Digital Memory and the Archive

by Wolfgang Ernst, edited by Jussi Parikka. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 265 pp. $25.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-8166-7767-2.

Digital Memory and the Archive introduces Wolfgang Ernst's work in the field of media archeology. The ten essays of the collection serve as an extended definition by contrast, using the limitations of cultural studies, the antithesis of Ernst's approach, to highlight the identity and potentialities of media archeology. Throughout, we see his archeology as a culmination of media scholarship from G.E. Lessing, whose Laocoon famously articulated the differences inherent in types of media, to Marshall McLuan, who transformed Lessing's insight into an aphorism. The prefatory material, by editor Jussi Parikka, and the concluding interview conducted by Geert Lovink, provide a valuable picture of Ernst himself and his place in the field. That the potentialities of media archeology are not wholly fulfilled in these pages, that we do not see media archeology in practice so much as offered as a possible alternative, is the one place where this fascinating book could, perhaps, be said to be lacking.

Media archeology is an investigation of media with special attention paid to the machines used to produce it. In fact, for Ernst, the machine itself is the “archaeologist.” Where the traditional humanities view records through a human lens, the lens of narrative, media archeology intentionally eschews story and narrative, as well as humanity itself. Special attention, instead, is paid to the form of data. Always in mind is the thought that the means by which content is produced must always shape our view of the content itself. Digitization of images or sounds, the recordings of Milman Parry for instance, are not identical to sounds played on the original machine. The content and even the quality of the sound may seem identical, but in many ways, the original machine tells us things a reproduction cannot. The recording of a traditional poem gives us the poem, but also information about the recording process, along with qualities of the poet and his environment. Moreover, with the data produced by the machine, we have information without bias, only particularities of physical existence (60-62).

This is in contrast to humanistic research which can use materials republished or reproduced in a variety of forms. The essence of Ernst's media archeology is returning to the original context. For Ernst, media archeology is successful so far as it excludes the human and understands the mechanical. It is in this intense focus on the machine, this exclusion of the human from humanism, that Ernst has shaped media archeology and particularly its German branch.

Ernst returns repeatedly to the significance of measuring time. Where narration was once the means of measuring time, time can now be measured in true objective, technological terms. “What I am advancing is a media-critical antiquarianism” (43). The object itself is the focus of the archaeological endeavor; the human excluded. Moreover, this historical endeavor, this look backward, derives from the growing contemporary importance of the archive. Today, according to Ernst, every computer with RAM memory is an archive. The archive has also become a ubiquitous metaphor: with many online activities offering archiving features; a new form of memory. Traditional archives as well, are increasingly significant, though often underappreciated. Ernst mentions a theory of history in the concluding interview, by which the influence of the archive on history may be understood. As in the case of the East German police archives, the archive passes through a period of secrecy, obscurity, into openness to investigation, and finally to influence (193, 202). The archive of past technologies is yet another archive now being opened. New views of history open as well. In this book, we see the influence of reconceptualization on our familiar narratives. What further influence media archaeology will exert as machines continue to be opened remains to be seen.

Ernst, who began his career as a classicist, emphasizes the importance of deconstruction. As far as we see Ernst's archaeology in this work, it follows this pattern. Chapter 8, “Distory: One Hundred Years of Electron Tubes” opens with reflections on anniversary celebrations of the invention of radio in Germany. Amusingly, Ernst debates conflicting dates of the anniversary, eventually concluding that the radio should be dated from the invention of its essential technology: the tube. In response to Einstein's speech lambasting those who use technology without understanding it, Ernst aims to speak the language of technology itself (161). Here we see how Ernst's insights can successfully reframe our standard chronologies. Yet, even here, in Ernst's own example of media archaeology, the full promise that we have been expecting is not fulfilled.  “His annals look like crashing operating systems that should not be taken at face value,” Lovink writes in his interview (194). This is what we might expect, but such annals are not found here. Would we even truly understand the work of the true media archeologist? History told by the machine? Are Ernst’s views, among media archaeologists, so extreme as to remain an ideal? Ernst begins his series of essays with a reflection on irony. The work of media archaeology, at the moment, is most beneficial in its ability to reframe other narratives. The possibilities of pure data, free from human influence offers new perspectives. It is suggested that the ideal media archaeology will be built from these perspectives alone, but is such a goal a possibility? Is media archaeology, essentially, a form of commentary? That such questions appear, appear almost as challenges, to the reader, to the archivist, to the archaeologist, is a testament to the success of this work.

Peter Ward

West Islip, New York