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  • Screen Tests:Why Do We Need an Archaeology of the Screen?
  • Erkki Huhtamo (bio)

Some years ago I began an article calling for "screenology" with what sounds like a blatant truism: "An increasing part of our daily lives is spent staring at screens."1 Surely everyone knows that—at least everyone living in the highly mediatized and technologized parts of the world. What many don't know is that they know. How often do users of smart phones think about the curious shifts of perception between nothing less than ontological realms that take place when they move their gaze [End Page 144] from the screen to other humans, to the surrounding landscape, to another screen, and back again, in rapid succession?

As they become part of the practices of everyday life, screens have a tendency to become invisible; they mediate perceptions and interactions, effacing their own identities in the process. We don't stare at the screen; we gaze at what it transmits. But there is more: screens also hide the history of their own becoming, turning into a kind of ever-present nonpresence, an anomalous object.

This is one of the reasons why I have been calling for screenology, a hypothetical branch of Media Studies that would focus not "only on screens as designed artifacts, but also on their uses, their intermedial relations with other cultural forms and on the discourses that have enveloped them in different times and places."2 Screenology, or an archaeology of the screen, is needed to make screens visible again—to frame them, so to speak—and to break the illusion of timelessness, of media without history, that they sustain.

An obvious way to start is by tracing etymologies and early trajectories. Objects identified as screens in the past have not always functioned as the screens of today. Huge varieties of decorated "fire screens" were produced to guard humans from heat or light or gaze; an interplay between hiding and revealing came about as display screens gradually developed. "Mechanical" or "panorama" screens were produced in France in the 1820s and 1830s (Figure 1). They could be used as handheld fire screens, but they also contained translucent images—sometimes long rolls of them—that could be manipulated by the user; this distanced them from the "proto-screens" of the past and pointed toward new uses and definitions within what we now call "media culture."

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Figure 1.

Écran panoramas, or panorama hand screens, were produced in France in the 1820s and 1830s and were used as handheld fire screens; they also contained translucent images (from the author's collection).

In the reverse case, there have been cultural objects that have not been identified as screens, but have nevertheless functioned as surfaces for retrieving and transmitting visual information. The famous "special effect" Nostradamus is said to have concocted—a vision in a mirror of the future kings of France, which he displayed to the concerned queen Catherine de' Medici—is a famous example of "magic media." (How the trick was produced is still under debate.)3 The enchanted mirrors in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête; 1946) belong to the same trajectory, as do the mirrors that metaphorically mediate between different realms of being in his The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d'un poète; 1930) and Orphée (1950). [End Page 145]

A useful opening toward developing an archaeology of the screen was Charles Musser's concept of the "history of screen practice," introduced in 1984.4 Musser suggested the idea of cinema "as a continuation and transformation of magic lantern traditions in which showmen displayed images on a screen, accompanying them with voice, music, and sound effects."5 The entire first chapter of Musser's The Emergence of Cinema was dedicated to forms that preceded the appearance of "modern motion pictures."6 Musser traced the history of screen practice to the seventeenth century, in particular to the influence of the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Although Kircher could not be credited as the inventor of the magic lantern (an honor assigned to the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens), he...


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pp. 144-148
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