Media Archaeography

Wolfgang Ernst, ‘Media Archaeography: Method and Machine Versus History and Narrative Of Media’, pp.239-255, in:

Huhtamo, E., Parikka, J. (Eds.), 2011. Media archaeology: approaches, applications, and implications. University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif.


The media-archaeological method as proposed here is meant as an epistemological alternative approach to the supremacy of media-historical narratives. Equally close to disciplines that analyse material (hardware) culture and to the Foucauldian notion of the “archive” as the set of rules governing the range of what can be verbally, audiovisually, or alphanumerically expressed at all, media archaeology is both a method and an aesthetics of practising media criticism, a kind of epistemological reverse engineering, and an awareness of moments when media themselves, not explicitly humans any more, come active “archaeologists” of knowledge.

While most current theories of media archaeology aim at formulating counterhistories to dominant traditional histories of technology and of mass media, their textual performance still adheres to the historiographical model of writing, following a chronological and narrative ordering of events.


Admittedly, they claim to perform media-archaeological analysis itself sometimes slips back into telling media stories; the cultural inclination to give sense to data through narrative structures is not easy for human subjectivity to overcome.

It takes machines to temporarily liberate us from such limitations. Technology, according to Martin Heidegger, is more than instrumental, it transcends the human.

Media archaeology understood as an analysis of epistemological configurations (both machine and logic) does not simply seek redemption of forgotten I miss read media of the past, nor is it confined to a reconstruction of the crude beginnings and pre-histories of technical media.

[on radio]

There is no “historical” difference in the functioning of the apparatus now and then (and they will not be, until analogue video is, finally, completely replaced by the digitised transmission of signals); rather, there is a media-psychological short-circuit between otherwise historically clearly separated lines.

Archaeology of media is not simply an alternative form of reconstructing beginnings of media on the macro historical scale; instead, it describes technological “beginnings” (archai) of operativity on the microtechnical level.


What is process the past media-archaeologically rather than historiographically. Archaeology, as opposed to history, refers to what is actually there: what has remained from the past in the present like psychological layers, operatively embedded in technologies […]

It belongs to the specificity of technical media that they reveal essence only in the operation, recalling Martin Heidegger’s definition of “the thing” in Sein und Zeit.

But what drastically separates and I killer to update from a technical artefact is that the latter discloses its essence only when operating. While a Greek vase can be interpreted by simply being looked at, a radio or computer does not reveal its essence by monumentally being there but only when being processed by electromagnetic waves or calculating processes. It is not a historical object any more but actively generates sensual and informational presence.

Historical media narratives take place in imaginary time. Storage technologies, on the other hand, take place in the symbolic temporal order, and the contingent can now be dealt with by stochastic mathematics as implemented in real-time computing.

Media are not only objects but also subjects (“authors”) of media archaeology.


The term media archaeography describe modes of writing that are not human textual products but rather expressions of the machines themselves, functions of their very mediatic logic – just as photography in Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature registers physical (optical) reality in a way not performed by the painterly human hand anymore.

Technological media that operate on the symbolic level (I.e computing) differ from traditional symbolic tools of cultural engineering (like writing in the alphabet) by their registering and processing not just semiotic signs but physically real signals. The focus shifts to digital signal processing as cultural technology instead of cultural semiotics.

Technological media such as photography and computing became active archaeologists of physical realities that are often inaccessible to human senses, as in the case of ultraviolet photography of ancient manuscripts, and the reconstruction of “lost” signed signals in damaged Edison wax cylinders by optical scanning and digital processing.

For immediate archaeologists, the recent turn from the epoch of electronics to that of information means that although data-processing media are still rooted in archaeologically accessible materialities (hardware, physics), their archaeology of knowledge requires competence in informatics (mathematical logic, technique and control). Media archaeology is primarily interested in the nondiscursive infrastructure and (hidden) programs of media. Thus it turns from the historiographical to the techno-archival (archaeographical) mode, describing the nondiscursive practices specified in the elements of the techno-cultural archive.

[…] this means dealing with the techno-archaeological artefact – and in a methodological sense, it means performing media archaeology by means of such machines (measuring, calculating).


Media archaeology adds to the study of culture in an apparently paradoxical way by directing attention (reception, analysis) to non-cultural dimensions of the technological regime.


[Ref McLuhan]

It was a crucial moment–archaeological rather than historical, since it was not immediately reflected in cultural terms – when the invention(s) of the discrete alphabet (at the post to you ideal graphic fighting systems like the Egyptian hieroglyphs) broke down human language into its smallest elements, which were meaningless in themselves– from “house” (beth) to “B” (beta). At the moment the machinic took over, since only machines could perform symbolic operations without the semantic referentiality that hindered effective data processing.


Media-archaeological aisthesis (immediate signal perception as opposed to aesthetics in philosophical and cultural discourse) operates transitively, that is, in direct reference and contact with its objects – just as technological media operate, not within a “deep”  hermeneutic space, but on a “flat” level, materially (as instanced by an electromechanic pickup deciphering the grooves of a musical record disk) and logically (as instanced by programming, which has a syntactical rather than semantic mode of operation).


Hermeneutic empathy here clashes with pure data navigation: there is  a world of difference between an archaeology of knowledge and historical imagination, which seeks to replace positive evidence by an act of reanimation.


Media taken as physical channels of communication and as technical artefacts that are mathematically operated by symbolic codes and streaming data must be analyzed differently from cultural texts, art historical images, classical music, or works of art. The archaeological gaze (“theory,” in the ancient sense of insight) is such a way of looking at media objects: enumerative rather than narrative, descriptive rather than discursive, infrastructural rather than sociological, taking numbers into account instead of just letters and images.

Media “archaeology” discovers a kind of stratum – or matrix – in cultural sedimentation that is neither purely human nor purely technological, but literally in-between (Latin medium, Greek metaxy): symbolic operations that can be performed by machines and that turn the human into a machine as well.

Digital narrative, on a media-archaeological (not interface) level, is linked to discrete mathematics; in medieval German, the words for counting and narrating were etymologically the same. A computing culture, from a media-archaeological view, deals not with “narrative memory” but with calculating memory – counting rather than recounting, the archaeological versus the historical mode.


So far in Western culture, narrative has been the primary mode of processing archivally stored data in the name of history, which on the surface of so-called multimedia continues in the form of stories (even in computer games, though in fragmented ways).

Media-archaeological analysis, on the contrary, does not operate on the phenomenological multimedia level; instead, it sees all so-called multimedia as radically digital, given that digital data processing is undermining the separation into the visual, auditive, textual, and graphical channels that on the surface (interface) translated data to human sense.


Since technologies changed from tools to machines, these techniques have comprised not only texts and images but numbers as well. Media archaeology therefore is close to mathematics.

Human culture does not lose but wins by such a nonhuman challenge. Let us employ media archaeology to suspend our subject-centered interpretations for a moment, while at the same time admitting that this techno-ascetic approach is just another method to get closer to what we love in culture.

Media archaeology exposes the technicality of media not to reduce culture to technology but to reveal the techno-epistemological momentum in culture itself.