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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

Residual Media might well have appropriated Night of the Living Dead's tagline: "They Won't Stay Dead!" Whereas one could consider recent decades of media studies as science-fictional, with digital/"new" media and breathless futuristic visions dominant, this collection's focus on ghosts and the undead adds momentum to a more horror-like turn in the field. Residual Media examines old or outmoded media forms and practices that, although bereft of novelty's luster, persist with relevance in obsolescence. Scholars of online culture will appreciate the book's cumulative critique of newness as well as some chapters that address technologies directly associated with cyberculture studies. In addition to broadcast and electronic telecommunications, contributors examine media and cultural forms as varied as speed reading and junkyard salvaging. Their disciplinary and methodological variety encompasses much cultural studies but also ethnography, film studies, history, journalism, media studies, museum studies, musicology, political economy, rhetoric, and visual culture. The work builds upon traditions theorizing media as culturally and historically specific social assemblages rather than discrete machines and successfully engages in current conversations without, for the most part, lapsing into arcana that could alienate laypersons or disciplinary outsiders.

A concept from Raymond Williams (1977, 1980) titles the collection, and he is a theoretical touchstone for many contributors. Williams theorizes that, at any time, there is a dominant culture, with associated media that serve dominant social groups. Yet there are also emergent cultures vying for dominance and residual cultures whose dominance has waned. Aspects of a residual culture, such as media, persist at the social margins, sometimes in fragmentary forms. This perspective complements those of Innis (1951), McLuhan (1995), and, more recently, Bolter and Grusin (1999), who focus on how new media and cultural practices absorb, incorporate, or operate through discourses of old media. Here, however, the focus is on how old media remain to varying degrees un-assimilated. Studies of such residual media not only provide insight into past cultural arrangements, thereby denaturalizing present relations, but also, by documenting their persistence, challenge the very notions of oldness and newness, adoption and obsolescence.

Editor Acland, professor and research chair in communication studies at Concordia University, assembles nineteen contributions that aim for a corrective to media studies' dominant fetish for the new:
Few phrases have been evacuated of meaning, and have outlived their critical usefulness, faster than "new media." If there is a reigning myth of media, it is that technological change necessarily involves the "new" and consists solely of ruptures from the past. This preoccupation neglects the crucial role of continuity in historical processes as well as ... accumulation and accommodation. ... It ignores the way the dynamics of culture bump along unevenly, dragging the familiar into novel contexts. (xix)
His project also points out how many qualities associated with new media, such as mobility or blurred producer/consumer boundaries, did not magically appear in 1994. Microcomputers, as Jonathan Sterne points out in his chapter, are over forty years old. This follows interventionist work, such as that of Carolyn Marvin (1988), in critiquing technologically determinist obsessions with newness. Rather than directly interrogating a history of "newness," this collection adopts an opposite yet complementary tack by investigating that which is old and thereby constitutive of new or, perhaps more intriguingly, both. The volume is in line with a more recent wave of scholars picking up the project of media history, such as Sterne (2002), Gitelman and Pingree (2003), Kittler (1999), and Sterling's inheritors (1995), reviving a neglected arena of media studies.

The book begins with a section on "Mechanics of Obsolescence," providing examples and analysis of media aging, its processes, ramifications, and responses. Looking at the new life of old films on DVD and perfumes on the Internet, Will Straw provides cogent examples of how the past persists in the present, and the present buttresses against rather than encourages obsolescence. Sterne's essay on hardware trash delivers a standout example of a materialist approach, theorizing how state regimes are invested in media obsolescence.

"Residual Uses" examines strategic usage of older cultural forms in various professional circles, ranging from museums and DJing to journalism and vaudeville. JoAnne Stober's revisionist history of vaudeville deftly traces a cultural form through its incorporation with others, illustrating how it lives on, for example, in TV variety shows, while also debunking the "urban myth" of vaudeville's death at the hand of sound cinema. Furthermore, documenting the backlash against sound cinema and re-embrace of vaudeville presents a moment in media history that contrasts typical teleological narratives in which the new completely replaces the old.

Moving from professional to domestic spheres, "Collecting and Circulating Material" examines the persistence of media through everyday preservation and archiving. Kate Egan's ethnography of U.K. "video nasty" collectors reveals the unique pleasures and complexities of 21st-century VHS acquisition and the worth of outmodedness as it proliferates exchange models, valuations, economic and cultural spheres, communities, and meanings. Jennifer Adams argues persuasively for a study of letters beyond their content to include form, genre, presence, and materiality. Her discussion of the epistolary as art, memory, and collectible provides a methodologically productive approach applicable to other media.

James Hay's chapter pushes furthest from bounded mechanical objects in his examination of residual and emerging conceptions of the concept of "community." His chapter appears in "Media, Mediation, and Historiography," a section on the role of history-writing in preserving or reviving awareness of media practices. Hay follows "community" through a fascinating examination of its deployment across the war in Iraq, the Bush administration, and U.S. welfare politics. His examination of the dire contemporary relevance of residual meanings resonates off Sterne's contribution, and more such political economic work and theorizations of power through residual media and culture would have been welcome throughout the book. An interventionist recovery project similar to Adams' appears in Maria DiCenzo and Leslie Ryan's connection of the U.K. women's suffrage press to more recent histories of radical alternative media. DiCenzo and Ryan provide not only valuable material for gender studies, journalism, and feminism, but also one of several non-U.S. contributions. The inclusion of Canadian, Australian, and U.K. authors and subjects offers a welcome expansion beyond US-centricsm, although it ultimately calls attention to the scarcity of non-Anglophone or non-Western material. Any edited volume is subject to criticisms of incompleteness, and this collection is no exception. A clearer editorial statement on the selection criteria -- such as shared theoretical lineage or technological history -- would have clarified this.

The book concludes with its strongest section, "Training, Technology, and Modern Subjectivity." Here contributors address knowledge of bodies and bodies of knowledge as shaped or constituted through technological interfaces. Lisa Gitelman, aligning with Adams' essay on letters, makes strong arguments for expanding subjects appropriate to media study. In her chapter on applying a visual culture approach to text, she works through the first typewritten manuscript (Twain's Life on the Mississippi) through moving panoramas to reveal a phenomenology of late-nineteenth-century text as foundational for moving-picture pleasures and practices. Chapters by Jody Berland, Acland, and Sue Currel analyze subject positioning through pianos, tachistoscopes, and speed-reading, respectively. Stimulating and thought provoking, this final section wrestled with ideas worthy of their own books. Perhaps that is what successful collections like this do best: bring together foundational conversations for future in-depth projects.

Overall, there were brief moments of familiarity in essays on museums and tachistoscopes that perhaps indicated the need for greater pruning. More direct reference among contributors to each others' chapters might have not only sharpened their distinctions but also amplified and unified more the book's overall aims. In addition, one of the aforementioned strengths of the collection -- its disciplinary/methodological diversity -- may give some readers pause. Historians may feel confident in the knowledge generated from documenting practices such as vinyl record collecting, journalists' reliance on the telephone, or the agricultural and religious etymologies of the term "broadcasting." Yet readers invested in causality as criteria for meaningful research may find this problematic -- critical scholars may hunger at times for deeper answers to the "so what?" question. Some contributors refer to constitution and positioning of modern and historical subjects through their media of study, but in brief asides, when deeper articulation of these processes would have been appreciated. Acland does a strong job addressing this in his own contribution and the holistic parts of his introduction, but he limits the editor's description of contributions to two pages. Given the shyness at times some contributors seem to have about articulating the larger significances of their research, more thoughts on this from the editor would have been useful.

Bolter, J.D. and Grusin, R. 1999. Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gitelman, L. & Pingree, G.B. (Eds.) 2003. New media, 1740-1915. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Innis, H.A. 1951. The bias of communication. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

Kittler, F. 1999. Gramophone, film, typewriter. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Marvin, C. 1988. When old technologies were new: Thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLuhan, M. 1995. The Gutenberg galaxy, understanding media, and is it not natural that one medium should appropriate and exploit another? In McLuhan, E., & Zingrone, F. (Eds.), Essential McLuhan, pp. 97-188. New York: Basic Books.

Sterling, B. 1995. The dead media project: A modest proposal and a public appeal. [Electronic version]. Accessed August 11, 2007. For realizations of this project, see The Dead Media Project and Garnet Hertz' The dead media handbook, literally.

Sterne, J. 2002. The audible past: Cultural origins of sound reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Williams, R. 1977. Marxism and literature. New York: Oxford University Press.

William, R. 1980. Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory. In Williams, R. Problems in materialism and culture, pp. 31-49. London: Verso.

D. Travers Scott:
D. Travers Scott is a PhD student at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. His research involves cultural and historical studies of communication technologies.  <dtraversscott [at] yahoo [dot] com>

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