Dirty Media Archaeology
Last weekend Rory and Ben — two thesis advisees (Ben’s actually NYU PhD-bound) — and I took part in the Network Archaeology conference organized by the fabulous Nicole Starosielski and cris cheek at Miami University in Ohio. It was quite a whirlwind of a weekend — full of genuinely fantastic presentations (I’ll write a recap post in a bit), exciting introductions, and lots of lovely conversations with folks I already know and admire. Rory and Ben both did a bang-up job.
I’m posting below my presentation, which I stupidly called, in keeping with my “lame titles” tradition, “Digging Through Archives and Dirt.” It’s about what media archaeology, especially one concerned with the “deep time” of media, can learn from archaeology-proper and architectural history. This, like all my recent talks, was written between 11pm and 5am — just in time to head to the airport.
This afternoon I’m missing a meeting of the “Post-Hermeneutical” Reading Group at NYU. [SLIDE2] They’re discussing a selection of texts on surveillance, the techno-image, and machine-vision: the way cameras and sensors register the activity of humans, cars, and other objects. [SLIDE3] Meanwhile, Studio-X, a satellite lab of Columbia University’s architecture school, has been organizing a series of lectures and workshops on “smart cities,” all of which make use of these same technologies to increase the efficiency of their urban infrastructures and services. [SLIDE4] And next weekend, the Architectural League of New York is hosting an event to celebrate the release of the ninth and final installment in the Situated Technologies pamphlet series; this issue focuses on “big data” and subjectivity in geo-spatial environments. [SLIDE5] Over the past few years, lots of questions have been raised regarding how new, networked technologies might change the ways our cities are designed and how we live in these “sentient” environments.
While the “sentient city” may be a relatively new phenomenon, the “media city” isn’t. Within my own field, media studies, there is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Walter Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE6] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE7] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE8] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE9] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE10] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE11] the representation of the city in film; and [SLIDE12] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy have begun to address [SLIDE13] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; and [SLIDE14] the politics of screens in public places. [SLIDE15] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, urban design, and denizens’ urban experience.
[SLIDE16] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. [SLIDE17] Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media. [CLICK] Scott McQuire, in his book The Media City, observes that the mediation of urban experience “has been underway at least since the development of technological images in the context of urban ‘modernization’ in the mid-19th century.” He thus acknowledges that the history of urban mediation might stretch before the mid-19th century, yet his, and other media scholars’, relative lack of attention to this earlier period reinforces a filmic and photographic myopia, as well as ocularcentrism. Eric Gordon, in The Urban Spectator, locates the origin of the media city even later than McQuire: [CLICK] “from the hand-held camera at the end of the 19th century to the mobile phone at the end of the 20th, the city has always been a mediated construct.” I argue that that “always” begins well before the late 19th century – that, indeed, as Friedrich Kittler asserts, “The City Is a Medium,” and perhaps it has been since the days of Eridu and Uruk.
Last month I participated in an exciting panel at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference on media infrastructure with Nicole Starosielski, one of our fantastic conference hosts, Lisa Parks, and Jonathan Sterne. There, I argued that we need to look at the [SLIDE18] deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE19] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being. [SLIDE20] Yet the literature in media studies (and architecture, which, in the past five years, has focused a lot of attention on infrastructure) unfortunately doesn’t offer a terribly deep historical perspective. If we were to apply media archaeology – as both a theoretical framework and a methodology – to the study of urban media, I think we could dig much deeper. [CLICK] And I suggest we might want to borrow a few trowels from the archaeologists – that’s archaeologists of the Indiana Jones, rather than Kittlerian, variety.
[SLIDE21] In the introduction to their 2011 media archaeology anthology, Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka propose that “[m]edia archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media-cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way.” Yet I suggest that there’s much to be gained in a study of mediated sites by considering how archaeologists understand excavation – how they dig both metaphorically and literally into physical terrain – and by productively “confusing” media archaeology and archaeology proper. I must admit that most of my insight into the “deep time” of urban media infrastructures has come by means of archaeology and architectural and urban history, which offer helpful theories and methods for dealing with artifacts and architectures. The work of archaeologists Christopher J. Witmore and Michael Shanks has proven especially useful. Both advocate for an appreciation of the role of various media technologies in archaeological practice, and for the the multisensoriality and temporal “entanglement” of the material record.
[SLIDE22] Besides, material media infrastructures constitute a layered landscape that simply lends itself to digging into. Historical networks leave material residues – artifacts like pneumatic tubes, telegraph cables, roads for postal delivery, technologies for the production and dissemination of early print forms – that we can unearth. [SLIDE23] Digging into these layers, we often find that various infrastructures have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths. Through “excavation,” we can assess the lifespans of various media networks and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors. Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete.” [SLIDE24] Various networks also provide material support for one another; architectural historian Kazys Varnelis writes that “[b]ecause of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks, all efforts are made to string optic fibers through water, gas, and sewage ducts; [and] between cities, existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used.”
[SLIDE25] We find that the historical media infrastructures on the “lower strata” of our cities have lain the foundation for our modern-day media (as per the principle of “path dependency”), but they’re also often very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. This intermingling of temporalities fits archaeologist Christopher Witmore’s definition of “archaeological time”: “the entanglement, the intermingling, the chiasm of pasts and presents.” Our infrastructural cities are a “folded, nonlinear temporal net,” a “complex aggregate mixture of disparate eras, events, achievements which have a durable trace.”
[SLIDE26] Witmore argues that the model of “stratification” is particularly problematic because it “wraps a block of linear temporality up into periods placed into neatly stacked boxes,” separated by “arbitrary divisions.” He proposes genealogy as “one means of breaking up such stratification…. Radical revolutions are not the only explanation for the emergence of new collectives, new hybrids,” he says; “more subtle genealogical shifts, more complex networks of relation are also to be traced behind such processes.” [SLIDE27] He suggests that the metaphor of the palimpsest presents similar conceptual problems: historical layers aren’t simply “written, erased, and rewritten”; instead, there are plenty of “points of connection, proximity and action between various pasts.”
This revision of “revolution”-based history requires that we rethink how the archaeological object – whether an ancient urn or a network of fiber optic cable – is conceived. [SLIDE28] Seemingly “modern” things, Witmore says, are “really [just] gatherings of achievements from various times and numerous places.” [SLIDE29] He even draws parallels to the work of Zielinski and Kittler, and uses the daguerreotype, Babbage’s analytical engine, and the Jacquard loom as examples.
Witmore is one of several archaeologists who are struck by the [SLIDE30] “proliferation of ‘archaeologies’ in recent years”: “media archaeologists to archaeologists of knowledge or science, from archaeologists digging around in government archives to excavators of discourse.” In a prospectus for a new book about archaeology amidst the recent “turn to things,” Witmore and three archaeologist colleagues acknowledge that “this proliferation is not just metaphorical,” and they wonder: “Why are archaeologists [themselves] not involved? What could archaeology contribute to these trans-disciplinary discussions…?”
[SLIDE31] In the time that remains, I’ll suggest how we might draw on the work of archaeologists-proper (and, ideally, ultimately collaborate with them) in understanding a dimension of the “media city” that wouldn’t seem to lend itself easily to “excavation.” I’m referring to the “sonic city” – the city of radio waves and public address and everyday conversation. How does one dig into a form of mediation that seemingly has no physical form? How might we ascertain the ways in which radio and sound waves have interacted with, and even shaped, the material city? To write this history, we have to draw on the work of archaeologists and architectural historians (who, I might add, have done some wonderful work on the relationships between urban form and writing technologies and chirographic networks), as well as historians of science and the senses.
How might ancient cities have provided material infrastructures for speech – for “oral culture”? Cities have been places of public address and conversation, and acoustic considerations have informed their design and construction, for millennia.[SLIDE32] “Plato limited the size of his ideal city to the number of citizens who might be addressed by a single voice,” and as Lewis Mumford reminds us, “Mesopotamian cities had an assembly drum, just as medieval cities used a bell in a church tower to call their citizens together.” Witmore acknowledges that, in recent years, archaeologists have begun to pay more attention to acoustics – from the sounds produced in ancient sites by historical musical instruments or tools, to the acoustic properties of various places. [SLIDE33] Some call this sub-field archaeoacoustics. Witmore writes: “Considerations of the acoustic qualities of various locales in the ancient Athenian Agora, for example, might be regarded as of immediate relevance for understanding site-specific issues of performance in Ancient Greece (speech, oral poetics, drama or even clandestine gossip).”
[SLIDE34] In 1872 archaeologists found in the Roman Forum two marble reliefs representing an emperor – either Trajan or Hadrian – standing on the Forum’s Rostra Augusti (speaker’s platform), delivering a public address. Inspired by such finds, architectural historian Diane Favro and classicist Christopher Johanson are creating digital models of the Forum to understand how the space accommodated funeral processions. [SLIDE35] With further research, they’re attempting to model and understand how the Forum functioned acoustically as a space for speech: “How did accompanying sounds reinforce the activities?… Where did spectators stand?… What route to the forum was taken by participants?” (15). In short, they want to understand in part how the material landscape functioned as an “infrastructure” for oral communication networks.
Jump forward a few thousand years, to an age when print was widely available – in fact, as David Henkins writes in City Reading, it was plastered all over the city – and the mechanically reproduced image was gaining in popularity. Even then, in the mid-19th century, the city was a place of public address. [SLIDE36] Architectural historian Joanna Merwood-Salisbury examines how the design of New York’s Union Square has been modified repeatedly to either accommodate or contain voices of protest. Samuel Ruggles, one of the Square’s developers, claimed in 1864 that the square was “deliberately designed to support participatory democracy. The triangular parcels of land left over by the imposition of the ellipse on the grid were expressly made for ‘the assemblage of large masses of our citizens in public meetings.’” [SLIDE37] “The recent use of the square for huge rallies in support of the Union” showed the Square to be “a theater adequate to the utterance of the national voice.” Through its continual renovation, planners aimed to use the square as an infrastructure to create “active and informed citizens as well as foster social harmony,” yet it remained, and remains, a site for radical meetings and rallies (including many that integrate a variety of media: locative technologies, text messages, cloth banners, and, still, the bull-horned or naked human voice).
We might imagine future archaeologists conducting fieldwork in our urban centres in order to understand how our 20th– and 21st– century cities provided infrastructures for the transmission of more modern sonic communications. In their work on archaeological approaches to the contemporary past, Rodney Harrison and John Schofield remind us that “excavating” modern sites will most likely not require “digging,” but, rather, surveying the surface-level landscape – and sometimes even looking up. [SLIDE38] The first radio broadcast centers were in cities – which, ironically, presented many material barriers to a radio signal. Because signal strength and the location of stations’ transmitters maximized their broadcasting range, allowing them to either penetrate or circumvent tall buildings, many early broadcasts were transmitted from their cities’ highest points – the top floors of their tallest buildings, which were occasionally hotel rooms. Radio stations in New York were broadcasting from the Metropolitan Life Building and making use of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings’ antenna spires.
Speaking in 1935 of the New York Police Department’s early adoption of a radio communication system, Chief Engineer Thomas Rochester explained how the city’s mass of tall buildings functioned both as an infrastructure for and an impediment to transmission: “A single 500-watt transmitter station would be hopelessly inadequate for New York because of the absorbing effects of the many tall, steel-framed buildings, elevated railways and bridges, and because of the area to be served. The interference caused by electrical systems and devices adds to the difficulty.”
[SLIDE39] Architectural historian Carlotta Daro acknowledges that new telecommunications technologies gave rise to new infrastructural elements – electricity poles, cables, antennas, transmission towers – “around which cities would be built.” She suggests that the “professional practice of telecommunications engineering was absorbed by modernist architects and urban planners and synthesized as a new kind of technological vision of both town and country.” Lewis Mumford represented one such group of planners – the Regional Planning Association of America. In 1937, he wrote in Architectural Record: [SLIDE40] “The area of potential urban settlement has been vastly increased by the motor car and the airplane; but, the necessity for solid contiguous growth, for the purposes of the intercourse, has in turn been lessened by the telephone and the radio.” These new, liberating technologies – what he called neotechnics – have afforded planners an opportunity to consider alternatives to increasing urban concentration. And he, and the RPAA, of which he was a co-founder and spokesperson, advocated instead for planned decentralization, like what you see here.
What will future archaeologists say of the form of our “radio cities? How will its infrastructures become entangled with those of the “city of speech”? What new sonic media are to come, and how will they embed themselves in our urban landscapes – and integrate with all the sound-making communication technologies that have preceded them? [SLIDE41] Will we need to make space for new infrastructures of sonic warfare? [SLIDE42] How will evolving noise codes – New York’s most recent aims to regulate the sounds of nightclubs, [SLIDE43] ice cream truck jingles, and earbuds – shape zoning practices, which will in turn dictate urban form? [SLIDE44] How will new acoustic engineering strategies, like those under development at Arup Acoustics, allow us to “sound design” entire cities ([SLIDE45] as Arup was commissioned to do in Dongtan, China)? And how will these spaces and networks entwine with those that have been around for a while: [SLIDE46] the spatial networks of formal and informal radio broadcast, [SLIDE47] of religious calls to prayer, [SLIDE47] of the human voice? The city itself is an infrastructure that supports this entanglement of media, old and new. And digging into these material supports for urban communication – picking up spades and digging in the dirt – helps us better understand how these networks emerge, evolve, and integrate, and, in the process, shape the kinds of interactions we’re able to enjoy in our cities, which is where most of us on this planet, and ever-growing numbers of us, live.