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History of Media

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.


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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Briggs, Asa, and Peter Burke. A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Cambridge: Polity, 2002. Contains a valuable bibliography.

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Debray, Régis. Cours de médiologie générale. Paris: Gallimard, 1991.

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Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. Translated by Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. London and New Brunswick, N.J.: Athlone, 2000.

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Mattelart, Armand. The Invention of Communication. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

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Winston, Brian. Media, Technology, and Society, a History: From the Telegraph to the Internet. London: Routledge, 1998. Contains a valuable bibliography.

Sean Cubitt

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