Western society is governed by an ideology of progress, progress through technological innovation. Technocrats and journalists fetishize the future of technology. The evidence can be found in the remnants of the public sphere, technology, futurism and progress are utterly praised and welcomed by journalists, technocrats and individuals. The German media archaeologist, Siegfried Zielinski, pushes back against this ideology of techno-progress with what he calls an (an)archeology of media or deep time relations of media.
Prominent understandings of technology and media assume an ideology of progress, “such genealogies are comforting fables about a bright future, where everything that ever existed is subjugated to the notion of technology as a power to ‘banish fear’ and a ‘universal driving force’”(3). This assumption about technological innovation establishes an understanding of history that is linear and always moving forward. This linear and progressive ideology is one that always seeks to find old in the new–this established a simplistic lineage of media. First, were writing, then telegraphy and telephony and so on. Though, rather than only finding old in the new, Zielinksi’s media (an)archeology strives to make rhizomatic and subterranean connections–essentially this is finding the new in the old.
These subterranean connections defy the totalizing conceptions of historical and technological progress. “The history of the media is not the product of a predictable and necessary advance from primitive to complex apparatus” (7). For example, Zielinski makes the case that in the scientific discourse on optics in the 16th and 17th century, something new can be found in the old. In the experiments and writings of Giovan Battista Della Porta, Athanasius Kircher, Caspar Schott and so on, the paradigmatic linear history narrative can be over turned.
In his chapter, “Reality as a Mere Shadow of What is Possible”, Zielinski reveals helpful insight into what he calls (an)archeology. The idea of archeology is the mining of history for narrative insights, though it’s not just the uncovering of certain trajectories. Archeology also carries an inherent governance and order of history. Therefore, Zielinski’s approach–that of (an)archeology–is mining and connecting media heterogeneously. The anarchy of Zielinski’s archeology establishes the capacity for critical insight. This approach establishes an abundance of criticism. Zielinksi, paraphrasing Brecht, says, “order is a sign of lack, not of abundance”(27).
These heterogeneous connections constitute one axis of Zielinski’s methodology, though the other is concerned with time. Media are the substance of connections, but they exist in a temporal realm of duration or what Zielinski calls Kronos and Kairos. The importance of time is not how much we have, but who has the ability to manage it. “Time” says Zielinski, “is the most important resource for the economy, technology and art…”(29). Kronos is all about duration. “Chronology cripples us because we are not made of enduring stuff and we shall pass”(29). Kairos, on the other hand, is the opportunistic moment. This is the moment where shifts in trajectory and paradigm may occur.
This approach to time is important to (an)archeology of media in two ways. First, it makes the parameters of research to be fluid in order to make “deep time” connections. This means that turning points and moments of development can be understood more clearly. Second, this approach to media time “…involves a heightened alertness to ideas, concepts, and events that can potentially enrich our notions for developing the time arts”(32).
Zielinski’s approach to deep time connections in the history of media provides a critical insight that goes beyond the capacity of other media histories. With this media (an)archeology, new territory can be found in finding new in the old. Though, there is a certain dissatisfaction to be found with the result of these connections.
These excursions into the deep time of the media do not make any attempt to expand the present nor do they contain any plea for slowing the pace. The goal is to uncover dynamic moments in the media-archeological record that abound and revel in heterogeneity and, in this way, to enter into a relationship of tension with various present-day moments, relativize them, and render them more decisive (11).
In a certain sense this should be obvious, Zielinksi is, at his base, an archeologist of the media. Though, my dissatisfaction is with the political and cultural potential these deep time relationships carry. Zielinski gives us a mode of analysis that provides a means of seeing new in old, but no real reason to do so. There’s a possible politics to be derived from Zielinski’s (an)archeology.
For example, last month Frieze had a picture piece concerning the Mechanical Turk. The Mechanical Turk is an automaton of some popularity that was invented in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Mechanical Turk is a chess-playing automaton that consisted of a chessboard and a mechanical man that could best any opponent. The Mechanical Turk, like other automata, consisted of intricate gears all working in concert. However, it was later revealed that the automaton was a farce and was actually controlled by an operator inside the machine. The Frieze columnist, Jason Farago, notes one “deep time” relation present here, namely that of Amazon’s micro-labor website mturk.org. Clearly, this irony isn’t lost on Amazon.
The relationship runs much deeper than just Amazon’s website. In the deep time relations of the Mechanical Turk, the conditions of digital labor can be summed up. Digital apparatuses of labor, which appear to be automated or simply black magic, actually rely on the bodies of workers. Just like the Mechanical Turk conceals the body of its operator, so too does digital labor conceal the body of its operator and poses as automation or perhaps as magic. Here is where we can derive politics from Zielinski’s (an)archeology, making these heterogeneous connections, we can find the actually existing conditions of our life in the old. It’s often the assumption that digital labor is something entirely new, but the same techno-logic is at play.