James Burke’s Connections and media archaeology

In the 1970s James Burke hosted a TV series, Connections where the audience was taken on a journey from one technological object to another (Burke 1978). The programme started with Burke presenting an unlikely partnership: the manorial system and the carburettor for instance. What could be the connection, the audience was asked and then the story began.

Burke masterfully wove a story of coincidences, eureka moments, unlikely connections and choices. Great men (usually) were brought in alongside ‘ordinary people’ caught up in an object’s life story. By the end of each programme, like a detective in an Agatha Christie story, Burke would lay out the plot, the journey and the connections.

This of course was popular, Reithian television not academic history or Foucauldian/media archaeology. But there are parallels that are instructive for any consideration of ways to approach media objects.

Burke approached his objects in their specificity and locality as well as their network positions. Each ‘invention’ (although everything in Burke’s world is linked, things have their moments of birth) is addressed in relation to it’s cultural, political and economic position. Each is a specific thing but the network connections Burke draws are framed in terms of wider processes. Within Burke’s  “actor network” each object is distinct but also in alliances.

Burke also looks at the unexpected, the discontinuous and the disjunctions. Like a Paul Auster novel, coincidence is never far below the ‘surface’.  What the ‘inventor’ never thought of can be as important or influential as what he did. The unexpected turn of events, fortuitous accident or alliance is enfolded into the story. What may seem a clearcut linear story is actually  presented, and revelled in, as a series of multilayered alliances and translations.

Finally Burke could be seen as a popular forefather of media archaeology insofar as the stories in Connections and his later book The Knowledge Web (2001), are not only authorial tales that parallel those of Crary and Zielinski but also have a bigger project than a scrapbook of wonders. Burke may not reference Foucault, “governmentality” or “biopower”, but structures and relations of power are never far away. Burke’s concept of a technology extended beyond the gadget or even the material. The manorial system of social and economic organisation, the taxonomic relations of the  library, the Medician system of money were ‘technologies’ in a flat ontology of technological object-actants held together by alliance-connections. These technologies of organisation and power were, for Burke, part of the network.

Burke even honed in on the same examples as later new materialist/media archaeologists to develop his argument. Just as Jane Bennett uses a power blackout that affected 50 million people in North America in 2003 as a way of mapping an “agentic assemblage” (2010: 21), so Burke uses a similar event in 1965 as a way of discussing interdependence and network effects (1978: 1-3). Of course Bennett adds actants to the network that the 1970s BBC left out, notably the neo-liberal political and economic framework of the power industries. But while Bennett talks of “assemblages” rather than “connections”, the argument comes from the same basic understanding that we are enfolded in a network of object-actants (best treated through a flat ontology), in specific, local relations and alliances.

  • Bennett, J., 2010, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology Of Things, Duke University Press, Durham.
  • Burke, J., 2001, The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents To Stonehenge And Back, Simon & Schuster, London.
  • Burke, J., 1978, Connections, Macmillan, London.