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<nettime> Interview with German media archeologist Wolfgang Ernst

Archive Rumblings
Interview with German media archeologist Wolfgang Ernst
By Geert Lovink

German media theorist Wolfgang Ernst (1959) is a member of the Berlin circle
inspired by Friedrich Kittler and currently fouding the Seminar for Media
Studies at Humboldt University. He is contributing to the'media archeology'
school in which new media are traced back to earlier concepts. Following
this methodology one reads traces of digital technologies into history, not
the other way round. The idea is that there is no teleology in which media
unfold themselves in time. Against the usual chronological reading of media,
from photo and radio to television and the Internet, Wolfgang Ernst utilizes
the Foucaultian 'archeological' approach that aims to unveil active power
relationships. But whereas Foucault looked into social formations, today's
media archeologists are primarily interested in the (hidden) programs of
storage media. Following McLuhan Ernst poses that "cyberspace is not about
content, but rather a transversive performance of communication. Without the
permanent re-cycling of information, there is no need for emphatic memory."

In his 2002 book 'Das Rumoren der Archive' (Archive Rumblings) Wolfgang
Ernst points out that archives are no longer forgotten, dusty places. The
archive as a concept has gained universal attention and reached metaphorical
glance. In this era of storagemania everything is on record. Repositories
are no longer final destinations but turn into to frequently accessed, vital
sites. For instance, East-German secret police archives, opened after 1989
and frequently visited, show how contested data collections can become.
Wolfgang Ernst signals a shift from the political-military (secret) meaning
of (national) archives towards a broader cultural understanding in which the
archive stands for 'collective memory'. For Ernst archives are defined by
their 'holes' and 'silent' documents. Ernst's annals look like crashing
operating systems that should not be taken by face value. In short: archives
are cybernetic entities. These days everyone is painfully aware that
archiving equals careful selection. Chronicles are anything but neutral
collections. Instead they reflect the priorities and blind spots of the
archivists and the Zeitgeist they operate in. By now that's common sense.
What can we expect from 21st century archive theory, beyond digitization and
database architectures? Will the elites establish safeguarded 'islands in
the Net' where essential knowledge is stored, leaving the wired billions
floating in their own data trash? Has tactical silence and the aesthetics of
forgetfulness got to be all-too-obvious responses to storagemania? The
following email interview took place in February 2003.

GL: One would associate the theoretical interest in archives with Foucault,
Derrida and other French authors. You make many references to them. Is that
the destiny of our generation, to get stuck in the postmodern canon? Or is
there another, more personal reason for your interest in archives and the
'French' approach? Do you keep an archive yourself and which archive is your
favorite one?

WE: When Peter Gente and Heidi Paris from the Berlin-based Merwe publishing
house asked me to write an essay on archives with special regards to French
theories, I took that chance since it gave me a possibility to work through
my own intellectual past. Having been extremely affected by French
post-structuralist theories in the 80s and actually trying to de-construct
the notion of text-based history myself, my research year at the German
Historical Insitute in Rome then made me "convert" not to Catholicism, but
to the acknowledgement of real archives. I then discovered that no place can
be more deconstructive than archives themselves, with their relational, but
not coherent topology of documents which wait to be reconfigurated, again
and again. The archival subject thus is a way out of the one-way postmodern
aesthetics of arbitrary "anything goes" - without having to return to
authoritarean hermeneutics (a point made as well by the "new historicists"
in literary studies, f. e. Stephen Greenblatt). The simple fact is that
archives do not only exist in metaphorical ways as described by Foucault and
Derrida, but as part of a very real, very material network of power over

Do I keep an archive myself? Have a look at my homepage
( ...In fact, I keep nothing but an archive at home:
no book-shelves, no library, but a modular system of textural, pictorial or
even auditory information in movable boxes. That is, among others, fragments
of books, distributed according to diverse subjects-liberated from the
restrictive book-covers.

GL: How would you describe the methodology of media archeologists? Is it
useful to speak of a school in this context? Media archeologists can be
found in places such as Cologne (KHM), Berlin (Humboldt University) and
Paris. Then there is for instance Lev Manovich who 'reads' film history as
an episode in the coming into being of new media story. How to look at the
field and what interesting approaches have you come across lately?

WE: I owe the term to Siegfried Zielinski, who-as the former director of the
Academy of Media Arts in Cologne-once hired me for a research and teaching
job called "Theory and Archaeology of Media in the Context of the Arts" (a
world-wide premiere as an academic field?). Zielinski himself, of course,
owes the term to Michel Foucaults "Archaeology of Knowledge", but has given
it a technological turn in cultural anlaysis, with his brilliant work on the
video recorder (Berlin 1986). In his most recent work, literally called
"Media Archaeology" (2002), Zielinski advocates an an-archical history of
forgotten or neglected media approaches. Different from that liberitarean
approach, my version of media archaeology tries to carry further Foucault´s
approach (see my book "M.edium F.oucault", 200). My media archaeology is an
archaeology of the technological conditions of the sayable and thinkable in
culture, an excavation of evidence of how techniques direct human or
non-human utterances - without reducing techniques to mere apparatuses
(encompassing, for example, the ancient rules of rhetorics as well).

Media archaology is a critique of media history in the narrative mode. When
Lev Manovich (whose writings I appreciate a lot) reads film history as an
episode in the coming into being of the new media story, his approach
already is trapped by the linear approach of media history. Having been
trained as a historian, a classicist (and partly even as a "real" classical
archaeologist in the disciplinary sense), I have always felt uneasy with the
predominance of narrative as the uni-medium of processing our knowledge of
the past. It takes a new infrastructure of communicating realities-the
impact of digital media itself -to put this critique of historical discourse
into media-archaeological terms and practice. But I have to confess, even
when I claim to perform media-archaeological analysis, I sometimes slip back
into telling media stories. The cultural burden of giving sense to data
through narrative structures is not easy to overcome.

The archaeology of knowledge, as we have learned from Foucault, deals with
discontinuities, gaps and absences, silence and ruptures, in opposition to
historical discourse, which privileges the notion of continuity in order to
re-affirm the possibility of subjectivity. "Archives are less concerned with
memory than with the necessity to discard, erase, eliminate" (Sven Spieker).
Whereas historiography is founded on teleology and narrative closure, the
archive is discontinuous, ruptured. Like all kinds of data banks, it forms
relationships not on the basis of causes and effects, but through networks;
the archive - according to Jacques Lacan - leads to an encounter with the
real of script-directed culture.

Media archaeology describes the non-discursive practices specified in the
elements of the techno-cultural archive. Media archaeology is confronted
with Cartesian objects, which are mathematisable things, and let us not
forget that Alan Turing conceived the computer in 1937 basically as a
machine paper (the most classical archival carrier). Media archeaology is
driven by a certain "Berlin school of media studies" obsession with
approaching media in terms of their logical structure (informatics) on the
one hand and their hardware (physics) on the other - thus different from
British and U.S. cultural studies, which analyze the subjective and social
effects of media.

The real multi-media archive is the arché of its source codes; multi-media
archaeology is storage and re-reading and re-writing of such programs. Media
history is not the appropriate medium to confront such an archive. Consider,
for example, two examples in current media research: Renaissance computers,
edited by Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday. Renaissance Computers expressly
draws a parallel between the media revolution from manuscripts to printing
in Europe enabled by Johann Gutenberg in 1455 and Martin Luther´s use of
printed text for the distribution of protestant messages (theses) in 1517,
and the actual digital technology era. The symbolic machines of the
sixteenth-century "methodizer" Peter Ramus are presented as a pendant to the
computer of today. This claim still thinks media from the vantage point of
alphabetical texts, but audio-visual data banks make all the difference.
Against such analogies, media archaeology insists on differences. Computing
is not about imagination and texts, but rather the alliance of engineering
and mathematics. The coupling of machine and mathematics that enables
computers occurs as a mathematization of machine, not as machinization of
mathematics. While the book has, for half a millennium, been the dominant
medium of storing and transmitting knowledge, the computer is able, for the
first time, to process data as well. In 1999, Frankfurt Literaturhaus
organized a conference on 'book machines.' On this occasion, Friedrich
Kittler argued that analogue broadcast media, which are linear-sequential
and base their storage on the principle of the tape, will be swallowed by
the Internet. Books however, according Kittler, share with the computer the
deep quality of being discrete media. That is why "Internet archaeology" is
necessary (Denis Scheck). But who is responsible for this kind of
documentation? Classical archives and libraries do this kind of
documentation only exceptionally; the new kind of memory might not be caught
by institutions, but rather rhizomes within the net itself.

GL: Michel Foucault made a distinction between archeology and genealogy. Is
that also useful within the media theory context? I have never heard about
media genealogy. Do you have any idea what it could be? Would it be a useful

WE: It indeed makes sense to differentiate media archaeology and genealogy
of media. Referring back to Friedrich Nietzsche´s Genealogy of Moral, Michel
Foucault used the term "genealogy" to describe a cultural counter-memory,
unfolding a different index, a different rhythm of temporality - mediated
timing, it would say (the time of "time-based media"). Instead of looking
for origins, genealogy looks for events at unexpected places and in
unexpected moments without supposing individual agencies, teleology or
finality. But the exact relation between genealogy and archaeology in
Foucault's work has been the source of much dispute or even confusion. With
regard to media theory, let us put it this way: media archaeology is not a
separate method of analysis from genealogy, but complementary with it.
Genealogy examines process while archaeology examines the moment, however
temporally extended that moment might be (reflecting "analogue" versus
"digital" analysis). Genealogy offers us a processual perspective on the web
of discourse, in contrast to an archaeological approach which provides us
with a snapshot, a slice through the discursive nexus (as Phil Bevis,
Michèle Cohen and Gavin Kendall once expressed).

GL: There is the often heard criticism of media archeology, in its obsessive
search for the Laws of Media, ends up as cynical, technical determinism that
glorifies scientists and the military, while explicitly fading out
economical, political and cultural aspects. How do respond to such remarks?
Do you see a debate here?

WE: You hit exactly at a recent, on-going dispute within the "Berlin School"
of media studies itself. When we sat down to analyse the "branding" of our
group, we realized that we are, from outward perspective, being reduced to
hardware-maniac, assembler-devoted and anti-interface ascetics, fixed to a
(military) history of media without regard to the present media culture
(which is "software culture", as described by Lev Manovich, and is moving
from the computer to the Net, as expressed by Wolfgang Hagen). With my new
chair in Media Theory at the Humboldt University, I would like to achieve
re-entry of economical, political and cultural aspects into this
media-archaeological field-without giving up to Cultural Studies, though,
which has neglected a precise analysis of technologies too much. In a couple
of evenings, for example, some of our academics of media studies (like
Stefan Heidenreich) went to an experimental media lab (Bootlab in Berlin),
to discuss with non-university people who practice media theory (like Pit
Schultz) topics like surfaces/interfaces, the aesthetics of programming,
economics, ownership and copyright" and computer games. The next
co-operative event might face media definitions and media terms itself.

GL: The popular management discourse of 'knowledge management' has no
explicit references to archives. Instead, according to certain business
gurus, knowledge is stored in people, in organizations, ever transforming
networks, in let's say 'living' entities rather than dead documents. In this
hegemonic ideology knowledge only exists if it is up-to-date and can operate
strategically, not hidden somewhere in a database. Only then it can be
segmented as 'intellectual property rights.' How do you read this tendency?

WE: Intellectual property rights were in fact developed within the context
of archives- libraries, to be exact; the legal notion of copyright was an
effect of the need to protect authors and publishers against plagiarism
around 1800. As to knowledge management, a current trend is the so-called
"warehouse" approach which takes for granted that implicit knowledge is
always already there in humans and in systems - just waiting to be
excavated, triggered, extracted by agencies. I have a lot of sympathy for
the trans-archival notion of 'organizational' instant memory. But leaving
the neurological metaphors beside, this approach dissimulates the existence
of material memory agencies - both hardware and institutions, which still
govern the power of what can be stored legally and technically, and what
will be forgotten. Let us, memory-politically, not underestimate the
on-going impact of traditional paper archives or present audio-visual
archives; the quest for access to such archives makes us feel immediately
that they are still real. With digital archives, though, there is - in
principle - no more delay between memory and the present, but the technical
option of immediate feedback, turning every present data into archival
entries and vice versa. The economy of timing becomes a short-circuit.

GL: Over the past few years you have worked in a research project on the
history of Russian computing. Could you tell us something about the 'mystery
' of Soviet cybernetics? It is well known that the strength of the Eastern
bloc computer industry, military secrecy, also lead to its demise. I suppose
it is wrong to state that this is a history of 'losers'-but to some extend
it is. There is some irony involved. How did the project deal with this? Did
you stumble into interesting differences, compared to the US-led computer

WE: The genealogy of the computer and computing sciences as associated with
names such as Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener, Heinz v.
Foerster, Claude Shannon and John v. Neumann has been the object of an
impressive number of publications in the German-speaking and Anglo-American
areas, but this media-archaeology is reductive to the Western hemisphere. In
general the historiography of computing is-even a decennium after the fall
of the Iron Curtain-still blind in respect to Eastern Europe. The art of
computing in the former Soviet Union, immediately after World War II, has
developed some remarkable alternatives to Western machines that are
attractive even today.

The alternative computing culture in the former Soviet Union has been
stimulated by a weird and ever changing re-configuration between inventive
improvisations on the engineering side and ingenious mathematics on the
other, f. e. Viktor Glushkov's idea of the "language-based" development of
computers alongside with Sergey Lebedev's more "electronic" approach. The
activity in these directions was shared between the Kiev Institute of
Cybernetics and the Institute of Precise Mechanics and Computer Engineering
in Moscow. As a scientist, Sergey Lebedev was a professional and (maybe even
more importantly), a 'born' electronic engineer, while Viktor Glushkov was
primarily a mathematician more interested in cybernetic problems.

The paradox is, that exactly in a communist country, the material
deficiencies in Hard- and Software because of the very absence of
standardized mass production created highly original and most individual
technical solutions. This flourishing pluralistic techno-culture though
tragically came to an end when Moscow decided in 1972 to copy the IBM
production line in order to get cheap software running. Promising efforts to
combine Russian computing with German Siemens computing and the British ICL
by a joint European venture collapsed since Walter Ulbricht as well had
already decided for IBM standards in the GDR and convinced Breshnev in
Moscow. With these decisions in the early 70s of the former century, not
only the option for an independent European computer standard died, but I
would call this as well the beginning of Decline and Fall of the Russian
Empire in favor of what we today call the Microsoft global player.

One of the heroes of computing in the former Soviet-Union, professor Zinovy
Rabinovich, told us during the recent Transmediale media arts festival in
Berlin about the construction of the first "European" electronic computer in
Kiev more than half a century ago (1948-1950). This computer architecture
was developed independent from the von-Neumann-model, putting emphasis on
parallel rather than sequential computing. Engineers and mathematicians, in
the former Soviet Union, came together in ways different from the Western
context - exactly because the mass-economic uses of computing were limited
almost to zero, concentrating less on the universal than an special-purpose
computers. With his 84 years, Rabinovish fervently argued to re-think the
options of a European computer to fill the gaps left by the American model.
Thus Rabinovich proved to be an "old European" (Rumsfeld) in the best sense.
As an alternative to software versus hardware, he proposed his engineering
philosophy under the name of "middleware" (though this sounded familiar to
Western ears - we know it as micro-programming).

GL: The American cyber conservative George Gilder is a 'storewidth' guru who
has been promising for decades infinite computer storage, unlimited
bandwidth and computational power. For economic reasons Moore's law may be
out-of-order for a while, due to the implications of the 'techwreck'. Yet,
by and large, capacity has indeed risen incredibly. It is a society that
cannot implement its own technological progress. What does that tell you, as
a theorist who deals with archives?

WE: When the talk is about maximized computer memory capacities, this
discourse still continues an old occidental obsession that culture depends
on storage (historic architectures, libraries, museums). My media analysis
tells me that the future cultural emphasis will be rather on permanent
transfer, not storage (without undoing storage, though). There is already an
implosion of storage mania into processual data flows, a different economy
of the archive as dynamic agency "online". The notion of immediate data
feedback replaces the data separation that makes all the archival

GL: German history, throughout the twentieth century, always occurs to me as
incredibly well documented, which forms the basis for books, TV
documentaries, exhibitions and museums. Despite war and destruction there is
so much left that is still waiting to be classified and analyzed. Orderly
file keeping has resulted in an overwhelming practice of detailed historical
research. The Nazi period and the holocaust are of course well known
examples. Communist East Germany has produced food for historians for many
decades to come. One could also say that this is a guilt-driven industry.
Hendryk Broder once used the phrase: "There is no business like Shoah
business." How do you look at the present storage-driven memory cult? This
whole industry is obvious based on archives, and continuously creates new

WE: My thesis is that the rhythm of historical memory is directed and
triggered by the opening of formerly inaccessible archives and the waves of
documents which then disseminate, feeding endless production of new texts
and books. The Prussian system of State Archives (which became kind of a
model for both the former Soviet Union and the US-American State Archives)
has provided for a perfectly organized memory of official records in
politics and culture. In the 20th century, a unique constellation hit the
German archives: While normally state-related document stay classified for a
long period of time, the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 led to the
immediate opening of German State Archives (for the Nuremberg trials, f.
e.) - a unique opportunity for historians and the public to know the
archives almost in real-time, without the usual delay. At least two
successive generations of Germans were then permanently confronted with this
open archival evidence of war crimes, Nazi involvement of parents, etc. A
similar event happened when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989: All of the
sudden, the most secret archives of the former GDR State Security was open
to the public, revealing the system of observation to the subjects

With Holocaust Memory in Germany, the case is different. A lot of what
happened during this genocide is not only documented in files but also
firmly fixed in the memory of the victims - or remains undocumented at all
(for the victims who died). At the present, we are observing the transition
of living memory (survivors) to mediated memory, which is fixed by paper or
audiovisual records only to transmit it to the future.

One more word on the future archives in Germany. Post-war Germany (after
1945) had a dis-continuous relation to the past history of Germany; I
myself, having grown in West Germany, remember that German history before
1945 was something alienated to me. Instead, the historical consciousness of
the post-war generation in Germany that grew up with radio and television
now coincides with its media archives - public broadcast archives that are
not paper-based any more but exist in audio-visual form. The present and
future problem is: How to get access to these new kind of archives in a
non-proprietary mode? While the state always cared for public education
manifested by the public libraries network and for memory agencies like the
State Archives, the audio-visual memory of post-war Germany stays with
companies that might sell these media-archives to private investors. Memory
will be commodified; let us be political on this. There is a glance of hope,
though: With the retro-conversion of analog magnetic tapes (radio, TV) to
digital storage for preservation reasons, there will be different ways to
hack into these digital memories since the digital archives, once online,
are not separated from the "present" any more. In a way, of course, this
means the disappearance of the emphatic notion of the "archive"; it
dissolves into electronic circuits, data flow.


Wolfgang Ernst, Das Rumoren der Archive, Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2002.

See also: Wolfgang Ernst, Archive Phantasms, nettime, December 21, 2000.

Wolfgang Ernst, M.edium F.oucault. Weimarer Vorlesungen über Archive,
Archäologie, Monumente und Medien, Weimar: Verlag & Datenbank für
Geisteswissenschaften, 2000.

Georg Trogemann / Alexander Nitussov / W. E. (eds.), Computing in Russia.
The history of computer devices and information technology revealed,
Braunschweig: Vieweg Verlag, 2001.

Forthcoming: Wolfgang Ernst, Im Namen von Geschichte: Sammeln - Speichern -
(Er)Zählen. Infrastrukturelle Konfigurationen des deutschen Gedächtnisses
(1806 bis an die Grenzen zur mechanischen Datenverarbeitung) , Munich: Fink,

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