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Residual Media

Editor: Charles R. Acland
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: November 2007

 REVIEW 1: Daniel Gilfillan
 REVIEW 2: D. Travers Scott
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Charles R. Acland

Contemporary media objects formerly known as songs, movies and writing are often considered to be both ephemeral and ethereal since their now digital composition lends them a quality of immateriality. Existing as strings of data easily transportable, accessible, and presentable on shiny, well-designed, ultra-thin, and miniaturized devices, they seem to have lost touch with the grittiness, graininess, and physicality of their once analog production. This perceived lack of physical substance and the sanitized, clean room style practices associated with their production help to characterize the ease with which these digital media objects become unhoused from their own mediality -- that is, from their presence as objects in time and space.

The essays gathered together in Charles R. Acland's edited volume Residual Media analyze these assumptions about clean technologies and the digital manufacture and consumer purchase of immaterial goods, in order to unsettle the market rhetoric of novelty and innovation and to examine the cultural, economic, and environmental residuals left by the plethora of artifacts that accompany emerging and already emerged media. At stake in the volume are the types of cultural change produced by what Acland, a professor of communications at Concordia University, refers to in his introduction as a dynamic of accumulation and accommodation:
    We all confront the sheer abundance of artifacts that make up the visible layers of modern life . . . Evident in this overproduction . . . is an economic and cultural orientation toward novelty and innovation. This orientation helps sustain a gargantuan accumulation of materials, to be followed by increasingly intricate modes of accommodating the leftovers. These accumulating and accommodating markets contain views to cultural change itself. They are sensibilities that offer ways of encountering and experiencing freshness in cultural life via a relationship with its enduring elements and a retrieval of familiar signs and objects. (xv)
These markets of accumulation and accommodation point to a politics of innovation: how do we fold in the constant barrage of the new, with all its resplendent exterior shininess and minor or non-existent advances in quality or functionality from its immediate predecessors, while also creating physical and psychological space for the Polaroids, 8-track tapes, celluloid, and penned letters that continue to accompany our cultural growth? Add to this the devices needed to play, view, adapt, exhibit, or preserve these analog media objects, and these same markets begin to expand into secondary and tertiary consumer markets marked by collectibles, nostalgia, and memory preservation. The impact of this dynamic of accumulation and accommodation on modes of cultural and social practice highlights the intricate connections between the ideology of innovation and the residuals that endure from earlier media forms.

The logic of Acland's volume lies with the inconsistencies with which new media is approached as a field of study, interrogating the types of imprecision and uncritical analysis that the term has been met with from many scholars who may have failed to look behind the marketing hype and glossy veneer of the 1990s new information economy. As Acland notes:
    The mythologization of new media would not be surprising, but for the fact that it also appears among scholars and agenda setters who, well, should know better. There is often a shocking continuity between aesthetic avant-gardists and the glossy pages of free business inserts in daily newspapers . . . If there is a reigning myth of media, it is that technological change necessarily involves the "new" and consists solely of rupture from the past. This preoccupation neglects the crucial role of continuity in historical processes as well as the accumulation and accommodation just described. It ignores the way the dynamics of culture bump along unevenly, dragging the familiar into novel contexts. (xviii-xix)
The collection consists of nineteen essays from twenty contributors, and represents fields as diverse as music, journalism, museum studies, and film and media studies. Organized into five sections, the volume moves its readers from a politics of planned obsolescence among hardware developers and the varying modes of artistic practice implemented to attend to this built-in defunctness; along avenues of inquiry into how professional practice (DJs, museum curators, journalists) continually adapts and often redeploys older forms of media usage to negotiate the process of innovation; on into the domestic realm to examine cultural practices of collection and archiving as tasks that can be enjoyed at home and marketed as part of consumer culture; into the historical record to uncover the relationships between media technologies and community politics in examples as diverse as the feminist press of the suffragette movement, the promise of community-building in post-occupation Iraq, and the broadcast connections between agricultural and communication practice in the formation of mediated publics; and finally on through a range of historical examples in the areas of performance, authorship, and experimental psychology to explore the effects of technological interface in the shaping of modern subjectivity. Taken together, the essays in each of these sections provide an insightful array of contemporary and historical case studies from equally diverse areas in which the rhetoric of innovation has sought to replace older modes of artistic and professional media practice, but which instead have endured beyond these moments of technological change to live on as cherished rituals, intermedial adaptations, or landfill seepage.

What is so intriguing about Residual Media is to discover the levels of interarticulation that exist between the individual essays, the disciplinary methods respective to each contributor, and the ways in which the essays approach common themes like collection and the mediation of communities or engage with the work of common theorists like Raymond Williams or Walter Benjamin. Yet, while Residual Media thrives on the interdisciplinary and multi-perspectival approach that an edited volume provides, it would benefit from an editorial conclusion, if only to reiterate and comment further on the connections drawn across the individual contributions and across Acland's strong introduction. This minor consideration aside, the volume will find a ready readership among scholars in film and media studies, museum studies, and those interested in material culture, while also providing cyberculture studies scholars an engaging example of how to move their field beyond discussions of innovation and convergence and illustrate for them how examples from the history of emergent media can inform their approach to "new" media.

Daniel Gilfillan:
Daniel Gilfillan (Ph.D., University of Oregon, 2000) is Assistant Professor of German Studies and Information Literacy at Arizona State University. His research focuses on 20th-century literature, film, and media studies in the German-speaking sphere, with particular interests in avant-garde/experimental approaches to new forms of media in the past (radio, film) and the influence of these earlier instances of new media on contemporary artistic and cultural practices with digital and telecommunications media. His first book, Transgressive Radio: The Experimental Turn in German Cultural Broadcasting, 1923-2003, is forthcoming with the University of Minnesota Press. Gilfillan has reviewed The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction and Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era for RCCS.  <dgilfill@exchange.asu.edu>

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