Media Archaeology, Modernist Aesthetics, and the Past

Sunday, January 19th, 2014 by brandontruett

In this post, I’m interested in how one might use media-archaeological methods to interpret modernist aesthetics in such a way that unmasks modernism’s relationship to technology. If we define modernism as simply an aesthetic reaction to modernity and perhaps even more precisely as in relation to early twentieth century advancements in technology, then media archaeology would certainly submit an interesting lens into how modernists viewed their historical moment as filtered through various media.

I will look at a passage from Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past” (1939), which is concerned with the past and technology’s ability to render it. This post is a kind of thought experiment in performing media archaeology on a literary text, and as such, I seek to address how the study of media archaeology can illuminate literary culture, how a writer’s experience of new technologies shapes the form of her writing. As Jussi Parikka points out, employing a media archaeology of embodiment displays how technology affects subjectivity, pointing out the mediatic nature of our bodies. Indeed, Parikka claims that “media archaeology is a good methodology for an analysis of how our senses are always articulated in media contexts: modes of sensation themselves can be seen as historically structured” (20). A writer might commission a particular technology to describe an affective experience that is pre-conscious and rooted in the flesh, or she might imagine a technology that could assist in understanding a bizarre, affective experience. All the while, the writer comes to terms with her embeddedness in media technologies. In other words, because to put an affective experience into writing can be a slippery endeavor, writers may resort to an endemic technology to bridge the gap, as it were. In using a media-archaeological methodology, the critic is able to highlight the body as a medium through which technology is transmitted and experienced; in this way, a technological history inscribes itself onto the body because technology seems always articulated alongside the human as ancillary to him or her.

In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf delves into her childhood memories of times spent at St. Ives, and she pinpoints a specific memory upon which her life is constructed. Among many things, this essay is a meta-memoir as Woolf ruminates on the process of remembering as she explores nearly inexpressible experiences of the past: “is it not possible––I often wonder––that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them?” (67). Woolf imagines a futuristic technology that would assist or substitute the mind and its ability to remember: “Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into a wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890” (67). Woolf ostensibly draws on the technology of the phonograph or gramophone that records and replays sound; she longs for an advancement of this technology to accentuate her connection to the past. She goes as far as to link her auditory sense to the technology that would mediate and transmit the past—a good thing. She needs the technology as supplement to her senses due to their imperfect recollection of the past.

While the brevity of this post does not allow for an adequate exploration of this passage, I think this is a place where a media archaeologist could begin to ask incisive and productive questions about the inter-relationship between literary writing, technology, and the past. More specifically, Woolf’s modernist aesthetic relies on media technologies to render a fuller portrait of life that spans the past and the present, the former always pushing up through the latter. In another part of her essay, Woolf refers to “shocks” that reveal the interconnection of humans in a “moment of being”; she explains an ontology through an affective experience supported by the language of technology. What kind of technology does Woolf have in mind, and what does her imagining of a technological advancement reveal about our understanding of modernist aesthetics and its use of media technology to reach into the past?

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