- Ambivalent Media Histories
“I actually have written few texts that have succeeded in discarding the schema of before and after.”1
Questions of media historiography have long played a central role in European and North American media studies, and varied recent theoretical programs have addressed the intersections of media, culture, technology, and history, including theories of cultural techniques, media archaeology, actor-network theory, media philosophy, and philosophical anthropology. And yet while advocates of these approaches pursue what might at first glance be categorized as “media history,” they often distinguish themselves from conventional modes of cultural history and call into question protocols of historical [End Page 109] narration, bringing certain ambivalences about the very project of writing media history to the fore.
One such ambivalence stems from the proposition that media are distinct from or prior to “culture,” that they are radically non- or posthuman and as such resist the realm of human meaning-making. Wolfgang Ernst suggests, for example, that electric and electronic media operate on different temporal scales than human communication, contrasting the microtemporalities of technical media with the macrotemporality of history. For Ernst, traditional rhetorical modes of historical narrative cannot capture the essence of twentieth- and twenty-first-century media because these media do not operate symbolically. Bernhard Siegert takes a different yet related tack, arguing that media function prior to meaning-making. This technical or “medial a priori” situates media or cultural techniques as conditions of the possibility of meaning rather than as inherently meaningful themselves, and leads to what Siegert has called the “impossibility of writing media history.”2
The relationship of media theory broadly understood to technical modernity also occasions basic media-historiographical ambivalences. Media studies is by most accounts a child of the twentieth century, born of the attempt to come to terms with “new” media, and the broader field’s self-understanding and a conception of the modern go hand-in-hand. And yet theorists come down quite differently on certain fundamental questions: Do modern media infrastructures represent something radically different vis-à-vis previous technologies? Does media history culminate (or even end) with digital computing and its voracious assimilation of all previous media? Does our current media environment tend to produce a single, uniform culture of modernity or proliferate cultural and technological difference? And what comes next? The media philosophy of John Durham Peters describes the digital present’s resonances with various historical moments, while Ernst sees electric and electronic media as radical breaks with previous media systems. Despite dealing with different historical epochs, Ernst, Siegert, and Peters all privilege models of temporal heterogeneity and sychronicity over narratives of linear, diachronic progression, and all envision heterochronic modernities in which media times transform, structure, and destructure the experience and concept of history.
It is perhaps unfair to include Wolfgang Ernst under the heading [End Page 110] of “media history,” for much of Chronopoetics is a polemical attempt to convince the reader that media history is exactly what Ernst is not writing.3 Despite being trained as a classicist and historian, Ernst rails against humanist philosophies of history and seeks to purge media theory of all anthropomorphism, promising nothing less than the end of “the anthropological narrative of time.”4 Chronopoetics is a sustained call to take the time of machines seriously. This titular concept expresses the idea that the essence of media is to make or create modes of temporal sequence and unfolding that did not previously exist. The temporalities produced by medial operations change our perception of time and become objects in the world in an ontological sense (Ernst calls them “tempor(e)alities”5). He thereby also tells a story of how media operations come to increasingly withhold themselves from human...