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History of 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 (1911–1980), 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. 166–167). A noted Joyce scholar, McLuhan may have derived the spiral form of history from Joyce's source, Giambattista Vico (1688–1744). 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.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerHistory of Media - Periodization, Technology And The "general Accident", Historical And Technological Media, Ubiquitous Media, Current Studies In Media History