From Raw to Well Done” required that she do some archival research and conduct some fieldwork, which involved interviewing a few locals and documenting changes in the area. She comments on the research experience:
Walking around the Meatpacking District, looking for materials, people and testimonials was a really unique experience. I really enjoyed looking for ideas and arguments on the street, not in articles. Taking photos and expressing ideas while using visual aids was one of the greatest aspects of this research. I love how instead of just saying something, I can express it using a picture. But what I loved the most, without a doubt, was walking around the NYPL archives and bookshelves, looking for pictures, books, articles or whatever else I can find. It was great going through the heavy, old folders (including entire folders full of photos of meat!), looking for photos I can use.
She also echoed a sentiment expressed by many of her classmates, about the fact that her map never felt “done,” that there’s potential for infinite expansion:
I think that since URT is such a great, unique platform, all of us could probably add more layers, records and arguments. I was planning to create different layers than the ones I ended up creating, before I realized that my main source of information will be archival articles and not traditional academic books. But the flexibility and rhythm of this great project took me to different place, which was great! …[T]his time it was much more about the process….
Last week in my Urban Media Archaeology class we welcomed two of my former students, who shared with us their fantastic mapping projects from semesters past. There was so much interest in their work — which elicited lots of questions — that we didn’t leave (okay, I didn’t leave) enough time to discuss our readings for the week, which focused on Media Archaeology. To atone for my poor time management, I put together a compilation of quotations from various sources that distill some of the main themes in Media Archaeology. I thought I’d share these notes here, too [and here it is in pdf format].
INCITED BY RISE OF ‘NEW’ MEDIA
Impetus for Zielinski’s book: 1990s: “The shifts, which had become standard practice, were judged to be a revolution, entirely comparable in significance to the Industrial Revolution. Hailed as the beginning of the information society and new economy… Every last digital phenomenon and data network was celebrated as a brilliant and dramatic innovation” (Zielinski 8) ____20th c fascination with “all things digital” – “The twenty-first century will not have the same craving for media…they will be a part of everyday life….Thus it is all the more urgent to undertake field research on the constellations that obtained before media became established as a general phenomenon…” (Zielinski 33)
“studies of new media often share a disregard for the past… The new media have been treated as an all-encompassing and ‘timeless’ realm that can be explained from within.” – yet “Numerous studies and collections addressing the media’s past(s) in relation to their present have appeared in recent years…. Still, one cannot avoid noticing how little attention has often been devoted to defining and discussing methods and approaches” (Huhtamo & Parikka 1)
Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Giedion, Ernst Robert Curtius, Dolf Sternberger, Aby Warburg, Marshall McLuhan, recent “debate on new historicism” (2) – “Theories of cultural materialism, discourse analysis, notions of nonlinear temporalities, theories of gender, postcolonial studies, visual and media anthropology, and philosophies of neo-nomadism all belong to the mix” (Huhtamo & Parikka 2)
“When classifications of media archaeology have been attempted, a binary division has usually been drawn between the socially and culturally oriented Anglo-American studies and the techno-hardware approach of German scholars, who have taken their cue from Friedrich Kittler’s synthesis of Foucault, information theory, media history, and McLuhan’s emphasis on the medium as the message. ____One way of explaining this division is to see it as a consequence of different readings of Foucault. We find quite different readings of Foucault in the German variant of media archaeology, which was strongly influenced by Kittler’s Aufschreibeststeme 1800/1900 (1985)…
“The old questions of the traditional analysis (What link should be made between disparate events? How can a causal succession be established between them? What continuity or overall significance do they possess? Is it possible to define a totality, or must one / be content with reconstituting connexions?) are now being replaced by questions of another type: which strata should be isolated from others? What types of series should be established? What criteria of periodization should be adopted for each of them?What system of relations (hierarchy, dominance, stratification, univocal determination, circular causality) may be established between them? What series of series may be established? And in what large-scale chronological table may distinct series of events be determined?” (Foucault 3-4)
“how is one to specify the different concepts that enable us to conceive of discontinuity (threshold, rupture, break, mutation, transformation)? By what criteria is one to isolate the unities with which one is dealing; what is a science? What is an oeuvre? What is a theory? What is a concept? What is a text?’ (Foucault 5)
Kittler argued for the need to adjust Foucault’s emphasis on the predominance of words and libraries to more media-specific ways of understanding culture. According to him, the problem was that ‘discourse analysis ignores the fact that the factual condition is no simple methodological example but is in each case a techno-historical event.’ To be able to understand media technologies from the typewriter to the cinema and on to digital networks an coding paradigms, one must take their particular material nature into consideration – an idea Kittler’s followers like Wolfgang Ernst have adopted for their own work” (8) – Michael Wetzel – “…Kittler has denied any affiliation with the notion of media archaeology” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)
“The Anglo-American tradition has valorized Foucault as a thinker who emphasized the role of discourses as the loci where knowledge is tied with cultural and social power. Material bodies, events, and institutions are all conditioned by discursive formations. The effects of ‘hard’ technology are considered secondary to immaterial forces that differentiate and mediate their uses.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)
Anglo-American media archaeologists – “received impulses from the new historicism” – “new cultural history” – “H. Aram Veeser aptly summarized (new historicism’s) ‘key assumptions’ by stating ‘1) that every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices; 2) that every act of unmasking, critique, and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practices it exposes; 3) that literary and non-literary ‘texts’ circulate inseparably; 4) that no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths or expresses inalterable human nature; 5) finally…that a critical method and a language adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)
“The German tradition has been claimed to emphasize the role of technology as a primum mobile, which has led to accusations about technological determinism, whereas Anglo-American scholars often assume that technology gets its meanings from preexisting discursive contexts within which it is introduced.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 8)
NEW WAY OF THINKING ABOUT HISTORY
Discarding the Linear Arrow of Progress
“linear successions, which for so long had been the object of research, have given way to discoveries in depth.” (Foucault 3)
“one thing above all others is refined / and expanded: the idea of inexorable, quasi-natural, technical progress…absolute necessity for simple technical artifacts to develop into complex technological systems, or the continual perfecting of the illusionizing potential of media. In essence, such genealogies are comforting fables about a bright future” (2-3) – “The notion of continuous progress from lower to higher, from simple to complex, must be abandoned, together with all the images, metaphors, and iconography that have been – and still are – used to describe progress. Tree structures, steps and stairs, ladders, or cones with the point facing downwards…are, from a paleontological point of view, misleading and should therefore be discarded” (Zielinski 5)
“What is it that holds the approaches and interest of the media archaeologists / together, justifying the term? Discontent with ‘canonized’ narratives of media culture and history may be the clearest common driving force” (Huhtamo & Parikka 2-3) – see Zielinski’s Variantologies
“a way of studying recurring cyclical phenomena that (re)appear and disappear and reappear over and over again in media history, somehow seeming to transcend specific historical contexts” (Huhtamo 1997: 222)
Looking at the Margins and Layers
“construction of linear histories runs the risk of leaving important statements, objects, and networks of power in neglected margins” (Parikka & Ernst)
“emphasis is shifting into treating history as a multi-layered construct, a dynamic stream of relationships” (Huhtamo 1997: 221)
Relating the New and the Old
“For…Geert Lovink, media archaeology is by nature a ‘discipline’ of reading against the grain, ‘a hermeneutic reading of the “new” against the grain of the past, rather than telling of the histories of technologies from past to present.’” – “Media archaeologists have challenged the rejection of history by modern media culture and theory alike by pointing out hitherto unnoticed continuities and ruptures. As a consequence, the area for media studies has been pushed back by centuries and extended beyond the Western world. On the basis of their discoveries, media archaeologists have begun to construct alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their ‘perfection.’ Dead ends, losers, and inventions that never made it into a material product have important stories to tell.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 3)
“…we will need a different perspective from that which is only able to seek the old in the new. In the latter perspective, history is the promise of continuity and a celebration of the continual march of progress in the name of humankind. Everything has always been around, only in a less elaborate form; one needs only to look. Past centuries were there only to polish and perfect the great archaic ideas….Now, if we deliberative later the emphasis, turn it around, and experiment, the result is worthwhile: do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old” (Zielinski 3)
question obsolescence: “If we define obsolescence as something that has fallen out of fashion or has become unwanted, unusable, or outside the mainstream then this definition relies on the constitutive mainstream itself” – “key logic of capitalist production” (Parikka & Hertz)
“My quest in researching the deep time of media constellations is not a contemplative retrospective nor an invitation to cultural pessimists to indulge in nostalgia” (Zielinski 10)
NEW METHODS FOR ‘WRITING’ HISTORY
Finding Foucault’s Ruptures, As Well as the Clichéd
“For the anarchaeological approach, taking account of the specific character of media with regard to time has two important consequences. [First,] The field of study cannot encompass the entire process of development; exploring different historical epochs has the aim of allowing qualitative turning points within the development process to emerge clearly. The historical windows that I have selected should be understood as attractive foci, where possible directions for development were tried out and paradigm shifts took place” (31) – 2: “a heightened alertness to ideas, concepts, and events that can potentially enrich our notions for developing the time arts….They appear in the guise of shifts” (Zielinski 32)
“Still, amid all the variety, there is a need to define approaches and perhaps even to crystallize them into ‘methods,’ at least in a local and tactical sense” (14) – Erkki Huhtamo’s “effort to apply the idea of topos”; “The topos approach eschews ‘the new’…emphasizes the clichéd, the commonplace, and ‘the tired’… Identifying new ways in which media culture relies on the already known is just as essential as determining how it embodies and promotes the never before seen. In fact, these two aspects are connected with each other; the new is ‘dressed up’ in formulas that may be hundreds of years old, while the old may provide ‘molds’ for cultural innovations and reorientations” (14) – “the topos approach helps to detect novelties, innovations, and media-cultural ruptures as well” (Huhtamo & Parikka 14)
Foucauldian Archaeology (Discourse Analysis), Minus the Discourse
“Media Archaeology, indebted to the German scholar Friedrich Kittler, as well as the French Michel Foucault and the Canadian Marshall McLuhan, excavates the technological conditions of the sayable and thinkable and strongly critiques narrative media history. As Wolfgang Ernst explains, ‘media archaeology describes the non-discursive practices specified in the elements of the techno-cultural archive. Media archaeology is confronted with Cartesian objects, which are mathematisable things…’ However, if cultural studies has been criticized for not engaged technology rigorously, media archaeologists often appear as ‘hardware-maniac, assembler-devoted and anti-interface ascetics, fixed to a (military) history of media without regard to the present media culture.’ They often seem blind to content and user practices.” (Chun 4)
Rummaging Through Archives
“Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations more fluidly between disciplines, although it does not have a permanent home within any of them. “Such ‘nomadicism,’ rather than being a hindrance, may in fact match its goals and working methods, allowing it to roam across the landscape of the humanities and social sciences and occasionally to leap into the arts.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 3)
Examining False Starts, History’s Losers
“Registering false starts, seemingly ephemeral phenomena and anecdotes about media can sometimes be more revealing than tracing the fates of machines that were patented, industrially fabricated and widely distributed in the society – let along the lives of their creators – if our focus in on the meanings that emerge through the social practices related to the use of technology” (Huhtamo 1997: 223)
“mobilizing histories and devices that have been sidelined during the construction of totalizing histories of popular forms of communication” – “lost traces of media technologies” – “’dead’ media technologies and idiosyncratic developments reveal important themes, structures, and links in the history of communication that would normally be occluded by more obvious narratives. This includes tracing irregular developments and unconventional genealogies of present-day communication technologies” (Parikka & Hertz)
“…media archaeology (1) as a ‘history of losers,’ or what linear history of media ‘forget’; as a multilayered resonance with new film history and the multiple connections and modalities of media, (3) as recurring themes (Huhtamo, Bolter, Grusin) (Parikka & Hertz)
“The mere rediscovery of the forgotten, the establishment of oddball paleontologies, of idiosyncratic genealogies, uncertain lineages, the excavation of antique technologies or images, the account of erratic technical developments, are, in themselves, insufficient to the building of a coherent discursive methodology” (Druckery ix)
“danger is often marginalia for its own sake, a curiosity cabinet way of doing media history” (Parikka & Hertz)
FOCUS ON MATERIALITY
“Drawing on Foucault and Kittler, Wolfgang Ernst has suggested that media should be primarily researched as nonsignifying channels. The fact of mediation should be considered before any idea of hermeneutic meaning. The phenomenological content of communication is too often mistaken for the essence of media. For Ernst, media archaeology focuses on the agency of the machine, the ways in which technical media themselves contract time and space. See Wolfgang Ernst, “Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines,” Art History 28 (November 2005): 582 – 603” (Huhtamo & Parikka p. 18, note 36)
“What I want to use from Foucault is a certain neomaterialist mode of cultural analysis that comes up with approaches that touch on the singularity of the material assemblages, of which technology is one component. In other words, specificity and singularity should be some of the key ‘aims’ of a media archaeological excavation” (Parikka & Hertz)
“…the question of singularity and specificity of media in its material qualities for expression is as much a political as an aesthetic question because it points towards thinking of media as potentials for action; what can a medium do? What are its potentials?” (Parikka & Hertz)
Foucault’s dispositif: “What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.” (Foucault, Confessions)
“Everyday consumer media,…curating practices, representational techniques, and spatial modes of organizing media can borrow heavily from history…rewiring of some of the connections of the past and the present, in order to come up with something new” (Parikka & Hertz)
Media Archaeology has inspired imaginary media, hardware hacking, circuit bending, “operative diagrammatics”
“How can we write such histories of media not historically but more ‘media artistically,’ that is, taking into account the materialities through which history is articulated, not relying on written narrative as the only way of producing historical, temporal knowledge?” (Parikka & Hertz)
“adopting and investigating temporal processes that are either too quick or too slow for the human senses?” (Parikka & Hertz)
“media archaeology needs to be executed, not constructed as a narrative” (Parikka & Hertz)
“Media archaeology has succeeded in establishing itself as a heterogeneous set of theories and methods that investigate media history through its alternative roots, its forgotten paths, and neglected ideas and machines that still are useful when reflecting the supposed newness of digital culture. The definitions have ranged from emphasising the recurring nature of media cultural discourses (Huhtamo) to media archaeology as an-archaeology, or variantology (Zielinski) which in its excavation of the deep time layers of the way we sense and use our media always tries to find an alternative route to dismantle the fallacy of linear development.
Furthermore, I see media archaeology as a history-theory enterprise, in which temporal excavation of media functions as a theoretical force as well; a reading of old media and new media in parallel lines. Media archaeology is decisively non-linear, and rigorously theoretical in its media historical interest of knowledge. In a Benjaminian vein, it abandons historicism when by it is meant the idea that the past is given and out there waiting for us to find it; instead, it believes in the radical assembling of history, and histories in the plural, but so that it is not only a subset of cultural historical writing. Instead, media archaeology needs to insist both on the material nature of its enterprise – that media are always articulated in material, also in non-narrative frameworks whether technical media such as phonographs, or algorithmic such as databases and software networks – and that the work of assembling temporal mediations takes place in an increasingly varied and distributed network of institutions, practices and technological platforms. Indeed, what media archaeology investigates are also the practical rewirings of time, as is done in media artistic and creative practice work, through archives digital and spatial, as well as DIY and circuit bending which recycle, and remix obsolete technology as much as they investigate how technology is the framework for temporality for us.
Media archaeology takes place in artistic labs, laboratories where hardware and software are hacked and opened, but as much in conceptual labs for experimenting with concepts and ideas.” [via Media Cartographies]
ARCHAEOLOGY AS URBAN ARCHIVAL METHOD
“A vital theme in Benjamin’s cityscapes is his critique of the city as the locus of an illusory and deceptive vision of the past. False history, myth, is to be liquidated through the revelation and representation of a different, hidden past. This in turn is to be achieved by adherence to a particular set of critical and redemptive historiographic principles…:
Archaeological: an approach concerned with the salvation and preservation of the objects and traces of the past that modern society threatens to destroy.
Memorial: Benjamin exhorts the Critical Theorist to oppose the modern propensity for amnesia, to remember those whose struggles and sufferings in the past would otherwise be forgotten.
Dialectical: Benjamin develops his conception of the dialectical image, the momentary mutual recognition and illumination of past and present.” (Gilloch 13)
“History itself is a construction of the present age and must always be read backwards from the ruins which persist in the here and now.” (Gilloch 14)
“Benjamin is engaged in an archaeological excavation of the city to salvage its fragments so that they can be refunctioned.” (Gilloch 18)
“Urban archaeology…. The notion of repeated excursions into the same spaces and moments…” (70) – “’ It is the medium of the past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging…’ (OWS, p. 314)” – “The task of the archaeologist is to dig beneath the surface of the modern city and the modern sensibility it engenders, to unearth the evidence of past life and the shocks that have become lodged in the depths of the unconscious.” (Gilloch 70)
* * * *
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Introduction: “Did Somebody Say New Media?” In Wendy Hui Kyong Chun & Thomas Keenan, Eds., New Media Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (NY: Routledge, 2006): 1-10.
Timothy Druckery, Foreword to Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): vii-xi.
Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972).
Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh” In Colin Gordon, Ed., Power Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (Pantheon, 1980): 194-228.
Erkki Huhtamo, From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd: Notes Toward an Archaeology of the Media” Leonardo 30:3 (1997): 221-4.
Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, “Introduction: An Archaeology of Media Archaeology” In Ibid., Eds., Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011).
Friedrich A. Kittler, “The City is a Medium,” New Literary History 27:4 (1996): 717-729.
Jussi Parikka, Interview with Garnet Hertz, “Archaeologies of Media Art” CTheory (April 1, 2010).
Vyjayanthi Rao, “Embracing Urbanism: The City as Archive,” New Literary History 40:2 (Spring 2009): 371-383.
Kazys Varnelis, “Centripetal City,” Cabinet 17 (Spring 2004/2005): 27-33.
Siegfried Zielinski, “Introduction: The Idea of a Deep Time of the Media” In Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): 1-11.
I’m really happy with how both of my fall classes — Archives, Libraries & Databasesand Urban Media Archaeology — shaped up this semester. Despite the fact that I started planning for both a couple months ago, I was only recently able to confirm a few additional special events for UMA. In addition to our “walking tour of the Internet” with Andrew Blum; our visit with two former UMA students, who’ll be sharing with us their fantastic projects; our pecha kucha with Anne Balsamo, Brian McGrath, and unnamed others serving as our guest critics, we’ll also have…
This was the Weekend of Websites! Last night I finished my second course site for the semester — this time for Urban Media Archaeology, which I’m teaching (with my trusty sidekick Rory) for the third semester. I have yet to work out a few details, including confirming our guest speaker for our “critical cartography” lesson (I’ve been in conversation with someone fantastic, but we haven’t yet sealed the deal) and our pecha kucha critics — but, for the most part, everything’s in place!
In a reprise of his 2010 meeting with us, Andrew Blum‘s taking us on another “walking tour of the Internet” — but this time, because the class meets a bit later at night than before, Andrew wants to make it “spooky.” I’m excited to see what that means. We also have two former students joining us to talk about their past projects, on independent bookstores and key sites in the Fluxus movement. And as usual, we’ll talk about media archaeology, “multimodal scholarship,” archival research, the history and politics of mapping, software development, data modeling, and modes of multimedia argumentation; the students will do weekly map critiques and a group-critique of a selection of prominent Digital Humanities projects; and we’ll have a mid-semester pecha kucha. Should be fun, as usual! (knock on wood)
Congratulations to Alex Campolo, one of my thesis advisees, who’s won one of our school’s Distinguished Thesis Awards! His project, “Tape, Theory, and the Market: An Archaeology of the Stock Ticker,” is a fantastic analysis of how the stock ticker embodied and gave shape to particular economic models and notions of temporality that, in some ways, prefaced our contemporary “Big Data” culture. Here’s Alex’s abstract:
This paper takes a media-archaeological approach to the stock ticker that contextualizes its invention within larger systems of market exchange. With an eye toward historical discontinuity, I describe the medium’s process of abstraction and standardization of prices, and argue that the adoption of the stock ticker fundamentally altered older, interactional conceptions of markets. By creating a dynamic of temporal continuity, the ticker brought into existence new mental and social models of finance. I trace the influence of the material medium on formal economic theory, notably theories of efficient markets. I also use archival works to historicize and offer a speculative genealogy for recently developed analytical categories in the sociology of finance, most notably postsocial market relationships. Finally, I map these developments on a historical case study, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. This final step explores how price information is constructed and circulated among other historical discourses.
Congratulations, too, to both Hethre Contant and Courtney Krantz — both former students — who also earned Distinguished Thesis Awards for “Radio Epiphanies of The Weimar Republic” (written thesis) and “Fragments of an Unabridged Fabrica” (production thesis), respectively.
I’m also happy to say that one of my former thesis advisees, Ben Mendelsohn, who won last year’s Distinguished Thesis Award, has been awarded the LeBoff Fellowship to start his doctoral studies at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication!
In my previous post I recapped the first day and a half’s presentations at last weekend’s Network Archaeology conference. Now I’ll try to move a bit more quickly through the latter day-and-a-half. That last post took me a ridiculously long time; this one’s going to have to be more condensed.
It was about this time that I started to get a bit nervous about my own upcoming talk, so my note-taking was suspended until after my panel.
Later that evening we had Jussi Parikka’s provocative keynote. I’m afraid if I were to try to crystallize his argument, I wouldn’t do it justice. But Jussi offered several important take-away concepts and messages that resonated throughout the rest of the weekend’s conversations, so I’ll list some of those instead:
The concept of micro-temporality — recognizing that seemingly instantaneous processes are actually comprised of a series of micro-temporal steps, e.g., switching, batch-processing, real-time systems
Acknowledging a non-human temporality, a “machine time”
Likewise, spatiality/addressing can be machine-driven. Systems can be self-learning; a system can “teach itself where to go, how to be routed.” There needn’t be any central control, “just local routing knowledge to go where it needs to go.”
Networks are “not about flow, but about managing bursts.”
“Publicness has a special relation to time, to machine time,” and is “understood through the switch”; packet-switching involves a form of shared time, determining who speaks, and when.
The concept of critical engineering (which some attendees, like Darren Wershler, suggested that we subject to its own critique)
The day closed with some great performances and screenings, including my former thesis student Ben Mendelsohn’s screening of his wonderful and widely circulated short documentary, Bundled, Buried and Behind Closed Doors, and Chris Cuellar’s totally awesome live video performance examining computer vision and first-person films.
The highlight of the conference for me was Lisa Gitelman’s “Network Returns” keynote. Lisa’s work has been inspirational to me for years, and I’m always tremendously excited by the creativity of her scholarship. She demonstrates how the tiniest media artifacts — slips of paper, staples, microscopic inscriptions — offer hugely important clues into the way we create, organize, and store information, and how we construct knowledge. Her talk was divided into two parts: one about self-addressing in telegraphy, and the second about the utility pole as neighborhood information hub.
She discussed the 19th-century practice of “having [one’s] name sent” via telegraph as a novelty; people would pay a few cents to have their names sent and returned — a practice that, Lisa says, helped to “make sense of the [new] process” of telegraphy by means of “interpellation.” Interestingly, first and last names had only recently become stable identifiers; before taxation, the draft, credit-reporting bureaus and other bureaucratic institutions required that people have reliable identifiers, there was a great deal of variability in the spelling of their names (she pointed out that, until the late 19th century (?), passport applications made a point of specifying that applicants were to spell their names the same way all throughout the application!). It’s important to consider that proper names held a particular place in telegraphy; because operators had learned to receive messages sonically, and because codes had been developed for routinizing (and abbreviating) messages sent in Morse code, proper names were the only words that had to be spelled out. Self-addressing finds recent-historical and modern-day parallels in the self-addressed, stamped envelope and in DNS debates.
The second part of Lisa’s talk, which made me giddily happy, was about staple-ridden telephone poles. The pole, Lisa said, is “like a tree undone”; she draws parallels between it and the railroad tie, both creosote-treated wooden supports for 19th-century infrastructure. When I see one of these pierced poles, I have to stop and pay my respects. Despite the pockmarks and weathering, they have an air of nobility and worldliness. They’ve sacrificed themselves to perform a public service: it’s here where people post their most intimate public notices, complete with personal contact info — announcements about lost dogs, yard sales, piano lessons (there’s also of course a bunch of crap about escort services and “work from home” marketing shams). They ride the line of legality; posting leaflets is technically illegal, so each staple represents a violation, another blemish in the wood. Bare staples, meanwhile, “trouble the relationship between storage and transmission”; they remind us that the notices posted here are ephemera; they aren’t meant to last. The poles also serve as a conceptual hinge between multiple scales: at the top, where the phone lines and electric wires are draped, the pole represents our connection to global grids of power and communication; but on the ground, at staple-height, they root us in the local. What a gorgeous metaphor — and what a fantastic research subject.
After that, Darren Wershler gave an awesome, and awesomely entertaining, talk on comic book scans, which raised questions regarding the changing materiality of comics themselves; the politics of digital formats (cbr, cbz); and “specific modes of social organization, attribution, and authorship, etc. I was also happy to hear Wershler (who wrote a great book about typewriting) take to task the Manovich model of studying such huge scanned repositories; the focus on mathematical analysis of visual qualities both contributes to “data mystification” and ignores the highly significant material properties of these objects (even in digital form!). Wershler’s presentation reminded me of the work of another of my past thesis advisees; in 2011 Andrew Nealon finished a great thesis on comic subcultures’ agreements on conventions and values in digital reproduction.
Alan Liu had the last word. He spoke first about the Agrippa Files; I won’t recount his comments here, fascinating though they were, since he’s obviously given some version of this talk before. I will, however, outline his recommendations for developing new methods — for analysis, for preservation, etc. — that treat networks as something other than an abstraction; and new techniques for preserving networks as networks:
Treat individual works of media as proto- or micro-networks: “it’s not the case that first there are individual works which are then networked.”
Preserve not a work, but a “swarm architecture”
Preserve the relationships among works
Create metadata standards to accommodate structural maps of media
Treat micro-networks of individual works as part of a macro-network.
Our familiar concepts of the library and archive “collection” are obsolete, as are “finding aids,” shelving, etc.
We rarely attend to relationships among works, or with users, or between holdings past and present
We need to shift the paradigm of the library to data provenance and data lineage
Let’s see what we can learn from open archival information systems, data lineage, actor-network theory, bioinformatics, network archaeology
Treat the past as a network: we must take up the challenge to produce a network archaeology method that can recode our understanding of what a library can be as a network — which might mean RFID tagging loose items, reconceiving of the library as an Internet of Things.
Treat past and present networks differently: practice network-specific analysis (drawing from Katherine Hayles’ medium-specific analysis) that attends to culturally- and historically-specific network typologies.
Earlier this week I posted the text and images from my talk at last weekend’s Network Archaeology conference at Miami University. There were so many fantastic talks, and I met so many wonderful people, that I thought I should take some time to transcribe some of my notes — if for no other reason than that I probably won’t be able to make sense of these scribbles a few months down the road.
I should say up front that my notes are far from perfect, primarily because I was a far-from-ideal attendee. I arrived in Oxford, OH, without having slept much the previous two nights, and I was pretty much sleepwalking through the first day. I recovered on Friday, but hit another wall on Saturday. I was so exhausted — through no fault of the presenters! — that I had to find a remote classroom where I could take a nice, long nap on the floor (so embarrassing)! Consequently, I missed some good talks.
Even with the impartiality of my notes, I unfortunately don’t have time here to recount everything, so I need to be selective. My lack of commentary on some presentations shouldn’t be interpreted as a tacit statement about their value. I’m simply focusing on those presentation that have most relevance to my own interests.
The first talk for which I have somewhat comprehensible notes is Adrian Johns’s “The Information Defense Industry and the History of Networks,” whose abstract accurately described the content of his presentation. I couldn’t possibly do justice to his overarching argument or attempt to relay his celebrated research on the topic of piracy, some of which he summarized here, so I’ll simply present a few disjointed points that struck me as particularly interesting:
The development of the information defense industry is “not simply a product of a growing network culture”; it has “traced the history of the network” itself — e.g., a “fraternity through guild systems.”
The proprieties of linking creativity and commerce parallel the rise of the concept of piracy, a term that had moral, economic, and political meanings.
Piracy-preventive measures can be either overt (e.g., encryption, photocopy-proof paper), covert (anti-copying codes, regional codes, genetic triggers), or… [I couldn’t transcribe the slide quickly enough]
It’s important to have a “deep” perspective on piracy and “information defense”; the enterprises charged with upholding networks do so “by destabilizing other cultural values” — i.e., you might uphold rights here by compromising privacy there.
Sometimes you “may have to conceded on the social contract in order to uphold rights” — but “where to draw the line?”
Who guards the guards?
Johns declared: “I think radio is the most revolutionary medium.” [Paraphrase] You sit in a studio and speak into a microphone, and you have no idea if anybody’s listening…. You have to develop a new social science to ‘get’ your audience, which in a private system means providing quantitative data for advertisers, and in a public system means demonstrating that you’re serving the public good. (I really need to read Johns’s Death of a Pirate.)
The next morning Liam Young presented a fabulous paper on “the list” (a topic I’m quite fond of). He cited a fantastic quotation from Latour’s “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together”: “In politics as in science, when someone is said to “master’ a question or to ‘dominate’ a subject, you should normally look for the flat surface that enables mastery (a map, a list, a file, a census, the wall of a gallery, a card-index, a repertory); and you will find it.” Young ranged from the ability of lists to prescribe action (we can cite the work of Cornelia Vismann, who describes how lists “prescribe the algorithmic processes of file”) to lists in programming, like LISP’s dynamic data structures which don’t require that data types be prescribed in advance (as opposed to a language like C:, for which “everything is set up in advance by a human agent”; “everything is included”).
Sandra Gabrielle, whom I was delighted to get to know, shared a wonderful paper on newspaper archives, in which she focused on the materiality and politics of preservation. Most digital newspaper databases are scans of microfilm, which itself was often made from bound newspapers and subject to the “vagaries of binding.” Our digital access “remains limited to choices made decades ago,” including choices regarding which papers to microfilm; local papers were often left out. What’s more, the limitations of microfilm were “transferred to digital”: we don’t get color, images are often smeary, etc. In short, the digital record “doesn’t reveal much about the newspaper as a form.” We also have to wonder what type of experience of newspaper-reading is embodied in these various preservation formats. What about the “logics that structure the reading of the newspaper?” The newspaper microfilm reinforces linear reading through scrolling, while we’re free to flip through — to randomly access — a print paper. To sum up, both today’s digital scans and yesterdays’ microfilm were/are “bound by earlier preservation decisions.” Is it appropriate to think of digital scans as surrogates, and the databases themselves as instances of either “remediation” or “transfiguration”?
Pepper Stetler gave a great talk on Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, which we talk about in my Archives/Libraries class. Warburg approaches history as a “network of recurring visual motifs,” and he “felt most comfortable” practicing art history in the form of panels of images (which Stetler compared to Latour’s “immutable mobiles”). He affixed images to these panels using pins and clips; he wanted to keep the relations between images mobile. Stetler suggested that Warburg’s work raises such questions as: how did visual and pictorial expressions originate; what are the conditions under which they’re stored in archives of memory; and what are the laws that govern their formation or reemergence? She regards Warburg’s project as an effort “to prove photography’s mnemonic and archival potential” — and “to think of [Warburg’s] network,” of the Atlas, “as ‘incomplete’ is to assume that Warburg thought the project could be finished.” Such an assumption “ignores the asymptotic nature of networks.” Ultimately Warburg’s project makes us wonder “how much explanatory burden…the visual [can] carry” — and just how much content matters in network analysis (Stelter questions Galloway and Thacker’s suggestion that analyzing content has given way to analyzing network structure).
After Stetler, Rory Solomon gave a brilliant talk on the “media archaeology of ‘the stack'” (full disclosure: he’s my RA and thesis advisee 🙂 If Wolfgang Ernst advocates for examining the “non-discursive” in our media, “How do we locate non-discursive objects for analysis — especially in software?” Rory talked us through the history of various logical structures in the history of computing; conditional branching and if/then structures, the function call stack and its push/pop operations, the principle of “last in, first out,” etc. He looked at “the stack” — the application stack, the network stack — as a structural and intellectual model that can help us understand computing operations, and the interdependency of different “levels” of technical systems. We see that higher level systems in the stack are always constrained, always dependent on lower-level systems; “you can do only what the lower-level system allows you to do.” So where, then, do we locate the non-discursive or sub-semantic in these technical systems? Given the interdependency of various levels of the stack, Rory argues that finding any purely non-discursive site is tricky: “each level is simultaneously discursive (to levels below) and non-discursive (to levels above).”
Richard John then presented a whirlwind of a keynote on “network effects” in telecom history. I had the pleasure of riding from the airport with John and was immensely impressed, both then and during his talk, by his encyclopedic knowledge of telecommunication history and his embodiment of the historian’s historian. As in his book, Network Nation, John emphasized here that understanding network history requires that we also understand the roles of business and government. The telegraph and the telephone followed different evolutionary paths; our “presumption that the network has a [single] logic of its own” only serves to “mystify the actual development of historical narrative.” Network building in the formative era of telecom history “followed no singular logic”; decisions were often based on business strategy, and, contrary to popular narratives, only rarely did they rely on electricity.
My head hurts just from remembering all this material. I need a break.
Last weekend Rory and Ben — two thesis advisees (Ben’s actually NYU PhD-bound) — and I took part in the Network Archaeology conference organized by the fabulous Nicole Starosielski and cris cheek at Miami University in Ohio. It was quite a whirlwind of a weekend — full of genuinely fantastic presentations (I’ll write a recap post in a bit), exciting introductions, and lots of lovely conversations with folks I already know and admire. Rory and Ben both did a bang-up job.
I’m posting below my presentation, which I stupidly called, in keeping with my “lame titles” tradition, “Digging Through Archives and Dirt.” It’s about what media archaeology, especially one concerned with the “deep time” of media, can learn from archaeology-proper and architectural history. This, like all my recent talks, was written between 11pm and 5am — just in time to head to the airport.
This afternoon I’m missing a meeting of the “Post-Hermeneutical” Reading Group at NYU. [SLIDE2] They’re discussing a selection of texts on surveillance, the techno-image, and machine-vision: the way cameras and sensors register the activity of humans, cars, and other objects. [SLIDE3] Meanwhile, Studio-X, a satellite lab of Columbia University’s architecture school, has been organizing a series of lectures and workshops on “smart cities,” all of which make use of these same technologies to increase the efficiency of their urban infrastructures and services. [SLIDE4] And next weekend, the Architectural League of New York is hosting an event to celebrate the release of the ninth and final installment in the Situated Technologies pamphlet series; this issue focuses on “big data” and subjectivity in geo-spatial environments. [SLIDE5] Over the past few years, lots of questions have been raised regarding how new, networked technologies might change the ways our cities are designed and how we live in these “sentient” environments.
While the “sentient city” may be a relatively new phenomenon, the “media city” isn’t. Within my own field, media studies, there is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Walter Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE6] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE7] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE8] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE9] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE10] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE11] the representation of the city in film; and [SLIDE12] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy have begun to address [SLIDE13] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; and [SLIDE14] the politics of screens in public places. [SLIDE15] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, urban design, and denizens’ urban experience.
[SLIDE16] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. [SLIDE17] Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media. [CLICK] Scott McQuire, in his book The Media City, observes that the mediation of urban experience “has been underway at least since the development of technological images in the context of urban ‘modernization’ in the mid-19th century.” He thus acknowledges that the history of urban mediation might stretch before the mid-19th century, yet his, and other media scholars’, relative lack of attention to this earlier period reinforces a filmic and photographic myopia, as well as ocularcentrism. Eric Gordon, in The Urban Spectator, locates the origin of the media city even later than McQuire: [CLICK] “from the hand-held camera at the end of the 19th century to the mobile phone at the end of the 20th, the city has always been a mediated construct.” I argue that that “always” begins well before the late 19th century – that, indeed, as Friedrich Kittler asserts, “The City Is a Medium,” and perhaps it has been since the days of Eridu and Uruk.
Last month I participated in an exciting panel at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference on media infrastructure with Nicole Starosielski, one of our fantastic conference hosts, Lisa Parks, and Jonathan Sterne. There, I argued that we need to look at the [SLIDE18]deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE19] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being. [SLIDE20] Yet the literature in media studies (and architecture, which, in the past five years, has focused a lot of attention on infrastructure) unfortunately doesn’t offer a terribly deep historical perspective. If we were to apply media archaeology – as both a theoretical framework and a methodology – to the study of urban media, I think we could dig much deeper. [CLICK] And I suggest we might want to borrow a few trowels from the archaeologists – that’s archaeologists of the Indiana Jones, rather than Kittlerian, variety.
[SLIDE21] In the introduction to their 2011 media archaeology anthology, Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka propose that “[m]edia archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media-cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way.” Yet I suggest that there’s much to be gained in a study of mediated sites by considering how archaeologists understand excavation – how they dig both metaphorically and literally into physical terrain – and by productively “confusing” media archaeology and archaeology proper. I must admit that most of my insight into the “deep time” of urban media infrastructures has come by means of archaeology and architectural and urban history, which offer helpful theories and methods for dealing with artifacts and architectures. The work of archaeologists Christopher J. Witmore and Michael Shanks has proven especially useful. Both advocate for an appreciation of the role of various media technologies in archaeological practice, and for the the multisensoriality and temporal “entanglement” of the material record.
[SLIDE22] Besides, material media infrastructures constitute a layered landscape that simply lends itself to digging into. Historical networks leave material residues – artifacts like pneumatic tubes, telegraph cables, roads for postal delivery, technologies for the production and dissemination of early print forms – that we can unearth. [SLIDE23] Digging into these layers, we often find that various infrastructures have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths. Through “excavation,” we can assess the lifespans of various media networks and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors. Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete.” [SLIDE24] Various networks also provide material support for one another; architectural historian Kazys Varnelis writes that “[b]ecause of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks, all efforts are made to string optic fibers through water, gas, and sewage ducts; [and] between cities, existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used.”
[SLIDE25] We find that the historical media infrastructures on the “lower strata” of our cities have lain the foundation for our modern-day media (as per the principle of “path dependency”), but they’re also often very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. This intermingling of temporalities fits archaeologist Christopher Witmore’s definition of “archaeological time”: “the entanglement, the intermingling, the chiasm of pasts and presents.” Our infrastructural cities are a “folded, nonlinear temporal net,” a “complex aggregate mixture of disparate eras, events, achievements which have a durable trace.”
[SLIDE26] Witmore argues that the model of “stratification” is particularly problematic because it “wraps a block of linear temporality up into periods placed into neatly stacked boxes,” separated by “arbitrary divisions.” He proposes genealogy as “one means of breaking up such stratification…. Radical revolutions are not the only explanation for the emergence of new collectives, new hybrids,” he says; “more subtle genealogical shifts, more complex networks of relation are also to be traced behind such processes.” [SLIDE27] He suggests that the metaphor of the palimpsest presents similar conceptual problems: historical layers aren’t simply “written, erased, and rewritten”; instead, there are plenty of “points of connection, proximity and action between various pasts.”
This revision of “revolution”-based history requires that we rethink how the archaeological object – whether an ancient urn or a network of fiber optic cable – is conceived. [SLIDE28] Seemingly “modern” things, Witmore says, are “really [jus]
gatherings of achievements from various times and numerous places.” [SLIDE29] He even draws parallels to the work of Zielinski and Kittler, and uses the daguerreotype, Babbage’s analytical engine, and the Jacquard loom as examples.
Witmore is one of several archaeologists who are struck by the [SLIDE30] “proliferation of ‘archaeologies’ in recent years”: “media archaeologists to archaeologists of knowledge or science, from archaeologists digging around in government archives to excavators of discourse.” In a prospectus for a new book about archaeology amidst the recent “turn to things,” Witmore and three archaeologist colleagues acknowledge that “this proliferation is not just metaphorical,” and they wonder: “Why are archaeologists [themselves] not involved? What could archaeology contribute to these trans-disciplinary discussions…?”
[SLIDE31]In the time that remains, I’ll suggest how we might draw on the work of archaeologists-proper (and, ideally, ultimately collaborate with them) in understanding a dimension of the “media city” that wouldn’t seem to lend itself easily to “excavation.” I’m referring to the “sonic city” – the city of radio waves and public address and everyday conversation. How does one dig into a form of mediation that seemingly has no physical form? How might we ascertain the ways in which radio and sound waves have interacted with, and even shaped, the material city? To write this history, we have to draw on the work of archaeologists and architectural historians (who, I might add, have done some wonderful work on the relationships between urban form and writing technologies and chirographic networks), as well as historians of science and the senses.
How might ancient cities have provided material infrastructures for speech – for “oral culture”? Cities have been places of public address and conversation, and acoustic considerations have informed their design and construction, for millennia.[SLIDE32] “Plato limited the size of his ideal city to the number of citizens who might be addressed by a single voice,” and as Lewis Mumford reminds us, “Mesopotamian cities had an assembly drum, just as medieval cities used a bell in a church tower to call their citizens together.” Witmore acknowledges that, in recent years, archaeologists have begun to pay more attention to acoustics – from the sounds produced in ancient sites by historical musical instruments or tools, to the acoustic properties of various places. [SLIDE33] Some call this sub-field archaeoacoustics. Witmore writes: “Considerations of the acoustic qualities of various locales in the ancient Athenian Agora, for example, might be regarded as of immediate relevance for understanding site-specific issues of performance in Ancient Greece (speech, oral poetics, drama or even clandestine gossip).”
[SLIDE34] In 1872 archaeologists found in the Roman Forum two marble reliefs representing an emperor – either Trajan or Hadrian – standing on the Forum’s Rostra Augusti (speaker’s platform), delivering a public address. Inspired by such finds, architectural historian Diane Favro and classicist Christopher Johanson are creating digital models of the Forum to understand how the space accommodated funeral processions. [SLIDE35] With further research, they’re attempting to model and understand how the Forum functioned acoustically as a space for speech: “How did accompanying sounds reinforce the activities?… Where did spectators stand?… What route to the forum was taken by participants?” (15). In short, they want to understand in part how the material landscape functioned as an “infrastructure” for oral communication networks.
Jump forward a few thousand years, to an age when print was widely available – in fact, as David Henkins writes in City Reading, it was plastered all over the city – and the mechanically reproduced image was gaining in popularity. Even then, in the mid-19th century, the city was a place of public address. [SLIDE36] Architectural historian Joanna Merwood-Salisbury examines how the design of New York’s Union Square has been modified repeatedly to either accommodate or contain voices of protest. Samuel Ruggles, one of the Square’s developers, claimed in 1864 that the square was “deliberately designed to support participatory democracy. The triangular parcels of land left over by the imposition of the ellipse on the grid were expressly made for ‘the assemblage of large masses of our citizens in public meetings.’” [SLIDE37] “The recent use of the square for huge rallies in support of the Union” showed the Square to be “a theater adequate to the utterance of the national voice.” Through its continual renovation, planners aimed to use the square as an infrastructure to create “active and informed citizens as well as foster social harmony,” yet it remained, and remains, a site for radical meetings and rallies (including many that integrate a variety of media: locative technologies, text messages, cloth banners, and, still, the bull-horned or naked human voice).
We might imagine future archaeologists conducting fieldwork in our urban centres in order to understand how our 20th– and 21st– century cities provided infrastructures for the transmission of more modern sonic communications.In their work on archaeological approaches to the contemporary past, Rodney Harrison and John Schofield remind us that “excavating” modern sites will most likely not require “digging,” but, rather, surveying the surface-level landscape – and sometimes even looking up. [SLIDE38] The first radio broadcast centers were in cities – which, ironically, presented many material barriers to a radio signal. Because signal strength and the location of stations’ transmitters maximized their broadcasting range, allowing them to either penetrate or circumvent tall buildings, many early broadcasts were transmitted from their cities’ highest points – the top floors of their tallest buildings, which were occasionally hotel rooms. Radio stations in New York were broadcasting from the Metropolitan Life Building and making use of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings’ antenna spires.
Speaking in 1935 of the New York Police Department’s early adoption of a radio communication system, Chief Engineer Thomas Rochester explained how the city’s mass of tall buildings functioned both as an infrastructure for and an impediment to transmission: “A single 500-watt transmitter station would be hopelessly inadequate for New York because of the absorbing effects of the many tall, steel-framed buildings, elevated railways and bridges, and because of the area to be served. The interference caused by electrical systems and devices adds to the difficulty.”
[SLIDE39] Architectural historian Carlotta Daro acknowledges that new telecommunications technologies gave rise to new infrastructural elements – electricity poles, cables, antennas, transmission towers – “around which cities would be built.” She suggests that the “professional practice of telecommunications engineering was absorbed by modernist architects and urban planners and synthesized as a new kind of technological vision of both town and country.” Lewis Mumford represented one such group of planners – the Regional Planning Association of America. In 1937, he wrote in Architectural Record: [SLIDE40] “The area of potential urban settlement has been vastly increased by the motor car and the airplane; but, the necessity for solid contiguous growth, for the purposes of the intercourse, has in turn been lessened by the telephone and the radio.” These new, liberating technologies – what he called neotechnics – have afforded planners an opportunity to consider alternatives to increasing urban concentration. And he, and the RPAA, of which he was a co-founder and spokesperson, advocated instead for planned decentralization, like what you see here.
What will future archaeologists say of the form of our “radio cities? How will its infrastructures become entangled with those of the “city of speech”? What new sonic media are to come, and how will they embed themselves in our urban landscapes – and integrate with all the sound-making communication technologies that have preceded them? [SLIDE41] Will we need to make space for new infrastructures of sonic warfare? [SLIDE42] How will evolving noise codes – New York’s most recent aims to regulate the sounds of nightclubs, [SLIDE43] ice cream truck jingles, and earbuds – shape zoning practices, which will in turn dictate urban form? [SLIDE44] How will new acoustic engineering strategies, like those under development at Arup Acoustics, allow us to “sound design” entire cities ([SLIDE45] as Arup was commissioned to do in Dongtan, China)? And how will these spaces and networks entwine with those that have been around for a while: [SLIDE46] the spatial networks of formal and informal radio broadcast, [SLIDE47] of religious calls to prayer, [SLIDE47] of the human voice? The city itself is an infrastructure that supports this entanglement of media, old and new. And digging into these material supports for urban communication – picking up spades and digging in the dirt – helps us better understand how these networks emerge, evolve, and integrate, and, in the process, shape the kinds of interactions we’re able to enjoy in our cities, which is where most of us on this planet, and ever-growing numbers of us, live.
I just returned from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston, where I was able to catch up with a few friends I see far too infrequently (Suze!), and finally meet some wonderful folks I had, until recently, known only online (Miriam!). I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on “Teaching the City” with Amy Corbin from Muhlenberg College, Sabine Haenni from Cornell, Brendan Kredell from University of Calgary, Paula Massood from Brooklyn College, and Mary Woods from Cornell. We talked about our various approaches to combining media and urban studies in the classroom, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the classes everyone’s teaching.
And on another day I took part in the “Signal Traffic” panel, on media infrastructure, with Lisa Parks from UC Santa Barbara, Nicole Starosielski from Miami University, and Jonathan Sterne from McGill — all fabulous and inspiring. I’m posting an excerpt from my “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” presentation:
For the past decade, I’ve taught, off and on, a course called [SLIDE2] “Media and Architecture.” It was inspired by my dissertation research on the [SLIDE3] Seattle Public Library – and by my appreciation for the ways that buildings are designed to [SLIDE4] house and provide material support structures for media, and for the ways that architecture itself can function as media. [SLIDES5-9] Over the years, as I’ve revised the syllabus – switching from a chronological to a reverse chronological organization; trying to keep up with new advancements in networked digital technologies and to include more international examples, etc. – I’ve come to realize that, [SLIDE10] the further backwards we moved in time, the fewer and fewer resources I was using from our own fields, media and cinema studies.
There is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE11] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE12] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE13] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE14] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE15] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE16] the representation of the city in film (this is the dominant thread, by far – as is evidenced even at this conference); and [SLIDE17] [SLIDE18][SLIDE19] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars, like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy, have begun to address [SLIDE20] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; [SLIDE21] the politics of screens in public places; and [SLIDE22] the impact of networked digital media on [SLIDE23] urban design and urban experience. [SLIDE24] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, zoning, and urban experience.
[SLIDE25] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media…. [Skip SLIDE26, which corresponds with a discussion of my current research projec] …I argue that we need to look at the [SLIDE27]deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE28] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being… [Skip SLIDES29-31, which, again, correspond with more discussion about my current research project.]
…[SLIDE32] What I’ve been sketching out for you is my current research project, which I’m calling Urban Media Archaeology. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration, as you might imagine, from media archaeology – a materialist, non-teleological approach to historiography. One of the key figures in the field, Erkki Huhtamo, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE33] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” (223). Media archaeology is useful not only for looking at and listening to deep time; it also encourages us to look and listen beyond representation – beyond the portrayal of material spaces in photographs and film, or beyond an augmented reality layered atop physical space. I heed the advice of another media archaeologist, Wolfgang Ernst, to look beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what he calls its “logical structure” and “hardware.” That hardware, in my case, is historical media infrastructures.
[SLIDE34] Geographer Matthew Gandy writes that “
he term ‘infrastructure’ has been used since the 1920s to refer to the basic physical and organizational structures such as roads, power lines, and water mains needed for the material and organizational aspects of modernity…. More recently,” he says, “the study of infrastructure has been extended to include multi – dimensional analysis of the horizontal and vertical composition of space, the interrelationships between visible and invisible domains” and new modes of service provision (58). Infrastructure historian Paul Edwards admits that, today, infrastructure “has become a slippery term, often used to mean essentially any important, widely shared, human-constructed resource”; this could include hardware, organizations, [SLIDE35] “socially communicated background knowledge,” etc. – any sociotechnical systems that offer “near-ubiquitous accessibility” (186-7, 188). Despite, or perhaps because of, the flexibility of this term, I think we have much to learn from the way Edwards and other historians and theorists of infrastructure (usually from disciplines outside ours) conceive of and work with their subject. I find that their methods resonate with the historiographic approaches of media archaeology and can encourage us to critically reflect on how we construct media histories.
In what follows, I’ll outline eight historiographic lessons I’ve learned from infrastructure studies – or things I’ve known, but which infrastructure studies have reinforced. These are by no means mutually exclusive concepts. There’s actually a good bit of redundancy – but I think that, in some cases, restating the same principle using different language can only enhance its potential utility:
[SLIDE36]The Long Now / Deep Time. In their 2007 NSF-funded workshop on cyberinfrastructure, Edwards and several colleagues argued for the importance of studying the “long now” of cyberinfrastructure: the 200 years’ worth of “slower-pace[d]” political, cultural, and technical changes that have been happening “in the background” – changes like the rise of scientific disciplines and statistics – that have lain the foundation for digital networks (3). Of course I would argue that media studies could benefit from a much longer view, one that recognizes that “infrastructure” precedes the “cyber” and the electronic – but still, these scholars’ focus on historical contextualization is useful. And the concept of the “long now” – a contemporary that extends into the past – complements media (an)archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski’s suggestion that media archaeology aims to “find something new in the old.” X
[SLIDE37] (Techno-Socio-Spatio-Material) Palimpsests. That long now is manifested in material strata – literal layering. Henri Lefebvre has argued that urban space is formed by superimposed capital regimes and the infrastructures they create in their own image; the result, he has famously suggested, is not unlike a flaky mille-feuille pastry. But the palimpsest isn’t a mere metaphor. [SLIDE38]In his excellent study of infrastructure in urban Nigeria, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes that the “physical shape of the city emerges from the layering of these infrastructures over time” (5).[SLIDE39] X
The nature of that layering, however, is not one of mere supplanting or obsolescence. If we dig down through the strata we find much more than ruins(and this is where, I think, the archaeological metaphor can be at times a bit misleading). Digging into these layers, we often find that, depending on different contextual factors, various infrastructures have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths. Through “excavation,” we can assess the lifespans of various urban media and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors. Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete” (56). X
[SLIDE40] We find that the historical media infrastructures on the “lower levels” of our cities are often very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. I argue that these historical media are, like Raymond Williams’ (1977) category of [CLICK] the “residual,” “formed in the past, but…still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present” (122). As Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, authors of several canonical texts about telecommunications infrastructures and urbanism, argue, media networks of various historical ages can enhance one another – that is, [CLICK] “new technologies do not simply destroy older forms of communication but call into being new mobilities and sometimes intensify older ones” (6). This intermingling of temporalities fits Christopher Witmore’s definition of “archaeological time”: [CLICK] “the entanglement, the intermingling, the chiasm of pasts and presents” (279). Our infrastructural cities are a “folded, nonlinear temporal net.” X
Networked Histories. [SLIDE41] Graham and Marvin identify some of those “superimposed, contested and interconnecting” layers, or “scapes”: the “’electropolis’ of energy and power,” “the ‘hydropolis’ of water and waste,” “the ‘cybercity’ of electronic communication” (8). The history of any of these scapes is plugged into and inextricably linked with the histories of the others. Richard John suggests that the [SLIDE42] “concept of an information infrastructure [for instance]…highlights the fact that the transmission of information has long been coordinated by a constellation of institutions, rather than by a single government agency or business firm” (56). [SLIDE43] We need to recognize the co-dependency, the intertwining of these various systems – the telegraph and the telephone, the railroad and the telegraph, transportation infrastructures and the postal system, print and writing infrastructures, writing and oral address, and various social and regulatory systems – and perhaps write their histories together. X [SLIDE44] Edwards lays out a general framework for how these “constellations” might form, in the cyberinfrastructure world, at least: it begins with system building; then technology transfer across domains; then the emergence of variations in the original system design and the appearance of competing systems; then the eventual merger of these various systems, via gateways, into networks; then standardization of these networks and their merger into internetworks – with, all the while, “early choices constrain[ing] the options available moving forward” (i-ii). [SLIDE45]Such a model might seem rather deterministic to those of us who are looking at technology from a humanities orientation, or those of us who are constructivists – yet I think this model identifies several phases, or pivot-points, that occur during the maturation of technological systems that we already recognize, and that we should be encouraged to look for. Edwards reminds us, too, that “modeling” the formation of these networked infrastructural “constellations” doesn’t imply that they’re rigidly interlocked systems: X [SLIDE46] [T]he eventual growth of complex infrastructure and the forms it takes are the result of converging histories, path dependencies, serendipity, innovation, and “bricolage” (tinkering). Speaking of cyberinfrastructure as a machine to be built or a technical system to be designed tends to downplay the importance of social, institutional, organizational, legal, cultural, and other non-technical problems developers always face (6-7). X
[SLIDE47]Path Dependency in particular is such a useful concept for those of us who’ve been taught to avoid at all costs being labeled a technodeterminist, which, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young jokes, “is a bit like saying that [one] enjoys strangling cute puppies.” In our overcompensation to avoid the scarlet TD, we often resist acknowledging the existence of these well-trodden paths, and how they might limit future choices. Yet architectural historian Kazys Varnelis offers us a concrete example of paths’ potency: [CLICK] “…new infrastructures do not so much supersede old ones as ride on top of them, forming physical and organizational palimpsests – telephone lines follow railway lines, and over time these pathways have not been diffused, but rather etched more deeply into the urban landscape.” (27-8). [SLIDE48] In Edwards’ model, we’re able to balance a recognition that technologies do have material effects – that the channels laid and spaces configured by preceding technologies dosteer the development, to some degree, of successor technologies – with an acknowledgment of the roles played by serendipity and tinkering, by social and cultural factors, in technological development. X
Several other scholars support this model of inter-infrastructural path dependency. Graham and Marvin agree with Varnelis that[SLIDE49]…there are very close physical parallels and synergies between the development and routing of telecommunications networks within and between cities and the patterns of other infrastructures.… Because of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks, all efforts are made to string optic fibres through water, gas and sewage ducts; between cities existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used (329). X
[SLIDE50]Material Evidence. Things like palimpsests, networked histories, and path dependencies aren’t mere historical theorizations. Studying infrastructure, we can find material evidence of these complex pathways of historical development. We can read the archaeological record, conduct forensic analyses – or, when we’re dealing with a medium like the voice, for which there’s no collectable artifact, we can use techniques from archaeoacoustics to “listen” to spaces past – the Coliseum, the ancient marketplace, etc. We can dig up the cables, pull out the wires, analyze the disks – and observe their layering and interconnection. X
[SLIDE51]People as Infrastructure. That material record often shows that people haven’t been mere beneficiaries of infrastructures, but actually infrastructures themselves. I’m thinking of Greg Downey’s work on telegraph messenger boys, for instance. In Africa – and, undoubtedly, in much of the Global South and throughout much of global history – people often compensate for “underdeveloped, overused, fragmented, and often makeshift urban infrastructures” (425). The “incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents…operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used” – and constitute and infrastructure (407). X
[SLIDE52]Informal / Shadow Development: This mention of the flexible, mobile, and provisional reminds us that infrastructure history – and media history in general – has often deeply informed by informal and “shadow” developments. Brian Larkin writes about the jury-rigging, repurposing, or pirating of existing infrastructures in Nigeria. Such improvisations have undoubtedly appeared throughout media history. And it’s these peripheral practices, the “paths not followed” that media archaeology often likes to trace. X
[SLIDE53]Scale: Infrastructure makes us think about the granularity of our observations; Graham and Marvin list the corporeal, local, urban, regional, national, international, and global scales. When writing media histories, we have to consider whether we’re we writing media object histories, local media histories, urban media histories, national media histories, cultural media histories, etc. – and making such a choice is complicated by the fact that our infrastructures flow across these scales, connecting technologies into networks into internetworks. Paul Edwards suggests that scale needn’t be conceived of as merely a geographic quality; [SLIDE54] we can also consider scales of force (from the human body to the geophysical), scales of time (from human time to geophysical time), and scales of social organization (from individuals to governments) (186). Again, infrastructures span all these scales. X
But the macro view is a particularly illuminating in that it forces us to consider the forms of our media and infrastructures in relation to their long-term functions – “the reasons they came to exist in the first place” (204). Rather than thinking about how the telegraph supplanted the postal service, for instance, we can reconceive of these two systems as two instantiations of a shared infrastructural purpose. [SLIDE55] Edwards suggests that contextualizing the telephone, the telegraph, the post, and other modern technologies within James Beniger’s “’control revolution’ concept allows us to understand, not only the genesis and growth of the many large infrastructures that characterize modernity, but also the process of linking these infrastructures to each other” (207). These links allow us to appreciate the historical continuity among infrastructures – and the “deep time” of media.
And in characteristic fashion, I petered out before writing a conclusion — so I had to extemporize here. I’m pretty sure I concluded by acknowledging that most of the aforementioned examples mentioned modern infrastructures — primarily because that’s what most infrastructural scholarship deals with — and noting that my challenge, for my next book, is to show how these lessons also apply to the deep time of media infrastructure.