The field of media archaeology radically decontextualises media history from the capitalist narrative bound up with industrial advance, and attempts to understand the significance of moments of technological convergence in terms of deep time.
In his lecture ‘Media Fossils and the Outerspace Anthropocene: A Production of an Archaeological Future’ Jussi Parikka advocates for a framework of theoretical analysis which addresses future ruins, understood here as the technological waste produced as result of the continued desire for manufacture. His approach makes compelling use of interdisciplinary ties between art, technology and media, and renews consideration of the relations between the human body and sociological habitus, and the subject–object problem.
Such parameters form a useful lens through which we can consider Parikka’s concept of the ‘anthrobscene’; ‘a new geological era catalysed by the corporate capitalist measures of depletion and exploitation’. If the anthropocene forces historians to ‘think of durations of nature as entangled with social history, and the historiographical functions of temporality need to be considered alongside such vectors that acknowledge the work of capitalism as a specific epoch’, then the anthrobscene – a portmanteau combining anthropocene with obscene – highlights the exploitative actions of corporations, governments and other agencies operating on different levels.
Parikka’s contention that the future ruins of the anthobscene will be formed via processes involving displacement, formation, obsolescence and waste, speaks of the materiality of the earth and associated labour tolls, whilst envisioning a future that is radically changed by the presence of the humans. Parikka notes that certain geophysical factors now present – ranging in scope from source materials such as rare earth minerals to the existent infrastructure of global enterprise – are necessary to enable high technology. This conceptualisation of global alteration in terms of sequences of activity reframes the impoverishment of resources and the abundant effluvium of industrial processes as representatives – or future fossils – of shifting paradigmatical concepts, percepts, and affects.
Parikka considers the cultural affect of the anthrobscene via the art practice of Trevor Paglen, specifically in relation to his 2012 project The Last Pictures. Etched onto silicon disks (created in collaboration with material scientists from MIT) The Last Pictures is an indestructible set of images depicting moments on Earth. Carried aboard the currently functional television satellite EchoStar XVI, they will remain in a ‘graveyard orbit’ with the satellite once the crafts operational lifespan has expired. In doing so The Last Pictures may well become one of the longest surviving artifacts of human civilization; mutely present in our skies long after humanity has disappeared from the planet’s surface.
Though ostensibly creating a relic designed to survive deep time, with The Last Pictures Paglen is addressing a contemporary audience, provoking considerations of finitude. Just as the Voyager Golden Record was a gesture to the Earth-bound and had meaning weighted with symbolism, so too the images found on EchoStar XVI achieve profundity outside of their remit as artifacts. They speak to the now; of the creeping effects of technological advance, of temporal poignancies, and of the specifically human relation to the fragile subjects rendered inert on silicon plates. This is a language of sensation akin to the Burkean sublime, in which mortality is prismatically discerned rather than verbally expressed.
But perhaps most significantly, Paglen’s work evokes questions of context in relation to meaning. The images selected for inclusion in The Last Pictures were chosen arbitrarily, with Paglan acknowledging that even if found by our descendants or another life-form the choices will likely be unreadable, just as a Matisse may be to an octopus. But as per the argument against affective formalism, intelligibility does not undo intent. The Last Pictures then, as with media archeology as a concept, requires one to access a type of double consciousness for its scope and essential paradox to be fully revealed: the pre-interpretation of our archaeological future requires us to consider a messaging system negotiable by non-human observers and suitable schema of signification. Parikka reminds us of Wolfgang Ernst’s assertion that versions of historiographies should not be reliant of narratives, to which Parrikka challenges; is there a historiographical strategy that doesn’t rely on a story at all?
‘Fossils are not debris, they are impressions; form without matter…’ an audience member offers during the concluding Q&A. The redundancy of fossils, relics and artifacts only serves to bring attention to their distance from us when reading them within a historical canon, and traces speak to us as palimpsests. Provenance endows an object with value as a survivor of history, connecting those present to a rarer past. How then will unoriented media fossils – the future relics of our age – be decipherable? What can we anticipate any disconnect to represent? Regressed infinitely, the communiqué of a relic undergoes continual revision according the circumstances in which they, at any given moment, simply happen to exist. If the consideration of media archeology then can be understood as a call for wholesale de-anthropocentrism, then the notion of excavation becomes a caprice, as discernible meaning will not be found solely in the forms of our relics, nor their rarity, nor in the wonder of exquisite preservation, but rather revealed laterally: within the augmented ecologies in which the relics themselves are to repose.
review by Hannah Barton