Media archaeology and re-presencing the past

Vivian Sobchack, ‘Afterword : media archaeology and re-presencing the past’, pp.323-333, in:

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


[…] this discourse of presence (a “presence in absence”) and its particularly concern with the past and the conditions under which it can be re-presenced (as well as historiographically communicated) are central to media archaeology.


At one extreme, presence is defined as the literal transhistorical (yet not ahistorical) transference relay of metonymic and material fragments or traces of the past through time to the “here and now” – where and when these can be activated and thus realised once again in our practical, operative, and sensual engagement with them. Not to be confused with a “naive realism,” this sense of presence emerges from the epistemological and sensual specifics (both material and structural) that are entailed not in theoretical or interpretive discourse but in operative (and necessarily corporeal) practice and knowledge – that is, in “performative acts of knowing, which focus on what is done rather than what is represented.” This view of presence certainly informs much of media archaeology.

This view also grounds the importance to most media archaeologists of handling, measuring, collecting, and focusing on these historical remainders primarily in the Heideggerian terms of techne, which in its own right, is a “revealing” that not only “brings forth” but also makes present.

At the other extreme, presence is defined as a consequential but illusory (and elusive) effect.

In the case of media archaeology, an overlooked media artefact (whether realised or only imagined and/or schematized) seems, once, both familiar and strange.


[…] this dissatisfaction with “representationalism” is where media archaeology and the essays in this volume part ways from the dominant philosophy and interpretive methodologies of film, television, and media studies.

It prefers to avoid or defer interpretive analyses and explanations as well as the kind of teleological emplotments demanded by realist historical representation, which is attempts to fill in the absences of the past with coherent – and metaphorical – narratives that substitute for their loss.


Practically, of course, communicating presence through language will always entail some degree of connotation and interpretation.


Philosophically and methodologically, however, the desire for presence (as well as its actual upsurge in the process of research) calls forth a new kind of methodology – and a new kind of historiography.


Empirical and materialist, emphasising qualitative and often quantitative description, this new methodology emphasises the “thinginess” of things and entails not interpretive “reading” or cultural “analysis” but closely looking at and, when possible, touching, operating, and performing the object of study. Historiography is also transformed –conceived and written[…] not in narrativised acts of interpretation that impose a comprehensive vision on the world but rather in narrated acts of discovery and description that open up our senses as well as intellect to the world – and, particularly to its constant discontinuities, its always marvellous “otherness” from the way we would think it.

[…] the metalevel grounding of media archaeology in all its diversity is located in a desire for, and belief in, the possibility of historical presence as summarised above.


[…] I would argue that media archaeology – ideologically, and in terms of its liberal alliances and differences from the disciplined disciplines of history, film and media studies, and cultural studies – retains its anarchic status as undisciplined: committed, that is, to discourse of presence (whenever Romantic or Satiric) that poses a major challenge to these disciplines’ epistemic norms and established values.