Film History as Media Archaeology: an interview with Thomas Elsaesser by Vladimir Lukin


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Thomas Elsaesser



In less than three weeks the new book by Thomas Elsaesser, Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema, will be launched festively in Amsterdam. This book is the culmination of some twenty years of research and writing at the interface of film history, media theory and media archaeology, and is also the 50th volume in AUP’s Film Culture in Transition book series. A very special moment for film studies, the readers, the series, the editor and AUP.

Since cinema has entered the digital era, its very nature has come under renewed scrutiny. Countering the 'death of cinema' debate, the book presents a robust argument for the cinema's current status as a new epistemological object, of interest to philosophers, while also examining the presence of moving images in the museum and art spaces as a challenge for art history. 

In preparation for the launch we would like to share with you an interview with professor Thomas Elsaesser and Vladimir Lukin, PhD candidate at Duke University, on how Elsaesser got interested in media archaeology in the first place. 

Vladimir Lukin: How did you become interested in media archaeology?

Thomas Elsaesser: This is a complicated story. When I went to the University of Iowa as a Visiting Professor in 1976, they did not want me to teach about Hollywood – the topic I had been concentrating on in my own magazine Monogram – for they saw me as a European import and a specialist in German cinema. So they asked me to teach one course on New German cinema (very “new” at the time) and one on Expressionist cinema (which I re-baptized “Weimar Cinema”). I didn’t know anything about Weimar cinema at the time, so I was learning by doing, along with my graduate students, and they were a terrifically intelligent and enthusiastic group; I’m sure I learnt as much from them as they did from me. For instance, one of them was Mary Ann Doane, who herself went on to write an important book on Media Theory and Film Archaeology – The Emergence of Cinematic Time.

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Vladimir Lukin 

And as I learnt more about German cinema in the 1920s, I realized how ignorant I was about the origins of the cinema and its early decades before WWI, and I began to look around, and found this truly extraordinary essay by Noel Burch, “Porter or Ambivalence”, published in Screen in 1978. It came as a revelation, was visibly influenced by Michel Foucault (whom I had been reading) even though Burch did not mention his name. The article was the paper Burch would subsequently present at the famous Brighton FIAF conference in 1978, where for the first time archivists, film historians, and avant-garde filmmakers came together, in an effort to drum up enough public awareness and support for the earliest years of cinema, so that this cinematic heritage that nobody seemed to value or care about could be physically rescued, by being transferred from nitrate to safety stock, and where necessary, restored. I was not at the Brighton conference, but heard about it soon after, and became interested in the kind of film historical discourse one would have to fashion, in order to attract at least the scholarly community to take a more direct interest.

I set up an undergraduate course in Early Cinema at East Anglia, which I taught together with Charles Barr, whom I had hired and who also had a deep interest in early British and Scandinavian films and directors. I put together a Course Reader, and we also organized an international conference, centred on the work Ernst Lubitsch, as well as featuring films by Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller.

 Out of the Course Reader and the Lubitsch conference (1983) came the idea of publishing a more comprehensive textbook on Early Cinema, which I proposed to the then head of publishing at the British Film Institute, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, who was very supportive of the project. Over the subsequent years  (parallel to writing a book on New German Cinema) I worked on this Reader, which became Early Cinema – Space Frame Narrative (1990). I wrote three major introductory chapters for each of the sections, plus a general introduction, and there for the first time I used the term “Media Archaeology”.


Vladimir Lukin: I know that you taught a film course together with W.G. Sebald. For me his prose is always very, as it were, ‘media archaeological’: psycho-geography which is what I am interested in, to paraphrase Siegfried Zielinski ‘deep time of culture’.

Thomas Elsaesser: As it happens earlier this year I gave a talk in Berlin at the DokuArts Festival on Max Sebald and The Rings of Saturn, where I raised some of these very issues, and talked especially about his way of interweaving photos – degraded photos, poor images, found and discarded material – with archival documents, obscure faits divers, half-invented characters and anecdotes. These were all woven together – quite literally, when one thinks of how important the silk-worm is in the deep-structure of his narrative – into a very finely spun prose-web, that undulates in narrative space and floats in historical space, and is as transparent and translucent as a piece of celluloid on which a half-faded image is still barely perceptible.


Vladimir Lukin: The film adaptation of Sebald’s Rings of Saturn makes it more pronounced since the film director used found footage technique in his film — and you describe found footage film as one of the effects of media archaeological artistic practices. I wonder if you find my observation pertinent and would be able to elaborate this idea.

Thomas Elsaesser: This is quite correct, insofar as Sebald had a habit of anonymizing the results of his research (the opposite of scholarly footnoting an article) and presented much of his painstaking trawling through libraries and archives as ‘found objects’. It is in this context that I also invoked Sebald in a recent article on the essay film, where I analyse what I take to be his ambiguous relation to the cinema, which I compare to that of Roland Barthes. There, I try to show how Sebald might have been influenced by Chris Marker – who in retrospect now seems very Sebaldian! Today, Sebald is clearly a major inspiration for artists and film­makers, given that there are at least four projects that explicitly refer themselves to his books (two are essay films about Austerlitz, one a peripatetic re-enactment of The Rings of Saturn, and a fourth is directly inspired by his person: Tacita Dean’s essay “W.G. Sebald”- a prose work that led to the photo installation Waterlog, first shown in Paris in 2003).

Finally, in another essay, I have a long passage on Sebald’s interpretation of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (also from The Rings of Saturn), which I discovered in the film Barbara by Christian Petzold (2012), where it is turned into a key exchange between the two main characters, both doctors, and both puzzled by some of the anatomical peculiarities of this famous painting, while being themselves drawn into the picture by the relay of glances that animates the otherwise so formal, stiff and lugubrious tableau.


Vladimir Lukin: There are as many definitions of media archaeology today as there are media archae­ologists. Could you describe your understanding of media archaeology and situate it within the current debates in media archaeology and in media theory in general?

Thomas Elsaesser: As mentioned, I came to Media Archaeology initially via the study of Early Cinema. However, when I relocated in Amsterdam in 1991, with the explicit brief to start ‘from scratch’ a new Department of Film and Television, I made sure that the curriculum also included “New Media” as an equal and integral part of both teaching and research.  And while, at undergraduate level, the courses were divided into the different subject areas, at MA level, I treated cinema, television and digital media as interdependent and mutually complementary media forms. The core course in film history was called “Media Archaeology”, while film theory course was structured around “The Cinema, the Body and the Senses”. When students took the two core courses together, they associated with audio-visual media both “the apparatus” and “the body”. In this configuration, “archaeology” became the name for the disassembly of the different media around technology and power, while “film theory” was their re-inscription in the body and the senses. Thus, for instance, under “archaeology” the sessions were devoted to the “archaeology of the screen”, “archaeology of the camera”, archaeology of projection”, “archaeology of sound”, etc., while in the film theory course, we would discuss “window and frame”, “door and screen”, “mirror and face”, “the look and the gaze”, “skin and touch”, “ear and space”, “mind and brain”, as they related to and were affected by cinema, television and digital media.

There was also a PhD programme, called Imagined Futures whose objectives were more directly media-archaeological (coordinated by myself, Wanda Strauven and Michael Wedel). We compared and contrasted two periods of especially rapid and diverse media change, 1870-1900 and 1970-2000, in order to identify, first the key technologies that brought about social change (electrification, the steam engine, telephony, telegraphy), and then we looked at the conditions under which certain visual media flourished while others did not. We saw that the cinema was indeed ‘delayed’ and something of an exception, in that the chronophotography, as developed by Muybridge and Marey could have taken one direction, namely as a purely scientific tool, instead of becoming a medium of mass entertainment, while stereoscopy, very popular as a domestic visual gadget and toy, apparently did not lend itself to becoming a technology of mass entertainment. Or take x-ray photography, briefly a fairground attraction and prime example of memento mori among ‘haunted media’, before its dangers to the body were fully appreciated.

Imagined Futures also highlighted the volatility, unpredictability and contradic­tory nature of these media technologies: how their practical implications (e.g. their industrial uses and the resulting potential for economic profit), collided with their perception by the popular imagination (in the form of narratives of anxiety, of utopia, dystopia and fantasy) and how mixed the response (eager adoption or stiff resistance) they received from artists, writers and intellectuals. Each senior researcher further­more chose several iconic figures (all starting with M: Muybridge, Marey, Messter, Marconi, Marinetti) for contrastive study, in order to ensure that the research had a trans­national, comparative dimension, allowing us to draw up several unexpected transmedia connections. The narrow time frame containing their activities showed how media innovations in sound and vision, in image and electric signal had, from the start, crossed national boundaries.

The vantage point for drawing these connections was the period from the 1970s onwards, i.e. our extended present, typified by the ousting of cinemas through the domestic television as prime entertainment and information medium, the consolidation of video as popular recording and storage medium (as well as avant-garde artistic practice), the remote control and the video recorder (as time-shifters), the universal adoption of the personal computer, the change from analogue to digital sound and image, the invention of the mobile phone, and the development of the internet and world wide web, leading to an information, art and entertainment infrastructure that was dependent on the digital computer, telephony, radio-waves, satellites, more than it was on the camera, photography or moving images.

The key idea, however, was that the digital turn should not be seen as a technological rupture, but more as processes of remediation and emulation. Digital media became – from our “archaeological” perspective – mainly the occasion for a number of thought experiments, most of which had as their goal to retrace – and re-imagine – alternative histories for the cinema, that is, to identify different points in the past, where a given technology either could have had, or was imagined to have had, a different future from the one that eventually did occur. Our media archaeology therefore also included alternative genealogies of the cinema, including the non-entertainment uses of the cinematic apparatus, which in turn made us aware of the elements of chance and contingency, the moments of apparent failure that contained seeds of unrealized possibilities, and thus the importance of factoring into any history of media also those events and elements that did not happen, but could have happened, or those events that did happen, but whose impact fades or was subsequently suppressed. Against the chronology of traditional history, which is always retroactively constructed as natural and inevitable, we conceived of archaeology as that form of history, which – with the help of counterfactual history, if necessary – would also reveal the normally hidden power structures involved in the dominance or victory of certain media, standards and norms, and thus of a certain version of history, technology and progress.


Vladimir Lukin: In one of you articles you define three basic lines of inquiry in film studies: “What is cinema?” (Classical film theory, like Bazin, Kracauer etc) “When is cinema?” (Example: The New Film History movement, one of the precursors of media archaeology) and “Where is cinema?” (current debates). Do you believe that this categorization is still pertinent for the current state of affairs? If not what is the most urgent question of film studies today?

Thomas Elsaesser: Obviously, this triple division is in one sense a gross simplification, and its only value lies perhaps in the fact that its brevity actually draws attention to some salient and important shifts in our current understanding of cinema, so that each question, frames and reframes the cinema in distinct ways.

“What is cinema” is essentially an ontological question, and while during the days of Bazin, this ontology had to do with striking a delicate balance between photography as an iconic medium of mimesis and realism, and photography as a medium of trace and imprint, of registration more than representation, today the ontology question has returned in a different context, largely sparked off by Gilles Deleuze’s cinema books and the revival of Stanley Cavell’s philosophy of cinema in The World Viewed. Whereas Bazin wanted to shift the debate away from the old question: “ is cinema an art”, and if so, how can it be an art if its main specific trait is its automatism, Deleuze has reinterpreted this automatism in quite different and new ways: so that cinema for Deleuze is less an art-form than a life-form, and that its ontology (he also sometimes calls it its natural history) is how the cinema redefines (Rancière will say redistributes or partitions) what is alive and what is dead, what is actual and what is virtual, what moves and what is still, what has energy and what intensity, etc., i.e. the cinema proposes a new division and distribution of the basic categories of existence.

The question “When is cinema” is indeed related to what I initially called the New Film History, but which I should have called the New Cinema History: because it marks the shift from interpreting films and filmmakers (auteurs) towards analysing sites, spaces and spectators. In other words,  “when is cinema” shifts from concentrating on the producer in the widest sense of the word, to focusing on the institution “cinema”, the organization of the film industry, but above all on the constitution and behaviour of the audience, most of whom “go to the movies” rather than watch an authored or authorized work of art. They integrate the cinema into their social and personal lives, make it part of their life-calendar even. Hollywood knows about this life calendar of its audiences, because it launches and releases its big and expensive blockbusters around the various national holidays, just as Disney makes its family animation films around seasonal holidays. Nowadays, every weekend is a holiday weekend, and films either make it or break, usually depending on their box-office take during the first weekend of their release. At the same time, a film without a theatrical release has almost no chance of being recognized as a film at all, so that time advantage “when is cinema”) and location advantage (“where is cinema”) determine cinema almost as much as the films that are being shown. Yet, financially speaking, the theatrical release in the US, makes up only about 30% of a successful film’s overall economic potential, the rest coming from overseas markets, from DVD sales, streaming video, television rights, and sales of branded goods associated with the franchise.

“Where is cinema”, then, is concerned with the different media platforms, the big and the small screens, the mobile screens, but also what happens to the cinema in art spaces such as galleries and museums: as installation art, as found footage, as an assemblage of clip, such as the hugely successful The Clock by Christian Marclay. In recent years, I have been teaching a graduate course on “The Moving Image in the Museum”. There I have been tracking this rather complex, but also compelling and fascinating story of the nearly hundred-year feud and animosity between ‘film’ and the ‘art world’, which all of a sudden, around 1995, becomes a love–fest, where each apparently cannot do without the other.

Vladimir Lukin: In your recent article “Media Archaeology as Symptom” you express some misgivings about media archaeology as a discipline. Can you say a little bit why you find it problematic today?

Thomas Elsaesser: This follows on from your previous question, because right now, I am asking myself yet another question, namely “what is the cinema (good) for”? Why was it invented, when it was invented (after all, already Bazin wondered about the ‘delay’ of cinema), what is its contribution to human evolution, to modernity, its role in the 21st century, and where did it start? In other words, my media archaeology is gradually settling into this most intriguing and for me most disturbing question: is the cinema now a thing of the past, do we really have to confront the much-discussed “death of cinema”? Some scholars have tried their best to save it for the digital age (Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media) and then have moved on (to software studies), others have subsumed it under wider concerns, such as Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture. It has become somewhat lonely around film studies and cinema studies, as if the real topics today are elsewhere, and that by this very fact, the cinema’s past also becomes a kind of lost continent, an island floating in sea of ‘media’.

My misgivings – such as they are – about media archaeology, therefore, stem from several developments: one is that among those who refer themselves to media archaeology, there are some who have very little interest in the cinema. For instance, Siegfried Zielinski thinks that the cinema was an ‘intermezzo’ (Zwischenspiel) in a media history that mainly runs via mathematics and tele-action (telephony and television), and William Uricchio similarly thinks that the driving force in media history is ‘simultaneity’ (i.e. television) and that the cinema had little to contribute to this history. I am, of course, very interested in this argument – and the development of the Internet seems to confirm their thesis. But the danger is that media archaeology then becomes merely the historical elaboration of the dominant tendencies, and loses its reflexive dimension, or if you like: it makes the past too much like the precursor of the present, which is of course what media archaeology tries to deconstruct. Then, there are others, who are interested in the cinema, but they even more directly extrapolate from the present, and are mainly looking for antecedents or pedigrees for what strikes them as ‘interesting’ among media phenomenon today. These they tend isolate from their general context, so that we really have a kind of teleology in reverse, which then acts as the ideology of the digital, by appropriating the past for the present, rather than stressing the otherness of the past – an otherness that we might want to preserve, as a potential resource for an altogether different future.

The answer to my question ‘what is cinema good for?’ is part of a larger project and cannot be summed up that easily. It depends first of all on the time frame you choose – whether one hundred years, or say, five hundred years. Those whose media archaeology goes no further than the 1890s will probably see it – in the larger scheme of modern media history – as an intermezzo or intermediary stage and thus ‘obsolete’. Within a wider historical horizon, however, the cinematic apparatus and the cinematic imaginary not only have several functions, but also several histories, only some of which have, until now, been fully realized or appreciated. It may therefore, paradoxically, be the apparent obsolescence of cinema, its diminished cultural status as a mass medium (in Europe) that is its most valuable asset and greatest use, because its relative insignificance protects it from the kinds of instrumentalization that television and the Internet have been undergoing, as simultaneity and interactivity turns them into mere media for the transmission and transaction of (their users’) data.


Vladimir Lukin: Media archaeology has become quite fashionable nowadays. However, at the same time certain signs of crisis already can bee seen. My concern is media archaeological obsession with deep time. First, Zielinski who introduced the idea of the deep time of media, then, Alex Galloway went even further and proposed a conceptual categorization of media by means of Greek mythology (Kittler too devoted his last years of research to Ancient Greece). And now Parikka — arguably, the main popularizer of media archaeology today, — suggests extending media to geology. Don’t you see this tendency as problematic? Might our obsession with the past somehow paradoxically lead to the oblivion of the present?

Thomas Elsaesser: There are at least two separate parts to your question. First of all, the names you mention: some of these, Zielinski, Friedrich Kittler do not or no longer use the word media archaeology. To these names I would add Jonathan Crary, Avital Ronell, Bernhard Siegert – all scholars whom I respect enormously, and who do excellent work in media archaeology, but who go out of their way to not have to use the word. Why is this? It is of course worrying … maybe they see it as too closely aligned with Foucault, who himself abandoned the word archaeology in favour of genealogy, and who is now more valued for his writings on governance and bio-politics, on surveillance, disciplinary and control societies, rather than for his attempts to found a new epistemology of knowledge.

These would be philosophical objections to media archaeology. But then, there are also others. As you hint at, it is now seen as rather trendy, it has become the refuge of a certain pseudo-radicalism, the successor to a once hip hacker-culture: Jussi Parikka actually calls it “steam punk”, and for him – in his role as what you call ‘popularizer’ - it seems indeed the rallying point of all the dissident and resisting energies that still have not ‘sold out’ to the corporations and to the NSA.

Then you have media archaeology as the fetishism of obsolete technology, a sort of collectors’ obsession with ‘dead media’. And while in Kittler’s former institute at Humboldt University in Berlin there is apparently a formidable collection of early computers, this hobby-basement approach is clearly not entirely what the German media-philosophers are after, who want to think in five hundred or two thousand year time frames, rather than about the obsolescent beauty of a Commodore 64, or the value of an Apple 1 circuit board sold on eBay.

Why these larger time frames, this return to the Greeks or to the deep time of media? I have my own preferences and usually start around 1500, when I try to answer “what is cinema good for”, but as I said, most media archaeologists are no longer that interested in cinema, and more concerned with tracking the digital per se. This is to say, they are interested in the mysterious power of something as abstract and man-made as mathematics, to accurately model the physical world: for instance, how come that algorithms, which are really stupid, repetitive instruc­tions, can model not only our behaviour as humans, but ‘life itself’.  Algorithms and AI software give pretty convincing hints that one day, maybe soon, we as a species will have mutated and even made obsolete by the ‘machines’ or rather by the ‘intelligence’ that we ourselves have created, so that what makes us human is indeed little more than the information technologies we happen to have developed and are using at any given point in time. The consequence would be that we have just about reached the stage where ‘we’ – but who are ‘we’ by then? – are about to leave behind the biological support of these information technologies (DNA, for instance) that make us who and what we are. As Gilles Deleuze once said, half jokingly, if life once developed only out of carbon, why not imagine another life developing out of silicon.

The media archaeology that I am interested remains firmly committed to the cinema, which in this perspective appears as a thoroughly hybrid and ‘impure’ medium. It does not inscribe itself into any single teleology, whether retroactively appropriating the past or preparing a more ‘perfect’ future.  That is why I insist on the multiplicity of the cinema’s histories, recognize its distinct ontological, epistemological and aesthetic genealogies, and resist its retroactive recovery for the immediate uses of the present. We would indeed be ‘forgetting’ the present, if we thought we ‘owned’ the past, just as we would be forgetful of the present if we could not see ourselves in some constellation with a past. In this sense, the most appropriate motto for media archaeology today is the one we owe to André Bazin, who – after reading Georges Sadoul’s Histoire du cinéma – wrote: “Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented.” Film history as media archaeology is dedicated to this invention.