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March 2015


A Feature Interview with Wolfgang Ernst

Ghislain Thibault, Wolfgang Ernst

Wolfgang Ernst is a leading voice in the field of media archaeology, a research area that has attracted interest for its theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of media. Ernst’s main contribution to media archaeology in the recent years has been a radical critique of history through a reflection on media temporalities. In this interview, Ernst proposes to understand media archaeology as an “exercise” for media studies scholars, a mode of attention that isolates the techno-logical components of media. As he addresses the technomathematical ontology of digital communication, the genealogy of symbolic machines and the question of humanism, Ernst offers conceptual tools to help us navigate through his previous writings and to reflect on new directions for media archaeology.

Ernst’s materialist approach, described by Jussi Parikka as an “operative diagrammatics,” is a distinguishing feature of media archaeology. If the field of media archaeology first crystallized around the work of Friedrich Kittler and the German School of Media Theory, its expansion in recent years within and outside Europe has generated a plurality of theoretical perspectives. Most scholars identifying with media archaeology agree about the need to recover minor or forgotten media forms in order to challenge some of the dominant, triumphalist narratives of technological progress. However, whereas some follow “softer” approaches that extend previous traditions of media history and cultural history by looking at the discursive elements of media, the position Ernst takes up addresses the “harder” side of the media-archaeological spectrum. He encourages us to shift our entire analyses towards the material and machinic dimensions of media – the term “hard” hence evokes at the same time an epistemological hard line and a sustained attention for hardware components. Ernst meticulously and provocatively pleads to replace linear historiography – if not history altogether – with new, non-narrative temporal figures that he argues are already embedded in media-technical configurations.

Ernst’s most recent publication in English, Digital Memory and the Archive, published in 2013 by University of Minnesota Press, is a collection of texts that articulates this epistemological position through a reflection on media, memory, the archive, and language. His work will be productive for scholars coming to media study from a variety of disciplines – including media and communication studies, history, literature and sciences studies – and who will find in his theories new ways of addressing the complex research object we call “media.”

Wolfgang Ernst is Professor and Chair of Media Theories at the Institute for Musicology and Media Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin, where he also has founded and directs the Media-Archaeological Fundus, a major repository and laboratory for the study of a wide range of historical – and especially “obsolete” – media technologies, from galvanometers to Enigma machines, metronomes, and Commodore 64s. He is the author of several books in German, including Das Rumoren der Archive (2002) and M.edium F.oucault (2000). He kindly accepted this interview while he was in Montréal as a keynote speaker for the Canadian Centre for Architecture (as part of the exhibition “Archaeology of the Digital,” 2014) and as an invited speaker at the Media History Research Center, Concordia University. The interview took place in Montréal on September 26, 2014.1

–Ghislain Thibault


Your work has been known to German media theorists for a long time and now, with Digital Memory and the Archive,2 we have the chance to read a large selection of your work in English. Since your book was just translated, the first question I would like to ask concerns the concept of translation. What would be a media-archaeological perspective on translation, that is itself a process of re-encoding?

The act of translation is an old hermeneutic issue, one that makes me think immediately of Walter Benjamin’s work on the productive act of translation. More importantly: What is the difference between coding and translation?

Every coded system allows a kind of exact transmission, even exact copy. Translation is exactly different from that because it’s fuzzy, but it can be interpreted in a productive way. Walter Benjamin wrote that the productive part of translation was that it could never be exact, that translation brings new input, shifts emphases, that it re-contextualizes the text. I see this myself when I switch from German to English, when I see my texts translated into English. I have a very complicated writing style in German and when my writings are translated into English, they become more readable because English language is more pragmatic.

And so what is the coded system? The media archaeological aspect of translation would be about the transmission of knowledge. For example, the writing errors that happened when monks and medieval scribes miscopied letters or in signal transmission when back noise comes in, as in Shannon’s theory of communication.3 The technical aspect of translation would allow one to adopt communication theory in the engineering sense. This separates it from the hermeneutical question of translation, the Gadamer tradition of translation. Media archaeology would look at the more machinic aspect, leaving the hermeneutic questions to Walter Benjamin.

One of the central arguments you make about media archaeography is that media themselves are archaeologists. By focusing on the inscriptive function of media, are we then neglecting an entire branch of media, those operating outside of this regime of inscription? In particular, I am thinking about broadcasting media.

The tradition of broadcast media (what we call analog media now) is radically different from Gutenberg media. Radio and television are signal-based, and the signal is a completely different embodiment of physicality. The signal is a time-continuous form of physical expression; it is a waveform. It entered our culture radically with the phonographic inscription. I say inscription, but one could say it’s a non-alphabetic form of writing. This is what makes it so radically different from all symbolically coded writing and writing systems.

Archaeography is a term that I borrowed from antiquarians of the seventeenth century. It was originally used by British antiquaries to describe material artifacts from the past, as different from the textual record. So this has been an alternative to historiography already, and it has an orientation on hardware. Archaeography is different from historiography in many senses.

The archaeography, of course, allows for the graphical method as well. Adorno wrote wonderful pieces on the record, on the phonographic groove as a form of writing.4 And others refer to the phonograph as a form of writing as well. This is fine as long as the writing is taken in terms of signal inscription, radically. In the nineteenth century, when Etienne-Jules Marey and others saw the registering of signals on the revolving cylinder (the “kymograph”), they called it inscription. This is a kind of writing that at the same time breaks with the traditional hermeneutic idea of textual writing.

Archaeography allows opening our sensitivity to other forms of writing, to signal writing, to signal inscription. Signal inscription and signal transmission are just two sides of one coin. For example, with traditional analog radio, in the act of transmission you cannot tell whether what you hear is from a record being played at the radio station or whether it’s actually being performed live. The medium of radio, and electromagnetic wave-based media, turns everything into signal transmission. This is radically different from all forms of symbolical inscription, from coded inscription. My critique of history starts with the fact that historiography depends on encoded writing, whereas other forms of memory and transmission – the signal-based ones – belong to another temporal regime. The archive belongs to encoded systems; it acts as a sampling of the present and turns it into a symbolical code. This is then memorized for the future, whereas any phonographic record registers actually the physical signal event. And that’s why when we replay a phonographic record, we are not in touch with historical time, but it is a co-originary experience. It’s the signal itself, and the signal itself did not change. This kind of writing is of a different temporality as the symbolically coded writing.

Given that the temporality of analog transmission is different from that of inscription media, I wonder about a resurgence of evanescent or ephemeral media practices. You mention the phenomenon of “streaming” several times in your book. If technically streaming online content involves a form of inscription, users cannot retrieve this content on their devices. It’s interesting to note that whereas streaming is used as this metaphor that breaks away from past broadcasting media, it recuperates and remediates, on the contrary, the model of ephemerality of broadcasting.

The streaming effect acts as if it was a secondary liveness. For human senses, it’s actually difficult to recognize a difference between a traditional live signal and one that is being streamed. Most people would perceive it as if they were listening to the traditional live radio broadcast. Now it’s important to be aware of the difference this makes on the micro-technical level. Even in terms of law, in Germany, lawyers had to go deeply into the micro-technical process to answer the question: “Is streaming a copyright issue or not?” Technically, when you stream video, the frames are buffered for a micro-moment of time. This means you technically produce a copy, though only for a brief moment. It’s very ephemeral, it’s the most ephemeral archive or short time memory, but technically, it is still a copy. That’s at the core of the debate: Is streaming supposed to follow copyright law because it produces a copy? And suddenly, even a technical detail becomes a fundamental issue.

It’s important because it’s a different being. It looks the same, but ontologically, this is a different thing. Most people would say: “Who cares? It looks the same.” But if you are interested in what the world consists of – and this is the oldest knowledge-driving question – then it makes a difference, and one should name it. Ephemerality is of course the dominant process of data, which are being stored for a micro-moment of time, and then they vanish again. That’s the essence of digital culture. It’s ephemeral in its very essence and that’s why it’s so different from inscription in the traditional sense. The coded letter, for instance, stays. This is where the difference between phonograph and magnetic recording comes in. The phonograph still produces a more or less stable inscription. That’s why we can technically listen to an old Edison cylinder. But the magnetic recording takes place in magnetic charges, and they are ephemeral. They are ephemeral in the physical sense. They have a status of latency. This is almost a psychoanalytic kind of latency, which only works when being reactivated in the electromagnetic induction process when you replay a magnetic tape. This is radically different from the physical inscription of the phonographic record, which you could literally read using a magnifying glass. Whereas the phonograph aptly is called phonograph because it’s still a form of inscription, the magnetophone, the magnetic recording, is not graphic anymore. It’s not an inscription anymore, it’s a latency. This is a fascinating change of the ontological being.

In discussing the new temporalities of digital media, the question of presence seems fundamental. You write on that topic that when we are engaging with media recordings of past human voices or images, “we are not communicating with the dead. Rather, we are dealing with the past as a form of delayed presence, preserved in a technological memory.”5 Could Derrida’s concept of différance (deferring/differing) be useful here to think about digital writing?

Différance belongs to the world of analog media where the act of transmission itself introduces a small delay. But it’s a continuous delay and it’s almost a physical figure. Whereas the intelligence of the coded system, the mathematization of this process, beats this physical-temporal delay and replaces it with an immediate copy. That allows for a completely different time tunneling. That’s why literally “techno-logical” temporality is of a different kind. The Derridan notion of différance very much belongs to writing regimes – which have been the main topics of Derrida’s writings – but it would not aptly describe the digital regime. There, we cannot apply Derrida’s grammatology. If Derrida had been more precise in analyzing how the Greek alphabet came into being, then we would be able to connect it to digital inscription.

This is what Friedrich Kittler and others looked at more closely. Even McLuhan did. He was more precise than Derrida when he asked about the essence of the Greek alphabet, and questioned why this alphabet was closer to the digital age than the intermediary time of the analog media. Most histories of technology would say: “There was the age of print, and then comes photography, then phonography, and then there’s radio and television, and then magnetic recording, and then there’s the digital computer.” But instead of an evolution, this is, rather, a question of recursions. The Gutenberg Era, which starts with the Greek discrete symbol-based alphabet and escalated with the printed book, was radically challenged by signal recording and signal transmission media like phonograph, radio and television. Then all of a sudden the Gutenberg Era returns as an alphanumeric and discrete alphabet, which consists of two letters: zero and one. But it’s an alphabet.

This figure of time is not evolutionary. It is, rather, a fold, a return, or a recursion, to take a term from computer science. It’s an algorithmic figure of time, the recursive function. It takes a bit of time to get used to think that what we used to call history, the history of culture or of technology, needs to be replaced by recursive figures. It does not deny that there are temporal processes. I am not that radically postmodern that I deny the past as such. But temporality might be seen in different temporal figures. Take McLuhan’s posthumous book, Laws of Media.6 That book is interesting because of the bizarre figure of the tetrad that McLuhan had designed. This tetrad comes close to the recursive idea that media cultures are being displaced and then they return, like a Mobius loop, in a different version. But they return. It’s not a question of substituting one for another. I now collect different efforts to write what was used to be called media history by other means. We are doing this next semester in Berlin for a workshop called “Media Timings” [Zeitigungen von Medien, Fall term 2014]. We will look at experimental, conceptual and theoretical forms of alternatives to media history. Theoretically, there are a lot of scholars and artists who recognize that we need different figures of time to describe those processes which we used to describe in terms of history. McLuhan’s tetrad, for example, or Kittler’s recursion. The next step would be for us to actively ask: What should this new language be that describes the new figures of time?

Speaking of language, Jussi Parikka notes that you have a “strict” working definition of media: “a medium is defined as the physical passage, or place, that mediates something codified and gets decodified at the other end.”7 I find that most media studies scholars, including myself, move fluidly between the terms media, machines, techniques and technology. The term machine, in particular, culturally evokes an industrial past, the tradition of kinematics; technically, it refers to devices that produce, transform or transfer energy, and not information. Is this distinction between media and machine more than a semantic one? On the technological plane, are we before two taxonomical classes of objects?

I would say, at first, that they are two classes. The practical use of these terms has produced a lot of confusion. So I would say, at first, let’s keep them apart and then see how they can be reunited again. Media are not primarily machines in the energy transformation sense because these belong to the physical laws of thermodynamics. There is no coding of information that would allow describing them as media. But then there are the “symbolical machines” that are not energy-driven, which was the name already given by Charles Babbage and later by Alan Turing to their mathematical machines. The calculating machine is one that needs energy to be driven but energy is not its message. It’s calculation. They don’t transform energy, they transform numbers into other numbers. That’s why the traditional calculating machine is the one which switches from the old type of machine to the new type of machine, what Gotthard Günther called the “transclassical machine.”8 And sometimes a computer is still called a machine.

Which is often the case in the vernacular.

Yes. It’s okay to call a computer a machine as long as we know that it is a symbolical machine. Even if it is necessarily based on material reality (media archaeology always insists on analytically respecting the “hardware”!), its main essence is not matter and energy, but symbol manipulation. From that new definition of the machine, which makes it possible to keep it separated from the industrial age (which was not a media age), once we come to understand that the symbolical machine is a new type of machine, and then we realize that even text and typewriters are already symbolical machines. Active calculations are machinic in that sense. Symbol manipulation has replaced energy manipulation and that separates the so–called information age from the industrial age. So I’m not a discursive policeman who says: “You shouldn’t say machine.” Machine is being used to describe computer and media sometimes, but one should then always make it clear whether or not they are dealing with a symbolical machine because then they are dealing with a really different culture than machine culture.

What about machines that accomplish both? The cyberneticists, for instance, identified that some energy-transforming machines, like Watt’s steam engine, also dealt with information fluxes (the governor, in this case, which regulated the machine). Is the steam engine a machine and a medium at the same time?

It is, yes. And that’s the achievement of the cybernetic concept. Cybernetics was able to describe the informatization of the machine. For them, it starts with a self-regulating system, Watt’s governor. This led to systems theory, which was a cybernetic paradigm. It allowed the description of machinic processes, even energetic machinic processes, in terms of self-information, yes.

I’d like to go back to the method of media archaeology. Lately I was rereading L’ordre du discourse, Foucault’s inaugural conference at the Collège de France.9 Foucault mentions three notions that should guide the history of the system of thought as he envisioned it, and against what he called “continuous history”: discontinuity, materiality, and chance. While discontinuity and materiality are clearly articulated in media archaeology, what is the role of chance in media archaeological methods?

With media archaeology, on the one hand, there is an acknowledgment of the material reality of media processes, which refers to the technological part. On the other hand, it’s radically mathematic as well. It is as if the arkhe of media archaeology refers to the square root sign. This is the arkhe. Its strong connection to mathematics separates a more radical media archaeology from softer media archaeologies that are more about dead media and artistic experimentation that failed in the past. This is media archaeology as well, but the hard side, the cutting threshold between the two, would be the mathematical side: to think media in a dry, rigid, and non-imaginative way. In order to understand computing culture, we have to understand its mathematical rigor. This is the hard “aesthetics” of media archaeology. That’s almost an exercise, the media archaeological exercise: to get rid of all imagination and think through the mathematical symbol manipulation like the Turing machine. That’s radical media archaeology in the mathematical sense.

Now, this mathematical sense opens not only to statistics, but to stochastic as well. Beginning in the nineteenth century, thermodynamic processes could suddenly be described in mathematical terms. That was a wonder. Statistics was able to describe what previously had just been chaos or disorder, something with which the rational mind could not cope. Suddenly there was a mathematics that could cope with thermodynamic chaotic processes. And stochastic – the science of probabilities in mathematics – could even more radically deal with these processes. Probability could be addressed by mathematical means and that made it possible to include chance into computing. The biggest challenge until now in practical computing has been how to forecast the weather. It is still the biggest issue because there we come to the limits of the computational paradigm. Stochastically, it is possible to cope with weather, but, as an implemented Turing machine, we have limits because the Turing band is limited. You never have an unlimited storage capacity. There are some inherent logical limits to it. I think this is one of the wonders of culture in the last one hundred and fifty years, that the things which looked most unmathematical – chance, accidents, disorder, chaos – can be addressed mathematically. It starts with Leibnitz and differential calculus: dynamic processes, which seem so wonderfully continuous, could then be analyzed mathematically. And once you can analyze dynamic processes mathematically, you can technically synthesize them. All computer simulations are based on this mathematical analysis. That’s what the biggest power of computing is nowadays: we can simulate the world so perfectly. Symbolically at least, because only the analog computer really simulates the world, whereas the digital computer symbolically simulates the world.

Our digital communication media today are still based on Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication. The pulse-coded transmission of digital television and radio, it is all based on the mathematical theory of communication. By chance, too. If you read this text,10 it’s clear for Shannon that the Markov chains are at the core of information theory. The Markov processes are a kind of mathematics that allow us to predict with a high probability, from knowing the immediate past to what will probably happen in the future. It’s not one-hundred percent guaranteed that it will happen, but it economically shortens the calculating processes, because you can calculate from the sequence of letters what the probability of the next letter would be. That’s a fascinating mathematics because it beats time. It beats the old transmission time, because it’s faster than time, in a way.

Looking at how French theory informed the emergence of media archaeology, Geert Lovink asked you in 2001 if we were destined to remain “stuck in the postmodern canon.”11 However, your frequent references to the Canadian Marshall McLuhan seem to play out on a completely different scene. The intellectual context out of which McLuhan was writing was less that of philosophy and was much closer to literature, architectural studies, anthropology, or political economy. How do these disciplines inform media archaeology?

There are two different intellectual contexts here. McLuhan’s work is completely different from that of the French structuralists and post-structuralists, Lacan and others, that influenced German media theory. McLuhan, having been trained in literature, takes literature as a radical technological act. His PhD, for instance, was on Renaissance rhetoric in England. The Mechanical Bride,12 his first “media book” in a sense, is an in-between work because he argues that from literary rhetoric we move to visual rhetoric. And that opened his sensitivity for technology because rhetoric is self-aware of being a technology, of being a technique. It was his literary training in rhetoric that made McLuhan aware of the technical rhetoric of technological modernity.

Platonic philosophy criticized the rhetoric of the sophists in Greek antiquity. They were aware that through rhetoric one is applying a technology of persuading the audience while at the same time making the audience forget that the speaker is applying a technology. The rhetoricians always knew they were not talking truth, they were applying a technology. This happens with technology in the more materialist sense as well.

We can think here of the double meaning of the term technology – techné and lógos – as equally a discourse about technics and the technique of discourse itself, or rhetoric. With this in mind, however, it seems to me that rhetoric, as in the ars memoriae for instance, is not an externalized technology. It’s a much more intimate, imaginary structure, isn’t it?

As a method, the technical aspect of rhetoric, knowing that you use figures of speech and arrange them and place them at the right moment, is a formalistic use that I would call technical. It is an awareness of manipulating formulas. This is technical in the processual sense. What is crucial here was described by Frances Yates in her famous book The Art of Memory.13 She says that the ars memoriae, which operated with imaginary images, was actually killed by Descartes. The Cartesian system made points in space addressable by a grid of numbers. That replaced the image-based ars memoriae and the imaginary part of it. By replacing the visual with algebraic notations, which is most unimaginative, then it becomes really media archaeological. The imaginative part is the more anthropological part of it, that which operates with images. And this is replaced by numbers, and through this process it decouples, deanthropologizes this act. This is the basis of the memory technologies in the strict sense, which build up the modern welt-bild as Heidegger criticized it because it’s number-based, it’s algebraic. It is non-human in terms of its symbol manipulation. But, then, the non-human, again, is within us already. The thinking process, the mental process, involves a lot of non-human things. This is what I like about the cybernetic heroic age of the 1950s and the 1960s. The subtitle of Norbert Wiener’s book on cybernetics is Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.14 One could finally think the animal and the machine on the same level, and not simply say that the animal or the human are higher entities and machines are just machines. We are both systems and those systems can be coupled. The signal processing within those systems aren’t that different and that was opening the horizon. That was dehumanizing culture for a moment. We didn’t lose by that. Humans have not become less human for that, I think. They discovered the inhuman within the human itself.

Yet the view of Marshall McLuhan of media and machines as extensions of man that also emerges in that period (the 1960s) was a deeply humanist perspective.

It was.

In postwar France as well, if we think of Gilbert Simondon’s work, there was a strong tradition that what we may call “technological humanism.” Is there a way to reconcile, through media archaeology, Michel Foucault’s attitude of suspicion towards humanism and this tradition of technological humanism that McLuhan belongs to?

It depends on how we define humanism. This was at the heart of the debate between Heidegger and Jean Beaufret. This debate was recreated when Peter Sloterdijk published Regeln für den Menschenpark.15 At the time of its publication some of the Kittler school people joined in and we discussed it. The moment when one realizes – and this will be a McLuhanist argument – how much humanism is based on the symbolic system of letters, literally, on the alphabetic exchange, communication, storage, transmission of knowledge, then there’s not an absolute difference between humanism and technological aspects anymore. There is a technology within humanism. Humanism could only be possible as a technological act, it depended to a high degree on a technological act. That is if you take humanism really as a discursive practice as it was practiced in the Renaissance and later. Now, if you reduce humanism to the ethical side of what is associated with humanism, then it leads to a Foucauldian question: How is the human being redefined all the time? And it has always been defined mirroring the dominant media technologies. When Plato describes the soul for instance – which is something that separates the human from the other animals according to Descartes. It could be just machines, but for Descartes, at least, the soul is the central quality of the human. Plato cannot but describe the soul with the metaphor of the wax tablet, which gets impressions but that are soon to be effaced. The impressions are not recorded, stable. They are ephemeral. It was as if the wax tablet where you do your writing created the imaginary of the soul, or the construction of the imaginary of the soul. This conceptualization of the soul was only possible on the background of the then new medium, alphabetic writing, and a rewritable memory, the wax tablet. The wax tablet has a long history of metaphorical and non-metaphorical use in the history of the Occidental mind. So, we see how the definition and the permanent redefinition of the human, or what is the human of the human, cannot be completely separated from such symbolic or other technologies.

Then could we say that the postmodern concepts of discontinuity and deconstruction have been made possible by the rise of the digital episteme, which is that of the mathematization and fragmentation of language through machines? Are these concepts the effects of digital culture the same way that humanism was an effect of the alphabet?

It’s not simply an effect, that would be too tight of a cause-effect relationship. A lot of media studies, including my own works, are still often accused of being reductive, or to have a technologically reductive definition of culture that takes technology as the origin of everything in culture. It’s not that. Consider the idea of the “strong subject.” The strong subject is a sort of monadic entity that is a product of a romantic age, of modernity, of the idea of philosophic and aesthetic idealism and literary practices, of authorship. It is as if humans want to be relieved from this constraint, from this pressure of being, from this heavy subjectivity, from this strong subjectivity. With media, what is relieved of this subjectivity? We acknowledge that there are the non-subjective elements in us are addressed by media. So, we are not masters in our own house. We are not subjects in the strong sense. This can be pessimistically feared or this can be experienced as a liberation.

I like to quote Henry Fox Talbot, who is, for the British side at least, the inventor of photography. He had been a draftsman and a painter, not a very successful one, and maybe not a very gifted one. But while he was developing further what was later to become negative-positive photography, he wrote in The Pencil of Nature16 that he was relieved from the subjectivity of his hand, from the imperfective drawings of his hand. Humans had created a medium, an image or a light-storage medium, which was able to register nature in a way that Talbot always wanted to do with his hands but could not due to their imperfection. He celebrated the liberation from his own subjectivity. This is an example of how humans don’t necessarily experience it as a loss when media suddenly rival human capacities. Rather, they are liberated.

There was a time when Foucault celebrated being liberated from his own subjectivity. Friedrich Kittler said that when he wrote about the “so-called human” and celebrated computing and the Turing machine, he was celebrating being liberated from subjectivity. It’s funny enough that both Foucault and Kittler in their later years rediscovered the subject. For Foucault, this was the subject-centered care for the self whereas Kittler discovered beauty and poetry in his late writings on the Greek alphabet. Humans are always struggling with the desire of celebrating their own idiosyncrasies and being liberated from that at the same time.

And media archaeology precisely strives to liberate us from writing, or at least from history as a form of writing?

Yes, but media archaeology is not the last word on anything. It’s an exercise. We have this conversation here at an institution with historical ties with an old Jesuit college.17 I was always fascinated by the Loyola exercises, in a strict sense. Loyola had developed techniques to get distance from imaginary seductions and things like that. One had to go through rigid exercises to clear his mind, to erase from it all the fantasies, the psycho-mechanisms and desires driving us. The mind had to be cleared to then be ready to think or to believe in a different way.

Now, regarding media archaeology, I like to describe it as an exercise. The media archaeological over-concentration on symbolic actions, on mathematical and technological mechanisms is an exercise in clearing your head for a moment, from the hermeneutic and imaginary and all the drives that are at work. Once this is done, then it allows for those imaginary elements to re-enter. Media archaeology is not an end in itself, it’s an intermediary. For a moment, once you cleared your head, you are separated from – or liberated from – the imagination and the historical discourse.

So, if writing historiographical narratives isn’t the end goal of media archaeology, and if academic publishing and even digital archives are no longer sufficient, what’s left for us as scholars, and especially as media studies scholars, to communicate and disseminate knowledge?

What is left is to describe the epistemological surplus that can be derived out of this knowledge. Why is it worth knowing technological details? Engineers could enjoy discussing and exchanging about technological details for hours. They don’t need a justification, whether they improve the technology or not. But why is it interesting for someone else outside of the engineering or mathematical spheres to pay attention to technology? Why should somebody who does not program computers care about algorithms? Why should he or she even know about algorithms?

Our task in media studies may be to show how micro-technical events or mathematical operations are loaded with almost three thousand years of philosophy and knowledge processing in the occidental world (for the oriental and other parts of the world, there might be a different time scale and I limit myself here to the occidental world). In the occidental culture, the wish to know is one of the driving issues and knowledge is a drive that goes beyond its technical application. Take writing systems for example. Everybody knows that in other cultural contexts different writing systems have been invented, but they were mostly used for governmental use or for economical use. The wonderful thing about the Greek writing system – which we actually use today and which, in a strange way, led to alphanumeric code – is that the alphabet was arguably modified for poetical reasons. Why did the Greeks change the Phoenician alphabet? The Phoenician alphabet consisted only of consonants, which was enough for doing business and writing things down. Why did the Greeks introduce vowels? Why did they need an a (an alpha) and an o (an omega)? The only reasonable explanation is that there was a wish to record oral poets like Homer and the musicality of the oral performance. How can that be preserved beyond the presence of the body of the oral singer? Not just the informational content, but the vocalization itself.

The introduction of vowels in the Greek alphabet is like early phonography. The phonetic alphabet is like a symbolical phonograph because it tries to include the phonetic musical elements. Marshall McLuhan had emphasized that already. Writing systems, symbolical systems, the phonetic alphabet, or phonographic recording, or a Fourier analysis of music in today’s recording technologies – those are all technologies. They are bound to the most essential drives of our culture and our cultural desire (and by “our,” I mean the Occidental world). Those technological details become a fundamental issue for our cultural self-understanding, for our aesthetic experience, for what I call the “epistemological spark.”

Scholars who deal with such aspects, they translate, they open their awareness to the epistemological issues that are embedded in these apparently simple technological questions. This is not a narrative task. One could turn this knowledge into beautiful narratives, but one could more minutely describe it precisely to show what dimensions are important to that knowledge. That’s the beautiful part of our scholarly work, I think, because we cannot leave that to the engineers and to mathematicians. They don’t have the time and they sometimes don’t have this ambition. They have all this knowledge but they don’t want to make it explicit because they have other primary tasks. I think media scholars should be well acquainted with the mathematical technical details, but their main task is in being able to explain why it is worth knowing that and what is the cultural value of knowing that. That is a non-narrative knowledge-oriented epistemological issue.

Where does cultural production fit into this epistemology (film production for instance)?

Cultural productions are based on certain technologies, technical or mathematical, and I would rather try to describe how cultural production is already apparent on the material conditions. I liked how McLuhan has been so frank on this. McLuhan would always admit that there can be wonderful cultural productions, how a television show for instance could be a wonderful cultural production. But, there is, in another sense, cultural production already in what looks like simply the technical conditions of it.

In Platonic philosophy, which determined occidental aesthetics and history for so long, the cultural production was valued highly whereas its technological condition was just the means of production. Writing as such was just the material or symbolic basis for producing literature. The literary product was valued highly. The fact that you had to learn the alphabet in order to write, and that you needed paper was known but it was just considered to be the material condition. Media archaeology or media epistemology turns that upside down and argues that there is a fascinating sub-semantic cultural production by the very fact that our everyday usage of the alphabet continues a technological practice across millennia and almost untouched by historical change which otherwise terminated empires and political cultures. And this is a wonderful cultural production in itself. This deserves be to made explicit and that’s the task of the media scholar to show another dimension of cultural production. So this redefines, by turning it upside-down, what cultural production is on its sublime micro-operational level.

My last question deals with the future directions of the field. It is still rare to find departments that do only media studies or media archaeology. As a result, media studies and media archaeology are being undertaken in a wide range of academic disciplines: English, Communication Studies, History of Science, Art History, Film Studies. With regards to its fleeting nature, what’s next for the field (if we can call it a field)?

This is currently being debated in Germany: Should media studies be a method which can be applied, or should be applied in different disciplines, or does it really need to become or stay a discipline of its own? Now, I have a clear position on this. Since it takes so much effort to know actually what media are in their technological, mathematical, historical, and theoretical sense, then it deserves the tools of a proper disciplinary education. I witness it when I am teaching students: it takes time. You cannot easily read a bit of McLuhan and read a bit of Kittler about real time axis manipulation and then apply it to your Art History curriculum. One would not be able to understand the arguments of Kittler for example, unless one knows a bit about the new mathematical paradigm, what a Turing machine is and how the digital is different from the analog. To learn that, to give a qualified answer to that, to be able to contextualize that, to bring this productively into an academic discourse, you need proper training. And this takes some time. The traditional disciplinary education provides for that. And students accept it. Once it’s a discipline, they accept that there is a certain set of canonical knowledge which they have to read.

Now, literary studies for example in Germany have been influenced by the new media studies and analyze inscription systems, the materiality of writing and so on. When Kittler starts writing about the typewriter, it was a sort of reintroduction of this media awareness into literary studies back again. It has come to a point that some colleagues in Germany, in architectural or literary studies for instance, have now understood that we have to include the analysis of the media component in their own disciplines. Up to such a degree, some say that we don’t need media studies anymore because the traditional disciplines have opened their eyes and they are doing it. They describe their own activities much more in media technological terms now. They say: “We don’t need media studies to make that claim, we’ve learned our lesson.”

However the debate, the discursive formation, the institution of media studies allows for a more rigid check and balances of knowledge. Since media, in a technological sense, have such an impact on our culture and our life – even more so now as embedded computing invades our everyday life – we need to have a place in society where there are people who have been trained to reflect on media, both in a technological and trans-technological way.

So I would defend media studies in that sense – with media archaeology as one of the methods – as a proper curriculum. This is a strategic decision. I come from the German tradition where the discipline has a strong tradition. I know that in the American context, the discipline is not that rigid anymore and American universities are turning more to programs.

Indeed, it seems to be the case. And as a result media studies are a bit scattered.

This is often the case for emerging new fields. For example, Sound Studies. In Germany, this field is quite popular now. And there has been the debate on whether Sound Studies is just a method or whether it should develop into its own discipline. The same happened with Art History. Visual Studies developed into sort of a field of its own, although it could also have been claimed by Art History to broaden it. It’s a dynamic process. When media studies emerged, Kittler’s media awareness could not be contained within German Studies or Literary Studies anymore. It was too much. Suddenly, that led to an explosion of media studies in Germany. And that might have been due to certain German academic traditions. If you read Heidegger next to Werner Heisenberg, the quantum physicist, there is a strange proximity between engineering and deep philosophical thought in Germany. The heroic engineers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had to have a philosophical education as well. This affinity between epistemological reflection and fascination with technology belongs to the German intellectual tradition and maybe this is why media studies has had a special appeal within the German academic fields.

  1. A translation of this interview in French is forthcoming in the journal Communiquer, see Ghislain Thibault, “Ce que nous appelions ‘l’histoire des médias’: l’exercice de l’archéologie médiatique. Entretien avec Wolfgang Ernst.” Communiquer, 13 (2015). 

  2. Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). 

  3. Claude Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” The Bell System Technical Journal 27 (1948): 79–423, 623–65. 

  4. See, for instance, Theodor Adorno. “The Form of the Phonograph Record.” October 55 (1990): 56-61. 

  5. Ernst, Digital Memory, 69. 

  6. See Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988). 

  7. Jussi Parikka, “Archival Media Theory,” introduction to Ernst, Digital Memory, 19. 

  8. Gotthard Günther, Cybernetics and the Transition from Classical to Trans-classical Logic (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1965). 

  9. Michel Foucault. L’ordre du discours: leçon inaugurale au Collège de France prononcée le 2 décembre 1970 (Paris: Gallimard, 1971). 

  10. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory.” 

  11. Geertz Lowink, “Archive Rumblings,” in Ernst, Digital Memory

  12. Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1951). 

  13. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966). 

  14. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1965). 

  15. Regeln für den Menschenpark. Ein Antwortschreiben zu Heideggers Brief über den Humanismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2008). 

  16. W. H. F. Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844). 

  17. Concordia University, located in Montréal (Canada) was founded in 1974 following the the merger of Loyola College, a Jesuit institution, and Sir George Williams University. 

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