Would Ernst Say Riddell Nailed It?

Saturday, March 1st, 2014 by samanthalong88

This week, I dwelt particularly on this passage from Wolfgang Ernst’s Digital Memory and the Archive:

“Although most current theories of media archaeology aim at forming counterhistories to the dominant traditional histories of technology and of mass media, their textual performance still adheres to the historiographical model of writing, owing a chronological and narrative ordering of events. Admittedly, reclaim 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.” (56)

Alas, every time I think that I just about grasp this concept, I get thrown for a loop. Lately Zielinksi’s “new in the old” has dominated my thinking when concerning how to approach something from a media-archaeological standpoint. (Perhaps it’s the only thing I’ve gripped with any certainty this semester.) By looking for the new in the old, I had felt like I was freeing my object of study up from the restrictions and repressions of the dominant progress narrative.

But–taking this Ernst passage into consideration–I find that I have still been creating a counterhistory and have very much been a narrator telling a story (even if it’s a particularly unriveting one about product placement in old video games, as I did a few posts ago). There is still a chronology too by simply defining old game vs. newer game. Just great.

But how in the world do you not narrativize when you are putting down words in meaningful sequences onto a page?  What is left when you take those things away? Ernst continues that “it takes machines to temporarily liberate us from such conditions” (56). But how?  Is he talking about the experience we have in the moment with the machine (not when we later must write about it), or is he suggesting “thinking like a machine” and whatever that approach may reveal?  It seems, if we were to follow something like this, we wouldn’t be writing complete sentences in paragraph format as we have seen in his book. To me, it seems that–in order to follow Ernst’s advice to the letter–you would need to get wholly experimental.

This is what brings me to Writing Surfaces, a collection of John Riddell’s fiction. Not going to lie, when I first opened it I thought I had seen this before:


“Here’s Johnny!” – It works on two levels!

But, as I read the introduction upon finishing the collection in a desperate attempt to grasp what I had just read(?)/looked at(?)/experienced(?)/struggled with because the resolution of the digital book is awful, I was drawn to Professor Emerson and derek beaulieu’s discussion of the first proposed title for the collection, Media Studies. They write that this title would still be representative of the contents because “Riddell’s work is a kind of textbook for the study of media through writing, or the writing of writing” (loc 57).  Therefore, by undoing standard formatting, standard narration, and standard anything altogether, could I say that Riddell was being more Ernst than Ernst? Or, to put it another way, was Riddell and other artists like him really showing us how to conduct/perform media studies?

My thinking was led particularly by Riddell’s “a shredded text” and “Traces” pieces, which certainly employed the use of a shredder and a copier. I thought about how these technologies are generally thought about: the one destroys sensitive information and the other makes clean copies (and that’s certainly how they are both marketed). But Riddell’s use of these technologies seemed to do something new with both of them. There was a sense of sadness in both pieces, expressed by the writing destroyed by the shredder, the unreadable copy of a copy of a copy look in “Traces.” Both works show unintended consequences by reminding us of the physicality of paper, that it can be shredded and that a copy is not a perfect replica, but something else–they both are something else entirely. They also remind us of how these technologies have been implemented by not allowing us to simply glean the words off the page; they are jumbled, in disarray, or simply no longer readable. While I don’t have all the dots connected, it seems that this says something about these technologies that their dominant histories do not–all while avoiding the creation of a counterhistory.

Perhaps what would better serve me now, then, is to approach these artifacts artistically.


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