Historicizing Media in Transition
My starting point is that the shift from medium-specific histories—film’s history in particular—to media history, has induced something like the epistemological vertigo experienced by Herodotus. Familiar reference points, long-held assumptions, and the self-assurance that comes with an apparent monopoly on the truth have all been challenged, recontextualized, shaken. (23)
As we shall see, the paradigm shifts associated with the re-writing of cinema’s early history in the 1980s, and the consequent efforts of a number of scholars who have continued to interrogate long-held truths, have been fundamental to the project of rewriting media histories generally.
For the record, I understand media to be more than mere technologies, institutions, and texts—a statement I would think was obvious were it not for the substantial body of literature that holds otherwise. Instead, I see media as cultural practices which envelop these and other elements within a broader fabric offered by particular social orders, mentalities, and the lived experiences of their producers and users. (24)
Kittler, Gumbrecht, and Zielinski in Germany, Ong, Douglas, and Marvin in the United States, and Flichy, Virilio, and Mattelart in France has shown, we are seeing an increasingly sophisticated (and eclectic) array of considerations of media’s complex histories.19 Since the important work of these and other authors is available, in the remaining space I would like to make a few comments about what seem to me to be several central issues in the construction of media historical practice: focal points for historical investigation; a few central organizing topoi; and finally, a nod in the direction of historical specificity. (30)
The media’s transitional status is not only ongoing but multi-faceted. Changes in technology, signifying systems, cultural contexts and cultural practice have been pervasive and complicated by trans-national dimensions (adaptation, recycling, variant cultural meanings) and cross-platform/cross-audience dimensions (representational pressures, identity problems, moral panics). (30)