Research, Scientific culture
Yves Citton is a professor of 18th-century French literature and a media archaeologist. He carries out his research within the LITT&ARTS joint research department.

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 Question Box

You are a literature professor. What is the connection between media archaeology and 18th-century French literature?

Yves Citton: I would say there are two connections. The first is somewhat opportunistic. Literary studies in France, much like in the United States and many other western countries, are losing momentum. I don’t feel that studying literature the way we have studied it for a century is the best way to protect it. What’s been developing in Germany and English-speaking and Scandinavian countries under the term ‘media archaeology’ gives me a way to do what I love – that is, reading old texts and re-problematising them within a context that promotes dialogue with people who are working on political, social, anthropological and media-related issues, etc. I thought it would be interesting to take little-known authors like Tiphaigne de la Roche and try to look, via a literary interpretation of their work, at how we might take a different approach to contemporary problems.  I also think it is very important to gain a deeper understanding of what media are and what they do. We are immersed in media worlds that influence how we think. Media archaeology puts mass media (radio, television, etc.) and digital technology into a very long-term perspective. I hope to be able to contribute something by studying how texts from the past can enrich how we approach media today. What are the media fantasies that have succeeded each other? Which one are we immersed in now and what can we learn from those which speak to us from the past?

What is the difference between media archaeology and media history?

Y. C.: If I wanted to be controversial, I would contrast them by saying that media history is based on teleological or progress-related postulates – the further we progress the better. It’s true that the telegraph communicates faster than people using horses and paper do. It’s true that talking on a telephone is easier than using a telegraph. It’s true that, with the Internet, we can convey sound and images in a way that is instant and decentralised. At the same time, interpreting the history of media from a point of view of progress leads to thinking in terms of succession. And it’s not wrong to say there are new media which kill off the old. However, in most cases, this is not how it happens. Media build on and overlap each other. It was said that the telephone would eradicate writing. But no, we write text messages – we have returned to writing on telephones. Text messages are a sort of comeback for the good old telegraph, but transformed. Media archaeology tells us this: let’s look at what we’re doing now and we’ll find layers which date back to the 18th century or even the Ancient Greeks… All of these layers overlap and continue to influence each other. We are then no longer thinking in terms of progress. There are often things which have been developed that are not as good as others which have failed. For example, what we’re doing to each other with tablets and smartphones is an absolute disaster!

What would be better than smartphones?

Y.C.: A machine that works a little like a ‘black box’. One of the major problems with digital technology is that we can’t look inside. Some people can if they know how to code and if it’s open source, but Apple locks everything down so that nobody can tinker around inside. With the younger generations, they should be able to get stuck in and see what new little programs can be created. I am a literature professor, but today I feel thoroughly illiterate because I can’t code. A few years from now, someone who doesn’t know how to code will be just as illiterate as someone who can’t read.

Digital technology has revolutionised how we think. For better or worse?

Y. C.: The main interest of media archaeology lies in trying to distinguish – in terms of digital technology, for example – what is truly new and what we believe to be new, but which already existed in 1750, and revisiting what happens to us via digital technology by looking back to the roots of calculating machines, to Turing, Babbage, Leibniz and Pascal. There is a brilliant novel from the late 18th century called The Manuscript Found in Saragossa [ed.: written by Jan Potocki] in which a character named Velasquez has a plan to convert everything into numbers: love, passion, history, etc. In the book, we see fantasies that we find again with Alan Turing in the mid-20th century and again today in the digitisation that is transforming everything into digits, into 0s and 1s. What does that entail? What are the associated risks? What do we lose? What do we gain? These are all issues that come up every day. Digital technology is something huge that is happening to us. Tiphaigne de la Roche in Giphantie describes a process that sounds a lot like photography. At the time, as modern chemistry of the elements was being invented, he described a wonderful imaginary world that encourages the analysis of anything and everything by breaking it down into its basic elements, which we can then recombine – ‘synthesise’ – as we see fit, offering us a glimpse of the tremendous power of technology, albeit with a satirical tone that also shows us what we are losing. I find this balance very helpful when thinking about digital technology. Just look at what’s happened over the past twenty years. Initially, we were living in the wonderful fantasy of ‘mass media will give us freedom’. Now, it’s the opposite: ‘they’re all just platforms to control us’. We’ve gone from wonder to horror. The beauty of people like Tiphaigne de la Roche is that they see both aspects: in every technology, you have the remarkable and you have the disastrous.
Updated on December 13, 2016