- Medium-Oriented Ontology
i. all media are measuring media
In a crucial passage from a recent essay entitled “Experimenting with Media Temporality,” German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst weaves together all of the ingredients necessary to develop a physical approach to the medium:
The media-archaeological view considers the question of how media temporality, and especially its proper temporal figure of time-critical and microtemporal processes, is experienced through the experiment. In contrast to empirical experience of the observation of primary nature, media-experimental settings perform “culturalized” experiences of a secondary nature—with measuring media the crucial observers. A media-experimental setting is an artificial configuration based on cultural knowledge—but it is still of a physical nature because there are electro- or even quantum-physical laws at work that are not solely dependent on the respective cultural discourse.1
Ernst here combines a view of medium as measuring instrument with what he calls a time-critical approach to media, meaning an approach that foregrounds not simply the composition of media operations from time, but the requirement that digital signal processing occur within strict time windows. At the same time, Ernst engages media’s specific vocation to mediate between the cultural and the physical, which is equally to say, between the macrorealm of experience and the microrealm of quantum processes.
Let me begin my discussion of the physicality of the medium by affirming these commitments of Ernst’s—to medium as measurement, to media as time-critical, and to time-critical media measurement as the performative hinge linking micro and macroworlds. As I shall develop them, these commitments are absolutely crucial for understanding the full extent of media’s operationality in our world today, and specifically, for appreciating how the medium, that is, the time-critical, measuring medium, forms an unavoidable third term, and thus a principle of indirection, in the circuit linking human experience and world. I hope [End Page 383] to demonstrate as much, at the end of this paper, by way of a brief discussion of global warming—a phenomenon, and I shall insist on the term, that exemplifies the way in which our relation to the world is mediated by media that operate outside the domain of phenomenality as such (and not just human phenomenality) and that materialize a physical propensity linking the present to the future in the form of probabilities and, crucially, wholly within the space of the present itself.
But let me continue with the explication of Ernst’s claims. First, to medium as measurement: by qualifying media as measuring media, Ernst seeks to divorce media from their cultural and historical overdetermination. His aim in doing so is to liberate the operationality of media from the constraints that human-focused, cultural framings impose on it. A case in point is the archaeology of the acoustic, where human auditory sense, as Ernst diplomatically puts it, just “does not suffice.” To explore the operation of the sonic beyond the acoustic spectrum of humans, or for that matter, beyond any other delimited acoustic spectrum, we must, as it were, surrender our agency to the agency of the machine: “[T]he real archaeologists in media archaeology,” writes Ernst, “are the media themselves—not mass media, but measuring media that are able to decipher physically real signals technoanalogically.”2 Media are the “real archaeologists” on Ernst’s account precisely because they work directly on physical signals prior to their conversion into phenomenologically accessible forms, this work being the very mediation necessary to bring the physical into the domain of experience. Here we grasp the specificity of Ernst’s conception of media archaeology in its full resonance: rather than focusing on the long history of media devices, as do Erkki Huhtamo and Siegfried Zielinski, certainly two of the most prominent figures in media archaeology today, Ernst concentrates his critical gaze on the actual operations of concrete media independently of their cultural functioning. For Ernst, archaeology thus means the excavation of the affordances of media themselves, prior to any consideration of and without reference to their role as agents of cultural life.
Ernst’s commitment to this restricted understanding of archaeology—archaeology as excavation of media affordances...