- Deep Time of the Media: Towards an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means
Anyone who has heard Siegfried Zielinski speak at one of the many conferences in the last decade devoted to "new media" will not be surprised by the quality of the research, the conceptual coherence and the literary eloquence of this book. What is always so surprising about his presentations, and indeed this book, is the depth of new material that he unearths in the archives. Zielinski's idea is that media technology today is best understood as an ecology in which no single strand or individual feature can be fully comprehended independently of the rest. And, given that not all of the rest is knowable, then it is inevitable that our understanding will always be a provisional guess. This is not such a radical or innovative idea, but whereas most commentators who recognize the ecology of media then proceed with a microanalysis or a reductive teleology in which unreconstructed histories are conveniently matched with selective claims about the present, Zielinski tries to avoid this pitfall with his notion of the archaeology of deep time.
Just as an archaeologist is obliged to work with incomplete fragments of the past, so Zielinski works with fragments from the archive and connects them with shards of the present through a speculative association. This methodological intervention has the virtue of being completely inconclusive while at the same time carrying a resonance of possible completeness without over-inflating the evidence to support a fragile thesis.
The downside to Zielinski's tactic is that there are no glib answers to pass on, no explanation of how we got to where we are and where we might end up next, no reductive conceptualization of human intelligence to conveniently "life-sized" memes. His vision of the human project takes the long view, in which cognition is distributed in both space and time. By weaving the intersecting biographies of inventors and scientists, he is only able to hint at an explanation of the present that itself is not really comprehensible. At times this can be frustrating for the reader, and, indeed, even for Zielinski there seems no conclusion to his painstaking work except the satisfaction of recovering from the detritus of history a gem that, but for his efforts, would be forgotten sooner. At times the story is so protracted that it reads like a "shaggy dog" story as the author wanders through documents and stories, and yet unlike those meandering jokes his narratives gently take shape in a fugitive image of a past so exotic and intellectually glamorous that the adventure of science becomes irresistible. The insight invariably challenges received wisdom, as for example in the archaeology of moving image technology. Zielinski's argument not only situates the fascination with movement in a wider and more dispersed range of philosophical imperatives, but also introduces new players in that history that directs the attention of other researchers to richer grounds than the unreconstructed positivism of most media histories. In particular, the book rectifies the ideological skew that histories written by the economically dominant have visited on our understanding of both the present and visions for the future.
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What makes Zielinski's research especially engaging is that one gets the sense of a genuine curiosity at work simply by savoring the story and looking at the images he has assembled. Unlike much publishing in the field, this project unravels its evidence with humility and a minimum of personal comment, opening the way for readers to draw upon their own research to make richer connections than the author by situating his archaeological method in the process of history. This aspect of Deep Time of the Media is amplified by the illustrations that are carefully selected and precisely captioned, which means that, if nothing else, it becomes a valuable resource and, for many of us...