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Digging Machines
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Media archaeology is one of the buzzwords of contemporary media historical research, yet at the same time it remains curiously ungraspable. With What is Media Archaeology? Jussi Parikka provides the urgently needed map into this new field’s extensive domain. The book offers a highly readable account of media archaeologies’ main approaches and associated theories from the last two decades, making it a rich introduction for those new to the field. But also for those already familiar the book is an excellent read. It offers an ambitious, although at points too ambitious, attempt to propel media archaeology forward as it explores its potential as ‘a twenty-first-century humanities methodology’ (p160) tuned to the interdisciplinary study of the archaeological substrates of digital media culture in particular.

With the clarity of a text-book, seven chapters review the diverse body of both explicitly media archaeological and affiliated research, from Thomas Elsaesser’s New Film History as media archaeology and Jonathan Crary’s archaeology of perception, to Eric Kluitenberg’s and Siegfried Zielinski’s studies into imaginary media, Wolfgang Ernst’s reconsideration of the archive and media archaeology brought into practice as an artistic methodology by artists such as Paul DeMarinis and Zoe Beloff. Simultaneously, the chapters introduce and practice contemporary theory connected to media archaeology, with particular attention paid to the materialism of German media theory and its link to new fields in media studies such as software studies and platform studies.

Reviewing media archaeologies’ varied theoretical and methodological past, Parikka offers a valuable vision for ‘how to think media archaeologically in contemporary culture’ (p2), working toward a much needed methodological consensus. Essentially, this mode of thinking comes out as Foucauldian, as Parikka builds on Michel Foucault’s most fundamental archaeological and genealogical values. Emphasizing the need to excavate ‘conditions of existence’ (p18) in particular, Parikka is more than right to argue that media archaeology can account for the political, economic, technological and scientific underpinnings of digital media culture, while such emphasis enables media archaeology to break with its traditional fetish for the obscure media object and their inventors.

The greatest strength of the book is that it opens up a novel computational perspective on the history of digital media culture that brings socio-technological conditions into view other than those provided by the popular human-centred historical accounts of silicon-valley entrepreneurialism. Integral to the media archaeology that Parikka advocates, then, is a strong argument for a medium-specific approach that looks into the past through the lens of new media’s unique computational materiality and distinctive archival conditions. Inspired by Friedrich Kittler’s media materialism and, amongst others, the work of Wolfgang Ernst on the new status of the archive in digital culture, Parikka insists that media archaeology ‘goes under the hood ’ (p83) of hardware and software and approaches the media machine as archive, to unravel, for example, how digital and networked technologies find the unperceivable ground for their existence in modern science. With his ‘archaeology of noise’ (p91) as a case study in chapter 5, Parikka presents a lucid example of what medium-specificity means in the practice of historicizing digital culture’s past. Starting from the idea that noise - spam, viruses, etc. -is integral to today’s networked media environment, Parikka explores the scientific domain concealed under its figurative hood, and shows how this technological environment finds a critical condition for its existence, a ‘technical a priori’ (p99), in the 1940s, with Claude Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication and his formalization of noise as integral to any communication system.

Parikka’s ambitious attempt to establish media archaeology as a modern humanities methodology operative at the forefront of digital culture research, however, does at certain points feel a bit overzealous, leaving the reader with too many possible answers to the book’s main question and title, What is Media Archaeology? The book throws (too) many media archaeological balls in the air at the same time, simultaneously pursuing media archaeology as: new media culture’s historical research strand; an art method that acts at the forefront of contemporary practice-based research; a domain that upholds a close relation to digital humanities; and a field that has its voice...

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