April 3, 2009
Erkki Huhtamo (UCLA), “Tracing the Topoi: Media Archaeology and Topos Study”

Event report: Huhtamo met with a smaller group of graduate students and faculty to dig deeper into his analytical techniques and preview his forthcoming anthology about methods in media archaeology. Participants prepared by reading a draft of a yet-to-be-published essay by Huhtamo about “topos study.” The seminar continued on the theme of methodology, emphasizing that media archaeology is always a process involving several and overlapping archaeologies, rather than a matter of artificially isolating and essentializing patterns in culture. Huhtamo defined topoi as recurring discursive concepts, visual or audio, that can be traced cross-historically, and to various extents, cross-culturally. As such, the conscientious topos scholar balances cultural specificity and universalism in a way that is sensitive to the “universal movement of culture” rather than looking for deep structures in human activity. The successful scholar also works within a tension between historical continuity and discontinuity; while media archaeology by its nature emphasizes continuities, it should avoid reducing multifaceted phenomena to a simple code. For Huhtamo, topos study is an important tool because it allows media analysts to side-step technological determinism by focusing on the discursive space where technologies are imagined and talked about, rather than looking at how media forms shape experience. Huhtamo’s version of media archaeology is particularly concerned with excavating secret, forgotten, neglected, and suppressed histories. Presenting a generous array of visual examples, Huhtamo demonstrated a selection of topoi associated with modern media technology such as the “hand of God,” permeable screen surfaces, miniature people, and giant people (“Gulliverization”). These topoi have appeared frequently in twentieth- and twenty-first century advertising, demonstrating how cultural topoi can be co-opted as capitalist tools.