Cousins Post 8: Archeologies of Power and Media Archaeology as “Countervisuality”

Quick preface to my post: I have a feeling that I’m about to fall into the trap of “telling media stories” that Ernst pushes against in “Media Archaeography” (56). I may indeed slip away from new materialism and materialism in general in thinking about how these can act as potential counters to something more abstract – “architectures of power” (Parikka 82). Partly in conversation with our discussion last week, in both of the media archaeology readings this week I was drawn to the idea of technology (or perhaps only our own narrative of technology) as a materialized and more importantly, naturalized power that has an unseen influence. We’ve talked about material agency, and but it hadn’t occurred to me before these readings that if we discuss material agency, the agency of technology or of media, we do have to take into account the power dynamics that agency implies, and the fact that often times (especially in contemporary times), the power dynamics that exist within technology or tech-based practices are invisible. This invisibility of agency and power cobined influence of Foucault on media archaeology made me think of another Foucault-influenced theory of power that (here’s where I might slip into media stories) is based in visual culture – Nicholas Mirzoeff’s concepts of “visuality” and “countervisuality”.


In his book The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality, Mirzoeff takes Thomas Carlye’s concept of visuality as “the visualization of history” (2) and reframes it as that which “sutures authority to power and renders this association natural” (6). Put another way, visuality is that aestheticization of power which makes it seem natural and, in contemporary times, invisible. Mirzoeff sees current technology as placing us in a post-panoptic moment in which power, as visuality, is unseen but still authorized and reified by narrative. I wonder if there are similar aestheticizations of power inherent in media specifically (not just media as tools for social power systems) – the idea that technology has not only a part in the architectures of cultural power but also its own power dynamics created by it own agency, and that placing media in a streamlined narrative often naturalizes power as “development” and makes paths of media history seem inevitable in the same way “fact” was posited as “out there”. If there is a “mainstream media history”, then, following Mirzoeff, there is also a media visuality, or a given narrative of media that hides seemingly natural systems of power. I’m wondering if media archaeology as a field, by focusing on the material (or in Ernst’s case, the calculating as opposed to narrative memory) might act as a form of “countervisuality” to that “visuality” – for Mirzoeff, countervisuality is a “claim for a different form of visualizing” (29), the “right to look” at the realities and counter histories that are ignored in creating a narrative that naturalizes power. I’m wondering what sort of power is naturalized by a mainstream media history, and if media archaeology could be one way to explore counter histories and claim a “right to look” through new materialism that might make that naturalization more visible. In this way, perhaps, media archaeology would be a sort of uncovering of the inherent but invisible power structures embedded in our media and the way we use those media. As Parikka says in Media Theory and New Materialism, “Emphasizing hardware matters in the midst of the increasing invisibility of consumer objects in digital culture is an important political task for media-archaeological research” (64). Though Kittler chooses to differentiate himself from Ernst, they both acknowledge the importance of a “non-linear media history” – non-linear, a “history outside narratives” (67). According to Parikka, Kittler also forwards the claim that “we do not speak language, but language speaks us, and we have to participate in such systems of language, which are not of our own making” (70). Parikka goes on to say:

     “…language in the age of technical media is not just natural language: it is the new technological and physical regimes introduced by media…they impose new regimes of sensation and use to which we have to accommodate ourselves in order to be functioning subjects. We are secondary to such systems. Besides agency, this has to do with power. Power is no longer circulated and reproduced solely through spatial places and institutions – such as the clinic or the prison, as Foucault analyzed – or practices of language, but takes place in the switches and relays, software and hardware, protocols and circuits of which our technical media systems are made” (70, emphasis mine). 


This is the post-panoptic power dynamic of which Mirzoeff speaks (though he does not take into account the agency of tech / media itself), and it seems especially entangled with media archaeology (at least Kittler) when discussing recent theories of “cognitive capitalism”, the “new regimes of capitalism in which our ways of thinking, communicating and socializing have become key motors for value creation, and hence under new forms of control” (Parikka 73). As Parikka states, “if Michel Foucault’s work afforded…extension of archaeological and genealogical methods into media contexts [as we see with Ernst] his writings on biopower and biopolitics have been extended into an analysis of politics of the contemporary media sphere” (73). Mirzoeff’s use of Foucault’s biopower led to a more human centered visuality, “psychotechnics” as a “crucial form of power” seems to take the agency of media more fully into account. If “media archaeology at its best establishes…a problematization and rethinking of such fundamental questions as what even counts as media” (79) it seems like it is denaturalizing the power systems inherent to media – counter visualizing the way that “machines themselves structure our everyday experiences” (79) by focusing on the material, the medium-specificity in order to analyze the “modalities of materiality in which we are embedded in cultures of abstraction” (87, emphasis mine). Parikka states that this “turn to materiality can be seen to correct the perceived immateriality brought by digital culture, and by what postmodern theories flagged as the abstraction and immaterialization of cultural reality” (84). Media archaeology, as “more than an interest in lost ideas” (86) and through its focus on the machine itself as agent, seems apt of making the invisible visible. Ernst’s rethinking of the archive is also a rethinking of “the place where statements and visibilities are controlled” (Parikka 87) – in other words, places of power. Though we’ve seen this orientation toward the material (with Kirschenbaum and others, as Parikka notes), the power dynamics weren’t something I considered until this week. Visuality was just a helpful way for me to understand it, since the naturalization or invisibility of power, the dematerialization of its origins, seems particularly applicable to technology / media. The way that “Media archaeology adds to the study of culture in an apparently paradoxical way by directing attention…to non-cultural dimensions of the technological regime” (Ernst 61) seems analogous to Mirzoeff’s concepts of countervisuality as a way of understanding those invisible power dynamics. Thinking of media archaeology through this counter visual framework also gives me a bunch of questions:

Are narrative, discourse, and memory / history inherently embroiled in power asymmetries?

Is a material or mathematical orientation a (the only?) way to counter that asymmetry?

Does a “calculating memory” have less ties to power than “narrative memory”?

Do the Humanities, which seem to me to be made of the building blocks of narrative, discourse, and memory. Ernst himself states that “Academic discourse in the humanities, we have to admit, is still primarily based not he narrative transfer of knowledge” (71). Are the humanities capable of countering naturalizations of power inherent in narrative through such material / mathematical foci?

Are humans in general capable of escaping narrative? Do we want to / need to? 

Can media archaeology act as one possible disruption to the narrative that aestheticizes invisible power? (that one is a mouthful). 

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Durham, NC: Duke

UP, 2011. Print.


One thought on “Cousins Post 8: Archeologies of Power and Media Archaeology as “Countervisuality”

  1. mringraham says:

    Hmm… reminds me of Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature


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