Wolfgang Ernst’s Digital Memory and the Archive describes an alternate method of interacting with media and media objects—a method that emphasizes the objective and the infrastructural rather than the anthropological and the sociological. From what I can tell, Ernst’s media archaeology is concerned more with the “how” (how was a particular recording made?), and less with the “what” or the “why” (what sounds are present in the recording, or, why does this recording have meaning?). Jussi Parikka, in his introduction, defines Ernst’s media archaeology as “more about how stories are recorded, in what kind of physical media, what kind of processes and durations—and as such, its focus is on the archaeology of the apparatus that conveys the past as fact not just as story” (7).
I think that all of this is fine and dandy (although I myself would have a terribly difficult time looking at anything from such an objective standpoint). The “cold gaze” of media archaeology does become problematic, though, for me. For example, Ernst, in his analysis, endows the machine with human-like agency: “The term media archaeology describes modes of writing that are not human products but rather expressions of the machines themselves, functions of their very mediatic logic” (58). But doesn’t that machinic agency break down because of human interference and manipulation of the machine? The fact that the human builds the machine, operates it, and then examines (however objectively) the resultant product, must certainly affect or hinder the machine’s so-called agency.
I found Ernst’s objective methodology to be particularly fascinating when used in conjunction with recorded sounds. Since last week, I have been interested in listening to recordings of the Beatles, with an ear toward their inclusion of studio anomalies within their finished recordings. In some ways, my attempts to listen to the anomalies support Ernst’s conception of a machine-centered methodology. When I tried to listen for the anomalies on vinyl recordings, I found that the anomalies were almost completely obscured by the delightful crackle of the record itself. Human interpretation, in this case, becomes largely impossible due to the machine’s intervention. With the use of more recent technology (like my laptop), human interaction with the machine becomes heightened, and human interpretation is pushed to the foreground. According to Ernst, “The microphysical close reading of sound, where the materiality of the recording medium itself becomes poetical, dissolves any semantically meaningful archival unit into discrete blocks of signals” (11). Through this reading, the medium, rather than the content, is elevated to poetical status, rendering meaning irrelevant. Ernst uses the helpful example of the Webster Wire Recorder, a machine that he contends “can resist the temptations of confusing beautiful voices with other kinds of acoustics and can instead pay equal attention to all kinds of sounds without ever being affected by their emotional value. With a cool archaeological sense for signals … the machine registers all kinds of electromagnetic vibrations—and thus comes closer to the real world than any alphabet can” (63).
I am intrigued by this concept of machinic access to the real world—an access that humans, because of their subjectivity, are barred from. For me, Ernst work provides a new way for humans to look at media and media objects. But his text leaves me wondering, what is the product of such objective interpretation? What would a machine’s “real world” rendering of “electromagnetic vibrations” look like? Would it exist outside of the recording itself? Would it be a mere sprawl of binary? A litany of numbers and symbols without referent? Because if that is the case, I don’t see how machine-inscribed media takes us forward or backward. It seems that Ernst venerates it simply because it exists, divorced entirely from any human applicability. Ernst quotes Powell in saying, “All texts are useless without the technology to decode its symbols” (62). How useful are objective machine transcriptions of the real world, if we as humans can’t access those transcriptions? I guess I just want humans to be involved in all of this, after all.