Special Events

Insuetude: Conversations in Technological Discard and Archaeological Recuperation

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

Insuetude is a quality of not being in use and also an “unaccustomedness.” It seems to evoke the state we find ourselves in today, drawers spilling over with wires and plugs that were in use just a few years ago, obsolete technology stuffed in the back of cupboards, and curated on high and inaccessible shelves. Quickly one forgets which charger went with which device, old keyboards feel unfamiliar and awkward to grasp, and the present recedes into a contemporary past that already feels distant.

The past decade has seen an efflorescence of research in media studies dedicated to the topic of “media archaeology”, a field devoted to the curiosities and forgotten paths not taken in the history of technology. Rather than studying classic films or dominant presentational modes, media archaeologists favor objects like punch cards, prototypes, corporate technical reports, magic lanterns and other optical toys. This move toward artifactual histories of has been paralleled in archaeology by an interest in the contemporary past, and a questioning of how the accumulating material traces of the recent past challenge and complicate archaeology practice. Yet, thus far, media archaeology has been informed by Michel Foucault’s largely metaphorical use of archaeology, to denote an inquiry into “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events”. It is the goal of this conference to explore what the discipline of archaeology - the field that studies how objects mediate our relationship to the past - might offer a media archaeology. Equally, we hope to stimulate new ways of thinking about the archaeological past and novel methods for doing so through the engagement of archaeologists with media theorists.

Insuetude will bring together theorists of media technologies with researchers trained in the traditional methods of archaeology. The conference theme speaks too to this unaccustomed conversation and to the shared but untapped interest in the history of technology. Participants are will reflect on methodological and philosophical overlaps between the cultures of the two disciplines. In the arena of method we ask how large-scale, collaborative research projects devoted to excavating and reproducing forms of technical interaction might contribute to the humanities? Equally, how can archaeological insights into the experimental reproduction of past technologies offer insights for the current interest in critical making?

In their first interpretive forays into the significance of material culture, archaeologists and media theorists alike have drawn upon textual and hermeneutic metaphors. This has now been challenged in archaeology by demands to take better account of the problem of presence: how is the past made present both in and through its traces? Equally, questions have arisen over the adequacy of representationalist theories of meaning for understanding material culture: how do material things intervene into and shape representations, and how might deictic and metapragmatic relationships also be at play? As researchers who reach across long-standing disciplinary divides, we represent a wide variety of methodological approaches to investigating and manipulating materiality. Finally, where might media theorists and archaeologists find common ground in the questions of politics and value that are prompted by efforts at preservation, curation, and management of the past?