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|Introductory essay to New Media, 1740-1915 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), edited by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree|
Lisa Gitelman and Goeffrey Pingree
if we were asked to think of other "new media," we might have
a harder time coming up with obvious examples. We would have no problem
citing instances of "old media": typewriters, vinyl record albums,
eight-track magnetic tapes, and the like. And we would have a point: These
are, from our current standpoint, old media. But they were not always
old, and studying them in terms that allow us to understand what it meant
for them to be new is a timely and culturally important task, an exercise
that in this volume we hope profitably to apply to media much older than
our title suggests, this collection of essays challenges the notion that
to study "new media" is to study today's new media. All
media were once "new media; and our purpose in these essays is to
consider such emergent media within their historical contextsto
seek out the past on its own passed terms. We do so, in part, to counter
the narrow devotion to the present that is often evident today in "new
media" studies, a growing field whose conceptual frameworks and methods
of inquiry are heavily influenced by experiences of digital networks and
the professional protocols of the social science of communications. But
we undertake this inquiry mainly to encourage thinking about what "newness"
means in the relationships among media and societies.
is a moment, before the material means and the conceptual modes of new
media have become fixed, when such media are not yet accepted as natural,
when their own meanings are in flux. At such a moment, we might say that
new media briefly acknowledge and question the mythic character and the
ritualized conventions of existing media, while they are themselves defined
within a perceptual and semiotic economy that they then help to transform.
This collection of essays explores such moments in order to enrich our
contemporary perspective on what media are, and on when and how they are
Media, 1740-1915 focuses on the two centuries before commercial broadcasting
because its purpose is, in part, to recuperate different (and past) senses
of media in transition and thus to deepen our historical understanding
of, and sharpen our critical dexterity toward, the experience of modern
communication. Indeed, we have marked the years between 1740 and 1915
as boundaries for our project because this period is crucial to understanding
how electronic and digital media have come to mean what and how they do.
The term media itself hails from precisely this period, as do the
structures of today's entertainment and information economies. Thus, the
media forms and practices studied in this collection are "new"
in a double sense: First, they newly receive the scholarly attention they
deserve; and second, they are considered within their original historical
contexts, their novelty years. In this, these essays provide a new perspective
on the meaning of "newness" that attends to all emerging media,
while they also tell us something about what all media have in common.
Yet our intention is not only to acknowledge the initial novelty of diverse media, but also to understand better how such media acquire particular meanings, powers, and characteristics. Drawing from Rick Altman's idea of "crisis historiography," we might say that new media, when they first emerge, pass through a phase of identity crisis, a crisis precipitated at least by the uncertain status of the given medium in relation to established, known media and their functions.1 In other words, when new media emerge in a society, their place is at first ill defined, and their ultimate meanings or functions are shaped over time by that society's existing habits of media use (which, of course, derive from experience with other, established media), by shared desires for new uses, and by the slow process of adaptation between the two. The "crisis" of a new medium will be resolved when the perceptions of the medium, as well as its practical uses, are somehow adapted to existing categories of public understanding about what that medium does for whom and why.
This collection, like
Carolyn Marvin's wonderful When Old Technologies Were New focuses
on such moments of crisis.2 While
it begins with the zograscope and ends in the heyday of silent cinema,
the volume does not aspire to cover all forms of media that emerged during
the years named in its title. Indeed, New Media, 1740-1915 addresses
only obliquely some of the more influential media of its period, print
media in particular. Most of the foliowing essays (unlike Carolyn Marvin's
work) focus on mediazograscopes, optical telegraphs, the physiognotracethat
failed to survive for very long. They are, in Bruce Sterling's words,
today's "dead media."3
Yet because their "deaths," like those of all "dead"
media, occurred in relation to those that "lived," even the
most bizarre and the most short lived are profoundly intertextual, tangling
during their existence wlth the dominant, discursive practices of representation
that characterized the total cultural economy of their day.
Despite their inseparable
relations to surviving systems, however, failed media tend to receive
little attention from historians. "Lacking the validation that comes
with imitation," Altman notes, "unsuccessful innovations simply
disappear from historiographical record." His suggested corrective
for this excessive focus on, for example, "cinema-as-it-is,"
is an attention to "cinema-as-it-could-have-been" or "cinema-as-it-once-was-for-a-short-time-but-ceased-to-be."
New Media aims to apply some of this "could-have-been"
and "was-for-a-short-time" kind of thinking to past new media.
Because our understanding of what media are and why they matter derives
largely from our understanding and use of the media that survivedthose
devices, social practices, and forms of representation with which we interact
every daythe importance of this kind of analysis is easy to overlook.
By getting inside
the "identity crises," by exploring the "failures"
(in some cases) of older new media, the essays in this collection will
help to counter what Paul Duguid has warned are two reductive "futurological
tropes" characteristic of the experience of modern media. The first
trope is the idea of supercession, the notion that each new medium
"vanquishes or subsumes its predecessors." From this idea follows
the current belief that in the digital age the book is doomed, or, according
to the peculiar auguries of earlier times, the conviction that typewriters
would replace pens or that radios would replace phonographs. The second
futurological trope is the idea of increasing transparency, the
assumption that each new medium actually mediates less, that it successfully
"frees" information from the constraints of previously inadequate
or "unnatural" media forms that represented reality less perfectly.4
This notionthat because of their greater transparency, newer media
supersede their predecessorsshapes both the experience and the study
of media today. Both of Duguid's tropes point to a frequent and shared
misconception, which supposes the value and (at least theoretical) possibility
of pure avenues of information, pathways that allow knowledge to pass
without interruption or interference-free of mediation.
This assumption creates
an interesting paradox. The best media, it would seem, are the ones that
mediate least. They are not, as we think of them, media at all. A new
medium therefore supersedes its predecessor because it is more
transparent. Few would disagree, for example, that a conversation with
a friend on the telephone allows for a greater exchange of personal, idiosyncratic
information than a dialogue conducted via telegraph. And to a large degree,
this thinking is persuasive. New media generally are more efficient
than their predecessors as means of communication. Yet there is more to
understanding what happens when people communicate through a given medium
than merely ascertaining what level of accuracy and amount of data the
exchange involves. This observationthat there is more than accuracy
and amount to any exchangecomprises a founding rationale for the
field of media studies, whether characterized aphoristically by Marshall
McLuhan ("the medium is the message") or more recently expressed
(and complicated) in Derridian terms, that the supplementthe
"specific characteristics of material media"can never
be "mere" supplement; it is "a necessary constituent of
[any] representation."5 To
put it simply, looking for content apart from context just won't work.
Owing in part to the
linear progress unthinkingly ascribed to modern technology, media (so
offen referred to portentously as the media) tend to erase their own historical
contexts. Whether shadows in a darkened cave or pixelated images on a
luminous monitor, the media before us tend, anachronistically, to mediate
our understanding of their past. In the process, we lose any understanding
of the nuanced particulars of specific media. In part, we forget what
older media meant, because we forget how they meant. Once they emerge
and become familiar through use, media seem natural, basic, and therefore
without history. Of course we say "Hello?" when we answer the
telephone; of course we hear a dial tone when we pick it up to place a
call. Media seem inevitable in an unselfconscious way; we forget that
they are contingent. Alexander Graham Bell apparently wanted people to
say "Ahoy!" when they picked up the phone, but English speakers
settled on "Hello?" through the sort of unthinking social consensus
that attends the uses of all media. In a similar fashion, the dial tones,
12-volt lines, and modular jacks we use today all were shaped historically
by a complex of forcestechnological, to be sure, but also social,
economic, and representational.
When we forget or
ignore the histories of each of these new media we lose a kind of understanding
more substantive than either the commercially interested definitions spun
by today's media corporations or the causal plots of technological innovation
offered by some historians.6 For
example, it is undoubtedly important to be able to note, as many scholars
have, how the invention of the cinema is linked to past practices of,
say, lecturing with slides, as well as how it predicts certain elements
of future practices. But what we often overlook are the kinds of things
that only a deep analysis of specific media cases can offerhow interpretive
communities are built or destroyed, how normative epistemologies emerge.
No medium new or old exists as a static form. Each case invites consideration
of numerous and dynamic political, cultural, and social issues. We might
say that, inasmuch as "media" are media of communication, the
emergence of a new medium is always the occasion for the shaping of a
new community or set of communities, a new equilibrium.
As we have suggested,
when a new medium is introduced its meaningits potential, its limitations,
the publicly agreed upon sense of what it does, and for whomhas
not yet been pinned down. And part of the lure of a new medium for any
community is surely this uncertain status. Not yet fully defined, a new
medium offers possibilities both positive (one of our authors argues that
zograscopes helped construct polite society) and negative (another traces
the threat telephones posed to Amish communities). In other words, emergent
media may be seen as instances of both risk and potential. Today, for
example, the internet offers unprecedented possibilities for global villages
to coalesce, even while it threatens national or ethnic cultural traditions
and provokes anguished discussions of privacy in a "connected"
age. The same sorts of issues and anxieties surrounded the emergence of
other media. Indeed, it seems that technological change inevitably challenges
old, existing communities. The particulars of each case, however, are
valuable to our larger understanding of how media help to shape and reshape
Essays in this collection therefore examine media as socially realized structures of communication, where communication is cultureas James Carey explains ita cultural process that involves not only the actual transmission of information, but also the ritualized collocation of senders and recipients.'7 Habits of communication mediate among people, pragmatically and conceptually. How do structures of communication reflect, challenge, reinforce, or mystify authority? How do they help imagine community? How do they help construct the aesthetic, or the mimetic? How do they orient the production and experience of meaning? How do they acquire and carry epistemological authority? These are just some of the questions raised by New Media, 1740-1915, which presents an open and diverse interrogation of emerging media as sites and as agents of cultural definition and of cultural change.
Ultimately, then, this is a book about framing: about how particular habits and media of communication frame our collective sense of time, place, and space; how they define our understanding of the public and the private; how they inform our apprehension of "the real"; and how they orient us in relation to competing forms of representation. We have selected the cases of new media that follow because they support these inquiries, casting such habits and media into relief, affording a vantage point from which better to see how cultural meanings are negotiated. But this collection is also about how we frame our own discussions of new media, for if this interrogation of emergent media is genuinely to illuminate our understanding of cultural definition and of cultural change, then we must be responsible about our own language. We must, in other words, acknowledge the key terms that are in play in our own discussions and attempt to define and deploy them as precisely as possible, not only for us now, but as they were used in earlierand differentcontexts.
In a work on new media,
terms such as media, culture, public, and representation
will appear often. But insofar as this collection seeks to understand
how the very idea of "media" evolves over time, we wish to employ
such critical terms with care and to bring questions about their use and
meaning squarely into the discussion itself as it proceeds. Our use of
the word technology is a good example. This term denotes, as Leo
Marx suggests, a necessary but "hazardous concept"; in this
book the term helps organize our thinking about the material, instrumental
conditions of modern life, yet for many readers it will also come larded
with less considered shades of meaning, assumptions about "Progress"
with a capital "P," or about technology as a preeminent cause
in history.8 Thus although we
rely on this term as an organizing device in this collection (the essays
proceed from technology to technology as a form of convenience), we also
wish to urge particular awareness of its hazards. Likewise with other
key critical terms. We know that we cannot exhaustively define "media,"
for instance, any more than we can completely pin down "culture"
(a notion that is, as Naomi Mezey observes, "everywhere invoked and
virtually nowhere explained"). Indeed, the cases we offer are about
culture as struggle and media as means in that strugglea fabric
continually rewoven according to the interests of a given time and place.
Rather than fixing such terms and pinning them to moving targets, however,
we can frame our discussions of such pervasive concepts in self-conscious
ways that make our attempts to understand them more useful.9
In this volume we
offer cases that foreground the relationship between material and idea,
between what people think or believe or wish and what they feel with their
hands or see with their eyes or hear with their ears. Each of the essays
in the collection thus reveals, in some fashion, the strong relationship
between the contexts for some material, technological development, and
shifts in self-imagining and public understanding. Erin Blake, Wendy Bellion,
and Laura Schiavo, for example, consider the cultural meanings of perspective
and representation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by focusing
on the emergence of particular visual media (zograscopes, the physiognotrace,
and stereoscopes, respectively) and discussing how such media influenced
notions of individual identity. Patricia Crain, Katherine Stubbs, and
Diane Umble, by contrast, consider the cultural meanings of communication
by focusing on the arrival and adaptation of particular networked media
(optical telegraphs, electric telegraphs, and telephones, respectively)
that helped shape notions of identity in relation to larger communities.
All of the authors
engage new media as evolving, contingent, discursive frames, sites where
the unspoken rules by which Westerners know and enjoy their world are
fashioned. Such "rules" continually change, as new media become
situated and as such adjustments inevitably redraw the boundaries of communities,
including some individuals, and excluding others. Each new medium in effect
helps to produce a distinct public. Erin Blake's work on zograscopes,
for example, elaborates the idea that media assist in the construction
of the modern, Western public sphere, with its corresponding liberal subject
(today known as "the consumer"). Although she draws upon the
work of Jurgen Habermas, Blake ignores the often-mentioned circulation
of print media as the basis of the public sphere, instead looking to shared
social practices to understand how space is visualized. Her public is
literally a sphere; in her essay the bourgeois circles of eighteenth-century
London pop into 3-D as they enter the rational and impersonal arena of
public space via engravings glimpsed through new optical devices. This
new medium, according to Blake, helps the public to map itself. Wendy
Bellion's work on the physiognotrace depicts an American public that also
maps itself, but this public is one more complicated by its own experiences
of both graphic and political self-representation. By analyzing the American
reception of this profile or silhouette-tracing device, Bellion introduces
her readers to the cartography of the public sphere, showing the ways
in which new media are adapted within the very discursive conditions,
the very rules that they help to transform.
The rules for inclusion,
for drawing the boundaries of a public sphere, are less concealed in Patricia
Crain's essay, which examines how elaborate pedagogical systems designed
to resemble new media interpellated and located their subjects, in this
case by making them perform as optical telegraphs within larger, oppressive
systems of cultural replication. Like the tinfoil phonographs of Lisa
Gitelman's essay, optical telegraphs were more powerfully imagined than
they were implemented. Very few were ever built or used, yet the idea
of them circulated widely within the mentality, the public imagination,
of their age. Joseph Lancaster's classroom telegraphs literally disciplined
students, while even broader disciplinary measures may be read in their
controlling institutional contexts, as well as glimpsed in the titles
of early American newspapers like the American Telegraph [Conn.],
Hillsboro [N.H.] Telegraph, and Lincoln [Me.] Telegraph.
(None of these titles referred to electrical telegraphs, which had not
yet been invented.) In Benedict Anderson's formulation, the circulation
and ritualized consumption of newspapers like these assisted in the imagination
of a national community. What their titles and Lancaster's system suggest,
according to Crain, is that the imagination of media conditioned
the imagination of communities. Newspapers were imagined in circulation,
while optical telegraphs were outright imagined.
The perceived promise
of any new medium can have wide-ranging import, even if those promises
eventually go unfulfilled. To many observers, the tinfoil phonographs
of 1878 promised a new, more modern and immediate type of text, as recordings
might indelibly "capture" speech, without the intercession of
literate humans wielding pencils and paper. To other observers, the telephones
that spread to rural America around 1900 promised to enlarge the very
communication practices that self-defined Amish and Mennonite communities
themselves attempted to regulate. The wide popular reception of the first
promise, Lisa Gitelman speculates, challenged and helped to transform
vernacular experiences of writing and print, while raising questions about
the instruments and the subjects of public memory. The Old Order perception
of the second promise, Diane Umble shows, helped divide the aggregate
Amish and Mennonite population, for this perception coincided with the
ongoing regulation of intra- and inter-group communication and excommunication.
Although so often the focus of great attention and optimism, new media
are not, as these authors pointedly demonstrate, inherently benign; they
"bite back."10 They
thrive amid unforeseen consequences, often despite the best, most vigorous
intentions of their inventors, their promoters, their initial consumers,
or of the customary arbiters of public intelligence.
Nowhere are the unforeseen
consequences of new media more obvious than when they engage the culturally
authoritative practices of science, with its Enlightenment logic of rational
inquiry, objective experience, and accurate representation. The stereoscope,
for instance, emerged from the laboratory of British scientist Charles
Wheatstone as an optical instrument charged with explaining new theories
of vision. To scientists, the stereoscope could be used objectively to
demonstrate that vision is subjective, that the body can produce its own
experiences of depth when presented with the right cues. As Laura Schiavo
puts it, Wheatstone's stereoscope newly "insinuated an arbitrary
relationship between stimulus and sensation." Yet within the context
of commercially exploited and popularly apprehended photography, stereoscopes
were ultimately recast as mimetic amusements that tendered to consumers
an instructive and positivist model of how their eyes actually worked
to see the world as it really is. Vernacular discourse, in other words,
completely inverted the meaning of what the stereoscope "proved."
This inverted meaning helped to make the stereoscope popular, fueling
its commercial success as later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century
viewers consumed stereograph images as a form of virtual travel, appropriating
the world through pictures. At stake was far more than the prestige of
Wheatstone or the anti-intellectualism of the marketplace. The rules by
which the West knew the world had again come into play. The popularity
of stereoscopes helped redraw the very category of the "real,"
the consensual practices of "accurate" representation.
what count as "rules," about what is "real" or "accurate"
or "normal," are no less at issue when new media are less popular
than stereoscopes were or less patently involved in describing normal
human perception. Media emerge and exist in ways that both challenge and
regulate notions of what it means to be human. Gregory Radick's essay
provides a clear-cut case. An amateur ethologist using the new medium
of recorded sound set out to learn the "language" of monkeys
and stumbled into one of the hottest debates in Victorian evolutionary
biology and linguistics: How is language uniquely human? In the course
of his research, Richard Garner's recording phonograph became an instrument
of knowledge deployed in various philosophic and scientific controversiesin
the tension between amateur and professional science, for example, or
in the dispute over whether abstraction or instinct founds thought and
language, or in discussions about the fundamental differences between
humans and animals. Garner worked on monkeys, but not without meddling
with the category of the human in two ways.. First, he raised anew the
definition of "Man" as "the talking animal"; second,
he wielded his phonograph as if it were a necessaryand betterthird
As Garner's third
ear suggestsand as many authors have notednew media can be
viewed as an endeavor to improve on human capabilities. Like a telescope
added to the eye of an astronomer or a microscope added to the eye of
a biologist, media can extend the body and its senses. Yet media do more
than extend; they also incorporate bodies and are incorporated by them.11
Media are designed to fit the human, the way telephone handsets or headsets
literally fit from ear to mouth, but also the way telephone circuits,
satellites, and antennas fit among their potential consumers, as integral
parts of communication/ information networks that literally shape what
communication entails for individuals in the modern age. And if media
fit humans, humans adjust themselves in various ways to fit media, knowingly
and not. Hands physically adjust themselves to different keyboards, different
keypads, and different pointing devices, while users subtly adjust their
sense of who they are. Some of these complexities may be glimpsed in Katherine
Stubbs's essay, which reads the history of electrical telegraphy in the
United States against and within the fiction that appeared in telegraph
trade journals. Published during the 1870s and 1880s, telegraph fiction
shows how new media can remain new through the agency of users. Amid ongoing
conflicts between labor and capital arising in part from the feminization
of the workforce, telegrapher-authors both used and represented the telegraph
as a means to explore identity in its relation to the body. In remaking
themselves, by negotiating gender-at-a-distance-and-by-telegraph, for
instance, telegraphers kept the character of their medium unsettled. In
other words, the "newness" of new media is more than diachronic,
more than just a chunk of history, a passing phase; it is relative to
the "oldness" of old media in a number of different ways.
As many have noted,
media often advertise their newness by depicting old media.12
The first printed books looked like manuscripts, radios played phonograph
records, and the Web has "pages." Ellen Gruber Garvey and Paul
Young each explore less familiar instances in which the new represents
the old in order to understand more fully the purchase that "newness"
has on the process of representation. As Garvey's account of scrapbooks
explains, scrapbook-makers took old medialiterally the old books
and periodicals they had lying aroundand made them into new media
in the form of scrapbooks. "Newness" in this case resonated
as much with personal and domestic experiences as it did with public and
collective apprehensions of novelty, posterity, or periodicity. Scrapbook-makers
tampered with the meanings of the scraps they collected by collecting
them, a practice Garvey refers to as "gleaning" and connects
to the composition and use of the Web today. Young, on the other hand,
presents a "telegraphic history of early American cinema," reading
filmic representations of telegraphs as only the most obvious link between
these two media, which seem, in retrospect, so different. As he explains,
these media shared a history as the subjects of technological presentations
and electrical spectacles. From the start, both became instruments of
news reportage, one in the transmission of stories on the wire (that is,
by telegraph wire services like the Associated Press) and the other in
the projection of stories onto the screen in "actualities" and
protonewsreels. "Newness" in this case resonated with emergent
conventions for representing narrative time, with experiences of currency
(of news as either new or old), and with new technologyall experiences
that transform our sense of time and space.
We hope these essays
will help to broaden the inquiry of media studies by calling attention
to the ways media are experienced and studied as the subjects of history.
No ten essays can do more than open the question, but opening the question
is crucial, we think, particularly as today's new media are peddled and
saluted as the ultimate, the end of media history. "Newness"
deserves a closer look. To that end, we include a brief section of documents
for discussion. These documents are not illustrations of our text as much
as they are artifacts that themselves point toward the rich and diverse
record available to media historians. We hope that they will suggest specific
historical and cultural meanings for media and promote a broader discussion
of media history. Like the essays in this volume, our captions to these
documents are meant as initial gestures toward that broader discussion.
We include them to remind readers that the history of media is an ongoing,
highly self-reflexive conversation about what we mean andliterallyhow
we mean it.
Deadmedia.org. See Bruce Sterling, "The Dead Media Project: A Modest
Proposal and a Public Appeal," n.d., http://www.deadmedia.org/modest-proposal.html,
Timothy Lenoir, "Inscription Practices and Materialities of Communication,"
in Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication,
ed. Timothy Lenoir, 1-19 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998),
As Walter Benjamin cautions, "Newness is a quality independent of
the use value of the commodity. It is the origin of the illusory appearance
that belongs inalienably to images produced by the collective unconscious.
It is the quintessence of that false consciousness whose indefatigable
agent is fashion. This semblance of the new is reflected, like one mirror
in another, in the semblance of the ever recurrent. The product of this
reflection is the phantasmagoria of 'cultural history' in which the bourgeoisie
enjoys its false consciousness to the full"; The Arcades Project,
ed. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, trans., Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1999), 11.
Naomi Mezey, "Law as Culture," Yale Journal of Law &
the Humanities 13, no. 1 (2001): 35. See also Raymond Williams, Keywords:
A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press,
The trope of bodily extension or prosthesis is not an anachronism applied
to new media. As James Lastra shows, it is one of two tropes that have
played a normalizing role in the emergence of modern media (the other
is that of inscription); Sound Technology and the American Cinema:
Perception, Representation, Modernity (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2000); see "Introduction" and chapter 1. See also N.
Katherine Hayles on "incorporating practices and embodied knowledge,"
199-207 in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics,
Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999).
12. The remediation of one medium by another newer medium has recently been explored by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999). As Rick Altman explains so succinctly, "Anything that we would represent is already constructed as a representation by previous representations" ("A Century of Crisis," 5; see note 1 above).