Author Archive: brandontruett

[DELETE]: A Media Archaeology of Word Processing

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014 by brandontruett

I post here a short abstract of my final practice-based project, entitled “[DELETE]: A Media Archaeology of WordStar and the Osborne’s User-Friendly Ideology.”

In this paper, I focus on the Osborne 1 and its bundled WordStar word-processing program while also accounting for its user manuals. More specifically, I emphasize the role of the delete function as a site where interface design, hardware, and software intersect to disturb the ideology of the user-friendly as endorsed by the user manuals. At the end of this essay, I offer a postscript in which I point to the brief historical moment when the Osborne users tapped Lee Felsenstein’s philosophy of open user access to the machine, as evidenced by his affiliation with both Community Memory and the People’s Computer Company; in the tradition of Felsenstein’s mission, the Osborne users transform the Osborne 1 into a toy rather than a tool.

This paper draws on my semester-long work in the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) wherein I interrogated the ideology of the user-friendly and its relationship to word-processing technology; see my previous posts for a trajectory of my ideas. Moreover, I admit that my paper is heavily theoretical as it incorporates a range of media and media-archaeological theorists such as Siegfried Zielinski (particularly his praxis of variantology), Friedrich Kittler, Lori Emerson, and Matthew Fuller, as well as Michel Foucault’s notions of archaeology and biopower. However, I attempt to historicize my approach by examining source material (i.e. InfoWorld articles and the newsletters of the People’s Computer Company).

To learn more, feel free to peruse my essay!

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A Media-Archaeological Approach to Word Processing and the User-Friendly

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by brandontruett

My experiences in the MAL have coalesced around two central concepts: the user-friendly and word processing. I have become fascinated by the way we inscribe/input writing into a machine, thereby becoming a user who is often thwarted by the unwieldy operations of the machine. Indeed, Matthew Kirschenbaum, who is completing a project on the literary history of word processing, reminds us of the infamous incident publicized by the New York Times wherein President Jimmy Carter lost several pages of his memoir that he had been word-processing on a Lanier computer in the early 1980s. Even though each machine’s manual is saturated with the ideology of the user-friendly, across the various machines I’ve used in the MAL, I never experienced a seamless interface; such simply doesn’t exist. In my project, I will interrogate the differences and discontinuities of word processing on the range of three machines: the Xerox 6010 Memorywriter, the Osborne 1 using WordArt (also used by Ralph Ellison to write Juneteenth), and the Commodore 64 using HES Writer. (Note: I am also entertaining the idea of proceeding reverse chronologically, from the user-friendly GUI to the electronic typewriter, in order to explore a non-linear approach.) Learning from prominent media theorists as Friedrich Kittler (e.g. “media determine our situation”) and Siegfried Zielinski (e.g. variantology) as well as Michel Foucault’s concept of archaeology, I will implement a practice-based approach to my critique of the user-friendly and its relationship to word processing. I hope to theorize the relationship we have with our word processors; indeed, if what Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed is true––that “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts”––how does writing on different machines change how we think about what we write, and moreover, why does each manual attempt to bridge the chasm between machine and human, producing the latter as at once subject and user? As an experimental method, to ensure that both the hardware and the software inflect my theorization, I will perform my writing through two media: typewritten paper and digital word processing, reflecting on the idiosyncratic problems that each pose to the user as he or she shifts from analog input to using a GUI interface; in other words, when speaking of the Osborne 1, I will write using the machine with its software, WordArt. My methodology is influenced by Siegfried Zielinski’s concept of “variantology,” whereby one discovers “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, to borrow from Lori Emerson’s implementation. With this method, I hope to debunk and to undermine the story of casual, linear progress that we tell ourselves about our machine history and that which cleanly narrativizes the transition from, say, fountain pen to typewriter to electronic typewriter and reaching a telos with the digital word processor on the computer. I am not exactly certain about either the outcome or the degree to which I will succeed, but I am excited to see where this media-archaeological method takes me. I of course would love to hear from any of you about my proposal, whether you have comments, critiques, or just outright problems that you see I might face. I am sure that my project will change as I get going.

In the meantime, see the image below for the provisional launch of my project with the Memorywriter:

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Word Processing and the User-Friendly

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 by brandontruett

Anticipating a possible topic for my final project, this week I experimented with more word processors in the MAL. I had used WordArt on the Osborne and fiddled around with the clunky typewriters, and here I am going to discuss my experience with HES Writer, which I operated on the Commodore 64 (1982).

The HES Writer software comes on a cartridge, which one must insert into the side of the large keyboard/machine that is the Commodore 64. It seemed odd to me that the Commodore, which I had thought was used primarily for gaming, would accommodate a word processor; however, after reading the manual of HES Writer, I came to realize that the program could even print from the machine. Indeed, the packaging of the HES Writer repeatedly reminded the user of its novelty and cutting-edge functionality—that “you can write simple notes, letters, even manuscripts” with the program. The HES Writer boasted of the magical “word wrap-around” feature that we now view as quite trivial. Like my experience using the Osborne, I was frustrated with the convoluted labyrinth of commands that one must enter in order to edit the document; one must remember the line numbers to which to return and edit the mistyped words. As you can see in the pictures below, the interface, due to its color scheme which you can alter to your desired colors, resonates with gaming. Also, in the second picture, you can see how the screen fills up with text after typing a short paragraph.

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Lori informed me of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work-in-progress, entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, which is under contract with Harvard University Press. I was fascinated by the New York Times coverage of Kirschenbaum’s project that fixated on his search to proclaim the first literary novelist to use a word processor on a computer. From the short article, I realized that Kirschenbaum’s book will likely employ media-archaeological methods, such as unearthing a Wang System 5 similar to that which Stephen King used when he wrote his short story “Word Processor of the Gods.”

After reading about Kirschenbaum’s project, I wonder if studying the connection between the ideological user-friendly and word processing software might illuminate a history of humans to unite themselves amicably with their machines. Again, similar to my experience with WordArt on the Osborne, the HES Writer’s manual instructs the user in such a way that one feels as if he or she is being taught how to write anew—that somehow writing before computers has become obsolete. When introducing the user to the editing feature of the program, the manual thus instructs, “[t]he above paragraph must be entered starting with text line 1” and continues to direct the user in laborious detail how to delete, move, and add characters as well as maneuver the cursor. And the manual ends with a “Problems” section for the inevitable moment when the glossy veneer of the ideological user-friendly becomes blemished, and one cannot remember anything about the content that he or she has attempted to word-process onto the machine. I am interested in continuing to analyze the manuals of word-processing software while comparing them to the human’s affective relationship to the machine—to what extent does the user-friendly attempt to mitigate the fact that, as Nietzsche observed, “our writing tools are also working on our thoughts?”

Work Cited

Schuessler, Jennifer. “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute.” New York Times. 25 December 2011. Web.

Jonathan Crary and Post-post-humanism

Monday, April 7th, 2014 by brandontruett

Jonathan Crary, in “Techniques of the Observer,” advances a Foucauldian analysis of the ways in which the observer was constructed historically. He focuses on ruptures rather than sanctioning the linear development of visual culture that began with the camera obscura and culminated with photography in the modernist era. Indeed, he follows Foucault by questioning the seeming similarity of historical objects that have been narrativized as continuous. To accentuate this historical rupture, or perhaps a new episteme, Crary emphasizes the site of the human body, whereby observation becomes corporeally theorized and intertwined, or as he puts it, “how the individual as observer became an object of investigation, a locus of knowledge in the first half of the 1800s, and how the nature of vision was thus modified” (15). Crary profits from an archaeological method à la Foucault’s The Order of Things, and elucidates historical ruptures in a similar way that Foucault views the discontinuity between the classical and modern epistemes. Echoing Benjamin, Crary persuasively argues that the nineteenth century inaugurated the “visual culture of modernity” (29). Scaffolding his argument is a material analysis of the stereoscope and how it “conflated the real with the optical, an object with its image” (29). In his view, the stereoscope referred back to the observer’s body inviting it to participate in the mechanical production of an image, thereby obscuring the line between subject/object. The stereoscope radically departs from the perhaps classical technology of the camera obscura.

Reading 24/7 alongside Crary’s early work in “Techniques of the Observer,” I am interested in how each argument informs a kind of humanistic inquiry by relying on the centrality of the human body and how its sensorium was affected and disciplined by emerging technologies. Crary does not replace the human with the objects. As we discussed early on, Crary seems invested in a return to the human, a post-post-humanism, as it were. While one might read this earlier piece as participating in posthumanism, especially in its final declaration on “the denial of the body, its pulsings and phantasms, as the ground of vision,” I think that Crary generates an archaeology of the observer that places subjectivity in an inextricable relationship with the machine (35). He achieves this by concentrating on the stereoscope and its relationship to the human body rather than reproducing a history of photography as a genealogy of modernism.

Thoughts on the Working Machine

Monday, March 17th, 2014 by brandontruett

There seems to be a trend forming around my experiences in the MAL. My fumbling attempts to operate a machine are sometimes thwarted by its inoperability but more likely my own technical ineptitude. Last week I walked into the MAL with the goal of loading a cassette game onto the Commodore 64 of 1982. Before Lori told me, I had no idea that a cassette could load information besides music. After about an hour of loading five different cassette tapes, I nearly gave up. The machine would flash colored horizontal bars that danced down the screen, giving me hope that the game would soon appear. However, the pirouetting bars would eventually give way to the command prompt, alerting me to the game’s inability to “work.”

While my last posts that derived from lab research focused on the concept of user-friendly, I am now more interested in the notion of a machine that “works.” What does it mean if it works? How do we determine it doesn’t work? I began to notice the yellow post-its placed on some machines in the MAL that read “this works,” but in my experience, especially in the context of my family’s one desktop computer that was a hallmark of my childhood, the machine might work when someone else uses it. Working, then, might inescapably depend on who’s using it even though we’re quick to pass judgments on the machine when frustrated.

The Commodore 64 obviously powered on and correctly processed my commands, but the various cassette tapes (software?) posed problems. I eventually was able to see the colorful title screen of Max Headroom (see image below) yet after ten excruciating minutes of no progress, I concluded the cassette didn’t work. I began to ponder the notion of a correctly working machine, which inevitably must satisfy the user. There certainly are degrees to which a machine will work, but we will say the machine doesn’t work when it doesn’t satisfy our needs. Indeed, I couldn’t load the cassette game, Sherlock, so I concluded that the Commodore 64 didn’t work. This of course is faulty logic, but I think it reveals an interesting aspect of our relationships to machine––that we place demands on the machine that far exceed its feasible operability; that is to say, the machine probably “works” in the abstract sense, but we define its operability based on our experience, how it works in relation to us. It, then, follows that our ability to understand object-oriented ontology, how the machine itself experiences being, might have a limit. I may be assuming too much about the general user, but based on my own experience with machines, the frustration that builds to the point at which I nullify its being, I am hesitant by the prospect of fully understanding or theorizing an object-oriented ontology. As we have discussed in class, these theorizations, which have been borne out of or perhaps have arose in tandem with posthumanism, predictably return to the status of the human. In short, my frustrations in the MAL complicate my own ability to understand the machine on its own terms, as I affix my own affective responses onto the machine when it doesn’t do my bidding. I feel better to conclude that the machine doesn’t work rather than perhaps more likely declaring that I as a user do not work.

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Prelude to Tomorrow’s Discussion

Monday, March 10th, 2014 by brandontruett

In advance of my presentation tomorrow, I will outline a few of my main points in regard to Foucault and the archive. Indeed, I hope to elucidate Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge in order to help us better understand the springboard from which Wolfgang Ernst and other media archaeologists have launched their theories.

The Archaeology of Knowledge succeeds The Order of Things, and in so doing, the former offers a methodological explanation for archaeology as a way to describe an archive of the present. Rejecting the ways in which historians have described the past and imposed linearity, Foucault eschews progressive, continuous accounts of the past that have been overly anthropomorphized; instead, archaeology contends with disruptions and discontinuities, proposing a method to describe the discourses that have constitute our present moment, regulating and determining what can be said, written, and even argued. These discourses find their materiality, as it were, in archives by which information is stored and rules are systemized. These archives ensure linearity. To tackle an analysis of an archive, Foucault outlines the four principles of archaeology: (1) “to define … discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules. It does not treat discourse as a document, as a sign of something else … It is not an interpretative discipline”; (2) “does not seek to rediscover the continuous, insensible transition that relates discourses, on a gentle slope, to what precedes them, surrounds them, or follows them”; (3) “is not ordered in accordance with the sovereign figure of the oeuvres”; (4) “is nothing more than a rewriting: that is, in the preserved form of exteriority, a regulated transformation of what has already been written. It is not a return to the innermost secret of the origin; it is the systematic description of a discourse-object” (138-140).

Foucault’s method of archaeology has of course been quite influential for the field of media archaeology as Jussi Parikka has pointed out and Wolfgang Ernst has demonstrated in his own theories. One of my own interests in the intersections of Ernst and Foucault has to do with media archaeology’s obvious profiting from Foucault’s argument “to define a method of historical analysis freed from the anthropological theme” (16). Foucault surely paved the way for Ernst’s “cold gaze of the media archaeologist” (Parikka qtd in Ernst 8). However, much of The Archaeology of Knowledge deals with print and orality even though Ernst is more interested in the agency of the machine. I see here the departure from which Ernst defines his own brand of (media) archaeology that deals with the silences and absences in the archive in order to highlight the irruptions. I am looking forward to discussing with others in the seminar the intersections and perhaps discordances between Foucault and Ernst.

How does Ernst’s media archaeology build on or modify the archive as theorized by Foucault?

Since arguably Foucault’s predominant aim was to describe an archive of the present through archaeology, how do media-archaeological methods extend his project and demonstrate it in our present? 

The Minitel: France’s 1980s “Internet”

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 by brandontruett

Earlier this week I entered the MAL with not much direction. After tinkering with MS-DOS on one of the portable Compaq computers, having merely changed the machine’s time, I enlisted Lori’s help, and she gave me the Minitel, a French personal computer that accessed the Internet before the World Wide Web. Because I wasn’t able to power on the computer (it’s no longer operational), Lori emailed me a book by Marie Marchand that detailed the success of the Minitel. I was quite surprised to learn that the Minitel symbolizes an alternative history to accessing the Internet as we do today. When it was introduced in 1982, the Minitel did not have the typical QWERTY keyboard but rather it arranged the keys alphabetically, the argument being that all users would be on equal footing. While reading Marchand’s account of the Minitel, I was struck by her invocation of publics and egalitarianism. Taking into account the Minitel, Valerie Schafer proclaims that “[t]he world did not begin with the internet” (qtd. in Schofield). I began to reflect on how excavating the history of the Minitel could pluralize and perhaps derail the teleological and progressive history of the Internet, of the world going online together. The current blog post participates in Kittlerian notions of media history as characterized by ruptures rather than continuity. This machine evidences an uneven geography of technological access, thereby undermining notions of geopolitical equality that accompany the popular history of the Internet.

Moreover, the Minitel has only just been discontinued in 2012; according to Hugh Schofield of the BBC, “the whole Minitel adventure can be seen as a typical French experience. Only in France could the public resources have been mobilised to give the project its initial boost. So for a few years, the country was the envy of the world.” Indeed, one might interpret the Minitel as a technological representation of French nationalism, whereby the country entered a race with the rest of the world to go online. As a kind of triumphant mark of socialistic policy, the Minitel was distributed to French households for free by state-owned France Telecom, and allowed users to host their own services. The users had the ability to craft their own public in which to interact when one another and to do so anonymously. The Minitel connected the user to a secure network via a phone line, allowing him or her to book train tickets, inquire into bank accounts, check the weather, et cetera. More scandalous, the Minitel also introduced cybersex and pornography, allowing the user to correspond with paramours via text messages.

While I was ultimately saddened by not having the ability to use the Minitel in the MAL, I think the process of uncovering its history indicates a media-archaeological method. Even though I didn’t go under the hood nor did I fiddle with its software, the machine reminds us of the flawed “idea of inexorable, quasi-natural, technical progress” (Zielinski 3).

Works Cited

Marchand, Marie. A French Success Story: the Minitel Saga. Canada: Larousse, 1988.

Schofield, Hugh. “Minitel: The rise and fall of the France-wide web.” BBC News. 27 June 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18610692

Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Trans. Gloria Custance. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

Kittler’s Foreclosure of Forms of Resistance

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by brandontruett

Friedrich Kittler seductively begins Gramophone, Film, Typewriter with the oft-quoted claim: “Media determine our situation” (xxxix). While pithy, this statement seems myopic in its wholesale underwriting of technological determinism as the only way in which humans are determined. Of course I think he’s correct in checking the delusions of personal agency, but I am worried that this media-determinist logic might ignore other, as it were, more humanist determinations. Mark McGurl has recently pointed out that “the problem with media theory is less in asserting the dominance of technology over our naïve dreams of personal agency than in inexcusably cheating us of a view of the full range of our determinations, from the materiality of geological and microbial evolution, near one end, to the intimate force of nationalism and other ideologies toward the other” (537f8). Indeed, Kittler overemphasizes (not unwarrantedly) the extent to which media have structured our lives at the expense of other institutions and ideologies, such as the nation-state, empire, and global capitalism. Since admittedly I am not well-versed in media theory, I would like to better understand media determinism in both the Kittlerian and Zielinskian traditions because I think each theorist heavily relies on this doctrine. As we have discussed in almost every class, media theory has the tendency to elide social relations and the hierarchizing of power.

Relevant to what I am suggesting here is how, I think, Kittler’s posthumanism informs technological determinism in his work. He argues that “[o]nce the technological differentiation of optics, acoustics, and writing exploded Gutenberg’s writing monopoly around 1880, the fabrication of the so-called Man became possible” (16). Drawing on Nietzsche’s insight that “[o]ur writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” Kittler elucidates the fabrication of “so-called Man” as coinciding with the machine that spliced human faculties and routed them through various media (qtd. in “Translator’s Introduction” xxix). As Kittler goes on to say, “[h]is essence escapes into apparatuses” (16). Kittler obviously marks the end of “humanness” with the introduction of the typewriter. My question, then, is: how does Kittlerian posthumanism inform technological determinism in his work? What are the limitations of technological determinism, and can such a perspective be inimical when it eclipses other critical inquiries? More pressingly, doesn’t technological determinism foreclose any glimmer of resistance through human agency?

Works Cited

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. 

McGurl, Mark. “The Posthuman Comedy.” Critical Inquiry 38 (Spring 2012): 533-553.

Media Worlds and World-Systems Theory

Monday, February 17th, 2014 by brandontruett

Reading Siegfried Zielinski, I am struck by his reliance on the center-periphery model that he presumably draws from Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory. Zielinski elucidates a cartography of the media wherein the industrial metropolises (London, New York, Berlin, etc) comprise the center, and the hinterlands and economically less powerful (mainly in the South and the East) comprise the periphery; all the while, he attempts to trace the movements that ebb and flow along this linear route. I am a bit wary of this model because it seems all too easily amenable to the desires of late capitalism, by which I mean the edification of power relations that prioritize that which is considered the center. I think here we see how media theory can elide the effects of power that crosscut social relations: why hold onto this model and simultaneously seek “to advocate a two-fold shift of geographic attention: from the North to the South and from the West to the East” (Zielinski 261)? The center-periphery model, in my view, keeps the status quo by which some regions of the world are regarded as underdeveloped. Indeed, as Eric Hayot has recently pointed out while contextualizing world-systems theory in terms of aesthetics, when one conceptualizes a world, he or she perhaps unknowingly enters a subject-object relation with said world, filling it with self-selected qualities. Hayot draws on Heidegger’s tiny, self-contained sentence “world worlds,” which describes the process by which this relation is enacted. Put another way, conceptualizing a world has effects. I wonder, then, what Zielinski means when he discusses “media worlds.” What sort of world does he have in mind? What are the effects of conceptualizing these “media worlds” and connecting them to geographical locations?

Word Processing on the Osborne 1

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 by brandontruett

After learning that Ralph Ellison wrote Juneteenth on the Osborne 1, I had to try it for myself with the hope of approximating the experience of digitally word processing in the early 80s. First and foremost, it took me about ten minutes to turn on the machine. Full disclosure: I ultimately failed and had to ask Kyle for help. After powering on the machine, I inserted a very thin and large disk that contained the WordArt program. Waiting for the machine to boot the program, I pulled out the huge user’s guide, and was confronted with its notion of “user-friendly”; it reassured me of the ease with which I would write my first document. Wrong. I couldn’t even figure out how to begin typing. I eventually learned how to create a new document, which was not as intuitive as the user’s guide led me to believe. Once I started typing, I hit another roadblock: figuring out how to delete characters. The manual encouraged me to pull out the reference guide, which contained a variety of commands that the user must enter, for instance, to delete one character. I started to realize the extent to which I rely on a homogenized, sleek interface à la Microsoft Word that nicely lays out every command and which are available at the click of the cursor. The Osborne 1 certainly lacks the seamlessness to which I have become accustomed. I was constantly aware of the black space and the various shades of green that constituted my digital writing. I tried to imagine the possibility of Ellison losing himself in the act of writing and forgetting the screen and focusing instead on the abstract words as they formed in his mind. But, perhaps, he handwrote a draft and then simply transcribed the draft into the WordArt program on Osborne 1.

At any rate, this is pure speculation. What is interesting is how my media-archaeological method of booting up a retro word-processing program forced me to reflect on the effect that Microsoft Word has on me today as a writer. Using the Osborne 1, I felt more connected to the machine, to its hardware than when writing on my MacBook Pro. I had to understand the machine on its own terms rather than it trying to assist me, as Microsoft Word routinely does. Moreover, I began to think if it’s possible to trace how the “user-friendly” ideology has been employed historically. I was surprised that the Osborne 1’s manual recited to its user the same party line that we receive from Apple in 2014. Like Renée, I find “user-friendly” to be a slippery term that carries more weight with respect to persuading the user rather than veritably reporting the experience of computing.

N.B. The enclosed picture depicts what I typed in the WordArt program. I attempted to write my blog post, but ultimately wanted to finish the post on Microsoft Word.

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Late Capitalism and the Sleeper

Sunday, January 26th, 2014 by brandontruett

Having read a couple posts that lament the lack of solutions offered in Jonathan Crary’s 24/7, I want to focus on the solution as demonstrated by Crary’s ambitious attempt to identify an opposing temporality in the form of the “sleeper.” He makes a strong claim that techno-conglomerates have interpellated us to exist as compliant subjects in a world of unfettered late capitalism. Crary elucidates a social reality that is surveyed biopolitically, which is to say, we have been conditioned to self-administer our own compliance. While 24/7 certainly contains much that should be unpacked, I am specifically interested in how the argument pertains to social relations, how we interact with one another through various technologies that seemingly offer connection. Having established the pernicious nature of 24/7 temporalities, Crary claims that “[w]ithin 24/7 capitalism, a sociality outside of individual self-interest becomes inexorably depleted, and the interhuman basis of public space is made irrelevant to one’s fantasmatic digital insularity” (89).  Crary critiques the marketed ideology that champions the newest technology, which connects one to his or her loved ones, ensuring more frequent communication. Crary also points out that neoliberalism successfully demonized the dreams of communality that existed in the 1960s. As late capitalism ensures the marketability of every part of the day, eventually even sleep, we move further away from a healthy sociality outside of shallow digital communication.

As a solution, Crary champions a type of temporality that allows for “waiting” in order to have “time-in-common” (127). I’ll admit the irony of myself blogging about Crary who points to blogging as the end of politics due to the fact that bloggers do not wait to hear one another; they endlessly chatter into the ether. I agree with Crary’s solution for what might ameliorate or mitigate our entrenchment in capitalism. The solution, as he states, takes the form of “the sleeper [who] inhabits a world in common, a shared enactment of withdrawal from the calamitous nullity and waste of 24/7 praxis” (126). I wonder how we can tap into this “sleeper” ontology in order to shore up the encroachment of global capitalism. Does he mean that we should disconnect from our technologies more often, attempting to opt-out for short periods in which we might dream or imagine other ways of being-in-the-world?

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?