In his Deep Time of the Media (2006), German media theorist Siegfried Zielinski traces a deliberately discontinuous history of media from ancient pre-Socratic conceptions of the perceptual interface through to the curious inventions of medieval and Renaissance proto-science and to the dilemmas of contemporary post-media (in which media has become so universal that it risks losing its coherent identity). He deliberately avoids structuring the book as a linear tale of progress. Instead he prefers an archaeological approach, arguing that the various historical strata – “curiosities” – represent rich worlds in themselves, each as sophisticated as anything that has come before or since. Rather than appearing as primitive evolutionary moments, the various historical strata are positioned as alternative, equally viable conceptions of media that have the potential to inform the present, inspiring us to reconsider – perhaps at the limits of this questioning – the nature and possibilities of media.
If early new media theory tended to focus on the novelty of the digital and to describe a very restricted historical frame, Deep Time of the Media sketches a much longer and broader context for contemporary practice. More particularly, Zielinski provides keen insight into the relationship between traditions of speculative science and the media imaginary. This works well to demonstrate the rich interdisciplinary nature of media experimentation, but also tends to privilege a technical-scientific conception of media to a more general, philosophical-aesthetic one. This is justifiable in many ways. Our ordinary understanding of media is associated with all kinds of technical forms – photography, film, video, electronics, computation, etc. – so why not restrict the conception of media to technological means for expanding upon aspects of human perception, cognition, memory, etc.? But at another level this this runs against the whole spirit of Zielinski’s enterprise. If the aim is to unsettle conventional definitions of media and mediation and to open up the field to wider strands of reflection then there may well be a need to think beyond the necessity of a technical media apparatus. There may be a need to consider media more fundamentally, in terms, for instance, of how mediation figures within traditions of philosophical speculation on aspects of being, truth and beauty. It may be useful, for example, to consider the Hegelian dialectic as a mechanism of mediation, endlessly crunching up intransigent otherness into the progressive articulation of Absolute Mind. Or we could consider the role aesthetics plays in Kant’s philosophy as a mediating agent – mediating between pure and practical reason and between the unknowable character of sensory experience and the essential structures of apriori understanding. This paper will attempt neither of these things, but will instead address Zielinski’s recognition of a conception of media within pre-Socratic thought. Zielinksi identifies this conception with a late phase in pre-Socratic thought, Empedocles (4th Century BC) and Democritus’s (late 4th Century – early 3rd Century BC) notion of mediated perception. Without denying the relevance of this early conception of a natural media apparatus linked to effluences, pores, void space and atoms, I wish to argue that issues of mediation figure more broadly within pre-Socratic thought and do not depend upon positing a technical media apparatus. Notions of mediation are integral to the key pre-Socratic concepts of the arche (the fundamental stuff of being, nature and the universe) and the logos (regarded as both the intrinsic logic of being and the philosophical account of that logic). My particular focus will be upon tracing dimensions of mediation within the Eleatic School philosophy of Parmenides (5th Century BC). Parmenides is famous for resisting any thought of multiplicity or differentiation. Rather than acknowledging the many or the different, Parmenides insists that being is an eternal and unchanging unity. This conception appears utterly antagonistic to any thought of mediation (what is there to mediate between if there is only singularity?), but regarded more closely all kinds of paradoxes appear. It is in the texture of these paradoxes, involving the play of light and darkness, being and nothingness, truth and opinion, that another, less technically focused conception of media and mediation becomes evident.
My aim is pursuing this apparently arcane issue of how media figures in pre-Socratic thought is less to correct Zielinski’s account than to pose questions for how media, and media art more specifically, is conceived in the present. Is media necessarily constituted in terms of informationally-geared technological extensions of human capacity, or does it have a more general character and a wider set of implications? Is it about media as a plural noun for a range of apparatuses and associated cultural practices, or is it about media as a broader play of distancing, deferral and uncertain manifestation? And if it is the latter, then what becomes of the field of media art? Doesn’t it begin to lose any sense of coherent identity? Is the acknowledgement of a broader conception of media not only a means of integrating media art more closely within more general traditions of art practice but also of effectively removing the need for the category of media art altogether? The question then is of a field expanding to the point of dissolution. Ultimately, I am not convinced that this is such a bad thing.