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media studies speculative rhetoric

speculative media archeology

Media archeology is a familiar term even though its history is not so easily traced. Certainly it has to do with philosophical lineages passing through Foucault and Kittler, but that’s only a start. When I started this blog, more than 15 years ago, I subtitled it “an archeology of the future,” in part because the title Digital Digs, suggested that to me, but I’m sure (though I have no direct memory of it) that I was inspired by Kittler.

In the last decade, media theorists (Parikka comes to mind) have considered intersections between media archeology and speculative realism, though speculative realism is a less adopted and even more amorphous term than media archeology. Here however my interest is speculation is not particularly moored to that philosophical term of art. We all know what speculation generally means. It has some etymological connection to sight, like theory. It is a word that begs the adjective “mere,” a fact that appeals to me as a scholar of rhetoric. Speculations edge out further on the limb than more respectable hypotheses and propositions. They are risks taken by investors and miners. Speculations also can form the basis of hypotheses and propositions; they offer the best methods for knowledge in less certain circumstances. In short, sometimes speculations are the best we have. Sometimes the risk of speculating is worth the reward, and saying that logically implies that sometimes the risk is too high.

Archeology suggests something old or at least something in the past. We can speculate about the past because our knowledge is imperfect. We can speculate about things we might learn in the future about the past. In these respects, speculating about archeology, “media” or otherwise, makes sense. Characteristically for this blog, I am interested in the less/non- sensical version in which we apply a speculative media archeology to the future. So, it’s speculative in the way investors speculate about the stock market’s future performance but it is also media-archeological in a kind of abstract-methodological sense.

At least for my purposes here, speculations are not wild guesses or fantasies. In literary terms, there is a difference between “speculative fiction” and “space opera,” even if the books appear beside one another in the fantasy/sci-fi section of a bookstore. Speculations are wagers placed upon predictions. In the stock market those are financial wagers, but there are other kinds of wagers any time we commit ourselves to a particular future. E.g. (and sadly) entering a humanities doctoral program is a speculative wager on the prospect of future academic employment. In the financial world, where speculation is increasingly sophisticated, there are extensive predictive capacities and instruments for hedging one’s bets. Indeed, as the common joke suggests, the wealthiest private universities in the world operate on such hedges.

So how do such kinds of speculation connect with media archeology? I guess you could say that’s my philosophical research question. I’m certainly not starting with an answer that I will defend. I will defend the value of the question though.

For one thing, speculations about the future of digital media (i.e., the next big thing, the “killer app,” etc.) drive this massive sector of global economy and culture. They underscore planned obsolescence. Understanding how such speculations are composed, circulate, and ultimately shape technological development and digital culture is one part of this. Media archeology, in its somewhat nebulous and yet conventional sense, serves us here as the past is prologue.

Another aspect of this is liminal things: i.e., the things of speculative fiction or even closer, things ripped from tomorrow’s or next year’s headlines. In some respects they are already here, like the hurricane that has yet to make landfall… or climate change. And like those topics, they are things we have been discussing for some time already: not “strong AI” but (100s of ) billions of “smart” technologies, not big brother but thousands of little brothers, not Star-Trek-esque holodecks but deep fakes. Not a world of machines that pass the Turing test but a world where we no longer care that we interact with machines as if they were humans, because their interactions are good enough and when it comes down to it humans are kind of assholes.

With this in mind, speculative media archeology as I am thinking about it has to do with engaging in an informed way about the futures we are pursuing and speculating (wagering) on it. Not (necessarily) in a financial sense, but in an ethical-political sense.

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