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Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means

by Zielinski, Siegfried; Gloria Custance, Translator; Timothy Druckrey, Foreword
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006
389 pp. illus. Trade, $39.99
ISBN: 0-262-24049-1.

Reviewed by: Sean Cubitt
Program in Media and Communications
University of Melbourne


Siegfried Zielinski offers a new take on the long history of media technologies, taking his readers on a tour of forgotten archives and forgotten innovators. Familiar names appear, among them a fascinating repositioning of Athanasius Kircher. By refusing to accept the normative histories, Zielinski recovers a lost trajectory that involves a long tradition of magical and quasi-rational thought from Empedocles to the Illuminati and, thence, to the late 19th century reinvention of time. Among those recovered from obscurity are Giovan Battista Della Porta, Purkyne, Lombroso and the extraordinary Aleksej Kapitanovich Gastev. In his conclusion, Zielinski not only draws together the legacy of Ramon Llull, but proposes a new cartography of media 'anarcheology', whose centres are no longer London, Paris, Berlin and New York but Petersburg, Prague and places south and east. It is a marvelous book in the most literal sense of the word, and a wonderful read in its own right, quite apart from the scholarship and the revelation of new trajectories for media historiography. One reason for this is that the book opens onto a landscape of strangely familiar if obscure beauty: the history of the magical tradition as an intellectual pathway now left in darkness, but once a shining path for intellectual and technological enquiry.

Zielinski's passion for the hermetic tradition steers clear of the worst excesses of Jungian mysticism while recalling the line, from Robert Fludd to Vilèm Flusser, that situates a history of media in the gnostic tradition in Western Europe. He reminds us that Newton's dark obsession with alchemy is of a piece with his physics and optics; and that Copernicus is as much the heir of Pico della Mirandola's solar worship as he is the ancestor of scientific rationalism. It is an attractive thought, that right knowing of material science sails so close to the perennial philosophy; and that however materialist this history is, it addresses, if only by rejection, the repressed chronotope of the eternal wisdom.

What has always repelled materialists from the hermetic tradition is not its whimsy but on the contrary the solemnity with which its priesthood has historically erected ever more complex cathedrals of theodicy and theogeny on the intuition that something 'more' inhabits, locates and frames the givenness of the world. It is sad therefore to note that materialism has often — though not universally — eschewed any address to the sacred. By this I do not mean that materialism in any way fails for lack of a theology, nor that the sacred forms some ontological ground on which the material world is more deeply founded. Rather, what has been often lacking is a commitment to understanding that affect which we recognise under the rubric of sacredness, an elevation beyond not merely the instinctual but also the intellectual pleasures, a yearning apart from the desire for justice, peace and plenty for all. Since the term sacred has, moreover, been tainted by centuries of mouthing in institutions that have done little for justice, peace or plenty, we need another term, one that might displace the materialist reluctance to address affect in general and this affect in particular. I propose a mediological enquiry into the nature of wonder, a task admirably launched by Zielinski's book.

Quite properly Zielinski calls this tradition 'magic'. It is hard nowadays not to evoke Arthur C Clarke's dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology appears as magic. What neither Clarke nor Zielinski undertake is an analysis of the curiously braided destinies of magic and familiarity. As Don Ihde observes, technologies that at their invention appear magical can, with widespread adoption, become 'embedded' and transparent, as signs written in one's native language are transparent. Embedded technologies like television, once marvelous, become the invisible vehicles of messages whose mediation we notice only when the machinery breaks down. The braiding of magic and the mundane occurs when familiarity breeds contentment. The internet is a case in point. Early adopters not only found the technology marvelous: we found it interesting. The early adopter generation tended to be computer literate, at least at the level of understanding (and wondering at) the processes of packet switching, the efficacy of html, even the duplicity of cookie technology. But for the internet generation who grew up with them, these marvels are the more truly magical because they are not understood. Comprehension of how the net works is today a specialist discipline, or the domain of nerds, and while nerds command a higher degree of peer respect than in previous generations, their knowledge is regarded as arcane, and only its instrumental use in problem solving genuinely prized. For the rest, the web, e-mail, IRC are apparitions whose arrival might as well be the result of angels fluttering in Intel Core Duos as of the massive infrastructure of satellites, fibre-optics, domain name servers and internet access points.

Not only does this leave internet governance at the mercy of cultures of expertise; nor merely open the doors to the exercise of power through control of code and protocol. It can also be damned for condemning us to good-enough solutions, like web-safe colours. At the same time, this state of affairs echoes with the same magical apparatuses that Zielinski points us towards. The difference is that while embedded internet appears without explanation or the need for it, it rarely evokes the sense of wonder that Zielinski's protagonists and their audiences so graphically experienced. It is a task — perhaps preliminary, but vital — of critical enquiry to restore that sense of wonder in the face of technologies that have become banal.

There is a further refinement required to the concepts of the hermetic tradition and of magic that such a project requires. Hermeticism's reliance on correspondences — on similarities held to embody a deeper linkage between phenomena at some metaphysical level — has a tendency to proliferate connections, drawing ragged collocations of words, numbers and things into mystic configurations. Pilloried by Umberto Eco in his novels, and defended as the root of radical (and contemporary) art practice by Barbara Maria Stafford, the practice of analogy can be as ludicrous as it is illuminating. Critical studies of technology seeking to induce a sense of the strangeness of their objects need to be alert to both the poetic affordances of analogy and its capacity for mystification. The methodological brush with magic reminds us that the world still has surprises in store for us. Should the word 'surprise' seem to redolent of fairground attractions, Tom Gunning has taught us that this is no bad thing. If we are to retain our capacity for amazement, we have to remain open to the chance encounter of the sewing machine and the umbrella stand on the operating table. If this encounter explains nothing, we must place it alongside more licit engines of interpretation which, it appears, increasingly can offer only approximations, intimations, abstractions of or from reality. Fractal geometry, the uncertainty principle, string theory all move away from claims to describe nature and natural processes. Without abandoning the claim to some kind of relation to reality, such theoretical and mathematical models no longer offer one-to-one transcriptions of the real. The relation is neither one of utter deracination nor of simulacra lacking an original. On the contrary, such expressions mediate between reality and ourselves using processes that often enough arise equally from natural and artificial domains. Zielinski's book traces processes of mediation that have found some material form that would allow some mode of conformation or congruence between terms. His achievement is to have noted that proximity is no guarantor of truth: the fleck in my own eye is as strange as, if not stranger than, the beam in my ancestor's.



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