Media, History of

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The term media history is almost a tautology when the historic is distinguished from the prehistoric by the presence of recording media. History is always already mediated. A distinct domain of historiography whose object is human communication technologies will to this extent always be tempted to assimilate all human history to itself. Among late-twentieth-and early-twenty-first-century media historians, this principle has advanced to the stage at which alternative programs for understanding human activityterms such as society, culture, economy, and powerappear as either abstractions lacking the empirical bases of media and mediation, or as derivatives of them. Media history, it can be argued, explains society, culture, and politics better than those concepts explain media.


The most common periodization employed distinguishes at the minimum oral and literate phases, indicating that oral communication (along with gesture, dance, potlatch, and other features of orality) are to be included as media. Aristotle's definition of the human being as the zoon politikon clearly regards humans as properly belonging to a polis or community, but also indicates that humans are distinguished by communication since, as Claude Lévi-Strauss was at pains to demonstrate, and as the Latin etymologies suggest, there can be no conception of a community without communication, and vice versa. To this extent media history must be one of the central disciplines of the human sciences, embracing not only literary and linguistic studies, but sociology, political science, economics, and the discipline of history itself.

The story of media history is the tale of the long struggle for existence of a materialist understanding of human interaction. The central challenge has been (and remains) the task of shedding idealist conceptualizations like society and culture in favor of tracing the embodied forms in which they are constructed and lived. However, this project is hampered by the sheer scope of the enterprise. The practice of media history takes two major forms: the macroscopic address to the vast accumulation of human media artifacts on the one hand, and detailed investigations of specific conjunctures in the history of specific media on the other. The former is constantly plagued by the temptation of vast generalization, the latter constrained to merely local findings whose contribution to a general theory of media history is therefore rarely clear.

Like that of all historiography, the objective of media history is to understand historical process. The majority of media historians are explicit in adding that the reason for undertaking this task is to guide the emergence of future media or to warn against the outcomes of long-or short-term trends, a linear model with associations to teleologies of both progress and apocalypse. Umberto Eco distinguishes between apocalyptic and "integrated" scholars of the media. The former blame not individual media texts but whole media technologies for the loss or destruction of older values; the latter embrace everything new as proof of progress toward some ultimate good. In the work of the best-known among media historians, Marshall McLuhan (19111980), the narrative of evolution has an interestingly spiral dimension, returning in heightened form to its oral origin in the figure of the electronic "global village" (pp. 166167). A noted Joyce scholar, McLuhan may have derived the spiral form of history from Joyce's source, Giambattista Vico (16881744). Be that as it may, he shares with other teleological media historians a mystical belief in eternal return or in millenarian thought that responds to a heartfelt longing for historical symmetry.

McLuhan's spiral might be seen as syncretic, even atavistic. His teacher, Harold Innis, perhaps as a result of his experience of trench warfare in Europe, had a far simpler and more immediately political teleology. Innis divided media into heavy, durable media like stone tablets, suited to carrying ideas through time, and light, ephemeral media like parchment, more suited to spatial dissemination. Though the oral tradition had a strongly conservative function before the invention of writing, afterwards its role became one of swift adaptation. Concluding his study Empire and Communications, Innis calls for "determined efforts to recapture the vitality of the oral tradition" (p. 170), appealing to the traditions of common law to equilibrate what, in 1950, appeared as the triumph of spatial over temporal media. Integrated critics are rarely so openly committed to utopian political projects for reform or remaking of the media. An avowed belief in the inevitability of progress is once again a widespread phenomenon, not only in the pages of hip corporate culture magazines like Wired but especially among respected scholars of digital media, most of all those who, like Roy Ascott, are also committed teachers and creative activists.

Technology and the "General Accident"

Even less convinced of the need for or efficacy of planning and action are the apocalyptic critics, foremost among them today Jean Baudrillard and, increasingly, Paul Virilio. Baudrillard traces media history in four phases: (1) it is the reflection of a profound reality; (2) it masks and denatures a profound reality; (3) it masks the absence of a profound reality; (4) it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 6 and 1983, p. 11). In later writing Baudrillard, like Debord, suggests that, far from integration, we are doomed to the disintegration of media and world alike. Since Baudrillard concentrates only on the representational functions of the media, he is blind to their communicative roles and is determinedly centered on the industrialized world. Widely read when television was still the dominant medium, his work has been eclipsed in the rise of telecommunication toward hegemony among media in the early twenty-first century. More persuasive, perhaps because less nihilistic, Paul Virilio argues that the invention of railways was also the invention of the train wreck, that of automobiles of the car crash, and that the assimilation of all our media into a unified digital circulation leads inexorably to what he calls the rapidly approaching "general accident." Prefigured by the atom bomb and the information bomb, the genetic bomb is the latest cataclysm waiting to occur, all of them motivated by and dependent upon the mass mediation of speed and the concomitant abolition of time. The proximity of Virilio's conclusions to those of Innis is deceptive: where Innis saw the grounds for active engagement in the reconstruction of contemporary media, Virilio sees an unavoidable Armageddon.

Innis and McLuhan are not the only figures who ground contemporary media history. Unwelcome because of his Nazi heritage, Martin Heidegger (18891976) is nonetheless the silent foundation of much continental media history. In his 1954 essay on "The Question Concerning Technology," technology figures on the one hand as an ordering of materials, an instrumental relation to the world that blocks our understanding of it. On the other hand, as a collection of devices that ensure survival, technology is ultimately in the service of humankind becoming the one species in whom the coming-to-being of the world can be realized.

Technology at its best thus serves its own ultimate overcoming (a conclusion distressingly close to Heidegger's ideological consorts in the Nazi Party). In Virilio's terms, the data crash is the necessary precondition for the self-realization of the world. In another essay, Heidegger prefigures Virilio's critique of the sedentarization of Western society, blaming television for "the abolition of every possible remoteness" (1971, p. 165). The industrialization of media in the form of standard delivery systems (an unchanging receiver frames all the changing content of television), unlimited replicability, and instantaneous broadcast appear to apocalyptics as signals of a collapse, of reality or humanity or both, into an undifferentiated and unchanging sameness. A similar thought undergirds some theories of cultural imperialism and globalization. The apparent novelty of the position is undermined by a reading of Plato's Phaedrus, where Socrates tells the story of Thamus's indignant critique of writing when the new technology was brought to him by Theuth: "What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality" (p. 184). Like Plato, Heidegger appears to believe in some form of original sin inhering in the medium he critiques. This thought is more nearly explicit in Heidegger's pupil Hans-Georg Gadamer, who notes, for example, that "Literary art can be understood only from the ontology of the work of art, and not from the aesthetic experiences that occur in the course of the reading" (p. 161). This holds true not only of a text that retains its integrity regardless of the form in which it is read or performed, but of the written medium from the beginning.

Historical and Technological Media

A more subtle strand of media history than this blunt confrontation of integrated and apocalyptic critics arises in the work of the Frankfurt School, the most influential essay here being Walter Benjamin's "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1969). Benjamin's periodization does not concern the transition from oral to literate but from the unique object to serial production, and his concern is with the consequent loss of "aura," of sanctity and intrinsic value, which media artifacts undergo as a result. Confronting the rise of fascism and contesting the Stalinization of Popular Front cultural policy in the 1930s, Benjamin argues for both the utopian capacities of popular media and the necessity to engage with them as vanguard arenas of creative endeavor. Perhaps the most significant response appears in a letter responding to the draft manuscript written by Theodor Adorno, arguing that popular and avant-garde are "torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up" (1977, p. 123). In his joint work with Max Horkheimer and in other later writings, Adorno elaborates and develops this insight into media history, concluding in 1953 that under contemporary conditions, "people become welded to the unavoidable television makes once again into what they already are, only more so" (1998, p. 50). This vision of industrial and technological media in the service of the status quo is more thoroughly historicized in Jürgen Habermas's influential account of the formation and deformation of the public sphere, created at the time of the European Enlightenment through the power of the printing press, and distorted into mere opinion polling in the age of mass circulation newsprint, radio, and television. A similar thesis, inspired more specifically by the analysis of reification in Georg Lukacs, is expressed by the French situationist Guy Debord, for whom the age of commodity production had, between the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the late 1960s, given way to an age of spectacle. Where earlier media formations had served to gather people into communities, to conserve traditions, and to propagandize new ways of living, spectacular media serve to promote an endless round of imaginary desires that in turn maintain endless overconsumption through which the overproduction required for the survival of capitalism can be regulated. Unlike Baudrillard, Deborda convinced Hegelianbelieved in the necessity of a dialectical resolution to this sham culture.

Ubiquitous Media

Such macroscopic accounts of media history must be balanced against the increasing amount of scholarship devoted to unearthing and revaluing the histories of specific moments in the history of media. Many textbooks and most popular print, online, and televisual accounts of media history share the linear model of progress (for example, color is an advance on black and white, sound an advance on silent cinema) and a focus on individual contributions. Historians engaged in revaluing the evolution of specific technologies like cinema sound (Crafton) and widescreen technologies (Belton) have made clear the nonlinear evolution of media technologies and techniques, while individual careers have been revalued in the context of publicity campaigns and the emergence of research and development as a core activity of communications industries since the late nineteenth century.

Increasingly, major corporations have been seen as agents of historical change (see, for example, Sanjek and Sanjek), and companies like the BBC and Disney have both official and unofficial historians publishing on them. The digital media have spawned a publishing industry devoted to histories of companies, sectors, software, infrastructure, components, and research institutes. The United Kingdom was the first country to produce a multivolume history of its cinema industry, begun by Rachel Low in 1948. Similar projects now exist or are in progress for many other countries, including France, Germany, and the United States, while loose groupings of researchers are advancing parallel projects on print and electronic media in a number of countries around the world.

The history of print media has been revolutionized by the work of Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, Roger Chartier, and Elizabeth Eisenstein, among others, and the role of print in the colonizing and decolorizing processes has attracted especially significant work. Less obvious media formations such as news agencies have also attracted both company and sector histories. Much work has been done to refocus the broad-brush approach to the transition from oral to literary cultures in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Polynesia, and major work has been undertaken on the links between media, the relations between media and transport technologies, and shared infrastructures like libraries. Such patient and passionate archival research has made it far more difficult to generalize or to repeat unexamined truisms. This has been particularly important to activists and scholars of the globalization process and the transitions from state-run to commercial models of print and broadcasting.

Current Studies in Media History

Two scholars, both of whose careers bridge Latin American politics and French academia, have made sterling progress toward bridging the gap between the macro and micro scales of media history. Régis Debray, best known perhaps for his account of guerrilla war with Che Guevara, has proposed a mediological analysis that, while repeating the linear model first outlined by McLuhan, does so in the context of a materialist philosophy that both derives from and critiques Marxism. Debray argues for a practice that concentrates on the infrastructures and materials of communication. Rather than study the literary style of a correspondence, for example, he points toward the pens, paper mills, postal delivery system, even the rearing of horses on which the delivery of mail depended, arguing that Voltaire's letters are unthinkable outside a centralized and militarized state. In a series of books published during the 1990s, Debray draws together an eclectic if rather Eurocentric collection of detailed cases in support of a general thesis critical of both idea-and individual-centered historiography. In their place he suggests a multiply overlapping formation of different media usages associated with material practices like the organization of political parties or compulsory schooling. The practice of law and parliamentary democracy require specific media formations that guide and shape their capacities. Epochal changes, however, do not eradicate earlier forms. Like Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Debray argues for the remediation of old media form and content by new technologies. Like Gadamer, he argues that mediation abides in objects, not in their relations; like Friedrich Kittler he sees particular media practices as the basis of the defining discourse networks of particular periods; and like Raymond Williams he believes that Marxism's "superstructure" of ideas is entirely material. His achievement is to have synthesized these earlier arguments into a practice with a powerful political project ahead of it.

Media history also includes critical reflection on its own past. In some ways more radical than Debray, the work of the Chilean exile Armand Mattelart has been instrumental both in accounting for the movement of thought about the media and in the materialization of such thinking in media practice and policy. Like Virilio, Mattelart is convinced of the interrelation of transport, military, and media technologies and is highly critical of the intellectual traditions that have severed media communication from the communication of goods and people. Far less exclusively bound than Debray to the history of Western media, Mattelart has made major contributions to the study of global media over thirty years and has provided radical revaluations of earlier historiography and theoretical accounts, crucially in arguing for a more integral approach to understanding the networks of interaction between transport, production, and communication. Debray and Mattelart suggest ways of rejoining the meticulous assessment of specific moments with the large-scale analysis of historical processes that in some ways echo an earlier tradition in technology and design history marked by the names of Lewis Mumford and Siegfried Giedion. Mattelart is explicit in drawing inspiration from the former. The latter, well known in industrial design circles, has much to tell contemporary scholars about historical methods appropriate to the field. Part of the challenge of media history is to recover from obscurity the work of earlier generations and to revalue the work of cultural historians like E. P. Thompson and George Rudé in the light of the new object of media history.

Popular and occasionally academic histories of the "social impacts" of media, whether of whole media technologies or of specific media artifacts and genres, suffer from the lack of any known society without media. Moreover, any new medium is always mediated by other media and is held by many historians to have older media for its initial content. Polemics blaming media have been rife since Shakespeare's time, when ballads and broadsheets were blamed for apprentice riots. Rock and roll, comic books, video, and video games have been more recent targets in the West, and television, radio, music, fashion, and Western technological media generally have been blamed in Islam. Norbert Elias suggests a more subtly functionalist approach, writing of popular songs that "the emotional need behind them, born of the impossibility of finding in scanty leisure time the relationships which working life precludes, is absolutely genuine" (p. 34). The attribution of values to specific media is a significant element of media history. It is unclear whether prestigious media like oil painting became male preserves due to their prestige, or whether women's media like watercolors lost prestige because of their femininity. Both processes probably occurred. Mass culture, in the sense of industrially produced media, has a history of identification with femininity. Novel reading, television, and telephony are among the domestic and private consumer forms that have been strongly feminized. On the other hand, Sadie Plant argues that network computing and mobile telephony correspond respectively to weaving and knitting, women's media par excellence, explaining women's high levels of participation in Internet and wireless telecoms. A key task for media history remains that of explaining why human communication, ostensibly the vehicle of democracy and evolution, has so often been restrictive, oppressive, exploitative, and exclusive.

It would appear from the oldest creation myths that keeping secrets and lying have been features of communication since the beginning. Elias proposes the rise of priestly hierarchies as a source of privileged access to key media such as writing and architecture. Jared Diamond adds the proposal that even before recorded history, possession of writing technology was a source of power for would-be conquerors, and that successful enemies adopted the technology for their own. Certainly differential access to specific media was an intrinsic element of rule in India where, as Homi Bhabha points out, the colony was governed by writing, while the United Kingdom's Parliament ran on speech. Both print and broadcast media have been explicitly deployed in the interests of nation-building from Hitler's Germany to Jawaharlal Nehru's and Indira Gandhi's India, just as standardization of dialects and eradication of minor languages had been a routine activity of nationalist revolutions throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since communication appears to be an inalienable quality of human societies, and given the lengthy history of intercultural communication at least in the Old World, it seems most likely that media historians must investigate the blockages, delays, and destructions of media flows as much as their origination and propagation.

Among the specific areas where this work might be undertaken are the fields of advertising, marketing, public relations, and propaganda. As an indication of the difficulty of these terms, however, it is important to recall the etymology of propaganda: the Vatican office devoted to the propagation of the faith. The modern term has little meaning before the age of mass literacy and broadcast media, even though José Antonio Maravall argues for its relevance to the Spanish Baroque and John Beverley to the colonial period in Latin America. But although there is archeological evidence of street signs among the ruins of Pompeii, it is misleading to understand them as advertising or public relations in any recognizable sense. Such practices evolved in step with the emergence of mass consumption in the nineteenth century and are deeply grounded in contemporary information-gathering devices. The emergence of contemporary bureaucracies, distinguished from the Baroque clerisy precisely by their modern media (filing cabinets, adding machines, typewriters), is in turn integral to the conception of the public as a body of consumers to whom both political and commercial messages can be delivered. The radical expansion of the commodity form into leisure activities in the later nineteenth century, a process ongoing in the opening up of the People's Republic of China in the early twenty-first century, required not only mass manufacture and mass literacy but the mass distribution of a repertoire of shared codes, conventions, and desires stemming from the managerial mode of bureaucracy emergent in such communication sectors as the railways and the department store. Certainly the industrialized media deployed techniques derived from the ancients: rhetoric, spectacle, shock, sensuality. The application of concepts of efficiency to communications, however, seems to date no earlier than the Counter-Reformation in Europe, though a case can be made for its significance in the far earlier Confucian bureaucracy in China, where the difficulty of the writing system and the exclusive nature of education were used to limit radically all access to communications systems, including the mails and navigable rivers. It is this admixture of efficiency that characterizes the contemporary industrial communications sector as, in Horkheimer's terms, instrumental.

At the same time, when even as sophisticated a thinker as Félix Guattari can assert that "domestic life is being poisoned by the gangrene of mass-media consumption" (p. 27), it is important to consider the role of media not only in constructing concepts of domesticity, but in their subversion. Media are not single, nor exclusively industrialized and instrumental. Critics of globalized media, including Ulf Hannerz, Dayan Thussu, Arjun Appadurai, David Morley and Kevin Robins, and Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammedi and her colleagues emphasize that media not only inform contemporary audiences on issues as large as global warming and as particular as human rights abuse; they also provide vehicles, however limited, for democratic participation and creativity, and globalized industrial media are counterbalanced by diasporan cycles of music, stories, art forms, and political messages operating as informal marginalia to the corporate music business, the Internet, fashion, and the postal service. Even where instrumental media are concerned, the history of audiences indicates a complex work of attention and signification undertaken by viewers, readers, listeners, and participants perpetually ready to convert the proclamations of power into carnival, satire, and rebellion. The significant rise in both the numbers of global organizations and participation in them likewise suggests that media processes remain at least as complex as in former epochs, and therefore can be considered to continue to exist as historical processes.

In conferences during 2000, film archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai estimated that nine billion hours of moving image media were being generated annually. Add to this photographs, print, Web sites, e-mails, let alone conversation, and the information produced in any one year is beyond the reach not just of any one scholar, but of the whole community of media historians. Seen from this standpoint, "the media" as object of study appear impossibly huge. At the same time, media history, and media theory and criticism, with honorable exceptions, have failed to address some key areas, notably amateur media, consisting of diaries, photo albums, letter writing, and Web sites, and workplace media, including bookkeeping, filing, cash registers and adding machines, cartography, and professional software. Equally, again with honorable exceptions, the focus has been largely on the developed world seen from Eurocentric positions. Acquainted as they are with the irreparable loss of much if not most early film, radio, and television, archivists are painfully aware that their inevitable sampling must respond not only to current but to future research agendas, and that in addition to content, it is increasingly necessary to archive hardware and documentation. The study of humans as the communicative species becomes both more materially feasible and more challenging, the richer and more archivable our communications become.

See also Authority ; Cinema ; Communication of Ideas ; Globalization ; Representation: Political Representation ; Technology ; Third Cinema .

VilÉm Flusser

The work of Vilém Flusser, which has begun to be translated into English in the last decade, is destined to have a major impact on media history. Exiled from his native Prague in 1939, Flusser turned his exile in Brazil and later in France into the grounds of a radical philosophy of freedom. Linking information theory with phenomenology, Flusser argues that pre-history's image-based media were mythic in tone and magical in orientation. They intended to control the world by picturing it. The invention of the alphabet created a new mode of control: lineal, causal, and ultimately scientific. In the invention of photography, he sees the return of the mythic image, but this time an image not of the world but of texts. Rather than image the world, film, television, photography, and computer-generated imaging depict scientific knowledge, philosophical arguments, political beliefs, and commercial messages.

Since writing marks the beginning of history, the technical image marks its end. The post-historical image is programmed by the texts that precede it, and in turn programs its end users. Every new image is a step toward the exhaustion of information, understood as the improbability of a given message in a particular system. Every new photograph both exhausts the stock of possible photographs still to be taken and adds to the assimilative power of the photographic apparatus. The task of photographers, and by extension all who work in the technical media, is to work at the level of information, program, code, and apparatus to increase the level of improbability. As writing loses its centrality, humanity loses the historical consciousness of linear causality. The resultant universe is entropic in information theory and absurd in phenomenological thought. The task, then, of experimentation in media and of media history alike is to create meaning in the face of randomness and freedom in the face of its necessity.


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Sean Cubitt

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