Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Medienwissenschaft

Archiving Presence: From Analog to Digital - Abstract

Archiving Presence: From Analog to Digital



Presence is a theme with a long history in aesthetics, philosophy, and science. Yet it was only relatively recently – in the late 19th century, with the emergence of media like the phonograph, the photograph, and the cinematograph – that the very parameters of „presence“ began to change. These analog recording media made it possible for the first time in history to store, repeat, and manipulate the physical and temporal effects of presence. Nowadays, as digital technologies rapidly replace the analog, the conditions of archiving presence are once again changing drastically. While apparently having been integrated into everyday cultural practices, the effects of digitization on the reproduction and perception of the temporal quality called „presence“ are yet to be grasped and analyzed. The purpose of this research project is to investigate into the changing technological conditions of storing and reproducing presence – concretely, re-presencing (Sobchak, 2011) – as they now shift from analog signal recording to digital data processing, and to explore implications of that shift on the construction of cultural memory – the „body of reusable texts, images and rituals specific to each society in each epoch“ (Assmann, 1995: 125).


„Archiving Presence“ is deliberately oxymoronic. It draws on a constitutive tension accompanying modern media from Edison´s first recording of „Mary had a Little Lamb“ up to Bin Laden´s taped messages – the ability to invoke presence under the conditions of reproduction. This constitutive tension was key for first-generation commentators of analog media such as Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Roland Barthes. It is no less crucial nowadays under the conditions of digitization. Thus „archiving“ is be understood not simply as passive accumulation of signals or data, but as a generating principle (arché) along the lines of Foucault´s archeology (1972) and Derrida´s grammatology (1978). Archiving presence implies both storing and re-storing presence, both recording and regenerating presence-effects. From this follows a focus on what Husserl´s (1928) phenomenology calls protention and retention (as the temporal conditions of experience), and what Gumbrecht (2004) more recently calls the „production of presence“. To archive no longer refers to alphabetical, document-like storage, but increasingly to non-alphabetical numerical records, analog and digital, which redefine the scope of cultural memory independently of both individual and collective memory.


The humanities have traditionally focused on written texts in attempting to understand cultural articulations of presence (just like musicians have typically focused on notes rather than sounds). However, recent research in fields as diverse as neuroscience and media archaeology have shown the shortcomings of the textual approach, and in so doing demonstrate new ways to bridge the humanities and the sciences. A few groundbreaking studies have started exploring how media mold our temporal perception of presence (e.g. Doane, 2002; Elsaesser, 2007; Ernst, 2013; Kittler, 1999; Stiegler, 2010). Yet the full significance of the shift from analog to digital media has remained largely unexplored. This shift is in fact threefold: (1) From narrative as an organizing cultural logic to database as a new cultural logic (Manovich, 2001); (2) From traditional, exclusive and hierachical archival structures (textual and analog) to „social media“ participatory and collective digital archival formations (Facebook, Youtube) (Appadurai, 2003); (3) From derivative manipulation of analog media (photomontage, reverse playing) to code-level digital manipulation (Photoshop, mp3 compression) (Ernst, 2013). Taking into account these and other qualitative changes, this collaborative project will follow the path of bridging the humanities and the sciences in exploring presence as necessarily conditioned by its archiving media – from analog to digital.


Research Plan



Two research teams, German and Israeli, will collaborate on developing two thematic threads: (1) Sonic Media Temporalities: From Analog to Digital; and (2) Testimony: From Analog to Digital. The German team, led by Prof. Ernst, will be responsible for the Thread 1, and the Israeli team, led by Dr. Pinchevski, will be responsible for Thread 2 (see detailed descriptions below).



Each team will bring a distinctive conceptual and methodological approach into the collaboration. Prof. Ernst will employ a media-archeological approach, focusing on the medium itself and its effects (in line with the Berlin School of Media); Dr. Pinchevski will employ a cultural/critical approach, focusing on the socio-cultural significance of the medium. Both approaches will be employed on both threads. Combining the two approaches bears special importance. It has often been said the the approaches above are incompatible, even mutually exclusive: that the medium-focused approach lacks political and ethical dimensions, while the cultural/critical lacks the close reading of the technology at hand. Employing the two approaches conjointly reflects the team leaders´ understanding that both approaches are indispensible and, moreover, complementary. The methodological reciprocity is meant to cross-fertilize the two research threads, allowing for a deeper understanding of the transformation of cultural memory from analog to digital. Thus beyond the study of archiving presence, this collaborative project holds the promise of methodological innovation in the field of media studies.


Research question (for both threads):

What are the underlying technological conditions of the shift from analog to digital in media of archiving presence? What are the effects of that shift on the construction of cultural memory? What are the implications of those effects?


Thread 1: Sonic Media Temporalities: From Analog to Digital (Berlin Team)

The working assumption of this thread is that Edison´s 1877 invention of the phonograph, which enabled for the first time the acoustic recording of the dis-embodied voice, has generated a cultural shock whose impact still resonates nowadays. At issue is the dissoncance between cognitive knowledge – the historicity of the recording, the knowledge that it is already in the past – and its neuro-physiological effect – the perception of the voice as pure presence, and always in the present (Dolar, 2006). While various media have frequently reproduced this paradox, its impact on the cultural conception of time and temporality has hardly been investigated. Acoustic, oral and even music recordings serve as a privileged field for analyzing this paradox as it undergoes analog-to-digital cultural conversion. The key case study will be early 20th century projects of phonographic and magnetophonic signal-recordings of oral poetry for transcription, investigating the ambivalence accompanying it in the time of its production, and the impact of the current digitization of its sound archives (such as the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature at Harvard University, and the Lautarchiv with early ethnographical and historical voice recordings at Humboldt University, Berlin). Given that digitization involves the reintroduction of the symbolical code in the form of mathematical algorithms, the aim of this research thread is to set the ground for a theory and practice of „archiving presence“, redefining the act archivization as „archive in motion“ (RØssaak, 2011). The analysis will be performed under archival, technological and media-theoretical perspective, focusing on the affordances of some types of phonograph / gramophone / magnetophone on the one hand (in the Berlin Media Archaeological Collection) and of software and computing competence on the other (in the Berlin Signal Laboratory).


Thread 2: Testimony: From Analog to Digital (Jerusalem Team)


The Yale Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, established in 1979, has crucially shaped contemporary Holocaust memory by setting the model for the audiovisual testimony. Many studies have identified these testimonies as embodied traumatic narratives, signifying through the affective power of survivors´ mediated presence (Hartmann, 1996). It was recently suggested that the videotape, as an analog archiving medium, shapes much of how trauma is conceived in principle studies on this archive (Pinchevski, 2012). The question is how audiovisual media shape Holocaust testimony is now raised with respect to digital media based projects, like the Visual History Archive the USC Shoah Foundation. Digitization will enable sharing videotaped testimonies online, exposing them to unprecedentedly wide audiences; but it will also raise questions about their integrity amid other online material. Digitization will also open new avenues for experiencing testimonies: one project features a computer-generated 3-D hologram of a real survivor, which is programed to answer questions while recounting the testimony, using technology similar to the language interface of the iPhone application, Siri. How does the transformation in archiving media from analog to digital change audiovisual testimony? What are the changing properties of embodied witnessing as testimony undergoes remediation from analog to digital? To what extent is the cultural inscription of trauma bound to specific historical contexts, and to what extent is it bound to the techno-epistemology of media themselves? These and other questions will be at the center of this research thread.




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