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An Ecology of Deep Time

Zielinski’s notion of Tiefenzeit, deep time, is itself an attempt to use the idea of geological times to guide the way in which we think of the humanities-focused topics of media arts and digital culture. Deep time carries a lot of conceptual gravity, and is employed as a way to investigate the “Deep Time of Technical Means of Hearing and Seeing.” Zielinski’s approach kicks off as a critique of a teleological notion of media evolution that assumes a natural progress embedded in the narratives of the devices—a sort of a parasitical attachment, or insistence on the rationality of the machines and digital culture, that of course has had its fair share of critique during the past decades of media and cultural studies. We could call this “mythopoesis”[1] (to borrow a notion from a different context of the Ippolita-group), which as a critical perspective focuses on the narratives of (and in technology as the site of) political struggle. Zielinski’s media-archaeological (and anarchaeological) approach, however, focuses on geological time.

For Zielinski, earth times and geological durations become a theoretical strategy of resistance against the linear progress myths that impose a limited context for understanding technological change. It relates in parallel to the early modern discussions concerning the religious temporal order vis-à-vis the growing “evidence of immense qualitative geological changes”[2] which articulated the rift between some thousands of years of biblical time and the millions of years of earth history.

This deep temporality combined the spatial and temporal. Indeed, in James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth from 1778, depth means time: under the layers of granite you find further strata of slate signaling the existence of deep temporalities. Hutton is proposing a radical immensity of time although it comes without a promise of change; all is predetermined as part of a bigger cycle of erosion and growth.[3] Despite his use of terms such as “continual succession” for time of the earth and its geological cycles discovered in its strata (the reading of strata, “stratigraphy”) time of immense durations does not change in the historical fashion. More specifically and in Hutton’s words:

The immense time necessarily required for this total destruction of the land, must not be opposed to that view of future events, which is indicated by the surest facts, and most approved principles. Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and, as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon this globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession.[4]

Hutton continues to discuss and consider “the globe of this earth as a machine, constructed upon chemical as well as mechanical principles” as well as an organized body that proceeds through times of decay and repair. Hutton proposes a view and a theory of the earth as one of cycles and variations:

His theory posited that the earth was constantly restoring itself. He based this concept on a fundamental cycle: erosion of the present land, followed by the deposition of eroded grains (or dead ocean organisms) on the sea floor, followed by the consolidation of those loose particles into sedimentary rock, followed by the raising of those rocks to form new land, followed by erosion of the new land, followed by a complete repeat of the cycle, over and over again. Hutton was also the first to recognize the profound importance of subterranean heat, the phenomenon that causes volcanoes, and he argued that it was the key to the uplifting of formerly submerged land.[5]

As becomes clear later in Lyell’s classic account of geology, this articulates a division in terms of the geological vs. the historical.[6] For Lyell, Hutton’s assumption of the cyclical deep times becomes a research tool to understand the radical temporality of the earth. Lyell was definitely interested in change in ways that did not pertain to Hutton,[7] but this historicity was still of a different order from that of the emerging history disciplines focused on the hermeneutic worlds of the human. The different sets of knowledge formations pertaining to the natural and to the moral are also the context for two different modes of temporal order. The time of human concerns differs from geological time, which is argued to be a radical dynamic force that affects life across the boundaries of the organic and the inorganic. And yet it was a necessity to keep these separated, despite the fact that modern institutions were increasingly interested durations that surpassed the human: geological and biological (in sciences of the evolution). In creative cultural theory, we have recently seen inspiring accounts that connect feminist ontology with Charles Darwin’s temporal ontology of open-ended becoming through evolution.[8] We already mentioned the work of Grosz and should include how such influential thinkers such as Rosi Braidotti have built on the anthropocene discussions to connect them to a wider geocentric perspective, which orders us to rethink fundamental notions of subjectivity, community, and political attachment. For Braidotti, the notion is to be connected to ongoing struggles involving postcolonial and feminist agendas as well as to avoid technophobia and nostalgic homeostatic fantasies of the earth. One could claim that some of the radicalization of the temporal ontology already started with Hutton and Lyell.[9] Time is imagined beyond biblical restrictions, but tied to a view of a grand cycle that with Lyell led to the master trope of uniformitarianism.[10]

But neither Hutton’s nor Lyell’s theory is a stable ground for a more radical and nonlinear account of time for contemporary cultural and media theory. Indeed, it displaced biblical time by positing the earth as a transcendent entity outside historical change. Hutton’s worldview was deistic and for him the world was a perfectly designed machine.[11] Hutton’s geological world is also without change and difference, and works in cyclical temporeality.[12]  It is no wonder then, as Simon Schaffer points out, that Hutton’s account inspired Adam Smith’s ideas concerning the invisible hand of capitalism in the emerging industrial system.[13] Both seemed to believe in universal laws governing the empirical world.  The embedded cyclicality creates a fruitful opening to erosions and renewals. For Zielinski geological metaphors offer a way to investigate technological culture, but for Hutton, the planet is a machine. It is, however, one modeled on the steam engines of his age, primarily the Newcomen engine; its principles of expansion of steam inspired Hutton with the idea of elevation of the crust.[14] This machine also assumes organic unity and cyclical renewal, and feeds off the heat at its core.[15]

Such ideas inspired various visualizations of the deep time of the earth. The deeper strata and their remaining layers, including fossils, signal time as well: the planet is structured according to a depth of the temporal past. These layers structure animal and human life, but also the industrial system of production and the technological culture of human civilization. But this is exactly where Zielinski also departs. Paradoxically, Hutton’s inspiration (and he was only one of the geotheorists working on this topic in his time) goes toward both the universalizing and standardizing logic of the industrial factory system and Zielinski’s exactly opposite account of variantology, which finds an alternative tune with Stephen Jay Gould. Indeed, through Gould, Zielinski is able to carve out a more detailed account of what the geological idea affords to media art history and media analysis as variantology.

In order to achieve this, Zielinski has to turn from Hutton to more contemporary readings of geology and paleontology. Zielinski picks up on Gould’s paleontological explanations and ideas, which emphasize the notion of variation. It is in Gould’s Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle that Zielinski finds an account suitable to a critique of progress in media culture. As a reader of Gould, Zielinski notes that the quantifying notion of deep times is itself renewed with a qualitative characteristic that produces a critique of myths of progress, which present a linear imagination of the world. Both discover the need to evacuate divinity from the cosmological picture, whether one of the earth or the media. Instead one has to develop images, metaphors, and iconography that do not reproduce illusions of linear progress “from lower to higher, from simple to complex.”[16] A resurgent emphasis on diversity takes the place of the too neatly stacked historical layers.

Without going too much into the geologic debates, we need to understand how Gould’s note itself is based on his arguments against uniformitarianism. Gould’s argument for “punctuated equilibrium” is targeted against the false assumption of a continuous, uniform evolution which persisted in the various geological and evolutionary accounts for a long time. It includes Lyell’s views as much as Darwin’s beliefs.[17] The series of arguments and academic discussions Gould started together with his co-writer Niles Eldredge stems from the early 1970s, and also included both a new way of approaching the fossil record and a different understanding of temporal ontology as part of geology.[18] In short, to counteract the view that one can read a slow evolutionary change from the geological records, which have gaps and missing parts, one must approach this “archive” in a different way. The imaginary for this begins in the nineteenth century: processes of transmission and recording are already present in the earth itself, a vast library waiting to be deciphered.[19] The idea of punctuated equilibrium, however, suggested that instead of a constant uniform speed for change and evolution, the fossil record might show changes occurring at different speeds: from slow evolutions to sudden jolts or jumps. The processes of speciation and variation are not one-speed only but more of a multitemporal mix, with singular points that punctuate the evolution in specific ways.

Already this short elaboration reveals the wider scientific stakes in Gould and Eldredge’s account: it offered a different theoretical understanding of time in geology. For Zielinski, this enabled a way to understand media archaeology as also having deep times. In these depths could be found the roots of the ways in which we modify, manipulate, create, and recreate means of hearing and seeing. Zielinski introduces inspirational deep times of apparata, ideas and solutions for mediatic desires that take inventors as the gravity point. He himself admits this approach is perhaps romantic, and focused paradoxically on human heroes. It includes figures such as Empedocles (of Four Elements fame), Athananius Kircher, and, for instance, the operatic dreams of Joseph Chudy and his early audiovisual telegraph system from the late eighteenth century (he composed a one-act opera on the topic: The Telegraph or the Tele-Typewriter). They also include the opium-fueled media desires of the slightly masochistically inclined Jan Evangelista Purkyne, a Czech from the early nineteenth century in the habit of using his own body for various drug- and electricity-based experiments to see how the body itself is a creative medium. What we encounter are variations that define alternative deep-time strata of our media culture outside the mainstream. It offers the anarchaeology of surprises and differences, of the uneven in media’s cultural past, revealing a different aspect of a possible future. Zielinski’s project is parallel to imaginations of “archaeologies of the future”[20] that push us to actively invent other futures.

Zielinski’s methodology offers a curious paradox in terms of the general paleontological framing. The deep-time metaphor acts as a passage to map different times and spaces of media art history. Even the term connotes the darker underground of hidden fluxes that surface only irregularly to give a taste of the underbelly of a deep media history.[21]  They offer variation in the sense Zielinski is after in media variantology: media do not progress from simple to complex; there are no blueprints for prediction; and we need to steer clear of the “psychopathia medialis” of standardization and to find points of variation to promote diversity. This is not meant to signal conservation as a desired strategy but active diversification as a strategy of a living cultural heritage of technological pasts in the present-futures.[22]

In any case, while Zielinski’s metaphorics are fascinating, I would suggest care in picking up on their more concrete geological implications. With a theoretical hard hat on, I wonder if there is actually more to be found in this use of the notion of deep time both as temporality and as geological materiality. Perhaps this renewed use offers a variation that reattaches the concepts to discussions concerning media materialism as well as the political geology of contemporary media culture as reliant on the metals and minerals of the earth. Hence, the earth time gradually systematized by Hutton and other geotheorists of his period sustains the media time we are interested in. In other words, the heat-engine cosmology of earth times that Hutton provides as a starting point for a media-art historical theory of later times is one that also implicitly contains other aspects we need to reemphasise in the context of the anthrobscene: the machine of the earth is one that lives off its energy sources, in a similar way that our media devices and the political economy of digital culture are dependent on energy (cloud computing is still to a large extent powered by carbon emission–heavy energy production)[23] and materials (metals, minerals, and a long list of refined and synthetic components). The earth is a machine of variation, and media can live off variation—but both earth and media are machines that need energy and are tied together in their dynamic feedback loop. Electronic waste is an example of how media feeds back to earth history and future fossil times.

The main question that Zielinski’s argument raises is this: besides the media variantological account concerning the design of apparatuses, users, desires, expressions, and different ways of processing the social order and means of seeing and hearing . . .  there is this other deep time too. This sort of alternative is more literal in the sense of returning to the geological stratifications and to a Professor Challenger–type of excavation, deeper into the living ground. Geological interest since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced the concept that was later coined “deep time,” but we need to be able to understand that the new mapping of geology and the earth’s resources was the political economic function of this emerging epistemology. This is where archaeological and geological interests reveal the other sides of deep time:  sides that expose the earth as party to new connections. Indeed, the knowledge of the earth through geological specimens (demonstrated, for instance, in Diderot and D’Alembert’s “Mineral Lodes or Veins and Their Bearings” in volume 6 of l’Éncylopedie in 1768) and its newly understood history meant a new relation between esthetics and the sciences. This link is also beneficial for inventing new ways of extracting value: “As a result of eighteenth-century archeological and antiquarian activities, the earth acquired a new perceptual depth, facilitating the conceptualization of the natural as immanent history, and of the earth’s materials as resources that could be extracted just like archeological artifacts.”[24]

The media theoretical deep time divides into two related directions:

1. Geology refers to the affordances that enable digital media to exist as a materially complex realm of production and process mediated by political economics: a metallic materiality that links the earth to the media-technological.

2. Temporalities such as deep time are understood in this alternative account as concretely linked to the nonhuman earth times of decay and renewal but also to the current anthropocene of the obscenities of the ecocrisis. Or to put it in one word: the anthrobscene.

Deep temporalities[25] expand to media theoretical trajectories: such ideas and practices force media theory outside the usual scope of media studies in order to look at the wider milieu in which media materially and politically become media in the first place. This relates to Peters’s speculative question about cosmology, science, and media, which turns into a short historical mapping of how astronomy and geology are susceptible to being understood as media disciplines of a sort.[26] Continuing Peters’s idea we can further elaborate geophysics’ degree zero of media technological culture. It allows media to take place, and has to carry their environmental load. Hence this “geology of media” perspective expands to the earth and its resources. It summons a media ecology of the inorganic, and it picks up from Matthew Fuller’s notes on “media ecology as a cascade of parasites”[27] as well as an “affordance” itself allowed by a range of processes and techniques that involve the continuum of the biological-technological-geological.


  1. Ippolita and Tiziana Mancinelli, “The Facebook Aquarium: Freedom in a Profile,” in Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives, ed. Geert Lovink and Miriam Rasch (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2013), 164.
  2. Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. Gloria Custance (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2006), 3.
  3. Stephen Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), 86–91.
  4. James Hutton, Theory of the Earth, e-version on Project Gutenberg, 1792/2004, online at http://www.gutenberg.org/.
  5. Jack Repchek, The Man Who Invented Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth’s Antiquity (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 8.
  6. Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (London: John Murray, 1830), 1–4. 
Online facsimile at http://www.esp.org/books/lyell/principles/facsimile/.
  7. Stephen Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, 167; 150–55.
  8. Elizabeth Grosz, Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011).
  9. See Repchek, The Man Who Invented Time. Repchek presents Hutton as an important discoverer, but some of this discourse focusing on the originality of Hutton neglects earlier geological research that does not always pertain to a Christian worldview of limited biblical proportions. Furthermore, the invention of modern time in historiography follows slightly differing paths, opening up the idea of an open, radically different future. See Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 240–43.
  10. Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle.
  11. Martin J. S. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 160. Hutton’s world does not allow for the accidental but remains in the natural theological view of an orderly universe.
  12. Stephen Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, 87.
  13. Simon Schaffer, “Babbage’s Intelligence,” online at http://www.imaginaryfutures.net/2007/04/16/babbages-intelligence-by-simon-schaffer/.
  14. Rudwick, Bursting the Limits, 161.
  15. Ibid., 159–62.
  16. Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media, 5.
  17. Stephen Jay Gould, Punctuated Equilibrium (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 10.
  18. Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism,” in Models in Paleobiology, ed. T. J. M. Schopf. (San Francisco: Freeman Cooper, 1972), 82–115.
  19. Peters, “Space, Time, and Communication Media.”
  20. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (London: Verso, 2005).
  21. See Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark, Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013), 139.
  22. Zielinski has continued these discussions in the Variantology book series as well as in the recently translated [… After the Media], trans. Gloria Custance (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2013).
  23. The figures as to exactly how much network computing and data centers consume varies a lot, as well as the dependence on carbon emission–heavy energy. Peter W. Huber, “Dig More Coal, the PCs Are Coming,” Forbes, May 31, 1999. Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee, “What’s the Carbon Footprint of . . . The Internet?” The Guardian, August 12, 2010.  http://www.theguardian.com/. Seán O’Halloran, “The Internet Power Drain,” Business Spectator, September 6, 2012. http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2012/9/6/technology/internet-power-drain.
  24. Amy Catania Kulper, “Architecture's Lapidarium,” in Architecture in the Anthropocene. Encounters among Design, Deep Time, Science, and Philosophy, ed. Etienne Turpin (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Open Humanities Press, 2013), 100.
  25. Recent media and cultural theory has in most interesting ways picked up the notion of temporality again. In media archaeology it has emerged with a nonnarrative and nonhuman understanding of temporalities—for instance, microtemporality (Wolfgang Ernst). For Ernst, microtemporalities define the ontological basis of how media as reality production works in speeds with limited access to the human senses. Hence Ernst also has written about “temporealities.” See Wolfgang Ernst, Chronopoetik. Zeitweisen und Zeitgaben technischer Medien (Berlin: Kadmos, 2013). See also Wolfgang Ernst, “From Media History to Zeitkritik,” trans. Guido Schenkel. Theory, Culture & Society 30, no. 6 (2013): 132–46. In a slightly similar fashion Mark Hansen’s recent work has flagged the need to embed media theoretical vocabulary  in a different regime of sensation than conscious perception. In Hansen’s Whitehead-inspired perspective, the limitations of phenomenology are worked through so as to address the current ubiquitous digital media culture and the speeds at which it folds as part of the human, without being accessible through human senses. See Mark B. N. Hansen, Feed Forward: On the Future of the Twenty-first Century Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2014). At the other scale, the duration of climatic and geological timescales has to be addressed. Besides this book on geology, see Claire Colebrook on extinction and the weird temporalities of nature and knowledge of nature. Colebrook, “Framing the End of Species,” in Extinction: Living Books about Life (London: Open Humanities Press, 2011), http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org/books/Extinction/Introduction.
  26. Peters, “Space, Time, and Communication Media.”
  27. Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2005), 174.

Copyright © 2014 by Jussi Parikka