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

by Siegfried Zielinski; Translated by Gloria Custance; Foreword by Timothy Druckrey
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006
304 pp., illus. 86 b/w. Trade, $39.95

Reviewed by Michael Punt
University of Plymouth


Anyone who has heard Siegfried Zielinski talk at one of the many conferences in the last decade devoted to ‘new media’ will not be surprised by the quality of the research, the conceptual coherence, and the literary eloquence of this book. What is always so surprising about his presentations, and indeed this book, is the depth of new material that he unearths in the archives. Zielinski’s idea is that media technology today is best understood as an ecology in which no single strand, or individual feature can be fully comprehended independently of the rest. And, given that not all of the rest is knowable, then it is inevitable that our understanding will always be a provisional guess. This is not such a radical or innovative idea, but whereas most commentators who recognise the ecology of media then proceed with a microanalysis or a reductive teleology in which unreconstructed histories are conveniently matched with selective claims about the present, Zielinski tries to avoid this pitfall with his notion of archaeology of deep time.

As an archaeologist is obliged to work with incomplete fragments of the past, so Zielinski works with fragments from the archive and connects them with shards of the present through a speculative association. This methodological intervention has the virtue of being completely inconclusive while at the same time carrying a resonance of possible completeness without over-inflating the evidence to support a fragile thesis.

The down-side of Zielinski’s tactic is that there are no glib answers to pass on; no explanation of how we got to where we are and where we might end up next, no reductive conceptualisation of human intelligence to conveniently ‘life sized’ memes. His vision of the human project takes the long view in which cognition is distributed in both space and time. By weaving with the intersecting biographies of inventors and scientists, he is only able to hint at an explanation of the present that itself is not really comprehensible. At times this can be frustrating for the reader and, indeed, even for him there seems no conclusion to his painstaking work except the satisfaction of recovering from the detritus of history a gem that, but for his efforts, would be forgotten sooner. At times the story is so protracted that it reads like a ‘shaggy dog’ story as the author wanders through documents and stories, and yet unlike those meandering jokes his narratives gently take shape in a fugitive image of a past so exotic and intellectually glamorous that the adventure of science becomes irresistible. The insight invariable challenges received wisdom, as for example in the archaeology of moving image technology. Zielinski’s argument not only situates the fascination with movement in a wider and more dispersed range of philosophical imperatives but also introduces new players in that history that directs the attention of other researchers to richer grounds than the unreconstructed positivism of most media histories. In particular, the book rectifies the ideological skew that histories written by the economically dominant have visited on our understanding of both the present and visions for the future.

What makes Zielinski’s research especially engaging is that one gets the sense of a genuine curiosity at work simply by savouring the story and looking at the images he has assembled. Unlike much publishing in the field, this project unravels its evidence with humility and the minimum of personal comment, opening the way for readers to draw upon their own research to make richer connections than the author by situating his archaeological method in the process of history. This aspect of Deep Time is amplified by the illustrations that are carefully selected and precisely captioned, which means that, if nothing else, it becomes a valuable resource and, for many of us, the only access we might have to this material.

By invoking archaeology in the brave new world of media Deep Time is ultimately a pessimistic reflection on the inevitability of the process of history to cover its tracks. At the same time, it is exemplary in its measured and qualified tone in a field overrun with wild speculation and unreconstructed teleologies. More than this, it is simply a delight to read, and some credit for this must go to the translator who has caught Zielinski’s spirit and voice. Where the book is perhaps at its weakest is in its departure from history. In common with many brilliant histories, the artistic efforts of the present seems to be rather arid, and the author clutches at partial and, in some cases, unbecoming examples. It is possible of course that this is not a shortcoming of the author but an indication that we need more research of the quality of Deep Time to inform the present generation of artists.

For those who have not had the good fortune to hear Zielinski talk there may be a surprise in this book: good quality research presented at face value with modesty and eloquence——something he shares with only a handful of contemporary media historians and theorists.



Updated 1st June 2006

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