From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd. Towards an Archeology of the Media


Session Title:

  • High & Low

Presentation Title:

  • From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd. Towards an Archeology of the Media


  • Intro

    In his classic expose of the “archaeology of the cinema” C.W. Ceram puts the prehistory of the motion pictures straight. He states promptly: “Knowledge of automatons, or of clockwork toys, played no part in the story of cinematography, nor is there any link between it and the production of animated ‘scenes’. We can therefore omit plays, the baroque automatons, and the marionette theatre. Even the ‘deviltries’ of Porta, produced with the camera obscura, the phantasmagorias of Robertson, the ‘dissolving views’ of Child, are not to the point. All these discoveries did not lead to the first genuine moving picture sequence.”‘ In another paragraph, Ceram elaborates on his position: “What matters in history is not whether certain chance discoveries take place, but whether they take effect.” Curiously, the profuse illustrations of the English language edition (1965), collected by Olive Cook, openly contradict these statements. Plenty of “chance discoveries” have been included, supported by meticulously prepared captions. No doubt, for many readers this polyphonic array of curious traces of the past remains the truly exciting aspect of the book, not Ceram’s pedantic attempts to trace the one by one steps which led to the emergence of cinema in the end of the 19th century. The writer’s primary focus is on the narrowly causal relationships which supposedly guided the development of the moving image technology. Tracing the fates of the personalities who made this happen comes next; other factors matter little. The reasoning is matter-of-fact and positivistic. Ceram never ventures upon speculations rising above the materiality of his sources.

    The illustrations in Ceram’s book, as well as the historical collections on display at such wonderful places as the Frankfurt Film Museum, can, however, be persuaded to tell very different stories, full of intriguing possibilities. As the French historian Marc Bloch taught, our conception of the past depends on the kind of questions we ask. 4 Any source, be it a detail of a picture or a part of a machine, can be useful, if we approach it from a relevant perspective. There is no such trace of the past, which does not have its story to tell. Another historian with a comparable attitude towards historical sources was, of course, Walter Benjamin, who (according to Susan Buck-Morss) “took seriously the debris of mass culture as the source of philosophical truth”. For Benjamin (particularly in his unfinished PassagenWerk) the various remains of the 19th century culture – buildings, technologies, commodities, but also illustrations and literary texts – served as inscriptions, which could lead us to understand the ways in which a culture perceived itself and conceptualized the “deeper” ideological layers of its construction. As Tom Gunning puts it, lib` Benjamin’s method is fully understood, technology can reveal the dream world of society as much as its pragmatic rationalization”