Elsaesser is Professor at the University of Amsterdam, and Chair of the Department of Film and Television Studies (1991-2001), now Research Professor, Department of Media and Culture. From 1993-1999, he was Professor II at the University of Bergen, Norway, Department of Media Studies.
According to Elsaesser's website:
Born in Berlin, 1943. Educated at the University of Sussex (U.K.), where he received a B.A. in English Literature in 1966, and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature in 1971. After working as a film critic in London and editing the international film journal Monogram, he was appointed to teach European Romanticism and Literary Modernism at the University of East Anglia in 1972. In 1976 he initiated Film Studies at the University of East Anglia, chaired Film Studies until 1986, and was in charge of the Master's and Ph.D. programme in Cinema from 1980 to 1991. Appointed to the University of Amsterdam to build up an undergraduate and graduate programme in Film and Television Studies (the first in The Netherlands), he was from 1991-2001 the Chair of the Department of Film and Television Studies, which now has approx. 1200 students majoring in Film, TV and Digital Media. He was also during that period director of a one-year international M.A. Programme in Visual Culture. Since 2001 he is Research Professor, and responsible for a PhD Programme ‘Cinema Europe’, offered in conjunction with ASCA, the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, of which he is a Founding and Executive Board Member. He is also General Editor of the series Film Culture in Transition, published by Amsterdam University Press.
The New Film History as Media Archaeology Edit
In this essay from Cinemas: Journal of Film Studies, Elsaesser treads ground inspired by Zielinski, Kittler, and Foucault (among others) while still maintaining an intense and unique position on "media archaeology". His approach is curious--he references no other figures in the field of media archaeology, divining all his concepts strictly from Foucault and his own perspective. It's unclear how familiar he is with media archaeology as a pre-existing conversation. Significant works like Deep Time of Media had not yet been published in English (although the German was out in 2002), yet Kittler had been in translation for over a decade, and Huhtamo is a curious missing voice. Surely, as Elsaesser is at the University of Amsterdam, he would have been familiar with the discourse on media archaeology...yet he offers to explanation of its own history to his audience.
The essay opens treading on common ground, summarizing and synthesizing various debates on the "challenge" digital media posit toward cinema. Rather than be frustrated with new media, Elsaesser posits that "I take digital media as the chance to rethink the idea of historical change itself" (78). His essay has the goal of considering media archaeology as a viable methodology for film historians (who should really be media archaeologists) confronted with the difficulty of historicizing cinema's history.
In this sense, Elsaesser is a useful "greatest hits" of film history, as his sections Media Archaeology I and Media Archaeology II do well summarizing and problematizing the chronological and genealogical trends in media and film history. In short, analysis into the history of cinema's beginnings has undercut strictly teleological trajectories (and undermined phasal thinking of spectacle/narrative/spectacle). Genealogical history reaches for family resemblences (rather than family trees--treatment of Foucault on Nietzsche, pgs. 92-3), but inevitably "lands us with far too many black sheep cousins, promiscuous parents or profligate grandparents to create a credible line of descent, the 'rupture' represented by the digital will oblige us to break with the genealogical model as well as the chronological" (98). Thus, in moving away from the genealogical model, we move toward archaeology, "where no continuity is implied or assumed. The past is recognized as at once irrecoverably 'other' and seperate from us, and it can be seized only by a hermeneutics of the fragments, a discourse of metonymies, and an 'allegorical' view of (always already lost) totalities [..] film history would acknowledge its peculiar status, and become a matter of tracing paths or laying tracks leading from the respective 'now' to different pasts, in modalities that accommodate continuities as well as ruptures. We would then be mapping media-convergence and self-differentiation not in terms of either a teleology or a search for origins, but in the form of forking paths of possibility, i.e. as a determined plurality and a permanent virtuality" (99).
Elsaesser is interested in maintaining historical specificity and utilizing close readings to open up the "particular form of time/space/space/agency" (he calls diegesis, Manovich calls "interface") (102). Media archaeology, for Elsaesser, thus involves two parts: identify conditions of possibility (when is cinema) along with an ontology (what is cinema) (103). This insistance on ontology is interestingly counterposed to Eva Horn's insistance that German media theory is disinterested in ontological claims in media. These conditions of possibility appear to be explained on pgs. 103-104:
"History as archaeology adds to this a further insight: it knows and acknowledges that only a presumption of discontinuity (in Foucault's terms, the positing of epistemic breaks) and of fragmentation (the rhetorical figure of the synecdoche or the pars pro toto) can give the present access to the past, which is always no more than a past (among many actual or possible ones), since for the archaeologist, the past can be present to the present with no more than its relics. Finally, an archaeology respects the possible distance the past has from our present perspective, and even makes it the basis of its methodology. Nonetheless, positing breaks too quickly as 'epistemic' invites the charge of formalism. A more rigorous media archaeologist's point of view would assume that the breaks point to gaps in our knowledge, though one would be careful not simply to fill in the blanks with new 'facts' before consider that a 'missing link' may well have its own meaning--as a gap."
To persue the historigraphic ends of media archaeology, the archaeologist must "extend the archaeology approach to include the present, rather than give the present the hindsight (ad)vantage on the past. The challenge lies in finding a place that is not fixed in respect to either position or direction, one that permits spaces to coexist and time frame to overlap. This place, I also suggest, can only be an enunciative one [...] The enunciative act, in other words, is always a function of making explicit the implicit reference points, the self-reference (deictics), the data or evidence, on which the speaking position, and this the meaning of an utterance, depends" (105). Here Elsaesser departs on a several page discussion of cultural memory and history (RE-READ).
The ontological ends of this involves "both the spectators' particular 'being-in-the-world,' and the status of the moving images as 'world-making' (108). Here is the return to diegesis, in expanded form: "The kinds of changes--architectural, social, economic--that eventually led to the separation of the two types of spaces in early cinema, making screen space autonomous, and dividing the audience into individual spectators, would thus be the conditions of possibility of the emergence of classical cinema. In their totality they establish a new diegetic space, with formal, pictorial and narratological consequences. It is this totality I would want to call classical cinema's difference 'ontology.' [...] The conclusion I would draw is that the successive phrases of the cinema, but also the cinema's relation to other media-forms, such as television, video art and digital media, can be mapped by analysing their different and sitinctive diegetic worlds, comprising the technical apparatus and mental dispositifs, but also dependent on the temporal, spatial and enunciative 'ontology' (110).
Foucauldian Genealogy seperates cause from effect.