Film History as Media Archaeology. Tracking Digital Cinema

By Mariani, Andrea | Journal of Film Preservation, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Film History as Media Archaeology. Tracking Digital Cinema


Mariani, Andrea, Journal of Film Preservation


Thomas Elsaesser's book brings together, in a systematic way, his major contributions to one of the debates that has most challenged and provoked the ©lm and media studies' commu- nities, particularly during the last decade: that of media archaeology.

Though hard to de©ne, "Media Archaeology" (Jussi Parikka's 2012 What is Media Archaeology? tries to explain its theoretical and practical applications 1) enlivens many approaches, di¯erent interpretations, diverse practices: is it a philosophical discipline, a heuristic method, a creative practice, a media school, an epistemological approach? Elsaesser provides a de©nitive picture of the whole debate and his position within it.

An extensive general introduction efficiently sketches the much-debated borders of this intellectual ©eld, and points out its major theoretical implications for the disciplines involved, in particular those of ©lm history and media theory. Elsaesser makes explicit his own hypothesis from the outset: asking what Media Archaeology is, both from a cinematic perspective, and from the standpoint of what cinema history is and should be today. He also investigates what ©lm - or cinema - history is becoming as a result of the digital turn:

Elsaesser recaps and extends the path he set out on with his in¾uential collection Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative. 2 That book examined the results of an epistemological rupture in cinema historiography - and initiated a fundamental exploration of "What role has cinema played - and is still playing - in the larger development of mankind, or more speci©cally, in our western modernity and post-modernity?" 3. In the wake of the 1978 FIAF Congress in Brighton, and the early days of what, in the mid-1980s, Elsaesser called "The New Film History", 4 the book contributed to reframing early cinema in ways contrary to accepted linear histories, called for an "archaeology" of cinema along the lines of approaches by Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault.

According to Elsaesser, early cinema, to- gether with digital media, and installation art are "the three major impulses to which media archaeology owes its prominence" (p.48). Elsaesser uses the "Amsterdam Media Archaeology Network" as his own frame of reference, the point of departure (since 1993) of a venture into media archaeology that "began to take shape around the examination of possible parallels between early cinema, digital cinema and - somewhat later - archive-based installation art" (p.50). That project, undertaken with important Amsterdam collaborators like Wanda Strauven and Michael Wedel, as well as a global network of partners and supporters (the Universities of Udine, Montreal, and Lausanne among others), investigated the "conditions, dynamics, and consequences of rapid media transfer and transformations" (p.51). The discontinuities (interruptions of media development and industrial failures) during long cycles of media changes in basic technology, public perception, and artistic practices, are the focus of the project and, broadly speaking, of the whole of Elsaesser's media- archaeology work.

In its six sections, Elsaesser's book explores a wide spectrum of discontinuities and cycles of media development: early cinema, the archaeologies of sound and of interactivity, a deconstruction of digital cinema, "New Genealogies of Cinema", with the last - and probably most challenging - section being "Media Archaeology as Symptom". …

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