Gitelman’s Media and Publics

“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?

More Than Just the History of Sound Recording

In Part I of Always Already New, Gitelman tells the history of recorded sound, but what she really does is more broadly question how we historicize media. The Introduction outlines the assumptions, claims and positioning of the book. What do we learn from a careful examination of “when old technologies were new”. More specifically, how media , particularly new media, be “experienced and studied as historical subjects.” Here I’d like to bring attention to Gitelman’s definition of media, “socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation.” (7) It is important to note Gitelman’s extension of media to include technological protocols and her understanding of communication as a cultural practice of representation. The cultural practice, or social processes are critical to the success of media technologies, according to Gitelman. It is within this social context that the definition of new media is dependent. (15) The strength of Gitelman’s focus on the history of recorded sound is that it has many parallels to digital media. Through the telling of a specific history, she is able to explore the broader history of media and how the telling of these histories itself impacts media. One important parallel is the concept of material inscriptions. The records made by the inscriptions of Edison’s phonograph were both tangible and mysterious. This holds true of digital media. The materiality of the inscriptions of meaningful. She notes, “Our sense of history — of facticity in relation to the past — is in extricable from our experience of inscription, of writing, print, photography, sound recording, cinema, and now (one must wonder) digital media that save text, image, and sound.” (21) I see strong connections here to Henry Glassie’s explanation of material culture, “Material culture is culture made material; it is the inner wit at work in the world.” (Glassie, 41) Both Gitelman and Glassie place significance on the materialization of history and culture. Gitelman connects it to notions of public memory (21) and Glassie to intention of bodily acts in nature. The inscription for Gitelman is the artifact for Glassie.

In her discussion of New Media Publics, Gitelman focuses on the introduction of Edison’s phonograph to the US public. I find it noteworthy that she opens with a description of Edison’s “discovery” as, “Edison stumbled on the ides of sound recording while working on telephones and telegraphs during the summer and fall of 1877…” (25) This highlights the shift Gitelman makes from the “stories of how one technology leads to another, or of isolated geniuses working their magic on the world” to histories that are social and cultural. (7) The tinfoil and nickel-in-the-slot phonographs speak to an evolution of the technology of the phonograph but they also highlight the impact of social and cultural forces on the nature of that evolution. The frenzy of the early exhibitions and the collection of tinfoil samples demonstrated an initial obsession with the mystery of the objects, while the nickel-in-the-slot phonographs show the pull of social and culture norms on the development of the technology. Despite the visions of Edison and other early executes, the potential of the phonograph as a music device became is primary function over a technology for business communication. This brings us to Gitelman’s discussion of New Media Users. Distinguishing between publics, users and representations, Gitelman asserts that, “while new media help mutually to reconstruct public life and public memory, it is users who help to define new media in crucial ways.” (60) Here the social and cultural context becomes particularly important for Gitelman. Phonograph and phonograph records “suggestively exhibited intensive qualities to accompany those extensive ones.” (63) Readers “consume a lot of material, moving quickly from one text to another, or they consume a little material repeatedly and with greater intensity.” (63) This becomes evident as the phonograph is developed for us in the privacy of ones home. This shift also highlights the impact of normative constructions of difference (gender, racial, and otherwise) on the development of the phonograph. (84) While Gitelman is speaking on the history sound record , she is also speaking on the history of media and the history of society and culture as well.

Phonographs, Slide Projectors, PowerPoint

In Always Already New Little Gitelman mentions how examples of scholarship can evolve and be defined by the media they use, mentioning Art History (39). Through my previous training in Art History, I will compare her remarks with my own experience, defined at the cusp of the digital, bookmarking the next shift in scholarship. I will also use some of the ways that Gitelman stresses the materiality of mediums in defining their eventual uses in participant publics.

Art History is a discipline which has a rich tradition of spectacle, presenting in front of captive audiences, much like the traveling tinfoil troubadours that Gitelman documents.  Paintings, sculptures, and drawings are shown to give a full breadth of the speaker’s argument. Among my classes as an undergraduate (circa 1998) in fact, Art History was the only class I took that regularly attempted a visual reference for lectures. Typically, two slide projectors would simultaneously run, left and right. The speaker would also control them through two corded remotes, making the coordination of slides harder but ontologically valuable. Like early recorded sound, part of the learning process involved a familiarity and competence in driving this manual apparatus. The juxtaposition of artworks defined the spectacle. One could allow and suggest that pieces in succession speak to each other. An artist’s stylistic  progression could be articulated, without making the spectator conjure up a previous examples from memory. The artworks themselves were also allowed to become a scheme of a larger whole reinforcing an arguments tautological strength.

Most Art History departments, even my first teaching job at Broward Community College, had substantial slide libraries of architecture and artwork. Drawers full of images culled from textbooks and monographs were the only repository for future lectures, save personal slides one needed to photograph in 35mm. Hours were spent preparing presentations, coordinating the ebb and flow of running a dialectical performance. Unfamiliar pieces needed to be examined in slide enlargers. Photo lupes magnified images, making professors and graduate students look like a room full of jewelers. Light tables allowed one to see the presentation outline at a glance, making the rearrangement of images easier. Taking slide images from books or in situ allowed the presenter a certain amount of artistic freedom. It demanded technical skill and practice to make one’s presentation unique. Finally, was the dreaded affair of loading slides into the carousel, upside down and backward. The performance itself was precarious. This preparation was a large part of the study of images, leading to close readings during the preparation process. The classroom was ultimately a place to test assumptions of details first observed in the slide library on a smaller scale.

By graduate school (the year 2000) PowerPoint began to seep in. In my historical methods class, that same year, the professor still demanded we use slide projectors for our final presentation. PowerPoint has profoundly changed how the field is taught in the classroom, but also how research is done. I even held out through half a decade of teaching. Most places were not equipped with two slide projectors (needless to say two hardwired computer projectors), so earnestly I flipped between PowerPoint and hard slides. I found my pedagogical cues too strong to give up. I find the only times today that I simultaneously show two artworks is for sculpture.

Like Gitelman describes the hidden materiality and limits of early sound production, PowerPoint makes it hard to have two high-resolution images simultaneously on the same scale, on the same screen. Since its inception PowerPoint was limited to the screen projection, comfortably fitting in a standard 4:3 screen, a holdover from the era before high definition TV. The tradeoff in the older format was to overlap two large images at the corners like a deck of cards. This compromise robs one or both artworks of their intended presentation (or the mediated preference already 100 years old) occupying their space unobtruded and especially for sculpture at relative proportions. With analog slide projectors, there was a constant finesse of making the image as large as possible, even on the fly by manually focusing the lens of the projector. PowerPoint limits you to occupy two images together that often do not naturally fit in the 4:3 ratio. The new 16:9 scale has its limitations too. Most screens from college campuses to office buildings are still 4:3. This means when using slides in the 16:9 format you ultimately letterbox nearly half the screen.

PowerPoint has thoroughly flattened out the tradition of Art History lectures with a process of erasure (the quote by Kittler on page 20 comes to mind), eliminating what made the Art History classroom unique in academia. The slide comparisons are nearly gone, accommodated only when image proportions allow one to place artworks side by side. Do not misunderstand my nostalgia; I do not want to go back twenty years. PowerPoint has made the process of preparing for and presenting material less tedious. It saves hours of time by digitizing procedures of reorganizations and scaling. There are innumerable amounts of images online of artworks readily available, a few cut and pastes away from inclusion. This is how Art History has changed digitally. Like phonographs, PowerPoint is another example of how design can transform and mediate social practice far beyond intended uses.

The Phonograph as a New Media Object

Lisa Gitelman’s book Always Already New focuses on developing a methodology to understand new media objects. Her primary goal is to show the cultural impact of several media objects on the community. Gitelman uses the introduction to first argue for the need of studying media objects. The second is to discuss the importance of media objects and how there integral to the community. Gitelman states, “media are so integral to a sense of what representation itself is, and what counts as adequate—and thereby commodifiable—representation, that they share some of the conventional attributes of both art historical objects and scientific ones” (4). This statement shows that media objects are valuable to cultures and worth studying because just like art and science these tools added value to communities. After explaining the importance of considering new media, Gitelman shifts to focusing on developing a methodology and approach that pulls from media archaeology and related cultural studies. There’s also this conversation on how the consumer and producer demands are not just one tool in fully explaining the broad definition of new media, but it must go further to considering how this tool had a social impact to the community and a group of individuals.

Gitelman applies her methodology of new media by presenting a series of case studies. The first case study presented is the Phonograph created by Edison the goal of the device was to retain and gather sound (Gitelman 25 ). In many ways, it appears as she presents a cultural study of understanding how the development of the phonograph changed the way communication occurs and led to the creation of the early telephone. In these discussions, there were two things that were the most interesting on the phonographs cultural impact. The first being how it became a consumer tool and how people like Alexander Graham Bell automatically begin to find ways to make the digital machine profitable. The phonograph also shows the role that new media had in consumer products. Another impact that was important to consider was gender and being able to represent many voices in the recording process. Even from early periods of the operation of the phonograph not being able to record women’s voices there is a discussion on the importance and need for representation of all on the medium.

In conclusion, Gitelman’s approach demonstrates the importance of considering media objects like the phonograph had a major impact on society.

See the New Sound

In Lisa Gitelman’s book Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture, she examined the relationship between the public and media through Thomas Edison’s 1878 demonstration, the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph machines, and the phonographic technology as home entertainment. Noting media as ‘socially realized structures of communication (2006, p. 7) ”, Gitelman stated that media must lie in the cultural and social realm with technological factors. Such definition shows Gitelman’s resolution in withholding the technological determinist accounts while rightfully putting the social and cultural discussion the nuclei of this book. In driving this book, she stated clearly in the introduction that she used to compare and contrast in a meaningful way that was separated by different periods, the 1878 exhibition where people first see how the sound was played through a machine and the 1895-1910 when new sound media entered people’s houses.

In order to render the full spectrum of media in light of their public, it is necessary to understand the role of the public in their respective context as their media counterparts. Gitelman underlined the importance of comprehending “telephones in 1890 in the rural United States….Specificity is key”. What Gitelman does in this book is to dissuade us from the notion that media history could be found outside of media, using the history of sound recording(phonographs) to examine ways to historicize digital media under its context. Not only the objects(phonographs, sound recording) needed to be evaluated under its context, Gitelman also argued the unique characteristic of the “public” with the inclusion that “Media and their publics coevolve.” (2006, p. 13) I am very interested in further discussing the role of “the public” in class.

I tried to extend Gitelman’s argument to the next level as I was reading chapter 1 and chapter 2. I found it persuasive to recognize human’s limited ability in creating means of media, such as oral communication and speech. Our ways of communication are nevertheless transient in that what I said could only be heard by people who were near me at the time when I spoke. My improvised dance could just be remembered by people who saw me at the time when I danced. This limitation fostered human to create technologies that extend our abilities. Based on this argument, the invention of phonographs could be viewed as human’s aggregated attempt to conserve sound through a new medium that was fundamentally alien to us initially. It had been our dreams to hear delightful music whenever and wherever we wanted, and the mission was fulfilled by Thomas Edison’s new tool, the phonographs. I believe that, as determined by people’s social and cultural needs, the world would have seen a machine, if not called as the phonographs, did similar function that recorded voice and played it in the late 19 century. Only by this would I argue that it is safe to say that technological factors in new media are not so important as compared to social elements as “new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media” ( 2006, p. 9).

Who is the audience I was somehow confused by Gitelman’s interpretation on “users” in which she mentioned that the working-class salon was hardly the public imagined by phonograph executive? Was it because the socioeconomic status of the middle-class that determine that they were not the public? If so, does it help to argue from a subset of the public as were the Athenian democracy only consisted grown Athenian men?

The History of New Media as Seen through a Sociocultural Lens

In her critique of the ways in which the history of new media has been viewed and written, Lisa Gitelman aims not only to reshape how scholars engage with media history, but to visualize how new media relates to “how people experience meaning, view the world, and identify the past and culture” (1). Gitelman defines media as “socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation” (7), where “the definition of new media depends on the social context where production and consumption distinctly took place” (15) . These definitions stand in direct opposition to technological determinism and the “intrinsic technological logic” which both portray media themselves as social and economic forces, rather than being the result of social and economic forces (10). GItelman’s methodology  is distinguished from media archaeology, as she refrains from reading the new against the past by instead delving into two inscriptive media to support one of her key points: “our sense of history…is inextricable from our experience of inscription, of writing, print, photography, sound recording, cinema, and digital media that save text, image, and sound” (21).
She gives an account of the histories of recorded sound and the world wide web from the perspective of American sociocultural contexts across the nation. Gitelman’s initial rhetorical move is made in referencing Francis Fukuyama’s influential and controversial article on mankind heading to a “coherent and directional” place after the Cold War. She uses this position to emphasize that those in historically powerful positions in the US have the same misplaced, cheerful notion about digital media all converging toward perfect harmony for mans use (3). Using the perspectives of scholars such as Friedrich A. Kittler and Peter Ludenfield who believe that digital media will usher in this convergence, swallowing up older media forms until they are obsolete (3), Gitelman situates her agreement with other scholars (i.e. McLuhan) that new media are representations of those before them, they provide new sites for representation that don’t eliminate older media but utilize them in new ways. Her argument is based in analyzing the history of inscriptive media forms because the representations they create and circulate having material as well as semiotic properties (6). The history of recorded sound allows us to see how new media objects are constructed out of local anomalies that are closely linked to the time, people, and how these people relate to public memory, knowledge, and life (29).  Gitelman states that the phonograph “derives its meanings from both its contexts and public participation” (44), maintaining that  the phonograph’s creation  was more so a product of its time rather than a causal agent of change. She takes readers through the sociocultural setting  in which the phonograph was situated within or dismissed from various parts of the country.
Stepping through this history in context, Gitelman ultimately wants readers to see that Edison’s initial purpose for the phonograph and its potential uses were completely transformed by societal interaction and impact, and that technology itself is not where social and cultural deterministic power lies. This is held instead within the reinterpretation of technology that is presented surrounding the invention (56).  She views the“media public” existing in the phonographic era in the United States as a diverse, constantly moving populace. This characteristic of the media public shaped how the phonograph fit into society, its success as the first non print mass media was wholly connected to how the media public made use of and transformed ideas of utility and purpose of the machine (57). Gitelman writes on users of new media to frame the history of new media as one that is found in examining “uses and users rather than descriptions of product development, placement, business models…” etc (60).  Her key concept here is that “while new media help to mutually reconstruct public life and public memory, it is users who help to define new media in crucial ways”. This statement is also based in Gitelman’s stance against technological determinism and the orientation of the histories of white, middle-class men as the only ones that matter (61). I’d say that among all the valuable insight that is to be considered in Gitelman’s writing, the statement “the histories of media must be social and cultural, rather than the stories of how one technology leads to another “ is one of the most significant yet simple ways to wrap up her point.