Wolfgang Ernst on Archives

On: March 7, 2008
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Excerpt from presentation made for the tutorial German Media Theory under supervision by Geert Lovink

Humboldt University (Berlin) professor Wolfgang Ernst is one of the pioneering scholars of media archeology, a branch of inquiry that he defines as “an archeology 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 rhetoric as well).” (From interview with Geert Lovink)
For the objectives of media archeology archives are naturally of primary importance, they materialize our current discourse on memory by actively participating on the selection process of what will be stored and discarded. In this way, archives functione like a memory machine, transforming the present into storehouses of the past.
Until very recently, the functioning of this machine was predominantly oriented towards time. Storing cultural memory for very long stretches of time was the primary goal, where the retrieval of the stored information was a separate and a somewhat inferior process.
Any archeological inquiry into such a vast collection of information is bound to be a unique montage, something that is not  recognized and supported by the archival structure itself.
All these propositions, along with the inherent properties of the archive were first challenged with the invention of film and the completely new ability to capture movement. Movement is a crucial element in the functioning of new media, even so that Ernst defines new media as “coming into being only in movement” and by this definition film was the first new medium, first to shift the focus from time to space. But film still had to be stored and accessed like the old time-oriented media. Because of this shortcoming, Ernst argues, the real rapture that we experience today regarding the archives had to wait the introduction of electric media, and especially the computer.
With the computerization of the archive, the document-centered structure of the old gives way to a mathematicized, operative memory that does not differentiate between aural or visual elements. As with all electric media, the new archive requires constant refreshing to stay active but enables the completely new notion of instant feedback. Any piece of information that has been fed into the archive can be retrieved for reuse almost immediately and such immediate access is not space bound.
This new form of archive represents a new understanding of the dominant memory culture where the processes of memorization have never been so similar between the archive and the human memory. Ernst argues that the structure of computer memory is the closest ever to the corresponding human memory processes. When the immediate feedback and constant movement of the new archives are combined, the emerging memory becomes an interactive extension of the present, rather than a praise of the long-gone past.
Such a transformation would shift the focus from a state of constant storage to constant access and Ernst is suggesting a new name to place these new episteme of archives, which is derived from the way science treats electric currents from the beginning; archival field.

With his comprehensive perspective on the computerization of the archive, Wolfgang Ernst’s work on media archeology proves to be very illuminating on all topics related to computer-based storage and access.

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