- Variations on Media Thinking by Siegfried Zielinski
Siegfried Zielinski's Variations on Media Thinking provides a historically capacious introduction to the work of one of today's most important theorists of media and media archaeology. Perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for developing the concept of deep time of the media in a 2006 translated book of the same name, Variations on Media Thinking continues Zielinski's lifelong project of theorizing media as "generators of surprise," which, for him, is the "epistemic goal of a cultura experimentalis" (xvii). As a collection of eighteen essays—with the oldest written nearly forty-five years ago—Zielinski's book is an illuminating exercise in all kinds of experimentation, understood here in the broadest possible scientific sense—intellectual, methodological, theoretical, and historical. Motivated by a "deep mistrust of history, or rather historiography" (37), Zielinski's genealogical method for exploring technical artifacts floats seamlessly between the particular and the abstract, the artifactual and the theoretical. From a cultural critique of the NBC series Holocaust broadcast to West Germans in 1979, to an exploration of the "symbolic machines" of thirteenth-century Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull, and to a manifesto on "The Art of Design," among other phenomena, Variations on Media Thinking experiments with trans-temporal/and -cultural approaches to thinking with, through, and of inhuman media apparatuses.
What makes Zielinski's work so valuable for those interested in media archaeology and theory is that it provides a genealogical prehistory of the present. Drawing on rich historical examples, Variations on Media Thinking shows how perceptual experience, or "envisioning" as Zielinski puts it, is inextricably tied to technical apparatuses. Such a commitment to genealogy opens the doors for project-based experimentation by "enabl[ing] us to understand developments as labyrinthine, as movements associated with digressions and impasses…" (xv). "Project" and "experiment" are conceptually indispensable for understanding Zielinski's body of work. The essays collected in Variations on Media Thinking demonstrate that Zielinski is a project-based thinker in two important senses: the first is quite literal, as many of his historical inquiries are collaboratively-written excursions into new artifactual archives (such as the chapter on the optical discoveries of Arab scientist Ibn al-Haytham [965-1040]); the second is more subtle, and has to do with the fact that Zielinski's methodological penchant for the project is a philosophical one too. Channeling Vilém Flusser, Zielinski declares "We do not need a new ontology, neither subject nor object oriented, to play together, critically and productively, with the things, facts, and circumstances, the words and concepts, that have to do with media or that are constituted and produced through media" (xvi).
Neither subjects nor objects, then, but pro-jects, critical and posthuman interrogators and creators of trans-historical (an)archaeological media phenomena—experimenters, above all, with change, flux, and variance. As a [End Page 590] project, Zielinski's notion of media thinking embraces being thrown forward into more complex and chaotic relations with technical media, throwing off along the way all notions of cause/effect and subject/object. In the spirit of Giedion's "anonymous history" of mechanization or Stiegler's "epiphylogenesis" thesis, Variations on Media Thinking has no interest in sentimentalized subjective histories or object-oriented show-and-tell case studies. Instead, Zielinski experiments with a kind of inhuman (an)archaeology of media. Without falling into subject/object models of historical inquiry, Zielinski's hypothesis is that we consider the historically-situated processes of subject formation to be co-constitutive with developments in technical media. In order to better understand not only our own inhuman condition but how media apparatuses that structure our perception of the world (aesthetics/art, in other words) are situated within anarchic and chaotic relations of historical movement and contingent cultural techniques, Zielinski proposes a method of inquiry he calls "variantology." Variantology "has to do with compounds or mixtures of a kind whose unmixing always remains within the realm of imagination," since "the variant is more interesting in methodological and epistemological respects, as a mode of lightness and movement" (xx). With a...