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A review of Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012.

Digital Memory and the Archive represents the first collection in English of Wolfgang Ernst's particular brand of media theory. As such, the volume necessarily attempts to satisfy three distinct demands: to outline the "media archeology" that characterizes Ernst's work, to sample instances where this broad logic engages various technologies with particularly productive results, and to establish Ernst's relation to a so-called "Berlin school" of German media theory that began to emerge with the work of materialist thinkers such as Friedrich Kittler, and in which Ernst is a central figure. The result is a collection of essays in which the hand of the editor, Jussi Parikka, is remarkably present. In addition to an extensive introduction, in which Parikka articulates the media-archeological method in the context of Ernst's career and the German media theory of Kittler, Bernhard Siegert, and Wolfgang Schaffner, Parikka introduces each of the three bundles of essays that compose the book—"The Media-Archeological Method," "Temporality and the Multimedia Archive," and "Microtemporal Media"—carefully curating the conceptual unity of the volume. In this sense, Digital Memory and the Archive is as much a triumph of Parikka's own clear theoretical and editorial vision as it is a presentation of Ernst's work.

To speak of German media theory or a Berlin school is, Parikka concedes, to rely on "a catch-all term that does not account for the variety of disciplinary perspectives that fit the category" (3). This might be useful, but such a broad generalization risks ignoring real and important theoretical or methodological differences. In his own book, What Is Media Archeology?, Parikka suggests that the apparent unity of Ernst's, Kittler's, and others' individual concerns emerges from two common impulses: first, "a critical reaction to the Marxist analyses of media by the Frankfurt school, and . . . a desire to differentiate from British cultural studies"; and second, a materialist insistence that "it is mathematics and engineering that concretely construct worlds through modern technology" (66-7). These twin concerns—to liberate media studies from the narrativizing tendencies of historical analysis, and to privilege the material forms of technology hardware and scientific apparatus over merely cultural content—become the clear foundation of Ernst's own program for media archeology, offered in the second essay, "Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media":

The term media archeology describes modes of writing that are not human products but rather expressions of the machines themselves, functions of their very mediatic logic. . . . Technological media that operate on the symbolic level (i.e., computing) differ from traditional symbolic tools of cultural engineering (like writing in the alphabet) by registering and processing not just semiotic signs but physically real signals. The focus shifts to digital signal processing (DSP) as cultural technology instead of cultural semiotics.


In moments like this, the affinity between Ernst's media archeology and Kittler's media discourse analysis is most strongly felt. Indeed, Ernst's insistence that reality is in some sense constituted by media technology rather than by a mediated circulation of signs strongly resonates with Kittler's claim, in the introduction to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, that "we [are] in possession of storage technologies that can record and reproduce the very time flow of acoustic and optical data. Ears and eyes have become autonomous. And that changed the state of reality. . . . Media 'define what really is'; they are always already beyond aesthetics" (3).

If anything distinguishes Ernst's own project, it is his consistent foregrounding of the agency of archival technologies themselves (not entirely ignored, but perhaps underdeveloped in Kittler's work), and his persistent focus on the mechanical conditions of temporal perception. Here, Ernst's reliance on Foucault's argument that archeological or archival excavation of the epistemic conditions of knowledge can liberate the past from the narrativizing logic of historical discourse becomes clear—not in the materialist-technologist commitments, but in its account of historical rupture: "a Foucault-driven media archaeology accentuates discontinuities and primordial differences" (24). Foucault's innovation in The Archaeology of Knowledge is to reconceptualize the...

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