“Media and their publics coevolve,” writes Lisa Gitelman early in her book Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (13). It is a statement as evocative as it is declarative. Gitelman’s implication, namely, is a holistic approach to the history and historiography of media forms—one which rejects both technological determinism and old-fashioned “great man” hypotheses of invention. Central to the quote with which I began my summary are Gitelman’s definitions of “media” and “publics.” In order to define these aspects, Gitelman uses as a case study the proliferation of recorded sound in the United States during the late 19th century. What was, in the 1890s, a kind of new media is, according to Gitelman’s argument, usefully indicative of how an aforementioned coevolution runs its course. Gitelman sets about performing an “exactingly contrastive” approach to “the comparative study of media” (17) in order to characterize how new media are mediated.
“New media,” writes Gitelman, “emerge as local anomalies that are also deeply embedded within the ongoing discursive formations of their day” (29). This is to say that as much influence as had Thomas Edison on the invention of, say, the phonograph—of the process of recording and distributing sound—the local bandleaders (52), housewives (74), immigrants (79), and persons of color (72) of America made contributions just as meaningful toward the new medium’s adoption and development. This is easy enough to see solely based on certain aspects of sound-recording taken up at the admitted expense of other affordances directly marketed, even, by the inventors of the process itself. As Gitelman describes, “the phonograph was one of those rare, Jekyll-and-Hyde devices that was invented for one thing and ended up doing something completely different” (60). Whether or not the “operas” eventually set into mass-produced record grooves were true Italian arias, two-minute “representations”of them, or otherwise “metonymic” vaudeville “turns” or ersatz band performances (68f.), the development of the sound record evolved, alongside its public into a far cry from the dedicated stenographer originally “‘perfected’” by Edison at Menlo Park (60).
Perhaps the most interesting delineation drawn by Gitelman in these chapters however, is that which distinguishes aforementioned, imagined or extant “publics” from the “users” who interact with new and old technology and media. Referring to Gitelman’s words: “Publics are comprised of users, but not all users are entitled or constitutive members of the public sphere” (60). It remains of the utmost importance, then, to always lead with a definition of the terms of one’s history, or one’s writing of one’s history. As much as our media landscape seems to rely on an inescapable and often precarious “logic of transparency, of pure mediation,” so too does our constant “imagination of self and community” (84). A well-written history, respectful of all aspects of its subject’s and its own coming-into-being, must reflect this.
My question is this: why does Gitelman write the way she does, and how does it reflect those values? Consider page 80, in which the prose of the book becomes—as it does at certain other points throughout the chapters—noticeably more visual and narrative. Does this make for a more or less considered approach to history and historiography?