Thursday, April 3, 2008

Questions about Ernst

Maybe I have some serious holes in my philosophical foundation for approaching Ernst--okay, I have some serious holes in my philosophical foundation--but I'd like to ask some questions about Ernst that I really did not understand but did engage me.

First of all, I think that history's relation to teleology is actually quite debatable. Ernst basically writes off media history as teleology because it cannot broach the gaps present in the study of new media; with the medium itself constantly in flux, with plenty of recycling, forming a narrative is impossible, so media archaeology is better able to capture the rupture. But I don't think he actually approaches the merits of history. History is diachronic, archaeology is not. Again, Ernst says this is a good thing for archaeology, but if we want to study new media, why not approach from a diachronic standpoint, as Ernst himself basically does. His examples of Bush's Memex, Fahrenheit 451, and so on are an attempt to understand the history of the representation of the archive, and of new media. So why abandon the diachronic standpoint if it works well enough for Ernst? Also, back to my original statement: I don't think all history is teleology. In fact, I think as my studies in history show, history is anything but teleology--although historians do start with the final product (say WWII) and try to find a cause from the end result (nationalism, technology, economic divides, an oppressive end to WWI, etc.), there are many "What Ifs" that permeate historiography. I think a good example is a book on my shelf right now, The What If?s of American History. In this book, for example, a historian is given all of American history up to the Civil War as the way it actually went, and then says that the South manages to battle to a truce. History then explodes into a completely different narrative. I think historians are usually able to keep an open mind about the problematic nature of a strictly-teleological approach to history.

That's another question for Ernst. Ernst says in the very beginning that he's always felt uneasy about the predominance of the narrative for understanding events. Well, why not? I understand that Ernst wishes to propose problems and a different understanding, but if it ain't broke, why write this huge paper? Our understanding of time necessitates understanding events as through a narrative. Cause creates effect, which creates another effect, and so on. Other causes intercede, producing different effects. But with all the information available, a distinct narrative always forms: A started B, and C started D, and B and D formed E. There's no point in approaching D without knowing A, B, C, and E, and how they fit into the narrative. That's like looking at a leaf and ignoring that its part of a tree. I don't think full understanding can exist without the presence of narrative.

Also, the criticisms of media archaeology bring me pause. Technological determinism--the proposition that from media comes culture, and not the other way around--is totally, totally wrong. It can easily be disproved with simply looking at places with similar media and different cultures. I can have one culture in Providence and me subject to the same media as a completely different culture in Louisiana, or in Detroit. Or, look at places and times before media became as widespread. Cultures formed quite easily, creating media and stories as they came along; these stories were spread through the medium of mouth, and changed the culture, which produced new media, which changed the culture, etc. I think the real truth is that media and culture are reflexive, like an evolutionary process. It's asking the chicken and the egg question. Saying that one begets the other is right but wrong.

Also, the whole thing with the erasure of human agency. That's wrong. That's so wrong that I think it counts as a viable counterexample to this theory, which in turn says that the theory is wrong. According to my knowledge of the definition of theories, once a counterexample is made, then it's wrong. Sorry!

I think I understand the anarchive, an archive with no limit or boundaries, as Ernst describes. It seems like an intelligent way to understand the archiving tendencies of the ever-shifting internet, de-monumentalized and all. Ernst does make some very fascinating arguments, and (thank god) his paper was easy enough to read. But these are some questions, some holes that I think Ernst overlooked, that I would like answered. Maybe I'm missing a huge stone in my philosophical foundation, but these put me off a bit.

--Dan Ricker

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