Mobile Media and the Paleolithic

Thursday Lecture Series

In the mid-1950s, a collection of Neanderthal artifacts was unearthed in the southwest of France, kicking off one of the most famous debates over the study of cultural transmission through the archaeological record. At a time before the development of chronometric techniques like radiocarbon dating that would allow later archaeologists to definitively order these artifacts in time and space, the Mousterian debate centered on the question of how we can extrapolate history from the formal properties of a technical object. In this presentation, Wythoff attempts to put debates from the history of archaeology into conversation with an exciting new field in media studies known as “media archaeology.” Media archaeology has thus far been informed by Michel Foucault's (largely metaphorical) use of the term archaeology to denote an inquiry into “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events.” But Wythoff will argue here that the traditional field of archaeology, its primary concern being the study of how objects mediate our relationship to the past, has much to offer a media archaeology.

Wythoff begins by focusing on the two principal figures in the debate -- the established French archaeologist and sometime science fiction novelist François Bordes and the upstart American Lewis Binford -- in order to draw larger conclusions about how we both experience and interpret the artifacts around us. He then attempts to apply the methodological insights gleaned from this episode in the history of archaeological thought to current debates about the cognitive effects of mobile media on their users. In contrast to fears that digital devices are forcing us to "evolve" in some sense, the Mousterian debate reveals the complexity of how we should narrate the many lives of technology: the tasks to which our tools are put, the expanded ranges of action and forms of expression they enable, the cohesion and succession of sociocultural traditions, and how we resurrect such forms of subject-object interaction from history.