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Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era

Author: Lisa Gitelman
Publisher: Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999
Review Published: July 2002

 REVIEW 1: Daniel Gilfillan
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Lisa Gitelman

Cyberculture studies as a field of inquiry simultaneously informs and is informed by historical investigations into the invention and implementation of emergent technologies. Current scholarship focusing on the effects of contemporary digital technology on subjectivity, physicality, community-building, workplace transformation, and identity has opened up new avenues of inquiry into the impact of new inscriptive technologies on cultural production in the past. Lisa Gitelman's study, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era, suggests that the value and findings of such inquiries should also be brought back to bear on claims being made about contemporary digital textuality. She writes:

    My point is not to deny the exciting potential of digital communications, or to claim cynically that there's nothing new under the sun. Rather, I want to question and elaborate the parameters of novelty that recent accounts of hypertext seem to posit as the foundations of a new democratic future. Keenly felt should be the gleeful claims originally made on behalf of shorthand, phonograph, films, radios, and televisions, each supposed to harbor democratization in its own way (222).

Following Gitelman's argument, the wealth of inscriptive and reading devices invented and marketed between the years 1877-1914 (shorthand, phonographs, typewriters, electric pens, talking dolls, etc.) has been largely neglected in studies of digital textuality by George Landow, Jay Bolter, and Richard Lanham, which draw connections between the birth of the printing press and the advent of hypertext as agents of change but which skip over other reading/writing technologies from the end of the 19th-century and their role "as products of textual practices." For Gitelman, it is important to view these inscriptive technologies (both successful and unsuccessful, those marketed and those left on the cutting-room floor) in their development out of competing theories of language and literacy -- theories specific to particular locales or professions about how reading and writing occur, and how we make sense of that process.

Like German media theorist Friedrich Kittler's examination, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Gitelman sets out to investigate and elaborate a media ecology for late 19th- and early-20th century America. But where Kittler's media discourse theory tracks the symbolic interpretation of these aural, visual, and textual technologies within contemporaneous fictional, philosophical, psychological, and musical texts, Gitelman looks to the paperwork surrounding the successful and unsuccessful inventions -- design notes, research plans, patent applications, promotional pieces -- detecting within the texts that accompany technological innovation clues for understanding how "technology is enmeshed within textuality, that machines are discursively and physically constructed" (8). So, where the inventions of gramophone, film, and typewriter feature as emblems of technological ingenuity in Kittler's study, it is the instances of invention, the decisions made in authoring the machines, and the meanings created in that process which figure in Gitelman's book.

The central event within the book's five chapters is Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph, with each chapter situated at a different point in the machine's development. As Gitelman outlines in her introduction, the phonograph's invention is illustrative of her argument that inscriptive technologies of 1877-1914 embodied notions of textuality and extended these notions from print culture into non-print media. From its technohistorical roots in the textual practices of shorthand reporting, through its imagined designs and possible spin-offs promoted in thousands of "idea" letters, to its entrance into the public sphere and role as object of consumption, Edison's phonograph serves to highlight what Gitelman refers to as the "mutual relations of technology and textuality," as a machine that inscribes and reads and negotiates the reading, writing, and literacy practices bound up in precursor technologies and imbued in plans for future technologies.

The first chapter of Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines is devoted to the recent prehistory of Edison's invention and the ways in which textuality was conceived prior to the phonograph's inception. It explores the development of phonetic-based alphabets or "phonographies" for shorthand reporting, efforts to standardize on one phonography, issues of accuracy, authority, and transparency in verbatim reporting, and the relationship between aural communication and graphic/visual transcription. Gitelman's rich account of shorthand history draws out the deep connections between orality and the shaping of public identity through authoritative reporting of legislative, judicial, and governmental events. The use of shorthand as a recording mechanism for moments of public memory not only transforms the reporter's body into the implement of inscription but also locates the reporter as the instant in which textuality and technology had not yet lost their anatomical body. And yet it is in the push to produce more public history instigated by shorthand competition that "[i]nventors, science fiction writers, and other imaginative Americans vaunted the potential of other, more patently technological conversion mechanisms" (61).

It is in chapter two that Gitelman turns to the range of visions and embodiments that went into Edison's invention of the phonograph and that originated from its creation. Here she draws on extensive archival research and knowledge of the Edison National Historic Site archive to unearth an array of primary source material ranging from Edison's "Private Idea Book," with its listing of planned inventions, to thousands of unsolicited idea letters. In the some 20,000 letters from the period 1888 to1915 (the phonograph was invented in 1877) that Gitelman examined for this study, she discovers evidence not only of Edison's status as a cultural icon, but also of how invention-making was popularly understood and, therefore, how technological expertise was negotiated and how it was perceived. Of special importance to her study is a group of letters that envision numerous "language machines" as spin-offs or supplements of the phonograph, to allay, what Gitelman refers to as, "perceived needs in the areas of inscription and representation" (74). She reads these proposals for "printing machines, phonographs, registers and signals of many kinds" as harboring a concern for the "rapprochement between technology and textuality," which both acknowledges the importance of the relationship as embodied in Edison's phonograph and maps out a consumer-driven trajectory of technological development within the American public sphere. It is here that an underlying thread of this chapter becomes apparent, namely the transition of the phonograph from its intended use as recording/playback device for producing inscribed records for use in business to its eventual realized, marketed use as a playback-only device for producing entertainment in the form of the music industry.

In the next section, Gitelman turns from the imagined technological potentials played out in the inventor's private notebook and in the idea letters of the American public to the official paperwork and continual revisioning of patent and copyright law. Where the notebooks and idea letters highlighted in the previous chapter supported the wandering of the technical imagination and located expertise loosely within the traversal between the inventor's workshop and the consumer's parlor, Gitelman's discussion of patent procedures and the rewriting of copyright law to incorporate the new conundrums made real by the phonograph fixes technological knowledge within a framework of official documentation of the invention process. Applying for a patent meant describing the new device or procedure as it existed at that precise moment and in relation to what came before. It also meant describing all possible future iterations of that device or procedure, such that included in any one patent would be the anticipated evolutionary stages of the instrument's improvement in order to stave off any potential poachers. Gitelman writes, "Patents assert property rights . . . and as such they describe an innovation, an idea embodied in the machinery detailed by the specification and drawing" (107). Connected to this idea of property rights, this chapter demonstrates how ownership of ideas within patent law extends to verification of authenticity and authorship within copyright law. Yet, in the case of the phonograph, Edison's authority to claim authorship of the technology extended to him by the patent office does not filter out to the recordings produced on the machine. Gitelman's example of popular "coon song" recordings in the early 20th century highlights both the inability of then current copyright law to address issues of authorship and authenticity in phonographic recordings and the attendant problems in representing race and class within an aural medium. Here, Gitelman makes a very interesting point:

    The technology of recorded sound tempered what I call the visuality of music, the sum of visual experiences that bolster and accompany music practice and that extend to the societal norms of visually apprehending racial and other differences (125). [original emphasis]

The move from live performance, with its ocular levels of knowledge, to recorded sound, with its removal of the visual, opened the doors to questions of originality, performer identity, and authentication. Edison's role as inventor, his status as cultural icon, and his position as head of the Edison National Phonograph Company, while lending its products (both phonographs and recordings) a mark of craftsmanship, were unable to provide a verifiable stamp of authenticity in regards to these questions.

It is this relationship between the phonograph as invention and the phonograph as product, and Edison as inventor and Edison as corporate leader, which forms the basis of Gitelman's fourth chapter, "Paperwork and Performance." Here the textual identity of the invention established by the patent process is followed as it is modified and recast by its performance as an object of consumption. Gitelman has already illustrated quite well in her previous chapters the original idea or function of the phonograph as a machine to ease the stenographer's task and the American public's enhancement of it for automated entertainment. Attempting to get at "how the new experience of listening to recorded sounds was constructed socially" (150), this chapter demonstrates how the consumer market solidified this transition from office machine to entertainment gadget through the use of labels, showroom displays, packaging narratives and promotional materials. What Gitelman finds in sketching out this polemic is that just being able to listen to recorded sounds meant first wading through multiple layers of text that marked the recording (initially wax cylinders, then albums) as a marketable product and signified the varying levels of manufacture, inventory, and shipment information. The move from the inventor's laboratory to the marketplace was thus an ongoing negotiated process, which steadily reified the imaginative aura of the drawing board, turning invention into product.

Gitelman's final chapter "Automatic Writing" serves to supplement her already strong taxonomy of the phonograph by examining the worlds of the typewriter and spiritual or sťance communication. Where the phonograph had shed its role as a writing machine and settled into its legally defined status as a reading machine, the typewriter "intervened more directly into the experiences of writing itself in ways that further interrogated categories of orality, aurality, and textuality" (185). Typing, as a means of textual communication, and the sťance, as a means of spiritual communication, both fall under the rubric of automatic writing, writing that is accomplished through the use of a medium. Gitelman's discussion of typewriter textuality and divine textuality is interesting for the parallels she draws between them, as they center on gendering the workplace, the peripheral use of noise (clacking keys and tapping knuckles), and the transitional experience of turning oral, aural, or unspoken communication into coded signs.

Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines provides a thoughtful analysis of inscriptive technologies in America at the end of the nineteenth century. Lisa Gitelman's extensive archival research and thorough, engaging investigations of the relationship between technology and textuality during this time period add a rare look into the negotiations that occurred with the arrival of new technologies for reading and writing. The type of close analysis that this volume represents demonstrates the kind of insightful details that can be discovered about the social experiences of new technology, a facet often left unexplored in narratives focusing on digital culture. Lisa Gitelman provides ample evidence to support her assertion at the beginning of her volume that many 20th-century accounts of digital textuality "elide crucial developments toward the end of the nineteenth century" by skipping from the age of the printing press directly to the arrival of the computer and development of hypertext. Given this, the inclusion of the ironic coda, in place of a more formal conclusion, seems to detract from the powerfulness of the argument that she sets out in the book's five chapters. All this irony aside, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines will undoubtedly prove influential for the onslaught of new print books on new media that are sure to arrive.

Daniel Gilfillan:
Daniel Gilfillan is an Assistant Professor of Information Literacy in the Foreign Languages and Literatures department at Arizona State University. His research currently focuses on the re-emergence of cultural radio broadcasting in postwar West Germany and its correlation to new trends in digital-based radio art.  <dgilfil@darkwing.uoregon.edu>

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