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"From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd"

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Erkki HuhtamoEdit

Erkki Huhtamo is a Professor of Media History and Theory at UCLA who received his training at the University of Turku, Finland. He is a prominent media archaeology, writer and exhibition curator.

From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd: Notes toward an Archaeology of the Media [1997]Edit

In this wonderfully lucid and blessedly brief article from Leonardo, Huhtamo proposes a method for media archaeology based on "recurring cyclical phenomena that (re)appear and disappear and reappear over and over again in media history, somehow seeming to transcend specific historical contexts", a sort of "deja vu" experience of media history (222).

Huhtamo opens by questioning the method of more traditional historians, for whom historical relevance is tied to whether or not technological discoveries take effect (aside from just existing). In contrast to this, Huhtamo summons the angel of history, Walter Benjamin, as a reminder that all the debris of man is part of his historical existence. Benjamin opens into a consideration of all the fine work being done in media studies to understand how "artifacts are embedded in the complex discursive fabrics and patterns reigning in a culture" (221). The new media history is one of "multi-layered construct, a dynamic system of relationships" (221). Historians themselves are subject to the ideologies of their time, thus rendering them mediators between past and present.

Topoi and Media ArchaeologyEdit

However, Huhtamo's aims are subtely different, and here he distinguishes between new media history (new historicism of media?) and media archaeology. Here, Huhtamo offers the deja vu corollary between kaleidoscomaniacs, stereoscomaniacs, and cybernerd peep show--the viewer who could not look away; he also considers the mutually panicked responses of fantasmagorie viewers and the Lumiere bros. first audience. Incidents distance in time and space can be connect through the cyclicism of their experience. Huhtamo writes, "all these cases 'contain' certain commonplace elements of cultural motives that have been encountered in earlier cultural processes" (222). For Huhtamo, these motives constitute topoi or topics, an idea he borrows from literary studies. Classically, topoi were "storehouses of trains of thought", what would latter become cliches or "formulas, ranging from stylistic to alegorical that make up the 'building blocks' of cultural traditions [...] they provide 'pre-fabricated' molds for experience" (222). Topoi, as they are always cultural, are always ideological (and not, for example, Jungian or pre-conscious).

For Huhtamo, then, media archaeology has 2 goals (223):

  1. the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture
  2. the axcavation of the ways in which these discursive traditions and formulations have been 'imprinted' on specific media machines and systems in different historical contexts, contributing to their identity in terms of socially and ideological spcific webs of significiation.

What matters historically is how something has come to be represented (not whether it actually happened that way): "It could be claimed that the reality of media history lies primarily in the discourses that guide and mold its development, other than in the 'things' and 'artifacts' that for writers like Ceram, form the sun around which everything (r)evolves" (222). Here then, in the Foucaultian tradition, we may consider "discursive objects" as what can be cental in the history of media culture [to substitute for the enigmatic treasure of things anterior to discourse, the regular formation of objects that emerge only in discourse]. Thus the analysis is of discursive shifts--much like Kittler's work Discourse Networks 1800/1900. However, here Huhtamo diverges from Foucault in that he does not seek a systematic study of "ideological traditions of discourses reigning in society that are based on the interplay of power and knowledge" [discourse formations] (223). Rather, he aligns himself with what Foucault characterized as a history of ideas, whereby false starts, dead ends and ephemera become more revealing than chronological technology histories, "if our focus is on the meanings that emerge through the social practices related to the use of technology" (223). Thus, unrealized or fantasized machines are just as telling as real ones; what matters is the topoi.

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